The Balkans–Overview

The state of Yugoslavia began as a grand idea. In the mid 1800s a group of Croat intellectuals began to publicly ponder the possibility of uniting all the Slavs who lived on Southeastern Europe’s Balkan peninsula into one unified state. The Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes…the notion was for all Southern Slavs to come together, not only to celebrate their shared history and culture but also to consolidate Slavic power and challenge their
Austria-Hungarian rulers. In the 1900s this vague pan-Slavic idea actually became a reality; three times in the 20th century a state called “Yugoslavia” (from the Slavic words “jug” [south] and “slaveni” [Slavs]) formed in the region. But what of their vision of a peaceful, united Southern Slavic nation…? All three times the nation of Yugoslavia broke into violent, discouraging pieces. (“Why can’t we all just get along?”)Â

The first Yugoslavia–the Kingdom of Yugoslavia–was a “Versailles State,” meaning it came into being in 1919 after World War I when the winning powers divvied up Europe in the Treaty of Versailles. The Kingdom of Yugoslavia lasted until the beginning of World War II when the Nazis and their Axis allies (Austria, Bulgaria, Hungary and Italy) invaded and broke it into bits. From the Kingdom’s ashes rose the second Yugoslavia–the Democratic Federal Yugoslavia–which the Yugoslav anti-Nazi resistance movement founded in 1943. A communist government took power in 1946, renamed the country the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, then changed the name again to the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which consisted of six Socialist Republics and two Socialist Autonomous Provinces:

— Bosnia and Herzegovina (dominated mainly by Bosnian Muslims, though in a less than straightforward way)
— Croatia (primarily Roman Catholic)
— Macedonia (primarily Orthodox)
— Montenegro (primarily Orthodox)
— Slovenia (primarily Roman Catholic)
— Serbia (primarily Serbian Orthodox. Serbia included the autonomous province of Vojvodina–mostly Orthodox, though with a sizable Roman Catholic minority, and also Kosovo, which is over 80% Albanian, most of whom practice Sunni Islam)

(Look at this map of the former Yugoslavia and you’ll get a sense of where things stood then, which is actually similar to where they stand today.)

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia imploded in the Yugoslav Wars (1991 to 1995). The most recent Yugoslavia–the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia–formed in the midst of the Wars but ended in 2003 when it formally became “Serbia and Montenegro.”
Montenegro became independent in 2006.

Though outside powers certainly have influenced the ebb and flow of the multiple Yugoslavias, there has long been disunity among the Southern Slavs, and between the Slavs and the non-Slavs who shared the land. As early as the beginning of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia differences in language, ethnicity, religion, history, economics and class caused rifts among different groups. At the same time, there has long been a strong movement on the Balkan Peninsula to unite the Slavs, if not all the people of the region, into a peaceful, unified whole.

After the War the anti-Nazi Yugoslav Partisans declared victory and Communist Josip Broz Tito became Yugoslavia’s leader; he went on to rule Yugoslavia for over thirty years. Western leaders and Yugoslav nationalists called Tito a hero for promoting the unity of ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, as well as for openly defying Stalin and the Soviet Union by developing Yugoslavia’s own Socialist economy and its own foreign policy. Yugoslav anti-communists accused Tito of being a ruthless autocrat who crushed political dissent. Whatever one’s view of Tito’s rule, when he died in 1980 leaders from 128 nations on all sides of the Cold War came to pay their respects, making his the largest state funeral in history to that time.

Unfortunately during the ’80s, any Yugoslav ethnic unity that existed during Tito’s secularist rule, real or perceived, began to unravel. In the course of a decade the Yugoslav economy crumbled–nearly 25% of the industrial workforce became unemployed. Social programs collapsed and ethnic groups began to blame each other for the nation’s troubles.

Ethnicity-specific nationalism rose throughout Yugoslavia, trumping the pan-Slav movement that had inspired the formation of a unified state. After the fall of Soviet Communism in 1990 each of the Yugoslav republics held multi-party elections. In Slovenia and Croatia the Communist Party relinquished power; in Serbia, former Communists won the elections.Â

Soon thereafter Serbia, led by Communist/nationalist Slobodan MiloÅ¡ević, feeling jilted by the 1974 Constitution which gave Serb-commanded provinces Vojvodina and Kosovo substantial decision-making power in the Yugoslav Federation, moved to politically dominate the Federation. When MiloÅ¡ević found a way to reduce the political autonomy of the two provinces, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo–who compose over 80% of the population–protested and called for independence. Serbia used police and eventually the Serb-dominated Federal Army to crush the demonstrations.

At the same time as Serbia (with its preponderance of Serbian Orthodox Christians) was trying to consolidate power within the Yugoslav Federation, Slovenia and Croatia (each with a Roman Catholic majority) desired more autonomy. Serbs within Slovenia and Croatia expressed a desire for more autonomy within their respective nations, and at the same time joined other Serbs in the region in desiring a strong pan-Slavic nation. Slovenia and Croatia angered the Serbs even further by supporting the Albanian Kosovars in their movement for independence from Serbia.

The Yugoslav Wars finally broke out between the republics in 1990 when Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina tried to replace Serb-dominated national police and military forces with their own people. The republics declared independence one by one, facing Serbian opposition at every turn. (Macedonia, which is mainly Orthodox Christian, became independent too, though without Serb opposition.)

In the autumn of 1990 Slovenia and Croatia proposed transforming Yugoslavia from a unified federation to a loose confederation. MiloÅ¡ević rejected these proposals. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. In Slovenia the Yugoslav army protested this move but eventually withdrew. In Croatia though, the Yugoslav army actively opposed Croatian independence and supported Serbian Croatians’ demands for autonomy.

In 1992, while Bosnia and Herzegovina was in the process of becoming independent from Yugoslavia, Bosnian Serbs declared the birth of a Serbian republic inside of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which became Republika Srpska. The Muslim-dominated Bosnia and Herzegovinan government called this declaration illegal and the two sides took up arms against one another. Serbs violently forced Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats out of Republika Srpska.

Soon there was war everywhere:

— Croatian Serbs wanted autonomy in newly independent Croatia
— Bosnian Serbs declared their independence from the newly independent Bosnia Herzegovina, fighting against Bosnian Muslims (eventually renamed Bosniaks) and Bosnian Croats.
— Albanian Kosovars with Croatian and Slovenian support wanted Kosovo to secede from Serbia

By the end of 1992 the only two republics left in Yugoslavia were Serbia and Montenegro. Together they changed the name of the nation to Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (the third Yugoslavia of the 20th century) but they couldn’t really start all over againÂ

What happened to the secular, pan-Yugoslavian unity of the Tito era? It may or may not have been false, but it certainly wasn’t deep. Though many Yugoslavs refused to enter the fray, the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians and Albanians who fought each other fought ruthlessly; in certain cases, neighbors literally turned against their neighbors. The Bosnia and Herzegovenian city Sarajevo, host to the 1984 Winter Olympics and once touted as a model of peaceful, multi-ethnic integration, disintegrated into ethnic violence. All sides accused the others of committing atrocities, and all sides likely committed some. (Accusations against the Serbian leadership, especially against MiloÅ¡ević, were most striking and, after the war, resulted in his facing trial for war crimes.) In 1994, NATO (the U.S.-dominated North American Treaty Organization) launched air strikes against the Serbs and greatly intensified bombing in 1995. In November 1995 the Serbs had had enough; representatives from the different sides of the war in Bosnia met in the United States in Dayton, Ohio and signed the Dayton Accords, ending the war and granting Bosnian Serbs autonomy in Republika Srpska.

Three years after the Dayton Accords ended the war in Bosnia war erupted again, this time in Kosovo. In 1998 the Federation of Yugoslavia–at the time just Serbia and Montenegro–brutally fought the Albanian community of Kosovo over the continued issue of Kosovar independence, leading to accusations of “ethnic cleansing.” In 1999 NATO air forces bombed Yugoslavia and the Serbs retreated. Kosovo formally declared its independence 2008 and the Serbs formally protested; the United Nations still formally administers Kosovo, and likely will until the international community comes to agreement on its status.

Today the six states that used to compose Yugoslavia are independent:

— Bosnia and Herzegovina (with the Republika Srpska retaining much autonomy)
— Croatia
— Macedonia
— Montenegro
— Slovenia and
— Serbia (which include the autonomous province of Vojvodina and a Kosovo that is in the legal process of becoming independent).Â

Today the notion of a pan-Yugoslav state in which all ethnic groups, Slav and beyond, live together in peace, seems to be even more of an unattainable ideal than it was in the mid 1800s when Croat intellectuals proposed it. However, while the idea of re-unifying Yugoslavia into a single nation is not exactly on the table, the independent and autonomous former Yugoslav entities have been communicating with one another, and even collaborating on some regional issues. Slovenia and Croatia are members of the European Union, Macedonia will likely join soon and Montenegro has recently applied. The others haven’t applied to join the E.U., but they have various agreements with it. Ethnic tensions flare up occasionally and there is still much resentment, but the idea of separate yet cooperating nations is popular. At most, the people of the former Yugoslavia may be starting to redevelop historical, linguistic and cultural bonds. At the very least the people of the former Yugoslavia deserve a few decades away from war.

More information:
Wikipedia on the creation of Yugoslavia | Wikipedia on the breakup of Yugoslavia | Tito’s Home Page? | Summary of The Dayton Accords | The BBC’s coverage of MiloÅ¡ević’s war crimes trial, including an account of his death before the trial’s end

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