Recently, there has been much fighting in the former country of Yugoslavia, involving all ethnicities and religious groups and without making a difference between military or civilians. Diplomats have been hard at work to attempt to resolve the differences that led to conflict and bloodshed, but it has proven to be a very difficult thing to do with extremely limited success. To understand the situation, it has to be realized that a big part of the problem lies in the geography of the region and its demography. These factors have contributed to conflicts in the past and do so now.
Yugoslavia covers mountainous territory. The backbone of the region is made up of the Balkans, a mountain range that runs north-south. Continental plate movement from the south has created an intricate landscape of plains, valleys and mountains. This led to intensive compartmentalization of the region. As a result, there were few low-level routes and those that existed became very important strategically. Most notable are the Varda-Morava corridor, which connected the Aegean Sea and the Danube, and the Iron Gates of the Danube, linking Central Europe and the Black Sea, that controlled much of the trade between the Mediterranean and Central Europe since ancient times. Most of the populations have lived separated from each other geographically and culturally, developing very strong national and tribal allegiances. This region is a frontier between Eastern and Western European civilizations and has also been influnced by Islam during the Turkish invasion.
The roots of the conflict in the Balkans go back hundreds of years. Farther than recent events in the region indicate. Dating back to Roman times, this area was part of the Roman Empire. It was here that the divide between Eastern and Western Roman Empires was made when it split under the Roman emperor Diocletian in A.D. 293. Along with the split, the religions divided also into Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. This line still divides Catholic Croatians and Hungarians and Orthodox Montengrins, Serbs, and Romanians. The Romans left behind them excellent roads, cities that are still important political or economic centers, like Belgrade, Cluj, or Ljubljana, and the Latin language, which is preserved in Romanian.
The period of Turkish dominance during the middle ages left a much diffferent imprint on the region. An alien religion, Islam, was introduced, adding to already volatile mixture of geography, politics, religion, and nationalism. The administration of the Ottoman Empire was very different from that of the Romans. The Turks did not encourage economic development of areas like Albania, Montenegro and Romania that promised little in producing riches. They didn’t invest in building roads or creating an infrastructure. Greeks controlled most of the commerce and Sephadic Jews, expelled from Spain, had influence as well.
The diversity of Yugoslavia can best be captured in this capsule recitation: "One state, two alphabets, three religions, four official languages, five nations, six republics, seven hostile neighbors, and eight separate countries." This had more than a little truth. Yugoslavia employed Latin and Cyrillic alphabets; it was home to Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Muslims; it’s Slavic groups spoke Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and Macedonian; they identified themselves as Serbs, Montenegrins, Croats, Slovenes, and Macedonians; each had its own republic, with an additional Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina for a mixed population of Serbs, Croats, and Serbo-Croatian-speaking Muslims; Yugoslavia was bordered by Italy, Austria, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and Albania, all of whom harbored some grievances against it; and the "autonomous regions" of Hungarian Vojvodina and Albanian Kosovo within Serbia functioned until 1990 in an independent manner comparable to that of the six formal republics. This indeed was a diverse state. Yugoslavia had been "a geographic impossibility, tied together by railroads, highways, and a Serbian-dominated army." (Poulsen, 118-9) This country is a patchwork of complicated, interconnected ethnic and religious entities that intertwined so densely that it is probably impossible to separate them and make everybody happy.
It was a witness to two bloody Balkan wars that took place in 1912 and that contributed to the outbreak of World War I. The conflict seems intrinsic to the region, with painful fragmentation after the fall of the Hapsburg empire and further discord during and after World War II. In fact, there was hardly any time when there was little or no conflict.
The events that started the most recent escalation of conflict took place in 1991. The first republic to express anti-Serbian sentiments was Slovenia. They felt that although they and Croats had prospered the most in Communist Yugoslavia, they were lagging behind Austria, Italy, and even Hungary. They saw the transfer of their profits to the southern republics as the reason behind it. During the 1980s many started calling for separation from Yugoslavia. Serbia boycotted Slovenian products in 1990 and this only intensified the hostilities. In 1991, Slovenians declared their independence. The federal army attempted to suppress the Slovenians, but was humiliated by Slovenian militia forces. From there, it spread to Croatia, who resented the Serb domination in government and the economy. All the previous conflicts, from Serbian-led atrocities committed at the end of World War II that surfaced in the 1980s to Croatian support of the former Ottoman lands in Yugoslavia that came to the fore in the 1970s, and others, greatly contributed to the Croatian resentment of the Serbs and led to their declaration of independence in the summer of 1991 (Poulsen, 123).
But this was only beginning. Croatia had a Serbian minority that made up 11% of its population. The strong feelings of nationalism didn’t escape them either. An attempt was made in 1990 to declare autonomy of the mostly Serbian regions in the southwestern parts of Croatia. It was rejected by the Croatian government and as a result, the Serbs ignited a rebellion. They were supported by the Yugoslavian army. Bitter fighting ensued, with sieges and a massive flow of Serbian refugees eastward. Like cancer, the conflict kept spreading and by 1992 nearby Bosnia-Herzegovina was engulfed by it. It is no surprise because Bosnia-Herzegovina is a patchwork of Christian and Muslim, Croat, Serb, and Bosnian, Orthodox and Catholic. The only way for the government to preserve its territorial integrity with so many groups pulling in different directions was to declare independence. The Serb and Yugoslav army moved in to drive out the Croats and Muslim and attempt annex Bosnia to Serbia. The Croat army moved in to protect its Croats there. With all these different ethnic and religious groups so tightly intertwined in Bosnia, it would be nearly impossible to negotiate a treaty that would pacify all sides.
The grief and damages of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were not the only ones suffered in this volatile region. Another province of former Yugoslavia was experiencing unrest. In a southern part of Yugoslavia called Kosovo, that was bordering Albania, irredentist movement was taking place. Kosovo is 90% ethnic Albanian and following the suit of the other republics, Albanians started asserting their rights in Kosovo. They wanted autonomy, independence and annexation to Albania. Serbia was not willing to let Kosovo go and disagreements between the opposing sides began escalating. A major reason Serbia was so unyielding is the fact that Serbs view Kosovo as a core area for their culture and its development. It is also a site of a tragic defeat by Muslim Turks in the medieval times.
The other regions of former Yugoslavia that are experiencing problems are the regions of Vojvodina and Macedonia. Like other parts of Yugoslavia, Vojvodina had a lot of different ethnicities living side by side. Serbs, Hungarians, Croats, Slovaks, and Romanians all share thi region. As they were becoming polarized in other republics, it spread to Vojvodina also. Macedonia is having problems with its Albanian minority, who are sympathizing with their brethren in the nearby Kosovo and for a time there was with the Greek government over the use of the name ‘Macedonia’ and Macedonia’s flag, which were Greek in origin. That was settled with an agreement that Macedonia will change its flag, but not its name.
Given the geography and demography of Yugoslavia, it is hard to imagine real, long-lasting peace coming to the region anytime soon. It is virtually impossible to strike any deal that would please all sides, since virtually everywhere there will be pockets of minorities with long-running hostilities towards the majority that could not be cut out of the territory and would have to be incorporated somehow, whether it be Bosnia, Croatia, Kosovo or Macedonia. These differences led to much suffering and bloodshed over the last several hundred years and no solution has been found yet. The nearby future does not seem to be any different. The Dayton Accords, that were struck in 1995 in Ohio, were supposed to have resolved some of the differences and stopped the fighting, but just opening a newspaper today proves to be on the contrary. There have been rather prolonged moments of peace, as when the country was united under the rule of Josip Bronze Tito after World War II, so it is possible. One keeps hoping that there will be more to come, no matter how hard they are to achieve.
BASS, WARREN, "The Triage of Dayton", Foreign Affairs, vol.77, No.5, 1998, pp.95-108
CONNOR, MIKE, "Kosovo Rebels Gain Ground Under NATO Threat", The New York Times, December 4, 1998, vol.CXLVIII No.51, 361
PERRY, DUNCAN, "Destiny on Hold: Macedonia and the Dangers of Ethnic Discord", Current History, March 1998, vol.97 No.617 pp.119-126
POULSEN, T.M., Nations and States, Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1995