1918–1992 country in Southeastern Europe

Yugoslavia was a country in Southeast and Central Europe that existed from 1918 to 1992. It came into existence in 1918 following World War I, under the name of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes from the merger of the Kingdom of Serbia with the provisional State of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (which was formed from territories of the former Austria-Hungary), and constituted the first union of South Slavic peoples as a sovereign state, following centuries of foreign rule over the region under the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Peter I of Serbia was its first sovereign. The kingdom gained international recognition on 13 July 1922 at the Conference of Ambassadors in Paris. The official name of the state was changed to Kingdom of Yugoslavia on 3 October 1929.

The great experiment in this Slavic nation was based on a noble idea. Its proponents thought that south Slavs, that is to say people with much in common, especially their languages, who lived in a great arc of territory from the borders of Austria almost to the gates of Constantinople (now Istanbul), should unite and form one great strong south Slav state. ~ Tim Judah

After an economic and political crisis in the 1980s and the rise of nationalism and ethnic tensions, Yugoslavia broke up along its republics' borders, at first into five countries, leading to the Yugoslav Wars. From 1993 to 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia tried political and military leaders from the former Yugoslavia for war crimes, genocide, and other crimes committed during those wars.

After the breakup, the republics of Montenegro and Serbia formed a reduced federative state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), known from 2003 to 2006 as Serbia and Montenegro. This state aspired to the status of sole legal successor to the SFRY, but those claims were opposed by the other former republics. Eventually, it accepted the opinion of the Badinter Arbitration Committee about shared succession and in 2003 its official name was changed to Serbia and Montenegro. This state dissolved when Montenegro and Serbia each became independent states in 2006, with Kosovo having an ongoing dispute over its declaration of independence in 2008.

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  • The fact that Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia emerged as one of the victor states of the war seemed implicitly to vindicate the act of the man who pulled the trigger on 28 June – certainly that was the view of the Yugoslav authorities, who marked the spot where he did so with bronze footprints and a plaque celebrating the assassin’s ‘first steps into Yugoslav freedom’. In an era when the national idea was still full of promise, there was an intuitive sympathy with South Slav nationalism and little affection for the ponderous multinational commonwealth of the Hapsburg Empire. The Yugoslav wars of the 1990s have reminded us of the lethality of Balkan nationalism. Since Srebrenica and the siege of Sarajevo, It has become harder to think of Serbia as the mere object or victim of great power politics and easier to conceive of Serbian nationalism as an historical force in its own right. From the perspective of today’s European Union we are inclined to look more sympathetically – or at least less contemptuously – than we used to on the vanished imperial patchwork of Austria-Hungary.
  • Though they imitated Stalin in slavish ways and built socialism before Moscow demanded it, Yugoslavia’s Communists became the first to break with the USSR in 1948. They did so because Stalin demanded complete subordination of their national interests to those of his country. In a public speech, Josip Broz Tito reflected on his sudden heresy as a Marxist-Leninist: One can love the motherland of socialism, he said, but not love one’s own country less. He did not mean Croatia or Serbia, Slovenia or Montenegro: Communist Yugoslavia was a second attempt to revive Ljudevit Gaj’s old program, this time as national liberation for all peoples in Yugoslavia. Tito’s Partisan movement had begun as a miniature Habsburg empire during the war, protecting Serbs, Jews, and others from fascist genocide, in the name of brotherhood and unity, a formula that succeeded until Tito’s death in 1980. If it had joined the newest version of the Habsburg Empire—the European Union (EU)—Yugoslavia might have survived. But fighting broke out in Croatia in 1991 before the EU had opened toward the east. Today Eastern Europe’s leaders gain political capital by claiming that the EU, despite its generous funding of national infrastructures, education, and agriculture, somehow threatens their countries’ existence. In June 2018, Hungarian president Viktor Orbán said that at stake in the election of an anti-EU candidate in Slovenia was the “survival of the Slovenian nation.”
    • John Connelly, From Peoples Into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (2020), p. 19


  • "Non-alignment" provided a way in which the leaders of "third world" states could tilt without toppling: the idea was to commit to neither side in the Cold War, but to leave open the possibility of such commitment. That way, if pressure from one superpower became too great, a smaller power could defend itself by threatening to align with the other superpower. Yugoslavia—not a "third world" state—pioneered the process. Tito had not sought Stalin's condemnation in 1948: he was, and remained, a dedicated communist. But he was determined not to sacrifice sovereignty for the sake of ideological solidarity, and unlike most other East European leaders at the time, he had no need to do so. Noting how quickly the Americans offered him economic assistance after his break with Stalin, Tito saw the possibility of a lifeline: would the Russians risk using force against the Yugoslavs if this might lead to war with the Americans? With the United States Sixth Fleet operating just off the long Yugoslav coast, there were good reasons for Stalin to think twice about attempting an invasion, and there is evidence that he did so, contenting himself instead with assassination plots—all of them unsuccessful.


  • As our American negotiating team shuttled around the Balkans in the fall of 1995 trying to end the war in Bosnia, the Versailles treaty was not far from my mind. Reading excerpts from Harold Nicolson's Peacemaking 1919, we joked that our goal was to undo Woodrow Wilson's legacy. When we forced the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to come together in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 and negotiate the end of the war, we were, in effect, burying another part of Versailles. In the spring of 2002, the last two parts of the Versailles creation still linked as "Yugoslavia" took another step, moving to the brink of a full and final divorce by agreeing to rename their country "Serbia and Montenegro"—probably a step on the path to full separation.
    • Richard Holbrooke, introduction to Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2001), p. x
  • Capitalism has been fully restored in Yugoslavia, as is well-known, but this capitalism knows how to disguise. Yugoslavia portrays itself as a socialist state, but of a special kind, as the world has never seen it before! The Titoites even boast that their state has nothing in common with the first socialist state which emerged from the socialist October Revolution and which was founded by Lenin and Stalin on the basis of the scientific theory of Marx and Engels.


  • Common wisdom today has it that Yugoslavia was a doomed experiment. In the 1990s, ill-informed Western journalists reporting on the Yugoslav implosion wars wrote of the “centuries-old conflict between Serbs and Croats" — when the real genesis of Serb-Croat hostility really only reached back to the rise of nationalism in the 19th and 20th centuries.
    • Tomek Jankowski, Eastern Europe!: Everything You Need to Know About the History (and More) of a Region that Shaped Our World and Still Does (2013)
  • Yugoslavia resembled Czechoslovakia in that it was a miniature empire run by Serbs, and with considerably more brutality than the Czechs ran theirs. In parts of it there had been continuous fighting since 1912, and the frontiers were not settled (if that is the word) until 1926. The Orthodox Serbs ran the army and the administration, but the Catholic Croats and Slovenes, who had much higher cultural and economic standards, talked of their duty to 'Europeanize the Balkans' (i.e. the Serbs) and their fears that they themselves would be 'Balkanized.' R.W. Seton-Watson, who had been instrumental in creating the new country, was soon disillusioned by the way the Serbs ran it: 'The situation in Jugoslavia,' he wrote in 1921, 'reduces me to despair.... I have no confidence in the new constitution, with its absurd centralism.' The Serb officials were worse than the Habsburgs, he complained, and Serb opposition more savage than German. 'My own inclination,' he wrote in 1928, '... is to leave the Serbs and Croats to stew in their own juice! I think they are both mad and cannot see beyond the ends of their noses.' Indeed, MPs had just been blazing away at each other with pistols in parliament, the Croat Peasant Party leader, Stepan Radic, being killed in the process. The country was held together, if at all, not so much by the Serb political police as by the smouldering hatred of its Italian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Albanian neighbors, all of whom had grievances to settle.
  • The great experiment in this Slavic nation was based on a noble idea. Its proponents thought that south Slavs, that is to say people with much in common, especially their languages, who lived in a great arc of territory from the borders of Austria almost to the gates of Constantinople (now Istanbul), should unite and form one great strong south Slav state.


  • This 'heroic' aspect of the Partisan struggle, deeply inspiring to scholars-turned-soldiers like Deakin, reads well on the page. But in practice of waging a politico-military campaign over the length and breadth of Yugoslavia brought untold suffering to its peoples. Their history was already one of bitter and violent rivalry, which the war had reawoken. In the north leaders of the Catholic Croats had taken advantage of Italian sponsorship to unleash a campaign of expulsion, forced conversion, and extermination against the Orthodox Serbs. Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina took a hand in the civil war also, while in the south the Serbs of Kosovo were attacked by their Albanian neighbors. The Chetniks, for their part, contested authority in the Serb lands with the Partisans, with whom they had failed to agree a join strategy, but did not open war with the German occupiers lest that provoke reprisals. Tito hardened his heart against reprisals; indeed, he saw Axis atrocities as a spur to recruitment. He deliberately drew the Germans after him in seven so-called 'offensives' that left the countryside through which his Partisans marched a wasteland. The villagers had either to follow the Partisans 'into the woods' (a traditional description of the whereabouts of resisters to the Turks) or stay and await reprisals. Kardelji, Tito's deputy, was emphatic about the desirability of confronting the uncommitted with such a dilemma: 'Some commanders are afraid of reprisals and that fear prevents the mobilisation of villages. I consider the reprisals will have the useful result of throwing Croatian villages on the side of Serb villages. In war we must not be frightened of the destruction of whole villages. Terror will bring about armed action.' Kardelji's analysis was correct.


  • The state of the South Slavs—cobbled together from Serbia and the southern part of the vanished Austria-Hungary—that emerged in 1919 was the result of both accident and hasty, often desperate choices. It was not even clear what the delegation or the new country it claimed to represent should be called. Made up of Serbia and the southern parts of the vanished Austria-Hungary, it eventually took the name Yugoslavia. The Peace Conference, contrary to what many people believed since, did not create Yugoslavia—it was already created by the time the first diplomats arrived in Paris. Seventy years later, the powers were equally unable to prevent its disintegration.
  • Yugoslavia was itself the flawed creation of the ruin of empires in 1918, dominated until the Second World War by the Serbian monarchy yet comprising Muslim Bosnians and Kosovan Albanians, Orthodox Montenegrins and Serbs, and Catholic Croats. Out of the brutal ethnic slaughters of the two world wars, the long-serving dictator Marshal Josip Tito, whose Partisans had liberated Yugoslavia from Nazi occupation, had created a strong regime, using his own charismatic personality and, less well-known, terror, secret police and concentration camps. Yet Tito controlled the deadly ethnic feuds of the Balkans and gave his peoples almost 30 years of peace and order. But the revolving presidency implemented after his death in 1980 left a stewing ethnic cauldron lacking a strong hand to control it. Milošević filled this vacuum with his death squads, condottiere and psychopathic warlords, coordinated and financed at his personal command.


  • Yugoslavia is, with Iran, the only country which under difficult, not to say agonising, circumstances stood up to Joseph Stalin. It was not easy to unite ethnic groups or to modernize a country like Yugoslavia, and it must be acknowledged that Marshal Tito achieved something extraordinary. May God grant that his successors be as capable as he.



  • There was a hierarchy of material conditions in the communist world. The Yugoslavs, with the closest commercial links with the West, did best in the range and quality of goods available. Next came the East Germans, followed by the Hungarians and the Poles. Citizens of the USSR trailed in after them; and, still more galling to Russian national pride, the Georgians and Estonians in the Soviet Union enjoyed better conditions than those available to the Russians. The stereotypical Georgian, in the Russian popular imagination, was a swarthy ‘Oriental’ who smuggled oranges in large suitcases from his collective farm to the large cities of the RSFSR. That fruit could be an item of internal contraband speaks volumes about communism’s economic inefficiency.
    • Robert Service, Comrades: A History of World Communism (2009)
  • But it's not the Serbs or Croats or Bosnians who are guilty. In Yugoslavia the problems began for the same reason as in the U.S.S.R. The communists--they had Tito, we had Lenin and Stalin--charted out arbitrary, ethnically nonsensical and historically unjustifiable internal administrative boundaries, and for years moved inhabitants from one region to another. And when--also in the period of a few days--Yugoslavia began to fall apart, the leading powers of the West, with inexplicable haste and irresponsibility, rushed to recognize these states within their artificial borders. Therefore, for the exhausting, bloody war which is today convulsing the unfortunate peoples of the former Yugoslavia, the leaders of the Western powers must share the blame with Tito. Now, attempting to somehow correct the very problem they helped to create, they essentially repeat the well-known maxim of Metternich [the backward-looking Hapsburg diplomat who dominated the post-Napoleonic Congress of Vienna in the early 19th century] for the Holy Alliance: "Intervention for the sake of making others healthy." Today the slogan is "Intervention for the sake of humanism." It is an ironic similarity! But intervention is a very dangerous thing. It is not so easy for the great powers to control the world.


  • No country of people's democracy has so many nationalities as this country has... The reason why we were able to settle the nationalities question so thoroughly is to be found in the fact that it had begun to be settled in a revolutionary way in the course of the Liberation War, in which all the nationalities in the country participated, in which every national group made its contribution to the general effort of liberation from the occupier according to its capabilities. Neither the Macedonians nor any other national group which until then had been oppressed obtained their national liberation by decree. They fought for their national liberation with rifle in hand. The role of the Communist Party lay in the first place in the fact that it led that struggle, which was a guarantee that after the war the national question would be settled decisively in the way the communists had conceived long before the war and during the war. The role of the Communist Party in this respect today, in the phase of building socialism, lies in making the positive national factors a stimulus to, not a brake on, the development of socialism in our country. The role of the Communist Party today lies in the necessity for keeping a sharp lookout to see that national chauvinism does not appear and develop among any of the nationalities. The Communist Party must always endeavour, and does endeavour, to ensure that all the negative phenomena of nationalism disappear and that people are educated in the spirit of internationalism.
  • None of our republics would be anything if we weren't all together, but we have to create our history — our Yugoslavian socialist history, that is unique, in the future — that is our path; not touching the national rights of the some republics to preserve their own traditions, not at the expense of, but in the interest of the whole community, to mutually complete each other. That is what we want, and not the destruction of our unity.
  • The peoples of Yugoslavia do not want Fascism. They do not want a totalitarian regime, they do not want to become slaves of the German and Italian financial oligarchy as they never wanted to become reconciled to the semi-colonial dependence imposed on them by the so-called Western democracies after the first imperialist war.
    • Josip Broz Tito, as quoted in Tito: A Biography (Constable and Company Ltd., 1994) by Jasper Ridley, p. 155.
  • Think well about this, dear brothers and sisters, and you will see that we should have been in a state of terrible chaos, in a fratricidal war, in a country which would no longer be Yugoslavia, but be only a group of petty little states fighting among themselves and destroying each other. But our people do not want that to happen.
    • Josip Broz Tito, as quoted in Tito: A Biography (Constable and Company Ltd., 1994) by Jasper Ridley, p. 263.


  • In comparison with other Eastern European countries, Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s seemed like a model of prosperity. A visitor in the 1970s and very early 1980s could see well-stocked shops and markets and many houses in varying states of construction, the labor provided by the owners themselves on weekends and vacations, the money accumulated from the marks they had earned as workers in Germany. But the oil shocks of the 1970s led to severe inflation. Indebtedness spiraled upward, greatly burdening the economy, while unemployment rose into the double digits. In some areas, like Kosovo, close to one-quarter of the workforce was unemployed by the early 1980s, also because West Germany, long an outlet for surplus Yugoslav labor, began to limit and even repatriate foreign workers.
    • Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide (2018), p. 208
  • The Yugoslav system of combined central planning and self-management at the enterprise level had worked well enough in the early stages of economic development in the 1950s and 1960s, but not in the more intensely competitive international situation of the 1980s. As in the other European socialist states, real living standards began to stagnate and then decline. According to some calculations, real personal income declined by one-quarter over the period from 1979 to 1985, by one-third in the decade from 1979 to 1988. To the extent that the Yugoslav regime had staked its legitimacy on providing ever higher standards of living for the population, stagnation and decline had nearly immediate political consequences.
    • Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide (2018), p. 208
  • In short, the institutional structure of communist Yugoslavia sustained and developed particular national identifications. In the Soviet Union, as we have seen, the recognition of nationalities as the constituent elements of the union led to a policy that both fostered national development and treated some groups as enemy nations that had to be removed in toto. In Yugoslavia, a similar system led to an even more radical outcome. As one scholar writes, the federal structure based on national republics had the result that “every question was by necessity ‘nationalized.’” For some years Yugoslavia was able to muddle along. But by the late 1980s, economic decline, political paralysis, and a rapidly shifting international situation had brought the domestic situation to a crisis level. As the central government proved increasingly unable to fulfill its role as guarantor of the living standards and protector of the population, the system devolved to its constituent elements—the six republics and two autonomous regions, with the JNA sometimes referred to as the “ninth federal unit”—each of which raised its own demands. The dissolution became so dangerous in Yugoslavia because there, unlike the other communist societies in Eastern Europe, no viable, democratically minded civil society had emerged that stretched across the entire country, not just among a particular nationality. Only in Bosnia did the Muslim leadership, along with a few Croat and Serb allies, try desperately to maintain the republic’s multinational character, its stature as the “true” Yugoslavia.
    • Eric D. Weitz, A Century of Genocide (2018), p. 208

See also

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