Balkanization probably isn’t a word you hear very often. Maybe the title of this post is the first time you’ve ever seen the term. If you were to open a dictionary and look up “balkanize,” you get a pretty specific definition. The more broad definition is simply to divide, or to compartmentalize. Balkanization, though, is a generally more niche term. The subdivisions of the original, for example, are often hostile.
Specifically, balkanization refers almost exclusively to geopolitical fragmentation. So a larger nation or state splits itself into multiple ones, and the new little states don’t like each other. It may not come as a surprise then, that balkanization is often spurred by ethnic division.
The first use of balkanization came about in the 19th century, with a general negative feeling about it. If you’re a little eagle eyed, you might recognize the Balkans are a part of this word. That’s no coincidence. If you’re privy to the Ottoman Empire, you may remember that they controlled almost all of the Balkan Peninsula. That stopped being the case starting in 1817, when the land in the Balkans was divided up into a number of smaller states.
More on the Ottoman Empire.
However, “balkanization” wouldn’t enter more common usage until the conclusion of WWI, as even more states arose from the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The Austro-Hungarian Empire also collapsed, spawning new states as well. Then there was the collapse of the Soviet Union. We could go on, but you probably get the idea.
Given how many more times balkanization has occurred over the years, you might think the negative connotation around the word has faded. This is not the case. Though we use the term for more than just the Balkan Peninsula, balkanization is still heavily associated with ethnic cleansing, civil war, and dictatorships.