At the beginning of the 1990s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was one of the largest, most developed and diverse countries in the Balkans. It was a non-aligned federation comprised of six republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. In addition to the six republics, the two separate regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina held the status of autonomous provinces within the Republic of Serbia. Yugoslavia was a mix of ethnic groups and religions, with Orthodox Christianity, Catholicism and Islam being the main religions.
Coinciding with the collapse of communism and resurgent nationalism in Eastern Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, Yugoslavia experienced a period of intense political and economic crisis. Central government weakened while militant nationalism grew apace. There was a proliferation of political parties who, on one side, advocated the outright independence of republics and, on the other, urged greater powers for certain republics within the federation.
Political leaders used nationalist rhetoric to erode a common Yugoslav identity and fuel fear and mistrust among different ethnic groups. By 1991, the break-up of the country loomed with Slovenia and Croatia blaming Serbia of unjustly dominating Yugoslavia’s government, military and finances. Serbia in turn accused the two republics of separatism.
Slovenia - 1991
The first of the six republics to formally leave Yugoslavia was Slovenia, declaring independence on 25 June 1991. This triggered an intervention of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) which turned into a brief military conflict, generally referred to as the Ten-Day War. It ended in a victory of the Slovenian forces, with the JNA withdrawing its soldiers and equipment.
Croatia - 1991-1995
Croatia declared independence on the same day as Slovenia. But while Slovenia’s withdrawal from the Yugoslav Federation was comparatively bloodless, Croatia’s was not to be. The sizeable ethnic Serb minority in Croatia openly rejected the authority of the newly proclaimed Croatian state citing the right to remain within Yugoslavia. With the help of the JNA and Serbia, Croatian Serbs rebelled, declaring nearly a third of Croatia’s territory under their control to be an independent Serb state. Croats and other non-Serbs were expelled from its territory in a violent campaign of ethnic cleansing. Heavy fighting in the second half of 1991 witnessed the shelling of the ancient city of Dubrovnik, and the siege and destruction of Vukovar by Serb forces.
Despite the UN-monitored ceasefire which came into force in early 1992, Croatian authorities were determined to assert authority over their territory, and used its resources to develop and equip its armed forces. In the summer of 1995, the Croatian military undertook two major offensives to regain all but a pocket of its territory known as Eastern Slavonia. In a major exodus, tens of thousands of Serbs fled the Croatian advance to Serb-held areas in Bosnia and Herzegovina and further to Serbia. The war in Croatia effectively ended in the fall of 1995. Croatia eventually re-asserted its authority over the entire territory, with Eastern Slavonia reverting to its rule in January 1998 following a peaceful transition under UN-administration.
Bosnia and Herzegovina - 1992-1995
In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the conflict was to be the deadliest of all in the disintegrating Yugoslav Federation. This central Yugoslav republic had a shared government reflecting the mixed ethnic composition with the population made up of about 43 per cent Bosnian Muslims, 33 per cent Bosnian Serbs, 17 per cent Bosnian Croats and some seven percent of other nationalities. The republic’s strategic position made it subject to both Serbia and Croatia attempting to assert dominance over large chunks of its territory. In fact, the leaders of Croatia and Serbia had in 1991 already met in a secret meeting where they agreed to divide up Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaving a small enclave for Muslims.
In March 1992, in a referendum boycotted by Bosnian Serbs, more than 60 percent of Bosnian citizens voted for independence. Almost immediately, in April 1992, Bosnian Serbs rebelled with the support of the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbia, declaring the territories under their control to be a Serb republic in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Through overwhelming military superiority and a systematic campaign of persecution of non-Serbs, they quickly asserted control over more than 60% of the country. Bosnian Croats soon followed, rejecting the authority of the Bosnian Government and declaring their own republic with the backing of Croatia. The conflict turned into a bloody three-sided fight for territories, with civilians of all ethnicities becoming victims of horrendous crimes.
It is estimated that more than 100,000 people were killed and two million people, more than half the population, were forced to flee their homes as a result of the war that raged from April 1992 through to November 1995 when a peace deal was initialled in Dayton. Thousands of Bosnian women were systematically raped. Notorious detention centres for civilians were set up by all conflicting sides: in Prijedor, Omarska, Konjic, Dretelj and other locations. The single worst atrocity of the war occurred in the summer of 1995 when the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, a UN-declared safe area, came under attack by forces lead by the Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladić. During a few days in early July, more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed by Serb forces in an act of genocide. The rest of the town’s women and children were driven out.
Kosovo - 1998-1999
The next area of conflict was centered on Kosovo, where the ethnic Albanian community there sought independence from Serbia. In 1998 violence flared as the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) came out in open rebellion against Serbian rule, and police and army reinforcements were sent in to crush the insurgents.
In their campaign, the Serb forces heavily targeted civilians, shelling villages and forcing Kosovo Albanians to flee. As the attempt at an internationally-brokered deal to end the crisis failed in early 1999 at the Rambouillet peace talks, NATO carried out a 78-day-long campaign of air strikes against targets in Kosovo and Serbia. In response, Serb forces further intensified the persecution of the Kosovo Albanian civilians. Ultimately, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević agreed to withdraw his troops and police from the province. Some 750,000 Albanian refugees came home and about 100,000 Serbs - roughly half the province's Serb population – fled in fear of reprisals. In June 1999, Serbia agreed to international administration of Kosovo with the final status of the province still unresolved.
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - 2001
The southernmost republic of the Yugoslav Federation, Macedonia, declared independence in the fall of 1991 and enjoyed a peaceful separation. It was later admitted to the UN under the temporary name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, populated by a majority of ethnic Macedonians and a large Albanian minority, remained at peace through the Yugoslav wars of the early 1990s. However, at the beginning of January 2001 the ethnic Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) militant group clashed with the republic’s security forces with the aim of obtaining autonomy or independence for the Albanian-populated areas in the country. Sporadic armed conflict lasted for several months in 2001, ending with a peace deal which envisaged a political agreement on power-sharing, the disarmament of the Albanian militia and the deployment of a NATO monitoring force.