An Historical Guide Through the Balkan Labyrinth
by Bill Weinberg and Dorie Wilsnack
The Balkan region is intensely multicultural—a point of crossroads and clash for some of the world’s major religions, cultural spheres, and economic systems. While there have been vicious wars in Balkan history, these have taken place in the context of manipulation by imperial powers and the self-serving local leaders who cater to them.
The Balkans as Theater of Imperial Rivalry
Among the earliest inhabitants of the Balkans were the Illyrians, ancestors of the Albanians, who arrived before the seventh century B.C.E. They eventually came under the domination of the Roman Empire. In the fourth century C.E., the declining empire was divided in two for reasons of administrative expediency. The Western Empire remained based in Rome, while the Eastern Empire was centered in Constantinople (today Istanbul) and became the Byzantine Empire. While the Western Empire crumbled, the Byzantines grew more powerful. The border between the two empires was drawn right through the Balkans—setting the stage for centuries of future conflict.
The Slavs moved into the region from the north in the fifth century C.E., with Slavic tribes developing into the nations of Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Montenegro (united by the Serbo-Croatian language), and Slovenia and Macedonia. Under the feudal system, smaller regions within these nations maintained a certain autonomy—such as Dalmatia and Slavonia in Croatia, and Herzegovina in Bosnia.
The border between the ancient Eastern and Western Roman Empires corresponds almost precisely with that between present-day Serbia and Croatia. The power vacuum left by the decline of Rome allowed Croatia and Slovenia in the north and west to attain a degree of independence and sovereignty—though pressure from the Magyars in Hungary forced them into the influence sphere of Germanic powers like the Frankish empire of Charlemagne. The Serbs, however, came under Byzantine rule. The neighboring Bulgarian Empire, which included Macedonia, also eventually fell within the Byzantine sphere, as did Montenegro and much of the Dalmatian coast—although the port of Ragusa (today Dubrovnik), a center of trade with the Italian city-states, maintained its independence.
The two branches of the Roman Empire, of course, developed into the two great branches of Christianity. Hence, Slovenia and Croatia became Roman Catholic, while Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia became Eastern Orthodox. Both religions vied in Dalmatia and other contested regions. Bosnia, a remote and mountainous region between the two spheres, was never effectively under the control of either and developed a “heresy” with populist and anti-authoritarian overtones called Bogomilism, which the Catholic powers to the north and Orthodox powers to the south both did their best to exterminate.
Independent Croatia disappeared in 1102 C.E., when it was absorbed by Catholic Hungary. Bosnia also fell under Hungarian rule following a Rome-sanctioned crusade against the Bogomils in 1244, though it regained its independence in 1377. In 1190, as the Byzantine Empire began to lose its grip on the Balkans, Serbia emerged as an independent kingdom. At its most powerful, medieval Serbia included Macedonia and extended south to the Aegean coast.
In the fourteenth century the Byzantine Empire was in rapid decline, besieged by Turkish invasions from the east. The Turkish (and Islamic) Ottoman Empire established itself on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire and expanded into the Balkans. Following the decisive Battle of Kosovo in 1389, Serbia lost most of its territory to the Ottomans. A reduced Serbian kingdom survived along the Danube River to the north under Hungarian protection, but completely succumbed to the Ottomans in 1459. Belgrade, the city on the Danube which had been established as Serbia’s new capital, held out under direct Hungarian rule until it was finally taken by Ottoman emperor Suleiman the Magnificent in 1521.
The Ottomans had succeeded in winning the loyalty of Bosnian peasant Bogomils during their uprisings against Catholic Hungary. In 1463, Bosnia was annexed to the Ottoman Empire and most of the Bogomils converted to Islam. The Ottoman administrators favored Bosnia’s Muslim Slav majority with status and access to land. Those Bosnians who remained Catholic were considered ethnic Croats. Those who remained Orthodox identified themselves as Serbs.
While many Bosnian peasants had welcomed the Ottomans as liberators, the Serbs mourned their lost kingdom and were loathe to acknowledge Constantinople’s new rule.
Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Balkans became the scene of a great struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg monarchy in Austria. As the Austrian and Hungarian empires merged in the seventeenth century, Croatia and Slovenia came under the control of Vienna, while Serbia, Bosnia, and Macedonia remained under Turkish rule. The Austrians encouraged Serbs to migrate to Croatia to form a border militia and fight against their former Turkish masters. These Serbs established the Krajina, a semi-autonomous martial zone within Croatia.
The Ottomans invaded Austrian territory in 1683, but were driven back. Then, Austria invaded Ottoman territory in 1689 but was similarly driven back. Afterwards, local Serbs were accused of “collaboration” with the invader. Facing violent reprisals, many Serbs migrated from Kosovo, and this plateau which had been the heart of medieval Serbia became more the domain of ethnic Albanians. Pushed into the mountains by the Serbs centuries earlier, the Albanians were now favored by the Ottomans and many converted to Islam.
The Emergence of Nationalism
After the French Revolution, both nationalism and the idea of South Slav (Yugoslav) unity spread in the Balkans. Napoleon Bonaparte”s armies established the “Illyrian Provinces” in Dalmatia, formally abolishing feudalism there. Dalmatia was returned to Austrian rule after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815, but the ideological seeds of modernity had taken root.
A movement for Serbian independence emerged, which, despite violent repression by the Ottomans, succeeded in creating a semi-independent Serbian state by 1830. The following decades saw growing violence. The Turks attempted to crush nationalist movements in Macedonia and to take Montenegro, which maintained a precarious independence. Christian peasants revolted against the Ottomans in Bosnia, and were aided by Austria and Serbia. Bosnia was occupied by Austria in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908.
In 1912, Greece, Bulgaria, and Russia joined with Serbia in the First Balkan War to wrest Macedonia and Kosovo from the Turks. The Albanians in Macedonia and Kosovo suffered reprisals at the hands of the invading Serbian forces, including the burning of villages. Fearing annexation by Serbia and Greece, regional leaders in Albania declared their own independence. While the leadership of the Albanian independence movement was Muslim, Catholics and the Orthodox were also embraced by the nascent Albanian national identity. The Albanian national movement had actually first emerged in Kosovo, with the founding of the patriotic League of Prizren in 1878.
In 1913, the winners of the First Balkan War began fighting among themselves in a Second Balkan War. Russia and Greece were joined by Romania in backing Serbia’s struggle against Bulgaria for control of Macedonia. Serbia won control of both Macedonia and Kosovo.
The balance of power had shifted again. Serbian nationalists no longer saw the Hapsburg monarchy as an ally against the Ottomans, but as the remaining imperial power standing in the way of a Greater Serbia. Serbia began supporting nationalist organizations like the clandestine Black Hand among Serbs in Austro-Hungarian Bosnia and Croatia.
Allegedly, it was a Black Hand activist who assassinated the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914. However, lax security during Ferdinand’s visit to the Bosnian city led some to speculate that Austrian hard-liners wanted the Archduke dead as an excuse to make war on Serbia. When Austria attacked Serbia, Europe was plunged into World War I.
The Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires now joined forces against Russia, and its ally Great Britain, which came to Serbia’s aid. Germany lined up with Vienna and Constantinople; France with London and Moscow. Greece and Romania sided with Russia and the Serbs against Bulgaria and the Turks. Croats and Slovenes who had been conscripted into the Austrian army were pitted against the Serbs. Albanians in Kosovo revolted in support of the Austrian invasion, and were favored with administrative posts and restoration of their language and cultural rights by the Austrian occupation forces.
When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1917, Russia withdrew from the war. But by then the United States had entered on the side of Britain and France, and the Allies landed at Greece to help the Serbian army retake the country. In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were defeated and finally dismantled.
From the First Yugoslavia to World War II
The victorious Allies redrew the map of the region. In cooperation with local forces who aspired to South Slav unity, a Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was created—later renamed Yugoslavia. For the first time Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, and Macedonia were united into a common state. The Hungarian region of Vojvodina was annexed to Serbia (having been an autonomous Serb duchy within the Hapsburg empire). The small enclave of Zara on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast was taken by Italy which, in 1919, called in U.S. troops to back up its claim.
The new Yugoslav government was based on the Serbian monarchy, and was seated at the Serbian capital of Belgrade. The establishment of a dictatorship by King Alexander in 1929 further consolidated Serb power in the new state. Administrative borders were redrawn within the kingdom, augmenting Serb control and eliminating the constituent nations as unified territories.
This “First Yugoslavia” began to fall apart with the rise of European fascism in the 1930s. In 1934, King Alexander was assassinated by a member of the Croatian nationalist organization Ustashe, which was backed by Mussolini’s Italy. The Regency appointed to rule in place of Alexander’s ten-year-old son granted Croatia some autonomy. With the outbreak of World War II, it also tilted toward the Axis, signing a pact with Hitler in March of 1941. This resulted in British support for a coup d’etat and popular uprising against the Regency. But the uprising was put down by invading Nazi troops as the Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade. The government and royal family fled into exile in Britain.
The fascist powers dismantled Yugoslavia. The German occupation forces ruled Serbia with collaborationist elements from the old regime. A pro-Nazi “independent” Croatian state, which included Bosnia, was established under the Ustashe. Italy had seized Albania in 1939 and now occupied Dalmatia and Montenegro as well, and divided Slovenia with Germany. Most of Kosovo was annexed to Italian-occupied Albania. Hungary took much of Vojvodina, while Bulgaria annexed Macedonia.
The Ustashe regime in Croatia established a death camp at Jasenovac and carried out genocide against hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, and Roma (Gypsies). Bosnia’s Muslim leadership was co-opted by the Ustashe regime and cooperated in the genocide. Nazi and collaborationist forces in Serbia deported Jews and Roma to Auschwitz, and sent uncooperative Serb army officers to German prison camps. Many Kosovo Albanians, their loyalty bought by unification with Albania, also formed collaborationist militias. Serbian nationalist elements in the Yugoslav military that remained loyal to the monarchy formed a guerrilla group known as the Chetniks, which initially received aid from Britain and resisted the Nazi occupation.
However, at the behest of Russia’s Joseph Stalin, the Allies ultimately threw their support behind a Communist guerrilla movement known as the Partisans, which remained committed to the idea of Yugoslavia, as opposed to Serb nationalism. The fighting became extremely confused. Perceiving the Partisans as the greater threat, some Chetniks joined Italian and German offensives against the Communist guerillas. Chetniks in Bosnia massacred Muslims and Croats. Britain and the U.S. air-dropped aid to the multi-ethnic Partisans in their struggle against the Ustashe, the Chetniks, and the occupation forces.
The Tito Era
In July 1943, Mussolini was overthrown and Italian troops returned home from the Balkans. In November 1944, the Soviet Red Army advanced on Belgrade. The overstretched Germans were dislodged and the Partisans emerged victorious. Their Croatian-born leader, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, was installed in power. Tito established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which consisted of six republics (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Montenegro) and two autonomous regions within Serbia (Vojvodina and Kosovo). Not only was defeated Italy forced to cede its claims to Dalmatian territory, but the Italian peninsula of Istria was liberated from Mussolini’s rule by Tito’s Partisans and annexed to Croatia. Tito even tried to claim the Italian city of Trieste, but backed down after sparking a post-war crisis with the West.
Following Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, Yugoslavia maintained independence from the Soviet bloc, pursuing a “non-aligned” path between East and West. The neighboring Albanian Communist regime under Enver Hoxha, which had been closely allied with Tito, broke from Yugoslavia at this time and became a rigidly closed dictatorship.
Yugoslavia embarked on a program of reconstruction and industrialization. Creating a multi-ethnic Bosnian republic was part of Tito’s plan to solidify the anti-nationalist character of the new Yugoslavia. But Serbs retained predominance in the Communist Party apparatus, the political police, and the leadership of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Fearing invasion from both NATO and the USSR, Tito gave the JNA a central role in the new Yugoslavia. It became one of the largest of Europe’s armies. Using the Partisan model, the government also built an extensive territorial defense network of local militias.
Tito built Yugoslavia’s defense industry into one of Europe’s largest, with Bosnia (seen as the strategic center from which to defend in the event of war) home to some of the most important arms plants. Trade and investment for the Yugoslav arms industry poured in from both the East and West. American defense giants like Lockheed won contracts in Yugoslavia. Tito’s system of “self-management” incorporated certain capitalist elements and allowed for a larger degree of autonomy in the industrial sector than in most Communist states. International capital was obtained for the development of heavy industry, especially metallurgy, in Croatia. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) loaned heavily in the 1960s. In the effort to transform a peasant economy into an industrial power, Yugoslavia racked up a $20 billion foreign debt—a figure comparable to that of many Third World nations.
While Yugoslavia became the most open of the Communist nations, there was still significant repression. Tito kept the lid on the hatreds left smoldering from World War II, but he muzzled legitimate discourse and dissent as well. Any expression of nationalist sentiment was completely forbidden. Nevertheless, demands for autonomy continued to surface. The Yugoslav security forces, suspicious of Hoxha’s designs on the region, took a heavy hand with Kosovo Albanians in the 1960s, leading to demonstrations in Pristina (the regional capital) in 1968. Student democracy protests in Belgrade that year were also met with arrests. In the “Croatian Spring” of the early 1970s, the republic’s Communist Party began moving towards autonomy from Belgrade, prompting Tito to unleash a purge.
However, these developments also prompted Tito to purge hard-liners from the federal apparatus and to unveil a new constitution instating a high level of decentralization in nearly all areas except military and foreign policy. The 1974 constitution established a rotating federal presidency among the republics, to take effect after Tito’s death. The autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina was extended to make them equal with the six republics in most capacities.
In the late 1970s the IMF started to call in its loans. Following Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia fell into dramatic economic decline as IMF repayment plans imposed harsh austerity. Richer Slovenia and Croatia began to resent the drain of local wealth to the JNA—and the poorer regions of Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Albanian students demanding greater autonomy protested angrily in Kosovo in 1981. Thousands were arrested and eleven students were killed by the police. Grassroots movements against militarism and nuclear power, especially in Croatia and Slovenia (where an atomic plant was built), called for a looser Yugoslav confederation. But such initiatives were blocked by the JNA.
In 1986 word surfaced of a secret memorandum written by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences delineating a plan for a Greater Serbia within Yugoslavia. The text, revealed in the press years later, called for revoking Kosovo’s autonomy and charged the Kosovar Albanians with “war” against the province’s Serbs. In fact, Kosovo’s mines were a source of much wealth for the federal regime, yet the region was Yugoslavia’s poorest. The Albanians, as Yugoslavia’s poorest group, had soaring birth rates, while Serbs of means were moving out of Kosovo. At the time, Albanians made up 90 percent of Kosovo’s population, and there were widespread accusations of violence and discrimination against local Serbs.
Slobodan Milosevic’s League of Communists of Serbia (soon to be renamed the Socialist Party of Serbia) became the first group to successfully break the Titoist prohibition on nationalism, launching a populist campaign in 1987 that exploited both class resentment against bureaucratic elites and Serb fears of Albanian demographic dominance in Kosovo. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo became a rallying cry. The campaign led to Milosevic’s election as Serbia’s president. The JNA, with a largely Serb officer corps, fell in line behind him.
In 1989, Milosevic arranged a purge of Kosovo’s Communist party and pushed through constitutional changes that abolished Kosovo’s autonomy. Students again took to the streets in Pristina, and workers occupied Kosovo’s mines in protest of the move. Milosevic put down the actions with army troops, while opposition protesters in Belgrade also met violent repression. Albanian teachers and government workers in Kosovo were fired on a massive scale. Schools and other public institutions became rigidly segregated. Albanian-language newspapers and radio stations were closed. Kosovo’s Albanians established a parallel network of schools, clinics, and civic agencies run out of private homes.
The Serbian treatment of Albanians evoked disgust in Slovenia and Croatia. Nationalist parties emerged in each of the republics, and the Yugoslav Communist Party fell apart, surviving only as Serbia’s ruling party. The federal structure ceased to function.
In 1990, a new deal with the IMF imposed economic “shock therapy” on Yugoslavia, freezing wages and dramatically cutting back such basic services as energy and transportation. That same year, the United States cut off economic aid pending the results of the upcoming separate elections in each of the six republics. The elections were marked by populist campaigns highlighting ethnic grievances in each republic.
Franjo Tudjman, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU), was a veteran of the Partisans who had been briefly imprisoned under Tito for espousing Croatian nationalism. Tudjman won 67 percent of the vote in Croatia. The CDU victory stirred fears among Croatia’s Serbs when the party refused to disavow Croatia’s Ustashe past. This stance proved helpful to Milosevic in Serbia as he used his nationalist program to outmaneuver student and intellectual opposition.
A plebiscite in Slovenia in December of 1990 went overwhelmingly for secession, and Slovenia prepared to declare independence. A similar referendum in Croatia in May 1991 had similar results. Fears of Croatian independence were inflamed in Croatia’s Serb enclaves when the nascent state adopted the flag and crest that had been used by the Ustashe (although the symbols had roots in medieval Croatia). Tudjman’s draft constitution made no reference to the citizenship rights of ethnic Serbs, who were a “constituent nationality” under Croatia’s Communist constitution. He purged Serbs from the republic’s police and militia forces in preparation for independence. Before the plebiscite, Serbs formed their own militias and sealed off their enclaves. No polling stations were allowed in their territory. After three generations, the Krajina had reemerged.
On June 21, 1991, United States Secretary of State James Baker visited Belgrade, warning of the “dangers of disintegration” and urging Yugoslavia to maintain “territorial integrity.” Belgrade took this as a “green light” to use force to halt secession. Meanwhile, Germany, with substantial investments in Slovenia and Croatia, was urging the European Community to recognize the breakaway republics. One week after Baker’s comments, Croatia and Slovenia declared independence and JNA tanks and troops invaded Slovenia, meeting strong resistance from Slovenian territorial defense forces. After ten days of fighting, with forty-four JNA troops dead, the international community helped negotiate a cease-fire and a three-month moratorium on Slovenia’s secession. By the time the moratorium expired, the JNA had pulled out. The Balkans’ borders had changed for the first time since World War II.
War in Croatia and Bosnia
By then Croatia had descended into war. The Serbs in the Krajina declared their own independence, expelling Croat residents from their territory. The JNA invaded eastern Croatia in August, coming to the defense of local Serb militias. Serb artillery demolished the city of Vukovar in Croatia’s eastern Slavonia region. Atrocities against civilians were committed by both sides.
The European Community tried to mediate the conflict at a September conference in The Hague, where Serbia demanded that Serb regions in any seceding republic have the option to remain in Yugoslavia. Talks in The Hague deadlocked, and the fighting intensified. In October, the city of Dubrovnik, on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, was shelled by Serb/JNA forces from the overlooking hills. Fourteen cease-fires were implemented and failed until February 1992, when United Nations Special Envoy Cyrus Vance brokered one that included the introduction of UN peacekeeping forces.
Under German pressure, in December 1991 the European Community recognized Slovenia and Croatia as independent. But the Serb-controlled regions of Croatia in the Krajina and Slavonia continued to maintain their autonomy – which was not recognized by the Croatian capital of Zagreb, but backed by force of arms. In June 1992, the UN began an economic embargo against Serbia. An arms embargo against all republics failed to stop the war from spreading, and some say it solidified the Serbs’ power since they had large weapons stockpiles supplied by a sympathetic JNA.
The future of Bosnia become unclear. Bosnia’s cultural diversity (45 percent Muslim Slav, 33 percent Serb, and 18 percent Croat), traditionally a point of pride, became a source of tension. The Bosnians initially declared their desire to remain in a loose Yugoslav confederation. But faced with secession by Slovenia and Croatia they were compelled to hold a referendum of their own in February 1992. This halted all negotiations in Bosnia, and strengthened a strategic alliance between Bosnian Muslims and Croats against the Serbs, who boycotted the referendum. The vote went for secession.
The 1991 Bosnian elections had brought Alija Izetbegovic of the Muslim-supported Party of Democratic Action to power. Izetbegovic was a former dissident who had been imprisoned in 1983 for writing an “Islamic Declaration” outlining a program for Muslim nationalism. Although Izetbegovic put together a multi-ethnic coalition government, the Milosevic regime used his background to convince Bosnian Serbs that the Bosnian government was a fundamentalist Islamic power bent on massacring Serbs in a holy war.
By April 1992, fighting had begun in Bosnia. Under the leadership of poet and psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic, and with support from Serbia, Bosnian Serbs formed their own “Serb Republic” and military. Karadzic’s forces sought to cut a corridor though northern Bosnia to connect Serbia with Serb-controlled areas of Croatia. They attempted to create ethnically homogeneous zones, eventually gaining control of some 70 percent of Bosnian territory. The expulsion of Muslims and Croats from areas under their control drew international protest, as did the discovery of makeshift concentration camps run by Serb troops where mass rapes and other atrocities occurred. (United States President George Bush knew of these horrific realities from CIA reports before they were revealed in the international press, but remained silent about them.)
Karadzic integrated Bosnian Serb JNA troops into his military command, which continued to receive support from Belgrade. Zagreb backed Bosnian Croat forces under Mate Boban, who came to the aid of the besieged Bosnian government. The UN sent peacekeeper troops to police the lines of control, and UN negotiators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen developed a Peace Plan dividing Bosnia into ten semi-autonomous regions. The plan won grudging agreement from the Bosnian government and Croat forces, but the Serbs rejected it at their self-declared parliament.
In January 1993, fighting briefly broke out between Croats and Serbs in Croatia, where the presence of UN troops had done little to move the situation toward a political settlement. In March, Bosnian Croat forces also began attacking Muslims in towns like Mostar, with an eye to staking a territorial claim before the Peace Plan took effect – leading many Muslims to suspect a Serb-Croat plot to divide Bosnia.
Bosnia settled into a war of attrition, with Sarajevo and a few other government-held cities besieged by the rebel Serb forces that controlled most of the country. For months, Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, was intermittently shelled from the surrounding hills. The UN announced war crimes charges against Karadzic and his general, Ratko Mladic, as well as lesser figures from all three sides.
Macedonia also declared independence, gaining UN recognition in 1993. Yugoslavia now consisted only of Serbia and Montenegro. In 1992, Kosovo Albanians had gone to the polls in their living rooms, electing a parliament and president—dissident intellectual Ibrahim Rugova—to lead their parallel underground government, but held back from declaring themselves an independent state.
Slobodan Milosevic, his Serbian nationalist party now known as the Socialist Party, faced opposition from both marginalized anti-war dissidents and ultra-nationalists like Vojaslav Seselj’s Radical Party, which controlled seats in the Yugoslav Parliament. But Milosevic, shifting to maintain power, sometimes found Seselj a useful ally against Serbian moderates.
In Croatia, the hard-line opposition of Dobroslav Paraga (which was openly nostalgic for the Ustashe) represented a more strident nationalism than Tudjman. Like Serbia’s Seselj, Paraga controlled extremist paramilitary groups in Bosnia. But an anti-war opposition also persisted in Croatia. In both Serbia and Croatia, the opposition press was periodically closed by official decree for criticism of the regime.
The forces of the Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and especially Serbs, who faced the most stringent embargo, turned to smuggling heroin and other contraband for arms and petrol. A criminal economy exploded throughout the region.
In February 1994, following a rocket attack on Sarajevo’s marketplace, NATO planes struck Serb targets in Bosnia. The siege of Sarajevo was eased. Mate Boban was ousted as leader of the Bosnian Croats, and a formal Croat-Muslim alliance was rebuilt. In May 1994, after NATO threatened air strikes against Serbia, Milosevic ordered the Bosnian border sealed, ostensibly cutting off aid to Karadzic. President Bill Clinton then pressed to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government, but the United Kingdom and France (with UN peacekeeper troops in Bosnia) refused. Nonetheless, Clinton later vetoed bills to end U.S. participation in the arms embargo.
In May 1995, Croatian government forces took the Serb-held Western Slavonia enclave, sending Serb refugees fleeing into Serb-held Bosnia.
In July, Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-protected “safe areas” of Zepa and Srebrenica, summarily evicting thousands of Muslim women and children to Bosnian government-held territory. Srebrenica’s men were held, their whereabouts a mystery—years later, international investigators would find the mass graves where they had been dumped. Investigators maintain that the Serb forces used the mind-altering gas BZ against the troops defending Srebrenica. Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla, and Bihac were the only remaining UN “safe areas.” Croatian troops intervened as Bosnian Serbs attempted to take the government-held Bihac pocket near the Croatian border.
In August, Croatia invaded the Krajina, meeting little resistance. Serbia did nothing to intervene, leading to further theories of a Tudjman-Milosevic carve-up deal. A U.S. warplane based on a carrier off Dalmatia’s coast launched strikes on the Serbs’ missile defense system in the Krajina just before Tudjman ordered in his troops. The Croatian forces were also trained by U.S. military advisors for the Krajina invasion, dubbed Operation Storm—technically not a violation of the arms embargo, which did not cover military instruction.
Two hundred thousand Serb refugees fled the Krajina in a massive exodus to Serb-held Bosnia and Serbia, with Croatian troops burning and ransacking their houses behind them. Milosevic faced nationalist protests in Belgrade for his failure to act. The overwhelmed Serbian government settled the refugees in Vojvodina and Kosovo, helping tip the demographic balance away from Hungarians and Albanians, respectively. As the refugees arrived, Croats were expelled from Serb-held Bosnia and Vojvodina.
Tensions also escalated in the one remaining Serb-held area of Croatia, the Eastern Slavonia enclave bordering Serbia. Skirmishes erupted with Croatian troops, and Milosevic sent forces to Serbia’s border with the enclave. Pushing a new U.S.-brokered peace plan for a confederated Bosnia with large Serb and Croat ethnic zones, NATO threatened further raids if Sarajevo was shelled. At the end of August a second marketplace bombing called NATO’s ultimatum. From U.S. air bases in Italy, NATO launched successive bombing raids aimed at Serb arms depots and artillery outside Sarajevo. The NATO raids and Serb losses in the Krajina marked a turning point. Bosnian government and Croat forces made territorial gains in a sweep through central Bosnia.
The new U.S. role augmented the Clinton Administration’s renewed leadership status in Europe, and headed off greater involvement by Islamic countries that had sent mercenaries to fight for the Bosnian government. Despite opposition at home, Clinton ordered 20,000 U.S. troops to Bosnia, which was divided by NATO into U.S., French, and British spheres. Greece, Turkey, Germany, and other NATO members sent smaller troop detachments. In a special arrangement for a non-NATO state, so did Russia—the perceived protector of the Serbs.
American negotiators successfully brokered a cease-fire in October, bringing Serb, Croat, and Muslim leaders to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, for a three-week marathon session that resulted in the Dayton Peace Accord. Under heavy pressure, the Bosnian Serbs agreed to be represented in Dayton by Milosevic, who suddenly took on the mantle of “peacemaker.” This finally brought the lifting of economic sanctions against Serbia. In the wake of Dayton, Serbia also agreed to pull out of Eastern Slavonia, ending the last armed stand-off in Croatia.
The Dayton Accord ostensibly established a single Bosnian state—but one made up of two separate entities, a Serb Republic and a Croat-Bosnian Federation, which maintained their own militaries and separate relationships with bordering states. Even those areas under Croat control were more answerable to Zagreb than Sarajevo. NATO troops replaced the ineffective UN forces as the monitors of compliance with the Accord. Yet responsibility for overseeing elections, rebuilding, refugee repatriation, and civil reconciliation stayed with UN, European Union, and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) agencies with comparatively modest budgets.
The Dayton Accord displayed a pattern familiar since the region’s early history. The agendas of the Western powers informed the Accord, and the local political leaders used it for their own advantages, just as they used ethnic nationalism and war. Bosnia’s civilian population had little say in the matter. Over 10,000 had been killed in Sarajevo since the war started.
The Kosovo Explosion
The Dayton Accord failed to include any provisions for Kosovo. In frustration, many young Albanians gave up on Ibrahim Rugova’s nonviolent strategy of building a parallel society that could eventually gain international recognition. In 1997, an Albanian guerrilla group, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), began ambushing police patrols and attacking stations. Serbian security forces responded by sealing off villages and rounding up suspected guerrilla collaborators. Reports of torture and “disappearance” of detained Albanians escalated.
Milosevic was then facing the biggest crisis of his career. When his regime refused to recognize local elections for the opposition in November 1996, thousands of protesters took over Belgrade’s central square for several weeks. The protests were broken by police in January 1997 and the opposition coalition splintered, though the regime finally did recognize some opposition electoral victories.
Milosevic was barred by the constitution from running for a third term as Serbian president, but in July 1997 he had the federal Parliament he controlled elect him president of Yugoslavia. The vote was taken in an atmosphere of terror, with the opposition press closed by decree. Milosevic remained Serbia’s real boss, and actually increased his power.
Neighboring Albania had meanwhile descended into chaos. The weak post-Communist government had entered NATO’s Partnership for Peace military program and opened the country to U.S. troops and spy planes. It also promoted unscrupulous pyramid schemes, designed by get-rich-quick outfits to exploit the desperation and ignorance of Europe’s poorest, most isolated country. When the pyramids crashed, thousands of Albanians lost their life savings. In March of 1997 the country exploded into rebellion. Village clans plundered the military armories and seized local control. Thousands of refugees fled across the Adriatic to Italy. In April, a multilateral European intervention force landed, restored a measure of central authority, and prepared to oversee new elections.
Many of the arms plundered from the Albanian military were smuggled across the border to the KLA. Interpol claimed the KLA had also turned to the heroin trade to fund arms purchases. In any case, the rebel group swelled as repression gripped Kosovo. In February 1998, following a KLA attack on a police patrol that left four officers dead, Serbian police and paramilitary groups responded with a new campaign of “ethnic cleansing.” By early 1999, hundreds of villages had been torched and a quarter of a million Kosovar Albanians (out of a total population of 1.4 million) were displaced. Some fled across the border to Albania and Macedonia. Others hid in Kosovo’s mountains.
In return for guarantees of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke secured Milosevic’s agreement on a deal calling for an OSCE “verification mission” to monitor the situation on the ground. But the violence continued, despite the monitors. International investigators discovered evidence of massacres, which was predictably contested by Serbian authorities.
In February 1999, a new round of U.S.-brokered talks between the Milosevic government and an Albanian team including both KLA and Rugova representatives convened at Rambouillet, France. Milosevic rejected Clinton’s demands for NATO troops to police Kosovo. The Albanians rejected terms mandating a three-year interval before Kosovo could vote for secession. The Albanian team finally gave in and signed the Rambouillet Accords. Fearing a backlash from hard-liners in his own regime, Milosevic remained intransigent. On March 24, NATO began Operation Allied Force, a sustained bombing campaign of Yugoslavia. Belgrade’s forces responded with Operation Horseshoe, a campaign to finally drive the Albanians from Kosovo altogether. Whole villages fled at gunpoint, families loaded onto tractors.
Ultimately, 800,000 Kosovar Albanians settled in massive refugee camps hastily established in Albania and Macedonia. Milosevic was finally accused of war crimes, and ordered to surrender himself to a UN tribunal established at The Hague.
Despite NATO claims of precision bombing guided by military necessity, civilian targets were widely hit—including bridges, factories, oil refineries, power plants, and Belgrade’s TV station. In one embarrassing error, a convoy of Albanian refugees was bombed. In May, Belgrade’s Chinese embassy was destroyed by a NATO missile. Another errant missile destroyed a civilian passenger train. Another hit a suburban area of Bulgaria. Such “collateral damage” cost perhaps 2,000 lives. The bombing also unleashed an ecological nightmare. Mercury and PCBs from bombed industrial sites contaminated the Danube, bringing fishing and commerce on the river to a halt. In Pancevo, where a dark cloud from the destroyed petrochemical works enveloped the city, doctors noted a doubling of the miscarriage rate. NATO forces suffered no casualties, though Yugoslav air defense forces did succeed in downing a U.S. Stealth fighter (the pilot was rescued).
While the air assault was overwhelmingly led by the U.S., it also saw participation by Germany’s military, in combat operations for the first time since World War II—ironically, under a left-coalition government that included the Green Party. Greece allowed NATO troops and war material to pass through to Macedonia and Albania, but refused to participate in the air raids. Many NATO countries saw large protests against the bombing. On April 28, the U.S. Congress voted not to declare war, but not to halt the bombing either, ceding authority on the question to the president.
The bombing ended on June 20. Both NATO and Belgrade claimed victory. In fact, both compromised: Milosevic agreed to accept NATO troops, but the West dropped demands for any moves towards actual independence for Kosovo. The deal was sanctioned by the UN, which also prepared its own international police force for Kosovo. The KLA, which had fought Serb forces on the ground throughout the bombing, was to be partially disarmed and converted into a civilian police force.
As the U.S., Britain, France, Italy, and Germany divided Kosovo into occupation zones, Russian troops rushed in from Bosnia to seize Pristina’s airport as a bargaining chip. NATO’s commander, U.S. General Wesley Clark, wanted to push the Russians out, but was overruled by his European coalition partners. Russian troops were allowed into the international “peacekeeping force” despite protests from Albanians, who accused Russian mercenaries of participation in Operation Horseshoe. Kosovo was now part of Serbia in name only, with power actually divided between NATO and the KLA—now swelled with volunteers from throughout the Albanian diaspora.
As Albanian refugees flooded back in, Serb civilians fled towards Belgrade. By summer’s end, Kosovo’s Serb population had been reduced by two-thirds, to 70,000. Many towns were divided into Serb and Albanian zones, separated by barbed wire and occupation troops. Both Serbs and Roma, who were accused of collaborating with the Serbs, were targets of forced evictions, executions, and other revenge violence. As Serb refugees poured into Serbia, widespread protests again erupted demanding the resignation of Milosevic—in defiance of a state of emergency.
Protests simmered for a year, but a united opposition movement failed to consolidate. In the Summer of 2000, Milosevic—having pushed through constitutional changes allowing him to run for another term as Yugoslav president—called new elections. The three opposition candidates shared the consensus on Serb nationalism. Montenegro’s leadership called for a boycott of the election, while the West chose to support the most moderate candidate, Vojislav Kostunica of the Serbian Democratic Party.
In the September 24 elections, Kostunica claimed a 55% victory, but Milosevic refused to recognize this, demanding a run-off vote. A huge protest movement—with considerable financial backing form the U.S. State Department—now mobilized throughout Serbia to oppose a run-off and demand Milosevic’s resignation.
On October 5, half a million people amassed in Belgrade, with tens of thousands of Serbs arriving in the capital from the provinces. In Kolubara, thousands of miners and their local supporters seized the streets and forced the police to withdraw. The following day, Yugoslavia’s Constitutional Court confirmed Kostunica’s victory, and Milosevic resigned. After 13 years, Milosvic’s reign was finally over. Even Montenegro agreed to recognize Kostunica as president.
However, almost immediately, remnants of the officially disbanded KLA stepped up attacks on Serbian patrols in the “buffer zone” between occupied Kosovo and Serbia proper with an eye towards liberating more territory. Kostunica warned that the guerilla attacks could spark a “large-scale war.” The Kosovo crisis also exacerbated divisions in Macedonia. Before the country was called upon to host thousands of Albanian refugees, the large Albanian minority there already faced harassment and demands for their expulsion, and Albanian-language classes at the national university were threatened. The U.S. maintained 300 troops in Macedonia—the only U.S. troops under UN command in the world. But, once again, the UN presence failed to prevent violence.
In February 2001, a KLA offshoot, the National Liberation Army (NLA), took up arms in northern and western Macedonia, and began expelling ethnic Macedonians from the territory they grabbed. Macedonian government forces responded by shelling guerilla-held towns. In August, a tentative cease-fire was reached, and NATO launched Operation Essential Harvest, calling for 3,500 troops (mostly British) to oversee the “voluntary disarmament” of the NLA in exchange for constitutional guarantees of Albanian language and cultural rights. But the agreement could fall apart, and if war resumes the Macedonian crisis could become quickly internationalized. Bulgarian and Greek expansionists both have open designs on the country, and many local Macedonians accuse NATO of backing a “Greater Albanian” design on their territory, as there is no deadline for guerilla disarmament.
Dangers of a Wider War
There is much potential for re-escalation of the Balkan crisis, and the presence of foreign troops makes the stakes higher. Many Kosovo Albanians view KLA disarmament and retreat from official independence as a capitulation, while Serb hard-liners like Seselj accused Milosevic of selling Kosovo, and are even more hostile to Kostunica. Nonetheless, in June 2001, Kostunica capitulated to Western pressure and turned Milosevic over to the UN war crimes tribunal. Several lesser figures from all sides in the Bosnian and Croatian wars have also been turned over to The Hague—although Karadzic and Mladic remain at large.
Montenegro, which was bombed by NATO in 1999 despite being at odds with Belgrade, remains another likely flashpoint. Montenegro’s president, former black marketeer Milo Djukanovic, has support from local Albanians, urban dwellers, and the West, but was opposed by Milosevic’s followers. Unwilling to support Serbia’s war in Kosovo, Djukanovic threatened to hold a referendum on secession if Montenegro was not granted greater autonomy, and actually switched Montenegro’s currency from the Yugoslav dinar to the German mark. The contradiction there, if less urgent than under Milosevic, has not been resolved under Kostunica.
The large Hungarian minority in Serbia’s northern breadbasket of Vojvodina mostly rejected Belgrade’s Kosovo war, and expansionists in Hungary have designs on that region.
Bosnia remains tense and divided, dependent on outside governance and funding. Karadzic has lost control of the Serb Republic to more moderate forces, and is in hiding. The Muslim-led government in Sarajevo has become more narrowly nationalistic, but has little control of the countryside. In Croatia, efforts by Serb refugees to return to their homes remains a source of tension. In December 1999, Tudjman died of cancer, and his CDU was voted out by a reformist coalition in subsequent elections. The Croatian reformists worried that Croatia’s continued violations of international human rights standards, and the lack of effort in arresting Croatians wanted by the war crimes tribunal, would stall the desired entry into the EU.
In the immediate aftermath of the 1999 bombing, Russia conducted its largest military maneuvers since the end of the Cold War. Russian bombers approached Norwegian and Icelandic airspace, and were confronted by NATO fighters. The exercise ended with a “simulated” nuclear strike—a chilling echo of Cold War brinkmanship. Moscow faces domestic terrorism and economic collapse, and views it as significant that the bombing campaign began days after NATO, on its 50th anniversary, expanded to include Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Poland—three former Warsaw Pact members, two of which border the former Soviet Union. Russia is now waging a counter-insurgency war against Muslim rebels in the Caucasus mountains. The former Soviet republics of Georgia and Azerbaijan, immediately to the south, have established preliminary military-diplomatic links to NATO. In the Central Asian republics of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, NATO is training troops to fight Islamic guerrillas based in neighboring Tajikistan under the Partnership for Peace program. The Kremlin sees all this as an embryonic encirclement of the Caspian Sea, which is eyed by U.S. corporations for major oil development in the twenty-first century.
Wars are often followed by waves of public sentiment that such carnage must never happen again. But wars do happen again, frequently in the same places. The new Balkan wars are usually portrayed in the media as part of a never-ending conflict among ethnic groups. History shows, however, that these conflicts are most often the result of outside pressures from more powerful nations and manipulation by the local leaders who do their bidding. If the international community, either at the level of nation-states or citizen initiatives, truly wants to promote peace, an understanding of Balkan history must inform any action we take. Otherwise, it is likely that the cycles of violent conflict in the region will continue to spiral.
Balkan War Resource Group
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