The Balkans: Long History of Bloody and Unremitting Ethnic Conflict; Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie Finds That Battles and Bitterness Are No New Phenomenon in the Balkans

By Beattie, Jason | The Birmingham Post (England), March 26, 1999 | Go to article overview

The Balkans: Long History of Bloody and Unremitting Ethnic Conflict; Chief Feature Writer Jason Beattie Finds That Battles and Bitterness Are No New Phenomenon in the Balkans


Beattie, Jason, The Birmingham Post (England)


Balkanise (verb) to reduce to the condition of the Balkan peninsula, which was divided in the 19th century into a number of mutually hostile territories. - Chambers Dictionary.

The history of the Balkans, which essentially is the history of the Yugoslav countries, is one of unremitting conflict between peoples divided over land, ethnic origin and religion. In the first millennium BC the area was loosely comprised of the ancient kingdoms of Illyria, Thracia and Macedonia.

During the 2nd Century BC the kingdoms were incorporated within the Roman Empire and then, from 3rd Century AD, the Byzantine Empire.

In the 13th Century, Serbia and Bulgaria emerged as prosperous states within the Byzantine empire but hopes of sovereignty were dashed when the region came under Turkish control at the end of the 14th Century.

The Serbs, true to their combative nature, had defended their land valiantly, no more so than at the Battle of Kosovo Polje (the Field of Blackbirds) in 1389 when the Serbian leader, Prince Lazar, resisted the vastly superior Turkish forces.

It was a Pyrrhic victory but over the years it has become a symbol of Serbian defiance and the Kosovan land is regarded as the cradle of Serbian nationalism.

There followed 500 years of Ottoman rule before, on the back of the 19th Century nationalist movement, Turkey was forced to grant independence to the Balkan states. Greece gained autonomy in 1829, Serbia in 1878, Romania in 1878 and Bulgaria in 1908.

In the Balkan wars of 1912 these allies drove the Turks out of Albania, Macedonia and Kosovo.

The Serbs then turned against Bulgaria and occupied Kosovo and Macedonia.

In the north of the Balkan region, Slovenia and Croatia had been part of the of Austro-Hungarian empire since 1526.

The neighbouring country of Bosnia-Hercegovina was ceded by the Turks to the Austro-Hungarians in 1878 before being officially annexed in 1908.

Serbia refused to acknowledge the Empire's rights to the country because of the large ethnic Serb population in the country.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, who had been sent to rally Slavs against further Serbian expansionism, in 1914 by the ethnic Serb Gavrilo Princep, precipitated the First World War.

Under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 the countries of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Slovenia became part of the independent "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

The country suffered terribly during the Second World War, when the region was occupied by Axis and German forces.

More than 1,700,000 people were killed (out of a population of 15,000,000), many of them by their fellow Yugoslavs who used the war to settle old scores.

After the war the region was reunited as the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the generally benign leadership of Tito.

Originally part of the Soviet Bloc, the country broke away from the Cominform in 1948 and began to develop its own domestic and foreign policies.

For many in the West it was regarded as the acceptable face of Communism. Tito's charismatic leadership managed to keep the warring factions at arm's length but after his death in 1980 the discontent, which had been simmering beneath the facade of unity, resurfaced.

The first country to break from the Federation was Slovenia which won independence after a few days of guerrilla fighting in the Spring of 1991.

In May of the same year, Croatia declared independence from the Yugoslav state. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA), under the control of Serbia, intervened to protect the minority Serb population and by September the two countries were at war.

A ceasefire was agreed in January 1992 but fighting continued on and off between the Croatian troops and renegade Serbs until 1995 when the government seized the last Serbian enclave of Krajina. …

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