Sunset on the Danube river in Vukovar (Croatia), Photo by Dmitry Okuntsev

Sunset on the Danube river in Vukovar (Croatia), Photo by Dmitry Okuntsev

The dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia led to the independence of seven new states throughout a process marked by a series of conflicts which lasted more than a decade. The perpetration of war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity sparked considerable international debate on controversial issues such as the role of the neighbouring European Union and the deployment of humanitarian armed intervention.

The post-WWII unitary experience of Yugoslavia had kept together 6 republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia) and 2 autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina) in a multi-national Federation for more than 40 years. Following the death of the President Josip Broz Tito in May 1980, the Federation experienced rising economic crisis, institutional stalemate and political challenges.[1] Internal animosities within Yugoslavia were further increased as a new international scenario emerged following the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communist regimes in Eastern Europe. With the emergence of nationalist discourses in the elections held across the republics in 1990, ethnic tensions rose fuelled by inflamed propaganda spread by political leaders and complacent media.[2]

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, leading to the “Ten Days War” in Slovenia and to the Croatian War of Independence that lasted until summer 1995. Fightings in Croatia affected particularly the border regions of the new state through the battle of Vukovar, followed by the Ovcara massacre in November 1991, and the siege of Dubrovnik. With two controversial military operations marked by war crimes and crimes against humanity,[3] in mid-1995 Croatia restored control over the territories until then occupied by the Republic of Serbian Kraijna, a para-state under control of the Serb minority, provoking the mass displacement of Serbian minority from those regions.

Following a referendum on independence, held in Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1992, conflict erupted also in the most multi-ethnic of the republics of Yugoslavia. The Bosnian war, lasting from 1992 to 1995, caused more than 100,000 victims, over 2 million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs), the return of concentration camps and of the crime of genocide in Europe.[4] The war in Bosnia has been extensively reported in its most dramatic traits, including the Siege of Sarajevo, genocide in Srebrenica and the unprecedented targeting of civilians through the deployment of ethnic cleansing. In 1995, the Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to the conflict, providing the country with a Constitution that ratified internal division and power sharing among the different national groups.[5] Until today, the demands for constitutional reform remain unsolved.

In those same years, in the autonomous province of Kosovo increasing tension between the two main ethnic groups in the area, on the issue of autonomy cancelled by President Milosevic of Serbia in 1989, led to the escalation of violence against the Albanian community of Kosovo. After a few attempts at diplomatic solution in 1999, in March NATO initiated a bombing campaign targeting Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo. With the Yugoslav army’s withdrawal from the territory of Kosovo, an international protectorate was established that would last until 2008, when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence from Serbia.

The displacement of refugees from Kosovo, most of which headed to the neighbouring Republic of Macedonia led to the destabilization of this country, independent since 1992. The demands for more rights from the side of the Albanian minority lead to escalation and clashes in 2001. After a few months of war, the international community urged the parties to sign an agreement which put an end to the conflict by envisaging proportional representation for the Albanian and Macedonian national groups.

In 2006, Montenegro broke away from Serbia with a peaceful referendum brokered by the European Union. The smallest state among those emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia is currently leading the path towards EU integration along with Serbia. At the beginning of 2017, the countries have managed to open 26 and 8 negotiation chapters respectively. The other countries in the region lag behind in the position of “candidate” (Macedonia and Albania) and “potential candidate” (Bosnia Herzegovina and Kosovo). For all of them, the fight against corruption and organized crime, as well as the full implementation of rule of law remain substantial challenges.

Fifteen years of conflicts and the subsequent institutional arrangements have seriously damaged the multi-ethnic relations in the region and impacted on political, social and economic characters of the newly established state entities, labelled as ethno-political systems.[6] The characters of the conflict, that resulted in at least at least 150 thousand casualties on the territory of Bosnia Herzegovina alone, and which prompted the escape of millions refugees, entailed the destruction of social ties, infrastructures and urban spaces. The return of displaced minorities and the full respect of the rights of returnees still constitute an open issue.[7] In such a complex scenario, post-conflict transition and reconciliation represent vital challenges for the future of this area.

War time crimes have been addressed both at the national and international levels, through the work of the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Justice and acknowledgement of war crimes suffering still represent open issues, as witnessed by the recent establishment of a Special Tribunal for War Crimes in Kosovo.[8]

Beyond formal justice, much needs to be done at the level of civil society to bring back mutual trust among national communities. Indeed the region is regarded as a permanent laboratory of reconciliation practices nurtured by local civil society, often with the support of foreign donors. Bottom-up initiatives such as REKOM – a regional initiative to establish a commission about war crimes – and the Women’s Court, addressing wartime gendered violence,[9] are only two examples of the many and multifaceted efforts enacted by civil society across the region, which are rooted in the anti-war movement dating back to the 1990s.[10]

Reconciliation and regional cooperation also play a central role in the conditions set forth by the European Union. The newly established countries emerged from the dissolution of Yugoslavia are getting closer to membership in the European Union – with Slovenia and Croatia having joined in 2004 and 2013 respectively – and the other getting closer at different paces. Since the Thessaloniki European Council of 2003, the process of Europeanization represents a significant transformative factor for the region, but the genuine commitment from the side of local political elites is wavering and other poles of attraction continue to exert their influences on politics and public opinions across the post-Yugoslav space.

[1] Bringa Tone, The Peaceful death of Tito and the Violent end of Yugoslavia, in John Borneman (ed.): Death of the father: An anthropology of the end in political authority. New York: Berghahn Books pp. 63-103.
[2] Boro Kontic, Years eaten by lions, documentary film, 2010.
[3] Oluja crimes, a test for Croatian justice, Osservatorio Balcani Caucaso, 10 december 2012
[4] Al Jazeera,
[5] Andrea Rossini, Bosnia Herzegovina at a stalemate?, ISPI online, 30 May 2014
[6] Asim Mujkić, “We the citizens of ethnopolis”, Constellation – International Journal of critical and democratic theory, Volume 14, Issue 1, March 2007, pp. 112–128.
[7] Andrea Rossini, The road home: Bosnians’ returns
[8] See the dossier curated by BIRN
[9] Official website of the Women’s Court initiative
[10] See for instance the work by Bojan Bilic and Vesna Jankovic, Resisting the evil: (Post)-Yugoslav anti war contention, Baden-Baden, Nomos, 2012.