Key question: What has been the nature of global conflict in the former Yugoslavia?

Learning Activities

1. Reading
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2. Wiki Text Update
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  • UPDATERS TAKE NOTE - this text was written in 2004 which means an update for this page is absolutely essential!
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3. Media Watch
  • read, annotate and save a relevant article/blog post/website/video etc to the Diigo group.
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4. Paragraph Response
  • write 4-5 paragraphs in response to the statement: The end of the Cold War allowed existing regional tensions to surface.
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5. Update your notes

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BOSNIA & KOSOVO Text by James Oakes, St Helena Secondary College

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Bosnia and Kosovo, 1990s

These two separate but related conflicts had all the hallmarks of what has now become known, after the 1991 Gulf War, as a typical post-Cold War conflict. Before we start discussing what those commonalities were and are, we should have a quick look at the background to both.


In the past, the Slovene and Croat ethnic groups were part of the Austro–Hungarian Empire, which occupied the north-west portion of what was later to become Yugoslavia. In the south-east, there were the Serbs, Albanians and Macedonians. Serbia had been, in fact, independent from 1878 onwards, but neither the Ottomans nor the Austro–Hungarian Empire relished the idea of a strong Serbia. Indeed, Austria occupied Serbia in 1908 to stop the unification of the southern Slav states because it feared what might result. Partly in response to that, a Serb nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, shot dead the Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 as the Archduke drove past in his carriage. The news outraged the Austrians, who delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. The Germans supported the Austrians in their outrage, while the Russians and the French supported their ethnic Slav cousins, the Serbs. The assassination was the spark that started World War I.

The Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and Austria–Hungary. The Ottoman Empire, based in Turkey, extended throughout the Middle East and into Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula. It was Ottoman Empire troops that Australians fought at Gallipoli and T E Lawrence, or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, fought on the Arabian Peninsula.
The end of the Great War in 1918 was in part precipitated by the fact that an exhausted Germany lost its two key allies, the Turks and the Austro–Hungarians as they signed separate peace agreements with their enemies. Germany had no other option but to sue for peace. The Ottoman Empire, which had lasted for over four hundred years, finally disappeared, as did the Austro–Hungarian Empire. The map of Europe was redrawn, and it stayed much the same until 1991, when the USSR broke up into fifteen separate states.

The remnants of the Ottoman and Austro–Hungarian empires in the Balkans became the Republic of Yugoslavia in 1919 as a result of negotiations at the post-war peace conference at Versailles in France. For the first time, the Croats, Serbs and Muslims were encompassed in the one state. Bosnia was also part of this new country.

During World War II, Yugoslavia was occupied by the Germans, who supported the Croats against the Serbs. The Croats used the opportunity to massacre the Serbs, in a bid to settle old scores. Meanwhile Josef Tito, operating from the mountains, led the Yugoslav resistance. Tito, a communist, was given extensive Allied support in the form of air-dropped guns, ammunition, food and even money, but much of it was wasted in factional fighting. Eventually, the Germans did leave and the Partisans, as they were called, under the leadership of Tito, liberated Belgrade. Yugoslavia was reconstituted as a communist state.

The six republics, including Bosnia/Herzegovina, were given equal status in the new Yugoslavia. Issues of ethnic differences were not tolerated and any attempt to exploit those differences for political ends usually brought a sharp response from Tito in Belgrade. Marshall Tito held the country together in a very firm grip.

As a part of this reconstituted country, Bosnia was Yugoslavia writ small. In terms of population numbers, there was no predominant ethnic group, but there were economic differences. Croats and Slovenes were much better off than the poorer Macedonians and Kosovars.
In 1980 Tito died.

In the late 1980s democratic movements swept Europe. The old Stalinist dictators were simply removed or, in the case of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania, interviewed and then taken out and shot. Erich Honecker was forced to abdicate in East Germany as a result of what came to be known as ‘people power’ and the Polish trade union movement, Solidarity, based in the Gdansk shipyards and led by Lech Walesa, started to flex its muscles. It was inevitable that this same trend in Yugoslavia would exacerbate ethnic tensions, with the separate states wanting freedom, territory or revenge, particularly now that Tito was not there to hold them back.

Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 72


In 1987, Serbs elected Slobodan Milosevic as their leader, just as Slovenes and Croats became more assertive about gaining their independence from Serb control. They voted for independence from Serbia in 1991. It would be well at this point, however, to remind ourselves what Yugoslavia was still like at this point. It was a wealthy country, cosmopolitan, cultured, free from Russian domination despite its official communist status, and a favourite tourist destination for many holidaying Europeans. It had a great future and that makes what followed all the more tragic.

Milosevic played on the theme of a greater Serbia that would eventually control all of Yugoslavia. He deliberately played on Serbian nationalist fears and aspirations. In 1987, inspired by Milosevic, the Serbs launched their first major protest at Kosovo Polje against alleged persecution by the province’s Muslim majority.

Two years later, after considerable tension and conflict, the Serbs removed Kosovo’s autonomous status and, in the ten-year conflict that followed, some 350,000 ethnic Albanians fled to other parts of Europe seeking asylum. The Serbs sought to regain the southern province of Kosovo because, to them, it represented a sacred place. It was there in 1389 that the Serbs lost the battle against the Ottomans that saw them subsequently incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. Despite the defeat, Kosovo was regarded as the spiritual home of Serb identity and culture.


In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. However, things were about to get even worse – Yugoslavia began to disintegrate. In 1992, Bosnia voted for independence – a process boycotted by the Serbs and the subsequent new state was recognised by the US and the European Union (EU). However, Bosnian Serbs, who made up one third of Bosnia’s population and lived mainly in the rural areas, were not prepared to accept minority status in the newly independent state. So Bosnian Serbs attacked the Bosnian government, which had the support of the Muslims and the Croats. Serbia, helped by the Yugoslav army, supported the Bosnian Serbs.

In 1992 the war started. Bosnia had never been neatly divided among the various ethnic groups, so many who had lived in harmony with their neighbours for generations now saw neighbour attack neighbour, forcing them to flee, burning down their houses and, in many places, simply murdering their former friends. Serbs engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’, a term coined to describe atrocities that ranged from intimidation and house burning to even wholesale murder. Serbs were by far the worst offenders.
Bosnian Serbs quickly overran 70% of the country and laid siege to the capital Sarajevo. Power, gas and water were cut off and shelling destroyed many homes. The population of Sarajevo, as had the populations of Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde the year before, became victims of a siege.
The internationally brokered 1992 Vance Owen peace plan proposed the creation of ten semi-autonomous provinces within Bosnia based on ethnic groupings, but by late 1993 this had failed.

Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 72-3

What really started to turn things around was the shelling of a Sarajevo market place in February 1994, where a Serbian mortar shell killed dozens of market shoppers. The US and the Europeans threatened air strikes in retaliation unless the siege of Sarajevo was lifted, and actually carried out a limited air campaign. By spring of 1994, the guns fell silent for the first time since the war began.

In 1995, the UN uncovered evidence of massacres conducted by the Serbs against Muslims at Srebrenica and Zepa . The air campaign against Serbia was started for the second time. Eventually, on 21 November, the Dayton Peace Agreement was signed. It was designed to eventually allow for the return of millions of people displaced by the conflict.


The conflict in Kosovo started a little later, although the Serbs held their first major protest over alleged discrimination by the majority Albanians in Kosovo as far back as 1987. Long regarded as sacred by Serbs, Kosovo was a piece of Serbian history which they felt was being swamped by Muslim Albanians who, because of their higher birth rate, were dramatically changing the ethnic balance in the province. The Serbs were also discriminated against.

In 1998, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), the armed militia of the Albanian Muslims, openly rebelled against Serbian rule. After years of rising tensions, fighting erupted between the majority Albanians and Serbs and within months some 350,000 people had been displaced or fled abroad.

Milosevic reacted in support of the minority Serbs. Serbs started ‘ethnically cleansing’ northern Kosovo as well, that is, removing all non-Serbs from the area, one way or another. In response, in March 1999, NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia, targeting mainly military targets in Kosovo and infrastructure in Serbia, including bridges, oil supplies and communications (in a manner not unlike the initial strikes on Baghdad in the Iraq Gulf War). It was the first time NATO had attacked a European country.

The air strikes led to thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries. Kosovars even arrived in Australia as refugees from the fighting, and some 350,000 made their way to Macedonia and Albania using whatever they could find, like cars, farm tractors and trailers. They told of Serb atrocities, the burning of their homes, massacres and forced evictions. NATO insisted they must go back to their homes. NATO launched air strikes against the Serbs.

There were some ‘accidents’ in the air campaign, as outlined in the daily briefings from NATO. The Chinese embassy, for example, was hit as a result of some out-of-date intelligence. However, forty days after the air campaign started, Serbia quit and left Kosovo. Yugoslavia broke up, with the last state, Montenegro, threatening to leave as well.

Milosevic finally had his own military turn against him. In 2000, he was forced to leave office and stand trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Why did the Serbs turn against him? Possibly it was because of general tiredness of the war, but perhaps even more because the Serbs were growing tired of the effects that the economic sanctions were having on their traditional lifestyles.


Fourteen NATO countries occupied the former Yugoslavia, and sanctions are still in place. Kosovars returned to burnt-out towns after the war, with their ‘neighbours’ not happy to see them back. NATO forces managed to stop reprisals, but tensions are still there. In late November 2001, voters elected a 120-member National Assembly in Kosovo that will govern alongside UN officials and NATO peacekeepers. Ethnic Albanians, who make up 90% of Kosovo’s population, saw the election as a step towards independence. The minority Serbs were reluctant to take part, feeling that the vote would take Yugoslavia’s former southern province out of Belgrade’s orbit. Two years after Milosevic’s troops ended the crackdown on Kosovo’s ethnic Albanians and relinquished control in exchange for an end to the bombing, Kosovo seemed to be coming to the end of its political limbo one way or another.

In neighbouring Macedonia, the parliament is expected to endorse an amended constitution that addresses many of the grievances of the country’s ethnic Albanians. Extremists in both Kosovo and Macedonia are being held more or less at bay, despite the worst efforts of Albanian criminal gangs, who pretend to be patriots. How long NATO can keep 40,000 troops in the area, however, is anyone’s guess and what happens to the pockets of Serbs after that?

Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 74

The Serbs continue to lay claim to Kosovo. That may not be all it seems though. There are elections scheduled in Serbia for 2004, and many politicians would be keen to use the issue of Kosovo to stir up nationalist feeling at home that might take attention away from Serbia’s chronic problems of poverty, corruption and organised crime. While there are still allegations of ethnic violence on all sides, more often than not they are simply criminal matters that have more to do with organised gang turf warfare or matters of family honour than they do with ethnicity.
Yugoslavia itself is simply not stable yet. The assassination of PM Zoran Djindjic in March 2003 shocked Belgrade and showed the world how volatile the place still was. The moderate PM was accused of handing over ‘freedom fighters’ to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, where they were tried on war crimes charges. He was shot by a sniper, thought to have been a member of the notorious Zemun crime gang.
Still, some good did come of his assassination. After his death, many reforms previously blocked by the nationalists surrounding President Vojislav Kostunica were passed. It was accepted that the UN had to be accommodated and the International Court accepted. There was to be a crackdown on the old Milosevic security structures often associated with war crimes and organised crime, and several outstanding murder cases that may have been politically motivated were reopened. The army is to come under civilian control.

Although there may still be some MPs who wish to obstruct it for reasons of self-interest, there can be no doubt that Yugoslavia’s desire to integrate with the EU would not be helped if the Europeans still sees it as a lawless society where the mafia runs the economy.

So the past sits uneasily with the present. Kosovo, while still effectively run by the UN, has a President, a Prime Minister and a multi-ethnic assembly. The trial of Milosevic continues in The Hague and is not expected to finish until 2005. Meanwhile, they are still digging out bodies at Srebrenica.

It is interesting that Russia, as a supporter of the Serbs, did not intervene, although they did proactively gain control of Belgrade airport at the height of the conflict – a sign of the times post-Cold War perhaps? A sign of Russian frustration? Note that at the same time we saw the end of the Russian space station Mir, and perhaps with it the symbolic death of Russia’s hopes as a superpower. Are these all signs that there is only one superpower left and, if so, what does that mean for Russia’s place in the world?
Gerry Engwerda and James Oakes, International Studies 2005, Victorian Association of Social Studies Teachers (VASST) inc, Melbourne, 2004, p 75

The UN is holding the trials for the government officials of Serbia responsible for the ethnic cleansing and deportation, murder and rape of thousands of ethnic-Albanians. The deputy prime minister Milan Milutinovic was acquitted of all charges, however other officials were sentenced up to 22 years. The result of these trials is a great victory for the Albanians, after President Slobodan Milosevic died of a heart attack before the sentence of his last trial.