The Wars of the Former Yugoslavia

War Damaged Train Station, Vukovar, Croatia
Vukovar's train station was a target during the Croatian War of Independence. Mark Edward Harris / Getty Images

In the early 1990s, the Balkan country of Yugoslavia fell apart in a series of wars which saw ethnic cleansing and genocide return to Europe. The driving force was not age-old ethnic tensions (as the Serb side liked to proclaim), but distinctly modern nationalism, fanned by the media and driven by politicians.

As Yugoslavia collapsed, majority ethnicities pushed for independence. These nationalist governments ignored their minorities or actively persecuted them, forcing them out of jobs. As propaganda made these minorities paranoid, they armed themselves and smaller actions degenerated into a bloody set of wars. While the situation was rarely as clear as Serb versus Croat versus Muslim, many small civil wars erupted over decades of rivalry and those key patterns existed.

Context: Yugoslavia and the Fall of Communism

The Balkans had been the site of conflict between the Austrian and Ottoman Empires for centuries before both collapsed during World War I. The peace conference which redrew the maps of Europe created the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes out of territory in the area, pushing together groups of people who soon quarreled about how they wished to be governed. A strictly centralized state formed, but opposition continued, and in 1929 the king dismissed representative government—after the Croat leader was shot while at parliament—and began to rule as a monarchical dictator. The kingdom was renamed Yugoslavia, and the new government purposefully ignored the existing and traditional regions and peoples. In 1941, as World War II spread over the continent, Axis soldiers invaded.

During the course of the war in Yugoslavia—which had turned from a war against the Nazis and their allies to a messy civil war complete with ethnic cleansing—communist partisans rose to prominence. When liberation was achieved it was the communists who took power under their leader, Josip Tito. The old kingdom was now replaced by a federation of supposedly six equal republics, which included Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia, and two autonomous regions, including Kosovo. Tito kept this nation together partly by sheer force of will and a communist party which cut across ethnic boundaries, and, as the USSR broke with Yugoslavia, the latter took its own path. As Tito’s rule continued, ever more power filtered down, leaving just the Communist Party, the army, and Tito to hold it together.

However, after Tito died, the different wishes of the six republics began to pull Yugoslavia apart, a situation exacerbated by the collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s, leaving just a Serb-dominated army. Without their old leader, and with the new possibilities of free elections and self-representation, Yugoslavia divided.

The Rise of Serbian Nationalism

Arguments began over centralism with a strong central government, versus federalism with the six republics having greater powers. Nationalism emerged, with people pushing for splitting Yugoslavia up or forcing it together under Serb domination. In 1986, the Serbian Academy of Sciences issued a Memorandum which became a focal point for Serb nationalism by reviving ideas of a Greater Serbia. The Memorandum claimed Tito, a Croat/Slovene, had deliberately tried to weaken Serb areas, which some people believed, as it explained why they were doing relatively poorly economically compared to the northern regions of Slovenia and Croatia. The Memorandum also claimed Kosovo had to remain Serbian, despite a 90 percent Albanian population, because of the importance to Serbia of a 14th century battle in that region. It was a conspiracy theory that twisted history, given weight by respected authors, and a Serb media which claimed Albanians were trying to rape and kill their way to genocide. They weren’t. Tensions between Albanians and local Serbs exploded and the region began to fragment.

In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic was a low-key but powerful bureaucrat who, thanks to the major support of Ivan Stambolic (who had risen to be Serbia’s Prime Minister) was able to leverage his position into an almost Stalin-like seizure of power in the Serb Communist Party by filling job after job with his own supporters. Until 1987 Milosevic was often portrayed as a dim-witted Stambolic lackey, but that year he was in the right place at the right time in Kosovo to make a televised speech in which he effectively seized control of the Serbian nationalism movement and then consolidated his part by seizing control of the Serbian communist party in a battle waged in the media. Having won and purged the party, Milosevic turned the Serb media into a propaganda machine which brainwashed many into paranoid nationalism. Milosevic than gained Serb ascendance over Kosovo, Montenegro, and Vojvodina, securing nationalist Serb power in four of the region’s units; the Yugoslav government could not resist.

Slovenia now feared a Greater Serbia and set themselves up as the opposition, so the Serb media turned its attack onto Slovenes. Milosevic then started a boycott of Slovenia. With one eye on Milosevic’s human rights abuses in Kosovo, the Slovenes began to believe the future was out of Yugoslavia and away from Milosevic. In 1990, with Communism collapsing in Russia and across Eastern Europe, the Yugoslavia Communist Congress fragmented along nationalist lines, with Croatia and Slovenia quitting and holding multi-party elections in response to Milosevic trying to use it to centralize Yugoslav’s remaining power in Serb hands. Milosevic was then elected President of Serbia, thanks in part to removing $1.8 billion from the federal bank to use as subsidies. Milosevic now appealed to all Serbs, whether they were in Serbia or not, supported by a new Serb constitution which claimed to represent Serbs in other Yugoslav nations.

The Wars for Slovenia and Croatia

With the collapse of the communist dictatorships in the late 1980s, the Slovenian and Croatian regions of Yugoslavia held free, multi-party elections. The victor in Croatia was the Croatian Democratic Union, a right-wing party. The fears of the Serb minority were fuelled by claims from within the remainder of Yugoslavia that the CDU planned a return to the anti-Serb hatred of World War II. As the CDU had taken power partly as a nationalistic response to Serbian propaganda and actions, they were easily cast as the Ustasha reborn, especially as they began to force Serbs out of jobs and positions of power. The Serb-dominated region of Knin—vital for the much needed Croatian tourism industry—then declared itself a sovereign nation, and a spiral of terrorism and violence began between Croatian Serbs and Croats. Just as the Croats were accused of being Ustaha, so the Serbs were accused of being Chetniks.

Slovenia held a plebiscite for independence, which passed due to large fears over Serb domination and Milosevic's actions in Kosovo, and both Slovenia and Croatia began arming local military and paramilitaries. Slovenia declared independence on June 25, 1991, and the JNA (Yugoslavia’s Army, under Serbian control, but concerned whether their pay and benefits would survive the division into smaller states) was ordered in to hold Yugoslavia together. Slovenia’s independence was aimed more at breaking from Milosevic’s Greater Serbia than from the Yugoslav ideal, but once the JNA went in, full independence was the only option. Slovenia had prepared for a short conflict, managing to keep some of their weapons when the JNA had disarmed Slovenia and Croatia, and hoped that the JNA would soon get distracted by wars elsewhere. In the end, the JNA was defeated in 10 days, partly because there were few Serbs in the region for it to stay and fight to protect.

When Croatia also declared independence on June 25, 1991, following a Serb seizure of Yugoslavia’s presidency, clashes between Serbs and Croatians increased. Milosevic and the JNA used this as a reason to invade Croatia to try to "protect" the Serbs. This action was encouraged by the U.S. Secretary of State who told Milosevic that the U.S. would not recognize Slovenia and Croatia, giving the Serb leader the impression he had a free hand.

A short war followed, where around a third of Croatia was occupied. The UN then acted, offering foreign troops to try and halt the warfare (in the form of UNPROFOR) and bring peace and demilitarization to the disputed areas. This was accepted by the Serbs because they’d already conquered what they wanted and forced other ethnicities out, and they wanted to use the peace to focus on other areas. The international community recognized Croatian independence in 1992, but areas remained occupied by the Serbs and protected by the UN. Before these could be reclaimed, the conflict in Yugoslavia spread because both Serbia and Croatia wanted to break up Bosnia between them.

In 1995 Croatia’s government won back control of western Slavonia and central Croatia from the Serbs in Operation Storm, thanks in part to U.S. training and U.S. mercenaries; there was counter ethnic cleansing, and the Serb population fled. In 1996 pressure on Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic forced him to surrender eastern Slavonia and pull out his troops, and Croatia finally won back this region in 1998. UN Peacekeepers only left in 2002.

The War for Bosnia

After WWII, the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina became part of Yugoslavia, populated by a mixture of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, the latter being recognized in 1971 as a class of ethnic identity. When a census was taken in the aftermath of the collapse of Communism, Muslims comprised 44 percent of the population, with 32 percent Serbs and fewer Croats. The free elections held then produced political parties with corresponding sizes, and a three-way coalition of nationalist parties. However, the Bosnian Serb party—pushed by Milosevic—agitated for more. In 1991 they declared the Serb Autonomous Regions and a national assembly for Bosnian Serbs only, with supplies coming from Serbia and the former Yugoslavian military.

The Bosnian Croats responded by declaring their own power blocs. When Croatia was recognized by the international community as independent, Bosnia held its own referendum. Despite Bosnian-Serbian disruptions, a massive majority voted for independence, declared on March 3, 1992. This left a large Serb minority which, fuelled by Milosevic’s propaganda, felt threatened and ignored and wanted to join with Serbia. They had been armed by Milosevic, and would not go quietly.

Initiatives by foreign diplomats to peacefully break Bosnia into three areas, defined by the ethnicity of the locals, failed as fighting broke out. War spread throughout Bosnia as Bosnian Serb paramilitaries attacked Muslim towns and executed people en masse to force the populations out, to try and create a united land filled with Serbs.

The Bosnian Serbs were led by Radovan Karadzic, but criminals soon formed gangs and took their own bloody routes. The term ethnic cleansing was used to describe their actions. Those who weren’t killed or had not fled were put into detention camps and mistreated further. Shortly after, two-thirds of Bosnia came under the control of forces commanded from Serbia. After setbacks—an international arms embargo which favored the Serbs, a conflict with Croatia which saw them ethnically cleanse too (such as at Ahmici)—the Croats and Muslims agreed to a federation. They fought the Serbs to a standstill and then took back their land.

During this period, the U.N. refused to play any direct role despite evidence of genocide, preferring to provide humanitarian aid (which undoubtedly saved lives, but did not tackle the cause of the problem), a no-fly zone, sponsoring safe areas, and promoting discussions such as the Vance-Owen Peace Plan. The latter has been much criticized as pro-Serb but did involve them handing some conquered land back. It was scuppered by the international community.

However, in 1995 NATO attacked Serbian forces after they ignored the U.N. This was thanks in no small part to one man, General Leighton W. Smith Jr., who was in charge in the area, although their effectiveness is debated.

Peace talks—previously rejected by the Serbs but now accepted by a Milosevic who was turning against the Bosnian Serbs and their exposed weaknesses—produced the Dayton Agreement after the place of its negotiation in Ohio. This produced "The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina" between Croats and Muslims, with 51 percent of the land, and a Bosnian Serb republic with 49 percent of the land. A 60,000 man international peacekeeping force was sent in (IFOR).

No one was happy: no Greater Serbia, no Greater Croatia, and a devastated Bosnia-Hercegovina moving towards partition, with huge areas politically dominated by Croatia and Serbia. There had been millions of refugees, perhaps half of the Bosnian population. In Bosnia, elections in 1996 elected another triple government.

The War for Kosovo

By the end of the 1980s, Kosovo was a supposedly autonomous area within Serbia, with a 90 percent Albanian population. Because of the region’s religion and history—Kosovo was the location of a battle key in Serbian folklore and of some importance to Serbia’s actual history—many nationalist Serbs began to demand, not just control of the region but a resettlement program to oust the Albanians permanently. Slobodan Milosevic canceled Kosovar autonomy in 1988–1989, and Albanians retaliated with strikes and protests.

A leadership emerged in the intellectual Democratic League of Kosovo, which aimed at pushing as far as they could towards independence without getting into a war with Serbia. A referendum called for independence, and newly autonomous structures were created within Kosovo itself. Given that Kosovo was poor and unarmed, this stance proved popular, and amazingly the region passed through the bitter Balkan wars of the early 1990s mostly unscathed. With ‘peace’, Kosovo was ignored by the negotiators and found itself still in Serbia.

For many, the way the region had been sidelined and lumped into Serbia by the West suggested that peaceful protest wasn’t enough. A militant arm, which had emerged in 1993 and produced the Kosovan Liberation Army (KLA), now grew stronger and was bankrolled by those Kosovars who worked abroad and could provide foreign capital. The KLA committed their first major actions in 1996, and a cycle of terrorism and counter-attack flared up between Kosovars and Serbs.

As the situation worsened and Serbia refused diplomatic initiatives from the West, NATO decided it could intervene, especially after Serbs massacred 45 Albanian villagers in a highly publicized incident. A last-ditch attempt at finding peace diplomatically—which has also been accused of simply being a Western sideshow to establish clear good and bad sides—led the Kosovar contingent to accept terms but the Serbs to reject it, thus allowing the West to portray the Serbs as at fault.

There thus began on March 24 a very new type of war, one which lasted until June 10 but which was conducted entirely from the NATO end by airpower. Eight hundred thousand people fled their homes, and NATO failed to work with the KLA to coordinate things on the ground. This air war progressed ineffectually for NATO until they finally accepted that they would need ground troops, and went about getting them ready—and until Russia agreed to force Serbia to concede. Quite which one of these was the most important is still up for debate.

Serbia was to pull all its troops and police (who were largely Serb) out of Kosovo, and the KLA was to disarm. A force of peacekeepers dubbed KFOR would police the region, which was to have full autonomy inside Serbia.

The Myths of Bosnia

There is a myth, widely spread during the wars of the former Yugoslavia and still around now, that Bosnia was a modern creation with no history, and that fighting for it was wrong (in as much as the western and international powers did fight for it). Bosnia was a medieval kingdom under a monarchy founded in the 13th century. It survived until the Ottomans conquered it in the 15th century. Its boundaries remained among the most consistent of the Yugoslavian states as administrative regions of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires.

Bosnia did have a history, but what it lacked was an ethnic or religious majority. Instead, it was a multi-cultural and relatively peaceful state. Bosnia was not torn apart by millennia-old religious or ethnic conflict, but by politics and modern tensions. Western bodies believed the myths (many spread by Serbia) and abandoned many in Bosnia to their fate.

Western Lack of Intervention

The wars in the former Yugoslavia could have proved even more embarrassing for NATO, the UN, and the leading western nations like the U.K., U.S., and France, had the media chosen to report it as such. Atrocities were reported in 1992, but peacekeeping forces—which were undersupplied and given no powers—as well as a no-fly zone and an arms embargo which favored the Serbs, did little to stop the war or the genocide. In one dark incident, 7,000 males were killed in Srebrenica as UN Peacekeepers looked on unable to act. Western views on the wars were too often based on misreadings of ethnic tensions and Serbian propaganda.


The wars in the former Yugoslavia appear to be over for now. Nobody won, as the result was a redrawing of the ethnic map through fear and violence. All peoples—Croat, Muslim, Serb and others—saw centuries-old communities permanently erased through murder and the threat of murder, leading to states which were more ethnically homogenous but tainted by guilt. This may have pleased top players like Croat leader Tudjman, but it destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. All 161 people charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for war crimes have now been arrested.

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Your Citation
Wilde, Robert. "The Wars of the Former Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Wilde, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Wars of the Former Yugoslavia. Retrieved from Wilde, Robert. "The Wars of the Former Yugoslavia." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 9, 2023).