Sue and I undertook a short van trip around parts of Slovenia and Croatia in the spring of 2018. Whilst there it became apparent that the impact of the war in 1991/92, triggered by Croatia’s declaration of independence from the then still intact Yugoslavia, was still a major issue for the country’s inhabitants.

Two experiences in particular had a big impact on us and fuelled our curiosity as to why this conflict had broken out in Europe only 26 years ago; the siege of Dubrovnik and the partially derelict villages in the interior of the country around Plitvice Lakes. I wrote pieces on these whilst in the country and (foolishly perhaps) suggested that I might attempt to answer the ‘why question’ when back in Britain ……….

The scope of this piece is limited to an understanding of the Serb – Croat war 1991/92, the first war in a decade of bitter conflicts that would result in the complete dismantling of the Yugoslav state. I have chosen this because it relates directly to our travel experience and is significantly more manageable than the alternative (!) although it makes consideration of the involvement of western powers more problematic as this only begins to become clear in the later wars.


Prior to this van trip I have to confess I knew very little indeed about the Balkans – even about the series of wars in the 1990s that had produced such shocking TV pictures.

I knew that the region had been for over hundreds of years the subject of colonial struggle between the Habsburg and Ottoman empires, with Russia repeatedly sticking its oar in with a view to gaining access for its fleet through the Bosporus to the Mediterranean.

I knew that the 1st World War had been triggered (but not caused) by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 and that Germany’s subsequent surrender in 1918 had also been triggered (but not caused) by the collapse of the Central Powers Balkan front.

I knew that Tito’s Yugoslavia had been viewed in the West as a relatively benign form of communism, having broken decisively with the USSR and becoming an internationally respected leader and supporter of non-aligned developing countries around the world.[i]

I knew nothing about the how or why the wars of the 1990s were initiated – but I suspect if pushed would have subscribed to the dominant view that there is so much bad blood between the different groups that once a strong leader such as Tito died conflict would have been inevitable. On this particular occasion it seems that the Serbs are largely held responsible for what happened.

Virtually everyone we spoke to referenced ‘the war’ in some way or other, often as a significant time for them personally; as in ‘before the war’, ‘after the war’, ‘I moved abroad during the war’, ‘it was a disaster for families’, ‘villages around here are now either wholly catholic or orthodox – we don’t mix’. Despite this we were unable to have any real discussions about the war itself and its causes, partly I suspect due to a reluctance on their part to talk about it, partly the constraints of language and mostly due to our lack of confidence in pursuing the openings. Usually it was only after a meeting that we were able to piece together the evidence that would indicate whether we had been talking to a Serb or a Croat and it had felt tricky to proceed without that information. We could of course have simply asked, but that also felt tricky, especially as many conversations were accompanied by significant imbibing!

In order to try and make more sense of all this I have done some reading. A cursory review of the available literature reveals three key books:

1) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon – Rebecca West (1941).

This large book, of which I have read not one word, chronicles the travels of Rebecca and her husband through the Balkans in the 1930s – during the first iteration of the unified Yugoslav state. I am fortunate in that Sue has read parts of this and was happy to read out the bits she found most interesting / amusing / outrageous. These served to illuminate the tensions within the state and the barely managed conflict between Serbs and Croats.

2) Balkan Ghosts – Robert D Kaplan (1993).

The manuscript of this book was completed immediately prior to the outbreak of the 1991/92 war and published after its completion but before the later Balkan wars. More a 1980s travelogue, it uses reports of meetings with individuals across the Balkans to illuminate its history – an approach that in most circumstances should work well – but maybe the Balkans are just too complicated! I struggled to understand how and why the endless conflicts just keep rolling on and have picked up on reviews by others saying similar things.

From this book I picked up the following, rather depressing, overall messages:

Everyone (each ethnic / religious / national group) hates everyone else. The author actually says that in all his travels only one person had anything positive to say about another group and that was a Bulgarian who suggested that the USSR had supported Bulgaria’s economy and provided it with cheap gas.

– Every group has territorial ambitions based on some historical high point when they were at the height of their power. No one is interested in compromise and politicians regularly refer to battles hundreds of years ago in order to stoke nationalist fervour.

– The overwhelming feeling from this book is the hopelessness of the situation, that these tensions and conflicts are so entrenched that they feed off each other endlessly. The different groups in the Balkans are all as bad as each other and are not amenable to negotiation and conciliation.

– Of particular interest is an updated introduction written by the author in 1996 where he makes clear his surprise that his book has come to be seen as a seminal text on the Balkans and one which has been used to shape the foreign policy decisions of western powers. He was told that this was the one document Bill Clinton read before concluding that it was all too messy for US ground troops to be involved in the subsequent wars. As we know this didn’t stop a US led NATO bombing campaign against Serbia.

3) The Balkans 1804 – 1999 – Mischa Glenny (1999)

This is the big tome (662 pages) that I mentioned in earlier pieces and provides an in depth historical narrative, big on the politics and impact of world events and less informed by the experiences / views of ‘ordinary people.’

From this book I picked up a detailed narrative and the following overall messages:

– The history of the Balkans (situated as it is at a key strategic point between Eastern / Western Europe and the Middle East) has been almost entirely shaped by the foreign policy objectives of the Great Powers:

  • Prior to WW1 the Austro – Hungarian and Ottoman empires were competing colonial powers and a recently unified Germany was keen to establish a rail route through the region to facilitate its colonial aspirations in Mesopotamia. Russia was in an endless conflict with the Ottomans over control of the Black Sea and access to the Bosporus. The Habsburgs, in classic divide and rule strategy, encouraged the Croats to see themselves as superior to Serbs.
  • During this period Britain and France supported different countries at different times in order to ‘maintain the balance of power’ and thus safeguard their own interests.
  • Post WW1 the state of Yugoslavia was set up (initially with no agreed borders) at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919, which set the precedent of not engaging with any of the countries on the losing side. A rogue Italian army refused to leave Istria and this then became part of Italy (which seriously undermined the economic integrity of the new Yugoslav state).
  • The US determination to break the power and influence of the established colonial powers had the unforeseen effect of encouraging nationalist aspirations – with the Balkans providing fertile ground for these.
  • A re-armed and belligerent Germany over-ran the Balkans in WW2 in the wake of the Italian debacle in failing to conquer Greece. This was not Germany’s favoured option, most Balkan states were already clients of Germany and crucial to her war effort in providing food, raw materials and, from Romania, oil. However, the prospect of allied forces coming to Greece’s aid and forming a bridgehead in the southern Balkans could not be countenanced by the German High Command. The direct occupation of Balkan states resulted in the entrenchment of Fascist regimes and all the inter group violence and oppression that this entailed. In Croatia power was handed to Croat Fascists and their shock troops (the USTASE – originally sponsored by Italy in an attempt to destabilise the Yugoslav state) enacted a plan to expel a third of the Serbs living in Croatia, forcefully convert a further third to Catholicism and intern and execute a further third in concentration camps. The German occupation also spawned a fractured resistance movement in the former Yugoslavia, comprising the Chetniks (fighting to restore the pre-war monarchy and largely based in Serb areas) and the Partisans (seeking to establish a communist state with the engagement of all ethnic groups). There was frequent fighting between these groups, with the Chetniks on occasion cooperating with the fascist powers to attack the Partisans. With the retreat of the German military from the Balkans towards the end of the war, many thousands of Chetniks and Fascists were interned and executed by the Partisans.
  • Post WW2 saw an explicit carve up of Europe between the victorious allies – Eastern Europe and Yugoslavia to the USSR, Turkey and Greece to the West.

– Given this history, Glenny makes the not unreasonable point that it is a mistake to see the constant conflicts in the Balkans as primarily being of the inhabitant’s own making. Moreover, it is lazy to see all groups as being ‘as bad as each other’ or the inter group tensions as being inherent to the region and unresolvable unless there is a specific external enemy (as in the first Balkan War in 1912 when the combined forces of Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro threw off the Ottoman yoke[ii]) or a ‘hard man leader’ backed up by all the apparatus of state oppression (Tito).

Interestingly, the one conflict that Glenny does not attribute to the actions / needs of Great Powers is the one we are considering here! He is more critical of their lack of action in response to the conflict and says that when they do intervene in the later wars their actions made things worse not better.[iii]

Surprisingly useful was the short history section in the Rough Guide to Croatia which did a pretty fair job of summarising a complex set of events and trends leading up to the conflict.

I have also read ‘The Hired Man’ – Aminatta Forna (2013), a superb fictionalised account of a village in the Croatian interior living with consequences of the war and the ‘disappearance’ of about half of its population. It not only subverts the ‘One Year in Provence’ genre (worth the price on its own) but gives a sense of how horrors unfolded and gradually became apparent yet not acknowledged to those who survived and still live there years later. Astonishingly it never once refers to ‘Serbs’ or ‘Croats’ – there is just one aside that the Orthodox Church is boarded up, unused and decaying.

OK, that’s the literature review done – time to say what I think!

Key factors in the outbreak of the Yugoslav (Serb) / Croat war 1991/92

1) Regional economic under-development and poverty.

Economic development across the region has historically been constrained by the need of colonial / imperialist powers for it to remain the provider of food stuffs and raw materials (at low prices) whilst importing manufactured goods (at high prices) and incurring vast national debt (with all the repayment consequences) to fund infrastructure projects and the armed forces. It was this continuing expectation by the USSR that propelled Tito to break with it (Yugoslav delegates did not even bother to turn up for the meeting with the foreign minister of the USSR to receive their rebuke! – cf Romania and Bulgaria).

As a result the region was slow to develop an industrial base and has, until recently, remained a largely agricultural society with a small proletariat and middle class. Social and economic structures have been dominated by ruling elites (with one faction or other at any one time supported by a Great Power) and a huge peasantry living in appalling poverty under feudal like conditions. Since the European revolutions of the 19th and 20th centuries, the ruling elites have lived in fear of peasant uprisings and have honed the apparatus of state oppression accordingly. This form of government fuels bitter resentments and frustrations and provides fertile ground for impassioned calls for action – often, sadly, against other groups in exactly the same situation as themselves. Today there remains huge inequality in Croatia – we were told that whilst the coast and its tourism is thriving, inland things remain very difficult and people are very poor.

It was in what was northern Yugoslavia (Slovenia and Croatia) where most industrialisation had taken place. This allowed nationalists to promote a ‘why should we subsidise the lazy south through our taxes’ attitude – which gained traction in the 1980s in the context of the unravelling communist state and the wider development of global neo liberalism. Once the notion of ‘supporting those citizens less fortunate / well off than ourselves’ has been discredited, it is a small step to argue convincingly for the self-serving benefits of independence.

2) Tensions / fractures in the make-up of the Yugoslav state.

Alongside the historical baggage of different groups being supported by Great Powers in divide and rule tactics, the working of the Yugoslav state (in both its iterations) had been characterised by an underlying conflict of approach:

– Centralism. The need for modernisation, to build an industrial base, has favoured a strong central government that is ‘capable of getting things done’ and avoiding the complications of competing regional interests. This favoured Serbia, with the largest population, as the region with the longest previous status of being a country in its own right and with the most organised and effective military. Serbia was also on the winning side in WW1 and the Serb dominated Yugoslav army put up a heroic, if short lived, resistance to German invasion in WW2. Serbs dominated the officer class of the Yugoslav army, the police and the civil service. Not unnaturally this caused resentment across the other regions (or republics as they were called) and resulted in thousands of Serbs losing their jobs in Croatia on the day independence was announced.

– Federalism. The need to accommodate the needs and aspirations of such a diverse population of Serbs, Croats, Albanians etc. favoured a more federal approach, which allowed the different republics devolved decision making to address local issues. Tito attempted to balance the two approaches, favouring one or other at different times. This is viewed by Glenny as him playing the classic dictator game of manipulation and a continuation of the divide and rule tactics employed in the region for centuries. The result, he argues, is that when Tito died, the underlying tensions between the groups had not been addressed and sprang forth renewed without his presence as arbitrator to hold it all together. Another, more generous assessment of Tito (a Croat), might be that he did his best to balance the clearly entrenched competing forces at work within the country by utilising different approaches to government at different times. Whatever his merits and demerits you have to accept that he had a big job on his hands!

What is undeniable though, is that Tito’s administrative legacy (a system of rotating heads of state from each republic in turn) did not stand the test of time – or perhaps more accurately the deteriorating domestic economic situation (high level of foreign debt, rampant inflation and high levels of unemployment) within a rapidly changing international context. Ten years after his death Yugoslavia became ‘re-balkanised’ in the most violent manner.

3) The re-emergence of nationalisms.

Nationalism did not disappear from the various components of the Yugoslav state under Tito, but was reasonably well managed (suppressed?) through the manipulation of centralising / devolving policy levers (above). During the 1960/70s Croatian nationalism focussed on preserving its culture and language in the face of the increasing dominance of Serbia in the federation. When this was viewed as a potential threat to Yugoslav unity Tito acted to limit its impact and reassert central control.

It was after Tito’s death that nationalism began to re-emerge as a potent force in some of the republics (e.g. Albania, Slovenia and Croatia). These fed off the discontent of populations enduring economic stagnation and, with a political system in evident chaos, seeing little prospect of improvement. Serbia, traditionally a strong and inflexible proponent of a unified, centralised state also began to consider the benefits of a Greater Serbia and, so Glenny argues, its leading politicians (Milosevic in particular) used this opportunistically to build a power base.

Croat nationalism, always present as a counterweight to Serb dominance, appears to have grown in tandem with that of Serbia’s, with its own nationalist (fascist?) leader Tudjman promoting the need for independence.

Into this still reasonably managed situation came a curious academic study published in the mid 1980s, apparently without much in the way of evidence, which poured aviation fuel onto the smouldering concerns and resentments of the various ethnic groups. It posited that the isolated Serbs living in other republics (namely Croatia and Albania) were vulnerable to suffering consequences from renewed nationalist sentiment in these regions.

4) Ethnic tensions / enclaves of Serbs in Croatian territory.

Croats and Serbs are Slavs. They differ historically by religion and the relationships that this confers:

– Serbs are Orthodox Christians who traditionally look to the East (Russia) for support and protection.

– Croats are Catholics who look primarily to the West (traditionally Austria and the Vatican).

The mixing up of ethnic groups in the Balkans is largely due to the Ottoman method of colonial rule, where regional affiliations counted much less than religious ones. Tolerant of all religions ‘of the book’ (albeit with Muslims occupying the top echelon), the empire was governed through religious ‘millets’ which gave a significant amount of devolved power to each group in each administrative region.

One of the enduring legacies of this was the enclave of Serb villages and shared villages to the east of Sibernik up to the border with Bosnia Hercegovina. For Serbs living in these areas stoking the fears of Croat nationalism referenced directly the oppression these communities had experienced at the hands of fascist Croatian units in WW2 and instigated demands from within Serbia itself that they be protected. It seems that Croatian politicians did little to allay these fears and indeed work undertaken to draft a new constitution for a proposed independent Croatia, down-graded their status from constituent citizens to a minority ethnic grouping.

In 1990 Serbs living in the Knin enclave reacted to rhetoric from both Serbian and Croat politicians by: (i) holding an illegal referendum, voting for autonomy from Croatia, declaring an independent state (Knin Krajina) and seeking union with Serbia, and (ii) arming themselves with the support of Serbia. It would appear that Milosevic, with the break-up of Yugoslavia now seemingly inevitable, had switched focus to the creation of a greater Serbia.

A pattern emerged in the enclave: Serb paramilitaries would ethnically cleanse an area / village of Croats, who were forced to leave or shot. The Yugoslav National Army would move in ‘to restore peace’ and effectively seal the area off from the Croatian authorities.

6) The engagement / impact of the International Community.

Glenny argues that the break-up of the ‘post WW2 world order’ in the late 1980s (the fraying, then collapse of the USSR and Soviet Block, the 1st Gulf War etc.) effectively blindsided The West. It appeared to be taken by surprise by the break-up of Yugoslavia and the scale of violence subsequently unleashed in the resulting wars. He says that an article he wrote immediately before the hostilities commenced, warning that this was about happen, was dismissed by Guardian editors as  scaremongering.

As it became clear that the Yugoslav state was unravelling, support for the main protagonists was split along largely historical lines: Germany backing Croatian independence from ‘Serb tyranny’ ; Russia seeking to ensure that Serbia was not scapegoated and Britain and France (still playing balance of power games?) favouring a pan Yugoslav negotiated settlement.

 Glenny is critical of western powers for not acting to prevent the conflict and then failing to effectively contain it and bring it to a halt. If ‘inaction in the context of larger world events’ is the criticism, then it must be remembered that western capitalism was hardly likely to worry about the demise of what had been a relatively successful communist state – one which was about to deliver her people and resources into the global neo liberal market.

Once the wars kicked off properly the EU, the UN and, finally a US led NATO became involved in brokering ceasefires, providing peacekeeping forces and, in the case of the latter, forcing the surrender of Serbia through the bombing of military and civilian infrastructure and the inevitable ‘collateral damage’ suffered thereby.[iv]

The War itself

On the 26th of June 1991 Slovenia announced full independence and Croatia followed suit. The first ‘homeland war’ began immediately.

Yugoslav National Army (JNA) troops and Serb irregulars advanced into Croatia to fully secure the Serbian enclaves, shooting many non-Serbs and forcing the others to leave. Croatian held towns were besieged and shelled, including Dubrovnik – an act intended to sap Croat morale and confidence.

Croat resistance began as improvised, poorly equipped and volunteer led – which enabled Serb forces to make considerable initial territorial gains. However, the seizure of armaments from JNA barracks and the introduction of professional leadership, resulted in the development of a highly efficient (and motivated) Croat military force which pushed the JNA and Serb irregulars back, exacting reprisals as it did so. Serb civilians were murdered and tortured and their houses dynamited and burned.

EU attempts to broker a ceasefire only began to make progress when it became apparent that the Serb forces were in retreat. UN peacekeeping troops were deployed in key areas in Croatia and the EU (under pressure from Germany) officially recognised the country.

Over the next year Croatian forces repeatedly broke the ceasefire to regain territory previously lost to the Serbs. The museum in Dubrovnik suggested that the UN turned a blind eye to these incursions – until Croatia had restored the integrity of her pre-war borders.

With barely a pause, the war then moved on to Bosnia where Serb irregulars and the JNA pursued the same pattern of ethnic cleansing, this time of both Croats and Muslims. This now moves beyond the stated scope of this piece, but I feel it is important to note that the Croats, initially allied to the Muslims against the Serbs, ended up incarcerating them in concentration camps and shelling their residential areas in cities such as Mostar.

So what can be made of all this? – a stab at the ‘why?’ question.

Once the historical baggage of a region subject to the needs of competing colonial and imperial powers is taken into account, the ‘they are all as bad as each other’ approach is clearly crass and not fit for purpose. This region has a lot of historical baggage – which has distorted and stunted its economic growth (maintaining high levels of poverty and inequality) and generated festering resentments and very real fears between its constituent populations – the result largely of the moving feast of externally applied divide and rule tactics.

Through most of the 20th Century Serbia has been the dominant force in the region and Serbs have disproportionately occupied positions of power. The second world war and the German occupation was key in disrupting this and in a most inflammatory way, with Croat fascism enacting bloody pogroms against the Serb enclaves in Croatia. It was fears of a re-run of this that successfully stoked Serb nationalism in the 1980s, not only in the enclaves but in Serbia itself. To state perhaps the obvious, the mixed ethnic makeup of all the regions in the former Yugoslavia was a crucial enabler of the conflicts in the 1990s and their shared history of grudges a facilitator of the savagery of them.[v]

Whilst not wishing to wholly ascribe to ‘the strong leader’ theory, it does appear that the region’s most stable period was during post world war two Communism, with Tito exercising supreme and largely unchallenged authority. This would seem to be the only time when relationships between the constituent groups were actively managed with a view to promoting co-existence rather than sowing discord.  How this was attained is open to conjecture, he did have at his disposal the state security apparatus and I am sure he used it – but he was also seen in a very positive light; as the leader ‘who brought everyone together.’ I read this and heard it direct from Croats – even ones who were critical of him as ‘a dictator.’ It would seem that a lot of ‘ordinary people’ valued the fact that all the different groups could be brought together – and suggests the existence of an alternative public view to that of ‘everyone hates everyone else.’

However once Tito died, the state struggled to secure the safety and economic security of its citizens. In the context of a rapidly changing world order the classic ‘blame the other’ approach began again – initiated, I think, by Croatian and Slovenian agitation for independence, resisted initially by Serbia as the defender of the unified Yugoslavia and then as the basis for creating a Greater Serbia.

Like so many conflicts, whilst it is possible to identify underlying causes and trends, the lead up to the outbreak of hostilities often seems to generate a momentum of its own, with a provocation from one side being responded to in kind from the other. Differences and tensions escalate and all the while it seems that opportunities to intervene, take a step back and calm things down become less and less frequent – or even realistic. I have to say that the impression I get is that there was very little willingness on the part of leading politicians on either side to halt the slide – although I have no doubt that this would have been the approach supported by many, if not a majority, of ‘ordinary people’ on both sides of the divide – at least until the violence had begun. The subsequent appalling savagery of one atrocity fuelling another in retribution and the expulsion of large numbers of people from their homes by former neighbours (and often friends) is a truly sickening aspect of this war – and one that would intensify and plumb further depths in the later Balkan wars of the decade.

i As I write this I rather ominously see a link here with role Libya was playing in Africa prior to western intervention – but then Libya has oil and Yugoslavia does not.

ii Sadly the Second Balkan War broke out soon afterwards as the victors fought to re-allocate the spoils.

[iii] It may be that the wars of the 1990s are too close to current (and ongoing) political trends for the traditional approach of the narrative historian and that the barrage of propaganda that always accompanies conflict has left too much obscured / controversial to be aired.

[iv] The engagement of NATO is highly significant, marking as it did its first deployment out of its original cold war role – a trial run perhaps for its new role as promoter of western capitalism’s power and influence. Glenny is interesting on this – saying that the West’s war aims were never properly articulated beyond a commonly expressed need ‘to maintain the credibility of NATO and its role in future global conflicts’. He also makes the telling point that it established the strategic pre-eminence of the US in European affairs.

This intervention also marked another significant first – justification for war based on the grounds of human rights abuses in the targeted state rather than (as previously) a response to a direct threat to a country’s security. Both approaches were subsequently used in the war against Iraq, with the latter finally majoring through the WMD scare, but it was the former that set up the Libyan war. In both cases the use of these justifications has subsequently been shown to be problematic.

[v] It is interesting to compare how the other Yugoslav republics fared in the Homeland Wars compared to that of Slovenia which has a much more homogenous population and no ethnic enclaves. After Slovenia declared independence the JNA attempted to reassert the authority of the Yugoslav state, but with no natural support within the country seems to have been quickly disarmed and asked to leave – which it did! Slovenia was barely touched by the wars.