Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Yugoslavia's Internal Borders as International Borders: A Question of Appropriateness

Academic journal article East European Quarterly

Yugoslavia's Internal Borders as International Borders: A Question of Appropriateness

Article excerpt

The break-up of Yugoslavia during the early 1990s following the secessions of the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina and Macedonia, resulted in these four republics being recognized as independent states within the international community of states. In each case the international borders of the new states corresponded with internal federal borders as they existed at the time of independence. This outcome flowed from the decision of the Foreign Ministers of the European Community on 16 December 1991,(1) and was given a legal basis in a number of Opinions issued by the so-called Badinter Arbitration Commission(2) which had been established by the European Community in August 1991.(3)

The major legal principle relied upon by the Commission was that of uti possidetis juris, a principle that had hitherto been applied in the context of decolonization and which meant that when colonial entities became independent states they did so within the territorial confines of existing colonial borders. From the perspective of international law, the reasoning of the Badinter Commission has attracted a mixed response.(4)

The aim of this article is to examine the historical development of Yugoslavia's internal borders from the time of its creation in 1918 to the secessions of four of its republics in 1991 and then, leaving aside the questions of international law, to assess whether the approach adopted by the European Community Foreign Ministers was appropriate.


During its history, the structure of Yugoslavia's internal administrative units was a matter of considerable controversy and change. The interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia saw the consecutive adoption of three different structures. The internal administrative arrangement established immediately after World War II by the new communist government was the last and most enduring. Apart from the temporary dismemberment of Yugoslavia at the hands of the Axis powers during World War II, these various arrangements were within a Yugoslav state whose international borders were relatively stable, but often threatened. The most significant alteration to Yugoslavia's international borders occurred with the addition of the Istrian peninsula after World War II. The creation of Yugoslavia in the wake of World War I led to a number of territorial disputes with neighboring states, all of which were resolved by the mid-1920s.(5) The most significant dispute was with Italy over the Istrian peninsula. Italian occupation of the bulk of the contested peninsula was confirmed by the Treaty of Rapallo of 12 November 1920.(6) However, Italian aspirations to Yugoslav territory along the Adriatic coast were a constant threat to Yugoslavia during the interwar period. Following World War II the Istrian peninsula was the subject of further dispute between Yugoslavia and Italy. The bulk of the disputed territory was awarded to Yugoslavia pursuant to a Memorandum of Understanding of 5 October 1954, which in turn was formalized by the Treaty of Osimo of 1 October 1975.(7)

All four internal administrative arrangements adopted during Yugoslavia's history reflected different ideological perspectives on the most appropriate means of successfully keeping together a multinational state in which the commitment by its various national groups to that state varied from time to time. None of the arrangements proved successful. In all cases the border lines between internal administrative units were opposed by one or other of Yugoslavia's national groups.

The Oblast System (1921-1929)

Yugoslavia's Constitution of 1921 established the oblast (district) as the basic political, economic and administrative unit in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, as Yugoslavia was known until 1929 (Article 95). In accordance with the Constitution, the Kingdom was divided into 33 oblasti by a ministerial decree gazetted on 28 April 1922. …

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