Flag of Yugoslavia.
Flag of Yugoslavia.
  • Yugoslavia was a federation of states in which Southern Slavic languages were dominant.
  • Yugoslavia literally means "Land of the Southern Slavs."
  • Between 1945 and 1980, Yugoslavia was led by communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito.
  • Yugoslavia began to violently break up in the early 1990s.

Yugoslavia was a federal republic composed of several countries in which Southern Slavic languages were the most prevalent. There were six republics in the federation: Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia.

At first, Yugoslavia was a constitutional monarchy, but it then became a communist state under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito. After Tito died, the unity of the federation began to falter. In the early 1990s, the federation’s constituent states began breaking away, which triggered a long period of armed conflict. By 1992, the country known as Yugoslavia was reduced to only two republics, and it dissolved for good in 2003.

The Formation Of Yugoslavia

Map of the former republic of Yugoslavia.

The idea of a Southern Slavic federation began to take shape in the early 20th century, as the two empires that had dominated the region of the Southern Slavs, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, were on the decline. The last hurrah of these two empires was World War I, after which they both ceased to exist.

During the war, various Balkan exiles and Slavic members of the Austro-Hungarian government formed a committee dedicated to the establishment of a Southern Slavic federation. After WWI ended, the Council of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was set up to govern the Slavic territories that were formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This council pushed for a union with the already independent Southern Slavic country of Serbia. The victorious Allies agreed to the formation of a Southern Slavic federation, and on December 1st, 1918, the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was proclaimed, under the kingship of Serbian Prince Aleksander, who became King Aleksander I. A decade of political infighting followed the establishment of the new kingdom. Eventually, King Aleksander I shut down the parliament and ruled by himself. In 1929, he renamed the country Yugoslavia, which literally means “Land of the Southern Slavs.”

Two years after World War II began, Yugoslavia concluded a pact with Nazi Germany that made it part of the Axis. But just a day after this pact was signed, a palace coup took place in which the pro-Axis ruler, Prince Paul, was deposed. A day after the coup, Adolf Hitler authorized the invasion of Yugoslavia. What followed was a period of civil war that involved three main factions: The pro-fascist and pro-Axis Utasha, the royalist Chetniks, and the communist Partisans. When WWII ended, the Partisans, led by Tito, took control of Yugoslavia and proclaimed the establishment of a new Yugoslavia, called the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. The new communist federation was comprised of 6 republics: Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Slovenia. The Serb provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina were also given autonomy as part of the federation.

Tito’s Yugoslavia

Josip Broz Tito, leader of communist Yugoslavia.

As the ruler of Yugoslavia, Josip Tito steered the country on a course that was independent of the Soviet Union and the other communist states of the Cold War-era Eastern Bloc. In fact, at times, his relations with the USSR were quite frosty. At the same time, Tito maintained some ties to the West, whose aid helped his regime survive. Tito’s regime was initially highly centralized, but under pressure from leaders of Yugoslavia’s constituent states, Tito was forced to give up powers. Eventually, he devolved powers to the point that the country was held together only by him and his cult of personality.

Economy Of Tito’s Yugoslavia

The economy of Yugoslavia under Tito functioned differently than those of other communist states. Tito put his own stamp on communism by initiating a policy known as self-management. Under this economic model, the workers themselves controlled the running of industries through workers’ councils. It was under this model that Yugoslavia managed its reconstruction after WWII. The result was rapid economic growth and a significant rise in the standard of living. By no means, however, was Tito’s model of self-management a recipe for a utopian society. Although workers controlled industries in Yugoslavia in theory, the reality was that full participatory democracy in the workplace was not able to take shape because of the monopoly of the Yugoslav Communist Party.

The Disintegration Of Yugoslavia

During his rule, Tito was able to keep nationalist sentiment under control, often using force to do so. He continuously promoted the ideology of Pan-Slavism, which the Yugoslav federation was supposed to exemplify. When Tito died in 1980, however, the nationalism that he tried so hard to suppress began rising to the surface.

In 1989, a Serb nationalist named Slobodan Milošević became the president of Serbia. He abolished Kosovo’s autonomy, provoking fears in Croatia and Slovenia that their autonomy would be next on the chopping block. In response to Milošević’s pro-Serb nationalist policies, Slovenia amended its constitution to allow secession from the Yugoslav federation. In the fall of 1989, Milošević urged the Serbs to settle Kosovo en masse, in order to dilute the province’s Albanian majority.

Bullet holes from the Croatian War of Independence in Pakrac, Croatia. Image credit: Zvonimir Atletic/Shutterstock

In 1991, both Croatia and Slovenia voted to declare independence, unless a new deal could be reached on the reorganization of the federation that was amicable to all the republics. But talks to salvage the federation failed. Croatia and Slovenia declared independence, triggering intervention by the federal Yugoslav army. Hostilities ended quickly in Slovenia, and an agreement was reached that allowed the country to control its own borders, though fighting in Croatia persisted.

The Final Yugoslav Republic

In 1992, Serbia and Montenegro proclaimed the establishment of a new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, composed only of their two countries. Shortly thereafter, Yugoslavia was expelled from the United Nations and suspended from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). 

Meanwhile, in the former Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, a three-sided civil war was taking place between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The war would go on to claim the lives of some 100,000 people over the period between 1992 and 1995. Atrocities committed during the war drew the involvement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which eventually launched airstrikes in 1994 against Bosnian Serbs to protect the country’s Muslim population. These airstrikes helped convince the Bosnian Serbs to come to the negotiating table. In 1995, the Dayton Peace Accord was agreed to by the warring sides. This agreement provided for a new political arrangement in Bosnia that saw the country split into two self-governing entities: A Bosnian Serb enclave known as Srpska and a Muslim-Croat federation. To enforce the accord, NATO troops were sent to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Kosovo War

The last conflict in the ongoing disintegration of Yugoslavia was the Kosovo War in 1999. Following the abolishment of this Serbian province’s autonomy in 1989, additional measures imposed on Kosovo forced tens of thousands of members of the province’s Albanian majority out of work and restricted the activity of their cultural organizations. Kosovo Albanians protested and rioted in response. In 1996, a militia called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) emerged, and began launching sporadic attacks against Serb authorities in the province. The Serbian government responded with further repressive measures on the Kosovo Albanians.

Initially, the KLA was viewed in the west with suspicion. Indeed, in 1998, a US diplomat referred to the KLA as a terrorist group. Some believe that this comment encouraged Milošević to continue his repressive measures in Kosovo. Hostilities between the Kosovo Albanians and Serbian security forces continued throughout 1998 and into 1999, despite growing diplomatic pressure from the West on Milošević to stop Serbia’s campaign of repression, and attempts to negotiate a solution to the crisis.

Damage from the Kosovo War in Pec, Kosovo in 1999. Image credit: Northfoto/Shutterstock

Finally, on March 24, 1999, NATO began a campaign of airstrikes against the Serbs, hitting targets both in Kosovo and Serbia proper. The bombing campaign eventually persuaded the Serbs to withdraw their forces from Kosovo. Following the successful NATO intervention and the deployment of peacekeepers in Kosovo, the KLA agreed to disarm. Kosovo declared independence in 2008 and was subsequently recognized by the US and other countries, but to this day, Serbia has not relinquished its claim to the enclave and refuses to recognize its independence.

In the year 2000, an opposition candidate won the Serbian presidential elections, but Milošević refused to hand over power, triggering a popular uprising that eventually persuaded the long-serving ruler to step down. The following year, he was arrested by Yugoslav authorities and turned over to the UN International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague to stand trial for war crimes. In 2003, a new federation called Serbia and Montenegro was proclaimed in an attempt to placate Montenegrins who desired independence. But this new arrangement did not last. Three years later, the people of Montenegro voted in favor of independence. Shortly thereafter, the president of the federation of Serbia and Montenegro announced the dissolution of his office. The union of Serbia and Montenegro was dissolved, thus putting an end to the last vestige of what was once Yugoslavia.

Slobodan Milošević on trial at the UN International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague, Netherlands. 

The Former Yugoslavia Today

All the former republics of Yugoslavia are now independent countries. Kosovo also has de facto independence, and is recognized by the US but is not recognized by the entire international community, nor has it been admitted to the UN. Following Yugoslavia’s dissolution, its former constituent republics began the process of integration with the rest of Europe.

Slovenia was the first former Yugoslav republic to become a member of the European Union in 2004. Croatia joined in 2013. Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia, now called North Macedonia, are on track to join the EU as well, by integrating EU legislation into their national laws. Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina are listed by the EU as potential candidates, but they do not yet fulfill the bloc’s qualifications for membership. Some former Yugoslav states have also joined NATO. These include Slovenia in 2004, Croatia in 2009, and North Macedonia in 2020.


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