Yugoslavia was never a real country by most definitions. Yes, it had defined borders and a government, but most of its inhabitants never viewed themselves as “Yugoslavians.”

Instead, they saw themselves as their ethnicity first—Croat, Serb, Bosnian, Slovene, or Albanian—and then, possibly, as Yugoslavs. The very concept of the Yugoslavian nation was artificial and contrived, which is why the nation-state didn’t last very long and why trying to keep it intact, as dictator Slobodan Milošević tried to do, was such a crazy decision.

The nation of Yugoslavia formed in 1918 from the ashes of Austria-Hungary. It was initially a kingdom known as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croat, and Slovenes, but it was usually just called “Yugoslavia.”

Yugoslavia was occupied by the Axis Powers during World War II and after the war, it became a communist nation under the rule of Josip Tito.

Although a communist dictatorship, Yugoslavia was not a member of the Warsaw Pact alliance and was much more open than other Eastern Bloc nations, allowing foreigners to visit the nation and for its people to come and go.

But its combination of propaganda and repressive policies was hiding fractures not far beneath Yugoslavia’s surface.

Although the three primary ethnic groups in the country—Croats, Serbs, and Bosnians—all spoke the same language and shared many cultural traditions, some major differences set them apart.

The Croats are Roman Catholic and identify more with the West, the Serbs are Orthodox Christians and have historically looked to Eastern Europe for inspiration, while the Bosnians are Muslims.

When communism collapsed throughout Europe in 1990 and 1991, Yugoslavia was not spared. Leaders of the various groups wanted to dissolve Yugoslavia peacefully, but Milošević opposed the move.

He had become the president of Serbia in 1987 and had his sights on running Yugoslavia, which wouldn’t happen if the “country” broke up.

As Yugoslavia quickly broke up, sometimes peacefully while at other times through civil war, into its constituent parts, Milošević made the crazy decision of resisting the change.

The result was the Balkans Wars, which lasted from 1991 to 2001. The wars cost the lives of up to 140,000 and caused widespread displacement and a refugee crisis due to ethnic cleansing campaigns and civilian massacres by all sides.

Looking up to Tito

When the Axis Powers occupied the Balkans during World War II, it revealed that not only was the region a patchwork of ethnic groups but also that they had very different agendas at times.

The Croats clearly favored the Axis Powers and wanted to use them to establish a Croatian national state. Likewise, the Muslims generally supported the Axis Powers. The Serbs, though, viciously resisted the Axis troops, fighting them for the entire war as partisans.

Once the war was over and order was reestablished in Yugoslavia, the communists led by Josip Tito came to power. Tito was the sort of dictator who commanded the respect of his peers, East and West, and usually got the results he wanted.

Yes, he was a dictator, but he was able to rule the country’s different ethnic groups relatively smoothly until he died in 1980.

Slobodan Milošević wanted to be the next Tito, but he was clearly not of the caliber of Tito!

Milošević was born in Yugoslavia during World War II, so unlike Tito, he never fought the occupiers. Instead, he made his mark and gained power the way many men of his generation did: through the university and then in the Yugoslav Communist Party.

Milošević became the leader of Serbia in 1989, but Serbia was just one part of Yugoslavia. He wished to return to the glory days of Yugoslavia when the Serbs pretty much ran everything, which would have meant that he was in control of everything. But the other nationalities weren’t so willing to go back to the way things once were.

Resisting the Tides of Change

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it marked the beginning of the end of communism in Europe. Every communist regime that crumbled did so peacefully for the most part, except Romania and Yugoslavia.

The Balkans Wars were essentially a series of wars that resulted in the independence of several nations and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Slovenia broke away first after a 10-day war with Yugoslavia, then Croatia got its freedom after fighting from 1991 to 1995.

The Bosnian War from 1992-1995 was perhaps the most brutal of the Balkans Wars, with ethnic cleansing and massacres being regular features. Finally, the Kosovo War in 1998-1999 resulted in NATO bombings of Serbia.

And at the center of all of this was the crazy decision by Slobodan Milošević to resist it all.

In his desire to rule all of Yugoslavia as Tito had done, Milošević worked against the social changes that were sweeping Eastern Europe at the time. He wanted to establish himself as the dictator of Yugoslavia. Perhaps a greater leader may have been able to keep it all together, but Milošević just wasn’t that man.

The reality was that the tides of change were just too strong.

Milošević’s crazy and arrogant decision to keep Yugoslavia together under his rule at all costs accomplished nothing other than the deaths of nearly 150,000 people. Although Milošević did become the dictator of Yugoslavia in 1997, it was a nation that only consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, and Montenegro would leave peacefully in 2006.

Milošević’s decision to try to keep Yugoslavia together made him and his nation an international pariah.

The Yugoslav authorities actually arrested Milošević in 2001 and then he was turned over to international authorities to face trial on a range of charges, including genocide, in The Hague, Netherlands. Milošević died in his cell of a heart attack on March 11, 2006.

Although some were upset that the Serbian dictator who started the Balkans War never faced justice in this world, most in the Balkans were happy to move on and rebuild their countries and their lives.

Did You Know?

  • Milošević married his wife Mirjana in 1971 and had a son and a daughter with her. The entire Milošević family was heavily involved with him in government and therefore became wanted by international courts. They fled to Russia where they were given refugee status.
  • Milošević signed the Dayton Accord in Dayton, Ohio on November 1, 1995. It ended the Bosnian War and all fighting in the Balkans until the Kosovo War in 1998.
  • The Bosnians became Muslims in the centuries after the Ottoman Empire conquered the region in the 15th century. They would take Christian boys from their villages as part of tribute payment and train them to become warriors known as janissaries.
  • Milošević has often been described as a political opportunist: he used Marxist-communist ideology to get ahead early in his career and later turned to nationalism.
  • Once he became the dictator of Yugoslavia, Milošević enacted several laws that made it illegal to criticize the government.