Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 25: The Yugoslav Civil War

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Twenty-FIve Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). List of lectures. – Humanities Commons (

Lecture 25: The Yugoslav Civil War*


[This text was written in 1995, and reflects information available at that time, especially news reports. Except for a few notes, it remains as originally written. Interested readers should seek later publications about the Bosnian conflict based on more extensive sources. The Preface comments on the problem of managing Web texts when “historical” information is superceded by later knowledge.]

Lecture 24 mentioned Yugoslavia only in passing, because its fate has been so complex and dramatic that it is best dealt with on its own. The same influences were at work there as in the rest of Eastern Europe in the period before, during and after 1989: that is, events were heavily influenced by the presence or absence of real alternatives to Communism, and the shape of those alternatives, after Communist control slipped away. It is too soon [in 1995] to attempt valid “history” for the recent events in Yugoslavia, but a first step toward understanding still can be a description of the forces and trends that led to the collapse of the country into separate states.  A second step can be an analysis that separates the events of the recent civil war into seven stages, with some indication of why each took its own specific course.

Nationalist forces

Lecture 24 mentioned the revived nationalist feelings that came to the surface in Croatia in 1971. Far from being an isolated matter, such pre-Communist survivals proved to be at work all over the Yugoslav state, and emerged once Tito’s hand was gone after his death in 1980.

In Yugoslavia, the result of 1989 was not the creation of progressive, Western-oriented reform regimes but instead the revival of regimes (often led by former Communists) that were old-fashioned in the sense that they pursued traditional nationalist agendas, often at the cost of suppressing democratic practices and human rights.

Tensions built up slowly before and during the year of revolution in 1989. Old issues such as federalism had no more been resolved in socialist Yugoslavia than in royal Yugoslavia; there were North-South tensions based on cultural and economic factors, and the overall economy was stagnant. The death of President Tito in 1980 emphasized the departure from leadership of a generation that had been united by the Partisan effort in World War II, leaders who believed in the benefits of unified socialist endeavor, and preferred it to regional rivalry and ethnic competition. By the 1980s, Communist leadership was subject to question, opening the way for alternative political and economic forms.

Yugoslavia’s awkward constitutional arrangements were one factor leading to trouble. As a concession to critics of the Serbian centralism of the 1930s, post-1945 Yugoslavia had six republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro) in a federal relationship, plus two autonomous regions within Serbia (each of them intended to safeguard minority rights, for Albanians in Kosovo and Hungarians in Vojvodina).

In the face of small-scale dissent and criticism in 1966, Yugoslavia reached a turning point: the regime had to decide to what extent it would suppress or tolerate its opponents. Tito opted for grudging toleration of dissent, but anti-regime critics failed to adopt that same toleration for themselves, as they played up inter-ethnic suspicion and jealousy. Efforts to accomodate federal and regional interests by changes in the constitution also backfired. Through a series of constitutional amendments in 1974, the six republics and two autonomous regions gained important powers to veto legislation. Prior to his death, President Tito also instituted a system by which the office of president was intended to rotate in turn among representatives of each of the regions. These steps had the effect of granting powerful political authority to regional political figures, and weakening the center of the federal political system.

Croatian dissent

In Croatia, the period after 1966 saw revived discussion of Croatian nationalism. This movement began among students, but by 1971 figures inside the Communist Party were circulating proposals for the secession of Croatia. At this point Tito stepped in: offending organizations were suppressed and several people went to jail. One of them was Franjo Tudjman, the future President of Croatia: aged 49 in 1971, he was a Partisan veteran, a Communist and a general, who had left the Party in the 1960s to become an academic and a Croatian nationalist. Among his publications were indictments of human rights violations by the party and the state, but his writings also included defenses of the wartime Ustashe fascist regime.

These political and intellectual currents combined with socio-economic dissatisfaction in the northern half of the country. Economic decentralization led Slovenes and Croatians to oppose centralized economic planning, especially expensive efforts to build factories in Yugoslavia’s backward southern regions. The northern regions prefered to reinvest the profits of their superior industries closer to home. Croatians and Slovenes felt that they paid the country’s bills, thanks to Adriatic tourism and industries producing goods for export, and opposed subsidizing unprofitable factories in Serbia and Macedonia. Under the decentralized constitutional system in place after 1974, the various regions in fact became economic rivals rather than partners.

Serbian dissent

Not only did Croatian separatism flourish, but Great Serb nationalism reemerged. Although the other nationalities believed that they were hobbled by too much Serb influence, Serbs often asserted that the Yugoslav system placed them at a disadvantage. Laws preserving the rights of ethnic minorities — such as Albanians and Magyars — tended to apply primarily to areas within Serbia, while Serbs who lived as minorities outside the Serbian republic proper enjoyed no special rights. Serbs also tended to believe that the losses sustained by Serbs in the Balkan Wars and two World Wars entitled them to assistance from their wealthier neighbors.

Tensions were particularly strong in Kosovo, an autonomous region with mythic importance for Serbs but a majority Albanian population. In 1981, protests about bad conditions at the Albanian University in Kosovo led to a brutal crackdown against ethnic Albanians by the Serbian-led police. [Tensions in Kosovo increased until they led to war in 1999.]

Situations of this kind fueled Serbian radicalism among intellectuals. In 1985, the Serbian Academy of Sciences wrote a memorandum that strongly criticized Tito and the Communist state for anti-Serb policies, noting that 30 years of Communism had left Serbia poorer than the north. The report also condemned “genocidal” anti-Serb policies in Kosovo, where the 10 percent Serb minority was said to be oppressed by the Albanian majority. The Academy offered the idea of a Serb state as a solution.

The idea of a Serb state soon was adopted by Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was a product of the Yugoslav Communist system: a party official, trained in the law, head of a large state-owned gas company. In 1986, at age 45, he became head of the Serbian Communist Party at at time when it was under serious attack by a new democratic opposition. By making a patriotic, pro-Serbian speech in 1989 on the battle site of Kosovo, Milosevic deprived the opposition of nationalism as a tool, and made it his own. With massive popular support, he cracked down on the media and dissent outside the local Party, then purged the Party of reform-oriented rivals. By using mass rallies that verged on mob scenes, he coerced the Party apparatus in Montenegro and Vojvodina into installing his allies as leaders, then curtailed autonomy in Kosovo and Vojvodina.

When the period of “revolution” came later in 1989, Milosevic took advantage of it to rename the Serbian Communist Party and convert it into a nationalist organization. At the same time, his use of state power prevented real alternative forces from becoming viable options in Serbia. His centralist and pro-Serb agenda also persuaded reformers in Slovenia and Croatia that it would be dangerous to remain part of a Yugoslav state that might be dominated by Milosevic and a Serb majority. This was the position at the beginning of 1990, with new leadership in place across Yugoslavia, and the country beginning to slide into disunity and war.

Seven periods of the Yugoslav crisis

Much reporting of events in Yugoslavia and Bosnia falls into the “senseless violence” school of journalism. In fact, most of the events during the fighting represented logical (if violent and brutal) steps toward coherent goals. The war can be divided into seven periods, each of which followed its own characteristic pattern.

Period One (January to July, 1990): In this period, all the ethnic elements in the country began to explore new possibilities, often contradictory.

After the revolutions of 1989 swept Eastern Europe, a sense of new possibility entered Yugoslav political life. All elements felt confident that they could throw off unwanted features of Communism, but the definition of what was to be lost varied from place to place.

In January 1990 the League of Communists (the Yugoslav Communist Party) split along ethnic lines, and ceased to be a unifying national force. In that same month, violent riots in Kosovo reached new levels, with several dozen people killed. The JNA (the Yugoslav National Army, in which the officer corps was heavily Serbian) intervened to restore order. Because this episode led to fears that the JNA would become a tool of Serbian interests, the effect was to move the other nationalities farther toward secession.

In the spring of 1990, Slovenes and Croats took concrete steps toward setting up new forms of political power. In April, there were free elections in the two northern provinces. In Slovenia, a Center-Right coalition won and began work on a new constitution that claimed the right to secede from the federal state. In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Union, a conservative nationalist party, took the largest share of seats in the April election. In Serbia, on the other hand, the results of a June 1990 referendum favored keeping a single-party state and curbing ethnic autonomy in Kosovo and Vojvodina, the very policies that were fueling Slovene and Croat efforts to distance themselves from Serbia.

In the first period, the ability of the nationalities to pursue their own goals in the aftermath of the 1989 revolution led to a growing distance between the factions.

Period Two (August 1990 to May 1991): In this period the contradictions between competing goals moved the situation from tension to violence.

In August 1990, minority Serbs in the Serb-majority Krajina district of Croatia (adjacent to the border with Bosnia) began to agitate for autonomy.  They argued that if Croatia could leave Yugoslavia, they in turn could leave Croatia. To prevent Croatian interference in a planned referendum, local Serb militias made up of trained army reservists set up roadblocks to isolate the Krajina region. In Serbia, Milosevic announced that if Yugoslavia broke apart, there would have to be border changes that would unite all ethnic Serbs in a single political entity. Serbia also cracked down on Albanian agitation.

Such steps alarmed Slovenes and Croats, and propelled them toward independence. The two republics organized local militia and armed their police, despite warnings from the JNA and anxiety among Croatia’s Serbs, who recalled the use of local police by the Ustashe to round up Serbs in 1941. In March 1991, Serbs in Croatia proclaimed an autonomous Krajina, which was recognized by Milosevic. In clashes over control of local police stations, the first people were killed in that area.

In the second period, the incompatibility between Serb and Slovene-Croatian wishes became clear, and led to violence outside of Kosovo for the first time.

Period Three (May 1991 to February 1992): This was the period when true open warfare began, as the Serbs resisted the Slovene and Croatian independence movements.

In May 1991, a Croatian was due to become the new Yugoslav president under the scheme of rotation, but Serbia refused to accept the change. This action set aside the last chance for a solution through constitutional means. In June, both Slovenia and Croatia proclaimed their independence. Debates over the “legality” of such moves played out against a background in which all sides chose to ignore inconvenient parts of the old constitution.

To frustrate Slovene independence, the JNA seized the customs posts on the borders of Slovenia. After fighting between Slovene militia and the JNA, there was a stalemate. JNA units were blockaded in their barracks, too powerful for the Slovene forces to attack, but without access to the gasoline they needed to move. Perhaps because there were so few Serbs in Slovenia, Serbia conducted a policy toward that state that was very different from the policy adopted toward Croatia. Under a negotiated settlement, the JNA units withdrew and allowed the Slovenes to secede.

In Croatia the war escalated instead. Fighting began with guerilla warfare in Krajina between the new Croatian armed forces, local Serb militia, and elements of the JNA stationed there. In August 1991, Serbian regular army units began campaigns to control two strategic areas: Vukovar and Dubrovnik. At Vukovar in Eastern Slavonia, artillery fire drove Croatians out of the city, which was of strategic importance as a gateway leading from Serbia to areas of Serbian population in the western parts of Bosnia and in Krajina, and as a region that was a source of oil. Two recurring patterns in Serbian strategy can be seen here for the first time: the use of terror to drive away local populations (“ethnic cleansing”), and a Serbian reliance on heavy weapons to attack urban areas, because of a shortage of infantry. The second Serbian offensive took place on the Dalmatian coast, where Serb forces failed to take the coastal city of Dubrovnik from Croatia. Dubrovnik is important as a major source of tourist revenue, and is also the place where roads from the interior reach the Adriatic Sea.

During this same period, member states of the European Economic Community (led by Germany) recognized Slovene and Croat independence. The world international community became involved for the first time as well, with UN authorization for 14,000 peacekeepers and an economic embargo against the rump of Yugoslavia: Serbia and Montenegro.

By the end of the third period, most of the principal organized forces in the civil war were present, including the UN, the Croats and the Serbs, while the Muslim government of Bosnia was about to make its appearance.

Period  Four (March 1992 to December 1992): In this period the arena of open war shifted from Croatia to Bosnia, where the province split along ethnic lines.

In early March 1992, a majority of Bosnians voted for independence in a plebiscite, but the voters split along ethnic lines with many Serbs opposing such a step. Immediately after the voting, Serbian local militia set up roadblocks that isolated Bosnia’s major cities from surrounding, Serbian-dominated rural areas. Many Serbs left cities like Sarajevo, and a separate Bosnian Serb parliament was set up.

In April 1992, Bosnian Serb forces began a methodical effort to seize control of as much territory as possible, especially in the eastern part of Bosnia (which is adjacent to Serbia), as a step toward a possible union with Serbia. Backed by JNA units, self-proclaimed “Chetnik” gangs that included criminal elements used terror tactics to drive Muslim villagers out of their villages. Many of those Muslims arrived as refugees in larger cities like Zepa, Srebrenica, Tuzla and Sarajevo. Serb units seized roads and began a siege of Sarajevo, shelling the city and using snipers to kill civilians.

This was the period in which “ethnic cleansing” became general, including the extensive use of rape and the creation of concentration camps to hold Muslim men, where many were murdered. While incidents of terror by all ethnicities have been reported in Bosnia, by all reliable accounts Serbs were the chief offenders. The persistence of these reports led to escalating commitment by the UN, culminating in pledges to use force and the enlistment of NATO forces as an instrument.

Meanwhile, Serbian goals became clear on the ground. By the end of the summer of 1992, two-thirds of Bosnia was in Serb hands: the eastern zone near Serbia proper, a thin corridor running east-to-west toward Croatia, and land on both sides of the Bosnian-Croatian border around the Krajina region of Croatia. At this time, Croatian forces also attacked and seized Muslim districts in Bosnia, leaving very little territory except some larger cities in the hands of the Bosnian Muslim government.

While the Serbian Milosevic regime supported much of Bosnian Serb policy, it did not control it. The Bosnian Serbs had a parliament of their own, and new leaders like Premier Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic. In 1992 Milosevic had to defeat domestic challenges from the left and right. Some of his potential rivals — extremist Chetnik politicians — were mysteriously murdered. In the presidential election, Milosevic defeated Milan Panic, a US citizen, who campaigned on a peace platform and served as Serbian prime minister for a time before his defeat in the election. Thereafter, Milosevic was firmly in control of Serbian politics in the rump state of Yugoslavia, but increasingly hampered by an international economic blockade and ensuing inflation.

By the end of the fourth period, the Serbs of Bosnia had made notable gains in territory, and the issue became whether they would keep them, in the face of Croatian, Muslim and UN opposition.

Period Five (January 1993 to January 1994): During this year, all sides in Bosnia pursued a dual strategy, balancing fighting with negotiations on the world stage to seek maximum advantage.

Peace talks began in Geneva, Switzerland, based on the Anglo-American Vance-Owen plan to partition Bosnia, separate the ethnic factions, and so end the fighting. Because it pragmatically accepted the results of Serbian aggression, the Vance-Owen plan was widely criticized and was unacceptable to the Bosnian Muslim government. After assuming office in January 1993, new U.S. President Bill Clinton distanced his administration from the plan.

By this time, the Serbs (who made up less than 40 percent of the population) controlled some 70 percent of the land area of Bosnia. With some difficulty, Karadzic was able to persuade the Bosnian Serb Parliament to accept several partition plans that gave Serbs between 50 and 52 percent of the country. Pressure from rump Yugoslavia played a role: Milosevic wanted to end the crisis, to end sanctions and curb an annual inflation rate which soon reached 2 million percent.

The Bosnian Muslim government, on the other hand, resisted a settlement while it pursued international favor in the media, with some success, as Western reporters uniformly condemned Serbian excesses. The Bosnians also gained increased UN aid. The UN agreed to send provide food to refugees in six cities and designated them as “safe” zones not to be attacked by Serbs. Those cities were Sarajevo, Tuzla, Bihac, Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde. The Bosnian Muslims lobbied against an arms embargo imposed on all sides that prevented them from buying heavy weapons that could offset Serb access to JNA arsenals, although some weapons were smuggled into the country. (The remnant JNA had become increasingly Serbian in composition.)

This fifth period of stalemate was the calm before the storm: the next two periods were unexpectedly volatile, given the apparent lack of progress at this time.

Period Six (February 1994 to June 1995): Beginning early in 1994, the stalemate began to destabilize.

In March 1994, the Croatian and Muslim Bosnian governments agreed on guidelines for a federated Bosnia. This freed both groups to face the Serbs: the Muslims in Bosnia, the Croatians in Bosnia and in Krajina, which remained in revolt against the Zagreb government. Later in the year, allied Muslim and Croat forces began small but significant joint operations against Bosnian Serb areas.

In February 1994, one of the most prominent attacks on civilians during the war enraged Western observers, when an explosion killed 68 people in Sarajevo’s Markale market place. Early reports blamed a Serbian mortar attack, and the US, the European Union and NATO demanded that the Serbs remove artillery from around Sarajevo or face retaliatory air strikes. Serbian and Russian observers, however, described the explosion as a Bosnian provocation. Official UN investigators were unable to prove either allegation. The Serbs largely complied with Western demands around Sarajevo, but shelling of other “safe areas” continued and was not punished. At the same time, the episode illustrated the extent to which the Bosnian Serbs had lost the contest for world opinion.

France and the US quarreled: the US wanted to put more pressure on the Serbs, but France was unwilling to place at risk its peacekeepers who were on the ground. Civilian representatives of the UN vetoed some air attacks ordered by their own commanders. When some air strikes did take place in May 1994, the Serbs responded by taking UN peacekeepers hostage. In the fact of such threats, the UN then caved in completely.

Generally, this sixth period discredited the UN, and the result was new initiatives both by the Serbs and by their enemies in Croatia and at NATO. Out of public view, both sides prepared to take much more active measures.

Period Seven (July to November 1995): The summer of 1995 saw the climax of the civil war in Bosnia, as both sides explored their options now that the UN had lost any authority to control events.

In July 1995, Serbian forces defied the UN and suddenly overran two of the “safe areas” in eastern Bosnia: Srebrenica and Zepa. Some of the worst “ethnic cleansing” of the war took place at this time: up to 8,000 Muslims were massacred under the direct supervision of Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commanding general.

It is likely that the ineffective record of UN and Western action during 1994 led the Bosnian Serbs to expect no Western response, but instead the opposite happened. Karadzic and Mladic were indicted as war criminals by a UN tribunal and Britain, France and the US began plans for a military reaction to future attacks on “safe areas.” Peacekeepers in exposed areas were withdrawn, additional forces arrived, and the UN’s civilian representatives lost the right to veto the use of force.

It also appears that the Western states gave Croatia the green light to take back control of Krajina. When Serb forces from Bosnia and Krajina attacked the Bihac “safe area” in extreme western Bosnia, they were counterattacked in a joint offensive by Bosnian Muslim and Croat forces and those of the Croatian government. Within a few days, the Serbs lost all of Krajina and much of western Bosnia: 130,000 Serb refugees were driven off of lands upon which their families had lived for hundreds of years. When angry Serbs shelled Sarajevo again, killing 37 people in one incident, NATO reacted with an unprecedented wave of air strikes against the Bosnian Serb infrastructure. The Muslims and Croats appear to have stopped their advance only because the West told them to do so: by then, the Croat-Muslim federation was in control of just over half of Bosnia. When Milosevic failed to intervene on their behalf, the Bosnian Serbs found themselves alone and vulnerable.

For the first time, all sides now simultaneously believed that no further advantage lay in store for them through more fighting, and for that reason all sides were willing to negotiate. After a hiatus of 18 months, peace talks resumed and led to a treaty signed in November 1995, which was to be enforced by 60,000 NATO troops. If this does mark the end of the war, it will have ended with some 250,000 people killed out of a prewar Bosnia population of 4.4 million, over half of whom have become refugees.

[In the period since late 1995 when this lecture was written, there has been no resumption of fighting in Bosnia. While relationships between the various ethnicities in Bosnia remain troubled, the period of open warfare, atrocities against civilians and deep international crisis has ended. However, similar tensions led to clashes between the Serbian state and the Albanian population of Kosovo in 1999, and eventually to intervention by NATO and the United States. That episode falls outside the scope of this Web site. For resources, consult your local library.]

[*Some readers have questioned my use of the term “civil war” on the grounds that the fighting was between independent entities within a dissolving federation. It is not my intent either to imply or to deny claims to independence by any of the former federal units. Recent discussions of Iraq have led to public debate on the same issue: in “A Matter of Definition: What Makes a Civil War, and Who Declares It So?” (The New York Times, November 26, 2006, page 14), Edward Wong says, “The common scholarly definition has two main criteria. The first says that the warring groups must be from the same country and fighting for control of the political center, control over a separatist state or to force a major change in policy. The second says that at least 1,000 people must have been killed in total, with at least 100 from each side.”]


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 27 November 1996; last modified 17 January 2023.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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