Among the earliest inhabitants of the Balkans were the Illyrians, ancestors of the Albanians, arriving before the Seventh Century BC. They eventually came under the domination of the Roman Empire. By the Fourth Century CE, the declining Empire was divided in two for reasons of administrative expediency. The Western branch of the Empire remained based in Rome, while the Eastern branch was based in Constantinople (today Istanbul), and became the Byzantine Empire. While the Western branch continued to crumble, the Byzantines became 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, 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 empires corresponds almost precisely with that of present-day Serbia and Croatia. The power vacuum left by the decline of Rome allowed Croatia and Slovenia in the north and west to maintain a degree of independence and sovereignty–although pressure from the Magyars in Hungary forced them into the influence sphere of the Germanic powers, such as the Frankish empire of Charlemagne. The Serbs, meanwhile, 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 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 contested regions such as Dalmatia. Bosnia, a remote and mountainous region between the two spheres, was never effectively under the control of either, but developed its own “heresy” with populist and anti-authoritarian overtones, called Bogomilism–which the Catholic powers to the north did their best to exterminate.
An independent Croatia disappeared in the Twelfth Century when it was finally absorbed by Catholic Hungary. Bosnia also fell under Hungarian rule following a Rome-sanctioned crusade against the Bogomils.
But as the Byzantine Empire began to lose its grip on the Balkans, Serbia emerged as an independent kingdom. At its maximum, medieval Serbia included Macedonia and extended south to the Aegean coast.
By the Fourteenth Century, the Byzantine Empire was in rapid decline, besieged by Turkish invasions from the east. The Turkish (and Islamic) Ottoman Empire was established on the ruins of the Byzantine Empire, and began to expand 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 to the north, under Hungarian protection, but completely succumbed to the Ottomans in 1459.
The Ottomans succeeded in winning the loyalty of Bosnian peasant uprisings against Hungary. Bosnia was subsequently annexed to the Ottoman Empire, and most of the Bogomils converted to Islam. Those Bosnians who remained Catholic became ethnic Croats; those who remained Orthodox identified as Serbs. Bosnia’s Muslim Slav majority was favored with status and access to land by the Ottoman administrators.
While many Bosnian peasants welcomed the Ottomans as liberators, the Serbs had lost an independent kingdom and were loathe to be once again under Constantinople’s rule.
Beginning in the Sixteenth Century, the Balkans were the scene of a great struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg regime in Austria. As the Austrian and Hungarian empires merged, Croatia and Slovenia came under the control of Vienna, while Serbia, Bosnia and Macedonia remained under Turkish control.
The Austrians encouraged some 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.
Austria invaded Ottoman lands in 1689, and was driven back–but local Serbs were accused of “collaboration” with the invader. Facing violent reprisals, many Serbs migrated from Kosovo, a plateau which had been the heart of their medieval kingdom. Kosovo subsequently became more the domain of Albanians. Centuries earlier pushed into the mountains by the Serbs, Albanians were favored under the Ottomans, and many had accepted Islam with Turkish rule.
After the French Revolution, both nationalism and the idea of South Slav, or “Yugoslav,” unity spread in the Balkans. A movement for Serbian independence emerged and, despite violent repression by the Ottomans, succeeded in bringing about 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 Serbia and Austria. Bosnia was occupied by Austria in 1878 and formally annexed in 1908.
In 1912, Greece, Bulgaria and Russia joined with Serbia to wrest Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania from the Turks in the First Balkan War. Albanians in Kosovo and Macedonia suffered reprisals at the hands of the invading Serbian forces, including the burning of villages. In Albania, regional leaders, fearing annexation by Serbia and Greece, declared independence. Although the independence leadership was Muslim, the nascent Albanian national identity also embraced Catholics and Orthodox.
In 1913, the victorious powers promptly started to fight among themselves in a Second Balkan War. Russia and Greece, joined by Romania, backed Serbia against Bulgaria for control of Macedonia. Serbia won control of both Macedonia and Kosovo.
The balance of power had shifted. Serbian nationalists no longer saw the Hapsburg regime as an ally against the Ottomans, but as the remaining imperial power standing in the way of a Greater Serbia. Serbia started backing nationalist organizations such as the clandestine Black Hand among Serbs in Austro-Hungarian Bosnia and Croatia.
It was allegedly a Black Hand activist who provided the spark for World War I by assassinating the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand at Sarajevo in 1914–although lax security during Ferdinand’s visit to the Bosnian city led some to speculate that Austrian hard-liners wanted him dead to have an excuse to make war on Serbia.
As Austria attacked Serbia, Europe was plunged into war. The old enemies of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires joined forces against Russia, and its ally the United Kingdom, which came to Serbia’s aid. Germany lined up with Vienna and Constantinople; France with London and Moscow. Greece and Romania lined up with Russia and the Serbs against Bulgaria and the Turks. Croats and Slovenes, conscripted into the Austrian army, were pitted against 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.
Russia withdrew from the war as the Bolsheviks seized power there, but the United States entered on the side of Britain and France, who landed at Greece to help the Serbian army retake the country. In 1918, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires were defeated and finally dismantled.
The victorious Allies drew a new map of the region. In cooperation with local forces who aspired to South Slav unity, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was created–later renamed Yugoslavia. Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia were united for the first time under a common state. The Hungarian region of Vojvodina was annexed to Serbia (having once been a Serb autonomous duchy within the Hapsburg empire). Zara, a small enclave of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, was taken by Italy, which brought in US troops to back up its claim in 1919.
The Yugoslav government was built on the Serbian monarchy, and 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. New administrative borders were drawn within the kingdom, augmenting Serb control and eliminating the constituent nations as unified entities.
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 10-year-old son granted Croatia some autonomy. It also tilted to the Axis with the outbreak of World War II, signing a pact with Hitler in 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 ruled Serbia with collaborationist elements of the old regime. A pro-Nazi “independent” Croatian state, including Bosnia, was established under the Ustashe. Italy, which had seized Albania in 1939, occupied Dalmatia and Montenegro, 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, co-opted by the Ustashe regime, cooperated in the genocide. The collaborationist forces in Serbia deported Jews and Roma to Auschwitz, and uncooperative Serb army officers to German prison camps. Albanians in Kosovo, their loyalty bought by unification with Albania, also formed collaborationist militias.
Serb nationalist elements in the Yugoslav military who remained loyal to the exiled monarchy formed a guerilla group known as the Chetniks which resisted the Nazi occupation, and initially received aid from Britain. However, the Allies–at behest of Russia’s Joseph Stalin–ultimately threw their support behind a Communist guerilla movement known as the Partisans, who remained committed to the idea of Yugoslavia, as opposed to Serb nationalism.
The fighting became extremely confused. Perceiving the Partisans as a greater threat, some Chetnik forces joined Italian and even German offensives against the Communist guerillas. Chetniks in Bosnia massacred Muslims and Croats. Britain air-dropped aid to the multi-ethnic Partisans in their struggle against the Ustashe, Chetniks and occupation forces.
In July 1943, Mussolini was overthrown and Italian troops called home from the Balkans, further straining the German occupation forces. In November 1944, the Soviet Red Army advanced on Belgrade 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, consisting 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 claimed the Italian city of Trieste, but backed down after sparking a post-war crisis with the West.
Following Tito’s 1948 break with Stalin, Yugoslavia maintained independence from the Soviet bloc, pursuing a path between East and West. The neighboring Albanian Communist regime under Enver Hoxha, who had been closely allied with Tito, also broke from Yugoslavia at this time, becoming a rigidly closed dictatorship.
Yugoslavia embarked on a program of reconstruction and industrialization. The creation of 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, political police and 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, and it became among the largest of Europe’s armies. Using the Partisan model, the government also built an extensive territorial defense network of local militias.
The Yugoslav defense industry became one of the world’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. US 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 and Slovenia. 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 many Third World nations.
While Yugoslavia became the most open of the Communist nations, there was significant repression. Tito kept the lid on legitimate discourse and dissent as well as hatreds left smoldering from World War II. Any expression of nationalist sentiment was completely forbidden. Nevertheless, demands for autonomy continued to surface. The 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 were also met with arrests in Belgrade that year. 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 hardliners from the federal apparatus and unveil a new constitution instating a high level of decentralization in nearly all areas except foreign military policy. The 1974 constitution also 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 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 payment plans imposed harsh austerity. Wealthier Slovenia and Croatia began to feel increasingly resentful of the poorer regions of Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. 1981 again saw angry protests in Kosovo by Albanian students demanding greater autonomy. Thousands were arrested and eleven killed by the police. New grassroots movements against militarism and nuclear power, especially in Croatia and Slovenia (where an atomic plant was built), were among those calling 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 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. Albanians now made up 90% of Kosovo’s population. There were widespread accusations of violence and discrimination against local Serbs.
In 1987 banking official Slobodan Milosevic and his League of Communists of Serbia became the first to successfully break the Titoist prohibition on nationalism, launching a populist campaign which 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 Milosevic.
In 1989, Milosevic arranged a purge of Kosovo’s party, and pushed through constitutional changes abolishing Kosovo’s autonomy. Students again took to the streets in Pristina, and workers occupied mines in protest of the move. But Milosevic put down the actions with army troops. 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 society 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, while 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,” freezing wages and dramatically cutting back such basic services as energy and transportation. That same year, the US cut off economic aid to Yugoslavia pending the upcoming separate elections in each of the six republics. The 1990 elections were marked by populist campaigns which highlighted ethnic grievances in each republic.
The Croatian Democratic Union’s Franjo Tudjman, a veteran of the Partisans who had been briefly imprisoned under Tito for espousing Croatian nationalism, won 67% of the vote. The CDU victory stirred fears among Croatia’s Serbs, as 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 December 1990 plebiscite in Slovenia went overwhelmingly for secession, and the republic prepared to declare independence. A similar referendum was won in Croatia in May 1991. Fears of Croatian independence were inflamed in Croatia’s Serb enclaves after the nascent state adopted the flag and crest which had been used by the Ustashe (although they had roots in medieval Croatia). Tudjman’s draft constitution made no reference to the citizenship rights of ethnic Serbs (who were a “constituent nationality” of Croatia under the republic’s Com-munist constitution). He also 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 nearly a century, the Krajina had re-emerged.
On June 21, US Secretary of State James Baker visited Belgrade, warning of the “dangers of disintegration” and urging that Yugoslavia 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 later, when Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, JNA tanks and troops invaded Slovenia–and met strong resistance by the Slovene territorial defense forces. After ten days of war, 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 had expired, the JNA had pulled out. Europe’s borders had changed for the first time since World War II.
But by then Croatia had descended into war. The Serbs in the Krajina declared their own independence, and expelled Croat residents from their territory. The JNA invaded eastern Croatia in August. 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, but the sticking point was Serbia’s demand that Serb regions in any seceding republic had the option to remain in Yugoslavia. While The Hague was in deadlock, the fighting intensified. In October, Dubrovnik on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast was shelled from the overlooking hills. Fourteen cease-fires were implemented and failed until February 1992, when United Nations Special Envoy Cyrus Vance brokered one which included the introduction of UN peacekeeping forces.
Under German pressure, the European Community recognized independent Slovenia and Croatia in December 1991. Serb-controlled regions of Croatia in the Krajina and Slavonia continued to maintain 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 further solidified the Serbs’ power since they had large weapons stockpiles supplied by a sympathetic JNA.
The future for Bosnia became unclear. Bosnia’s cultural diversity (45% Muslim Slav, 33% Serb and 18% Croat), traditionally a point of pride, became a source of tension. The Bosnians had 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, and strengthened a strategic alliance between Bosnia’s Muslims and Croats against the Serbs, who boycotted the referendum. The vote went for secession.
The Bosnian elections had brought to power Alija Izetbegovic from the Muslim-supported Party of Democratic Action, a former dissident who had been imprisoned in 1983 for writing an “Islamic Declaration” outlining a program for Muslim nationalism. The Milosevic regime used this background to convince Bosnian Serbs that the Bosnian government was a fundamentalist Islamic power bent on massacring Serbs in a holy war–although Izetbegovic had built a multi-ethnic coalition government.
By April, fighting in Bosnia had begun. With support from Serbia, Bosnian Serbs formed their own “Serb Republic” and military under the leadership of poet and psychiatrist Radovan Karadzic. Karadzic’s forces sought to cut a corridor though northern Bosnia to connect Serbia with the Serb-controlled areas of Croatia. They attempted to create ethnically homogeneous zones, eventually gaining control of some 70% 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. US President George Bush knew of these horrific realities from CIA reports before they were revealed in the international press, but remained silent.
Bosnian Serb JNA troops were integrated into Karadzic’s military command, and continued to receive support from Belgrade. Zagreb-backed Bosnian Croat forces under Mate Boban came to the aid of the besieged Bosnian government against Karadzic’s forces.
The UN sent peacekeeper troops to police the lines of control, and presented the warring parties with a Peace Plan developed by negotiators Cyrus Vance and Lord David Owen, dividing Bosnia into ten semi-autonomous regions. The plan won the grudging agreement of the Bosnian government and Croat forces, but not the Serbs, who defeated 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 brought little movement toward a political settlement. In March, Boban’s Bosnian Croat forces began attacking Muslims in towns such as Mostar, with an eye to staking a 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. 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 went to the polls in their living rooms and elected 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 both from marginalized anti-war dissidents and the ultra-nationalists such as Vojaslav Seselj’s Radical Party, which controlled seats in the Yugoslav Parliament. But Milosevic, shifting to maintain power, would sometimes find Seselj a useful ally against Serbian moderates.
In Croatia, the hard-line opposition of Dobroslav Paraga represented a more strident (and openly Ustashe-nostalgic) nationalism than Tudjman (and, like Serbia’s Seslj, controlled extremist paramilitary groups in Bosnia). 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-Bosnian alliance was rebuilt. In May 1994, after NATO threatened airstrikes against Serbia, Milosevic ordered the Bosnian border sealed, ostensibly cutting off aid to Karadzic. US President Bill Clinton then pressed to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnian government, but the UK and France (with UN peacekeeper troops in Bosnia), refused. Clinton, however, later vetoed bills to end US participation in the embargo.
In May 1995, Croatian forces took the Serb-held Western Slavonia enclave, sending Serb refugees fleeing into Serb-held Bosnia.
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran the supposedly UN-protected “safe areas” of Zepa and Srebrenica, summarily evicting thousands of Muslim women and children to Bosnian government-held territory. The men were held, and their whereabouts remain the subject of an international investigation. Investigators maintain that Serb forces used the mind-altering gas BZ against the troops defending Srebrenica. Sarajevo, Gorazde, Tuzla and Bihac were the only remaining “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 US plane 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 US military advisors for the Krajina invasion–technically not a violation of the arms embargo, which did not cover military instruction.
200,000 Serbs fled the Krajina in a massive exodus to Serb-held Bosnia and Serbia, and Croatian troops burnt and ransacked their houses behind them. Milosevic faced nationalist protests in Belgrade. The overwhelmed Serbian government settled the refugees in Vojvodina and Kosovo, to help tip the demographic balance away from Hungarians and Albanians, respectively. As the refugees came in, 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.
NATO, pushing a US-brokered peace plan for a confederated Bosnia with large Serb and Croat ethnic zones, threatened further raids if Sarajevo was shelled. At the end of August, a second marketplace bombing called NATO’s ultimatum. NATO launched successive bombing raids aimed at Serb arms depots and artillery outside Sarajevo from US airbases in Italy.
The NATO raids and Serb losses in the Krajina marked a turning point. Government and Croat forces made territorial gains in a sweep through central Bosnia.
The new US role augmented the Clinton Administration’s renewed leadership status in Europe, and headed off greater involvement by Islamic countries, which had sent mercenaries to fight for the Bosnian government. Despite opposition at home, Clinton ordered 20,000 US troops to Bosnia, which was divided by NATO into US, French and British spheres. Greece, Turkey, Germany and other NATO members also sent small troop detachments. In a special arrangement for a non-NATO state, so did Russia–the perceived protector of the Serbs.
US negotiators successfully brokered a cease-fire in October, and brought Serb, Croat and Muslim leaders to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base 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, both allowed to maintain their own militaries and separate relationships with bordering states. Even those areas under Croat control were more answerable to Zagreb than Sarajevo. NATO replaced the ineffective UN forces as the monitors of compliance with the Accord. Yet responsibility for overseeing elections, rebuilding, refugee repatriation and civil reconciliation belonged to UN, European Union and OSCE agencies with comparatively modest budgets.
The Dayton Accord displayed a pattern familiar since the region’s early history. The agendas of outside 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 alone since the war started.
The Dayton Accord failed to include any provisions for Kosovo. The subsequent frustration led many young Albanians to give up on Ibrahim Rugova’s nonviolent strategy of building a parallel society which could eventually gain international recognition. In 1997, an Albanian guerilla 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 guerilla 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 protestors took over Belgrade’s central square for weeks. The protests were broken by police in January and the opposition coalition splintered, but the regime did finally recognize some opposition electoral victories.
In July 1997, Milosevic, barred by the constitution from running for a third term as Serbian president, 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.
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 US 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, the country exploded into rebellion. Village clans plundered the 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 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 which left four officers dead, Serbian police and allied 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–displaced. Some fled across the border to Albania and Macedonia; others hid in Kosovo’s mountains.
US envoy Richard Holbrooke secured Milosevic’s agreement on a deal calling for an OSCE “verification mission” to monitor the situation on the ground in return for guarantees of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. But the violence continued, despite the monitors. International investigators discovered evidence of massacres–which were predictably contested by Serbian authorities.
In February 1999, a new round of US-brokered talks between the Milosevic government and an Albanian team including both Rugova and KLA representatives convened at Rambouillet, France. Milosevic rejected 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; Milosevic–fearing a backlash from hardliners in his own regime–remained intransigent.
In March, NATO began Operation Allied Force, a sustained bombing campaign of Yugoslavia. Belgrade’s police and paramilitary 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 settled in massive refugee camps hastily established in Albania and Macedonia. Milosevic was finally accused of war crimes, and ordered to surrender himself to the UN tribunal 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. After the initial bombings failed to move Milosevic, breaking the will of Serbia’s populace became NATO’s strategy. In an embarrassing error, a convoy of Albanian refugees was hit. In May, Belgrade’s Chinese embassy was destroyed by a NATO missile. One errant missile destroyed a civilian passenger train. Another hit a suburban area of Bulgaria. Such “collateral damage” cost perhaps 2,000 lives. NATO forces suffered no casualties, but Yugoslav air defense forces did succeed in downing a US Stealth fighter.
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. The use of US anti-tank shells made from depleted uranium sparked concern over the effects of low-level radioactive contamination.
On April 28, the US Congress voted not to either declare war or halt the bombing, ceding authority on the question to the president. While the air assault was overwhelmingly led by the US, 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 including 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 countires saw large protests against the bombing.
The bombing ended in late June. Both NATO and Belgrade claimed victory, but in fact both compromised: Milosevic agreed to NATO troops, but the West dropped demands for any moves towards actual independence 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. The deal was sanctioned by the UN, which also prepared its own international police force for Kosovo.
As the US, UK, French, Italians and Germans divided Kosovo into occupation zones, Russian troops rushed in from Bosnia to seize Pristina’s airport as a bargaining chip. NATO’s commander, US Gen. Wesley Clark, wanted to push Russians out, but was overruled by his European coalition partners. Russian troops were allowed into the “peacekeeping force,” despite protests from Albanians, who accused Russian mercenaries of participation in Operation Horseshoe.
Kosovo was now a part of Serbia in name only, with power actually divided between NATO and KLA. As Albanian refugees flooded back in, Serb civilians started fleeing towards Belgrade, fearing reprisals. By summer’s end, Kosovo’s Serb population had been reduced by two-thirds to 70,000. Towns were divided into Serb and Albanian zones, separated by barbed wire and occupation troops. Both Serbs and Roma, accused of collaborating with the Serbs, were targets of forced evictions, executions and other revenge violence.
As Serb refugees poured in, widespread protests again erupted in Serbia demanding the resignation of Milosevic–in defiance of a state of emergency. Although the opposition is deeply divided, the protest campaign continues as of this writing. There are concerns that Milosevic will foment a new crisis to stem a popular uprising.
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 or retreat from independence as a capitulation, while Serb hardliners like Seselj accuse Milosevic of selling Kosovo.
Another likely flashpoint is Montenegro, which was bombed by NATO despite being at odds with Belgrade. Montenegro’s president, former black marketeer Milo Djukanovic, has support from local Albanians, urban dwellers, and the West, but is opposed by Milosevic’s followers. Unwilling to support Serbia’s war in Kosovo, Djukanovic threatened to hold a referendum on secession if Montenegro is not granted greater autonomy.
The Kosovo crisis exacerbated divisions in Macedonia. The large Albanian minority there already faced demands for their expulsion and closure of Albanian-language classes at the national university before the country was called upon to host thousands of Albanian refugees. The US has 300 troops in Macedonia–the only US troops under UN command in the world.
A Macedonian crisis could become quickly internationalized, as Serbian, Bulgarian and Greek expansionists all have open designs on the country.
The large Hungarian minority in Serbia’s breadbasket of Vojvodina also largely rejected the Kosovo war, and expansionists in Hungary have designs on the region. Bosnia remains tense and divided, dependent on outside governance and funding. The Muslim-led government in Sarajevo has become more narrowly nationalistic, but has limited control of the country in reality. Karadzic and Mladic remain at large, but have lost control of the Serb Republic to more moderate forces.
In Croatia, efforts by Serb refugees to return to their homes is a source of tension. Tudjman has cancer, and his control is finally eroding due to growing reports of corruption. The Croatian opposition worries that Croatia’s continued refusal to abide by international human rights standards, or arrest Croatians wanted by the UN war crimes tribunal, will stall the desired entry into the EU.
In the immediate aftermath of the 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 brinksmanship.
Moscow, facing domestic terrorism and economic collapse, views it as significant that the 1999 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. Moscow 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 guerillas in neighboring Tajikistan under the Partnership for Peace program. The Kremlin sees this as an embryonic encirclement of the Caspian Sea, which is eyed by US corporations for major oil development in the 21st 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 Balkans wars are usually portrayed in the media as part of a never-ending conflict among ethnic groups. History shows, however, that these conflicts are the result of 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.