Trouble in the Balkans
Sumantra Bose

Session 1 A Zone of Violence? Yugoslavia in Perspective

Intro Session 2 Session 3 Session 4 Session 5

As the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia teeters precariously on the edge of civil war, the spectre of ethnic violence in 'the Balkans' is back to haunt the policy-makers of the Euro-Atlantic world. A succession of armed conflicts in the lands of the former Yugoslav state during the past decade has given the region an unruly image in the West. How justified is this image? Have the south Slavic areas of the Balkans been a region of endemic conflict and instability throughout history or, at least, modern history? Even if not, can the recent (and ongoing) outbreaks of violence be explained through the prism of history in a manner that takes us beyond stereotypical accounts and prefabricated conclusions?

Caught between empires

The south Slavic lands of the western and southern Balkans were divided between competing empires for 400-500 years until the early twentieth century. The fault line between the Ottoman and Habsburg imperial domains cut across the centre of the geographical territory which came to be known as 'Yugoslavia' in the twentieth century. Fated by geography to be at the crossroads of empires, the Yugoslav lands suffered considerable upheaval, especially between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries as the Ottoman Turks repeatedly attempted to expand their territory in a northwesterly direction. The borders between the Ottoman holdings and the lands under Christian rule stabilised, in a relative sense, only from the end of the seventeenth century, after the nearly successful Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683 was repulsed. Nonetheless, the 'frontier' character of the south Slavic societies remained. This was most graphically evident in the military frontier (Vojna Krajina) between the two empires, an arc of land straddling the border between Croatia and Bosnia, which was established by the Habsburgs as a cordon sanitaire between their own fiefs and Ottoman territories to the east. The military frontier, abolished only in 1881, was staffed principally by Serb refugees from the Ottoman conquests of Bosnia and Serbia, who in return for their services were granted religious freedom for their Orthodox faith, exemption from feudal obligations, and generally left to their own devices.

Throughout these long centuries on the cusp of contending empires, there is little if any evidence of a pattern of hostile confrontation between the peoples of the region. That sort of violence began only in the late nineteenth century, as the age of empires yielded to the age of modern nationalisms. The Ottoman and Habsburg empires were both multiconfessional, multinational empires, and motivated by considerations of their own stability. Both were relatively tolerant towards the diversity of their population of subjects. However, the long Ottoman retreat from the Balkans accelerated rapidly in the 1870s, and was virtually completed by defeat in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. Austria-Hungary attempted to fill the breach--for example, after 400 years under Turkish rule Bosnia-Herzegovina passed in 1878 to the rival empire's control for a further 40 years, causing grave discontent among the Orthodox (Serb) segment of the population. But defeat in the First World War signalled the eclipse of the Vienna-Budapest axis and of imperial power generally. The question was what would supplant that power. A variety of movements of national emancipation had emerged among the peoples of the region (with each 'nation' usually producing ideologically very different, competing versions). Would they be able to find a modus vivendi and a durable formula for coexistence?

The attempts at Yugoslavia

That quest continues almost 100 years later, and the turbulent history of the twentieth century has clouded its prospects. The first Yugoslav state (1918-41) was chronically unstable, as neither parliamentary nor authoritarian forms of government were able to devise a solution to the core problem of the interwar state--reconciling the increasingly divergent perceptions of the two largest groups, the Serbs and the Croats, regarding the meaning of Yugoslavism. In 1941, this troubled coexistence was terminated when Yugoslavia was overrun and occupied by Nazi Germany and its assortment of satellites. This was a form of external intervention in the politics of an already unsettled region that made the Ottomans and Austrians of the bygone era look positively benign. There had already been a few eruptions of severe violence as the relative stability of the imperial era gave way to the uncertainties of the post-imperial order, for example in fighting between Orthodox Serb peasants and the Muslim population in Herzegovina in 1875-76. But the period of Axis occupation led directly to massive bloodletting for the first time. Croatian fascists patronised by the Nazis massacred Croatia's and Bosnia's Serbs in their hundreds of thousands. Serb militants attacked Muslims in parts of Bosnia, Croat communists fought the Croat fascists, and conservative and pro-communist Serbs battled each other for supremacy within their own community.

Copyright Getty images
 Mostar. 1939.


A second Yugoslavia was resurrected from this cauldron of violence by Tito's communists in 1945. For four decades, it appeared as if the Titoist regime had found a political model that would ensure lasting coexistence among Yugoslavia's peoples--a decentralised, federal state, based on recognition and autonomy for its constituent communities, albeit within a one-party framework. But this apparently stable regime eventually turned out to be dysfunctional. In 1991, as the country disintegrated, the Serbs of the Krajina--with a long historical tradition of autonomy and vivid memories of a genocidal onslaught by Croat extremists during the Second World War--revolted against Croatia's secession from the Yugoslav federation. This breakdown of Serb-Croat relations signalled, as always, a more general crisis for the Yugoslav region as a whole. Within a year, Bosnia imploded and exploded at the same time. In a grisly pattern, some of the worst atrocities committed by Serbs against Muslims in the early stages of the 1992-95 Bosnian war occurred in those locales where Serbs had suffered the most at the hands of the Germans and their Croat clients (abetted by some Muslims) 50 years earlier.

The Yugoslav area's reputation as a zone of violence is a product of the turbulent history of the twentieth century, as empires yielded to nations. Opinions differ on how much of this turbulence is due to sources endogenous to south Slav society, and how much can be attributed to exogenous factors such as interference by external powers. There is no doubt that a variety of adventure-seekers, civilising missionaries and career-builders from the comparatively boring post-industrial societies of the West have essentialised and exaggerated the troubles of this unsettled land. Yet it is still true that the communities of the region, now fractured into a motley collection of national(ist) states and statelets in the post-Yugoslav phase, are yet to find that elusive modus vivendi, a formula and framework that can ensure regional stability and shared prosperity.

Thinking Point
Why do you think that the area of the former Yugoslavia has always been a region of instability?
Time--the next 10 to 15 years--will tell whether the European Union (EU) will succeed in integrating and permanently pacifying this volatile periphery of the European continent. In the meantime, a debate rages in Western academic and policy-making circles on whether the remaining multinational states in the region--most notably Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia--are sustainable, or whether their precarious, Western-reinforced existence is an obstacle to longer-term regional stabilisation. Both points of view in this debate have arguments to support their case. Whatever the merits of the contending positions, and the ultimate resolution (if any) to the debate, one conclusion is unmistakable: the prospects of the fragments of Yugoslavia are linked together, whether in war or in peace. Slovenia's decision to exit the Yugoslav federation in 1990-91 propelled a momentum of disintegration that in short measure brought civil war to Croatia. The confrontation between Croats and Serbs in Croatia in turn have played a major role in destabilising a tenuous situation within Bosnia. In late 1995, the United States' decision to broker an end to the Bosnian war by relying above all on Slobodan Milosevic meant that the grievances of Kosovo's Albanians, prisoners of the Serbian strongman's autocratic regime, went entirely unaddressed. That contributed to a spiral of radicalisation of the Kosovo Albanians, culminating in the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) by early 1998. The American-led NATO intervention on behalf of the Kosovo Albanians in 1999 produced the effect of encouraging Albanian nationalist radicals and upsetting a very delicate relationship between Slav Macedonians and ethnic Albanians in Macedonia.

The paradox of the Yugoslav lands is that the greater the fragmentation the more the present and future of the region's peoples seem to hang together. Serbs in Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia and Kosovo, Croats in Bosnia and Croatia, the Muslims of Bosnia and the Albanians of Kosovo have all paid a very heavy price during 10 years of tragedy. Will the Slavs and Albanians of Macedonia and the divided population of Montenegro be spared a similar fate?

Session 2