Ethnic Warfare in Former Yugoslavia: Events and Timeline

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  • 0:43 Slovenia
  • 2:55 Croatia & Bosnia
  • 6:16 Kosovo
  • 8:26 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Sailus

Chris has an M.A. in history and taught university and high school history.

In this lesson we explore the breakup of the formerly communist state in the Balkans, Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, several Yugoslav states declared independence from the Serbian-dominated central government.

War in Former Yugoslavia

Relationships can sometimes end in messy ways. Everyone has seen movies or TV shows where the spurned lover throws their partner's belongings out of a window, or perhaps you yourself have had a relationship ended with a shouting match and been left out in the cold. Just like those volatile relationships, when countries break up it's often a rather contentious affair.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the communist state of Yugoslavia began to break up in the Balkans, its states' attempts at breaking away were met with varying degrees of resistance from the central, Serbian-dominated government. This resistance led to several military conflicts in the 1990s.


The first of these conflicts was also the shortest. The Ten-Day War occurred when Yugoslavia's northernmost province, Slovenia, attempted to break away from Yugoslavia. During the 1980s, Slovenia had moved to become more and more autonomous in opposition to Serbia's continuous dominance of the central Yugoslav government. In response to the succession of the Serbian communist Slobodan Milosevic to the head of the Yugoslav government in 1989 and his centralizing reforms, Slovenes voted in December 1990 to declare independence from Yugoslavia. Sensing the move, the Yugoslav People's Army (or JNA) preemptively removed most military weaponry from Slovenia.

Realizing a JNA invasion was imminent, the Slovenian government provided funds and reinforcements to the Slovenian Territorial Defense forces and reorganized the command structure to give the Slovenian government direct power over the force. When Slovenia officially declared independence on June 25, 1991, the Yugoslav government responded by authorizing the military to seize all Yugoslav border crossings - essentially licensing an invasion of Slovenian territory.

Fighting began on June 27, when JNA forces seized several Slovenian border crossings with little resistance. The Slovenians were heavily outmanned and outgunned; they possessed no tanks, no heavy artillery, and had no air force. However, this perceived weakness helped the Slovenian cause. Assuming the Slovenians could easily be defeated, the Serbians took few strategic measures and simply rolled their tanks to border crossings through Slovenian territory. After several days of skirmishes between the two sides, the Slovenes struck a decisive blow on July 2, when they captured several poorly supplied tank columns and forced multiple JNA detachments to retreat across the border. That night, the Slovenians declared a unilateral ceasefire, which the JNA agreed to the following day.

The war formally ended on July 7, when Yugoslavia, Slovenia, and the European Community signed the Brioni Accord, which recognized Slovenian independence, and Yugoslavia agreed to have all its forces removed from the territory within a few months.

Croatian Independence and Bosnia

Croatia similarly begrudged the Serbian dominance and increasing centralization of the Yugoslav government, and it declared its independence from Yugoslavia the same day as Slovenia, June 25, 1991, after a May referendum where 93% of Croatians voted for independence. However, Croatia's situation was trickier than Slovenia's, because a large portion of ethnic Serbs lived in Croatia. Indeed, the leaders of these Serbs instructed their enclaves to abstain from voting in the referendum, likely playing a part in its overwhelming verdict.

As soon as Croatia declared independence, the ethnic Serbs within Croatia rose up and seized government buildings in their area. Additionally, Serbia was not as willing to relinquish its control of Croatia as it was in Slovenia, in part due to the ethnic Serbian population in Croatia. The JNA's invasion of Croatia was brutal and targeted areas primarily dominated by ethnic Croats. Shelling was heavy and violence on both sides of the conflict became ethnically based.

Indeed, the conflict between Croats and Serbs dragged Bosnia-Herzegovina into the conflict. Bosnia-Herzegovina lies directly in between Serbia and Croatia and in the early 1990s possessed roughly similar populations of ethnic Croats and Serbs, as well as a large Muslim population. Croat and Muslim portions of Bosnia wanted to break away from the Yugoslav state, a goal they achieved via a popular referendum in March 1992. Serbs naturally wanted to remain part of the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav government. Despite early efforts at peace between the two sides, talks broke down and open ethnic warfare broke out in early 1993.

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