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Context: The Balkan Wars, 1991-1995

The fall of Yugoslavia

The fall of Yugoslavia

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established in 1943; its breakup, beginning in 1991, was protracted and bloody.

Although the roots of the political crisis were deep, the process of dissolution began when Slovenia, one of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics, declared independence on 25 June 1991. This led to the so-called Ten-Day War (27 June-7 July 1991) between the Slovenian Territorial Defense and the Yugoslav People’s Army, headquartered in Belgrade, Serbia.

Over the next 15 years (1991-2006), Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro all declared themselves independent states, and that was accompanied by varying degrees of violence. Croatia and, above all, Bosnia became embroiled in wars that took a particularly heavy toll on the civilian population, with total casualties estimated at 15-20,000 (Croatia, 1991-5) and more than 100,000 (Bosnia, 1992-1995). In February 2008, Kosovo[B2] became the last region of the old Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to declare independence (formerly it had been an autonomous province).

Leading to the breakup were the first multi-party elections in Yugoslavia (1990), which were mostly won by nationalist parties, committed to the protection of the interests of their respective ethnic groups.

Croatia contained a sizable Serb minority, while Bosnia was the most ethnically mixed of all the former Yugoslav republics (including ethnic Muslims, Serbs, Croats, Jews, and others, with no single group exceeding 50% of the population). As Croatia and then Bosnia moved toward independence, in both cases backed by the majority of their respective populations, Serb nationalist parties in both republics organized armed resistance to the central governments, citing the defense of ethnic Serb rights as a pretext.

Serbia’s Milosevic regime in Belgrade backed the Serb nationalists in Croatia and Bosnia, who were thus able to count on military support of the Yugoslav People’s Army as well as paramilitary units from Serbia.

Serb nationalists carved out independent entities (SAO Krajina in Croatia, the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina), and began “ethnic cleansing”, ridding those areas of their non-Serb populations.

In Bosnia, Croat nationalists seized the opportunity to proclaim their own independent entity (Herceg-Bosna), and eventually were in conflict with Bosnian government forces as well as with Serb nationalists in an attempt to gain more territory from Bosnia-Herzegovina.

During the dissolution of the Yugoslav republic, cities including Dubrovnik, Vukovar, Sarajevo, and Mostar were besieged and bombarded by Serb nationalist forces, and later Croat nationalists in Mostar. Civilians made up most of the casualties.

According to all available data, Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) made up a disproportionate number of Bosnian war victims (about 66% of the total, and 83% of the civilian deaths). The war in Bosnia was characterized by an artillery siege of Sarajevo that lasted almost four years and by some of the worst atrocities committed on European soil since 1945, including the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. The Srebrenica massacre, among others, led to the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) indictments for war crimes of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and Bosnian Serb political and military leaders (Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic).

In August 1995 the Croatian Army recaptured the Serb-held parts of its country in a swift and decisive military operation (Storm-Oluja), followed by the mass-exodus of ethnic Serbs from Croatia. Later that year, the war in Bosnia was concluded with the signing of the Dayton Accords [B4] (November-December 1995), which established a unified state of two entities (Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serb Republic, or Republika Srpska).

The final chapter of the dissolution of Yugoslavia began with Kosovo’s declaration of independence and the war between the Yugoslav army and the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army).

Following the failure of international mediation, and reports of ethnic cleansing of the Albanian population NATO intervened. An 11-week bombing campaign begun in March 1999 forced the Yugoslav army to withdraw, and a NATO-led peacekeeping force (KFOR) entered Kosovo as part of an international peace plan to end the fighting and establish Kosovo as an independent country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have both cited NATO’s intervention in Kosovo as a precedent for Russian intervention in Crimea, and the region’s secession from Ukraine.