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The Yugoslav Wars of Dissolution

The state of Yugoslavia was formed after World War I when it was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. The name "Yugoslavia" essentially means "Southern Slavs" and contained a staggeringly diverse collection of ethnicities, namely Albanians, Bosnian Muslims (also referred to as Bosniaks), Macedonians, Croats, Hungarians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes. While all were Slavic peoples (with the exception of Albanians and Hungarians being Illyrian and Magyar, respectively), they each had a reasonably distinct language, history, and culture.

The Albanians

Albanians populated much of the region of Kosovo in southern Yugoslavia. It is thought that Albanians are descended from a non-Slavic, non-Turkic group known as the Illyrians who arrived in the Balkans around 2000 BC. Their language, though Indo-European, is completely different from any Slavic or Turkic language. The region now known as Albania fell to Roman rule in 165 BC and remained under foreign occupation, either Roman, Byzantine, or Ottoman, until the early 20th Century. Serbs and Albanians have debated who rightfully owns Kosovo and while there is considerable debate on the topic, what is certain is that Kosovo was the power center of the old and powerful Serb Empire that controlled much of southeastern Europe until its terrible defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Serbs began to leave Kosovo following a failed uprising against their Ottoman rulers in 1689 and were soon replaced by Muslim Albanians. In the 20th Century Albanians made up the majority of Kosovo's population but Serbs refused to let go of what they considered to be rightfully and historically theirs. They considered the Albanians to be little more than tenants and many considered the return of Kosovo to Serbia to be paramount.

The Bosnians

Bosnia was originally ruled by the Roman Empire, and later by Slavs who began to settle in the area in the 7th Century. The kingdoms of Serbia and Croatia split Bosnia in the 9th Century, and later it was ruled in 11th and 12th Centuries by the Kingdom of Hungary until Bosnia finally gained its independence around 1200. It was during this period that medieval Bosnia was at the height of its power, when it controlled much of what is modern-day Bosnia, including the duchy of Hum, which regained its autonomy in 1448 and later became known as Hercegovina. However there were considerable religious conflicts between Catholics, Orthodox, and the Bogomils (a dualist heretical sect). The internal conflict weakened Bosnia and it fell to the Ottomans in 1463, while Hercegovina fell in 1482 and was joined with Bosnia. While under Ottoman rule many Bosnians converted to Islam. In 1878 Bosnia came under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire while Serbs and others were calling for the creation of an independent south-Slav state. This complex history with so many rulers gave Bosnia an incredibly diverse ethnic patchwork made up of Muslims, Croats, Serbs, and others. Sarajevo became one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, with mosques, Orthodox churches, Catholic churches, and synagogues existing very often within a block of each other. Yet it was in this same city that Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, setting in motion the dominoes that would trigger World War I. The Bridge on the Drina, an excellent Nobel Prize-winning novel by Bosnian Serb Ivo Andric, gives perhaps the best history of Bosnia from the Ottoman conquest to World War I.

The Croats

Croats were one of the largest ethnicities in Yugoslavia. It was originally part of the Roman province of Pannonia, which included modern-day Hungary west of the Danube River. Slavs began to move into the region during the 7th Century and accepted Christianity in the 9th Century. As an independent kingdom it conquered many surrounding areas, including Dalmatia (the modern Croatian coast). However, internal conflict led to its conquest by King Laszlo of Hungary and in 1102 Croatia voluntarily signed a pact making a union with Hungary under the Hungarian crown. Croatia remained tied to Hungary until the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 when Hungary fell to the Ottoman Empire.

Croatia then turned to the Austrian Hapsburgs for protection and accepted them as their kings in return for common defense and the ability for Croatia to have its own diet and viceroy (referred to as a "ban"). However, programs of Germanization and later Magyarization (when Hungary was joined to the Hapsburg crown) severely weakened the Croat nobility and created a scare in Croatia's national consciousness, who feared that Croatian culture, autonomy, and nationalism would be lost. In 1848, Ban Joseph Jelacic passed laws in the Croatian Diet to begin revolutionary reforms designed to increase Croatia's autonomy. During the same year Hungary began its own revolutionary war against the Hapsburgs. Jelacic marched his forces against the Hungarian revolutionaries on behalf of the Hapsburgs, hoping to improve Croatia's situation in the Austrian Empire at the expense of the Hungarians. In 1867 the Dual Compromise was settled between Hungary and Austria that created the Austro-Hungarian Empire with power shared between Vienna and Budapest. In the following year Hungary made a similar deal with Croatia. Under the deal Croatia was joined with Dalmatia, Istria (now in Slovenia), and Slavonia and became an autonomous Hungarian crown-land governed by a ban responsible to the Croatian diet.

This history has given Croatia considerably more of a western orientation than most of the other states in the former Yugoslavia. While the other states were largely Orthodox and governed by the Ottoman Empire, Croatia (and Slovenia) were Catholic, governed by the "enlightened" Austrian Empire and experienced the Enlightenment and 19th Century liberal nationalism. This divide could possibly account for more differences in the former Yugoslavia than perhaps nationalism itself, although the topic is of course open for debate.

The Hungarians

The Hungarians were a minority in Yugoslavia. Like the Albanians, they never achieved republic status, but rather the Hungarian region of Voivodina (Vajdasag in Hungarian) was given autonomous status in the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia. The Hungarians are not Slavs, nor are they related to Slavs nor even Indo-European for that matter. Their language is part of the Finno-Ugric language group and it is distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. The Hungarians came to the Carpathian Basin in 897, originally from Siberia and perhaps as far as China. The Hungarian state was founded in 1000 after its first king, Saint Istvan, accepted Catholicism from the pope. Hungary came to become a powerful medieval state, occupying all of the Carpathian Basin, which included Transylvania to the east, Croatia to the west, modern-day Slovakia to the north, and Voivodina to the south, as far as the Danube in Belgrade. At one point even Naples and Poland were under the Hungarian crown. However, Hungary was dealt a near-fatal blow in the Mongol invasion of 1241. Hungary was able to regain much of its power and holdings and again became of of Europe's most powerful states. But again outside threats presented themselves, this time in the form of the Ottoman Turks. Janos Hunyadi was able to defeat the Turks at Belgrade in 1456, but this only proved to be a brief respite as King Lajos II was killed in the Battle of Mohacs in 1526 against the army of Sulayman the Magnificent. Hungary was then divided between the Ottomans who controlled the center of the country and the Hapsburgs who controlled the western potion of the country, while Transylvania was ruled virtually independently by the family of Janos Zapolyai.

Buda was liberated in 1686 and the Hungarians accepted Hapsburg rule in the following year. The Hungarians long resented Hapsburg rule and in 1848 began a failed war of independence led by Lajos Kossuth who sought to create a Hungarian republic. However with the Compromise of 1867 Hungary was able to form a dual monarchy with Austria and power was shared between Vienna and Budapest. The new Kingdom of Hungary included Transylvania, Voivodina, the Banat, Slovakia, and Croatia, which was joined with Slovenia. However, the diverse nature of the new kingdom meant that many minorities in Hungary, namely Serbs, Croats, and Romanians, resented Hungarian rule. Following the defeat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in World War I, the minorities would get their wish for independence. The 1920 Treaty of Trianon stripped Hungary of all non-Magyar territory and reduced Hungary's land and population by two thirds. However most traumatic for Hungary was the fact that millions of Hungarians were left as minorities in these new countries. In Yugoslavia, there was a large Hungarian minority in Voivodina, especially in the towns of Novy Sad and Subotica.

The Macedonians

The Macedonians and their identity is easily one of the most complicated and controversial issues in the former Yugoslav states. The historic region of Macedonia includes much of northern Greece, southwestern Bulgaria, and the present-day boundaries of FYR Macedonia. Although most of the Slavic population of FYR Macedonia identifies itself as Macedonian, the region's complicated history and numerous population shifts make it difficult to identify an ethnic group that is unique to the region. Macedonia was originally a Greek-speaking kingdom but the region became a Roman province in the 2nd Century BC and later became joined with the Byzantine Empire following the split of the Roman Empire. It was about this time that Macedonia was heavily settled by Slavic tribes. The region then became contested between many powers and it changed hands numerously for the next hundred years, with Bulgaria, Byzantium, Epirus, and Nicea all vying for control. In the 14th Century Stefan Dusan of Serbia conquered all of Macedonia with the exception of modern-day Thessaloniki. Macedonia remained in Serbian hands until the Ottoman conquest.

As the Ottoman Empire began to fall apart in the late 19th Century and Balkan nationalism began to rise. Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia all claimed Macedonia on historical or ethnic grounds. Bulgaria insisted that the inhabitants of the region were southwestern Bulgarians who should be joined with greater Bulgaria while the Greeks believed that the term "Macedonia" was just a territorial term and that the people there were Greeks who spoke a Slavic language. The three groups then began to establish church schools and tried to spread their own culture throughout the region. It was about this time that a distinct ethnic Macedonian identity began to rise and several terrorist bands operated (with Bulgarian support) campaigning for Macedonian independence. Bulgaria won much of Macedonia following the First Balkan War (1912-1913), but lost it following the Second Balkan War (1913). Anti-Bulgarian campaigns were then begun by Serbs and Greeks, who tried to convince the people in Macedonia that they were not Bulgarian or Macedonian, but actually Serbs or Greeks. Bulgarian schools were closed and many Slavs began to flee to Bulgaria. With the foundation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, Macedonia was formally joined to Serbia. However when Bulgaria reclaimed Macedonia after World War II they began an anti-Serb and anti-Greek campaign similar to the previous campaign, confusing the situation even further.

After World War II, Josip Broz Tito, founder of communist Yugoslavia, made Macedonia one of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia, thereby officially sanctioning modern-day FYR Macedonia as a distinct Slavic entity with a distinct identity. Yugoslavia then began to act very aggressively to promote Macedonian culture and identity by recognizing Macedonian as a distinct language, founding a university in Skopje, and by supporting the independence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church.

The Montenegrins

Situated in the south of Yugoslavia at the very southern end of the Dinaric Alps, Montenegro is almost entirely mountainous, but has a small coast on the Adriatic. Montenegrins bear few differences with Serbs, as both share the same language, customs, and religion. The differences between Serbs and Montenegrins are mostly historical. The Montenegrins were famous for fighting the Turks, even after the Battle of Kosovo, and the Turks never managed to completely subdue the region. These conflicts dominated Montenegrin history until 1799 when the Ottoman Empire recognized its independence. Montenegro was formally recognized as an independent state following the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Montenegro's independence ended following World War I when it was formally joined with Serbia, although after World War II Montenegro was reestablished as one of the six constituent republics of Yugoslavia.

The Serbs

Serbia was one of the largest and most important republics in the former Yugoslavia. The Serbs originally settled in southern Yugoslavia in the 7th Century AD, but existed as a decentralized entity until the reign of Stefan I Nemanja who ended Byzantine domination of the region, conquored Zeta and southern Dalmatia, and founded the Nemanjic dynasty. His son, Stefan II Nemanja (later canonized as Saint Sava) stabilized the Serbian state and made friendly relations with Rome while keeping Serbia religiously tied to Byzantium. His writings are also recognized as the first works of Serbian literature. Serbia reached the height of its territorial expansion under Stefan Dusan who expanded Serbia's boundaries from present-day Belgrade to central Greece. He also elevated the position of the archbishop of Pec to the level of patriarch, creating an autocephalous Serbian Orthodox Church. However Dusan became overzealous in his conquests and when he turned his attention to a weakening Byzantine Empire, Byzantium summoned Turkish help to push back Dusan.

The Serbs began to fight several battles against the Turks with mixed success, and after Dusan's death in 1355 many Serbian nobles switched loyalty to the Turks. Lazar Hrebeljanovic, one of the most powerful Serbian princes following the end of the Nemanjic line, assembled an international force to meet the Turks at Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Field) on Saint Vitus Day, 1389. The armies met, the Serbs were defeated by the Turks, and Lazar was killed in battle. It is difficult to fully appreciate the full meaning of the Battle of Kosovo Polje in the Serbian national consciousness. Although it was not a crushing defeat and although it did not mean immediate Turkish domination, Serbs regard it as the darkest day in their history. In a way, it is considered to be the death of the Serbian state and the beginning of the oppression and degradation of the Serbian people. Even today, epic songs and poems are still recited about the Battle. It also has important implications for modern politics not only because of the historic significance of the Battle of Kosovo, but also because the region was the center of old Serbia and its cultural hinterland. Serbs consider Kosovo not only to be a natural part of Serbia, but also its most significant and precious. As a result, Serbs resent the Albanian population living in what they consider to be rightfully Serbian land. This was partly the motivating factor for Slobodan Milosevic's policies in Kosovo in the 1980s and 1990s.

Turkish rule was very damaging for Serbia for several reasons. For one, the Turks cut off Serbian contact with the West during the Renaissance, unlike the Croats and Slovenes, who could experience such western ideas thanks to their affiliation with the Hapsburg Empire. The Turks also instituted the brutal policy of drafting young Serb boys into the Sultan's army so that if the Serbs tried to revolt against the Sultan they would be fighting their own sons and brothers. Many Serbs fled to Dalmatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Croatia, and southern Hungary, while others fled into the mountains to become outlaws and guerrilla fighters known as hajduci. In response to the guerrilla campaigns the Turks destroyed the remains of Saint Sava.

Western forces, namely the Austrians and Hungarians, tried to push the Turks out of southeastern Europe but had mixed success, only reaching as far as Belgrade. Meanwhile, Serbs who had fled to Voivodina in southern Hungary prospered thanks to the fertile fields in the area. In 1804 Serbian leaders were murdered by Turkish soldiers which set off the popular uprising led by Karadjordje ("Black George") Petrovic. Russia initially supported the uprising, but had to withdraw their support following Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia. The Turks, with the help of Bosnian and Albanian troops, began massive reprisals against Serbian villages, which in turn sparked another Serb uprising which was able to win autonomy for some regions. The rebellion finally ended when rebel leader Milos Obrenovic betrayed Karadjordje, murdered him, and sent his head to the Sultan as a sign of Serbian loyalty to the Turks. As a reward, Obrenovic became a hereditary prince when the Sultan recognized Serbia as a principality under Turkish control. The Serbs tried to take advantage of the nationalist upheavals that occurred during 1848 by declaring Voivodina autonomous from Austria, but Vienna refused to accept the move, and following the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1967 Voivodina and its Serbs were formally joined with Hungary.

Serbia became increasingly more oriented towards the west in the latter half of the 19th Century. This is thanks in part to Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic who had been educated in the west and liberalized the constitution and managed the withdrawal of Turkish garrisons from Serbian cities. He was also a supporter of a south-Slav confederation designed to drive out the Turks and prepared a regular army to this end but was assassinated when the plot was uncovered. There was another Serbian uprising against the Turks in 1876 and this was later joined with Russia, Romania, and Bulgaria. The Congress of Berlin (1878) gave Serbia its independence and added territory, while giving Montenegro a seacoast and giving Austria-Hungary administrative rule of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

The Obrenovic dynasty ended with the brutal assassinations of the very unpopular King Aleksander and his queen. The accession of Peter I to the throne in 1903 marked the beginning of the Karadjordjevic dynasty (descended from Karadjordje Petrovic). Peter I continued to implement liberal reforms while at the same time promoting Pan-Slavism by appointing nationalist and pro-Russian Nikola Pasic as prime minister. The reforms, coupled with Serbia's rising economy, increased Serbia's stature and prestige in the region and brought it into conflict with Austria-Hungary. Tensions came to a head in 1908 with Austria-Hungary's annexation of Bosnia which the Austro-Hungarians hoped to quell Bosnia's Serbs and kill talk of forming a union with Serbia. However quite the opposite happened as Serbia mobilized its forces, but stood down after Russia (with German pressure) convinced Serbia to stand down. Soon after Serbia helped create the Balkan League with Bulgaria, Greece, and Montenegro. The League was designed to liberate Balkan Slavs from Austro-Hungarian and Turkish rule and declared war on the Ottoman Empire in 1912. While the League won the war, they could not agree on how the newly claimed territories would be divided, namely in regards to Macedonia, and the League went to war with each other one year later. When the dust finally settled Serbia claimed Macedonia and was the foremost Slavic power in the Balkans. However tensions with Austria-Hungary remained and showed no signs of improving. In 1914 Gavrilo Princip, a member of the Black Hand (a Serbian ultra-nationalist terrorist group) assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand while he was visiting Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary declared war on and invaded Serbia soon after, and before long World War I, the "Great War," had begun.

The Slovenes

Slovenia is the most northern of the former Yugoslav republics. It had a relatively quiet history, despite changing hands between Illyrians and Celts, Romans, Slavs, Franks, and Austria. The population is almost exclusively Slavic Slovenian and Catholic. They, like the Croats, were quite oriented to the west as they had been joined to the Hapsburg Empire for much of their history. Slovenian national identity came to be formed during the Reformation, when the New Testament and other religious works were translated into Slovenian. In the 19th Century, songs and speeches using a modern, refined form of Slovenian were performed in Ljubljana. Slovenia later became one of the leading voices for the union of the southern Slavs. It was also one of the wealthiest of the six republics, partly thanks to an old trade route between Vienna and Trieste that passed through Maribor and Ljubljana. As a result, Slovenia was economically and culturally tied to Central Europe.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:32 ZULU