Conflict Profile

In the early 1990s the state of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, a process which is still not fully resolved and has resulted in a series of civil wars in the Western Balkans. The conflicts have been characterised by brutal violence between the different ethnic groups in the region. Two decades on from the start of the wars, the political status of parts of the region remain unclear – Kosovo’s declaration of independence has been contested by Serbia, whilst the longer-term future of Bosnia and Herzegovina remains uncertain – although the war there ended in 1995, it remains divided into two ‘entities’ along ethnic lines.

Yugoslavia 1945-1991

The immediate period after World War II in the Western Balkans was dominated by integration into the Soviet Bloc and the suppression of national identities by Josip Broz Tito, the new Prime Minister of the Yugoslav state. Yugoslavia was a federal state made up of six republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia (Kosovo had the status of an autonomous province). Serbs represented the single largest ethnic group, with over a third of the population, followed by Croats, with many other ethnic groups represented. None of the six states was ethnically homogeneous, and the ethnic mix was especially complex in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Image by Limbic published under a creative commons license

Tito’s rule through the 1950s and 60s brought about a process of decentralisation and liberalisation in Yugoslavia, as well as the breakaway from the Soviet Bloc. A new constitution in 1974 granted more autonomy to some federations but not others, stirring up already simmering ethnic aggressions and fears. Nevertheless, in particular in the main cities, people from different ethnic backgrounds interacted with each other harmoniously on a daily basis and inter-ethnic marriage was quite common.

From the oil crisis of 1973 onwards, Yugoslavia’s economy was in constant decline, and after Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s economic problems worsened. Resentments between Serbs and Albanians were also rising, especially in Kosovo where Serbs felt threatened by the Albanian majority.

A leading member of the ruling Communist party, Slobodan Milošević, inflamed ethnic tensions and presented himself as the defender of the Serbian people, a stance which allowed him to assert an increasing amount of centralised control over the other Yugoslav states. Milošević’s regime progressively stripped away the rights of other states, leaving non-Serbs feeling increasing insecure. These actions antagonised other nationalities within Yugoslavia, and in July 1990 the self-declared parliament of Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians declared independence, which was not recognised.

The break-up of Yugoslavia

The break-up of Yugoslavia was accompanied by increasing nationalism among the different ethnic groups, manifest in a breakdown of the 1989 Yugoslav conference talks concerning the rotating presidency. In Autumn 1990, Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia jointly proposed the transformation of Yugoslavia into a loose federation, which Milošević refused to accept. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was soon followed by the beginning of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Two of the most ethnically homogenuous states – Macedonia and Slovenia – managed to break-away more or less peacefully. Milošević’s regime did use theYugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to briefly contest Slovenia’s declaration of independence in 1991, before conceding their right to break away. After a September referendum with more than 95 per cent voting for independence, Macedonia subsequently also declared independence. Unfortunately, in other parts of Yugoslavia the break-up was to be considerably more violent.

The break-up of Yugoslavia was de facto finalised only in 2006 when Montenegro – after a referendum that passed the 55 per cent threshold by 2,300 votes – declared independence from Serbia, with the latter accepting this step.


For Croatian nationalists (led by Franjo Tuđjman, who would become the first president of Croatia), the Yugoslav break-up presented the long awaited opportunity of independence, whereas the Serb population of Croatia defended the status quo of Croatia as Yugoslavia. Thus, 1991 witnessed the beginning of a fierce war of independence – the so called “Homeland War” – lasting until 1995.

Initially fighting was limited to local Serbs and Croatian police forces, but soon the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) joined in, trying to occupy the whole of Croatia. This failed attempt resulted in Serbs declaring a “Republic of Serbian Krajina”, (RSK, claiming a quarter of the country), spreading war across the country leaving numerous towns and villages in ruins and displacing hundreds of thousands.

Image by chema sanmoran published under a creative commons license

1992 marked a turning point when the Republic of Croatia was internationally recognised as sovereign, a ceasefire was negotiated, and UN peacekeeping forces deployed. In 1995 a series of Croatian military operations defeated the remaining Serb forces, integrating the RSK territory into a now independent Croatian state.

Overall, the war killed 20,000 people and left 250,000 displaced. The post-war period under president Tuđjman was dominated by widespread corruption, severe economic conditions with around 20 per cent of Croatians unemployed, and government-backed attacks on civil and political rights. Tuđjman’s death in 1999 gave the opportunity for reforms and development, with Croatia applying for EU membership in 2003. Having only half-heartedly cooperated in the persecution of war criminals in the past years, the Croatian government finally finished accession negotiations with the EU in June 2011, and it is expected to join as the 28th member state in July 2013. In July 2011, Goran Hadžíc, the leader of Croatia’s Serb minority during the Croatian War of Independence was captured by Serbian police forces and is currently facing trial at the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia in De Haag.

Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH)

In 1992, a majority of the electorate participated in a referendum on independence for Bosnia and Herzegovina, with 98 per cent of voters choosing independence. However, the Serb population of Bosnia and Herzegovina boycotted the referendum and disputed its legitimacy. The referendum led to a declaration of independence by the Bosnian government – despite a ruling of the Yugoslav Constitutional Court. In turn, Bosnian Serbs who feared suppression by the Croat and Muslim majorities declared their own state, Republika Srpska, thereby leading to an outbreak of violence.

The war that followed in BiH (1992-1995) was the most bloody of the conflicts that took place during the break-up of Yugoslavia. The vicious conflict split the state largely (though not exclusively) along ethnic lines, with nationalist parties and then armies representing Serbs, Croatians and the predominantly Muslim Bosniak populations. Initially the war was fought between the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, mainly composed of Bosnians on the one side, and Bosnian Serb forces in the Army of the Republika Srpska on the other side.

Image by eleleku published under a creative commons license

Shortly after the declaration of independence, the Serb controlled Yugoslav army, backed by Slobodan Milošević, attacked different parts of the country, striving to claim parts populated by a majority of Serbs, while Croatian forces also aimed at claiming parts of Bosnia. All forces engaged in serious abuses in the war, though those committed by Serb forces were on a larger scale than those of the Croatian or Bosniak armies.

The re-emergence of crimes such as detention camps, the systematic use of rape and large-scale massacres in Europe for the first time since World War II shocked the world, as the Bosnian War received widespread media coverage. The most infamous massacre, in Srebrenica in 1995, saw more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims executed by Serb forces and was declared an act of genocide in 2007 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

1994 marked a turning point with the creation of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and an alliance of Bosnians and Croats against Republika Sprska, whilst the 1995 NATO intervention in response to Serb-led massacres turned out to be decisive in bringing the war to an end.

The Bosnian War left an estimated 2.2 million displaced and up to 110,000 dead, characterised by brutal war crimes and 10,000 people still missing. The war officially ended with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995.

Although Dayton achieved the ending of the war, BiH remains separated into two entities – the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’, which has a Bosniak majority with a sizeable Croat minority, and ‘Republika Srpska’, with a predominantly Serbian population. Accordingly, deep divisions remain between the ethnic communities and the political landscape is still dominated by nationalist parties. The Dayton Agreement established the Office of the High Representative (OHR), which has since overseen its implementation. The High Representative possesses the right to dismiss local politicians who are obstructing progress in the country and can also adopt essential binding decisions if national parties are not able to find a compromise.

In 2005, the EU and BiH started negotiations about an accession of the country to the EU, assuming that ethnic tensions eased and the different ethnic groups cooperated at a state level. However, the October 2010 elections left the country on the verge of its worst political crisis since the end of the war. A fragmented political landscape resulted in no single party claiming an outright majority and a political agreement between the six main parties was only reached in late December 2011. Local elections in October 2012 highlighted ongoing issues, as exemplified by the worsening political crisis in the city of Mostar.

Even though the political situation in BiH remains problematic, it is hoped that the conviction of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic may contribute to peace and stability in the whole region and in particular in BiH, strengthening the chance for justice and hence reconciliation among the people in BiH. Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb leader during the Bosnian War, was indicted in July 2008 and is accused of ordering the mass murder of thousands of Bosniaks and of being responsible for the Srebrenica massacre. Mladic, the Serb military leader, was indicted in May 2011.

Ethno-nationalist politicians continue to dominate elections and the economic situation remains difficult, contributing to tensions. The country still needs to recover from the war years, remains dependent on external assistance and still finds itself in the transition from a centrally-planned to a modern market economy. BiH has an unemployment rate of about 40 per cent and one of the highest youth unemployment rates in Europe at 57 per cent. Nevertheless, for many Bosnians the economic situation rather blurs ethnic identity feelings and acts as a binding factor in the struggle to overcome poverty and under-development.


Following almost a decade of Serbian repression and predominantly non-violent resistance from the majority Albanian population, the course of the 1990s saw ethnic tensions escalating in Kosovo with the formation of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and a period of outright ethnic violence between Kosovar Albanians and Serbs, resulting in the Kosovo War (1998-99).

Image by Matthijs Gall published under a creative commons license

The Serb government – still led by Milošević – intervened on behalf of the Serb population in Kosovo, making use of its superior military power to crack down on Kosovar Albanians. After weeks of bloodshed in Kosovo, a 1999 NATO-bombing campaign forced Milošević to withdraw his troops.

Kosovo was always the poorest unit in former-Yugoslavia, with the highest unemployment rate and greatest dependence on money sent home from relatives working abroad. The Kosovo ‘grey economy’ includes practices condemned by intergovernmental bodies – from children selling cigarettes in the streets, to wholesale multimedia piracy and sex trafficking. The international presence has expanded the market for all of these.

The challenge of Kosovo’s poor economy is compounded by deep ethnic divisions as a result of ‘ethnic cleansing’ and the movement of many thousands of IDPs during the violence. Unemployment is extremely high (at around 60 per cent), entrenching poverty and providing fertile ground for young men to be drawn back into violence as a means of survival.

The new millennium witnessed ongoing tensions in Kosovo, underlined by occasional violent outbreaks and insurgent attacks, whilst the issue of Kosovo’s political status remained the main point of conflict, fuelled internally by a lasting disastrous economic situation.

Despite the disastrous situation, the Konculj Agreement of May 2001, engineered by the international community with NATO’s mediation, ended a 17-month armed insurgency by ethnic Albanians in which 100 people were killed and 12,500 Albanians fled. The terms of the Agreement included a pledge by the Liberation Army of Presevo, Medvedja and Bujanovac UCPMB to “demilitarise, demobilise, disarm and disband” in return for guarantees that their fighters would be given amnesty, refugees allowed to return, a multi-ethnic police force formed and Albanians integrated into public institutions.

Image by cliff1066™ published under a creative commons license

Backed by Western Europe and the United States, but rejected by Serbia and several other countries, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The UN General Assembly subsequently voted to refer the independence declaration to the International Court of Justice for an advisory opinion. The ICJs ruling supported Kosovo’s position, stating that a secession did not break international law, and by the end of the year 53 countries had recognised Kosovo.

Since then steps have been taken to provide security, freedom of movement, develop a “multiethnic and multi-confessional society”, and support economic and social development. In accordance with these efforts, NATO troops (KFOR) remain in the country to provide security for the many large-scale infrastructure, governance and development programmes.

The situation at the border between Serbia and Kosovo remains problematic. In the summer of 2011, local Serbs built roadblocks to prevent the government of Kosovo from taking control of border crossings into Serbia and imposing customs controls. Increased tension and fear led to the deployment of KFOR troops at specific border crossings, and violent clashes ensued. Tensions look set to continue as north Kosovo Serbs threatened to resist integration with the rest of Kosovo following a tentative EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo in April 2013.


Uncertainties about Kosovo’s status – particularly its predominantly ethnic Serb-populated north – continue to have an impact on politics in south Serbia. The desire for secession is particularly prevalent in the Preševo Valley. In an unofficial referendum in 1992, an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians in the Preševo Valley expressed their desire to join Kosovo. Following the 1999 conflict in Kosovo, UCPMB (Ushtria Çlirimtare e Preshevës, Medvegjës dhe Bujanocit, Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac), with support from Kosovo Liberation Army, attacked police and army units.

The Konculj Agreement of May 2001 brought about a fragile state of peace. Since then steps have been taken to provide security, freedom of movement and the right to return to the Preševo Valley; develop a “multiethnic and multi-confessional society”; and support economic and social development. The Coordination Body for the Municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medvedja – an administrative and executive body established to coordinate the activities of the Serbian government in south Serbia – has long been undermined by regular Albanian boycotts and a failure to deliver in specified areas. After an absence of almost three-years, Albanian leaders from southern Serbia returned to the Co-ordination Body in 2009, after an agreement was reached on restructuring the body’s composition and competencies, including an amendment that means all decisions will now be made by consensus.

Image by Clark & Kim Kays published under a creative commons license

The atmosphere is equally tense in Sandžak – a multi-ethnic region, bordering Kosovo to the south-east and Bosnia and Herzegovina to the west, which contains the single largest Bosniak community in the Balkans outside Bosnia. The area remains prone to both inter- and intra-ethnic disputes, though the latter remains more problematic at present. As in the south of Serbia, this situation is exacerbated by difficult economic conditions including high unemployment and widespread poverty. Like elsewhere in Serbia, Sandžak faces the typical problems of economic decline, corruption, organised crime and dysfunctional institutions, which contribute to fuelling ethnic tensions.

Economically, the area also remains under-developed, particularly in terms of infrastructure, and amongst the poorest regions in the country. There is widespread unemployment, whilst annual incomes per capita, especially in Bosniak majority municipalities, are well below the national average. Almost half of all economic activity takes place outside of legal channels.

Whilst there have been no major incidents in recent years, inter-ethnic tensions persist. Ethnic Albanian grievances derive, in part, from their perceived under-representation in public institutions and the judiciary, and the presence of Serbian security forces; whilst ethnic Serbs seek the establishment of multi-ethnic local government in Bujanovac, where they constitute some 35 per cent of the population. Uncertainties about Kosovo’s status – particularly its predominantly ethnic Serb-populated north – continue to have an impact on politics in south Serbia.

Image by Michał Sacharewicz published under a creative commons license

By often referring to the region as “East Kosovo”, ethnic Albanian politicians draw an implicit link between Serb-inhabited territory north of the River Ibar in Kosovo and the future of southern Serbia. The de facto partitioning of Kosovo could therefore encourage Kosovo Albanians and ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia to seek the unification of the Preševo Valley with Kosovo.

The two main political parties in Sandžak are the Sandžak Democratic Party (SDP), led by Rasim Ljajic, and the Party of Democratic Action of Sandžak (SDA), led by Sulejman Ugljanin. Previously co-founders of a local branch of the SDA in the 1990s, the two split in the mid-1990s. Whilst Ljajic has regularly strove to democratise Sandžak and promote Bosniak participation in Serbian cultural and political life, Ugljanin has remained committed to regional autonomy for Sandžak – similar to that enjoyed by Vojvodina, an autonomous province in the north of Serbia – and has proclaimed the notion of a “historic Sandžak”. Such autonomy is opposed by Serbs in the three western Serbian-majority Sandžak municipalities and by many Bosniaks, who have become increasingly dissatisfied with the lack of attention paid to issues such as corruption.

Image by Limbic published under a creative commons license

In terms of political representation, a new Law on National Minorities in 2002 legalised the Bosniak National Council of Sandžak (BNVS), previously the Muslim National Council of Sandžak (MNVS), and made it the highest organ of the Bosniak national minority inside Serbia. In 1991, the MNVS adopted a “Memorandum on the Special Status of Sandžak” which outlined notions of devolution and regional organization for Bosniaks in Sandžak. In a referendum organized by the MNVS between 25 and 27 October 1991, 98.90 per cent supported political autonomy.

Serbia started accession negotiations with the EU in 2003 and, with the arrest of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic in 2011, Serbia has taken various steps toward European integration. Serbia obtained official candidate status in March 2012, and the ascension process was launched in December 2012 with a view to negotiations in June 2013. This process is dependent on difficult political conditions concerning a settlement with Kosovo, though significant progress was made in April 2013 when the two countries reached a tentative deal in Brussels.

Last updated: April 2013. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.