Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Civil war in Yugoslavia unleashed ethnic violence and resulted in the atomization of Yugoslavia into separate republics.

Summary of Event

Ever since the seventh century, when three Slavic tribes—Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes—migrated from Russia to the Balkans, the groups had maintained their separate existence, until the formation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes by King Alexander I on December 1, 1918. This separate existence has been the outcome of fundamental historical and cultural differences among the groups. Although Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, and Bosnians speak basically the same language, Serbs and Bosnians write with the Eastern or Cyrillic alphabet, whereas Croats and Slovenes use the Western or Roman alphabet. In addition, Croatians are Catholics, Serbs are Orthodox Christians, and a substantial proportion of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina are Kosovo Muslims. Civil wars;Yugoslavia Yugoslavia;civil war Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia [kw]Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia (June 25, 1991) [kw]War Begins in Yugoslavia, Civil (June 25, 1991) [kw]Yugoslavia, Civil War Begins in (June 25, 1991) Civil wars;Yugoslavia Yugoslavia;civil war Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia [g]Europe;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Balkans;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Serbia and Montenegro;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Croatia;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Slovenia;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Bosnia and Herzegovina;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [g]Yugoslavia;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [c]Government and politics;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;June 25, 1991: Civil War Begins in Yugoslavia[08100] Izetbegović, Alija Karadžić, Radovan Kljuić, Stjepan Milošević, Slobodan Mladić, Ratko Tudjman, Franjo

Hostilities between Serbs and Croats date back to the Schism of 1054, and those between Serbs and Muslims may be traced to the invasion of the region by the Ottoman Turks in 1463. The feeling of “otherness” between Serbs and Croats was further fueled by the fact that the latter belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the former belonged to the Ottoman Empire. The rivers Sava and Danube, serving as borders between Croatia and Serbia, once demarcated the two imperial regions. Serbo-Croatian antagonism also colored the relationship of both Serbs and Croats with the Bosnian Muslims. Croats have appeared to be less hostile toward the Muslims, viewing them as heretics but redeemable through baptism. Serbs have viewed the Muslims as both heretics and traitors. A great number of Bosnian Muslim converts were adherents of a heretical Christian sect called Bogomils (meaning “pleasing to God”) who had in fact invited the Turks with a view to protecting themselves against invasion by the Hungarian army.

In 1929, Alexander I founded the state of Yugoslavia (“land of the South Slavs”) by reorganizing the kingdom into six republics—Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia—and the two autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo. The concept of Yugoslavism was problematic because it implied, essentially, the unification of culturally and ethnically diverse southern Slavs under Serbian hegemony. Following World War II, however, all ethnic and religious groups of Yugoslavia remained united under the leadership of Tito’s Tito slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity”; the Socialist Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia was a Communist state but free from Soviet control. Tito’s one-party state, however, while depriving the national communities of their democratic rights, deliberately devised a constitution in 1974 to keep Serbia relatively weak while according a position of primacy to the Serbs in the bureaucracy, the secret police, and the army and making Belgrade the national capital. Naturally, Serbs controlled the economic system.

The different levels of development among the various nationalities in Yugoslavia have paralleled ethnocultural differences. Economically, Slovenia and Croatia became more developed than the other republics, whereas the less-developed ones were more populous, and Serbia and Montenegro, in particular, became politically stronger. In general, however, the Yugoslav economic system was regimented by the state apparatus manned mostly by Serbs.

Although the constitution of 1974 divided economic enterprises into Basic Organizations of Associated Labor and fostered a semblance of market system and private ownership, economic policies were not based on rational market criteria; rather, they were administrative and arbitrary. The performance of the Yugoslav economy during 1953-1989 revealed the negative outcome of a nonmarket and centralized economic system. Prime Minister Ante Marković’s Marković, Ante attempted reforms of 1990-1991 provided for a “heavy” convertible currency, balanced budget, restrictive monetary policy, wage freeze, selective relaxation of price controls, and, above all, private enterprises. These reforms were subverted by the basic flaw of the top-heavy economic system, which did not allow any scope for republics to take independent action at a time when the unity of the Yugoslav market collapsed because of ethnonationalist movements that seized the Balkan world following the breakup of the Soviet Union and the demise of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989-1990.





Yugoslavia’s political disintegration was initiated by the abortive “Croatian Spring,” a separatist movement of 1970-1971 that called for the establishment of a sovereign Croatian state. This crisis prompted Serbia, led by the Socialist Party of President Slobodan Milošević, to be especially watchful of Albanian nationalist upheaval in Kosovo, considered Serbia’s “mythical heart.” The Kosovars agitated against Serb control in 1989-1990, and Kosovo’s example was followed by Croatian and Slovenian secession on June 25, 1991, under the leadership of Franjo Tudjman and Milan Kučan, Kučan, Milan respectively. The secession of these two republics led the Serbs to realize that a Greater Serbia would be the best possible guarantee for the Serbs in diaspora (17 percent in Croatia, 34 percent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 55 percent in Vojvodina, 10 percent in Kosovo).

Hours after the Croatian-Slovenian declaration of independence, the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army moved into Slovenia. By the time the European Community endorsed United Nations sanctions against this action, Serbia controlled 30 percent of Croatian territory and had revoked the autonomy of Kosovo (thus alarming the Albanian majority there) and Vojvodina (thereby making the adjacent Hungarians nervous).

Serb troops and civilians walk by a body in the fallen city of Vukovar, Croatia.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The Serbo-Croatian developments affected Bosnia-Herzegovina most strongly. Since 1971, this republic had been granted the status of “three constituent nations”—Muslims (Serbs and Croats whose ancestors had converted under Ottoman rule, constituting 43 percent of the population), Serbs, and Croats (17 percent)—who had to agree on any act of secession. The German recognition of Croatia in January, 1992, forced Bosnia’s hand. Bosnia’s Muslim president, Alija Izetbegović, was forced into choosing between joining the truncated Serbian Yugoslavia—something none of his people would have accepted—or declaring independence.

A plebiscite held February 28 and March 1, 1992, that showed a joint Croat-Muslim majority in Bosnia met with the European Community criteria of referendum validating independence but violated the 1971 principle of three constituent nations. The Bosnian proclamation of independence on March 1 was thus opposed by the Bosnian Serbs. On March 18, Izetbegović, Radovan Karadžić (leader of the Bosnian Serbs), and Stjepan Kljuić (leader of the Bosnian Croats) met in Lisbon, Portugal, and agreed on an ethnically based canton system for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Upon his return home, however, Izetbegović was persuaded by his own hard-liners to renege on the Lisbon agreement. On April 6, the weekend of formal recognition of independent Bosnia and Herzegovina by the European Community, the battle of Sarajevo began, initially between Serbs and Croats, with Croats being aided by Bosnian Muslims. By the late spring of 1992, Serbian forces joined by the Yugoslav National Army seized Sarajevo, which was inhabited mostly by Muslims.


The European Community and a U.N.-sponsored trade embargo against Serbia could not prevent the de facto proclamation of Republika Srpska (or Serb Republic) by Karadžić’s Serb nationalists commanded by General Ratko Mladić. Bosnia and Herzegovina subsequently witnessed massive “ethnic cleansing.” The U.N. sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro on June 1, 1992, failed to stop the massacre. Indeed, the sanctions tended to favor the better-armed Serbs.

In time, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces intervened and the tide was turning against the Serbs in 1995, disposing them to accept American demands that they negotiate a peace agreement with Bosnia and Croatia. The Dayton Accords Dayton Accords (1995) of that year produced an agreement that ironically recognized what Bosnian Serbs had demanded all along, an autonomous Serb Republic within Bosnia. The follow-up to the Dayton Accords in subsequent years saw the repatriation of displaced persons and refugees, new elections, and the restoration of peace and stability, even as war crimes trials brought numerous Serbs, including Mladić, as well as Croats and Bosnian Muslims to account for the crimes committed on all sides against innocent populations. Civil wars;Yugoslavia Yugoslavia;civil war Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Danopoulos, Constantine, and Kostas Messas, eds. Crisis in the Balkans: Views from the Participants. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Collection of essays provides historical background on each region of the Balkans as well as discussion of contemporary concerns. Written from the perspectives of regional and international participants in the Balkan crisis and divided into discreet chapters on each region of Yugoslavia as well as the Balkans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Djordjevic, Dimitrije. “The Yugoslav Phenomenon.” In The Columbia History of Eastern Europe in the Twentieth Century, edited by Joseph Held. New York: Columbia University Press, 1992. Presents excellent analysis of the historical background of the civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glenny, Misha. The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War. 3d rev. ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1996. Journalist and scholar with linguistic competence and intimate knowledge of Eastern Europe and the Balkans provides a reliable guide to the complicated issues and developments of the civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pinson, Mark, ed. The Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina. 2d ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. Anthology contains five excellent articles that are helpful for anyone trying to understand the history of the Muslims of Yugoslavia from the Middle Ages down to the civil war. Ivo Banac’s “Bosnian Muslims: From Religious Community to Socialist Nationhood and Post-Communist Statehood, 1918-1992” is especially highly recommended.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ramet, Sabrina Petra, and Ljubisa Adamovich, eds. Beyond Yugoslavia: Politics, Economics, and Culture in a Shattered Community. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1995. Collaborative enterprise among American, Croatian, and Serbian scholars provides an excellent analysis of the multiple issues plaguing a polyglot state.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rieff, David. Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996. Provocative and passionate study of the carnage in Bosnia and Herzegovina provides an account of the escalation of the civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thompson, Mark. A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia. New York: Pantheon Books, 1992. Insightful, scholarly, and eminently readable and dependable travelogue and firsthand account of the civil war by the London correspondent for the Slovenian periodical Mladina.

Death of Tito

Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces

Yugoslav Army Shells Dubrovnik

United Nations Authorizes Troop Deployment to the Balkans

Serbs Face Charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia

Dayton Negotiations Produce Bosnian Peace Accord

Hague Court Convicts Bosnian Croats of 1993 Massacre

Categories: History