Yugoslavian Civil War Research Paper

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The civil wars in Yugoslavia after 1991 involved the most severe violence in Europe since the Greek civil war (1946-1949), generating almost 70,000 battle-deaths and displacing many refugees. Many claimed that the cold war had contained nationalism in Europe, and that its end would unleash a wave of sectarian conflict. Paradoxically, this failed to materialize in most socialist states except for Yugoslavia, where the Soviet Union had only minimal direct influence, previously considered a relatively successful case of multi-ethnic political integration.

The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was torn apart by demands for autonomy from the relatively more prosperous republics of Slovenia and Croatia and the increasing assertiveness of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006). Slovenia’s declaration of independence in June 1991 led to a minor violent confrontation with the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) but was quickly settled. Whereas independence was relatively uncontroversial for the ethnically homogenous Slovenia with undisputed borders, Croatia was much more contentious due to its large Serb population. The increasingly Serb-dominated JNA seized control over much of Croatia, and violent conflict escalated with the siege of Vukovar in August-November 1991. A January 1992 United Nations’ (UN) peace plan brought combat to an end but perpetuated Serb control over much of Croatia. Later that year violence erupted between Croats, Serbs, and the Muslim dominated central government in Bosnia, leading to a protracted war with many atrocities. An International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) was set up in 1993 to investigate allegations of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Although fighting in Bosnia formally was carried out by autonomous militias, the Milosevic and Franjo Tudman governments of Serbia and Croatia are believed to have provided extensive support, and the ICT has brought charges against official representatives of both.

The inability of the UN to contain the conflict in Bosnia led NATO and the United States to take a more active role in 1994. The United States brokered a settlement agreement between the Bosnian Croats and the central government and provided military assistance to Croatia. In a military offensive in mid-1995, Croatia reconquered most of the Serb-held areas, and NATO bombardment forced the Serbs to sign the Dayton peace agreement in late 1995. The growing inability of Milosevic to control events outside Serbia proper in turn promoted violence among the Albanian majority in the formerly autonomous Kosovo province. The main Albanian opposition leader Ibrahim Rugova (1944-2006) had advocated a strategy of nonviolent resistance, which had succeeded in keeping Kosovo quiet but brought few Serb concessions and did not prevent extensive repression.

Following an influx of arms during the chaos in Albania in 1997, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) turned to violent confrontation. Although the KLA was militarily much weaker than the JNA and the immediate Serb response was increased repression, the escalating violence, with a large outflow of refugees and allegations of atrocities, prompted NATO to start bombing Serbia in March 1999. Faced with prospects of a ground invasion, Milosevic agreed to NATO demands in June, and a UN protectorate was established in Kosovo. Although Milosevic had survived previous mass demonstrations calling for his resignation in 1991 and 1996, he was finally forced to leave in October 2000 after attempts to dispute an opposition electoral victory, and Serbia has not engaged in conflict with its neighbors since his ouster. The perceived success of the KLA inspired an Albanian armed uprising in Macedonia in 2001, but outside involvement prevented the conflict from escalating.


  1. Bass, Gary J. 2000. Stay the Hand of Vengeance: The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  2. Bertsch, Gary K. 1971. Nation-Building in Yugoslavia: A Study of Political Integration and Attitudinal Consensus. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  3. Kaplan, Robert D. 1993. Balkan Ghosts: A Journey through History. New York: St. Martin’s.
  4. Ramet, Sabrina P. 2002. Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia from the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milo°evic. 4th ed. Boulder, CO: Westview.
  5. Woodward, Susan L. 1995. Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution.

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