The Balkans remain one of Europe’s more unstable and varied political landscapes, with mixed and diverse national trajectories. What we see today in the Balkan political space is largely the outcome of the type of transition that these countries experienced during the 1990s, the early years of political change from one party rule to multi-party political pluralism. This paper argues that the Balkan states developed some common traits in their first decade of transition: firstly, they maintained continuity with their communist past; secondly, they pursued an illiberal start dominated by domestic elites and top-down politics; and, finally, they underwent a collapse of their early illiberal competitive order before moving into more mainstream politics. Since then, democratic politics in the Balkans have experienced many improvements as a reaction to this illiberal start, but they have also sustained some democratic deficits which have a direct link to the initial illiberal years of the transition.