The term balkanization has come to mean a process of dividing an area, a country, or a region into several small hostile units. It was first coined by the New York Times in the aftermath of World War I to denote the disbanding of the Habsburg Empire into small, antagonistic states. The name is derived from the region that comprises the southeastern part of Europe, the Balkan Peninsula. Because of its geographical location and historical situation on the boundary between the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, the various states in this area have been subjected to constant con quest and political manipulation by outside powers. The Balkans comprise the states of Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia,  Greece,  Republic  of  Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. Sometimes Slovenia and the European part of Turkey are also included.

The diversity of the region’s population, the ever changing political boundaries, and a history of severe ethnic, national, and religious conflicts make up the characteristics that give the term its special meaning. In the twentieth century, the region was at the center of the two major European conflicts: Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914, an event that triggered the start of World War I. The region was also heavily involved in the conflict between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany during  World War II.  At the end of the first conflict, the Ottoman and Habsburg empires were destroyed and Yugoslavia, together with a series of other independent states, was created. With  the exception of Greece and Turkey, all of these fell under  the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union between 1945 and 1989. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, more ethnic violence erupted as the component parts of the former Yugoslavia struggled to realign themselves in the new political vacuum. The massacre in Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, the conflicts in Kosovo, and the appearance of Slobodan Milosevicˇ at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, all helped to reestablish the image of the region as one of deep seated  ethnic  and  religious divisions and long standing historical animosities.

In reality, the types of processes often subsumed under the term balkanization are as old as human conflicts. They are often found in imperial settings where the colonial powers have used the tactic of ‘‘divide and rule’’ to divert the attention of the colonized from the primary source of their exploitation. The system of indirect rule, employed by the British in many of their colonies, illustrates a carefully calculated policy to prevent the emergence of a united opposition to foreign rule. This took many forms, such as: playing one ethnic or religious group off against another; favoring one region at the expense of another; importing laborers from other colonies of different religious or linguistic backgrounds to work in specific economic niches; or making sure that the local military or police forces were only recruited from a single minority or tribal background. Such tactics were commonplace throughout the British Empire and, while they clearly served a useful function for the colonizers, they created a dangerous legacy of ethnic strife and conflict in the postcolonial era. In fact, it could be argued that much of independent Africa’s instability in the post war period is a direct result of, or at least strongly nurtured by, colonial policies to fragment and balkanize the continent. It has also been argued that similar tactics have been used in the postcolonial period and particularly as a result of the Cold War competition between the West and the Soviet Union that encouraged rivalries to undermine their opponent’s allies and support their friends on the continent.

Subdividing states on ethnic, national, or religious grounds does not necessarily produce violence and conflict, and in some cases may be used as a means of conflict resolution in an effort to protect minority rights or safeguard regional, linguistic, or religious autonomy. Federal constitutions have often successfully managed to preserve the integrity of multinational states, as the classic example of Switzerland’s canton structure illustrates. In this case, Ger man , Italian , and French speaking units have held together for centuries and even Hitler and Mussolini, at the height of their expansionist powers, did not choose to annex the German or Italian speaking parts of the Swiss Federation. While the Swiss case is clearly unusual, there are other examples where subdividing an already divided state has been used to diffuse conflict in the aftermath of a civil war. At the end of the unsuccessful secessionist war by the southeastern region (Biafra) of the newly independent Nigeria in the 1960s, a series of constitutional measures was enacted to increase the number of political units from the three basic regions, each dominated by a single ethnic group, to 12 states in 1967 and to 19 in 1976. In this way, it was intended that the rivalries between the three major ethnic groups – Ibo, Yoruba, and Hausa Fulani – would be diffused in the many subunits of the new federal state. As Horowitz has argued, creating multiple states can result in several outcomes that may help to reduce the destructive power of ethnic conflicts. The new arrangements help to transfer some of the conflict from the center to the local levels; the new more numerous states foster arenas where intra ethnic conflicts may develop; more opportunities are created for interethnic cooperation and alliances; as the new states strive to promote their own interests non ethnic issues start to emerge; and, finally, separate state bureaucracies open up employment opportunities  for  groups previously excluded from the federal civil services. While hardly definitive, the Nigerian experiments in different types of federalism suggest that a form of benign balkanization can be employed to counterbalance and diffuse the tensions created by the legacy of a colonial history of divide and rule.


  1. Denitch, B. (1994) Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia. University of Minnesota Press,
  2. Glenny, (2001) The Balkans: Nationalism, War and the  Great  Powers, 1804 1999.  Penguin, Harmondsworth.
  3. Horowitz, (1985) Ethnic Groups in Conflict. University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles.
  4. Sekulic, (1997) The Creation and Dissolution of the Multinational State: The Case of Yugoslavia. Nations and Nationalism 3(2): 165 79.
  5. Todorova, (1997) Imagining the Balkans. Oxford University Press, New York.

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