Tuesday, May 15, 2018

On the underdevelopment of the Balkans

Branko Milanovic - a geographical hypothesis for why the Balkans are underdeveloped. He brings up 20th century communism and earlier Turk exploitation as explanations, then includes high mountains (as barriers to land travel) and contiguity with the Ukrainian steppe (as enabling constant invasions) as new explanations.

Unfortunately, Branko forgets that trade never happened over land in this era. It was always by sea, where transportation costs are a tiny fraction of the land transportation costs.

There are a few counterexamples, like the land silk route thru Asia (which required a single massive empire to enable it) and the later land gold route through Africa (ditto). But boring trade of boring average commodities happened by sea and river.

And the interior of the Balkans was inaccessible from the sea due to the Iron Gates. There was no way to get from the Black Sea to Hungary and beyond, except by trails. There was I guess a road from Venice through Carinthia to the Austrian interior, but there again you have the problem of roads being too expensive for travel. Thus there could be no external trade connections with the Balkans, thus no wealth.

So there's an alternate theory for you.

You could counter that the massive Hungarian silver and gold deposits exploited starting in the 13th century became a good replacement for wealth by trade... but then you'd have to do the work to figure out if the Balkan-Western wealth gap narrowed during that time. It may have: they built a fuckton of new castles and saw massive immigration from Germany.

As for invasions, why not look at the economy of Hungary before and after their slaughter at the hands of the Mongols in 1241-2? Hungary in fact bounced back rather quickly from a very thorough genocide: ten years later they were healthy enough to go back to constant war with Bohemia, with a few hundred new stone castles having been built in their territory. I think the effect of invasions and slaughters is a lot different in the middle ages, where no economies were operating anywhere near capacity in the first place.

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