The Balkans

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Maria Bucur

Definitions of the Balkans employ a variety of criteria. Geographically, the Balkans occupy the lands south of the Danube and Sava Rivers to Istanbul, encompassing the peninsula bordered by the Black, Aegean, and Adriatic Seas. Current political definitions include Romania, located north of the Danube, but often leave out Slovenia and sometimes Turkey. Historically, the Balkans have been identified with the expanse of the Byzantine and later the Ottoman Empire in Europe. However, parts of the western Balkans (Croatia, Slovenia) never came under the control of the two empires. Therefore, any single definition according to geography, political frontiers, or even cultural influences falls short of encompassing all the lands and people within the area. If anything, the staggering variety of languages, religions, social customs, and cultures in this area, and their ability to coexist for hundreds of years, seems the one unifying feature of the Balkans. Though many similarities exist between this area and east-central Europe, the following discussion is limited to the lands currently within the borders of Romania, Yugoslavia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Greece, and the small European portion of Turkey.


Between 1345 and 1453 the Ottoman Empire advanced steadily into the Balkans, finally to control most of the peninsula after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. During this period Balkan society was marked by a few important characteristics. Over the previous thousand years the Eastern Roman Empire, Byzantium, had been the most important political-administrative state structure in the area. The Byzantine Empire developed its own form of Christianity that eventually led to the creation of Orthodox Christianity. In the western Balkans, incursions by various Catholic missionaries during the late Middle Ages led to a battle over religious allegiance. The territories of what today are Slovenia, Croatia, and parts of Bosnia were converted to Catholicism. Along with these two main churches, other smaller religious sects developed regionally, some considered heretical, like the Bogumils, and others tolerated by the main churches. By and large, however, most inhabitants of the Balkans considered themselves Orthodox Christian.

Religious institutions had an important position in Balkan society, both in terms of spirituality, morality, and customs and in terms of economic and political power. The Orthodox Church, especially its monastic orders, acquired large estates because of the custom among the aristocracy and rulers of making large donations to the church as a sign of social prestige and a means to salvation. By 1453 the clergy was one of the two privileged estates in Balkan society, alongside the nobility, but it was far more secure than the latter in its social prestige and economic power.

An important difference between the development of religious institutions in the West and the Balkans was the greater dependence of the Orthodox Church on secular authority. In the Byzantine Empire the Orthodox Church had evolved as fundamentally a state religion, and the higher clergy had for a long time the status of employees of the emperor. But even the Catholic Church was more dependent on the generosity of secular rulers in the western Balkans than in the rest of Europe.

Another important element of Balkan society before 1453 was its ethnic diversity. During the Middle Ages, the Balkans had been a territory crossed and occupied by many successive nomadic tribes. The Slavs and the Bulgars were the most important ones, as they settled and transformed not only the linguistic map of the Balkans but also the material culture and traditions of these lands.

By the fifteenth century, these populations were predominantly settled, rural, and engaged in agriculture. The geography of the Balkans, mostly broken up by mountains and small rivers crossing it both northsouth and east-west, generally did not favor the development of large areas for cultivation. Small holdings dominated much of the territory. The landholding system varied in the area, with larger estates more prevalent in areas like the Albanian plains and Thrace. The Orthodox Church controlled a great portion of the larger landholdings, while a class of semihereditary nobility controlled the rest of the large estates. But no elaborate and centralized system of vassalage and feudalism comparable to western Europe developed in the Balkans. In fact, while some forms of serfdom existed on large estates, there were many areas, such as the mountainous zones of Albania and Bosnia and the Rhodope Mountains, where peasants lived in free communities, as taxpaying subjects of the local and central authorities.

Life even for free peasants was increasingly difficult during the fourteenth century. The political disarray of the Byzantine Empire facilitated the emergence of local warlords, who threatened the stability of the local population, increasingly subject to both higher taxes and irregular violence that threatened their livelihood. Thus, some of the areas that had been more densely populated, especially where large estates existed (in the plains and large valleys), became partially depopulated as the rural population sought refuge in more protected areas, such as mountains. There was already a long tradition of transhumance in the area. Many shepherds had long lived isolated on top of the mountains in the summer, descending to the lowlands in the winter and then returning to their isolated abodes after selling their products to the seasonal spring and summer markets. Now a larger population was retreating into the isolation of the trans-humant lifestyle in order to save themselves from the larger taxes and mounting disarray.

In other areas larger family units organized as clans and, through strong kinship links, remained relatively stable during this period of disintegration. Generally patriarchal, these clans existed in parts of Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, and Bulgaria, especially where animal husbandry was more widespread than crop agriculture. Such extended families usually included male siblings, their children, and often their parents. Female siblings married into another clan and lost any rights in their birth family. They could, however, acquire power in the clan of their husband, especially if they married the eldest brother. Sometimes these extended families included four generations of one clan, but more often it was two generations.

The function of these extended families was both to secure the social status and welfare of the individual members and to consolidate and help increase the economic power of the clan. Such arrangements were clearly patriarchal and nondemocratic even with respect to the male members. Age hierarchy was very important in internal decision making. This structure had great strengths in withstanding economic hardship and other challenges that came from the outside, such as war, but was also vulnerable to weaknesses from within. The power that came with being the oldest brother was easy to abuse, creating discontent among the other siblings. The quarrel between two brothers could precipitate the breakup of the family, bringing misfortune for all its members. Yet the primary victims of this patriarchal family structure were most often the wives and daughters in the clan, who could only exercise power through their husbands. They were otherwise open to sexual and physical abuse from all the elders in the family, both men and women. This type of family structure survived in the Balkans with some minor modifications into the nineteenth century, and in some isolated areas, such as the mountains of Albania and Macedonia, into the twentieth century.

Though most people lived in rural communities, the Balkans also had a small urban population. The largest city in the area was Constantinople, while Athens and Belgrade were rather small towns. Most historians consider the Balkans as increasingly ruralized over the last century before the Ottoman conquest, partly because of the political disarray and partly because of the accompanying economic disarray. The two elements that had brought about the development of cities—local administration and commerce—were in decline. During the Middle Ages, Byzantine cities had developed not only as places of commerce between Europe and Asia but also as centers of artisanship. A guild system to protect and regulate such enterprises had developed, not unlike those in the rest of Europe. In fact, the increasing control of Venice over commerce in some of the important coastal cities also translated into influence over the occupational and social makeup of these ports. Yet Balkan cities did not follow the trend toward self-government that became an important element of urban development in west and central Europe during the same period. They were dependent on the local landowning aristocracy and the administrative interests of the Byzantine Empire.


By 1453, when they finally took Constantinople and turned it into the capital of their empire, the Ottomans already controlled much of the Balkans. However, the occupation, settlement, and thorough transformation of an enemy land into a dar al-Islam (house of Islam) territory took several centuries.

Social and religious organization. Several important theological, institutional, and geopolitical factors helped this process, but the most important element was the millet system of social organization. Since the Qur'an already recognized the "people of the book" as a privilged category of infidels, with whom Muslims were allowed to coexist without being constantly at war, the Ottomans created a system that divided the population of the empire into four basic religious categories: Muslims, Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, and Jews. Populations in each of these categories would be allowed to live basically according to the precepts of their religion, and their welfare would be the responsibility of their respective religious heads.

This was a unique arrangement in Europe and had far-reaching consequences for the social development of the Balkans over the next four centuries. To begin with, the millet system institutionalized religion as the most important element of individual and social identification, surpassing regional, ethnic, occupational, or linguistic criteria. In the eyes of the Ottoman authorities, a peasant from Serbia had the same status as a patrician urban dweller from Athens if they were both Christian Orthodox. However, two Bosnians, speaking the same language, living in the same village, and sometimes with kinship ties, would be treated as two distinct types of subjects of the sultan if one were Muslim and the other Orthodox. This was a very common situation in the Balkans. No other state in Europe made religion as essential to defining its subjects as the Ottoman.

The millet system was relatively tolerant toward each of the recognized religions. The sultan generally did not interfere in the administrative affairs of the Orthodox Church (at least in the first centuries), in quarrels between Orthodox subjects, over whom the church had jurisdiction, in the development of church-based education, or in the social networks that developed around local parishes. However, the Muslim millet was clearly superior to the others in terms of the possibilities for social advancement in the service of the sultan. Members of the other millets were clearly second-class citizens, a fact that was inscribed into public life, among other ways, through the clothing codes imposed by the Ottomans and by the interdiction against any non-Muslim and reaya (anyone who was not in the service of the sultan) to ride a horse.

The millet system allowed a great deal of continuity in the social and cultural practices in most of the Balkans after the Ottoman conquest. In the first centuries of Ottoman rule, the rural peasant population was left largely undisturbed by the changes in the system, especially with regard to family structure, occupations, and daily life. This situation contrasts greatly with the general worsening of the rural population's lot during the same period in central and western Europe, which saw the height of feudalism and several religious wars that were particularly disastrous for the peasantry.

Land tenure. Until the end of the sixteenth century, the main form of land tenure was the timar system. The military servants (spahis) of the sultan received the right to draw income from agricultural areas in the form of various taxes regulated by the state. The spahis were thus administrators and had a temporary right over some of the products of those lands, but could not keep them in the family. A much smaller percentage of the land was part of a different type of tenure system, which allowed the right of inheritance. A more important category was the vakifs, which were lands granted in perpetuity to servants of the sultan (e.g., spahis and the ulema) for the purpose of almsgiving. These lands could not be taxed by the state, but a tax was levied on agricultural production in order to fund specific public works such as a hospital or inn. These lands could be inherited and used to sustain the family who donated the land.

Overall, peasants living on any of these estates initially had an easier time than before the Ottoman arrival because taxes were relatively fixed, based on a census, and the timarlis were not entitled to exploit the peasants for profit. This was even more the case on vakif property. Instead of generating an economy based on the incentive for profit or wealth, as was the case under the feudal system in western Europe, the timar system encouraged stability and the status quo, which was socially less disruptive for the rural population. But it also became generally deleterious to the economic well-being of the empire once population grew and external market forces began to create an increasing gap between the empire and the outside world.

Starting in the late sixteenth century, this system changed under the pressure of demographic and external economic factors, corruption of the system, and the desire of the civil servants to have right of inheritance over the lands they were granted for use. More lands were turned from timars to vakifs, and a new form of land tenure emerged, the çiftlik, a hereditary private estate. Çiftliks were a semi-illegal form of land tenure because during this period they extended far beyond what was accepted under the law—a plot small enough to feed the family of the peasant living on the land. But the Ottomans tolerated this illegality because of the rising corruption among timarlis. The çiftlik system seemed to provide more reliability in terms of actually collecting the taxes needed for the state and enabling more social stability at the local level. For the peasants living on these lands, however, the system allowed greater abuses and a form of sharecropping that in practice, though not by law, turned a large portion of the population into serfs.

The worsening of peasants' socioeconomic standing was paralleled in the lands outside of direct Ottoman control. In the vassal states of Walachia and Moldavia, the local aristocracy began to exercise more control over the rural population and to impose taxes and labor obligations that amounted to a form of serfdom. This process is often identified as the "second serfdom," though it was not preceded by any similar practices in the Balkans and eastern Europe at large. It was, in fact, a form of "late" serfdom, in response to demographic regional changes and external economic forces such as trade. Thus, as central and western Europe was slowly emerging from the feudal system, the Balkans were starting to implement it. Serfdom was not legally abolished until the mid-nineteenth century and continued in some areas of the Balkans in the form of sharecropping practices until the twentieth century.

Social changes. Alongside continuities, Ottoman occupation brought about some important social changes. The Ottomans not only controlled the Balkans militarily and politically but also viewed this area as a land that could be colonized by Muslims. Overall, the Ottomans did not seek to convert the Orthodox, Jewish, or Catholic populations, but there were some important exceptions in this regard, in Albania and Bosnia. Because of the religious diversity in these two areas, where Orthodox, Catholic, and other Christians often coexisted in the same family, religious affiliation was not as strong an element of identification here as in the rest of the Balkans. The socioeconomic advantages presented by conversion to Islam, given the already well-recognized military qualities of the Albanians and Bosnians, led to a campaign by the Ottomans to recruit many of the local nobles or chiefs as members of Islam and the Ottoman army. Thus, by the eighteenth century, these areas became some of the mainstays of Islam in the Balkans.

Another important change introduced by the Ottomans was a different set of criteria for vertical social divisions, in accordance to the state's fundamentally religious nature. The subjects of the sultan were divided into those who served him—the military/administrative servants and the clergy, the askeri, who were the privileged estates—and the rest of his realm, the reaya, or taxpaying subjects. In some ways, this social division was similar to the three estates that existed in western Europe under the old regime—clergy, nobility, and the rest of the population. But the roles of the two privileged estates were different and linked much more closely to the sultan's personal power than in western Europe. The clergy were the interpreters and administrators of justice, which was by and large based on the teachings of the Qur'an, while the nobility were exclusively an aristocracy of the sword, the spahis. Unlike France or England, the Ottoman Empire did not have a hereditary nobility. The spahis gained and maintained their power through military prowess on the battlefield and sometimes by serving as administrators of various imperial functions at the local level, such as levying taxes.

The reaya encompassed the whole non-Muslim population and a large portion of the Muslims as well, including the peasants but also much of the urban population, such as artisans, entrepreneurs, or urban workers. These populations served the sultan by paying taxes and in exchange received some forms of protection against the abuses of local administrators, at least in principle. By and large, abuses were greater against the Christian population, especially since in quarrels between Muslims and non-Muslims the law always placed the word of a Muslim above that of an infidel.

Another form of abuse against the Christian population was the practice of devshirme, a blood tribute of young Christian boys, which was levied by the Ottomans between the last half of the fourteenth century and the end of the seventeenth century. Every year the Ottomans collected young Christian boys, who became the sultan's personal slaves and had to renounce their parents and religion. However, these boys also gained access to the empire's highest positions. They received a superior education and military training. Later they often joined the infantry (janissaries) or the spahis. Some of the most prominent military men and administrators of the empire, even grand vezirs (de facto administrators of the whole empire), had been devshirme children. It was a way for the sultan to refresh the ranks of his army and ensure the loyalty of his closest servants. Yet in Balkan folklore this practice remains depicted as barbaric.

The practice of slavery continued in the Ottoman Empire until the nineteenth century. Trade in white slaves was abolished in 1854, while the practice of trading black slaves continued until 1895, having been legally abolished in 1857. There were great variations in the status and actual socioeconomic position of different categories of slaves. Born Muslims could not be slaves, and the offspring of slaves converted to Islam were automatically born free. Some slaves rose to positions of great status and economic power. Many others, however, were confined to a very low position in Ottoman society, performing menial tasks with little if any hope for a decent lifestyle. The situation of male and female slaves was similar, though women's roles were overwhelmingly confined to domestic duties. A racial hierarchy also existed among slaves, with white Circassians ranked as the most "noble" and black Africans as the most "barbaric." After the end of the seventeenth century, the practice of slavery did not involve the Balkan population itself, even though many slaves lived in this area, especially in cities. One should also keep in mind that the definition and function of slavery were qualitatively different from that of slavery in North America, as Ottoman slaves did not have the same essential economic function.

The Ottomans did not utilize slaves in the type of labor-intensive capitalist economy that developed in the American South. The land tenure system makes that self-evident. Slaves were utilized more in household chores and their presence in a Muslim house was a matter of social status. There were also far fewer slaves present in the Ottoman Empire than in the United States. By 1800 there were at most twenty thousand slaves in the whole empire and only a small fraction of them in the Balkans.

Cities. Aside from reshaping the religious landscape and social hierarchy of the Balkans, the Ottomans also brought about important changes in urban development. Balkan cities saw a revival during this period, but as a particular hybrid between Muslim cities and European administrative and commercial centers. In fact, cities were one of the most important sites for Muslim settlement in the Balkans, so much so that the 3 to 1 ratio between Christians and Muslims in the fifteenth century was 1 to 2 by the end of the sixteenth century.

Overall, the Ottomans built upon the already existing urban centers in the Balkans and did not have an active policy of displacing non-Muslim populations to introduce Muslims. In fact, Sephardic Jews found a haven in Thessaloniki under Ottoman rule after their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Yet the architecture and structure of cities did change dramatically during this period. Balkan cities reflected in many ways the general divisions in Ottoman society. The living quarters were divided into mahalles (boroughs), each representing a particular millet. Thus Jews lived together but separate from Muslims. The Muslim mahalles were easy to identify in any city because they were dominated by the presence of tall minarets and mosques, and overall had the right to build higher walls and buildings. They were also located more centrally than other millets' quarters. Christians were not able to build towers for their churches, but they developed a distinct style of ecclesiastical architecture, which enabled both inhabitants and visitors to easily identify a Christian mahalla. The presence of synagogues and their own unique architecture was often the marker of Jewish mahalles. Each millet was relatively self-governed, and though non-Muslims paid an additional head tax as zimmis (tolerated infidels), all urban inhabitants were taxpayers.

Another important new feature of Balkan cities was the public institutions created by various Muslim philanthropists as part of following one of the five pillars of Islam, almsgiving. Many wealthy subjects created vakifs to build and maintain at no public cost hospitals, inns, schools, bathhouses, and public fountains, all to the benefit of the general population. These were located mostly in the commercial center of town, which also contained the government buildings and famous bazaars (markets).

Though people lived in quarters divided along religious lines, they most often worked together in the central commercial mahalles. For instance, all silversmiths had shops on the same street, and all carpet weavers had their workshops in the same district. Ottoman cities had a strong guild system that adapted to already existing practices in the Balkans and accepted as members individuals from all millets. It was similar in many ways to the associations that were developing during the same period in the rest of Europe. Yet some important differences exist between western European and Ottoman guilds in their long-term social and economic role. While in western Europe guilds became an engine of growth in terms of economic production, technological innovation, and capital accumulation, to the point where the guild system was rendered obsolete, in the Ottoman Empire guilds contributed to stagnation.

As in many other areas of economic and social life, the Ottoman Empire instituted strict guild regulations that would enable the state's splendor to remain unspoiled by greed, rapid growth, or corruption. Yet those regulations rendered the state unable to deal with important external pressures on Ottoman society. Guilds were closed and were not allowed to grow in any significant fashion. In a period of increased consumption and commerce, unofficial artisan associations were formed and helped corrupt the system in place. In addition, the Ottomans placed a ceiling of 10 percent profit for almost all artisans, which certainly hampered their transformation into a powerful social group. Artisans remained numerically small and their economic power less significant than their counterparts in western Europe.

One group that was able to take advantage of these strict regulations and the growing markets were commercial entrepreneurs, the middlemen, who had far fewer restrictions placed on their markups. Thus, by the eighteenth century, Balkan cities had an urban patrician class, still officially reaya, many of them non-Muslims, especially from among Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and Serbs. Many of these Greeks and Serbs were able to transfer their economic power into landholding, though officially all territories controlled by the Ottoman state were the property of the sultan. Thus important avenues developed for the empowerment and social advancement of certain members of all millets, many of them tolerated by the Ottoman Empire because these subjects were still taxpayers whose activities benefited the state, and others went unpenalized because of the increasing corruption of local administration.

Family structure. Non-Muslim families retained the structure they had before the Ottoman conquest, with virtually no interference from the Ottoman authorities. Muslim families, both those of the colonizers and of the converts, followed practices already existing under Islam. Polygamy was widespread, especially among servants of the state. Also, because the military obligations of the spahis forced them to be absent for prolonged periods of time from their families, women often assumed more authority in managing the household, though the presence of several wives sometimes created tensions absent from most Christian homes. Muslim rural families were generally smaller than urban families and much more similar to those of Christian peasants. One important effect of polygamy, birth-control practices and related sexual customs of the Islamic population, and the spread of venereal diseases was the gradual slowing down of the birthrate by comparison with the Christian population. For instance, though at the end of the sixteenth century Muslims made up the great majority of the urban population, the ratio shifted back in favor of the Christian population by the beginning of the nineteenth century.


While the industrial revolution and the political aftereffects of the French Revolution helped bring about a dramatic change in western European societies, Balkan societies remained only indirectly and somewhat marginally affected by these developments. During the nineteenth century, changes in the Balkans were largely political, military, and administrative. One cannot speak, for instance, about the development of a civil society here, as one can in the case of France or Germany. Still, the rise of nationalism as the most important ideological movement of the century was the product of intellectual movements and social shifts that occurred in the Balkans, and it helped in turn to introduce some broader social changes in the area.

The nationalist movements in the Balkans arose out of the interaction of a small but active intelligentsia with the ideas of the French Revolution and the "springtime of nations" in 1848. This group was a relatively recently developed social cluster of either merchants (especially in Greece and Serbia) or entrepreneurial young landowners (in Romania), who had made their fortunes through the Ottoman system but perceived it as decaying and fundamentally anachronistic. Another important characteristic of many of these individuals was their critical view of the Orthodox Church. Though most of the young intellectuals were churchgoing Christians, many viewed the practices of the church hierarchy as compromised and antiquated. Although this was a small group of individuals, their activities proved influential beyond their numbers.

To begin with, they conceptualized for the first time for their own conationals the concept of national identity based on a common language, religion, and cultural traditions. Initially, such ideas reached an insignificant portion of the population, but over the course of the nineteenth century, with the creation of more educational institutions, cultural nationalism became one of the founding principles of education. By the end of the century, the gospel of nationalism was internalized by the educated population, still a minority but now a sizable portion of Balkan society.

The intelligentsia also introduced new concepts of social justice into their discussion about national rights and the oppression of their conationals by the ruling empire (the Ottomans in most of the Balkans and the Habsburgs in Transylvania and the northwestern Balkans). They defined the poor conditions in the countryside and the persistence of serfdom less as the result of class exploitation at the hands of the aristocracy than as the inevitable outcome of imperialism. Their call for justice found a limited echo among the peasantry (most prominently in the Habsburg lands) until the end of the nineteenth century. But it did lead to the abolishing of serfdom.

Otherwise, life in the rural areas changed very little. The structure of families remained relatively unchanged, while the size of families decreased somewhat because of both lower mortality rates and new birth-control practices among both Muslims and non-Muslims. There was also minimal migration to urban areas, unlike western Europe, where the relationship between urban and rural areas changed dramatically.

Still, some notable changes took place in most Balkan cities. To begin with, the ratio between the Muslim and non-Muslim population continued to shift toward the non-Muslims, with Orthodox Christians making up the overwhelming majority of urban inhabitants by 1914. This change was a function both of different natality rates among Muslim versus non-Muslim populations and of political developments. Most prominently, with the retreat of Ottoman authority from Greece (1833) and Serbia (1829), and with the end of Phanariot rule in Romania (1829), the Ottoman administrative apparatus and its representatives gradually left the capitals of the emerging new states. Athens, Thessaloniki, Belgrade, and Bucharest became important administrative centers. The leadership that emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century focused on rebuilding them as European cities and creating a native bureaucracy as the backbone of the new nations.

With the emergence of national educational, cultural, and administrative institutions by 1914, the new national bureaucracies in the Balkans produced an important social class, generally well educated, with ambitions to a middle-class lifestyle comparable to that of their counterparts in western Europe, and at the same time entirely dependent on the state for their employment and social status. This development somewhat resembled the rise of the educated middle class in Germany. But it was not accompanied by the development of a significant native entrepreneurial middle class.

The interwar period saw a continuation of trends already described. The Ottoman and Habsburg presence disappeared, and the new states operated under the principle of national sovereignty, though they all had significant ethnic minorities. Greece alone tried to solve this issue by the resettlement of massive numbers of Greeks and Turks. Elsewhere, minorities were legally protected, though they were everywhere at a disadvantage in terms of access to the economic, political, educational, and other cultural resources provided by the state. Nationalism in fact became a stronger force in Balkan society, with more aggressive populist, exclusivist overtones. The outcomes of this trend were dramatic during World War II and continued through the communist period: Great human losses during the war and Stalinist years and a continued splintering (though mostly muted) of Balkan societies due to ethnic-nationalist animosities.

The most significant change in Balkan societies brought about by World War II was in the realm of demography. The ethnic map of the Balkans was drastically altered through the elimination of most Jews, either victims of internal anti-Semitic movements or as a result of the German occupation. Likewise, the Turkish population suffered at the hands of the Bulgarians and Greeks. The Croat ustase (a fascist movement) and Serbian partisans (a communist group) were merciless in their decimation of each other. By and large, the human losses in the war were tremendous, especially in Yugoslavia. Likewise, both the German occupation and the Soviet "liberation" greatly damaged the existing economic base.


The most important period of change in Balkan societies during the modern era took place after World War II. Because most of the developments described here are the result of the communist takeover that was accomplished by 1948, they are more specific to the communist bloc, in the south and north of the Balkans, than to the Balkans as a whole.

The communist regimes transformed the overwhelmingly rural, peasant societies in the area into much more urbanized, industrial ones. The structural transformations that accompanied industrialization in western Europe happened over more than a century, but in the communist bloc this was accomplished in two generations. By the 1970s, most people in the Balkans were urban workers and lived in cities.

By the same token, rural life changed dramatically with the collectivization of much of the agricultural land (accomplished less thoroughly in some parts of Yugoslavia than elsewhere). The peasants became a rural proletariat, many seeking seasonal employment in urban industries. Thus a pattern of seasonal migrant labor developed in the entire region, as well as a permanent movement of rural population to urban areas. As a result of the quick and large-scale transplantation of peasants to the cities, one can speak of a process of ruralization of Balkan cities, where peasants tried to replicate their rural lifestyle in the new high-rises. Many new urban dwellers tried to preserve family and kinship relations in the new environment through various living arrangements and by preserving various symbolic links. For instance, many families chose to live in multigenerational living arrangements (grandparents, parents, and children together), although this practice was sometimes also motivated by economic constraints. Some of these families often returned to their countryside residence for any important rites of passage events, such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals.

In addition to the newly created proletariat, another important new class emerged as a result of the new regime—the nomenklatura. In order to generate the kind of economic growth required by the five-year plans, the new state bureaucracies had to educate increasing numbers of technical specialists and managers. Though nominally also workers, these specialists soon developed a sense of their authority and became the new elite of the communist regime, more entrenched in their statist loyalties than the bureaucracies under the pre-1948 regimes.

The communist regimes also transformed the state into a welfare state, albeit with rather poor performance on most of the services provided, but still a paternalist form of state that came to replace the traditional safety nets in Balkan societies. Now that women were emancipated in order to become full members of the proletariat, the role of nursing, socializing, and educating children fell on the shoulders of the childcare system. The young could no longer take care of the elderly, as they were engaged in working and generally unable to provide for more than the immediate family. A system of state pensions was to take care of the elderly.

The development of these and other social programs resembled many of the projects of the postwar welfare states in western Europe. The major difference, however, was that in the Balkans these services were constructed and implemented entirely in a top-down fashion, as a gift from the paternalist state. All inhabitants came both to expect these services and to depend on them heavily, to the point where, after 1989, when some of this safety net disappeared, a wave of nostalgia for the communist regime grew strong among many sectors of society.

Overall, what the communist regimes accomplished was equalization of standards of living and of expectations among most inhabitants. The members of the nomenklatura lived marginally above this level, and a handful among the party elite had a truly extravagant lifestyle. Yet most people's expectations of professional success, comfort, and pleasure were made to fit a strict standard. This equalization was supposed to represent social justice. Thus members of all different ethnic groups became equal, men and women were treated equally, and young and old had the same expectations. At the same time, this procrustean measure of social satisfaction hid important injustices, such as the discrimination against national minorities by the welfare state and the saddling of women with the double burden of home and professional responsibilities. In this regard, the faults of the egalitarian socialist system resembled the weaknesses of the western welfare states.

An important result of this equalization of society was the growing emigration of people from this area to western Europe, Israel, and the United States. Aside from Yugoslavia, where many people had a chance to work as guest workers in the west and then return, a sizable portion of the educated professionals found ways to leave their countries behind, leading to a damaging brain drain. By 1989 this exodus had produced serious holes in many of the industries and professions essential for the economic performance of their countries. This exodus has not stopped or reversed significantly since 1989.


During the period of postcommunist transition, one can speak of very little improvement in the standard of living or level of satisfaction in Balkan societies. In areas that have not been plagued by war, the impoverishment of the general population, the disappearance of social services considered essential by the population, and the appearance of other social problems such as crime, prostitution, and various diseases have been the somber legacy of postcommunism. Still, though there is some nostalgia for the communist period among the older population, most people are simply interested in becoming more like Greece, with political and economic standards closer to those of western Europe. One important development in the area has been the revival of religious institutions and the growth of the Orthodox Church, which has again become an important center of authority in society.

Another important development since 1989 has been the explosion of nationalist violence that brought about the dismemberment of Yugoslavia. All ethnic groups of that country have been hurt tremendously in terms of personal human losses, economic losses, and prospects for social advancement in the future. The young are fleeing from Yugoslavia, desperate and cynical about the possibilities for peace and prosperity in their country. It is difficult to estimate today the long-term impact of the decade-long conflict in Yugoslavia, but one can be certain that the ethnic map will remain forcibly redrawn to keep the different groups separate, with virtually no hope for reconciliation.

See alsoSerfdom: Eastern Europe; Welfare State; Nationalism; Communism; Military Service (volume 2);Slaves (volume 3);Kinship; The Household (volume 4);Eastern Orthodoxy (volume 5); and other articles in this section.


Barany, Zoltan, and Ivan Volgyes, eds. The Legacies of Communism in Eastern Europe. Baltimore, 1995.

Chirot, Daniel, ed. The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe: Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century. Berkeley, Calif., 1989.

Clogg, Richard, ed. Balkan Society in the Age of Greek Independence. London, 1981.

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