Understanding Yugoslavia: Why did it break up in the 1990s?

At this point in our river cruise  we are entering the former Yugoslavia. It is extremely difficult to explain  why this country broke up in the 1990s, so I am reprinting this article from fellow travel writer Rick Steves’ website. I think it will be helpful in understanding this part of the world.. For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe guidebook.

Understanding Yugoslavia

By Cameron Hewitt

Americans struggle to understand the complicated breakup of Yugoslavia (especially when visiting countries that rose from its ashes, such as Croatia and Slovenia). During the Yugoslav era, it was no less confusing. As the old joke went, Yugoslavia had eight distinct peoples in six republics, with five languages, three religions (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim), and two alphabets (Roman and Cyrillic), but only one Yugoslav — Tito.

Everyone you talk to in the former Yugoslavia will have a different version of events. A very wise Bosnian Muslim told me, “Listen to all three sides — Muslim, Serb, and Croat. Then decide for yourself what you think.” That’s the best advice I can offer. But since you likely won’t have time for that on your brief visit, here’s an admittedly oversimplified, as-impartial-as-possible history to get you started.

Balkan Peninsula 101

For starters, it helps to have a handle on the different groups who’ve lived in the Balkans — the southeastern European peninsula between the Adriatic and the Black Sea, stretching from Hungary to Greece. The Balkan Peninsula has always been a crossroads of cultures. The Illyrians, Greeks, and Romans had settlements here before the Slavs moved into the region from the north around the seventh century. During the next millennium and a half, the western part of the peninsula — which would become Yugoslavia — was divided by a series of cultural, ethnic, and religious fault lines. The most important influences were three religions: Western Christianity (i.e., Roman Catholicism, primarily brought to the western part of the region by Charlemagne, and later reinforced by the Austrian Hapsburgs), Eastern Orthodox Christianity (brought to the east from the Byzantine Empire), and Islam (in the south, from the Ottomans).

Two major historical factors made the Balkans what they are today: The first was the split of the Roman Empire in the fourth century a.d., dividing the Balkans down the middle into Roman Catholic (west) and Byzantine Orthodox (east) — roughly along today’s Bosnian-Serbian border. The second was the invasion of the Islamic Ottomans in the 14th century. The Ottoman victory at the Battle of Kosovo (1389) began five centuries of Islamic influence in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia, further dividing the Balkans into Christian (north) and Muslim (south).

Because of these and other events, several distinct ethnic identities emerged. Confusingly, the major “ethnicities” of Yugoslavia are all South Slavs — they’re descended from the same ancestors, and speak essentially the same language, but they practice different religions. Catholic South Slavs are called Croats or Slovenes (mostly west of the Dinaric Mountains: Croats along the Adriatic coast, and Slovenes farther north, in the Alps); Orthodox South Slavs are called Serbs (mostly east of the Dinaric range); and Muslim South Slavs are called Bosniaks (whose ancestors converted to Islam under the Ottomans, mostly living in the Dinaric Mountains). To complicate matters, the region is also home to several non-Slavic groups, including Hungarians (in the northern province of Vojvodina) and Albanians, concentrated in the southern area of Kosovo (descended from the Illyrians, who lived here long before the Greeks and Romans).

Of course, these geographic divisions are extremely general. The groups overlapped a lot — which is exactly why the breakup of Yugoslavia was so contentious. For example, one of the biggest causes of this ethnic mixing came in the 16th century. The Ottomans were threatening to overrun Europe, and the Austrian Hapsburgs wanted a buffer zone — a “human shield.” The Hapsburgs encouraged Serbs who were fleeing from Ottoman invasions to settle along today’s Croatian-Bosnian border (known as Vojna Krajina, or “Military Frontier”). The Serbs stayed after the Ottomans had left, establishing homes in predominantly Croat communities.

After the Ottoman threat subsided in the late 17th century, some of the Balkans (basically today’s Slovenia and Croatia) became part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire. The Ottomans stayed longer in the south and east (today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia) — making the cultures in these regions even more different. Serbia finally gained its independence from the Ottomans in the mid-19th century, but it wasn’t too long before World War I started…after a disgruntled Bosnian Serb nationalist killed the Austrian archduke.

South Slavs Unite

When the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell at the end of World War I, the European map was redrawn for the 20th century. After centuries of being governed by foreign powers, the South Slavs began to see their shared history as more important than their minor differences. A tiny country of a few million Croats or Slovenes couldn’t have survived. Rather than be absorbed by a non-Slavic power, the South Slavs decided that there was safety in numbers, and banded together as a single state — first called the “Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes” (1918), later known as Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs” — yugo means “south”). “Yugoslav unity” was in the air, but this new union was artificial and ultimately bound to fail (not unlike the partnership between the Czechs and Slovaks, formed at the same time and for much the same reasons).

From the very beginning, the various ethnicities struggled for power within the new union. Croats in particular often felt they were treated as lesser partners under the Serbs. (For example, many Croats objected to naming the country’s official language “Serbo-Croatian” — why not “Croato-Serbian?”) Serbia already had a very strong king, Alexander Kara?or?evi?, who immediately made attempts to give his nation a leading role in the federation. A nationalistic Croatian politician named Stjepan Radi?, pushing for a more equitable division of powers, was shot by a Serb during a parliament session in 1928. Kara?or?evi? abolished the parliament and became dictator. Six years later, infuriated Croatian separatists killed him.

Many Croat nationalists sided with the Nazis in World War II in the hopes that it would be their ticket to independence from Serbia. The Nazi puppet government in Croatia (called the Ustaše) conducted an extermination campaign, murdering many Serbs (along with Jews and Roma) living in Croatia; other Serbs were forced to flee the country or convert to Catholicism. Most historians consider the Ustaše concentration camps to be the first instance of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans…and the Serbs’ long memory of it may go far in explaining their own ethnic cleansing of the Croats in the 1990s.

At the end of World War II, the rest of Eastern Europe was “liberated” by the Soviets — but the Yugoslavs regained their independence on their own, as their communist Partisan Army forced out the Nazis. After the short but rocky Yugoslav union between the World Wars, it seemed that no one could hold the southern Slavs together in a single nation. But there was one man who could, and did: Tito.


Communist Party president and war hero Josip Broz — who dubbed himself with the simple nickname “Tito” — emerged as a political leader after World War II. With a Slovene for a mother, a Croat for a father, a Serb for a wife, and a home in Belgrade, Tito was a true Yugoslav. Tito had a compelling vision that this fractured union of the South Slavs could function. And it did. For the next three decades, Tito managed to keep Yugoslavia intact, essentially by the force of his own personality.

Tito’s new incarnation of Yugoslavia aimed for a more equitable division of powers. It was made up of six republics, each with its own parliament and president: Croatia (mostly Catholic Croats), Slovenia (mostly Catholic Slovenes), Serbia (mostly Orthodox Serbs), Bosnia-Herzegovina (the most diverse — mostly Muslim Bosniaks, but with very large Croat and Serb populations), Montenegro (mostly Serb-like Montenegrins), and Macedonia (with about 25 percent Albanians and 75 percent Macedonians — who are claimed variously by Bulgarians and Serbs). There were also two autonomous provinces, each one dominated by an ethnicity that was a minority in greater Yugoslavia: Albanians in Kosovo (to the south) and Hungarians in Vojvodina (to the north). Tito hoped that by allowing these two provinces some degree of independence — including voting rights — they could balance the political clout of Serbia, preventing a single republic from dominating the union. Each republic managed its own affairs…but always under the watchful eye of president-for-life Tito, who said that the borders between the republics should be “like white lines in a marble column.”

Tito was unquestionably a political genius, carefully crafting a workable union. For example, every Yugoslav had to serve in the National Army, and Tito made sure that each unit was a microcosm of the complete Yugoslavia — with equal representation from each ethnic group. (Allowing an all-Slovene unit, stationed in Slovenia, would be begging for trouble.) There was also a dark side to Tito, who resorted to violent, strong-arming measures to assert his power, especially early in his reign. He staged brutal, Stalin-esque “show trials” to intimidate potential dissidents, and imprisoned church leaders, such as Alojzije Stepinac. Nationalism was strongly discouraged, and this tight control — though sometimes oppressive — kept the country from unraveling. In retrospect, most former Yugoslavs forgive Tito for governing with an iron fist, believing that this was necessary for keeping the country strong and united. Today, most of them consider Tito more of a hero than a villain, and usually speak of him with reverence.

Tito’s Yugoslavia was communist, but it wasn’t Soviet communism; you’ll find no statues of Lenin or Stalin here. Despite strong pressure from Moscow, Tito refused to ally himself with the Soviets — and therefore received good will (and $2 billion) from the United States. Tito’s vision was for a “third way,” where Yugoslavia could work with both East and West, without being dominated by either.

Yugoslavia was the most free of the communist states: While large industry was nationalized, Tito’s system allowed for small businesses. This experience with market economy benefited Yugoslavs when Eastern Europe’s communist regimes eventually fell. And even during the communist era, Yugoslavia remained a popular tourist destination, keeping its standards more in line with the West than the Soviet states.

Things Fall Apart

With Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics gained more autonomy, with a rotating presidency. But before long, the delicate union Tito had held together began to unravel. In the late 1980s, Serbian politician Slobodan Miloševi? took advantage of ethnic-motivated conflicts in the province of Kosovo to become president of Serbia and grab more centralized power. Other republics (especially Slovenia and Croatia) feared that he would gut their nation to create a “Greater Serbia,” instead of a friendly coalition of diverse Yugoslav republics. Some of the leaders — most notably Milan Ku?an of Slovenia — tried to avoid warfare by suggesting a plan for a loosely united Yugoslavia, based on the Swiss model of independent yet confederated cantons. But other parties, who wanted complete autonomy, refused. Over the next decade, Yugoslavia broke apart, with much bloodshed.

The Slovene Secession

Slovenia was the first Yugoslav republic to hold free elections, in the spring of 1990. The voters wanted the communists out — and their own independent nation. Along with being the most ethnically homogeneous of the Yugoslav nations, Slovenia was also the most Western-oriented, most prosperous, and most geographically isolated — so secession just made sense. But that didn’t mean that there was no violence.

After months of stockpiling weapons, Slovenia closed its borders and declared independence from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991. Belgrade sent in the Yugoslav National Army to take control of Slovenia’s borders with Italy and Austria, figuring that whoever controlled the borders had a legitimate claim on sovereignty. Fighting broke out around these borders. Because the Yugoslav National Army was made up of soldiers from all republics, many Slovenian soldiers found themselves fighting their own countrymen. (The army had cut off communication between these conscripts and the home front, so they didn’t know what was going on — and often didn’t realize they were fighting their friends and neighbors until they were close enough to see them.)

Slovenian civilians bravely entered the fray, blockading the Yugoslav barracks with their own cars and trucks. Most of the Yugoslav soldiers — now trapped — were young and inexperienced, and were terrified of the ragtag (but relentless) Slovenian militia even though their own resources were far superior. After 10 days of fighting and fewer than a hundred deaths, Belgrade relented. The Slovenes stepped aside and allowed the Yugoslav National Army to take all of the weapons with them back into Yugoslavia, and destroy all remaining military installations. When the Yugoslav National Army had cleared out, they left the Slovenes with their freedom.

The Croatian Conflict

In April of 1990, a historian named Franjo Tu?man — and his highly nationalistic, right-wing party, the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union) — won Croatia’s first free elections. Like the Slovenian reformers, Tu?man and the HDZ wanted more autonomy from Yugoslavia. But Tu?man’s methods were more extreme than that of the gently progressive Slovenes. Tu?man immediately invoked the spirit of the last group that led an “independent” Croatia — the Ustaše, who had ruthlessly run Croatia’s puppet government under the Nazis. Tu?man reintroduced the Ustaše’s red-and-white checkerboard flag and their currency (the kuna). The 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia, mindful of their grandparents who had been massacred by the Ustaše, saw the writing on the wall and began to rise up.

The first conflicts were in the Serb-dominated Croatian city of Knin. Among Tu?man’s reforms was the decree that all of Croatia’s policemen wear a new uniform, which bore a striking resemblance to Nazi-era Ustaše uniforms. Infuriated by this slap in the face, and inspired by Slobodan Miloševi?’s rhetoric, Serb police officers in Knin refused. Over the next few months, tense negotiations ensued. Serbs from Knin and elsewhere began the so-called “tree trunk revolution” — blocking important tourist roads to the coast with logs and other barriers. Meanwhile, the Croatian government — after being denied support from the United States — illegally purchased truckloads of guns from Hungary. Tensions escalated, and the first shots of the conflict were fired on Easter Sunday of 1991 at Plitvice Lakes National Park, between Croatian policemen and Serb irregulars from Knin.

By the time Croatia declared its independence (on June 25, 1991 — the same day as Slovenia), it was already embroiled in the beginnings of a bloody war. Croatia’s more than half-million Serb residents immediately declared their own independence from Croatia. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army swept in, supposedly to keep the peace between Serbs and Croats — but it soon became obvious that they were there to support the Serbs. The ill-prepared Croatian resistance, made up mostly of policemen and a few soldiers who defected from the Yugoslav National Army, were quickly overwhelmed. The Serbs gained control over a large swath of inland Croatia, mostly around the Bosnian border (including Plitvice) and in Croatia’s inland panhandle (the region of Slavonia). They called this territory — about a quarter of Croatia — the Republic of Serbian Krajina (krajina means “border”). This new “country” (hardly recognized by any other nations) minted its own money and had its own army, much to the consternation of Croatia — which was now worried about the safety of Croats living in Krajina.

As the Serbs advanced, hundreds of thousands of Croats fled to the coast and lived as refugees in resort hotels. The Serbs began a campaign of ethnic cleansing, systematically removing Croats from their territory — often by murdering them. The bloodiest siege was at the town of Vukovar, which the Yugoslav army surrounded and shelled relentlessly for three months. At the end of the siege, thousands of Croat soldiers and civilians mysteriously disappeared. Many of these people were later discovered in mass graves; hundreds are still missing, and bodies are still being found. In a surprise move, Serbs also attacked the tourist resort of Dubrovnik. By early 1992, both Croatia and the Republic of Serbian Krajina had established their borders, and a tense ceasefire fell over the region.

The standoff lasted until 1995, when the now well-equipped Croatian Army retook the Serbian-occupied areas in a series of two offensives — “Lightning” (Blijesak), in the northern part of the country, and “Storm” (Oluja), farther south. Some Croats retaliated for earlier ethnic cleansing by doing much of the same to Serbs — torturing and murdering them, and dynamiting their homes. Croatia quickly established the borders that exist today, and the Erdut Agreement brought peace to the region — but most of the 600,000 Serbs who once lived in Croatia/Krajina were forced into Serbia or were killed. Today, only a few thousand Serbs remain in Croatia. While Serbs have long since been legally invited back to their ancestral Croatian homes, few have returned — afraid of the “welcome” they might receive from the Croat neighbors who killed their relatives or blew up their houses just a few years ago.

The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia four months after Croatia and Slovenia did. But Bosnia-Herzegovina was always at the crossroads of Balkan culture, and therefore even more diverse than Croatia — predominantly Muslim Bosniaks (mostly in the cities), but also with large Serb and Croat populations (often farmers), as well as Albanian Kosovars.

In the spring of 1992, Serbs within Bosnia-Herzegovina (with the support of Serbia) began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Bosniaks and Croats. Before long, the Croats did the same against the Serbs. A three-way war (between the Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats) raged for years. Even the many mixed families were forced to choose sides. If you had a Serb mother and a Croat father, you were expected to pick one ethnicity or the other — and your brother might choose the opposite. As families and former neighbors trained their guns on each other, proud and beautiful cities such as Sarajevo and Mostar were turned to rubble, and people throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina lived in a state of constant terror.

Serb sieges of Bosnian Muslim cities — such as the notorious siege of Srebrenica in July of 1995, which ended with a massacre of about 7,000 Bosniak civilians — brought the ongoing atrocities to the world’s attention. Perhaps most despicable was the establishment of so-called “rape camps” — concentration camps where Bosniak women were imprisoned and systematically raped by Serb soldiers.

The United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) — dubbed “Smurfs” both for their light-blue helmets and for their ineffectiveness — exercised their limited authority to try to suppress the violence. This ugly situation was brilliantly parodied in the film No Man’s Land (which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2002), a very dark comedy about the absurdity of the Bosnian war. Finally, in 1995, the Dayton Peace Accords carefully divided Bosnia-Herzegovina among the different ethnicities. Today, Bosnia-Herzegovina continues to work on its tenuous peace, rebuild its devastated country, and bring its infrastructure up to its neighbors’ standards.


The ongoing Yugoslav crisis finally reached its peak in the Serbian province of Kosovo. After years of poor treatment by the Serbs, Kosovars rebelled in 1998. Miloševi? sent in the army, and in March 1999, they began a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Thousands of Kosovars were murdered, and hundreds of thousands fled into Albania and Macedonia. NATO planes, under the ­command of US General and Supreme Allied Commander Wesley Clark, bombed Serb positions for two months, forcing the Serb army to leave Kosovo in the summer of 1999. In February of 2008, Kosovo declared independence from a very unhappy Serbia.

The Fall of Miloševi?

After years of bloody conflicts, Serbian public opinion had decisively swung against their president. The transition began gradually in early 2000, spearheaded by Otpor and other nonviolent, grassroots, student-based opposition movements. These organizations used clever PR strategies to gain support and convince Serbians that real change was possible. As anti-Miloševi? sentiments gained momentum, opposing political parties banded together and got behind one candidate, Vojislav Koštunica. Public support for Koštunica mounted, and when the arrogant Miloševi? called an early election in September 2000, he was soundly defeated. Though Miloševi? tried to claim that the election results were invalid, determined Serbs streamed into their capital, marched on their parliament, and — like the Czechs and Slovaks a decade before — peacefully took back their nation.

In 2001, Miloševi? was arrested and sent to The Hague, in the Netherlands, to stand trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Miloševi? served as his own attorney as his trial wore on for five years, frequently delayed due to his health problems. Then, on March 11, 2006 — as his trial was coming to a close — Miloševi? was found dead in his cell. Ruled a heart attack, Miloševi?’s death, like his life, was controversial. Supporters claimed that Miloševi? was denied suitable medical care while on trial, some speculated that he was poisoned, and others suspected that he’d intentionally worsened his heart condition to avoid the completion of his trial. Whatever the cause, it seems that in the end Miloševi? avoided coming to justice — he was never found guilty of a thing.

Finding Their Way: The Former Yugoslav Republics

Today, Slovenia and Croatia are as stable as Western Europe, Bosnia-Herzegovina is slowly putting itself back together, Macedonia feels closer to Bulgaria than to Belgrade, and more pieces of “Yugoslavia” — such as Montenegro and Kosovo — declare independence every year. And yet, nagging questions remain. Making the wars even more difficult to grasp is the fact that there were no “good guys” and no “bad guys” in these wars — just a lot of ugliness on all sides. When considering specifically the war between the Croats and the Serbs, it’s tempting for Americans to take Croatia’s “side” — because we saw them in the role of victims first; because they’re Catholic, so they seem more “like us” than the Orthodox Serbs; and because we admire their striving for an independent nation. But in the streets and the trenches, it was never that clear-cut. The Serbs believe that they were the victims first — back in World War II, when their grandparents were executed in Croat-run Ustaše concentration camps. And when Croatians retook Serb-occupied areas in 1995, they were every bit as brutal as the Serbs had been a few years before. Both sides resorted to ethnic cleansing, both sides had victims, and both sides had victimizers.

Even so, many can’t help but look for victims and villains. During the conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina, several prominent and respected reporters began to show things from one “side” more than the others — specifically, depicting the Bosniaks (Muslims) as victims. This re-awakened an old debate in the journalism community: Should reporters above all be impartial, even if “showing all sides” might make them feel complicit in ongoing atrocities? As for villains, it’s easy to point a finger at Slobodan Miloševic, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic, and other military leaders who are wanted or standing trial at The Hague. Others condemn the late Croatian President Franjo Tudman, who, it’s becoming increasingly clear, secretly conspired with Miloševic to redraw the maps of their respective territories throughout the course of the war.

Finally comes the inevitable question: Why did any of it happen in the first place? Explanations tend to gravitate to two extremes. Some observers say that in this inherently warlike part of the world, deep-seated hatreds and age-old tribal passions between the various ethnic groups have flared up at several points throughout history. According to these people, there’s an air of inevitability about the recent wars…and about the potential for future conflict. Others believe that this theory is an insulting oversimplification. Sure, animosity has long simmered in this region — but it takes a selfish leader to exploit it to advance his own interests. It wasn’t until Miloševic, Tudman, and others expertly manipulated the people’s grudges that the country fell into war. By vigorously fanning the embers of ethnic discord, and carefully controlling media coverage of the escalating violence, these leaders turned what could have been a healthy political debate into a holocaust.

Tension still exists throughout the former Yugoslavia — especially areas that were most war-torn. Croatians and Slovenes continue to split hairs over silly border disputes, and Serbs ominously warn that they’ll take up arms to defend their claim on Kosovo. When the people of this region encounter other Yugoslavs in their travels, they immediately evaluate each other’s accent to determine: Are they one of us, or one of them?

But, with time, these hard feelings are fading. The younger generations don’t look back — teenaged Slovenes no longer learn Serbo-Croatian, can’t imagine not living in an independent little country, and get bored (and a little irritated) when their old-fashioned parents wax nostalgic about the days of a united Yugoslavia. A middle-aged Slovene friend of mine thinks fondly of his months of compulsory service in the Yugoslav National Army, when his unit was made up of Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bosniaks, Albanians, Macedonians, and Montenegrins — all of them countrymen, and all good friends. To these young Yugoslavs, minor ethnic differences didn’t matter. He still often visits with his army buddy from Dubrovnik — 600 miles away, not long ago part of the same nation — and wishes there had been a way to keep it all together. But he says, optimistically, “I look forward to the day when the other former Yugoslav republics also join the European Union. Then, in a way, we will all be united once again.”

3 thoughts on “Understanding Yugoslavia: Why did it break up in the 1990s?”

  1. My dad was born in 1932 in Serbia. He left when he could and by the time he was in his early 20s he was in Canada. He never said much about “the old country” as he called it. And so I appreciate what you have written here. It has shed some light for me.

  2. We did the Yugoslav wars in school and even though it upset me very much I still couldn’t understand it much. Reading this has given me a somewhat clearer picture. Thank you:)


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