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In this lesson, you’ll learn about balkanization, including what it is and how it affects international politics. A short quiz follows to check your understanding.

Balkanization Defined

Sasha is a member of a specific ethnic group sharing a common history, culture, traditions and beliefs.

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This sounds like a great environment upon which to form a country. The only problem is that the land Sasha and his group occupy was part of an old empire. When the empire fell, it was carved up into different states. Sasha’s ethnic group was lumped together with another ethnic group whose history, culture, traditions and beliefs differ greatly from his social group.

In fact, the groups are pretty hostile to each other. After years of hostility and increasing violence, Sasha’s country goes through a balkanization process.Balkanization is a process of the fragmentation of a political unit into smaller, usually mutually hostile, political units.

For example, due to balkanization, Sasha’s state is being divided into smaller states where each ethnic group resides. Each new state is independent and acts autonomously from the other. Let’s take a look at balkanization from a historical perspective.

Historical Background

As you might imagine, the term ‘balkanization’ finds its roots in the Balkan Peninsula, which is located in the south-central region of Europe bounded by the Adriatic, Black and Aegean seas of the Mediterranean.

The term ‘balkanization’ was first utilized in the late 19th-century to describe the foreign policy of the Russian Empire, which bordered the region, to encourage division of the region into small, mutually hostile states that posed little threat to Russia.The term came back in vogue during the 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union, which kickstarted the balkanization of the Balkan region. The most prominent breakup was the State of Yugoslavia into several states, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. Unfortunately, this result was brought about by war and war crimes, including genocide.

Balkanization and International Politics

You can probably see the uses and effects of balkanization in the world of international relations by now. Attempting to instigate balkanization has been used as a way to check a serious threat to security by encouraging a large threat to fall upon itself, creating disunity, thereby lessening a threat to the bordering power.

For example, consider an all-star basketball team that loses because each team member wants to hog the ball and not work together. Likewise, a state that once was a threat to a neighbor may not be a problem if it becomes balkanized – divided up into smaller, and therefore weaker, states that don’t work together but actually fight with each other.History has also shown that balkanization can lead to horrendous violence and gross atrocities, including so-called ‘ethnic cleansing,’ where one ethnic group attempts to literally exterminate another ethnic group in its borders. Such conflicts can draw even the most distant powers and international organizations into the fray as the United States, European Powers, the UN and NGOs, like the Red Cross, were drawn into the Bosnian War of the early-to-mid-1990s.

Lesson Summary

Balkanization is the breakdown of a political unit into two or more smaller autonomous and independent units that are usually hostile to one another. The term first appeared to describe the foreign policy of the Russian Empire towards the Balkan region of Europe in the late 19th century and gained usage again in the 1990s with the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The term tends to have a negative connotation. As history has shown, balkanization has been used as a policy tool to weaken states that may threaten its neighbors. More importantly, the term earned its negativity due to the violence and atrocities committed during the process.

Learning Outcomes

Once you are done with this lesson, aim to:

  • Determine what ‘balkanzation’ is
  • Understand where the term comes from
  • Explain how balkanization has been used throughout history
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