How the break-up of Yugoslavia 30 years ago led to bloody wars and lingering tensions

Peace in parts of Europe is fragile as separatist groups stoke a decades-old fire

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April 27, 1992, marked the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. It was the culmination of decades of tension within a region deeply divided by ethnic and religious groups and would send the Balkans into a series of wars and massacres. The outcome of the years of bloodshed was seven nations and a fragile peace. Thirty years on, this is under threat from political parties exploiting lingering divisions, all while a new war rages in Eastern Europe.

“The internees are horribly thin, raw-boned. Some are almost cadaverous, with skin like parchment folded around their arms. Their faces are lantern-jawed, and their eyes are haunted by the empty stare of the prisoner who does not know what will happen to him next.”

These were the scenes reported by British journalist Ed Vulliamy at the Omarska concentration camp, operated by the Bosnian Serb army in August 1992.

The inmates were largely Bosnian Muslims captured in a civil war that had started months after the break-up of Yugoslavia on April 27, 1992.

The conflict unleashed savagery not seen in Europe since the Second World War. Tensions and hatred, suppressed for generations, overflowed into 20 years of sectarian and ethnic conflict that would leave at least 130,000 dead and create 2.4 million refugees.

Quote
Serious intercommunal conflict will accompany the break-up [of Yugoslavia] and will continue afterward ... The violence will be intractable and bitter.
US National Intelligence Estimate, 1990

It was marked by massacres such as the 8,000 men and boys, all Muslims, murdered by Bosnian Serbs in the town of Srebrenica three years later, in July 1995.

Yet for nearly 40 years, the complex web of nationalities, religions and cultures known as the Peoples Republic of Yugoslavia had known peace and relative prosperity.

“I am the leader of one country which has two alphabets, three languages, four religions, five nationalities, six republics, surrounded by seven neighbours, a country in which live eight ethnic minorities,” was the description of its founding president, Josip Tito.

And it was Tito’s death, in May 1980, that began unravelling Yugoslavia and a return to the centuries of conflict and ethnic tensions that had preceded that brief stability.

The birth of Yugoslavia and Tito's presidency

In June 1914, the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo by a Bosnian nationalist triggered the First World War.

Four years later, with millions dead and the old order of Europe in ruins, a new country — formed from part of a region known as the Balkans and sandwiched between the dying Ottoman and Habsburg Empires — was born in 1918, bringing together Croats and Slovenes under the Kingdom of Serbia.

In 1929, the country was renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, or “Land of the South Slavs.”

Nazi Germany invaded in 1941, and a war of insurgency followed, led by communist republican partisans backed by the Soviet Union.

Nazi soldiers of the German Wehrmacht on advance in Nis, Yugoslavia, April 1941. Getty

This National Liberation Army succeeded in driving out Germany and its allies in 1945, with the new People’s Republic of Yugoslavia headed by Tito, the charismatic Serbo-Croat leader of the partisans.

For the next 35 years, he would hold the federation together, the strength of his personality containing the country’s divisions. His version of socialism was absolute, but Tito also resisted Moscow’s authority, with a split from the USSR and its leader Joseph Stalin in 1948.

Instead, the country became one of the leaders of the Non-Aligned Movement, along with Egypt and India. Its vision of “socialism with a human face” attracted many admirers, and its sun-soaked beaches and historic sites attracted millions more as tourists.

But it could not last. Tito’s death in 1980 was followed by the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, destabilising Yugoslavia’s economy and leading to a rise of nationalism and calls to break up the country.

Ethnic tensions reach their peak as provinces seek to break off

In 1990, a US National Intelligence Estimate concluded “serious intercommunal conflict will accompany the break-up and will continue afterward".

“The violence will be intractable and bitter. There is little the United States and its European allies can do to preserve Yugoslav unity.”

The prediction of American intelligence officers proved grimly accurate.

A year before the report, Serbia, the largest member of the Yugoslav federation, elected Slobodan Milosevic as its president.

A fervent nationalist, Milosevic's goal was to carve a Greater Serbia out of the collapsing Yugoslavia. Instead, as The Guardian newspaper wrote in his 2006 obituary “From 1991 to 1999, he presided over mayhem and mass murder in south-eastern Europe.”

Croatia and Slovenia were the first to declare themselves independent states in 1991. A 10-day war between Slovenia and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) resulted in fewer than 100 deaths, a ceasefire and effective victory for the Slovenes.

Croatia’s bid for sovereignty was far more bloody and protracted. An estimated 20,000 people were killed in a five-year struggle where the JNA, effectively the army of Serbia, intervene in support of Croatia’s ethnic Serb population.

To international outrage, the ancient walled city of Dubrovnik was badly damaged in a siege by the JNA, and acts of brutality were committed on both sides before the Croatian army achieved victory in 1995.

Smoke and flames rise from the harbour inside the walled city of Dubrovnik on November 12, 1991, after it was bombarded by the Yugoslavian Federal Army. Peter Northall / AFP

The toll in neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina was far worse. Almost half the country was Bosniac Muslims, but a substantial minority were Serbian Orthodox Christians. The declaration of independence in February 1992 led the Bosnian Serbs to form the breakaway Republika Srpska, led by a former poet Radovan Karadzic, who would go on to oversee the genocide of Bosniacs.

More than 100,000 died in the conflict, mostly Bosniac Muslims, and the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, was besieged for three years. Elsewhere, under the command of the Bosnian Serb Ratko Mladić, soldiers raped up to 15,000 women, most of them Muslim.

Bloody wars prompt global intervention

Eventually the world was forced to intervene. At the request of the UN, Nato forces carried out a series of air strikes on Bosnian Serb forces that finally resulted in peace negotiations and the international recognition of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in late 1995.

Nato was forced to step in again in 1999, as an insurgency by the Albanian population of Serbian-controlled Kosovo resulted in more ethnic cleansing of Kosovar Albanians by Serbian forces.

A man visits the grave of his father and relatives killed during the late 1990s war in Kosovo at a cemetery in the village of Rezalle on November 27, 2021. The war between Serbian forces and ethnic Albanian guerrillas killed an estimated 13,000 and only ended after Nato intervened. Armend Nimani / AFP

A bombing campaign, initiated by the then US president Bill Clinton, involved aircraft and cruise missiles attacks on hundreds of targets, including several in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

“We do no favours to ourselves or to the rest of the world when we justify looking away from this kind of slaughter by oversimplifying and conveniently, in our own way, demonising the whole Balkans by saying that these people are simply incapable of civilised behaviour with one another,” Mr Clinton said at the time.

Under UN protection, the Republic of Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, while Macedonia, which had declared independence back in 1991, formally became the Republic of North Macedonia in 2019.

What was once one country is now seven independent nation states.

The International Criminal Court charged a number of Bosnia Serb leaders with war crimes. Karadzic was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity in 2016 and sentenced to 40 years in prison.

Milosevic became the first head of state to be prosecuted for war crimes. He died of a heart attack while on trial in 2006. Mladic is serving life imprisonment for his part in the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.

A total of 161 people have been indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, and 90 were convicted.

Impact on Europe today

In 2022, the region is mostly at peace. Millions of Europeans again flock each summer for holidays on the coast of Croatia and Slovenia, now full members of the European Union.

This month, Serbian elections brought a landslide victory for Aleksandar Vucic, and his ruling Serbian Progressive Party.

Mr Vucic, a populist who has progressively clamped down on dissenting voices, has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and thousands took the streets of Belgrade on April 15 in support of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

As the war rages on, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo have applied to join Nato to both protect themselves and preserve regional security. Internally, decades-long peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina is at risk from the Bosnian Serbs of Republika Srpska threatening to secede and join neighbouring Serbia.

The separatist movement is led by former Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik, who was placed under sanctions by the US and UK this year for his denial of the massacres in Srebrenica and Sarajevo, and is reportedly backed by Mr Putin.

“These two politicians are deliberately undermining the hard-won peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Encouraged by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, their reckless behaviour threatens stability and security across the Western Balkans,” British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said in a statement this month.

The latest unrest shows just how fragile peace is in the region, as it has been for centuries.

Updated: July 13, 2022, 7:13 AM
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