Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces

Centuries-old ethnic tensions and modern economic problems fueled political jockeying for position in the largest republic of Yuglosavia.

Summary of Event

Yugoslavia, the most clearly multiethnic state in eastern Central Europe, contained five major South Slavic groups: Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, and Macedonians. It also contained more than a dozen non-Slavic groups, such as Albanians, Magyars, Turks, Czechs, Slovaks, Russians, Gypsies, Italians, Romanians, Vlachs, Poles, Germans, and Ruthenians. Hatred and discrimination among ethnic groups broke into open protests in 1988 among the Serbian, Albanian, and Montenegrin Yugoslavs. A chain reaction brought in nearly all other ethnic and nationalist groups and fueled federal republics’ desires for independence. Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;ethnic conflict
[kw]Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces (July-Nov., 1988)
[kw]Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces, Ethnic (July-Nov., 1988)
[kw]Yugoslavian Provinces, Ethnic Violence Erupts in (July-Nov., 1988)
Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;ethnic conflict
[g]Europe;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Balkans;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Bosnia and Herzegovina;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Croatia;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Macedonia;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Serbia and Montenegro;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[g]Slovenia;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;July-Nov., 1988: Ethnic Violence Erupts in Yugoslavian Provinces[06870]
Milošević, Slobodan
Dizdarević, Raif
Vlasi, Azem

Deep economic and political crises in Yugoslavia aggravated centuries-old ethnic tensions. Economic distress was largely a result of the country’s political paralysis, which, in turn, derived from the decentralized political structure designed to accommodate the ethnic diversity. Leaders of the six republics and two autonomous provinces defended their own interests at the expense of Yugoslavia as a whole.

The tinder for the 1988 disturbances took the form of mutually exclusive Serbian and Albanian claims to authority in Kosovo. Serbs considered Kosovo their culture’s cradle. There, in 1389, the Turks had defeated the Serbs and begun a domination of them that lasted into the mid-nineteenth century. Serbs believed that their numbers, traditions of statehood, and military prowess—particularly their participation on the Allied side in both world wars—entitled them to be at least first among equals in modern Yugoslavia. Instead, they argued, Tito had cheated them by establishing two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina, within Serbian territory.

On the other side were the Albanian Kosovars. They were the last Balkan people to acquire independence (in 1912). They formed a majority in Kosovo, an area that was part of Albania briefly during World War II. The Kosovars historically had been under Serbian control, although many believed Tito had promised that the region eventually could join Albania. Despite generous federal government spending in the region, Kosovar Albanians had high rates of unemployment and poverty. From later migrations and high Albanian birthrates (24.2 per thousand compared with 8.5 per thousand in Yugoslavia as a whole), the province by 1988 was nearly 90 percent populated by Muslim, non-Slav Albanians. Ethnic Albanians, then, claimed Kosovo on demographic grounds of majority rule. Serbs claimed it on historical grounds.

Serbian aspirations regarding Kosovo changed when Slobodan Milošević became president of the Serbian League of Communists in May, 1986. Of Kosovar Serbian descent, Milošević championed the Serbs when Kosovar Albanian police beat Serb demonstrators in his presence during a rally in April, 1987. He purged political opponents and dissenting voices in the Serbian news media and was elected president of the Socialist Republic of Serbia in May, 1987.

Milošević found fertile soil for his appeals. Serbs had undergone political and cultural loss in the previous generation. The reformulated Yugoslavia after World War II had accorded Montenegro full republic status, although most Montenegrins considered themselves to be Serbs. Large numbers of Serbs were left in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Vojvodina. There they had no assured legal protection for their cultural, religious, or economic well-being. Serbs listed many ways their culture had been suppressed. The 1974 constitution, for example, permitted bureaucrats of other provinces to strengthen their statehoods at Serbia’s expense. The names of centuries-old Serbian cultural institutions, such as the Serbian National Theater in Novi Sad and the Serbian Cultural Center and Prosvjeta publishing house in Zagreb (Croatia), had been changed. The two million Serbians living outside Yugoslavia had no newspaper or other periodical oriented to them. In sum, the Serbian Academy of Sciences said, the religious, cultural, and political fate of Serbians had been better under the old Austro-Hungarian monarchy than it had been in Yugoslavia.

Although Milošević could not solve the Kosovo problem, he reunited many Serbians by working to undermine certain provisions of the 1974 constitution. Representatives of Vojvodina and Kosovo, which constituted one-third of the Serbian republic’s territory, sat in the highest federal bodies and could veto any constitutional changes Serbia proposed. Inside Serbia, the two provinces’ representatives could also veto Serbian legislation. Meanwhile, Serbia had no right to participate in the two provinces’ assemblies. From late 1986 to early 1988, the Serbian government tried several ethnic Albanians for offenses ranging from membership in illegal separatist organizations to singing Albanian songs with alleged chauvinist sentiments, flying the Albanian flag, and giving children names expressing Albanian national identity. This Serbian attention was apparently driven by a belief that the separatists intended to create a Great Albania that would include Albania proper, Kosovo and parts of southern Serbia, western Macedonia, and southern Montenegro. Emigration by non-Albanians in the face of Albanian harassment was reported from all these areas.

The matchsticks in Kosovo in 1988 were, first, Serbian and Montenegrin claims that ethnic Kosovar Albanians were systematically harassing them out of the province through rapes, murders, and attacks on property, and, second, Kosovar hopes of independent republic status. Unemployment running at 50 percent compounded the situation.

Beginning in July, hundreds of thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins demonstrated almost daily to protest Kosovo’s purported mistreatment of minorities. The federal government sent a police unit to Kosovo to reinforce the federal paramilitary police unit there and gave the paramilitary police special powers. Serbians also campaigned to annex Kosovo and Vojodina into Greater Serbia. Vojvodina’s leadership, although largely Serb, did not want to merge with Serbia. Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian leadership also vehemently opposed annexation. In August, the collective state presidency announced that it was empowering its special federal police unit in Kosovo to maintain law and order. Serbian militia detachments deployed in Kosovar municipalities arrested dozens of alleged Albanian separatists.

In early October, some 200,000 nationalists staged protests in three Serbian cities. Approximately 100,000 protesters in Novi Sad, Vojvodina’s capital, prompted the provincial party leadership to resign, a first for Yugoslavia. The party politburo, which had opposed joining Serbia, also resigned. In Titograd, Montenegro’s capital, the interior minister ordered both local police and special antiriot and antiterrorist units (which included some federal militia personnel) to disperse crowds angered by suppression of students’ public calls for multiparty elections. Riot police resorted to using clubs after repeatedly asking demonstrators to disperse. Rioters in Nikšić then attempted to get to Titograd to protest harsh methods the police had used. When a member of the Montenegrin League of Communists presidency could not calm the crowd, he resigned. Students initiated hunger strikes Hunger strikes in Titograd and Nikšić. Disgruntled steelworkers and pro-Serbian nationalists were dispersed in Nikšić only after riot police used tear gas.

Tito, leader of the second Yugoslavia after World War II, is credited with holding the fractious nation together. After he died in 1980, the country started to come apart.


The president of the Yugoslav collective presidency, Raif Dizdarević, a Bosnian Muslim, warned on October 9 that he would declare a state of emergency if the unrest did not stop. He conceded that the protesters’ grievances about the economy and about bureaucratic delay were justified, but he criticized Milošević’s inflaming of ethnic animosities. News reports said that army leaves were canceled and that reserves were being called up.

Other republics began reacting to the prospect of a Greater Serbia. On October 9, Slovenia’s party leadership recommended using federal force to curb Serbian nationalist protests and warned against permitting Serbia to impose solutions, which would set a precedent that Slovenes would never accept. Croatia, which often allied with Slovenia, condemned Serbian nationals for pushing Yugoslavia toward violence and began independently buying arms from Hungary. Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro also criticized Serbian nationalism.

Next, the Serbian Communist Party tried to oust three top officials of Kosovo, including Azem Vlasi, perhaps the most popular Kosovar Albanian. The national party blocked the ouster, however, and went on to urge that senior state officials should no longer simultaneously hold party office. This setback for Milošević triggered new demonstrations by the Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo, which caused resignations of Kosovo government officials. In response came the first major ethnic Albanian protests since 1981. Nearly 100,000 ethnic Albanian workers and students marched in Priština to the city’s party headquarters to demand reinstatement of their leaders and Serbian respect for Kosovo’s rights under the 1974 constitution.

In Belgrade, on November 19, a rally climaxed a series of protests organized in Serbian cities. Free transportation brought nearly one million Serbs to hear speeches in favor of proposed changes to the republic’s constitution. Meanwhile, in Kosovo thousands of ethnic Albanians walked distances of up to fifty miles through rain and snow to attend demonstrations in Priština. Kosovo Albanians regarded Milošević’s constitutional amendments as an attempt to return Kosovo to colonial status. They denied that Serbians were being persecuted and claimed that the Slavs were leaving mainly for economic reasons. Finally, on November 23, the Kosovo provincial executive declared an immediate, indefinite ban on mass gatherings in Kosovo. Enough steam had escaped for tempers to cool temporarily.


Yugoslavia was forged in 1945 in the crucible of simultaneous war for national liberation and civil war. The country was created as a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces headed by Tito. It was also a politically artificial attempt to quell centuries-old ethnic rivalries responding to the clarion call of self-determination.

National tendencies had been containable, generally, under four conditions: a strong leader, expanding prosperity, governmental legitimacy, and internal mutual security. All of these were coming apart by 1988. First, Tito died in 1980. Second, rising living standards were reversed shortly thereafter, and interethnic competition began for economic resources. Third, without Tito at the reins, the collective presidency was unable to undertake necessary market reforms. Consensus began eroding quickly. External respect for Yugoslavia diminished, as did much of the country’s Soviet-opposing socialist self-image. Finally, several minorities began by 1988 to believe that their existence was endangered. Absence of Cold War anxieties within the Great Powers permitted the disturbances to occur without confrontational involvement in the civil strife. Yugoslavia’s role as a strategic buffer between alliances was no longer essential.

Ethnic disturbances in Yugoslavia in 1988 moved beyond being local concerns, whether in Serbia or Macedonia, or assertions of self-determination, as in Croatia or Slovenia. The ways in which regional governments coped with ethnic protests and the growing inability of the federal government to address effectively either the regional tensions or the economic downturns set the stage in 1988 for friction among the republics. Given Yugoslavia’s strategic position in the heart of the Balkans, widespread civil unrest inevitably spilled over into neighboring countries. The potential disintegration of Yugoslavia that the ethnic disruptions seemed to portend radiated unease about the future of human rights throughout the Balkans, even across the whole of Europe.

This unease later proved justified when civil wars and independence movements broke out in the early 1990’s, leading to vicious wars and so-called ethnic cleansing. Slovenia was the first to secede from Yugoslavia in 1990, after a short war, followed by Croatia in 1991, where the fighting was more intense. Macedonia achieved independence later in 1991 without a fight. However, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where independence was declared in 1992, a large Serbian minority population resisted incorporation and, with support from Serbia, three bloody years of war transpired before international intervention restored order. The 1995 Dayton Accords Dayton Accords (1995) recognized Serbian demands for an autonomous Serb republic within Bosnia. However, problems continued in Kosovo, where civil war and human rights abuses provoked another international intervention in 1999 that led to the fall of Milošević and the restoration of Kosovo’s autonomy within Serbia. In 2006, even Montenegro sued for independence, and the Balkanization of the Balkans was then complete. The post-World War I attempt to fashion a unified Kingdom of Southern Slavs lay in ruins, as the principle of self-determination ultimately prevailed, but at a great price in human misery. Racial and ethnic conflict;Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia;ethnic conflict

Further Reading

  • Biberaj, Elez. “Yugoslavia: A Continuing Crisis?” Conflict Studies 225 (October, 1989): 1-22. Examines two Yugoslav views of how to accommodate republics’ and ethnic groups’ interests: confederation, primarily supported by Slovenia and Croatia, with each unit enjoying full political autonomy; and increased centralization of federal government, supported by Serbia, with Serbia as senior partner.
  • Dragnich, Alex N. “The Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia: The Omen of the Upsurge of Serbian Nationalism.” East European Quarterly 23 (June, 1989): 183-198. Describes how Serb protests gave vent to grievances that had been building since the 1981 Albanian riots.
  • Kaplan, Robert D. “History’s Cauldron.” The Atlantic Monthly, June, 1991, 93-103. Presents a clear review of Balkan history, pivoting on Macedonia. Provides background on Serbian-Albanian tensions but argues that future competition among regional powers for sway in Macedonia will cause more torment than will other ethnic problems.
  • Pipa, Arshi. “The Political Situation of the Albanians in Yugoslavia, with Particular Attention to the Kosovo Problem: A Critical Approach.” East European Quarterly 23 (June, 1989): 159-181. Focuses on the repression of ethnic Albanians in Serbia and Macedonia after the 1981 riots and on Macedonian anxiety and Serbian outrage at appeals for a Kosovar republic. Criticizes Kosovars’ intemperate nationalism but discounts assertions that Albanians persecute Serbs.
  • Ramet, Sabrina P. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milošević. 4th ed. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2002. Comprehensive political history of Yugoslavia by a political science professor. Supplemented with maps, bibliography, and index.
  • Rusinow, Dennison I. “Yugoslavia: Balkan Breakup?” Foreign Policy 83 (Summer, 1991): 143-159. Knowledgeable analysis by a journalist resident in the region for thirty years. Describes the interplay of major states’ interests in the Balkans’ ethnic stability that led to Yugoslavia’s creation.
  • Sell, Louis. Slobodan Milošević and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002. Examines the political life of Milošević and how his policies led to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

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