Balkan Peninsula, in southeastern Europe, is bounded on the east by the Black and Aegean seas, on the south by the Mediterranean Sea, and on the west by the Adriatic and Ionian seas. It comprises the countries of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Serbia and Montenegro (formerly the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia), Albania, Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and European Turkey. The northern boundary is geographically defined as the Sava River; the lower Danube River from the point, at Belgrade in Serbia, where the Sava joins it; and a line drawn arbitrarily from the upper Sava to the Adriatic near Rijeka, Croatia. This boundary is easily recognizable on a map and, with a few exceptions, encompasses the countries generally defined as Balkan states, but it has no physiographical justification. It is historically justifiable because the region so defined (together with Romania and excluding Montenegro, Dalmatia, and the Ionian Islands) constituted most of the European territory of the Ottoman Empire from the late 15th to the 19th century.
Most of the Balkan Peninsula is mountainous, with streams flowing in every direction. The drainage area of the Danube is the most important hydrographic feature. From the southern slopes of the Rhodope Mountains, the Vardar (Axiós) River flows into the Aegean Sea; and, at the most westerly point of the Balkan Mountains, the Morava flows into the Danube. The Balkan Mountains form the largest continuous range; other mountainous sections are the so-called Dinaric Alps along the Adriatic coast, the Rhodope chain between the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and the Maritsa Valley, the Pindus range in northwestern Greece, and isolated summits of historical importance, including Mounts Olympus, Pelion, and Óssa in Greece. Lake Scutari, on the Montenegro-Albania border, and Lake Ohrid, on the border between Albania and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, are the only lakes of importance on the peninsula. The southern part of the peninsula, which forms the mainland of Greece, has a mild Mediterranean climate, but the rest of the region is subject to the severe winters and hot summers of south-central Europe. The northwestern portion has few lowlands and is characterized by unbroken, jagged hills; the southern portion has much more level terrain.
Migration of people
The first peoples to migrate into the Balkans arrived from all directions: central Europe, southern Europe, Asia, and Asia Minor. During the rule of the Roman and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) empires (1st century until the late Middle Ages), the region was periodically invaded by various ethnic groups. The Slavs appeared around the 3rd century and migrated to the peninsula in large numbers in the 6th century, and Bulgar tribes appeared in the 7th century; eventually the Bulgars were assimilated by the Slavs. The Slavic and various other ethnic settlers evolved in comparative isolation because of the natural barriers to communication, each group developing its own culture, customs, and religion.
Military and political strife
Balkan history is characterized by military and political strife. Because the peninsula is politically and economically important as part of the land bridge between Europe and Asia and the overland route from the Mediterranean to the Black Sea, it was subjugated for centuries by a series of conquerors. Conflict between Balkan peoples and nations has been common, and the Balkans have played a key role in European power struggles. The Balkans once were Roman provinces and the peninsula remained part of the Byzantine Empire until the late Middle Ages, when the Ottoman Turks invaded and gradually took control of almost the entire peninsula.
In the 19th century, one Balkan nation after another developed strong nationalist movements and won independence from the Ottoman Empire. The various small Balkan countries emerged from the revolt against Ottoman rule as autonomous nations. The Balkan struggle for liberation was at different times joined by the Russian and Austrian empires, which had designs of their own on Balkan territories.
Balkan countries at the end of the 19th century
At the end of the 19th century the Balkan countries were Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro, and the Austrian provinces Bosnia and Herzegovina. The following years were marked by chronic friction and intrigue; in 1912 the Balkan Wars began, and two years later World War I broke out.
After World War I ended in 1918, Bosnia and Herzegovina and the provinces of Croatia, Slavonia, and Carniola united with Serbia and Montenegro to form the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, later renamed Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs”). As a consequence of the Balkan Wars and World War I, the Turks retained barely a foothold in Europe.
Between the two world wars, political leaders tried to prevent the Balkan countries from again becoming the “powder keg of Europe.” A Balkan entente was signed by Yugoslavia, Turkey, Greece, and Romania in 1934, but the international friction and open rifts that preceded World War II (1939-1945) were not lessened. Turkey and Greece resisted the infiltration of the Axis powers, but the influence of Italy and Germany was strong in the other Balkan countries. In April 1939, Italy seized Albania. In October 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, Italy invaded Greece but was thrown back into Albania, while the Germans swept through Romania and Bulgaria. Yugoslavia and Greece fell to the Germans early in 1941 despite stubborn resistance, which continued throughout the war. Bulgaria and Romania officially joined the Axis, but Yugoslavia and Greece established Allied governments-in-exile, which were replaced at the end of the war by provisional governments and finally by the kingdom of Greece and the republic of Yugoslavia. Albanian Resistance forces set up a provisional government that gained control after German withdrawal from the Balkans and proclaimed Albania the People's Republic of Albania. Upon the defeat of the Axis, a republic was also established in Bulgaria. In 1991 and 1992, four Yugoslav republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia—declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Shortly thereafter, Serbia and Montenegro announced the formation of a new state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), which in 2003 was renamed Serbia and Montenegro. (Adapted from Encarta Encyclopedia)