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  • Short Summary

    The tragedy unfolding in the Balkans has ancient political and religious roots. What became Yugoslavia?

  • Description

    The tragedy unfolding in the Balkans has ancient political and religious roots. What became Yugoslavia after the first World War and started splitting up last year has for thousands of years been on a political fault line.

    The basic divide can be said to date back to the Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Emperor to profess Christianity, who split the Roman Empire into East and West realms in the year 330. The dividing line between the two is still one of Bosnia's borders.

    Later the Ottoman Empire expanded from the South to include what is now Bosnia, only for the line to move back again as the Christian Austro-Hungarian Empire drove back the Moslem Ottomans.

    Until 1914, it was the clash of empires which dictated the tensions of the area; that changed on June 28th when a Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilio Princip assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Sarajevo became the epicentre for the first World War as the outside Great Powers joined in.

    In the conflict that followed, alliances were forged that effectively tied Orthodox Serbia to its fellow Slavs in Russia, Italy, and the Anglo-French alliance. On the other side were the Austro-Hungarians whose Empire stretched to include Bosnia and Germany.

    After the war, the Croats, who feared Italy would absorb them, had to deal with the Serbs as the least worst option. In 1918, the state of Yugoslavia was born, straddling the old boundaries of empire but the tensions and religious divide remained.

    Three years later it became a constitutional monarchy but the change if anything increased the internal pressures; the Croats opposed the new constitution and boycotted the parliament meeting which approved it, thus placing the issue of Croatian autonomy at the centre of Yugoslav politics for the 1930s.

    In 1934 King Alexander was assassinated by a Croat in Marseilles while travelling with French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou, who had just been on a Balkan tour to build alliances against Germany.

    The king left an 11-year-old heir, and the authority of the monarchy was never really restored.

    By 1937 agreement had been reached to effectively grant a Croatian region considerable autonomy.

    In 1940 at a Balkan Entente meeting Yugoslavia, Romania, Greece and Turkey agreed to maintain their neutral status to keep out of the Second World War which had already broken out. That attempt proved futile. In March 1941 the government effectively capitulated to German demands and joined the Tripartite pact with Germany and Italy. Opposition to the submission led to a bloodless coup in Belgrade a day later.

    Ten days later the Germans, without declaring war, invaded Yugoslavia and Greece, bombing Belgrade savagely. Within a week they had set up an "independent" Croat state. In Croatia, Jews and Serbs were singled out for dismissal from public office and made to wear special badges. Croatian ministers publicly decared their intention of driving out all Serbs - by extermination, enforced flight or enforced change of religion.

    In Bosnia, which had been incorporated into Croatia, some 12000 Serbs were reported killed by the Croatian Ustachis in Banja Luka.

    Resistance initially was headed by Royalist Serbian General Mihailovitch whose forces were mainly in the mountainous areas of Serbia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Another group, the Partisans, led by Croatian Communist Josepf Brod Tito, also resisted, but opposed Mihailovitch. After the fall of Mussolini in 1944, the allies realigned their support, backing the Partisans instead of the Royalists.

    That switch eventually led to Tito's supremacy. The victorious Croat Communist put Serbian Mihailovitch on trial, exceuting him in 1946. Tito then set up a constitution balancing the ethnic populations but ensuring that power remained in the hands of the Communist Party; it also effectively ensured that the old regional and ethnic conflicts were not dealt with but pushed under the surface.

    On that surface, however, all seemed to be going well for Tito and Yugoslavia. After the 1948 split with Stalin, Tito was prominent in the non-aligned movement and was to be seen all over the world.

    His guerrilla past influenced the way he organised the countries defence, especially after the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia when he came to fear a Soviet incursion. That led to the building up of self-sufficiency in arms and a fairly large full time army backed by a large reserve and further backed by millions of men who could fight a guerrilla war and had ready access to arms.

    The country itself also grew in prosperity but this growth exacerbated tensions as the more prosperous Slovenes and Croats saw themselves as supporting poor neighbours in Belgrade. To the outside world, however, the picture was of beautiful countryside and a stable regime which had managed a successful middle-path between the cold war divides of Europe.

    Then Tito died in 1980: the man who had kept Yugoslavia under control had gone. The republic was beginning to come unstuck Yugoslavia's economy was part of the trend away from central planning which pervaded the 1980's. The general outside view was that the country was one of the best-placed to build a prosperous free-enterprise democracy. Sarajevo proudly hosted the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, boasting of the good relations the city's many ethnic groups enjoyed.

    By 1990, though, regional divisions were mixing with domestic politics. In elections that year, Croatia and Slovenia rejected the old guard, but Serbs elected to keep a Communist administration.

    This led to a year of negotiation and threat, in which the leaders of the six Yugoslav republics attempted to find a peaceful answer to the question of the break-up of Yugoslavia.

    In May, 1991, the rotating Federal Presidency was to go to Croatian Stepe Mesic, the first non-Communist ever to have held the post. At a fateful meeting of the Presidency, his appointment, which should have been a mere formality, was rejected, pleasing a large Serbian nationalist crowd gathered outside.

    The Croats immediately pushed forward with a referendum on independence. When the Serbs later agreed to Mesic's appointment, it was too late. Nationalist passions had been stirred, especially in Croatia and Serbia.

    Slovenia was also planning for independence but at this stage Bosnia was trying to stay out of any row.

    By June, Croatia and Slovenia had declared themselves sovereign nations,although most of the outside world was still in favour of a single Yugoslav state.

    Slovenia was immediately involved in war with the Federal armed forces. The Slovenes had stockpiled arms for more than a year in preparation and had few ethnic Serbs among them. Compared to what came later there were few casualties and many of them were from the Yugoslav National Army..

    In Croatia, there was an agreement to postpone moves towards independence after European Community-sponsored talks. But the pressures to grab control of land was far too strong.

    The scene was set for ethnic strife, interspersed with broken truces, which continue until now, despite the efforts of EC special envoy Lord Carrington and other EC ministers and the United Nations and its envoy Cyrus Vance. The only areas where there is effective peace are those where one side seems to have grabbed what it wanted, even though the spoils of victory are mere shards and rubble.

    First to suffer was Slavonia where Croats and Serbs have for the moment established de facto control zones albeit at a terrible cost.

    That fighting then spread, again interspersed with externally sponsored but speedily broken truces, to Coastal Croatia where the ancient city of Dubrovnik was pounded.

    Bosnia stayed out of the conflict for nearly nine months but as soon as it voted for independence on February 29, 1992, the grab for ethnic land control started.

    All communities in Sarajevo demonstrated against war -- and would later find themselves under fire for demanding peace.

    Serbs living in Bosnia proclaimed their own republic within the country, legitimising any grab for Bosnian land.

    United Nations and Red Cross workers found themselves targets of the brutal war, and had to withdraw for a time from Bosnia.

    For Sarajevo itself the return of U.N. troops after a respite of several months seemed to offer help, but they did not bring peace.

    Nor did the visit of French President Francois Mitterrand, welcome though it was at the time and later when it spurred the start of an international relief airlift.

    The war has created the largest refugee crisis since World War Two -- over two million displaced people. Another shocking similarity to the Second World War involves reports of what has been called "ethnic cleansing". Atrocities are said to have taken on the same character of those of the Ustashe who had also grabbed land -- in their case from Serbs and Moslems. The original owners had been murdered on a massive scale in concentration camps.

    Refugees from Bosnia describe the same kind of tactics -- being employed by more than just one side in the conflict. The differences now are in scale and the presence of television cameras and outside monitoring.

    Though the leaders of the various nations and factions from across the former Yugoslavia meet in London this week, the fighting in Sarajevo continues.

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