UNITED24 - Make a charitable donation in support of Ukraine!


War and Ethnic Cleansing in Yugoslavia

With Slovenia and Croatia declaring their sovereignty in June 1991 it was clear that Yugoslavia would fall apart. Fighting began almost immediately after the two republics declared their independence from from Yugoslavia and this was only the beginning of what would prove to be Europe's bloodiest war since World War II.

However, first it is worth adding a note about these wars. There is the very common notion that these wars were nothing more than the product of ancient tribal hatreds and bloodlusts, that the people of Yugoslavia have always hated each other and wanted nothing more than to see their neighbors wiped off the face of the earth. While this may be an easy conclusion to draw, this is not at all true and the reality is much more complicated. For one, it is hard to say that all of the hatreds seen in the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s are ancient. There had never even been any concept of a Macedonian nation for no more than 150 years prior to the breakout of the wars. The tensions in first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes and later in Yugoslavia was not the result of varying ethnicities hating the neighbors they had to share a country with, but rather conflicting and competing nationalisms that got in the way of each other because of structural problems in the way the unified state was constructed. Yugoslavia was simply too small for the nationalisms of its constituent ethnicities. The first sustained violence between Croats and Serbs did not occur until World War II and while the violence was indeed horrific, it hardly qualifies as ancient. Even then, the violence witnessed did not occur because genocide is a "natural" product of Serbo-Croatian relations, but rather because of the desire of the fascist Ustase to create an ethnically pure Croat state, which in turn called for the elimination of Serbian and Muslim minorities in Croatia. While this does nothing to excuse the horrors committed by the Ustase, it does point to the fact that what occurred was in fact a historical anomaly as opposed to ancient historical hatreds. Furthermore, neighborhoods in Yugoslavia were becoming increasingly mixed, intermarriage was on the rise, and people increasingly identified themselves as "Yugoslav" as opposed to Croat, Serb, Slovene, ect. Serbs and Muslims lived in Sarajevo in mixed neighborhoods without incident for quite sometime. Radovan Karadzic was in fact a family doctor who practiced on people regardless of ethnicity until he became the infamous president of the Republika Srpska. What occurred then was a result of manipulative leaders like Ante Pavlic, Slobodan Milosevic, and Franjo Tudjman who exploited and manipulated people's nationalist leanings to gain power and prominence. While it is true that the people must go along with them for their agendas to be successful, it is also true that without such personalities, the potential for violence in the Balkans is significantly diminished.


Slovenia was the first to break away from Yugoslavia when it declared its independence and began taking over border posts. However, Slovenia left Yugoslavia without much incident, as there were only a few days of fighting and only a few dozen deaths. The federal JNA (Jugoslovenska Narodna Armija, or Yugoslav People's Army) withdrew early to deal with the situation of Croatia. Slovenia was recognized as an independent state by the United Nations and European Community in 1992 and has been by far the most successful and prosperous of the former Yugoslav republics, having joined NATO and the European Union in 2004.


However, the situation in Croatia was much more difficult and would come to be the scene of some of the most intense fighting in the wars. In 1990, Croatia elected a non-communist government with nationalist Franjo Tudjman as its leader. The move was spurred largely by the election of Serb nationalist Slobodan Milosevic as Serbian Communist Party leader. He instantly revived dreams of a "Greater Serbia." Milosevic's rhetoric and repression of the Albanian population in Kosovo frightened the other republics. Worried that Serbia would try to impose similar measures over all the republics, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. As soon as it declared their independence, fighting broke out. Fighting in Croatia was heavy between the JNA, Serbs in the Krajina and Croat forces. While the Serb forces had the JNA arsenals at their disposal and could additionally stock the Serb militias in the Krajina, Croatia had to rely on its meager national defense forces to defend itself. During this time the Serbs created the Republic of Serbian Krajina in central and northwestern Croatia. The Serb forces (which in this case includes both the JNA and Serb militia forces in the Republic of Serbian Krajina) used their military superiority to claim large chunks of Croatia, namely much of the Krajina, Western Slavonia, before beginning a drive towards the Dalmatian coast, namely the port cities of Zadar, Split, Ploce in the south. Most damaging to Croatia was the capture of Knin, a Dalmatian town near Serbian Krajina that was a major transport hub between Dalmatia and Croatia proper. The loss of this town essentially cut off Zagreb from Dalmatia and its vital coastline. The territorial losses were not only strategically damaging, but also damaging to the Croat national psyche. The Croats swore that they would get their territories back.

In 1992, after the European Community had repeatedly tried and failed to negotiate a peace, the United Nations was able to administer a truce between the two sides and sent in a peacekeeping force, UNPROFOR. At the time the agreement went into place the Serbs held roughly 30% of the former Yugoslav Republic of Croatia, and the UN agreement froze this status quo, which also left many Croatians as refugees from their homes in the Republic of Serbian Krajina as part of Serbian ethnic cleansing. There were reports of homes being looted and burned, as well as other atrocities committed against Croat civilians. The United Nations and European Community also recognized Croatia as an independent state in January of 1992.

In 1995, Croatian forces launched a massive offensive against the Krajina Serbs. The offensive led to approximately 14,000 Serb civilians being killed and about 300,000 Serb refugees. The lightning attack included attacks against civilians, namely burning Serb homes, looting Serb property, and killing and mutilating Serb civilians, especially the elderly. In retaliation the Serbs launched a rocket attack on the Croatian capital of Zabreb, causing a few deaths and over 100 injuries.


Most famous of these wars was the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The sheer brutality of the fighting and horrific campaigns of ethnic cleansing drew much of the media coverage and much of the world's sympathy. This war in particular came to epitomize the small-scale ethnic wars that came to prominence during the 1990s.

Bosnia had never really been a mono-ethnic state, having been shared between Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims (also called Bosniaks), all of which held a considerable portion of Bosnia. When Slobodan Milosevic came to power, he began talk of creating a "Greater Serbia" that included much of Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo. It should be noted that this concept of Greater Serbia is not synonymous with historical Serbia. The concept of Greater Serbia could be summed up in Milosevic's famous line, "Where ever there is a Serb, there is Serbia," thus Greater Serbia can be seen as an ethno-national concept rather than a historic one. Voivodina, Bosnia, the Krajina, and Slavonia were never part of the old Serbian Empire, yet had large Serbian populations. Only Kosovo and Serbia-proper were parts of historic Serbia (as well as Macedonia and northern Greece, but these were never contested). The problem is that there were no clear geographic divisions between ethnicities, but rather a complex patchwork of groups spotted across the country and no one held an absolute majority over the country. This meant that in order to create distinct ethnic enclaves, some regions would have to be "ethnically cleansed," a sickeningly sterile term that essentially amounts to removing a ethnic population with whatever means necessary. This would have tragic consequences in Bosnia.

Bosnia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1992 and was recognized by the international community and admitted to the UN soon after. The Bosnian Serbs almost instantly created the Republika Srpska with the idea of creating an ethnically pure Serbian enclave in northern and eastern Bosnia. The Croats began to do the same with the founding of the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna (Herceg/Herzegovina refers to the Croatian portion of Bosnia). Fighting grew to be intense between Muslim forces and Bosnian Croat forces who were directly supported by the Croatian government in Zagreb, and in 1994 Croatian forces began to fight directly in support of the Bosnian Croats. In 1994 Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats agreed to a cease-fire and founded the joint Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. As the war with the Serbs continued, both the Bosnian Croats and Muslims began to fight together against the Serb forces.

The fighting between the Serbs and Bosnian Muslims was perhaps the heaviest and most reported in the entire war. The Serbs were interested in creating an ethnically pure Republika Srpska for the Serbs, but large Muslim minorities, especially in the cities, made it difficult for the Serbs to carve out homogonous ethnic entities. As a result, the army of the Republika Srpska under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic began a policy of "ethnic cleansing" against Muslims in what they considered to be Serb lands. This included sending Muslims to Europe's first concentration camps since World War II, massive counts of rape and sexual assault against Muslim women and girls, and mass executions of Muslim men and boys of military age. Most infamous of these acts was the 1995 massacre in the city of Srebrenica, where more than 7000 Muslims were killed by Serb forces under than command of Gen. Mladic. There was also heavy looting, torture of Muslims, and widespread forced relocation. Many of Bosnia's cities were also besieged by Serb forces, namely Sarajevo, Bihac, and Tuzla, as well as many others. The brutality and scale of the fighting shocked many in the west. Though it should be added for the sake of fairness, that while most acts of ethnic cleansing were overwhelmingly committed by Serb forces, Croat and Muslim forces also committed similar acts as well. In addition, this was not the first time that ethnic cleansing was practiced in the Balkans, with both the Croat Ustase and the Serb Cetniks committing acts of ethnic cleansing during World War II.

Governments however, were less effective in dealing with the war in Yugoslavia. The United Nations has been criticized for its handling of the conflict, and rightfully so. The UN Protective Force (UNPROFOR) was originally designed to supervise the cease-fire between Serbs and Croats, but soon found its mission extended to Bosnia. However, UNPROFOR was designed by the UN to act only as a peace-keeping force, not a war-fighting force, and the rules of engagement assigned to UNPROFOR were designed accordingly to enforce their status as peace-keepers. UNPROFOR was ordered not to fire unless directly fired upon and were not engage in the fighting under any circumstances, even to defend UN-designated "safe areas" in Srebrenica, Tuzla, and Zepa, designed to protect Muslim populations from Serb aggression. As a result, the Dutch UNPROFOR unit was forced to stand by as Serb forces rounded up and massacred Muslim civilians in Srebrenica. The UN's inaction during the massacre has become a tragic symbol of the UN's failed peace-keeping policy in Bosnia. Rather than keep the peace, the Serbs only found ways to exploit it, making a farce of UNPROFOR. But the policy failures extended beyond UNPROFOR. For one, an arms embargo was placed on the combatants. Yet rather than control the scale of the fighting, it simply reinforced the arms disparity between the well-armed Serb forces and the poorly armed Muslim forces. This contributed to considerable Serb gains in Bosnia, as they eventually held two thirds of Bosnia's territory. However, the Croat-Muslim alliance that was formed in 1994 helped tip the scales against the Serbs, and the Croats and Muslims succeeded in reducing Serb gains. The Yugoslav government under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic cut off military aid to the Bosnian Serbs, which helped contribute to Serb losses. It should be noted that while Serb forces in both Bosnia and the Krajina tried to present themselves as independent entities with separate armies and separate governments and leadership, there is no question that they got most of their support from Belgrade and Milosevic. The Yugoslav government was crucial in supplying the Krajina and Bosnian Serbs with weapons, ammunition, fuel, and logistical support, even though Yugoslavia claimed to be uninvolved in the fighting. In fact, Slobodan Milosevic was the main architect of the war in the former Yugoslavia.

The Dayton Peace Accords

Throughout the war there were several attempts to negotiate some sort of a peace deal between the sides. While there was some success in negotiating agreements between the Croats and Serbs and the Croats and Muslims, negotiating a peace agreement between the Serbs and Muslims was considerably more difficult. There were talks and even plans put in place (like the Vance-Owen peace plan) that would have called for the canonization of Bosnia. This would mean that Bosnia would Bosnia would be divided into mono-ethnic noncontiguous cantons. However these plans were scrapped as ethnic cleansing altered Bosnia's ethnic makeup. While before the war Bosnia was a messy patchwork of ethnicities with no discernable regions devoted to a single ethnicity, ethnic cleansing essentially did the job is was supposed to do by creating distinct Serbian, Muslim, and Croat regions. Before and after ethnographic maps of Bosnia clearly show the dramatic results of ethnic cleansing. As a result, peacemakers tried to find a solution to accommodate these changes. While ideally it would have been favorable to return to Bosnia's multiethnic mixture, the results of the war and the intentions of the negotiating parties, especially the Serbs and Croats, would mean that Bosnia would have to be divided along ethnic lines. This solution was amiable to Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic and Croat leader Franjo Tudjman, both of whom wished to divide Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia. There is even a story that after having a bit to drink, Tudjman drew a map for negotiator Paddy Ashdown that showed the border that the Serbs and Croats would use to divide Bosnia. For the west, ending the war became vital to secure peace in Europe. There had long been the perception that the west was not doing enough to end the fighting, so eventually it became politically beneficial to western leaders to hammer out some sort of agreement.

The end result of this were the Dayton Peace Accords which were signed in December 1995. Under this agreement, Bosnia was to be divided into two-substate entities: the Muslim-Croat federation which would claim 51% of Bosnia's territory, and the Serbian Republika Srpska, which claimed 49% of Bosnia's territory. Sarajevo was to be a unified city while the former Muslim "safe-zone" of Gorazde would remain under Muslim control. The federal government was to be of mixed ethnicity, but with a high representative from the UN who had far reaching powers over the Bosnian federal government. The UN high commissioner had the power to dismiss officials or veto laws that might be contrary to the peace process, making the high representative a sort of UN-appointed president. The Presidency of Bosnia-Hercegovina was to be a rotating presidency between the three ethnicities. Its main tasks concern foreign policy, defense, and dealing with parliament. The legislature was to be divided among the different ethnicities as well. NATO was to take the lead in peacekeeping operations with the so-called " Intervention Force" (IFOR) whose 60,000 personnel (60% of whom were American) were tasked with maintaining the cease-fire and keeping the peace. Unlike UNPROFOR, IFOR came to Bosnia heavily armed and was permitted to shoot whenever necessary. It essentially had the backbone that UNPROFOR was so lacking in.

What resulted however was a fractured state that was too federal and lack any sort of real cohesion. Each of Bosnia's three entities acted with undue political independence. For example, the Croat entity issued Croatian license plates, money, police uniforms, and its citizens acted as citizens of Croatia, not Bosnia. The Serb entity was no better. The Republika Srpska acted almost as an independent state, with its own government, state symbols, president, parliament, customs and border guards, and even had its own airline. While Dayton and IFOR undoubtedly ended the fighting and preserved the cease-fire in the country, many agreed that the state and the peace were only held up by foreign intervention and support. While Dayton may have ended the fighting, there were serious doubts as to whether it created a functioning state in Bosnia.

Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list

Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:30 ZULU