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Balkanization is a term used to describe the division or fragmentation of a state or region into smaller, often ethnically similar places. The term can also refer to the disintegration or break-up of other things such as companies, Internet websites or even neighborhoods. For the purposes of this article and from a geographic perspective, balkanization will describe the fragmentation of states and/or regions.
In some areas that have experienced balkanization the term describes the collapse of multiethnic states into places that are now ethnically similar dictatorships and have undergone many serious political and social issues such as ethnic cleansing and civil war. As a result, balkanization, especially with regard to states and regions, is typically not a positive term as there is often much political, social and cultural strife that takes place when balkanization occurs.
Development of the Term Balkanization
Balkanization originally referred to Europe's Balkan Peninsula and its historic break-up after control by the Ottoman Empire. The term balkanization itself was coined at the end of World War I following this break-up as well as that of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire.
Since the early 1900s, Europe, as well as other places around the world, have seen both successful and unsuccessful attempts at balkanization and there are still some efforts and discussions of balkanization in some countries today.
Attempts at Balkanization
In the 1950s and 1960s, balkanization began occurring outside of the Balkans and Europe when several British and French colonial empires began fragmenting and breaking up in Africa. Balkanization was at its height in the early 1990s however when the Soviet Union collapsed and the former Yugoslavia disintegrated.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries of Russia, Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova, Belarus, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were created. In the creation of some of these countries, there was often extreme violence and hostility. For example, Armenia and Azerbaijan experience periodic war over their borders and ethnic enclaves. In addition to violence in some, all of these newly created countries have experienced difficult periods of transition in their governments, economies, and societies.
Yugoslavia was created out of a combination of over 20 different ethnic groups at the end of World War I. As a result of differences between these groups, there were friction and violence in the country. Following World War II, Yugoslavia began to gain more stability but by 1980 the different factions within the country began fighting for more independence. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia finally disintegrated after around 250,000 people were killed by war. The countries eventually created out of the former Yugoslavia were Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kosovo did not declare its independence until 2008 and it is still not recognized as fully independent by the entire world.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia are some of the most successful but also the most violent attempts at balkanization that have taken place. There have also been attempts to balkanize in Kashmir, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Kurdistan, and Iraq. In each of these areas, there are cultural and/or ethnic differences that have caused different factions to want to break away from the main country.
In Kashmir, Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir are trying to break away from India, while in Sri Lanka the Tamil Tigers (a separatist organization for the Tamil people) want to break away from that country. People in the southeastern part of Nigeria declared themselves to be the state of Biafra and in Iraq, Sunni and Shiite Muslims fight to break away from Iraq. In addition, Kurdish people in Turkey, Iraq, and Iran have fought to create the State of Kurdistan. Kurdistan is currently not an independent state but it is rather a region with a mostly Kurdish population.
Balkanization of America and Europe
In recent years there has been talk of the "balkanized states of America" and of balkanization in Europe. In these cases, the term is not used to describe the violent fragmentation that occurred in places like the former Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. In these instances, it describes potential divisions based political, economic and social differences. Some political commentators in the United States, for example, claim that balkanized or fragmented because it is special interests with elections in specific areas than with governing the entire country (West, 2012). Because of these differences, there have also been some discussions and separatist movements at the national and local levels.
In Europe, there are very large countries with different ideals and opinions and as a result, it has faced balkanization. For example, there have been separatist movements on the Iberian Peninsula and in Spain, particularly in the Basque and Catalan regions (McLean, 2005).
Whether in the Balkans or in other parts of the world, violent or not violent, it is clear that balkanization is an important concept that has and will continue to shape the geography of the world.