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The Wars of the Former Yugoslavia


In the early 1990s, the Balkan country of Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of wars which saw ethnic cleansing and genocide return to Europe. The driving force was not age old ethnic tensions (as the Serb side liked to proclaim), but distinctly modern nationalisms, fanned by the media and driven by politicians. The crux was that as Yugoslavia collapsed, majority ethnicities pushed for independence, and these nationalist governments ignored their minorities, if not actively persecuted them, e.g. forcing them out of jobs. As propaganda made these minorities paranoid, they were armed, and stirred into actions which degenerated into a bloody set of wars. While the situation was rarely as clear as Serb vs Croat vs Muslim – many small civil wars erupted over decades of rivalry – key patterns exist.

Context: Yugoslavia and the Fall of Communism

The Balkans had been the site of conflict between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires for centuries before both collapsed during World War 1. The peace conference which redrew the maps of Europe created the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes out of territory in the area, pushing together groups of people who soon quarrelled about how they wished to be governed. A strictly centralized state formed, but opposition continued, and in 1929 the king dismissed representative government – after the Croat leader was shot while at parliament - and began to rule as a monarchical dictator. The kingdom was renamed Yugoslavia, and the new government purposefully ignored the existing and traditional regions and peoples. In 1941, as World War 2 spread over the continent, Axis soldiers invaded.

During the course of the war in Yugoslavia – which had turned from a war against the Nazis and their allies to a messy civil war complete with ethnic cleansing - communist partisans rose to prominence. When liberation was achieved it was the communists who took power under their leader, Josip Tito. The old kingdom was now replaced by a federation of supposedly six equal republics, which included Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia, and two autonomous regions, including Kosovo. Tito kept this nation together partly by sheer force of will and a communist party which cut across ethnic boundaries, and, as the USSR broke with Yugoslavia, the latter took its own path. As Tito’s rule continued, ever more power filtered down, leaving just the Communist Party, the army, and of course Tito to hold it together.

However, after Tito died the different wishes of the six republics began to pull Yugoslavia apart, a situation exacerbated by the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s, leaving just a Serb dominated army. Without their old leader, and with the new possibilities of free elections and self-representation, Yugoslavia divided.

The Rise of Serbian Nationalism

Arguments began over centralism – a strong central government – versus federalism – the six republics having greater powers – and soon nationalism remerged, with people pushing for splitting Yugoslavia up, or forcing it together under Serb domination. In 1986, the Serbian Academy of Sciences issued a Memorandum which became a focal point for Serb nationalism by reviving pre-WW1 ideas of a Greater Serbia. The Memorandum claimed Tito, a Croat / Slovene, had deliberately tried to weaken Serb areas, which some people believed, as it ‘explained’ why they were doing relatively poorly economically compared to the northern regions of Slovenia and Croatia. The Memorandum also claimed Kosovo had to remain Serbian, despite a 90% Albanian population, because of the importance to Serbia of a fourteenth century battle in that region. It was a conspiracy theory that twisted history, given weight by respected authors, and a Serb media which claimed Albanians were trying to rape and kill their way to genocide. They weren’t. Tensions between Albanians and local Serbs exploded and the region began to fragment.

In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic was a low key but powerful bureaucrat who, thanks to the major support of Ivan Stambolic - who had risen to be Serbia’s Prime Minister – was able to leverage his position into an almost Stalin-like seizure of power in the Serb Communist Party by filling job after job with his own supporters. Until 1987 Milosevic was often portrayed as a dim witted Stambolic lackey, but that year he was in the right place at the right time in Kosovo to make a televised speech in which he effectively seized control of the Serbian nationalism movement and then consolidated his part by seizing control of the Serbian communist party in a battle waged in the media. Having won, and purged the party, Milsoevic turned the Serb media into a propaganda machine which brainwashed many into paranoid nationalism. Milosevic than gained Serb ascendance over Kosovo, Montenegro and Vojvodina, securing nationalist Serb power in four of the region’s units; the Yugoslav government could not resist.

Slovenia now feared a Greater Serbia, and set themselves up as the opposition, so the Serb media turned its attack onto Slovenes. Milosevic then started a boycott of Slovenia. With one eye on Milosevic’s human rights abuses in Kosovo, the Slovenes began to believe the future was out of Yugoslavia and away from Milosevic . In 1990, with Communism collapsing in Russia and across Eastern Europe, the Yugoslavia Communist Congress fragmented along nationalist lines, with Croatia and Slovenia quitting and holding multi-party elections in response to Milosevic trying to use it to centralise Yugoslav’s remaining power in Serb hands. Milosevic was then elected President of Serbia, thanks in part to removing $1.8 billion from the federal bank to use as subsidies. Milosevic now appealed to all Serbs, whether they were in Serbia or not, supported by a new Serb constitution which claimed to represent Serbs in other Yugoslav nations.

The Wars for Slovenia and Croatia

With the collapse of the communist dictatorships in the late 1980s, the Slovenian and Croatian regions of Yugoslavia held free, multi-party elections. The victor in Croatia was the ‘Croatian Democratic Union’, a right wing party. The fears of the Serb minority were fuelled by claims from within the remainder of Yugoslavia that the CDU planned a return to the anti-Serb hatred of the Second World War. As the CDU had taken power partly as a nationalistic response to Serbian propaganda and actions, they were easily cast as the Ustasha reborn, especially as they began to force Serbs out of jobs and positions of power. The Serb dominated region of Knin – vital for the much needed Croatian tourist industry - then declared itself a sovereign nation, and a spiral of terrorism and violence began between Croatian Serbs and Croats. Just as the Croats were accused of being Ustaha, so the Serbs were accused of being Chetniks.

Slovenia held a plebiscite for independence, which passed thanks to large fears over Serb domination and Milosovic’s actions in Kosovo, and both Slovenia and Croatia began arming local military and paramilitaries. Slovenia declared independent on June 25th 1991, and the JNA (Yugoslavia’s Army, under Serbian control, but concerned whether their pay and benefits would survive the division into smaller states) was ordered itself in to hold Yugoslavia together. Slovenia’s independence was aimed more at breaking from Milosevic’s Greater Serbia than from the Yugoslav ideal, but once the JNA went in full independence was the only option. Slovenia had prepared for a short conflict, managing to keep some of their weapons when the JNA had disarmed Slovenia and Croatia, and hoped that the JNA would soon get distracted by wars elsewhere. In the end, the JNA was defeated in ten days, partly because there were few Serbs in the region for it to stay and fight for.

When Croatia also declared independence in June 25th 1991, following a Serb seizure of Yugoslavia’s presidency, clashes between Serbs and Croatians increased, and Milosevic and the JNA used this as a reason to invade Croatia to try and ‘protect’ the Serbs. This action was encouraged by the US Secretary of the State who told Milosevic that the US would not recognise Slovenia and Croatia, giving the Serb leader the impression he had a free hand.

A short war followed, where around a third of Croatia was occupied. The UN then acted, offering foreign troops to try and halt the warfare (in the form of UNPROFOR) and bring peace and demilitarization to the disputed areas, which was accepted by the Serbs because they’d already conquered what they wanted and forced other ethnicities out, and wanted to use the peace to focus on other areas. The international community recognised Croatian independence in 1992, but areas remained occupied by the Serbs and protected by the UN. Before these could be reclaimed, the conflict in Yugoslavia spread because both Serbia and Croatia wanted to break up Bosnia between them.

In 1995 Croatia’s government won back control of western Slavonia and central Croatia from the Serbs in Operation Storm, thanks in part to US training and US mercenaries; there was counter ethnic cleansing, and the Serb population fled. In 1996 pressure on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic forced him to surrender eastern Slavonia, pull out his troops, and Croatia finally won back this region in 1998. UN Peacekeepers only left in 2002.

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