An explanation of key events and what happened in the early 1990s that led to its disintegration.

The judges of the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague called on Professor Paul Garde to give an historic overview of the Balkans region and Garde then fielded questions from the judges. Garde's testimony was given June 27-28, 1996. He is a professor of Slav literature and languages and has written many lingustics books. Since 1991 Garde's research and writing have focused on the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Q. What are some of the key events in the history of the former Yugoslavia?

A. In the former Yugoslavia, in the western part of the Balkans, you have different peoples living there that speak the same language or similar languages-- the southern Slavic languages-- and you have peoples who for a long time have belonged to different cultural areas. You have the Serbs and Macedonians that belonged to eastern Christianity or orthodoxy, then you have the Croats that belong to western Christianity, to Catholicism. So, basically, you have different cultural backgrounds and you have sociological different habits, as it were.

Back in the Middle Ages at different times you had Serb states, you had Croat states, you had Bosnian states, at different times, and covering different areas. And in modern times, as applied to the rest of the Balkans, you had the Ottoman Empire, and the regions in the north west were excluded from the Ottoman Empire and belonged to the Habsburg Empire.


The Ottoman Empire* and the Turk conquest meant that you had a third religion that came into play and a third type of sociological background, which is Islam and which a large portion of the inhabitants of Bosnia converted to Islam. The ancestors of the present Muslims and the people from the Albania converted to Islam, so that is a third religion.

This meant that there were major migrations, moves of populations, which explained the mix up of populations today. All these different peoples back in the 19th century have realized that they belonged to a nation. This is the time of nationalism, of this nation awareness, of what is called national "renaissance". These peoples tried to get their independence and those that were under the Ottoman Empire wanted to become independent through armed actions, rights.

This was the case of Serbia which was the first to organise a sort of uprising. The State got organised at the beginning of the 19th century in the former Austrian part. On the contrary, this national awakening was more based on cultural and political, because they had a political struggle within the Habsburg Empire, and at the time you had the different ways of thinking in terms of the future of these countries.

You had also had national movements, and the first one was the Serb national movement. In the constitution of Greater Serbia, that was a State that would gather all Serbs. You also had a Croat national tendency in other regions as well. At the same time you had another trend that surfaced amongst the southern Serbs that were under Austrian authority which is called the Yugoslav Movement.


The Yugoslav Movement meant the idea that since all these peoples are neighbors and speak about the same language, the southern Slavic languages, why could they not in one way or another get together? One of the main samples or spokesmen of this idea was a Bishop Josip Strossmayer.* All these movements grew or developed in parallel in the course of the 19th century. In 1918, at the end of the First World War, a State was created, a common State, which later was called Yugoslavia. But that State was founded on a misunderstanding right from the start, because in the eyes of the Serbs, (who were the founding fathers of that State; they who had won the First World War along with the allies, but at the cost of enormous sacrifices) the State was sort of the crowning of their victory, but for them that State was the realization of their product of a Greater Serbia. The main advantage is that all Serbs would belong to one single State.

For the other peoples, on the contrary, the main advantage of that State was understood as reuniting together on an equal footing several different peoples. That misunderstanding or this different interpretation has never stopped influencing the development of events and, undoubtedly, it still plays a role to explain the present events.


These two interpretations, the first one being that the state of Yugoslavia as being understood as the realization of the Greater Serbia project is the interpretation of the Yugoslav monarchy between 1918 and 1941. That monarchy, the king was Serb, the political leaders were Serb and the Serbs considered it as a continuation of their State, and the other peoples considered it as an oppressive force.

Now, the second interpretation, i.e. Yugoslavia as reuniting several peoples on equal footings, was essentially the interpretation of the second Yugoslavia, that of Tito, between '49 and '91. In between, between the two, you had of course the Second World War. The Second World War which is, of course, a very dark period, a time of horror where we saw the immediate defeat and the breaking up of Yugoslavia with a collaborating fascist State established on the territory of Croatia; a time when we saw ... terrible massacres and genocide of Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia by the fascist Ustashe state in Croatia (Ustashe was the name for Croation fascists); but at the same time we had Muslim massacres and Croat massacres by Serb Chetniks (this was the name for nationalist extremists whose original goal was to restore Yugoslav monarchy)*. We also saw another resistance movement outside the Chetnik set of the partisans, the communist partisans, under the leadership of Tito who officially was a pluri-ethnic, was supposed to gather all the peoples, and this is possibly the main reason for his victory.

So, but, of course, naturally, this time of horrors has left an impact in the later period, and so it is remembering, the fact that they remember these terrible massacres, these reciprocal massacres, and this still has an influence today.


The Tito regime was first founded in principle on a refusal or a rejection of what had been the principal state of the preceding monarchy, that is, a rejection of the domination by one people over the others. As a result, the Yugoslavia under Tito was officially created as a federation, a federation of several republics which were autonomous, each one representing and corresponding more or less perfectly, but in fact imperfectly, to the different peoples constituting them; and that Tito Yugoslavia was founded on the federal principle, therefore, on decentralization with the autonomy of the various provinces and republics, and the autonomy became increasingly real as the regime became entrenched.

For example, the constitution of 1974 granted much more extensive jurisdiction and competence of regions of each of the provinces and republics, so that one was moving in that constitution of 1974, moving toward an almost confederate system, but at the same time it was not a truly autonomy of the various peoples because the regime was after all a communist one, a dictatorial regime, even though it was much less stringent than that of the other communist countries all around it.

Therefore, despite everything, the regime controlled the power, and the autonomy that was given to the various provinces and to the republics was really, in fact, the autonomy of the leaders in each of those republics rather than the peoples, although democracy, of course, did play a certain role in the events which were to follow.


Whatever the case, this movement toward a greater degree of decentralization to greater autonomy among the provinces and the republics was, of course, interpreted differently by the different peoples; because each new step taken towards decentralization was welcomed by the different peoples, except the Serbs who wished a greater centralized position and were not particularly pleased with the increasing decentralization because the Serbs found themselves distributed among several of the provinces of the republics, that is all except one, and wanted there to be greater connections between these different provinces. They wanted a centralized state and that the other people, on the other hand, wanted a very stronger decentralized state.

All of these conflicting elements burst out later on during the 1980s once Tito had died.

Q. What are some of the events in the late 1980s and early 1990s that led up to the actual dissolution of the former Yugoslavia?

A. In the second half of the 1980s, there was the waning of communism in the north west Republics, and as of '86 little by little there were parties emerging in Slovenia--although it was anti-constitutional-- and there was a certain amount of democracy in that Republic.

There was, of course, opposition to this in Serbia because the Slovenes gave their backing to the Kosovo Albanians who were subjected to attacks from the Serbs. So, the conflict between these two Republics, Slovenia and Serbia, became quite acute, and particularly when the Slovenes banned a Serb rally that was to take place and the Serbians retaliated with an economic blockade against Slovenia. A bit later in Croatia you find the same movement of diversification on the political front, the fact that there were opposition parties that were tolerated. Consequently, these two Republics were at odds with Serbia.

Now, at that point in time, in 1989, there was the fall of communism in all the neighbouring countries, that is to say, the Berlin Wall came down and communism collapsed in Hungary, Bulgaria, etc, Rumania as well at one point or another, and the movement toward pluralism becomes a lot stronger, and the Yugoslav Republics could not disregard this general movement of liberalization.

At that time there are various events that occurred. First, in early 1990 there is the break up of the communist party, the Yugoslav Communist League. The Slovenes and the Croats on the one hand and the Serbs on the other had taken opposite stances. At the party meeting in early 90, there was the dissolution: Slovenia left the congress followed by the Croats. That was it. That as end of the Yugoslav communist party.

Subsequently, in the course of 1990, there were elections that took place first in the north west Republics Slovenia and Croatia, in March/April 1990; whereas in the other Republics they took place in December.

Now, in March in Slovenia and in Croatia those elections brought to power forces that were opposed to communism. In Croatia, in addition to that, the elections were won by a party that was quite nationalist, the HDZ of President Tudjman.

Immediately, this coming to power of the nationalists in Croatia aggravated the tensions, because Croatia had a population of 12 per cent (Serbs) and they had already been affected by the campaigns, demonstrations, the threats, etc.. So they had this feeling that was strengthened by propaganda. So, there were matters to feed such a campaign on the Croat side. One of the slogans was that the Serbs had too many important positions in the administration; so there was a dismissal of certain civil servants who were Serbian which, of course, reinforced their fears and their conviction that they were threatened.

Similarly, there was a new constitution for Croatia that was adopted and, unlike the previous constitution which stated that Croatia was the state of both the Croat people and the Serbian Croat people, the new constitution said that Croatia was the state of the Croatian people, and of the other nationalities who lived there such as Serbs, Italians, Hungarians, etc. In other words, the Serbs in this new arrangement were moved out of the first category into the second category. So, they are second class citizens, as it were, even though the constitution granted to them all rights, at least in theory. But, in practice, they did not always actually possess those rights.

Now, propaganda from Belgrade and the propaganda disseminated among the Serbs of Croatia was constantly stressing the genocide of 1941, and in people's minds the idea is conveyed that genocide is going to happen again, and that this new Croatian government is picking up where the Ustashe left off.

So, as of the summer of 1990, in the Serbian parts of Croatia there is some uprising. It started off with roadblocks, and Croatian policemen were disarmed by Serbian insurgents. Then in the course of the following winter and spring, almost outright rebellion. The first deaths took place on 31st March 1991 at Plitvice. The first massacre took place on 2nd May 1991, that is, of Croatian policemen by Serbs in Borovo Selo-- so two months before Croatia declared independence.

The conflict was also deteriorating because Serbia had embezzled funds that were meant for Croatia. Then Serbia refused the right of the Croatian representative to be elected President. That was on 15th May 1991. There was the rotating Presidency. On 15th May 1991 the previous Serbian President's term came to an end. Normally, it was the Croatian who was to succeed him; this one was from nationalist party. The representatives of the Serb blocked that election. So there was no longer a federal President, and the federal institutions were deadlocked.

During that period the Slovenes and the Croatians were preparing their independence. There were referendums in December 1990 in Slovenia and then I believe it was May '91 in Croatia and people were very much in favor of independence. Those two countries on 25th June 1991 declared their independence and it was at that point that the federal army reacted, and that is when the military phase of the conflict begins-- with the federal army's intervention in Slovenia. That lasted just 10 days.

The federal army's intervention and the war in Croatia lasted some six months, and later on in 1992 there would be the military intervention in Bosnia which has lasted until quite recently.


home .  karadzic .  conentration camps .  trying war criminals .  bosnia .  genocide & war crimes .  interviews
discussion .  links .  synopsis .  press reactions .  tapes & transcripts
frontline online .  wgbh .  pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation




Losing IraqJuly 29th