Yugoslav Wars


Yugoslavia (yōō´gōslä´vēə), Serbo-Croatian Jugoslavija, former country of SE Europe, in the Balkan Peninsula. Belgrade was the capital and by far the largest city. Yugoslavs (i.e., South Slavs) consisted of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and Bosniaks (also known Bosnian Muslims). Closely related linguistically, these peoples are separated by historical and cultural factors that ultimately led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The country also included Albanian (mainly in Serbia's former Kosovo prov.) and Hungarian minorities (mainly in Serbia's Vojvodina prov.).


Yugoslavia came into existence as a result of World War I. In 1914 only Serbia (which included the present Republic of Macedonia) and Montenegro were independent states; Croatia, Slovenia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy. (The earlier histories of Yugoslavia's six component republics are treated in more detail in their respective articles.)

A Sketch of Yugoslav History before World War I

Slavs settled (6th–7th cent.) in the Balkans and were Christianized in the 9th cent. Slovenia was under Frankish (8th cent.), Bavarian (9th cent.), and Austrian (14th cent.) rule until 1918. A Croatian kingdom existed from the 10th to 11th cent., when it was conquered by Hungary, and Croatia was subsequently under Hungarian rule until the end of World War I. Bosnia was independent from the 12th to 15th cent., when it fell under Turkish rule. In the late 19th cent. it passed to Austria-Hungary, and its formal annexation (1908) was one of the irritants that led to World War I.

Macedonia was contested between the Byzantines, Bulgarians, and others until conquered by Serbia in 14th cent., and like Serbia it fell to the Turks (late 14th cent.). Serbia gained control over the region during the Balkan Wars. A Serbian kingdom emerged (13th cent.) and under Stephen Dušan (r. 1331–55) became the most powerful Balkan state. Defeat (1389) at Kosovo Field brought Serbia under Turkish domination from the 14th to 19th cent., with Serbia securely in Turkish hands by 1459.

At the time of the defeat at Kosovo Field what is now Montenegro was the virtually independent principality of Zeta in the Serbian empire. The mountainous principality continued to resist the Turks, but by 1499 most of it had been conquered; Venice held the port of Kotor, and the Montenegrin princes ruled their remnant stronghold from Cetinje. Montenegro's independence was recognized by the Ottoman Empire in 1799, and in 1829 the Turks granted the Serbs autonomy under a hereditary prince. Montenegro and Serbia were recognized as independent by the European powers at the Congress of Berlin (1878). Serbia was proclaimed a kingdom in 1882, and it emerged from the Balkan Wars (1912–13) as a major Balkan power.

A movement for unification of the South Slavs (see also Pan-Slavism) was led by Serbia and was a major cause of World War I. When a Serbian nationalist assassinated (1914) Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Bosnia, Austria declared war on Serbia, thus precipitating World War I. Serbia and Montenegro were overrun by the Central Powers, but Serbian troops were evacuated to Allied-held Corfu, Greece, where representatives of the South Slavic peoples proclaimed (July, 1917) their proposed union under Serbian king Peter I. Montenegro's last monarch, Nicholas I, was deposed in 1918, and Montenegro was united with Serbia. In Dec., 1918, the "Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes" was formally proclaimed.

Founding to World War II

The Paris Peace Conference (see Neuilly, Treaty of; Saint-Germain, Treaty of; Trianon, Treaty of) recognized the new state and enlarged its territory at the expense of Austria and Hungary with Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, and other territories. King Alexander, who had been regent from 1918 for his invalid father, ascended the throne on Peter I's death (1921). In order to protect itself against Hungarian and Bulgarian demands for treaty revisions, Yugoslavia entered (1920, 1921) into alliances with Czechoslovakia and Romania, the three states forming the Little Entente in close cooperation with France. With its western neighbor, Italy, relations were strained from the first over the Fiume question (see Rijeka). Although this was settled in 1924 with Fiume given to Italy, Italian nationalists continued to entertain hopes of appropriating part or all of Dalmatia, which had been secretly promised to Italy in 1915 by the Allies in exchange for joining them in World War I. Yugoslav nationalists, on the other hand, claimed parts of Venezia Giulia on ethnic grounds, and relations remained tense.

Internal problems were still more acute. Late in 1920 the Serbian Pašić became premier and obtained enactment of the centralized constitution of 1921. The Croats, led by Radić, demanded autonomy. In 1928 Radić was shot and killed in parliament. After the Croats had set up (1928) a separate parliament at Zagreb, King Alexander in 1929 proclaimed a dictatorship, dissolved the parliament, and changed the name of the kingdom to Yugoslavia (sometimes spelled Jugoslavia). The royal dictatorship officially ended in 1931, but the new parliamentary constitution provided for an electoral procedure that insured victory for the government party. Troubles with Croatian and Macedonian nationalists culminated (1934) in Alexander's assassination at Marseilles, France. His son, Peter II, succeeded under the regency of Alexander's cousin, Prince Paul. The Croatian problem had been eagerly exploited by Hungary and Italy, which encouraged particularist movements against the Serbian centralists.

Prince Paul's gradual rapprochement with the Axis powers thus had the paradoxical effect of leading to the restoration (1939) of a more democratic government and the establishment of Croatian autonomy. In Mar., 1941, Yugoslavia adhered to the Axis Tripartite Pact. Two days later a bloodless military coup ousted the regent. The new government proclaimed a policy of neutrality, but in Apr., 1941, German troops, assisted by Bulgarian, Hungarian, and Italian forces, invaded Yugoslavia. Striking swiftly, the Germans joined with the Italians in Albania; a week later organized resistance was over. A Croatian puppet state was proclaimed under the leadership of Ante Pavelić, chief of the Ustachi (a fascist Croatian separatist organization; see Croatia). Dalmatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia were divided among Italy, Hungary, and Germany; Serbian Macedonia was awarded to Bulgaria. Serbia was set up as a puppet state under German control. Atrocities were committed by the Axis occupation forces and by the Ustachi.

While Peter II established a government in exile in London, many Yugoslav troops continued to resist in their mountain strongholds. There were two main resistance groups: the chetniks under Mihajlović and an army under the Communist Tito. In 1943 civil war broke out between the two factions, of which the second was more uncompromising in its opposition to the Axis. Tito was supported by the USSR, and he won the support of Great Britain as well. King Peter was forced to transfer the military command from Mihajlović to Tito. By late Oct., 1944, the Germans had been driven from Yugoslavia. The Soviet army entered Belgrade. Tito's council of national liberation was merged (Nov., 1944) with the royal government. In Mar., 1945, Tito became premier. Lacking real power, the non-Communist members of the government resigned and were arrested. In Nov., 1945, national elections—from which the opposition abstained—resulted in victory for the government. The constituent assembly proclaimed a federal people's republic.

Tito and Communist Rule

The constitution of 1946 gave wide autonomy to the six newly created republics, but actual power remained in the hands of Tito and the Communist party. The Allied peace treaty (1947) with Italy awarded Yugoslavia the eastern part of Venezia Giulia and set up Trieste as a free territory; conflict with Italy over Trieste ended in a partition agreement (1954). Within Yugoslavia a vigorous program of socialization was inaugurated. Opposition was crushed or intimidated, and Mihajlović was executed. Close ties were maintained with the USSR and the Cominform until 1948, when a breach between the Yugoslav and Soviet Communist parties occurred and Yugoslavia was expelled from the Cominform.

The Tito government began to pursue an independent course in foreign relations. Economic and military assistance was received from the West. In 1954, Yugoslavia concluded a military defense pact (independent of NATO) with Greece and Turkey. More cordial relations with the USSR were resumed in 1955, but new rifts occurred because of Soviet intervention in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). Domestically Yugoslavia's "national communism" or "Titoism" included the abandonment of agricultural collectivization (1953) and the centralization of administrative and economic controls. Important economic power was given to workers' councils, and the republics were subdivided into communes. In 1966, Aleksander Ranković, the vice president and Tito's long-time associate, was purged for having maintained a network of secret agents and for opposing reform. Friction with the Roman Catholic Church ended with an accord with the Vatican in 1966.

Yugoslavs under Tito possessed greater freedom than the inhabitants of any other Eastern European country. Intellectual freedom was still restricted, however, as the jailings and harassment of Milovan Djilas and Mihaljo Mihaljov showed. In the early 1970s, agitation among the nationalities revived, particularly among the Croats, and controls over intellectual life were stiffened. The autonomy of the six republics and two autonomous provinces of Serbia slowly increased through the 1970s as the economy began to stagnate. With the death of Tito in 1980, an unwieldy collective leadership was established. The economic problems and ethnic divisions continued to deepen in the 1980s, and the foreign debt grew significantly.

The Disintegration of Yugoslavia

In 1987, Slobodan Milošević, a Serbian nationalist, became the Serbian Communist party leader. To the alarm of the other republics Milošević and his supporters revived the vision of a "Greater Serbia," which would consist of Serbia proper, Vojvodina, Kosovo, the Serb-populated parts of Croatia, large sections of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and possibly Macedonia. In early 1989, Serbia rescinded Kosovo's autonomy and sent in troops to suppress the protests of Kosovo's largely Albanian population. Slovenia and Croatia elected non-Communist governments in early 1990 and, threatening secession, demanded greater autonomy. Serbia and Montenegro were the only republics to retain Communist leadership; Milošević was elected president of Serbia in 1989.

After attempts by Serbia to impose its authority on the rest of the country, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence on June 25, 1991. Fighting immediately broke out as the federal army (controlled largely by Serbs) moved into Slovenia. A fragile peace was negotiated by a European Community (EC) delegation, but fighting soon resumed. By the end of July, 1991, however, all federal forces had left Slovenia, although fighting continued throughout the summer between Croatian forces and the federally backed Serbs from Serb areas of Croatia. In Sept., 1991, Macedonia declared its independence, and the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina voted for independence that October.

In Jan., 1992, with Serbs holding 30% of Croatia, a cease-fire was negotiated in that republic, and the United Nations sent in a peacekeeping force. In that same month the EC recognized Croatia and Slovenia as independent states, and in April the EC and the United States recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina's sovereignty. The Serbs, with about 30% of the population, seized 65% of the latter republic's territory and proclaimed the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Croats, with about 20% of the population, seized about half the remainder of the land and proclaimed the Croatian Community of Herceg-Bosna. The poorly armed Muslims, who comprised more than 40% of the population, held the rest of the republic's territory, including the capital. In a campaign of "ethnic cleansing" carried out mostly by the Serbs, thousands of Muslims were killed, and many more fled Bosnia or were placed in Serb detention camps.

In May, 1992, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro and called for an immediate cease-fire in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Macedonia was widely recognized the following year (though Greece withheld recognition and imposed an embargo until after an agreement was reached with Macedonia in 1995). Although Serbia and Montenegro declared a new Yugoslavian federation, the EC announced in June, 1992, that the new government could not claim the international rights and duties of the former Yugoslavia, because those rights and obligations had devolved onto the different republics. This opinion was affirmed by the United Nations in Sept., 1992.

The United Nations also imposed a naval blockade on Yugoslavia, which along with the sanctions resulted in severe economic hardship, including hyperinflation for a time. After Serbia reduced its support for the Bosnian Serbs, the United Nations eased sanctions against Yugoslavia. In late 1995 Yugoslavia (in the person of President Milošević of Serbia) participated in the talks in Dayton, Ohio, that led to a peace accord among Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia (Yugoslavia). Milošević became president of all Yugoslavia in 1997.

Tensions increased in Kosovo in 1997 and 1998, as a period of nonviolent civil disobedience against Serbian rule gave way to the rise of a guerrilla army. In Mar., 1999, following mounting repression of ethnic Albanians and the breakdown of negotiations between separatists and the Serbs, NATO began bombing military targets throughout Yugoslavia, and thousands of ethnic Albanians were forcibly deported from Kosovo by Yugoslav troops. In June, Milošević agreed to withdraw from Kosovo, and NATO peacekeepers entered the region. Demonstrations in the latter half of 1999 against Milošević failed to force his resignation. Meanwhile, Montenegro sought increased autonomy within the federation and began making moves toward that goal.

In July, 2000, the national constitution was amended to permit the president to hold office for two terms and to institute direct presidential elections; the changes were designed to permit Milošević to remain in power beyond a single term and reduce Montenegrin influence in the federal government. When elections were held in September, however, Milošević was defeated by Vojislav Koštunica, who was supported by a coalition of 18 opposition parties (Democratic Opposition of Serbia; DOS). The election commission initially refused to certify Koštunica as the outright victor, but Milošević conceded after a general strike was called, demonstrators took over the federal parliament building, and Russia recognized Koštunica.

A coalition consisting of the DOS and Montenegrin Socialists formed a national government, and in early Serbian elections (Dec., 2000) the DOS won control of the Serbian parliament. Koštunica replaced several top military officers—a move designed in part to placate Montenegro—but he initially refused to hand Milošević over to the international war crimes court in the Hague. In early 2001 Milošević and some of his associates in the former government were arrested on various charges. The former president was turned over to the war crimes tribunal by the Serbian government in June, prompting the Montenegrin Socialists to resign from the federal coalition. Relations between Koštunica and Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjić became strained, with the former concerned more about preserving the federation with Montenegro and the latter about winning Western foreign aid and reforming the economy.

Serbia and Montenegro (2003–6)

By 2002 Montenegro's drive for greater autonomy had developed into a push for independence, and a referendum on the issue was planned. In Mar., 2002, however, Serbian and Montenegrin representatives, under pressure from the European Union and other nations opposed to immediate Montenegrin independence (fearing that it could lead to further disintegration and fighting), agreed on a restructured federal union, and a constitutional charter for a "state community" was adopted by the Serbian, Montenegrin, and federal parliaments by Feb., 2003. Following the federal parliament's approval of the charter, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was reconstituted as Serbia and Montenegro.

Most governmental power shifted to the two republics, as the union became a weak federal republic. Although the two republics shared a common foreign and defense policy, they had separate currencies and customs regulations, and after three years either republic could vote to leave the union. Svetozar Marović, of Montenegro, was elected president of the union in March, and was its only president.

Despite the increased autonomy accorded Montenegro, Montenegrin leaders generally avoided any moves that would be supportive of the union and continued to call for Montenegro's independence. In May, 2006, after three years had passed, Montenegrin voters approved independence in a referendum, and Montenegro declared its independence on June 3. The government of Serbia and Montenegro then dissolved itself and, on June 5, Serbia declared itself a sovereign state and the political heir to the union. Serbia's proclamation brought to an end the prolonged dissolution of Yugoslavia into the constituent republics that had been established by Tito following World War II.


For a personal account of Yugoslavia see R. West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941, repr. 1968). See also J. B. Hoptner, Yugoslavia in Crisis, 1934–1941 (1962); S. Clissold, ed., A Short History of Yugoslavia (1968); J. Alexander, Yugoslavia before the Roman Conquest (1972); W. R. Roberts, Tito, Mihailović and the Allies, 1941–1945 (1973); W. Zimmerman, Open Borders, Non-Alignment and the Political Evolution of Yugoslavia (1987); H. Lydall, Yugoslavia in Crisis (1989); M. Glenny, The Fall of Yugoslavia (3d rev. ed. 1996); D. Owen, Balkan Odyssey (1996); L. Silber and A. Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (1996).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Yugoslav Wars: Selected full-text books and articles

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