If the limitations of natural geography were not enough, the political and social limitations in terms of land use, particularly under Ottoman rule, instilled poverty and a class of indebted peasants, resulting in long-term political instability.
The Balkans have been characterised by ethnic divisions for centuries. The mountains often created a physical border between ethnic communities and restricted intercommunication and cultural exchange between them. The branches of different religious and ethnic identities were grouped and separated repeatedly under different governing powers. Some of the major ethnic groupings were Albanians, Greeks, South Slavs, and Bosnians.
Historically, Albanians have for the majority been Muslim since Ottoman rule in the Balkans. The Albanian language is unique to the area and thought to be the final remaining dialect linked to ancient Illyrian (Sowards 1996), which was used by the Illyrain populations in the area likely until they were conquered by the Romans in approximately 165 B.C. Greek culture, as sustained through Greek mythology and historical records, has survived throughout the triumphs of different empires in the area including Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. Greeks are for the most part Eastern Orthodox (Sowards 1996) and speak a variation of classical Greek language. The South Slavs are made up of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians. Populations from this group immigrated to the area in the 6th century, and became a stronghold for government. Their languages all resemble on another as they come from the same Slavic branch of Indo-European languages. In the 9th century most South Slavs adopted Christianity. Finally, Bosnia was traditionally a ‘border zone‘ between Croatia and Serbia, with similar ethnic and linguistic qualities of both. However, what distinguishes modern Bosnia from their northwest and eastern neighbours is their religious make up. The majority of the Bosnian population adopted Islam during Ottoman occupation, creating a distinct culture of Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks.
These ethnic groups fought amongst themselves for dominance in the Balkan Penninsula, which allowed a big enough distraction for the Ottomans to invade from the south and officially conquer the Balkans in the late 1300s to early 1400s. While the Ottomans had a religious tolerance policy, there were many benefits for people to convert to Islam, namely land rights. This is why, for example, the aristocrats in Bosnia and Albania converted to protect their land claims.
The Ottoman Timar system of land management was introduced to the Balkan area between the 12th and 13th centuries, when they successfully invaded now Bulgaria then intermitently added the surrounding territories. Most areas were divided vertically, based on the ecology of the land; the fertile lowlands were of the most value, and the rocky highlands the least. Because the highlands were deemed worthless to the conquering armies moving in, they often acted as a refugee oasis for the ethnic groups forced out of their fertile home lands (Sowards 1996). The Timar System was, in essence, a payment scheme where the Ottoman sultan paid his military men with fertile land grants instead of wages when they went to battle. Then once the man who was given the land grant died or migrated away from the land, the deed was reverted back to the Sultan.
However, at the turn of the 16th century, the Timar land owners took it upon themselves to privatise the land bestowed on them, by self-imposing the authority of passing down their lands to their male heirs. These owners became known as Chiftliks. This change meant that revenues were not passed on to the state, for institutional improvements such as roads and irrigation for the benefit of the Balkan people. It set off the downward turn of the Ottoman empire, as well as the upward trajectory of peasant discontent and protests.
Taxes and levies were administered separately to different ethnic-religious groups. So, during modernization of the Ottoman state, nationalist movements for independence focused on ‘rights to land, livelihood and fair taxes’, rather than politics or patriotism (Mazower 2000, p. 43). Class tensions emerged directly alongside the independence movements, which further fragmented ethnic divides as populations grew and land to claim became scarcer.