History of Yugoslavia

Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Bosnia

Church of St John at Kaneo on Lake Ohrid in Macedonia
Frans Sellies / Getty Images

After the fall of the Austria-Hungary empire at the conclusion of World War I, the victors established a new country out of six ethnic groups: Yugoslavia. Just over seventy years later, this piecemeal nation disintegrated and war broke out between newly independent states.

Yugoslavia's history is hard to follow unless you know the whole story. Read here about events that transpired to make sense of the fall of this nation.

The Fall of Yugoslavia

Josip Broz Tito, president of Yugoslavia, managed to keep the country unified from its formation in 1943 to his death in 1980. A prominent ally to the Soviet Union during World War II, Yugoslavia came to resent the USSR's growing desire to dominate its economy and land. Subordinate Yugoslavia turned the tables in an infamous alliance rupture with Josip Tito and Joseph Stalin on either side.

Tito ousted the Soviet Union and was consequently "excommunicated" by Stalin from a previously strong partnership. Following this conflict, Yugoslavia became a satellite Soviet nation. When Soviet blockades and sanctions were established, Yugoslavia got creative and developed diplomatic relationships with western European governments in order to trade, despite the fact that Yugoslavia was technically a communist country. After the death of Stalin, relations between the USSR and Yugoslavia improved.

Upon Tito's death in 1980, increasingly nationalistic factions in Yugoslavia became agitated once again with Soviet control and demanded full autonomy. It was the fall of the USSR—and communism in general—in 1991 that finally broke the jigsaw kingdom of Yugoslavia into five states according to ethnicity: the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. An estimated 250,000 people were killed by wars and "ethnic cleansing" in the new countries of the former Yugoslavia.​

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia

What remained of Yugoslavia after its dissolution was initially referred to as the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This republic was comprised of Serbia and Montenegro.


Although the rogue state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was exiled from the United Nations in 1992, Serbia and Montenegro regained recognition on the world stage in 2001 after the arrest of Slobodan Milosevic, former Serbian president. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was dissolved and rebranded.

In 2003, the country was restructured into a loose federation of two republics called Serbia and Montenegro. This nation was called the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, but there was arguably another state involved.

The former Serbian province of Kosovo lies just south of Serbia. Past confrontations between ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and ethnic Serbs from Serbia have drawn attention to the province, which is 80% Albanian, on a global scale. After many years of struggle, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence in February 2008. Unlike Montenegro, not all the countries of the world have accepted the independence of Kosovo, most notably Serbia and Russia.


Montenegro and Serbia split into two separate countries in response to a referendum for Montenegro's independence in June 2006. The creation of Montenegro as an independent country resulted in landlocked Serbia losing access to the Adriatic Sea.


Slovenia, the most homogeneous and prosperous region of what was once Yugoslavia, was the first to secede from the diverse kingdom. This country now has its own language and capital city, Ljubljana (also a primate city). Slovenia is mostly Roman Catholic and has a compulsory education system.

Slovenia was able to avoid much of the bloodshed induced by Yugoslavia's collapse due to its ethnic uniformity. Not a large nation, this once Yugoslavian republic had a population of approximately 2.08 million as of 2019. Slovenia joined both the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union in the spring of 2004.


Macedonia's claim to fame is its rocky relationship with Greece, a longstanding dispute caused by the very name Macedonia that existed before Yugoslavia even fell apart. For geographical and cultural reasons, Greece feels that "Macedonia", named after the Greek kingdom of Macedon, was appropriated and should not be used. Because Greece is so strongly opposed to the use of the ancient Greek region as an external territory, Macedonia was admitted to the United Nations under the name "the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia".

In 2019, just over two million people lived in Macedonia: about two-thirds Macedonian and 27% is Albanian. The capital city is Skopje and major exports include wheat, corn, tobacco, steel, and iron.


In January 1998, Croatia assumed control of its entire territory, some of which had been under the control of Serbs. This also marked the end of a two-year United Nations peacekeeping mission there. Croatia's declaration of independence in 1991 caused Serbia, unwilling to cede, to declare war.

Croatia is a boomerang-shaped country of over four million with extensive coastline along the westernmost portion of the Adriatic Sea. The capital of this Roman Catholic state is Zagreb. In 1995, Croatia, Bosnia, and Serbia signed a peace agreement.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

The almost landlocked "cauldron of conflict" of four million inhabitants is a melting pot of Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. While the Winter Olympics of 1984 were held in Bosnia-Herzegovina's capital city of Sarajevo, the country has since been devastated by war. The mountainous region has been trying to rebuild its infrastructure since its 1995 peace agreement with Croatia and Serbia, on whom the small country relies for imports such as food and materials.

The area that was once Yugoslavia is a dynamic and interesting region of the world. It is likely to continue to be the focus of geopolitical struggle and change as countries work to gain recognition and membership in the European Union.


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Rosenberg, Matt. "History of Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo, Jul. 30, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-former-yugoslavia-1435415. Rosenberg, Matt. (2021, July 30). History of Yugoslavia. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-former-yugoslavia-1435415 Rosenberg, Matt. "History of Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-former-yugoslavia-1435415 (accessed May 29, 2023).