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The Yugoslav Wars of Dissolution

With their horrific violence and brutal campaigns of "ethnic cleansing," the Yugoslav Wars of Dissolution came to typify post-Cold War ethnic conflict. In fact, the word "Balkanization" has come to refer to any state that experiences ethnic conflict and state dissolution. It is a vastly complicated conflict steeped in history and fought on many fronts with many sides opposing each other, sometimes with three armies fighting each other at the same time.

By 1990 Yugoslavia, "the land of the South Slavs," had become an international metaphor for ethnic strife and political fragmentation. Mikhail S. Gorbachev was described as attempting to keep the Soviet Union from becoming a "giant Yugoslavia" when Soviet republics began clamoring for independence in 1989. The metaphor was based on diversity in almost every aspect of Yugoslav national life--historical experiences, standard of living, the relationship of the people to the land, and religious, cultural, and political traditions--among the six republics and the two provinces that constituted the federal state.

In 1991 the six republics--Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia -- and the two provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, moved decisively away from whatever unity had been achieved in the postwar period. Given the lack of common values between Orthodox Serbs in Belgrade and Muslim Slavs in Sarajevo, or between private entrepreneurs in Slovenia and Leninists in Montenegro, many experts argued that the survival and modernization of the postwar Yugoslav state had been the result of a unique, dominating personality, Josip Broz Tito, whose regime had orchestrated all the social, economic, and foreign policy changes. According to that theory, post-Tito separation of Yugoslavia's constituent parts was the natural course of events.

In 1989 the Serbian communist Slobodan Milosevic had stepped into the Yugoslav power vacuum, striking a note of Serbian national hegemony that confronted a wide range of newly released nationalist forces in the other republics. The Yugoslav republics were further separated by their varied reactions to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Already pro-Western and economically dissatisfied, Slovenia and Croatia were the first republics to hold multiparty elections in early 1990; both elected noncommunist republic governments. Later in 1990, the republics of Macedonia and Bosnia and Hercegovina followed suit, but Serbia and Montenegro (Serbia's most loyal ally in the federation) gave decisive victories to the communists in their republic elections.

Among Yugoslavia's postwar trouble spots, the Serbian province of Kosovo was the most enduringly problematic both economically and politically. Always the poorest region in Yugoslavia (in spite of significant mineral and fuel reserves), Kosovo also led by a wide margin in birth rates and unemployment rates. Its territory was claimed on valid historical grounds by two fiercely nationalistic ethnic groups -- the Kosovo Albanians and the Serbs. Although they constituted a shrinking minority in Kosovo, the Serbs and Montenegrins controlled the province government and suppressed separatist movements in the province -- adding to the resentment of the Albanian majority. Sporadic anti- Yugoslav propaganda from neighboring Albania reminded the Kosovo Albanians of their subservient position. Extensive federal economic aid programs throughout the 1970s and 1980s failed to eliminate the economic basis of discontent. In February 1989, units of the Yugoslav People's Army (YPA) and the federal militia were called in to quell the violence, and the province remained under occupation for the next three years.

The autonomy granted to Kosovo in the 1974 Constitution was virtually revoked by 1990. But resistance in Kosovo continued. Albanians boycotted the multiparty Serbian elections in December 1990, and in 1991 students and workers staged mass demonstrations against Serbianization of education and workplaces. Although Serbia had suspended the province legislature in mid-1990, Albanian delegates and intellectuals adopted a constitution for an independent republic of Kosovo, which was ratified in a referendum in September 1991. In response, Serbia amended its constitution to abolish the remnants of self-rule in Kosovo and in Serbia's second province, Vojvodina. In 1990 drastic political reform in isolationist Albania gave Kosovo Albanians a new political option previously judged undesirable: joining Albania in a union of Greater Albania. By 1991 Kosovan separatist groups deemphasized the goal of republic status within Yugoslavia in favor of ethnic unity with their fellow Albanians. Such an eventuality threatened to spark war between Serbia and Albania as well as conflict with Macedonia, where over 25 percent of the population was Albanian in 1991.

The chaotic condition of Kosovo was a sensitive issue throughout postwar Yugoslav national politics. In the late 1980s, the issue assumed even greater dimensions, however. Milosevi used the threat of Albanian irredentism in Kosovo to rally Serbian ethnic pride behind his nationalist faction of the League of Communists of Serbia. In doing so, he won the presidency of Serbia. By 1990 this single-issue strategy had made Milosevic the most powerful political figure in post-Tito Yugoslavia. His open ambition for power and his assertion of Serbian hegemony soon added Macedonia and Bosnia and Hercegovina to the list of republics opposing Serbia in federal disputes. Despite widely held contempt for communism, however, opposition within Serbia remained fragmented and ineffectual until 1991. In the first multiparty elections in postwar Serbia, Milosevic easily won reelection in December 1990. Because he controlled almost all the Serbian media, his campaign was able to ignore the chaotic Serbian economy.

In October 1990, internal and external conditions caused Slovenia and Croatia to seek independence in some form. Accordingly, the two republics proposed that Yugoslavia be restructured as a loose confederation of states, each with national sovereignty and its own army and each conducting its own foreign policy. Following the model of the European Economic Community ( EEC), the formula included monetary uniformity and a common market. Serbia immediately blocked the plan, arguing that the large number of Serbs living in republics other than Serbia would become citizens of foreign countries. Beginning in 1990, groups from several Serbian enclaves in Croatia, which declared themselves the Krajina Serbian Autonomous Region in March 1991, skirmished with local police and Croatian security forces. Milosevic was suspected of giving this movement substantial encouragement. By early 1991, large caches of illegally imported arms were held by both Serbs and Croats in multiethnic parts of Croatia, sharpening the threat of full-scale civil war.

Complex population patterns had been established in most of Yugoslavia by centuries of cultural, political, and military influences from outside -- most notably the settlement policies of the long-dominant Habsburg and Ottoman empires. In fact, remaining ethnic patterns blocked a clean break from the federation by any republic except homogeneous Slovenia because large populations would be left behind unless borders were substantially redrawn. Even if Krajina had seceded from Croatia to join Serbia, for example, a substantial number of Serbs would have remained scattered in the Republic of Croatia.

Early in 1991, local conflicts in Krajina brought threats from Milosevic to defend his countrymen from oppression, and tension mounted between Serbia and Croatia. In April 1991, Krajina declared itself part of Serbia; the Croats responded by tightening economic pressure on the enclave and by threatening to redraw their own boundaries to include adjacent parts of Bosnia inhabited by a Croatian majority. In early 1991, however, moderates on both sides managed to defuse numerous local crises and prevent a broader conflict.

The Slovenes and Croats had continued the slow, steady brinkmanship of their relations with the federal government. In February 1991, both republic assemblies had passed resolutions to dissolve the Yugoslav federation into separate states as the next step after their 1990 declarations of the right to secede. The respective assemblies also passed constitutional amendments declaring republic law supreme over federal law and essentially overriding the authority of the federal Constitution.

Then in June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence, which set off a new chain of events. Under orders from the Serb-dominated federal Secretariat for National Defense but without approval of the State Presidency, YPA units occupied strategic points in Slovenia on the pretext of defending Yugoslav territorial integrity against an illegal secession. After encountering unexpectedly stiff resistance from Slovenian territorial defense forces, the YPA withdrew from Slovenian territory. YPA embarrassment at this military failure was only partially averted by a three-month cease-fire arranged by the European Community (EC). When Slovenia reasserted its independence at the end of that time, the YPA made no response.

The cease-fire in Slovenia moved the conflict decisively from Slovenia to Croatia. Croatia's declaration of independence enabled Milosevic to strengthen his position as defender of the Serbian minority in Croatia, which now seemed poised to absorb its Serbs into a separate state. Under the banner of anti- Croatian Serbian nationalism, economic failures and internal political differences became secondary; Milosevic abandoned his conciliatory approach and regained his political foothold.

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Page last modified: 21-09-2013 18:53:52 ZULU