In the early 1990s, the state of Yugoslavia disintegrated through a series of civil wars in the Western Balkans. These were characterised by brutal violence between the different ethnic groups in the region. In 2015, the situation in the region remains tense, with Kosovan independence disputed by Serbia and the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina an ongoing source of instability.
The break-up of Yugoslavia
After World War II, Yugoslavia – a federal state made up of six ethnically heterogeneous republics – Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia – became a socialist state under Josip Broz Tito, who was President for Life from 1944-1980. His policies supported the embrace of Yugoslav identity based on solidarity and resistance to the German occupation. This suppression of ethnic identities caused resentment, despite people from different ethnic backgrounds living with each other harmoniously on a day-to-day basis.
From the 1973 oil crisis onwards, Yugoslavia’s economy was in constant decline, which worsened after Tito’s death in 1980. As formally suppressed narratives about ethnic violence in the past surfaced, and majorities shifted – ethnically in Kosovo and politically in Croatia – many ethnic Serbs felt threatened. These tensions were used by Slobodan Milošević, a leading member of the Communist party, to assert centralised Serbian control over Yugoslavia.
This increased feelings of insecurity elsewhere in the region, and was accompanied by growing nationalism among all ethnic groups. Motivated by the collapse of the Soviet Union, Macedonia and Slovenia separated more or less peacefully from Yugoslavia in 1991. The secession of Montenegro from Serbia, in 2006, would also be peaceful.
But Croatian nationalists (led by Franjo Tuđjman) used the secessions of Slovenia and Macedonia to agitate for independence for their nation. With the Serb population wanting to remain part of Yugoslavia, this led to local clashes. Through Serb paramilitary activities in 1991, the so-called “Homeland War” broke out.
In 1992, the Republic of Croatia became internationally recognised, a ceasefire was negotiated, and UN peacekeeping forces deployed. A Croatian military operation in 1995 defeated all remaining Serb forces and ended the war, which in killed more than 20,000 people and displaced 250,000.
Shortly after Croatia declared its independence, 98 per cent of voters chose independence for Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) in a referendum which was boycotted by Bosnian Serbs, who feared repression in a Bosnian republic. They declared independence for their own state in early 1992, Republika Srpska. Serb paramilitary and Yuoslav army forces, backed by Milošević’s regime, engaged in violence, claiming areas populated by Serb majorities. The Croatian government also used the situation to claim parts of Bosnia. This split the state largely along Serb, Croat and Bosniac ethnic lines.
The final major conflict began 1998 in Kosovo. Following a decade of Serbian repression and predominantly non-violent resistance from the majority Albanian population, the newly formed Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) used brutal attacks on Serbs to escalate the conflict to gather international attention. The Serb government responded with violence.
In 1999, a NATO bombing campaign forced Milošević to withdraw his troops and installed international governance structures. But tensions remained and violent outbreaks such as the Mitrovica clashes surrounded the dispute about Kosovo’s political status. The war killed an estimated 13,000 people and displaced 1.6 million.
In Serbia, the municipalities of Preševo, Bujanovac and Medveda, where ethnic Albanians call for unification with Kosovo, as well as the Sandžak region – which contains the largest Bosniac group outside of Bosnia in the Balkans – demanded autonomy in 1999. The Liberation Army of Preševo, Medveđa and Bujanovac, or UCPMB, began to attack police and army units in Preševo Valley, supported by the KLA. This ended with the Konculj Agreement in May 2001. The situation in Sandžak continues to be dominated by disputes among the two main Bosniac parties, who debate whether to remain in Serbia or fight for regional autonomy.
Mutual blame for past events and discrimination are common. In January 2015, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had to reject Croatian claims – and counter-claims by Serbia – to call events during the war in Croatia genocide. Still, the indictment of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić as two leaders of the Bosnian Serb forces, may contribute to peace and stability in the whole region by instilling trust in state institutions.
The EU has attempted to effect change in the region as a condition of future membership. Croatia joined the EU as the 28th member state in July 2013. In late 2014, a British-German initiative attempted to reactivate BiH’s EU bid from 2005, calling for inter-ethnic cooperation and reforms after a two decade-long standstill.
Looking to the future: united or divided?
Indeed, the Dayton Peace Agreement, which divided BiH into two entities and gave the three constituent ethnic groups extensive veto powers, frequently impede the formation of governments, and is often seen as the main barrier to reconciliation. In spring 2014, BiH saw its extensive, yet fruitless grassroots protests. Shortly after, heavy floods ruined many rebuilt houses, affecting vulnerable groups such as marginalised Roma and IDPs. At the same time, international donors retreated from BiH, giving way to local grassroots initiatives that foster inter-ethnic cooperation.
Backed by the EU and the United States, but rejected by Serbia and several other countries, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The ICJ ruled in support of Kosovo. However, this remains a disputed topic which impedes Serbia’s EU accession negotiations, and an EU-brokered deal between Serbia and Kosovo in April 2013 was until recently frozen.
Since 2008, large-scale infrastructure, governance and development programmes have been implemented in Kosovo with the ongoing presence of the Nato-led KFOR peacekeeping force. But due to ongoing instability, many continue to set out to emigrate.
Last updated: March 2015. 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.