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The Balkans are a historical and geographical region of southeastern Europe. It has several definitions (see below), but it is usually considered to comprise at least parts of Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, the states that comprised former Yugoslavia and Turkey, with a combined area of 550,000 kmē and population of 53 million.

The region takes its name from the Balkan mountains (in Bulgaria the Stara Planina), which run through the centre of Bulgaria into eastern Serbia, and the term 'Balkan' itself is derived from the Turkish word for mountain. In earlier times the mountains were known as the Haemus Mons, a name that is believed to derive from the Thracian Saimon, meaning 'chain'.

Table of contents
1 Definitions and boundaries
2 Nature and natural resources
3 Geopolitical significance
4 Population composition by nationality and religion
5 See also
6 External links

Definitions and boundaries

A geographical definition of the Balkans would be based on the mountain chains, including the Dinaric Alps, Balkan, Rhodope, Šar and Pindus mountains. This would exclude all of Slovenia and Romania, northern and southern parts of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, northernmost Bulgaria and southern Greece.

The larger land mass is sometimes referred to as the Balkan peninsula as it is surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean, Marmara and Black seas from the southwest, south and southeast. While it is not a model peninsula as it has no isthmus to connect it to the mainland Europe, this definition is often used to denote the wider region.

This regional designation's northern border can be interpreted differently. Often, the middle Danubian, Pannonian plain is not considered to be part of the Balkans. That can mean that everything north of the Sava and Danube rivers -- north-eastern Slovenia, northern Croatia (central Croatia and Slavonia), northern Serbia (Vojvodina) and most of Romania -- isn't part of the Balkans. If that border is taken less literally, these areas plus the southern parts of Romania (but not Transylvania) can be considered part of the Balkans.

However, the area is considered to be a whole not only by its mountainous geography, but primarily by its fragmented and often violent common history on the marches of the Roman Empire, long dominated or overshadowed by the Ottoman Turks, and later by Balkanization. The term Balkan commonly connotes a connection with violence, religious strife, ethnic clannishness and a sense of hinterland, so some people believe that it is politically incorrect or even abusive.

The Balkan region can be described with the neutral term Southeastern Europe, even though that ignores the geographical presence of Romania and the Ukraine. The use of this term is slowly catching on, as for example the EU initiative of 1999 is called Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe, and the on-line newspaper Balkan Times renamed itself Southeast European Times in 2003.

The countries commonly included in the Balkan region are:

Many regions in the states listed as Balkan states can be in many respects rather distinct from the remainder of the region, so countries that are borderline cases (often far away from the Balkan mountain itself) usually prefer not to be called Balkan countries. Prime examples of this are Romania and Slovenia, sometimes also Croatia and Greece.

Other countries not included in the Balkan region that are either close to it and/or play or have played an important role in the region's geopolitics, culture and history:

Nature and natural resources

Most of the area is covered by mountain ranges running from south-west to north-east. The main ranges are the Dinaric Alps in Croatia and Bosnia continuing onto the Šar-Pindus massive which spreads from Albania to Macedonia and into Greece. In Bulgaria there are ranges running from east to west: the Balkan mountains and the Rhodope mountains at the border with Greece. The highest mountain is Musala in Rila-Rodopa, Bulgaria (2925 m).

On the coasts the climate is Mediterranean, in the inland it is moderate continental. In the northern part of the peninsula and on the mountains, winters are frosty and snowy, while summers are hot and dry. In the southern part winters are milder.

During centuries many woods have been cut down and replaced with bush and brush. In the southern part and on the coast there is evergreen vegetation. In the inland there are woods typical of Central Europe (oak and beech, in the mountains fir and pine). The wood border in the mountains lies at the height of 1800–2000 m.

The soils are generally poor, except on the plains where areas with natural grass, fertile soils and warm summers provide an opportunity for tillage. Elsewhere, land cultivation is mostly unsuccessful because of the mountains, hot summers and poor soils, although certain cultures such as olives and grapes flourish.

Resources of energy are scarce. There are some deposits of coal, especially in Bulgaria, Serbia and Bosnia. Lignite deposits are more wide-spread. Petroleum is scarce, although there are small deposits in Serbia, Albania and Croatia. Natural gas deposits are also scarce. Hydropower stations are largely used in energetics.

Metal ores are more usual than other raw materials. Iron ore is rare but in some countries there is a considerable amount of copper, zinc, tin, chromite, manganese, magnesite and bauxite. Some metals are exported.

Geopolitical significance

In the past most of the Balkans was united politically under the Byzantine and the Ottoman Empires, both of which had their geographical centre of gravity in Anatolia, now Asiatic Turkey.

Once the most developed part of Europe, in the past 550 years the Balkans has been the least developed, reflecting the shift of Europe's commercial and political centre of gravity towards the Atlantic and comparative Ottoman isolation from the mainstream of economic advance.

The Balkan nations began to regain their independence in the 19th century, and in 1912-1913 a Balkan League reduced Turkey's territory to its present extent in the Balkan Wars.

The First World War was sparked in 1914 by the assassination of the Austrian Archduke in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union and communism played a very important role in the Balkans.

During the Cold War, most of the countries in the Balkans were communist-ruled. However, despite being under communist governments, Yugoslavia (1948) and Albania (1961) fell out with the Soviet Union. Yugoslavia, led by Tito, rejected the Soviet idea of merging with Bulgaria and sought closer relations with the West, later joining many third world countries in the Non-Aligned Movement. Albania on the other hand gravitated toward communist China, later adopting an isolationist position. The only non-communist countries were Greece and Turkey, which were (and still are) part of NATO.

In the 1990s, the region was gravely affected by armed conflict in the former Yugoslav republics, resulting in intervention by NATO forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. As of 2003, all Balkan countries are friendly towards the EU and the USA. The status of Kosovo and ethnic Albanianss in general is still mostly unresolved.

Balkan countries control the direct land routes between Western Europe and South West Asia (Asia Minor and the Middle East).

Greece has been a member of the European Union since 1981. Slovenia is set to become a member in 2004, as are Cyprus and Hungary. Bulgaria and Romania are aiming to be accepted in 2007. Turkey initially applied in 1963 and as of 2004 is still not a full EU member, although some customs agreements have been signed.

Macedonia and Croatia have both signed preliminary agreements with the European Commission, aiding the accession process, but are yet to be put on the official candidate list or given a date (the usual estimates are 2008 and later).

All other countries have expressed a desire to join the EU but at some date in the future.

Population composition by nationality and religion

The region's principal nationalities include Greeks (10.8 million), Turks (9.2 million in the European part of Turkey), Serbs (8.5 million), Bulgars (7 million), Albanians (6 million, with about 3.3 millions of them being in Albania), Croats (4.5 million), Bosniaks (2.4 million) and Macedonian Slavs (1.9 million).

The region's principal religions include (Eastern Orthodox and Catholic) Christianity and Islam.

Eastern Orthodoxy is the principal religion in the following countries:

Catholicism is the principal religion in the following countries: Islam is the principal religion in the following countries: These countries have mixed religious backgrounds: Kosovo, a region nominally part of Serbia, has an ethnic Albanian majority population who are largely Muslim. The Thrace region of eastern Greece contains a Muslim minority. Greece also has an Albanian minority comprised mostly of Albanian immigrants (most having migrated illegaly in the 1990s) and a group of people called Arvanites who settled various Greek lands during the Middle Ages and are Orthodox Christians. South Albania has some Greek minorities who are also Orthodox Christians.

Many Balkan countries have a large number of atheists, since they were ruled by communist governments that for nearly half a century forbid the open practice of religious beliefs.

See also

External links