Friday, October 2, 2015


A region of persistent political fragmentation due to devolution and centrifugal forces. The term has been applied by political geographers to a number of places since the SecondWorldWar, especially East Central Europe, but also SoutheastAsia, the Middle East, and Africa. A synonymous phrase is “crush zone.” Shatterbelts sometimes serve as buffer zones between hostile states or empires, and historically have played an important role in geopolitics. Shatterbelts in the Middle East and Africa emerged in the latter 20th century due to the collapse of imperialism, and the subsequent devolution of structures of governance to multiple independent states, most of which had never existed prior to the collapse of colonial authority. 

Regions classified as shatterbelts are characterized by states or territories that have a large degree of ethnic, linguistic, and/or religious diversity, and a history of antagonism and hostility between the groups living there, and can result from the balkanization of larger political entities. Boundaries in shatterbelts tend to be fluid and often contested, due to the fact that such political divisions frequently cross cultural regions, splitting ethnic groups between two or more countries. Although the term itself did not come into wide use until after World War II, the general concept of a shatterbelt appeared in the writings of political geographers several decades earlier. In a more modern context, shatterbelts often hold what Samuel Huntington has described as “civilizational fault lines,” a key concept in his “clash of civilizations” thesis.

The classic example of a shatterbelt is southeastern Europe, especially the Balkan Peninsula. This region has been functionally a shatterbelt for at least 500 years, as it has been geographically sandwiched between more powerful states that attempted to control part or all of the territory. From the 16th century to the early 20th century, the Ottoman Empire controlled large swaths of the Balkans at various times, and imposed Islamic culture on many of the peoples under its rule. Almost the entire population of what are today Albania and Kosovo were converted to Islam, and significant numbers were converted in portions of modern-day Bosnia and Bulgaria as well. A majority of the Slavic-speaking peoples in the region retained their Christian religious identity, but they too were divided into Roman Catholics (Slovenes, Croatians) or Orthodox Christians (Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Bulgarians) whose relationships were frequently antagonistic. Compounding this complex ethnic geography was the presence of large non-Slavic Christian minorities like the Hungarians and Germans, especially in those portions of the region that fell within the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and many other groups scattered throughout the peninsula. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire afterWorldWar I, the subsequent creation of Yugoslavia, and four decades of the Cold War only temporarily subsumed the turbulent character of this shatterbelt, as witnessed by the violent birth of seven new countries, most of which had never been independent previously, between 1991 and 2008. Kosovo’s independence in the latter year indicates that shatterbelts will remain volatile regions well into the 21st century.

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