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How Violence Made the Balkans Poor

Balkan Bandit 3.jpg

Serbia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, these are all poor places.


Bulgaria and Macedonia were actually rich when the empires they were a part of were rich. These were wealthy parts of the Byzantine Empire, and later wealthy parts of the Ottoman Empire. When the Byzantines became economically dominated by the Venetians, or the Ottomans became economically dominated by Western Europe, Bulgaria and Macedonia were less affected than the others. Their empires were decrepit, but they were on the westmost side. This gave them some market position for trading with the Italians  


Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Albania were always poor. Byzantium or Turkey rising or falling didn’t change much.


There are many explanations for this. Most of them are plausible.


The one that sociologists like is that Western Europe got a giant cash advantage by discovering the New World, setting up colonies, notably in Mexico and Peru, and using the silver from those colonies to their advantage. The huge amounts of extra money allowed their manufacturing and technology to soar. The rest of the world was at a disadvantage when they traded with them; this included the Balkans. The Balkans never got colonies and were colonized by Turkey.


If you don’t like that explanation, you can always go with education. Levels of education in the Balkans have always been low.


When I think about what held back the Balkans – the number one thing I think about is war.


The Balkans used to be a violent place.


Here is a list of all the wars that took place in the Balkans between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of World War I.

1821: Wallachian Rebellion

1821: Nis Rebellion of 1821

1831: Bosnian Uprising

1833‑9: Albanian Revolt

1834: Priest Jovicas Rebellion

1836: Posavina Rebellion

1836: Belogradchik Rebellion

1836: Pirot Rebellion

1839‑47: Albanian Revolt of 1847

1841: Nis Rebellion of 1841

1843‑44: Albanian Revolt of 1843‑4

1845: Albanian Revolt of 1845

1848: Wallachian Revolution of 1848

1848‑9: Serb Uprising of 1848‑9

1852‑3: Ottoman‑Montenegrin War

1852‑62: Herzegovina Uprising

1854: Macedonian Rebellion

1867: Macedonian Rebellion

1877‑8: Russo‑Turkish War

1878: Kumanavo Uprising

1878: Greek Macedonian Rebellion

1878: Kresna‑Raznog Uprising

1880‑1881: Brsjak Revolt

1883: Timok Rebellion

1885: Serbo‑Bulgarian War

1893‑1908: Macedonian Struggle

1896‑7: Greek Macedonian Rebellion

1897: Greco‑Turkish War

1903: Theriso Revolt

1903: Serbian May Coup

1903: Ilindan‑Preobrazhenie Uprising

1904‑8: Macedonian Struggle

1907: Romanian Peasants Revolt

1909: Kolasin Affair

1910: Albanian Revolt of 1910

1911: Albanian Revolt of 1911

1912‑3: First Balkan War

1912: Albanian Revolt of 1912

1913: Second Balkan War

1913: Ohrid‑Debar Uprising

1914: Peasant Revolt in Albania

That’s forty-one different Balkan Wars. And that doesn’t even count World War I that got started with an assassination in Sarajevo.


The count of wars underestimates the civil disruption in the Balkans. Banditry was widespread. Brigands raided merchant convoys and farms routinely. Montenegro had a particularly marked reputation for banditry.


Feuds were another form of persistent violence. In Albania where it was called gjakmarrja. In Kosovo and Montenegro it was called krvna osveta. It is hard to get farming and manufacturing done if one can’t leave one’s house for fear of being attacked by thieves or being ambushed in a revenge killing.


The ongoing lack of personal security led to some interesting economic anomalies.


In most settings, the traditional mode of production is agriculture. As the society gets more prosperous and technologically advanced, it evolves into manufacture.


In places like Serbia and Bosnia, things were just the reverse. Primitive life meant manufacture; with prosperity people shifted to agriculture. Why was this? Warfare and brigandage chased many people out of the lowlands. They had to hide in mountains and forests to avoid marauding raiders. The agricultural potential of mountains and forests is limited. People had to forage to survive. People herded to survive. They engaged in small-scale household manufacture in order to survive. When times were flush, and people felt secure, people would take chances and move to the lowlands and engage in farming. These forays were often temporary. When things worsened, it was back to the mountains and manufacture.


Warfare crippled the transportation system. With outside enemies everywhere, governments were reluctant to build roads and railroads. Palairet documents the extreme difficulties investors had in getting approval for rail projects. Why the hostility to transport? Foreign enemies could use those roads and railroads to march into the country and invade. Impassability was the locals’ defense against outsiders. Against the large armies that could be mounted by the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, rough terrain was one of the few defenses available to weaker microstates.


Miserable transport meant that it was hard to turn local manufacture into a viable export industry. It is worthy of note that historically two of the two richest Balkan nations have been Greece and Bulgaria. Greece is blessed with excellent water transport. Bulgaria has coasts both on the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Both nations have easy access to Turkey, which was generally the richest customer in the region. It was very hard to get goods out of Bosnia or Serbia.


Constant risk and destruction led to extremely simple modes of production. In the nineteenth century, the dominant industry in Serbia was pig-herding. Rather than keep the pigs on the farm, they were allowed to forage in the forest. Pigs were mobile, in case the family had to flee. The forest provided all of the foodstuff the pigs would ever need, eliminating the need to for significant investment in growing animal feed. Forest pork-raising was a wonderful industry, but it didn’t last. However, population growth led to deforestation. When the woods were gone, the sector collapsed.


Insecurity and the need to fight frequently led to the rise of a culture inconsistent with economic growth. Male idleness is useful in a culture when at any time, men might either have to raid or fight. So economic activities were often devalued in favor of politics, religion, or just conspicuous leisure. Fighting also led to a macho culture where farming and trading were women’s work while men did the important work of pursuing glory. In this regard, the gender ideologies of the mountain areas of the Balkans look remarkably similar to the super-macho gender ideologies of the New Guinea Highlands. In the New Guinea Highlands, men sit around or have their battles. Women do all the farming, the manufacture and the child-rearing.


The constant warfare also undercut the motivation and capacity of states to assist in the process of economic development. Successful late developers such as Germany or Japan had governments that were extremely active in fostering new industries, advancing education, building infrastructure and creating effective banking. Germany and Japan had some of the most effective pro-economic growth governments in history. Yes, they were militaristic. Yes, those governments built strong armies and tried to take over neighboring nations. But both nations were at internal peace, with neither problems of brigandage nor blood feuds. They were free from both the internal uprisings and frequent foreign invasions that characterized Balkan states.


Balkan governments were useless in stimulating economic development. Why did they perform so badly?


The chaotic political conditions of the Balkans meant that microstates fell all the time. Maps were constantly being redrawn in Southeastern Europe as territories were ceded from one nation to another; countries would gain independence in one period and be subsumed into larger nations in the next.


What were the consequences of this instability?


Balkan leaders were insecure, and paranoid – generally for good reason. They were also xenophobic. They were extremely afraid of foreign powers. We have already seen how this crippled transportation by discouraging road building and railway building. It also chased away foreign capital and discouraged foreign investment. Foreign bankers and businessmen were feared because foreign money could ally either with neighboring countries or with domestic political opposition in an attempt to overthrow the current leader. Those fears were often realistic.


But as a result, very little foreign capital entered the Balkans.  The absence of foreign investment led to the absence of foreign technology transfer. Balkan industry was often far behind its competitors in both quality and competition because the competitors had access to know-how from a wide variety of other nations.


Instability also led to rampant corruption. On one hand, leaders had no idea how long they would stay in office. Long-term development plans made no sense if no one in public office could be sure of having a job or a country in the middle term. With no one being sure he would be in power long enough to change the nation, governing degenerated into short-term opportunism.

Furthermore, constant conflict meant rulers had to support their domestic military allies. Any new invasion or insurrection would be an opportunity for some general or provincial warlord to change sides – meaning certain death for the former ruler. A local prince would have been hard-pressed not to grant every request he received from his supporters – even if this meant those supporters would be ransacking the treasury.


If governance meant dividing up the treasury among cronies, there was no reason for the Archduke or Grand Marshall not to have his own hands in the trough as well.


All of this is pretty bad. But it is not the worst of all the consequences of constant warfare.


Constant warfare enhanced ethnic divisions. Ethnic groups are often defined and their identities made salient as a by-product of struggles for power that favor one group over another. Naturally, ethnic antagonisms serve in turn to increase levels of internal violence and warfare.


A dangerous consequence of heightened ethnic warfare is ethnic exclusion and ethnic expulsion. Throughout the nineteenth century, ethnic minorities – typically Moslems – were thrown out of newly created Christian nations. Throughout this period, Ottoman Turkey was in decline. In Turkey’s former imperial holdings in Southeastern Europe, Moslems held significant positions of both political and economic power. Independence often led to a purge of Moslems, and a seizure of their property. Sometimes the Moslems were forcibly expelled. Other times, the Moslems left on their own, often fleeing for their lives.


There were massive dislocations of Moslem residents of Serbia both in 1806 and 1862. Bulgarian independence led to a mass exodus of Moslems both in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish war (1878) and in response to land seizures and persecutions after that. Albanians were expelled forcibly from both Serbia and Kosovo the same year as the initial Bulgarian expulsion. Since many of the victims were businessmen and middle-class professionals, there was an enormous contraction of economic activity as companies were seized and destroyed, or farms were divided up. Palairet’s careful assessment of the Moslem expulsions from Bulgaria showed that the investment and commercial activities of the victims were never replaced. The fleeing migrants took not only capital with them but skills. The new owners were either incapable or uninterested in rebuilding the enterprises. Palairet’s conclusion is that the Balkan ethnic persecutions led to enormous deadweight economic losses.


So, what’s the moral of these sad stories?


Violence is not good for economic growth.


Of course, you knew that already. But what is striking is how long the legacy of violence can last. No country in the Balkans has ever become fully industrialized or wealthy. There has been tremendous progress in Southeastern Europe since the 1930’s, when most Balkan populations were living in abject poverty.


But other nations that were poor in 1850 are relatively wealthy today. Norway and Finland were as poor as the Balkans in 1850. Those are peaceful places. Those countries are fully modernized today. South Korea was far poorer than the Balkans in the nineteenth century. South Korea is now one of the wealthiest of the middle-income nations.


It is not impossible for a country to go from impoverished to nearly wealthy within a period of fifty years. This is a lot harder to do when the men are fighting blood feuds, when the hills are filled with gangsters and the citizens are fighting insurrections and civil wars.


Just for the record, there are a lot of countries today with narcotraffic, extensive organized crime, high homicide rates and regional insurrections.


I wonder if those are good for development …

For More Information

Most of the empirical material here comes from Michael Palairet’s superb Balkan Economies 1800-1914: Evolution Without Development. Palairet is a historian who loves nuance and complexity. The Balkans are a fantastically complicated place. Palairet’s style is perfect for his subject matter. That said, I have little doubt that he would find this essay a vast oversimplification. For great empirical detail, Palairet is hard to beat. I recommend his book enthusiastically.

The global advantage stemming from access to colonies and natural resources in colonies is a position associated with Immanuel Wallerstein’s Modern World System (4 volumes).

On Feuds, see Christopher Boehm’s Blood Revenge: Enactment and Management of Conflict in Montenegro and Other Tribal Societies.

On New Guinea, see the essay on the Societal Death page of this website: Super-High Crime in Papua New Guinea.

On the role of government in supporting late development, the classic statement is the title essay in Alexander Gershenkron’s Economic Backwardness in Historical Perspective. Germany and Japan are two of his key cases.

On the role of national political conflict in the creation of ethnic identities, see the work of Andreas Wimmer, notably Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World.  The Balkans figure prominently in many of his works.

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