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Author: John E. Ashbrook
Title: Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as an analytical tool in the analysis of politics in Eastern Europe: Istria in the 1990s
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
October 2006

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Source: Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as an analytical tool in the analysis of politics in Eastern Europe: Istria in the 1990s
John E. Ashbrook

vol. 9, no. 2, October 2006
Article Type: Article

Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) as an analytical tool in the analysis of politics in Eastern Europe: Istria in the 1990s

John E. Ashbrook, Ph.D.

Visiting Assistant Professor of History
Sweet Briar College

Advances in technology have created new avenues of research and analysis in social science and the humanities. The building of complex databases to organize and use various combinations of spatially-dependent data traditionally has been a tedious and time consuming project. Furthermore, even with the careful compiling of raw data and its analysis, certain patterns may remain hidden, forcing the researcher to make conclusions that may or may not be accurate. However, with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology, the researcher and analyst have a powerful tool to assemble and evaluate large amounts of data in specialized geodatabases. GIS allows the analyst to make queries of the geodatabase to illuminate unexpected connections between seemingly disparate information, and present this information on computer-generated maps. For an example familiar to an American audience, the utility of GIS technology is evident in the spatial analysis of the United States presidential elections in 2004. The evidence, to a certain extent, erodes the stereotypes of residents of "red and blue" states. To the scholar focused on Eastern Europe and the Balkans, GIS provides an exceptionally powerful analytical tool in examining various aspects of ethnic and political groups and motivations in this wider borderland region. This research, after presenting the more familiar example of the US presidential race, will then illustrate the value of GIS in analyzing complex voting patterns in 1990s Istria, a region in the Republic of Croatia.

Geographic Information Systems in Historical Analysis

Very recently historians have begun to use new informational and mapping technologies in exploring questions of the past. In the words of historians Jack Owens and Laura Woodworth-Ney, "Geographic Information Systems [GIS] and related Information Technologies (IT) provide an unrivaled means to explore, analyze, and visualize historical resources, the interactions among them, and their relationship to space and time... Once data are integrated into a Geographic Information System, it becomes much easier to recombine and disaggregate these data, and to display selected features, than if the same information were only available in print form, as some sort of map or as one or more tables." Furthermore, "any GIS project creates a body of knowledge, which remains open-ended for the inclusion of additional information and which can be used and accessed in multiple ways... Because each item in a data set is geo-referenced, meaning that its coordinates in latitude and longitude are provided, the data can be mapped, and a particular database can be used in conjunction with research to see relationships and patterns that might not be easily evident in any other way. This form of data organization allows researchers to consider any historical resource within a comparative context."  [1] Because GIS technology can be used to interpret and re-interpret data in different ways, new avenues of exploration can be easily pursued or old avenues built upon to explore history and historical problems.

Some historians have adopted GIS for better geographic representation, database creation, and as a powerful tool for analysis. In fact, Anne Kelly Knowles edited a book on the use of GIS in historical analysis in which the authors introduce the technologies' usefulness to historians.  [2] David Rumsey and Meredith Williams, two contributors to Knowles's book, illustrate that the technology allows for comparative studies of historical maps with those produced in the modern period, allowing for increased accuracy in mapping places of historical significance. They follow this up with a list of projects that use GIS, including the digital maps of the Library of Congress, ESRI's Geography Network, and the Electronic Cultural Atlas Initiative's Metadata Clearinghouse.  [3] This chapter is followed by a number of case studies that use the technology, including an examination of voting patterns in specific, comparable regions in the antebellum North and South,  [4] and in charting demographic shifts in Britain over time.  [5]

The year after the Knowles collection appeared, two major works were published, one of which was solely dedicated to the use of GIS technology in historical analysis. David Staley, in a book dealing with the use of technology in the historical field as a whole, argues that GIS is extremely useful for historians and can correlate many different forms of data, presenting them in an accurate and well-designed map format. It is a way to visualize data that may challenge old interpretations or illuminate previously "hidden" data for further exploration.  [6] The second monograph is the first manual for the use of this technology in history. Ian Gregory, as does Jack Owens, Laura Woodworth-Ney, and David Staley, suggests that "GIS, in combination with other branches of scholarship, has the potential to provide a more integrated understanding of history," and "once spatially referenced databases are built, they can be significant works of scholarship in their own right and can enhance our understanding of a problem."  [7] With these advantages in mind, it would be useful to demonstrate how GIS can contribute to the presentation and analysis of spatially-dependent information concerning voting and voting patterns in two countries during three elections.

GIS and the 2004 United States Presidential Elections

The usefulness of map generation to political scientists and jokesters was obvious in the 2004 American presidential elections.  [8],  [9]

Figure 1
Figure 2

Looking at these maps, one may draw the conclusion that the residents of the Pacific coast, New York and New England were "obviously" more Canadian (or even American) than their more "religious" (or dumb) brethren, who, supposedly were solid Bush supporters in the 2004 presidential election.

However, a more accurate map shows a more detailed breakdown of the election.  [10]

Figure 3

This map depicts election results by state, where again the country seems very divided between the "conservative" South and West, and the "more liberal" Northeast, Pacific, and many of the Great Lakes states. Still, this map is simplistic when compared to the next GIS-produced map, showing the breakdown by county and parish:  [11]

Figure 4

This map demonstrates how "Bushian" the country really is. Or is it? What is striking about this map is that it illuminates the rural/urban divide in America, where urban centers tended to vote Democratic (liberal), while rural areas voted Republican (conservative). Apparently the urban/rural division is quite solid throughout the United States. Why then was the presidential election decided by only 3.3 million votes? Did everyone in the rural regions vote for Bush and everyone in urban regions for Kerry?  [12]

Figure 5

In this map, only counties that voted for Kerry by 70 percent or more are blue, while those that went to Bush by the same percentage are red. The remaining counties are shades of purple, indicating how close the election results were in many places. But again, after closely looking at this map, one can still see that rural areas tended to vote Republican, while urban regions voted Democrat. Thus, this GIS-produced map supports the conclusions drawn from Figure 4 on the rural/urban divide in the US. The GIS-produced maps that illustrated the voting results of the most recent presidential election were very helpful, both to those concerned with the election outcomes and to those analyzing voting patterns.

GIS and Eastern European and Balkan History

Historians of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans seem to have lagged behind in adopting this technology. After pursuing a number of web and traditional searches from August 2004 to April 2005, this author was unable to locate a single Eastern European/Balkan project using GIS. This was unusual in that this region, historically, has been an area of many borders, culturally, socially, and politically. In fact, so much has occurred in the region that plowing through the raw data retrieved during research is a daunting task, especially in a comparative project involving numerous ethnic groups. For research that uses census and voting results, keeping and sorting the information, much less finding a method to bring up specific combinations of data, seems well nigh impossible.

GIS technologies make all of this easier with the creation of a permanent and readily adjustable database on a specific region, where a number of different sorts of data can be stored, combined, and visually represented. It is also a wonderful tool for analyzing voting patterns, especially those in regions with significant minority populations such as the borderlands between northern Hungary and southern Slovakia, where both voting patterns and demographic information could be entered and quickly retrieved and projected on an accurate map for presentation. This author's research, however, focuses on voting patterns and anomalies in another border region of the county of Istria in the Republic of Croatia. This analysis of the results of two local elections in Istria shows the usefulness of GIS technology in analyzing politics and voting patterns in the "Balkan/Mediterranean/Eastern European" worlds.  [13],  [14]

Figure 6

In a research project on regionalism and its relationship to nationalism in Istria in the 1990s,  [15] it became apparent that a regional, anti-nationalist party, the Istrian Democratic Assembly (IDS), maintained almost hegemonic control of the elected governmental and administrative positions on the peninsula throughout the 1990s. Its major rival, the nationalist ruling party of Croatia, the Croatian Democratic Alliance (HDZ), was never able to take control of any of the election districts in the region, except one in the same period. In every election the HDZ consistently took between 15 and 20 percent of the votes, while the IDS, although losing votes as the decade progressed, still maintained control in almost all election districts. The original assumption of the author, which was supported by the raw tabulated data, was that the HDZ received a higher percentage of the vote in areas traditionally more monocultural (Croatian) as opposed to regions with a higher percentage of minorities (Italian and Slovenian). Presumably these more mixed areas would vote for the less xenophobic, more open regional party, the IDS. Furthermore, it was assumed that the regional party's hegemonic control was never seriously challenged throughout this decade. However, after using GIS technology to store and sort the data, unexpected spatial patterns forced the researcher to reexamine his original assumptions.

To illustrate the analytical advantages of GIS, the results of two elections, 1993 and 1997, will be presented. After creating a GIS database and adding election results, the original hypothesis only held in relation to the HDZ, but did not completely conform to assumptions on districts lacking significant minority populations. In also showed how much support had slid away from the IDS during those four years.

For the most part, the vote of individuals casting ballots for the nationalist HDZ never fluctuated to any great degree in most of the voting districts, even in those areas with a significant mixed population. This was not the case in north-central Istria where the HDZ had both tremendous gains and losses, varying by district, and in eastern and northeastern districts where significant voting gains were secured. But one anomaly in relation to the "success" of the IDS in the 1997 elections immediately became apparent once a data inquiry produced a new map. Although the regional party claimed constant victories and control of most of the district councils and the regional parliament, the 1997 election showed a precipitous decline in voter support for this once widely popular party. In almost all electoral districts, the IDS lost double digit percentages ranging from approximately 10 to 85 percent, picking up double digit gains in only two districts, both of which are in the north-central region where the HDZ anomaly appeared.

To show the importance of examining voting trends by district as opposed to the county level in Croatia, one must understand what each party wanted constituents and outsiders to see. The following three GIS-produced maps represent the information that the IDS and HDZ leadership wished to emphasize. The HDZ wished the world to see the following geo-representation of Croatia, emphasizing its "significant mandate" across the country.

Figure 7

It is evident that constituents in the 1993 elections, in all of the counties of Croatia, save Istria, sent HDZ candidates to the national parliament. In 1997, the map changed very little in terms of HDZ pluralities.

Figure 8

In describing Figure 8, one supporter of the HDZ even claimed of this election, "see, the HDZ isn't the totalitarian party the west has claimed over the years. Istria, the Rijeka district (Primorsko-goranska) (the county bordering Istria to the east), and Medjimurje (the most northern county of Croatia) voted for coalitions or opposition."  [16] However, it is evident that the HDZ still took the lion's share of the local, regional, and national seats in the 1997 elections.

IDS politicians and regionalists, on the other hand, would rather concentrate on their "clear mandate" in Istria. Looking at Istria itself, it is evident that the IDS achieved electoral success in 1993.

Figure 9

Notice that the IDS won 55 percent or more in the red colored districts and a plurality in the pink one (Kanfanar). Only in a single, rural region, Sveti Petar u Šumi, did the HDZ score a plurality.

Four years later in 1997 it is evident that the IDS still maintained political control of the peninsula.

Figure 10

This map, one that the IDS leadership might not wish to show, demonstrates that the regional party lost significant ground in urban areas and in those districts and towns with a more nationally mixed population, supposedly the territories where the IDS should be the most popular. And in one region, Raša, the HDZ secured a plurality, where once the IDS held a very large majority.

HDZ voters were presumably more concerned with ethnic politics and building a Croatian nation-state as argued by a number of Croatian political scientists. If one looks at the local election results from 1993 and 1997 (the percentage voting for the HDZ), one can see that there was very little variation (+/- 10 percent) across the county.

Figure 11
Figure 12

Since the economic situation continued to decline in these four years and the threat of war disappeared after 1995, consistency indicates supporters tended to vote on ideological grounds—the nation building platform of the HDZ. If one looks carefully, most of these districts show that HDZ voters generally made up between one tenth and one quarter of the voting population. The ten giving the HDZ over a quarter of the total vote in 1993 with the exception of Bale, Motovun, and the town of Pazin, tended to be historically less ethnically mixed (lacking the presence of Italians and Slovenes) and more rural. Such consistency in the geodatabase, combined with research done by sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and historians, suggests that these regions, and a number of Croats in the more rural, less tourist-oriented, less ethnically mixed regions, consistently voted for the nationalist ruling party due in part to ethnopolitical reasons. This conclusion can be derived due to the HDZ's platform throughout the 1990s, which was often overtly xenophobic toward both Serbs and Italians.

What is very interesting about the maps are the regions that show significant variation (over 10% +/- in election results) over the four year period.

Figure 13

As can be seen in Figure 13, only 11 of the voting districts showed significant variation between the two elections, raising a number of questions. Why in this period did Buje give the HDZ 13 percent in 1993 and 0 percent in 1997? Why did Vižinada give 17 percent then 0 percent? And why did Grožnjan go from 0 percent in 1993 to 18 percent in 1997? These rather drastic changes could be partially explained by the lack of economic progress in Istria throughout the 90s, which may have influenced voters over the four-year period to change their votes due to dissatisfaction. However, such a large fluctuation cannot be explained in this manner. What is illuminating is that two new voting districts were created in an oddly cooperative move by the Croatian national government under the HDZ and the regional government controlled by the IDS. They were gerrymandered to include the majority of HDZ voters from Buje, Vižinada, and Motovun into these new districts (showing the presence of nationalist concentration in certain regions along rural district borders). In 1997 in both Kaštelir-Labinci and Karojba the HDZ scored 22 percent and 36 percent respectively. However, the IDS gained a majority in the former and a plurality in the later (54 percent and 44 percent respectively), essentially disempowering the HDZ supporters. Thus, with the use of GIS technology, one can see, rather quickly, which regions tended to give stronger support for the HDZ, and how the attempt at gerrymandering in the north-central part of the peninsula was a mixed bag for both parties.

The fluctuations in Lanišće, Kršan, Gračišće, and Pićan are less easily explained and require a more detailed examination. The most curious are Gračišće, which went from 26 percent to the HDZ in 1993 to 0 percent four years later, and Pićan and Kršan, where both districts gave the HDZ 0 votes in 1993, but 18 percent and 26 percent respectively in 1993. Perhaps there is evidence of gerrymandering, which could not be discerned in the election district information provided by the Istrian HDZ and the Department of Political Science at the University of Zagreb in Croatia.

Another possible explanation might be the influx and outflow of population in the region. During the 1990s the HDZ government resettled numerous Croatian displaced persons and refugees from Dalmatia, Slavonia, and Bosnia-Hercegovina in Istria. These individuals overwhelmingly favored the HDZ, because of their experiences in the Serbian ethnic cleansing during the Yugoslav wars of dissolution. Pićan and Kršan may be regions where the displaced persons and refugees settled permanently, because they were not particularly welcome in the coastal regions, which saw this influx as an economic burden and a hindrance to Istria's tourist industry. Also, throughout the 1990s, Istrians, especially the youth, fled Istria, looking for better opportunities abroad or in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Many of these native Istrians may never return, thus permanently changing the demography and the political nature of these districts. Further research may shed light on why parts of eastern Istria experienced these radical electoral shifts.

The IDS situation is easier to interpret, and it throws into question the IDS claim of wide and continuous support for the regional party throughout the 1990s.

Figure 14
Figure 15

It is true that this party was the most successful in sending regional representatives to the national parliament in Zagreb, but on the local and regional levels, it was in decline. In 1993, the regional party held majorities in 34 of 36 voting districts (see Figures 9 and 10 for reference). One can readily see that the IDS held clear mandates in these districts, while the HDZ held only one—a simple majority of 52 percent in Sveti Petar u Šumi. However, the IDS over this same four-year period lost its majority in 13 of the original 36 voting districts and the mandate in an additional seven. The IDS only retained clear majorities in 14 of the original 36 districts, and won pluralities in the two new voting districts of Kaštelir-Labinci and Karojba.

Figure 16

In fact, in two districts, Pićan and Raša, the IDS fell over 60 percentage points. In Raša, after the IDS dropped 61.2 percent, the HDZ took a plurality in 1997 (23 HDZ seats to the IDS's 20). The regional party also came close to losing its majority in Lanišće (49 HDZ to 51 IDS). In Sveti Petar u Šumi (65 HDZ to 35 IDS), a small, rural district, the HDZ retained control and even went on to become the only truly "blue" district. As to why the IDS lost so many percentage points in Pićan and Raša, the author can provide only two speculative possibilities. First, Raša is an industrial and mining area of Istria, and during the 1990s its industries and minor tourist facilities declined. Since the IDS had been the party in power at the time, this drastic downfall could have been a reaction to dissatisfaction with IDS leadership, which seemed to be the case in most of the remainder of the peninsula.  [17] The reason for the significant drop in Pićan remains unclear. More research needs to be done on this district to come to a satisfactory conclusion. Another reason for the decline may be linked to the HDZ's shift of political fortune in districts in eastern Istria (see Figures 11-13).

What is clear, however, is that the HDZ generally maintained a steady and significant, although not overly large, voter turnout throughout the peninsula in the 1990s. This suggests that, overall, the HDZ's ethnopolitical and nationalist message, one of it main political pillars, consistently appealed to approximately 15 percent of the Istrian electorate. The major shifts in support in certain districts may be explained by gerrymandering in the north central part of the peninsula, but further research in the eastern districts needs to be undertaken. The IDS, although maintaining control of the peninsula's governments as a whole, did lose significant support, even in ethnically mixed areas. Logically, the party should have maintained significant backing in these regions in part due to its less xenophobic platform. The most probable cause of this loss was the continued decline in the economic position of Istria, which forced many non-nationalist voters to choose independent candidates over those in the IDS.  [18] But none of these trends would have been immediately evident without GIS technology to manage, analyze, and interpret the data. The technology's geographic representation illuminated unusual patterns, which will prompt further research into these anomalies.

Using GIS for Multidimensional Historical Processes

This type of problem is not simply one applicable to Istria, Croatia, or even Yugoslavia as a whole. It is common to most other places in the world. Using GIS "the researcher [can] deal more effectively with complex, multivariate and multidimensional historical processes"  [19] and can illuminate the presence of historical, political, or social questions not readily apparent with more conventional research and analytical methods. Once a database is created and opened to access, other researchers can use it to develop new and exciting investigations, building and modifying earlier studies. This project, one connected to a larger investigation, illustrates the power of GIS in examining the complex and thorny issues that continue to challenge scholars of the wider region. Many types of data—demographic, electoral, social, and political—must be investigated for deeper understanding; thus Geographic Information Systems provide the researcher with a powerful tool for coordinating, storing, presenting, and analyzing these many different types and sets of data. Once an investigator, historical or otherwise, creates a database and a base map, they can be easily adapted to change, creating layers of information very difficult to access outside of this medium. Often patterns can be more readily discerned from seemingly unrelated data, which a researcher can further explore using more traditional types of research and analysis. Thus GIS is an invaluable tool for researchers, and, as in the case of Istria, brings to light patterns hidden in piles of data through geographic representation.


1. Jack Owens and Laura Woodworth-Ney, "Envisioning a Master's degree program in geographically-integrated History," paper presented at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Association for History and Computing (AAHC) in Washington, DC, 2-3.

2. Anne Kelly Knowles (ed), Past time, past place: GIS for history (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2002).

3. David Rumsey and Meredith Williams, "Historical maps in GIS," in Anne Kelly Knowles (ed.), Past time, past place: GIS for history (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2002), 1-18.

4. Aaron Sheehan-Dean, "Similarity and difference in the antebellum North and South," Past time, past place: GIS for history (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2002), 35-49.

5. Ian Gregory and Humphrey Southall, "Mapping British population history," Past time, past place: GIS for history (Redlands: ESRI Press, 2002), 117-30.

6. David Staley, Computers, visualization, and history (Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2003), 122-5.

7. Ian Gregory, A place in history: A guide to using GIS in historical research (Oxford: Oxbow Books, 2003), 7.

8. The map on the left is taken from on April 4, 2006.

9. The map on the right is taken from,02,2-0-A%20New%20Country,%20Dumbfuckistan.html on November 19, 2004. However, this link appeared to be invalid in the late stages of editing, but the map can be found as of September 19, 2006 at

10. Taken from on December 12, 2004.

11. Taken from on April 4, 2006.

12. Taken from on December 12, 2004.

13. There is a very contentious debate about "where" Istria belongs—in the Mediterranean (Italian), Central European (Austrian or Habsburg), or Balkan worlds. Most Istrians, regardless of their ethnic belonging or political affiliation, place the region in the Mediterranean or Central European worlds due to the lasting perception that the Balkans are backward, regressive, and violent. For more information on the case of Istria on this regional dialog, see John Ashbrook, "Self-perceptions, denials, and expressions: Istrianity in a nationalizing Croatia, 1990-1997," Nationalities Papers 33 (4) (December 2005), 459-87. For more information on the Western European/Balkan discourse, see Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

14. A base map of Croatia and the multi-colored 1993 voting district map of Istria were supplied to the author by the office of the Istrian HDZ and the Political Science Department of the University of Zagreb. I thank both institutions for their help on this project. All other district maps of Istrian elections (figures 10-19) were produced by the author and Kindra Serr, a student worker in the GIS Training and Research Center at Idaho State University.

15. See John Ashbrook, "Economic regionalism in the mirror of Croatian nationalism: The case of Istria 1990-96," Dissertation, University of Florida, 2002, of which a revised version is being considered for publication as a monograph.

16. From a personal conversation with a Croat from Istria in October 2004. It was no concern, at least to this Croat, that the Medjimurje voted in a nationalist coalition of which the HDZ was the primary member. The even more nationalist, exclusivist party, the Croatian Party of Right (HSP), was also a member of this coalition.

17. See "Buying the Istrian goat: Regionalism and the economy in Croatian Istria," East European Quarterly 39 (3) (Fall 2005), 329-366.

18. John Ashbrook, "Locking horns in the Istrian political arena: Politicized identity, policy, the Istrian Democratic Assembly, and the Croatian Democratic Alliance," East European Politics and Societies 20 (4) (November 2006), 622-58.

19. Owens and Woodworth-Ney, 3-4.