The Violent Breakup of Yugoslavia (Part 2)

by James Graham

The continuing stalemate and increasing tension over Yugoslavia's economic and political direction convinced Slovenia and Croatia their futures lay elsewhere, and both declared independence in June 1991. The victory by Slovenian in the resulting war against the Yugoslav People's Army (JPA) forced the Serbs to give up their hopes for a centralised Yugoslav state under Serb control. Serb nationalists instead set themselves the goal of creating a greater Serbian state. The result was war in Croatia. The other significant result of the Slovenian and Croatian declarations of independence was that they forced the Bosnian Muslims to do likewise. Bosnian President Alija Izetberovic and many of his people realised all too clearly they would have little protection in a rump Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic and Serb nationalists.


Leaders on all sides constantly exploited the fear of becoming vulnerable to other ethnic groups through inaction during the break up of Yugoslavia. Both Tudjman and Milosevic consciously revived nationalist ideologies tainted by the Second World War. Once a leader of a republic broke the pattern of compromise and instead choose to increase interregional tensions the writing, for Yugoslavia was on the wall. The slanting of news coverage by Milosevic appointees forced media in other republics to follow suit least their ethnic group become disadvantaged. Exaggeration became common as Serb and Croat intellectuals successfully transferred their nationalist ideologies to the common people. The Ustasu concentration camp at Jasenovac where 60,000 to 80,000 inmates were slaughtered, not all of them Serbs was inflated into the murder of 700,000 Serbs alone by Serb nationalists and Serbian media. The numbers game was however played by all sides. Repetition is considered the single most important element in the changing of opinions. Tudjman and Croat nationalists excessive use of Second World War symbols especially the Ustasu flag frightened many Serbs into believing history would repeat itself. Collectively this created a security dilemma where no side could trust the other. Like their Croat neighbours the Bosnian leaders were also guilty of not paying enough attention to the complexity and fears of Serbian societies within their boundaries. By failing to recognise the difference between passive and adaptable urban Serbs and more extremist rural Serbs Tudjman missed an opportunity to build a multi-ethnic coalition. The behaviour of political elites was a major source of ethnic hatred in Yugoslavia.

Additional causes contributed to the sheer scale of the violence that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia. The JPA took a political role as its officers believed only a federal and socialist Yugoslavia could support their existing corporate and individual privileges. Up to 70 percent of the officer core were Serbian and Montenegrin and it was also a bedrock of Marxism-Leninism. The credibility of the army came from the days of communist resistance in the Second World War and as the communist party fell from favour so to0 did the army. With this loss of credibility, the JPA became in effect the army of the Serbian state. This is important because the scale of violence and acts of destruction such as the shelling of Sarajevo would have been impossible without a powerful military force. The inheritance by Serb forces of the majority of Yugoslavia's weapons and especially its heavy weapons gave the Serbs the military power required to carry out their plans.

Backed by the JPA Serbian civilian militia were able to terrorise minorities in Serb controlled areas. The militias were organised from soccer clubs notably the infamous Arkan Tiger's, prisons and from volunteers. Merged with the peer pressure, lack of accountability and promised economic gain these militia committed acts of ethnic violence out of all proportion to what could have been deemed acceptable under normal conditions. Croats and to a lesser extent Muslims also formed militias and violently attacked ethnic opponents. These were never on the same scale nor had the same level of organisation as the Serbian militias and were largely formed as response to the formation of the Serbian militias.

The west intervened in the break up of Yugoslavia relatively early and regularly but never with enough collective will or military force to prevent large-scale warfare. The period of the early Yugoslav wars was a dramatic time internationally with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait distracting Western powers. A global recession further reduced the west's desire to intervene in a country some saw as a quagmire without strategic significance whilst others considered the area vital due to Yugoslavia's geopolitical significance. By January 1992 fifteen ceasefires had been arranged and broken by all sides. Numerous internationally brokered peace plans followed. Serbian and Croatian leaders who consistently acted in ways to that continued the violence certainly did not help western efforts. However, the more pressing problem was America's and Europe's weak and timid initial responses which did nothing to persuade Milosevic and Tudjman to suspend their use of violence. Whether an overwhelming display of western resolve through the commitment of significant combat troops would have altered the course of events is unknown. It is however hard to see how such a display of force could have made things worse. The political will to impose a solution on Yugoslavia was simply not present at the time.

Yugoslavia was a nation with suppressed and potentially explosive historical memories. By the 1980s the majority of Yugoslavs lived in peace often side by side with other ethnic groups. It took a culmination of economic decline, a changing international system and most importantly leaders willing and able to exploit these memories and their resulting fears to rip Yugoslavia apart. Political elites insistence on nationalist ideologies, Serbian military superiority and a lack of Western will ensured this break up was both brutal and extremely violent.

The Violent Breakup of Yugoslavia

The Breakup of Yugoslavia (Part 1)
The Breakup of Yugoslavia (Bibliography)