The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities – part two

TransConflict is pleased to present the second part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

When the Yugoslav republics suddenly became independent sovereign states, members of the formerly constituent peoples (narodi) who did not live in their home entity became instant minorities. Deprived of their status as “constituent peoples,” they all were told repeatedly that their new condition was a demotion in status and rights. Both Serbia and Croatia specifically defined their own people as the rightful owners of “their” state, while classifying other peoples living within their borders as simply citizens of that state. The narodnosti lost their status too, but with the exception of Kosovar Albanians, the change was considerably less violent and disruptive than the change experienced by formerly constituent peoples.

The three most difficult minority issues raised when Yugoslavia disintegrated concerned the mixed populations of Bosnia-Hercegovina, the sizeable Serb minority in Croatia, and the Albanian population in Kosovo, which was legally part of Serbia.(7) The last of these constitutes a special case in its own right. Even before Yugoslavia broke apart Albanian Kosovars, who constituted perhaps 90 percent of the population of Kosovo, had decided that they could not continue to live as a minority in Serbia but had to form their own independent state. This complex issue, which is yet to be resolved even though Kosovo is recognized by many as an independent state today, is discussed here.. The issue of Croatian minorities, which was a smaller but still significant aspect of the overall problem, is not a primary concern of this chapter either. Tens of thousands of Croats in Eastern Slavonia, Vojvodina, and parts of Bosnia suffered greatly and ended up having to flee for their lives. Despite these tragic events in northern Bosnia and in Sarajevo, where Croats constituted 7 percent of the population, they “tended to support a unified Bosnian state and a strong alliance with the Muslims as the best guarantee for their communities’ survival.”(8) Other Croats, living in compact Croat communities in Hercegovina, disagreed. But these Croats were not so much concerned about becoming a minority as they were in attaching themselves to Croatia proper or, at the very least, of creating their own autonomous region. With the support of Franjo Tudjman they attempted this latter solution by proclaiming the Croat Union of Herceg-Bosna in July 1992. The brutal warfare that ensued between Herceg-Bosna and Muslim forces lasted until the Washington Agreement of 1994 created a federation of the two elements that constitutes half of the country of Bosnia-Hercegovina today.

It was primarily Serbs who justified their aggressive policies by refusing to accept minority status. As the Bosnian Serb Nikola Koljević put it early in 1992, “I can understand the Muslim need or fear, if you wish, of Serbian or Croatian domination, . . . But you cannot make up for that by placing Serbs in the position of a minority.”(9) Not all Serbs felt that way, of course. In the election of 1990, for example, Croatian Serbs cast the majority of their votes for the coalition that came closest to standing for the principles of civil democracy. More than half of the Serbs living in Croatia lived in the developed urban parts of the country and, according to Drago Roksandić, many of them had become culturally “Croatized.” Roksandić argues that even if war may not have been preventable, at least it would have been significantly shortened “had it been possible in some way to create a working Croato-Serbian coalition to defend the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the republic of Croatia.”(10) But this would have required both time and a cadre of Serbian and Croatian politicians willing to work together. Neither of these requirements was at hand in 1990-1991. Thus, even before Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence in 1991, disaffected Serbs from the less developed areas of Croatia announced their unwillingness to lose their status as a constituent people. In the Krajina, as well as in Eastern Slavonia, militant Serbs, threatened by what they claimed was a return to the genocidal policies of the Ustasha regime of World War II, and supported by a nationalizing leadership in Serbia itself, established their own autonomous regions. In Bosnia, similarly
militant Serbs, alleging that they were about to be submerged in an Islamic state, and with arms supplied by the collapsing Yugoslav National Army, also rose in revolt. Four years of vicious warfare led to widespread ethnic cleansing, massacres, and massive movements of refugees. Eventually, in 1995, international intervention and a successful Croatian offensive in the Krajina and northwest Bosnia stopped the fighting.(11)

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


7) There were, of course, many other issues, such as the future of the Jewish minority in Sarajevo, the case of Istria, or the condition of the Roma. For a study of one of these issues, see Matjaž Klemenčić and Jernej Župančić, “The Effects of the Dissolution of Yugoslavia on the Minority Rights of Hungarian and Italian Minorities in the Post-Yugoslav States,” Nationalities Papers 32, no. 4 (2004): 853-96. Egidio Ivetić proposed a contribution for this chapter entitled “The Istrian Case, Between Yugoslavia and Post-Yugoslavia.” Silvano Bolčić also proposed a contribution entitled “‘Yugoslavs’ as a New Minority post-1990,” and Francine Friedman outlined a possible section on the Jews of Sarajevo.

8) Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, 2nd ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001), 285.

9) Quoted in Steven L. Burg and Paul Shoup, The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ethnic Conflict and International Intervention (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2000), 126.

10) Drago Roksandić, personal communication, 2005.

11) For a more extended discussion of the wars in Croatia, see chapter 7.

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