The geopolitical issue of South-East Europe became of very importance for the scholars, policymakers, and researchers with the question of the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire as one of the most crucial features of the beginning of the 20th century in European history. A graduate collapsing of the one-time great empire was accelerated and followed by competition and struggling by both, the European Great Powers and the Balkan national states, upon the territorial inheritance of it. While the European Great Powers have the aim to obtain the new spheres of political-economic influence in South-East Europe, followed by the task to establish a new balance of power in the continent, a total collapse of the Ottoman state was seen by small Balkan nations as the unique historical opportunity to enlarge the territories of their national-states by unification of all ethnolinguistic compatriots from the Ottoman Empire with the motherland. A creation of a single national state, composed by all ethnographic and historic “national” lands, was in the eyes of the leading Balkan politicians as a final stage of national awakening, revival and liberation of their nations which started at the turn of the 19th century on the ideological basis of the German romanticist nationalism expressed in a formula: “One Language-One Nation-One State”.[i]
Both the geopolitical and the geostrategic advantages of nation-state enlargement at the expanse of the Ottoman Empire’s territory were tremendously significant besides the wish for the national unification as one of the main driving forces of the Balkan nationalism at the turn of the 20th century. Especially the Kingdoms of Serbia and Bulgaria were preoccupied with the idea to be “the biggest” in the region as the precondition to control the Balkan affairs in the future. On other hands, taking into consideration the geopolitical and the geostrategic importance of South-East Europe, each member of the European Great Powers’ orchestra sought to obtain its own predominant influence in the region by fostering territorial aspirations of its Balkan favorite-nation(s). At the same time, a part of the Balkan policy of each European Great Power was to obviate other members of the orchestra to dominate over South-East Europe. The usual mean to realize this second task was to oppose territorial claims of those Balkan nations who were under the protection of antagonist political camp. At such a way, the small Balkan nations were mainly the puppets in the hands of their European protectors. In other words, the success of the national struggle of the Balkan states depended primarily on the political strength and diplomatic skills of their European patrons.
The creation of and fight for independent nation-states at the Balkans from 1804 till 1913 had two dimensions:
- The national struggle to create an independent and united national state organization.
- The rivalry between the European Great Powers over the domination upon South-East Europe.
The geostrategic position of the Balkan nations was one of the most incisive reasons for the members of the European Great Powers to support or to oppose an idea of the existence of their smaller or bigger nation-states as it was, for instance, the case of independent Albania announced on November 28th, 1912.[ii] A real magnitude of this dilemma can be understood only in the context of the geopolitical and the geostrategic significance of South-East Europe as a region.
A usual, but more populist, description of South-East Europe (or the Balkans) is a “bridge or crossroads between Europe and Asia”, a “mixing point or melting pot of races”, a “powder room or keg of Europe” or the “battlefield of Europe”.[iii] However, one of the most important features of the region is the melting pot of cultures and civilizations.[iv]
The geophysics and culture
The Balkan Peninsula is bordered by six seas at its three sides: by the Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea on the west, by the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete on the south and by the Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea on the east. The fourth side of the Peninsula, the north one, from the geographical point of view has the border on the River Danube. If the factors of historical and cultural developments have to be taken into consideration, then the Balkan (i.e., South-East Europe’s) northern borders are on the Rivers Prut, Ipoly/Ipel and Szamos (the last two in Hungary). Practically, the first option (Balkans) refers to geography while the second (South-East Europe) refers to the historical and cultural linkage and influences. Correctly speaking, the second option refers to the region of Europe under which should be considered the Balkan Peninsula in the pure geographical terms enlarged by the Romanian and Hungarian lands which are historically and culturally closely linked to the both: the territories of East-Central Europe[v] and the Balkans.[vi]
South-East Europe culturally and historically is an integral part of the European civilization, influenced throughout the centuries by East Mediterranean, Central, West, and East European cultural features. Being at the crossroads of three continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe), the Balkans is taken into account as the region of extraordinary geopolitical and geostrategic importance even since the early days of the Antique. The regional geopolitical and geostrategic significance had a crucial impact on its inter-cultural development, mixture, and characteristics. While in physiographic viewpoint the Pyrenees and the Alps separate the Iberian and the Appenninian Peninsulas from the rest of Europe, the Balkan Peninsula is, in contrast, opened to it. The River Danube is more linking than separating this part of Europe with the “outside world” especially with the region of Central Europe. Geographers are willing to see the northern border of the Balkans on the River Danube, but such attitude is not reasonable for historians as it excludes the Trans-Danubian territories of Romania as well as the Sub-Carpathian region and the Great Hungarian Plain (Alföld).[viii]
The crossroads and the “division lines”
An extraordinary historical earmark of the Balkans was the fact that throughout the peninsula ran several political and cultural “division lines” and boundaries as, for instance, between the Latin and the Greek language, East and West Roman Empire, the Byzantine and the Frankish Empire, the Ottoman and the Habsburg lands, the Islam and the Christianity, the Christian Orthodoxy and the Christian Catholicism, and recently between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (the NATO) and the Warsaw Pact (from 1955 to 1991).
The most remarkable examples of living “between division lines” are the Romanians and the Serbs. Being decisively influenced in the Middle Ages by the Byzantine culture and civilization, both of them accepted the Byzantine civilization and the Christian Orthodoxy. However, in the course of following centuries under peculiar historical development of the region and political living conditions, one part of ethnic Romanians and the Serbs became members either of the Uniate (Greek Catholic) Church (under the Pope’s supremacy)[x] or the Roman Catholic Church. For instance, on March 27th, 1697 the union of a part of the Romanian Orthodox Church in Transylvania (a part of historic Kingdom of Hungary) with the Roman Catholic Church was signed, resulting in the creation of the Greek-Catholic or the Uniate Church.[xi] The church union with Rome, based on four points of the Union of Florence of 1439, recognized the authority of the Pope, in return receiving recognition of the equality of the Romanian clergy with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Similarly to the Romanians in Transylvania, part of the Serbs settled on the territory of the Habsburg Monarchy (Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Istria, South Hungary) from the mid-16th century converted themselves into the Greek-Catholics and later into the Roman-Catholics. All of them in the 20th century became Croats. Thus, for the matter of illustration, the Serbs who came to live in the Žumberak area (on the very border between Croatia and Slovenia) in the 16th century were the Orthodox believers while in the next century majority of them accepted the Union and finally in the 18th century declared themselves as members of the Roman Catholic Church and today as the Croats. Till the beginning of the 18th century, the national alphabet of the Romanians was and the Cyrillic one while in the subsequent decades it was replaced by the Latin script that is used up to our days by all Romanians. As a result of the fact that throughout the centuries the Serbian nation was influenced by the Byzantine, the Ottoman, the Italian and Central European culture, living five centuries (from the 15th to the 20th) on the territories of the Republic of Venice, the Habsburg Empire, and the Ottoman Empire, contemporary Serbs are using in every-day life a quite equally Cyrillic and Latin scripts, while official national alphabet is only Cyrillic. In addition, the Serbian nationhood is split in a religious point of view into East Orthodox, the Muslim and the Roman Catholic believers, while usual national identity mark created by the foreigners is only East Orthodoxy and the Cyrillic script.[xii]
A symbiosis between religion and nation is quite visible in this part of Europe. The proper linkage between religious and ethnic identity among the Balkan peoples, especially in ethnically, culturally and religiously mixed areas can be seen from the fact that the Serbian Orthodox Church has been a self-conscious contributor to the development of a national ideology among the Serbs, but particularly among those from Kosovo-Metochia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.[xviii] The territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, situated literally on the crossroads of different cultures and civilizations, became in the 1990s a most referring example of meeting ground of divergent religions, nations, cultures, habits, and civilizations in the Balkans. The linkage between religious and ethnic identity is crucial for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Serbian Orthodox Church, the Croatian Catholic Church, and the Bosnian Muslim Community were a defining factor in the process of ethnic differentiation, perhaps even the most important factor of the process. The religion became a badge of identity and guardian of traditions for the Croats, the Serbs, and the Muslims from Bosnia-Herzegovina (the Bosniaks), as well as for other peoples in the region, but not for the Albanians, who are the most important exception from this phenomena. This was particularly important for the preservation of identity and culture as various foreign empires dominated the region.[xix] In fact, the simultaneous oppression of both religion and nation tended to solidify the connection between the church and the nation as well as religious and ethnic identity.[xx] Surely, quite complex Balkan ethnic and religious composition is a pivotal cause for the existence of its different cultures, but also and for ethnic conflicts which are very often in this part of Europe. The Balkan Peninsula is at the same time both: the meeting ground of civilizations and the powder room of Europe.
To be continued.
Full article: The Geopolitics Of South-East Europe And Importance Of The Regional Geostrategic Position (I) (Oriental Review)