Of course it is possible for Westerners to understand the Balkans and vice versa, we just need a little bit of goodwill coming both ways.
However, it is not possible when people like Palimsest or David Pritchard start off by saying we Balkanians are all barbarians. Excuse me, but that really hurts. The Decani monastery in Kosovo and the Kotor Old Town in Montenegro are protected by UNESCO as parts of the WORLD HERITAGE.
That is a prejudice, like saying: all Muslims are terrorists, etc.
Anyway, on to the answer:
The Balkans include "dudes" from the former Yugoslavia - except Slovenia which by mentality and standard of living cannot be treated as a Balkan country but as a country in the Alps / central European.
That means that all the other "dudes" of the former Yugoslavia are Balkan countries: Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Macedonia. Croatia wants to present itself as a "civilized" Central European country and they try to run away from the Balkans, but they can't. The others have no problems with being in the Balkans, it does not bother them.
Apart from the former Yugoslavia, other countries, namely Bulgaria, Romania, Albania and Greece are also Balkan countries.
Greece is so far the only Balkan and Christian Orthodox country that is a member of the EU. By 2007, Romania and Bulgaria will join the EU as well.
Hungary is not a Balkan country, neither is the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland etc. Although formerly communist countries, they belong to Central Europe and not the Balkans.
The people in the Balkans, or at least in Serbia, are stuck between the West and the East. There is a lot of Byzantine, Ottoman Turkish or Austrian-Hungarian influence, and a clash of centuries and civilizations.
Bulgarians, Romanians, Serbs, Montenegrins, Macedonians and Greeks are Christian Orthodox. Albanians are mostly Muslim and Catholic. In Bosnia one part of the country is predominantly Muslim (Bosniaq). The Serbs, Macedonians and Bulgarians have their own forms of cyrilic writing which they can all read and understand. The Bulgarians have kept some Russian letters, which Serbs and Macedonians have thrown out.
The Romanians by language are like Italians.
The Greeks have their own alphabet and language which is unique.
Serbia is located at the very heart of the Balkans. Serbs can understand people in Bosnia, Croatia and Macedonia - logically since all that was Yugoslavia, we can even understand people in Bulgaria. But, Serbs cannot understand Romanians. Most Serbs are familiar with the Greek alphabet through mathematics so we can read Greek but we cannot understand it.
For the first time in its long history, the Balkans are truly beginning to cooperate. It is going a bit slower with former Yugoslav ("South Slav") nations because of recent wars, but even they will eventually end up cooperating.
For the first time the bridges, the pipelines, the geographic and strategic location etc are used for economic cooperation rather than the cause for war.
Right now the biggest threat in the Balkans comes from islamic expansion. While Serbs and Croats have given up their dreams of a "Greater Serbia" or "Greater Croatia", the real threat to peace in the Balkans now, and in the near future, lies with the Albanians. They have not given up their dreams of a "Greater Albania". That country would include the Serbian holy province of Kosovo, and 3 municipalities outside of Kosovo which are called Southern Serbia, about half of Macedonia, bits of Montenegro and bits of Greece. The threat of islamic expansion in the Balkans is very real, and Christian Europe should be concerned.
The peoples of the Balkans differ from their Western counterparts also by the work habits. The Balkan peoples like to unwind, relax, enjoy life rather than just work, work, work, although Western work habits are slowly reaching the Balkans as well. Because most Balkan peoples are used to hardships, they are used to having little and being content with what they have. But, most of all, they know how to have fun with little money. While Serbs and Macedonians have brass bands and girls dancing on top of tables, with glasses being smashed as a song "hits a nerve", the Greeks are known for their plate smashing.
You don't just smash a glass or a bottle (in Serbia), or a plate (in Greece). Usually, it is a song that really gets you going, a love song that stirs emotions or reminds you of a former love, and THEN you smash glasses, bottles or plates.
So, the Balkan peoples are a bit tempered and very emotional. They are all also very proud of their long histories and heritage.
They also differ by looks. The Bulgarians, Macedonians and Serbs in Southern Serbia are of a slightly darker skin complexion.
The Balkan countries are not as neat as, say, Germany. But, the emotions are so different.
I have cousins from Germany - they once brought a German friend. As opposed to them, who have been to Belgrade many times and know our mentality, she had previously not been in Serbia.
It was New Years party at some club. We had a nice dinner and everything was "normal". Then, at midnight, the Gypsy brass bands came and all hell broke loose. People were happy, in a delirium, and some hot chick climed a table and started dancing. It was total mayhem. At first the German young lady was frightened, but after drinking the "slivovitza" (plum brandy) she relaxed. After that, she was so relaxed and she had a lot of fun, she danced the "kolo" (or tried to dance it). By 4 am she said she had never had that much fun in her whole life. There was no way she could experience something like that in Germany.
When she came the next time, I joked with her: "So, you want to grab some lunch at McDonald's?" She laughed: "No way, I have that in Germany, let's go to some wild Serbian place".
So, that's the Balkans. A place where emotions run high, in war and peace, in love and hate. Things like history, origin, family, flag, national songs, religion, war, peace etc are taken very seriously and one should not joke about these things as the reaction will be tempered. The Orthodox religion shows a lot of respect for those who have died and that too is important.
The peoples of the Balkans are tempered - they can get angry one minute and relax the next minute. They are often jealous in a relationship. Most Balkan countries are patriarchal. This is a traditionally male dominated society although that is slowly changing. Women can have normal education, careers, we have women in politics, executive places etc. But, generally, it still is a patriarchal society. Slowly, the Western values are coming through, via the media, education system etc.
It is very important that the Balkan countries preserve their mentality, customs, way of life. I would not like Serbia to become just another carbon copy of Germany, France or any other Western country. We should have a free market economy and capitalism, we should have democracy, but we must keep our religion, customs, language, the way we write, and the way we live. Just as Americans have their way of life, so do we.
What I do not like about the EU is that national identities are slowly being chipped away. The EU nations had lost their centuries-old currencies, what is next? Will they one day be forced to drop their flags, national anthems, will just the European ones be used?
But, I am aware that the EU is a process which cannot be avoided, economically and politically. We will all end in it, sooner or later, and that has its advantages. I just want Serbia to preserve what it is, what makes it a nation, a people. We should preserve our history, religion, culture, habits, customs, language, the way we write etc.