Where are the Balkans? How many countries are in the Balkans? What is Balkanization? Here’s everything you need to know!

Defining the Balkans – both geographically and politically – is as intricate as the region’s long, layered history of migration, conflict and dispute. This southeastern European peninsula is a fascinating, but often unstable crossroads, where cultures, religions and empires have collided over millennia. Surrounded by the Adriatic, Ionian and Black Seas, and crisscrossed by mountain ranges like the Dinaric Alps and the Balkan Mountains, the region’s natural geographical boundaries have been both connective and divisive.

Politically, the Balkans is home to an everchanging patchwork of nations (goodbye, Yugoslavia), each with its own unique heritage and complexities. However, qualifying where the Balkans begin and end is complex. Is Greece in the Balkans or not? Does Slovenia, way up in the Julian Alps, really count as a Balkan country? Do we define the Balkans geographically, or do we define this region politically, or even ethnically?

Defining the exact number of countries in this diverse region is even harder, particularly when you consider disputed nations like Kosovo, which isn’t universally recognised as a sovereign nation. Various factors, such as differing geographical definitions, historical backgrounds, and even ongoing territorial disputes, contribute to the ambiguity surrounding the seemingly simple question, ‘Where are the Balkans?’.

This article delves into these nuances, offering a comprehensive look at the number of countries that can truly be categorised as part of the Balkans, and where the boundaries of the Balkans can really be drawn. Keep reading, to find out more.

Where are the Balkans?

The Balkans is a region in southeastern Europe, covering a diverse range of landscapes, from mountainous terrains to coastal areas along the Adriatic, Ionian and Black Seas. The region is bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the west, the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea to the south, and the Black Sea to the east. To the north, it is generally bounded by the Danube, Sava and Kupa rivers.

However, the term ‘Balkans’ can be seriously fluid, depending on the criteria used for inclusion – geographical, historical or political. Generally speaking, the countries that are either entirely or partially considered part of the Balkan region are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia, but even this can vary depending on who you ask, and where you ask the question!

Here are two definitions of the Balkans, geographical and political:

Geographical definition of the Balkans

Geographically, the Balkan Peninsula is separated from the Italian Peninsula by the Adriatic Sea and from Asia Minor by the Aegean Sea. Major mountain ranges like the Dinaric Alps and the Balkan Mountains serve as natural dividers within the region.

However, the geographical borders are not universally agreed upon. For example, some definitions include the entire territory of certain countries like Greece and Romania, while others only count their northern parts as being in the Balkans.

Here’s a more detailed breakdown of the geographical boundaries:

  • Western Boundary: The Adriatic Sea forms the western boundary, along the coastlines of Albania, Montenegro, and Croatia.
  • Southern Boundary: The southern limits are formed by the Ionian Sea and the Mediterranean Sea, which border Greece and Albania.
  • Eastern Boundary: The Black Sea serves as the eastern boundary, touching Bulgaria and Romania.
  • Northern Boundary: Unlike the other boundaries, the northern limit is not as strictly defined by natural features. However, it’s commonly marked by the Sava and Danube rivers. These rivers flow through or serve as borders for several Balkan states, including Serbia, Croatia and Romania.

Read more: Is Montenegro in the EU (European Union)? Everything You Need to Know.

Political definition of the Balkans

Politically, the Balkans really are a patchwork of countries with diverse political systems, ethnic compositions and historical backgrounds. The political landscape has been shaped by a complex history involving the Roman Empire, Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, among others. In more recent history, the dissolution of Yugoslavia had a significant impact on the political map of the region.

The modern states that are either entirely or partially considered part of the Balkans include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia and Greece. It’s worth noting that the status of Kosovo is subject to ongoing international dispute, and it is not universally recognised as an independent country.

The political definition can be contentious, given the region’s history and the ethnic and religious complexities. Hence, the list of countries considered as part of the Balkans can vary depending on the context in which the term is used.

A geographical map that includes the Balkans, by Ikonact.

Read more: Is Yugoslavia Still a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

How many countries are in the Balkans?

So, how many countries are in the Balkans? The number of countries considered to be part of the Balkans can vary depending on differing definitions, as you might be starting to understand, but generally, the region includes the following 11 countries:

  • Albania
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Croatia
  • Kosovo (only partially recognised as a sovereign nation)
  • Montenegro
  • North Macedonia
  • Romania (partially, as only the region of Dobruja is in the Balkans)
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia (partially, as only the region of Slovenian Istria is in the Balkans)
  • Greece (partially, as Northern Greece is generally considered to be in the Balkans)

So, you could say there are between 8 to 11 countries in the Balkans, depending on the specific criteria used for inclusion. Note that some areas are only partially in the Balkans, and the status of Kosovo is subject to international dispute.

The author holding the flag of Kosovo in Pristina.

Read more: 14 Places to Visit in Kosovo

A brief history of the Balkans

To understand the complexities behind defining where the Balkans actually are, it’s important to look back at the region’s often tumultuous history, from the ancient times to the present-day conflicts that followed the Breakup of Yugoslaviahttps://history.state.gov/milestones/1989-1992/breakup-yugoslavia:

Early History: Antiquity to Medieval Period

The history of the Balkans is marked by a complexity that reflects its geographical position as a crossroads between Europe and Asia. The first known civilisations in the region include the Thracians, Illyrians and the ancient Greeks, who established city-states along the coast. The Balkans later became a part of the Roman Empire, and its division led to the region’s split between the Western Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, centred in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

Byzantine and Ottoman Rule

Following the fall of the Western Roman Empire, much of the Balkans remained under Byzantine influence. However, Slavic migrations in the 6th and 7th centuries began to change the ethnic makeup of the region. During this period, the Balkans were also subject to invasions by various groups, including the Huns, Avars and Bulgars.

The late medieval period saw the rise of powerful local rulers and the formation of states like the Kingdom of Serbia, the Bulgarian Empire and the Kingdom of Croatia. However, the region’s political landscape underwent a significant transformation with the Ottoman Empire’s expansion into Europe. By the end of the 15th century, much of the Balkans had come under Ottoman rule.

National Awakening and Independence Movements

Ottoman rule lasted for several centuries but was increasingly challenged by the rise of national consciousness among various ethnic groups in the Balkans. The 19th century saw a series of revolts and independence movements, influenced by the ideas of the European Enlightenment and nationalism. Serbia gained autonomy in 1815, followed by Greece in 1830 and Bulgaria in 1878. Romania and Montenegro also gained independence during this period.

The Balkan Wars and World War I

The early 20th century was a turbulent time for the region. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 involved various Balkan states fighting first against the Ottoman Empire and then among themselves, leading to a realignment of borders. These conflicts were a precursor to World War I, which had devastating effects on the region and led to significant territorial changes.

Post-War Period and Communist Rule

Following World War II, most Balkan countries fell under Communist rule and became part of the Eastern Bloc, except for Greece, which remained a capitalist democracy. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, under Josip Broz Tito, was a unique case, as it distanced itself from the Soviet Union and charted an independent course.

The Dissolution of Yugoslavia

The late 20th century was marked by the breakup of Yugoslavia, which led to a series of armed conflicts in the 1990s, including the Bosnian War and the Kosovo War. The dissolution resulted in the formation of several new states: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Montenegro. Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, although its status remains disputed.

Today, the Balkans is a region of diverse political systems and varying degrees of stability. Some countries, like Slovenia and Croatia, have joined the European Union, while others, like Serbia and North Macedonia, are candidates for EU membership. Ethnic and religious diversity continues to be both a rich part of the region’s cultural fabric and a source of tension and complexity in its political landscape.

The Albanian Alps divides Albania from Kosovo.

Read more: Is Montenegro a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Kosovo a country?

The status of Kosovo in the context of the Balkans – and internationally – is a subject of ongoing debate and dispute. Kosovo is located in the southeastern part of Europe and is geographically situated in the Balkan region. However, its political status is more complex.

Kosovo declared its independence from Serbia on 17 February 2008, following years of tension and conflict that included the Kosovo War of 1998-1999. Over 100 UN member states and two observer states have recognised Kosovo as an independent country. It is also a member of various international organisations and has its own institutions, including a government and parliament.

However, Kosovo’s independence is not universally recognised. Several countries, including Serbia, Russia and China, do not acknowledge Kosovo as an independent state. Additionally, Kosovo is not a UN member, primarily because it has not secured enough support to win a seat, given the Security Council dynamics.

So, while Kosovo is geographically in the Balkans, whether you consider it a ‘country’ in the region depends largely on your perspective on its political status. It is often included in discussions about the Balkans due to its geographical location and historical ties to the region, but its political standing remains a matter of international dispute.

The Ottoman influences are clear in Prizren, a centre for Albanian nationalism in Kosovo.

Read more: Is Kosovo a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

Is Romania in the Balkans?

Romania’s inclusion in the Balkans is a subject of debate among geographers, historians, and political analysts. Geographically speaking, a portion of Romania is situated on the Balkan Peninsula, primarily in the south and southeast of the country, bordering Bulgaria and the Black Sea. However, the majority of Romania lies north of the Danube River, which is often cited as one of the northern boundaries of the Balkans.

Culturally and historically, Romania shares some common elements with the Balkan states, particularly due to its history under Ottoman suzerainty, albeit to a lesser extent than many other Balkan nations. However, Romania also has significant cultural and historical ties with Central and Eastern Europe, especially through its Latin language and Roman heritage, which differentiates it from its Slavic and Ottoman-influenced neighbours.

In contemporary geopolitical discussions, Romania is often aligned more closely with Central Europe, particularly since its accession to the European Union in 2007 and its membership in other European organisations.

While parts of Romania are geographically situated in the Balkans, and the country shares certain historical and cultural elements with the Balkan states, it is often not categorised as a Balkan country in current geopolitical or cultural discourse. Instead, Romania is frequently considered to straddle the boundary between Central Europe and the Balkans.

Bucharest Palace of the Parliament
The Palace of the Parliament in Bucharest, Romania.

Is Turkey in the Balkans?

Turkey has a complex relationship with the Balkans, both historically and geographically. A portion of Turkey’s land, specifically the area known as East Thrace or Turkish Thrace, lies in southeastern Europe and shares a border with Greece and Bulgaria, both Balkan countries. However, the majority of Turkey’s territory is situated in Asia Minor, separated from the Balkan Peninsula by bodies of water like the Aegean Sea, the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus Strait.

Historically, the Ottoman Empire, based in what is now Turkey, had a significant influence on the Balkans, ruling much of the region from the late 14th century until the late 19th or early 20th century, depending on the area. This has left enduring cultural, religious, and even linguistic influences.

So, while a small part of Turkey lies in geographical proximity to the Balkan region and the nation has historical ties to it, Turkey is generally not considered a Balkan country in contemporary geopolitical discussions. Most of the country lies outside the geographic boundaries that typically define the Balkans, and its political and cultural orientation has multiple facets, including Middle Eastern, Central Asian and European influences, that exceed the scope of Balkan identity.

Photo Essay Istanbul
Turkey is generally not considered to be in the Balkans.

Read more: Places to Visit in Turkey!

How many Balkan countries are in the European Union?

At least four countries from the Balkan region are members of the European Union: Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia. You could also include Romania if you consider this country to be in the Balkans.

  • Greece joined the European Community, the forerunner to the EU, in 1981, and adopted the Euro in 2001.
  • Slovenia joined the EU on 1 May 2004, as part of the fifth enlargement of the union, which was one of the largest single expansions in terms of the number of nations joining.
  • Bulgaria joined the EU on 1 January 2007 and has yet to adopt the Euro as its currency.
  • Croatia became the 28th member of the EU on 1 July 2013, following a referendum and negotiations that lasted several years.

Several other Balkan countries are candidate countries or are in various stages of the accession process:

  • North Macedonia: Candidate country since 2005.
  • Montenegro: Candidate country, and accession negotiations started in 2012.
  • Serbia: Candidate country, and accession negotiations began in 2014.
  • Albania: Candidate country, though accession negotiations have yet to start.

Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo are potential candidate countries. They have yet to achieve official candidate status, which is a step towards full EU membership.

The Tara Canyon Curevac Durmitor
The Tara Canyon, Montenegro.

Read more: The Tara Canyon, Montenegro: How To Hike To The Edge of Europe’s Deepest Gorge

What languages are spoken in the Balkans?

The Balkan region is linguistically diverse, reflecting its complex history and mix of ethnic groups. Here’s a rundown of the primary languages spoken in various Balkan countries:

  • Albanian: Spoken in Albania and Kosovo, and by ethnic Albanians in North Macedonia and Montenegro.
  • Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian and Montenegrin: These are closely related South Slavic languages. Bosnian is primarily spoken in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatian in Croatia, Serbian in Serbia, and Montenegrin in Montenegro. The differences between them are mostly in vocabulary and pronunciation.
  • Bulgarian: Spoken in Bulgaria and by Bulgarian communities in neighbouring countries.
  • Macedonian: Spoken in North Macedonia and by ethnic Macedonians in neighbouring countries.
  • Slovenian: Primarily spoken in Slovenia, it’s a South Slavic language but has strong influences from German and Latin.
  • Greek: Spoken in Greece and by Greek communities in Albania, Bulgaria, and other countries with Greek diaspora.
  • Romanian: Spoken mainly in Romania, with some speakers in Serbia’s Vojvodina region and in Bulgaria.
  • Turkish: While Turkey is primarily in Asia Minor, Turkish is spoken by minority communities in Greece, North Macedonia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria.
  • Romani: Spoken by the Roma minority, who are present in several Balkan countries.
  • Aromanian and Megleno-Romanian: These are Latin-based languages spoken by small communities in countries like Albania, North Macedonia, and Greece.
  • Hungarian: Spoken by the Hungarian minority in Serbia, primarily in the Vojvodina region.
  • Italian: Spoken by some communities in Slovenia and Croatia, particularly in Istria, due to historical ties with Italy.

Additionally, English, German and French are commonly taught as second languages, especially in urban centres and among younger populations.

Kotor Montenegro
Montenegrin is spoken in Kotor, Montenegro.

Read more: Is Serbia a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

What is Balkanization?

The term ‘Balkanization’ originated from the complex political and social changes in the Balkans, particularly during the early 20th century. The term has come to describe the process of fragmentation or division of a region or state into smaller regions or states that are often hostile or uncooperative with one another. Essentially, it refers to the breaking up of large political entities into smaller, ethnically or culturally homogeneous enclaves.

The word gained prominence with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire and later, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, both of which led to the formation of small, often antagonistic states in the Balkan region. However, the term has become most closely associated with the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which resulted in violent conflicts and the emergence of several new countries.

‘Balkanization’ is now used more broadly in international parlance to describe similar phenomena in other parts of the world where large political entities disintegrate into smaller, often hostile units. It can also be applied metaphorically to any situation where a unity or coherent whole is divided into smaller, often conflicting, pieces – whether it’s a corporation, a community organisation, or even a computing term to describe data storage.

While the term is useful for describing a particular kind of geopolitical fragmentation, it’s worth noting that it often carries negative connotations, implying instability, conflict, and a breakdown of cooperative systems. Because of this, and because of the complex realities of Balkan history, the term can be seen as pejorative or overly simplistic when describing the region’s historical or current conditions.

Places to visit in Kosovo
The Newborn Monument in Kosovo, the latest nation to declare independence in the Balkans.

Read more: Is Macedonia a Country? Everything You Need to Know.

FAQ: Where are the Balkans?

Here’s a short FAQ on the topic: ‘Where are the Balkans?’:

Q1. What are the Balkans?

The Balkans is a region in southeastern Europe that is diverse both culturally and geographically. It’s bordered by the Adriatic Sea to the west, the Ionian and Mediterranean Seas to the south, and the Black Sea to the east.

Q2. How many countries are part of the Balkans?

The number varies depending on the criteria used. Generally speaking, eight to eleven countries are considered to be either fully or partially in the Balkans. These countries include Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, and Greece.

Q3. Why do some sources provide different numbers?

Different definitions – whether geographical, political, or historical – affect the list of countries considered as part of the Balkans. For instance, some people consider only northern Greece or the region of Dobruja in Romania to be part of the Balkans.

Q4. Is Kosovo a country in the Balkans?

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008. However, its status remains disputed on the international stage. For the purpose of this discussion, it is often included as a part of the Balkans.

Q5. Are all Balkan countries part of the European Union?

Greece, Bulgaria, Slovenia and Croatia are EU members. Other countries like Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia are candidates for EU membership.

Q6. How have historical events shaped the number of countries in the Balkans?

The history of the Balkans is marked by the influence of various empires and the emergence and dissolution of states. The most recent significant event was the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, which led to the formation of several new countries.

Q7. Is Turkey a part of the Balkans?

Turkey is not generally considered a Balkan country, although it shares historical and cultural ties with the region. Geographically, Turkey lies primarily in Asia Minor, separated from the Balkan peninsula by the Aegean Sea.

Q8. How do geographical features define the Balkans?

Major mountain ranges like the Dinaric Alps and the Balkan Mountains, as well as rivers like the Danube, Sava, and Kupa, serve as natural boundaries. However, these geographical features don’t precisely align with political borders, leading to varied definitions of what constitutes the Balkans.

Q9. What are the main languages spoken in the Balkans?

The linguistic landscape is diverse, featuring languages such as Albanian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Greek, Macedonian, Montenegrin, Romanian, Serbian, and Slovenian, among others.

Q10. Why is the term ‘Balkanization’ associated with the region?

The term ‘Balkanization’ emerged in the early 20th century to describe the division of the Balkan Peninsula into smaller, often hostile, nations. It is now used more broadly to signify the fragmentation of larger political entities.