People are often confused about Slovenia. The very first confusion is between Slovenia and Slovakia, as well as between their capitals and languages. However, there are some more. For example, they are not aware whether Slovenia was a part of Yugoslavia, and where it is located: in the Balkans or not? Let’s try to answer the last question because it’s quite a peculiar one!
Geographically, Slovenia belongs to the Balkans only partially. Approximately 25% of the country (5,000 km2) lies in the peninsula. However, most of the confusion comes from the political and cultural denomination of the Balkans. Historically and culturally, Slovenia is more a central European country than a Balkan one.
Let’s dig in together and discover more about the Slovenian’s belonging to the Balkans or not.
From Where Does the Confusion Come?
Usually, the geographical location is mixed with the cultural background of the region. Slovenia is quite a unique country for being the Balkan one. It is the most successful country in the region. Its nature and weather are closer to continental than the Mediterranean one, of course, with some exceptions. Not only ordinary people but also some famous ones tried to differentiate it from the Balkan region and stress the uniqueness.
For example, in 2003, The Economist, a famous international newspaper, wrote an article with the title “Why Slovenia is not the Balkans. A rich country and its poor neighbors.” In fact, that was the first time when this question appeared in the mass media in the international arena.
One of the best depictions of the issue was given by Slavoj Žižek, a famous Slovenian philosopher, a professor in universities of Ljubljana, London, New York, Seoul, and the person from the Top 100 Global Thinkers by Foreign Policy journal. He mentioned that the Balkans are the “land of paradoxes”, and wrote,
“For Serbs, it [Balkans] begins down there in Kosovo or Bosnia, and they defend the Christian civilization against this Europe’s Other. For Croats, it begins with the Orthodox, despotic, Byzantine Serbia, against which Croatia defends the values of democratic Western civilization. For Slovenes, it begins with Croatia, and we Slovenes are the last outpost of the peaceful Mitteleuropa. For Italians and Austrians, it begins with Slovenia, where the reign of the Slavic hordes starts. For Germans, Austria itself, on account of its historical connections, is already tainted by the Balkanic corruption and inefficiency.”
Historically, Slovenia was a part of a big Balkan country, Yugoslavia, during the previous century. However, before that, the country was part of the Habsburg Monarchy of the Austria-Hungarian Empire that was always recognized as a Central European monarchy.
Thus, Slovenia stands on the edge of Central Europe and the Balkans. Moreover, its culture obtains the features of both regions.
What Are the Balkans?
It is a geographic area located in Southeastern Europe. The region takes its name from the Balkan Mountains that stretch from Serbian and Bulgaria to the Black Sea on the east. The Balkan Peninsula also borders the Aegean Sea in the south, the Ionian Sea in the southwest, the Adriatic Sea in the northwest. Mount Musala (2,925 meters) is the highest point in the area.
The peninsula covers an area of 470,000 km2, which is slightly smaller than Spain. The region is often called Southeastern Europe. Its northern border consists of such rivers as the Danube, Sava, and Soča. The last two are the main rivers of Slovenia. The last one is one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country, because of its unique color. The river turns emerald green. Moreover, it is very rare for such a long river to have this unique color throughout its length. In general, it is 138-kilometer (86 mi) long, whereas 96 kilometers (60 mi) flows in western Slovenia. The Sava River is 990 kilometers (615 mi) long, and it connects three capital cities: Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Belgrade.
Thus, geographically, Slovenia lies on the border between Central Europe and the Balkans.
The other states located on the peninsula can be divided into two categories. The first group is countries that are entirely within the Balkan Peninsula: Albania (28,749 km2), Bosnia and Herzegovina (51,180 km2), Bulgaria (111,002 km2), Kosovo (10,908 km2), Montenegro (13,810 km2), and North Macedonia (25,713 km2). The second group includes countries partially in the peninsula: Croatia (24,013 km2, 46%), Greece (110,496 km2, 83.7% mainland and 126,023 km2, 95.5% including islands adjacent to the Balkan Peninsula), Italy (200 km2, 0.1%), Romania (11,000 km2, 5%), Serbia (51,000 km2, 65%), Slovenia (5,000 km2, 25%), and Turkey (23,764 km2, 3%).
The origin of the name remains still obscure. It may be translated from Persian balk as “mud”, or balā-khāna that means “big high house”. However, there are many related words in other Turkic languages, for example, one of the meanings is “chain of wooded mountains”.
The Balkans are quite an interesting territory. It includes many countries with their own cultures that are different but share a lot of similarities as well. For example, there are three religions here: Catholicism in Slovenia and Croatia, Orthodox Church in Bulgaria, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Greece, Romania, Serbia, and Islam in Albania, Bosnian and Herzegovina (predominantly), Kosovo, and Turkey.
On the other hand, there are common things in the Balkans. For example, the most popular spirit across the peninsula is rakija (rakia or raki in Greek). It is made from fruits such as pear, peach, lemon, blueberry, plum. The closest alcohol drinks to rakija are German schnapps and English brandy. In Slovenia, it is also popular as slivovka (plum), borovnica (blueberry), medica (honey), and viljamovka (pear). For those ones, who are fans of an herbal Jagermeister-ish flavor, the best choice would be pelinkovac.
The situation with the languages of the region is also controversial. Whereas Greek and Albanian are totally distinguished languages of the Balkans, much of the other population speak Slavic languages. Moreover, Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin are close enough to be dialects, however, they are recognized as different languages. The same situation is between Bulgarian and Macedonian.
The Balkan Dilemma
Slavoj Žižek noticed, “So Balkan is always the Other: it lies somewhere else, always a little bit more to the southeast, with the paradox that, when we reach the very bottom of the Balkan peninsula, we again magically escape Balkan.”
This proves the fact that the term “Balkan” is often changed into “Southeast Europe” nowadays. For example, the newspaper Balkan Times renamed itself Southeast European Times in 2003. The EU’s initiative of 1999 was called the Stability Pact for Southeastern Europe but not for Balkans.
This happened because of the negative legacy of events that happened here in the 1990s. At the end of the previous century, the biggest Balkan country, Yugoslavia, experienced the collapse and broke up, followed by the Yugoslav Wars. The series of conflicts provoked even the influence of NATO troops in peacemaking purposes. In general, all the disputes that happened were based on national identity ideas.
Josip Broz Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia, once said, “I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbors, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities.” This diversity played the uniting role when Slovenes, Croats, Serbians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, and Macedonians opposed the Nazi threat, as well as it provoked the nationalistic movements after the common enemy disappeared.
On the other hand, it’s just the negative legacy of recent events. For example, such a situation happened to all the Germanic nations after World War II. They tended to differentiate themselves from Germans as much as possible. “The Balkans” is the official term for the geographical object. Thus, the international community will keep using it more and more. Now all the disputes are mostly seized.
Slovenia is a unique country. It always was a “historical door” between Slavic nations and the Western world. Moreover, it is a door from the Balkans to Central Europe as well. While living in this country, you can literally feel the Italian vibe in the Slovene Riviera or the Austrian features in towns closer to the border, such as Maribor.
Thus, Slovenians as a nation obtained this mix of waves too. Their culture is full of things, which you can easily find in all the neighbors, but never ever mixed together except in this small country. That’s why the question about distinguishing between the Balkans happens so often.
Geographically, Slovenia lies on the edge of the Balkan Peninsula. Therefore, mentally, Slovenes remain only some slight hint of features usual for typical Balkans. Sometimes, the country is called “The Balkan Switzerland”; sometimes, the big newspaper names it “precisely not the Balkans”.
The only way to solve this dilemma is a personal experiment. If you wish to understand the difference, you definitely need to visit Slovenia and approximately half of the Balkans. However, when you do that, you will realize that every country is interesting in its own way. So, no matter to generalize them under one term.
Hence, we do recommend starting your travel experiment from the beautiful small country in the heart of Europe called Slovenia!