Balkanize: to break up (as a region or group) into smaller and often hostile units (Merriam-Webster)


Most subjects of international relations are but pawns in geopolitical chess game. In this never ending struggle for supremacy, hegemonic power houses hold most of the strings in their hands, strengthening their empires on the ruins of other nations. All is fair in war and contestants for a geopolitical prizes seem to be only partially halted by system of international law and norms. Entering armed conflicts today is more difficult than it was centuries ago, but states nevertheless continue, albeit with different methods, to fight for supremacy and control over weaker units.

Divide your enemy, break him into smaller pieces and you shall conquer him easily. This strategy is as old as waging war itself and has not lost its significance to this day, though the methods might have become more sophisticated and covert. Weak, divided and unstable opponent is by far easier to control than strong regional power. To this end, strategy ‘divide and conquer’ was commonly used throughout history. In this everlasting game of power politics, smaller nations were the losers while big powers ripped the seeds of their victory.

‘Divide and conquer’ strategy can be connected with a common geopolitical process, Balkanization, happening throughout the globe in different ways and shapes.  The name derives from turbulent Balkans and refers to a division of a multinational state into smaller, ethnically homogenous entities or to an ethnic conflict within multiethnic state. The term as such began to be widely used and accepted after World War I, then referring to fragmentation of Ottoman Empire. Today the term has negative connotation due to the violent tensions that are usually accompanied with fragmentation of entities (Britannica).

How are these two concepts connected?

Balkanization, as any other major process in international politics, does not just happen out of nowhere, nor is it concerned solely with dissolving units only. Often, outside superpowers are the main actors, starting and fueling the conflict, creating a chaos only to later intervene under humanitarian pretexts, all this in order to weaken potentially powerful nemesis.

Balkanization reached its peak during the 90s with the collapse of Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, latter being the most prominent and one of the bloodiest examples of Balkanization to this day. This multiethnic, cosmopolitan state with strong regional presence and important position in global south, non-alignment movement, was a thorn in the flesh for (European) imperial powers. What easier way than to let it destroy itself? West observed as the civil war broke out. It remained silent when ethnic cleansing began to happen and it stood by as genocide occurred in Srebrenica. Yugoslavia, a regional power house, broke into several pieces, of which none plays a significant role in today’s international politics anymore; rather they are all puppets of European Union and other big powers. 

Parallels can be drawn to the situation in Syria today, where civil war is raging for years already with international community intervening on different sides. Some western voices about division of state have already been raised. Similarly, rebellious Libya had to be tamed, whose strong position in region threatened interests of United States and their close ally Israel. Rather independent from foreign influence it had to be brought to its knees. Once an economically strong country is today a failed state dependent on support of international community with little chance of influencing affairs in region. Similar course of events could be observed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Likewise, (attempts of) balkanization can be observed throughout Africa, closely connected to control over natural resources, most prominent cases being division of Sudan and conflicts in DR Congo, Nigeria, and Ethiopia. Big powers support different separatist movements, rebels and governments, as it is in their interest for African countries to fight inside conflicts or amongst themselves. Thus, imperialistic powers can easily obtain control over weak and internally divided states.

Hardly any big event in international politics is unplanned or unexpected. All serve to interest of some and fragmentation of states is no different: in the end, someone always capitalizes, rarely fragmented state itself. Prescription would go as follows: balkanize threatening state, divide it into smaller pieces, encourage feuds between smaller entities, let them fight and destroy each other and strengthen your empire on its ruins. Today’s world system has little space for rebellious countries, independent of foreign influences, more so if they are rich in natural resources. They need to be subjugated, most effectively by creating inside chaos, followed by intervention under humanitarian pretexts, and division of state or loss of its de facto independence due to dependency on international support.