On this day, 30 years ago, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence and the slow and violent death of Yugoslavia officially began. My American readers may not care about this quaint historical fact, except they should. As someone who lived through the demise of Yugoslavia, it's my duty to warn them there are entirely too many similarities between what happened there and what's afflicting their own country right about now.
The political system was a version of Communism adapted by Dear Leader Josip Broz Tito, who was 11 years dead by that point. The country was divided into six "republics" - and one of them was subdivided further , with two provinces carved out - and ruled by a Presidency, a council of eight. Things were already falling apart, but once Germany reunited and Communism failed across eastern Europe, all of a sudden ethnic nationalism flared up.
At this point, the political leader of Serbia (Slobodan Milosevic) makes the biggest strategic mistake: he decides to let Slovenia go. On a moral level, that may have been the correct choice, as keeping the Slovenes in Yugoslavia by force seemed wrong. Yet by doing so, Yugoslavia's sovereignty and survival were effectively forfeit.
Yugoslav military intelligence actually managed to infiltrate the Croatian government and secretly film them buying weapons from Germany and preparing for war. The footage was aired on national television. But instead of sending a force to occupy Zagreb, arrest those involved as traitors and crush the rebellion in its infancy, Belgrade did... nothing.
When Croatia seceded, it was the local Serbs - who made up a majority on about a third of its territory, and had suffered a genocide during WW2 when Croatia was an ally of Nazi Germany - rose up and counter-seceded. This was not done on orders from Belgrade, and the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) was never under Belgrade's direct command and control. This will prove important - and fatal - later on.
At this point, it's important to note that Croatia was not fighting a "war for independence," as Zagreb claimed. The Croats' right to secede from Yugoslavia was obviously not contested - not by the disintegrating federal government, not by Milosevic, not even by the local Serbs. While doing that might have given them the upper hand from the standpoint of international law, instead they chose to dispute only the amount of territory Croatia could claim as its own. Naturally, the Croats seized the vacated high ground and claimed they were victims of "Yugo-Serbian aggression."
The JNA actually got dragged into the conflict when Croat militias attacked their garrisons. When the JNA defended itself - de facto siding with local Serbs - the cries of "aggression" redoubled. The final ceasefire line, negotiated by the UN in late 1991, saw the Army and the Serbs in control of territories that mostly had a Serb majority.
By then, however, the Badinter commission - a bunch of European lawyers that appointed itself the arbiter of Yugoslavia's fate - had decided that the country was "in dissolution." Though the Yugoslav constitution said its PEOPLE had the right to self-determination, the commission said no, it was was the REPUBLICS, not people, and their borders were to be considered international ones.
In practice, this meant that the Serbs went from the legal and moral high ground (maintaining Yugoslavia as their homeland) to being minorities in Croatia and Bosnia - where its Muslim and Croat communities sought independence - and outlaws if they resisted. At the stroke of a foreign pen.
The Serbs in Bosnia agreed to independence (see the pattern?) but sought a power-sharing agreement by which the new country would be partitioned into ethnic cantons - like Switzerland - that would guarantee their rights. Croats agreed. Muslims, backed by the US, reneged on the deal after it had already been signed.
So what did the Serbs do? Instead of declaring the Muslim-dominated government illegitimate and its referendum illegal, they pulled back and basically abandoned several cities - most notably, the capital of Sarajevo. Their strategy was to stake out the territory where they were the majority and declared the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (SRBiH, later known as Republika Srpska, RS). The idea was to leverage their military power to negotiate a political deal.
Belgrade had already implicitly recognized Bosnia's separation (again, perhaps the moral thing to do, but a strategic mistake), declaring the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and Montenegro. It didn't matter - foreign powers refused to recognize it as Yugoslavia's successor, and blamed Belgrade for "aggression" against Bosnia (!).
At this point, Muslims and Croats made a major tactical mistake: they attacked the JNA, which had been recalled and was retreating towards the FRY. Their officers later said this was in an attempt to capture the JNA's heavy weapons. In that, they mostly failed - but they radicalized the Serbs officers, NCOs and enlisted who might have otherwise stayed neutral to enlist in the Bosnian Serb military (VRS). One of those officers was Gen. Ratko Mladic, who took command from the ineffective JNA generals and proceeded to made quick work of Muslim commanders over the next three years. So it's not as if the Serbs were the only ones to make mistakes here.
As a consequence of Serbs giving up the moral and legal high ground, however, their situation was grim. Yugoslavia, built on some two million Serb lives over the two world wars, was gone. In less than a year, from June 1991 to May 1992, some two million Serbs went from being equal citizens of their own nation-state to being outlaws in their own homes. Their own RS and RSK were considered rogue states, while the separatists in Croatia and the Muslim government of Bosnia were internationally recognized as legitimate! That whole "let them go and hold our own in the countryside" worked out so well, didn't it?
It gets worse. By 1993, the US and NATO are openly involved, aiding Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims. Washington stops a war between Croats and Muslims - who had fallen out over territory - and forges them into an anti-Serb alliance. That's another example of their strategic error, as they thought it temporary but it's ended up poisoning their relations ever since. But for the US purposes, it worked perfectly.
UN peacekeepers were swept aside in May 1995, by US-trained Croatian troops, who overwhelmed the RSK enclave of Western Slavonia ("Operation Flash"). Then, in August, Croats launch a blitzkrieg against the rest of RSK. Neither the UN nor Yugoslavia lift a finger; it is said that Milosevic was either angry the RSK leadership was disobeying him, or was trying to disavow them to protect FRY proper. As we'll see later, it didn't work. With the RSK wiped out, the Croat troops move into Bosnia, while NATO launches airstrikes against the RS.
What happens then is an anomaly. The US sidelines the RS leadership by charging them with war crimes, so Milosevic would have to negotiate on behalf of all Serbs - thus validating the Narrative about the wars being "Serbian aggression." Yet by some miracle (if you read my review of Richard Holbrooke's memoir, you'll understand) he somehow manages to negotiate the Dayton Peace Agreement. The Muslims ended up being the reluctant ones in Dayton. They believed they could hold out and achieve "final victory" - i.e. destruction and expulsion of Serbs like in RSK - but the Clinton administration needed a peace deal right then and there, so it pressured them to sign.
Dayton pulled a partial victory from the jaws of defeat. While the RS leadership was angry that Milosevic gave up "too much" territory - including all of Sarajevo - they eventually realized that Dayton gave them recognition as a legitimate political entity within Bosnia.
Meanwhile, the RSK was a total loss. Even the eastern region bordering with FRY was eventually handed over to Zagreb, "reintegrated" into Croatia. Two thirds of the Serbs living there pre-war had been expelled, and any who thought of returning - mostly the very old - harassed and abused.
Being a "key factor of peace" in Dayton didn't save Milosevic, though. In March 1999, the US launches an attack on Serbia itself and occupies Kosovo, on behalf of ethnic Albanian separatists there. Because suddenly the Badinter opinion is irrelevant and the law is whatever NATO says it is.
The Serbs complain this is unfair and point to a UN resolution (1244) that says Kosovo is part of Yugoslavia. So the Americans organize a "color revolution" in Belgrade in October 2000, get rid of Milosevic, and have him put on trial for war crimes - where he dies under mysterious circumstances, without a verdict, in March 2006. Two months after his death, the US-backed regime in Montenegro rigs the independence referendum and the last vestige of Yugoslavia is officially abolished.
Macedonia (aka FYROM, now North Macedonia) got some UN peacekeepers in 1992 out of fear of "Serbian invasion" that never materialized. Instead, its service to the West was repaid by forcing it to federalize in 2001, after US-backed Albanian separatists claimed a third of its territory. Again, some rebellions are more legitimate than others. Might makes right, etc.
While the sordid history of Yugoslavia's demise is an object lesson in the perils of making deals with foreign empires to fight your wars - only to realize that you were used to fight theirs, and to hell with your goals - that's cold comfort to the Serbs, or the point I set out to make about the merits of the "retreat and Balkanize" strategy.
Remember, at no point did it occur to anyone in the Serb leadership to deny Slovenes, Croats, Bosnian Muslims or "Macedonians" their independence (Albanians were different; they had a nation-state next door, and were trying to claim historic Serbian lands). The prevailing thinking every step of the way was "we'll retreat and regroup and try to preserve our own and maybe they'll leave us alone, and if they don't we'll fight until they do."
How did that Grand Strategy work out? Objectively speaking, overwhelmingly poorly. Dayton was an outlier, obviously. And even Dayton didn't really end the war, but only its kinetic dimension. Since then, the Muslims have endeavored to dismantle the RS and create a centralized state by means ranging from lawfare and leveraging foreign support to tactical demographics (targeted resettling of internally displaced people) and even a rigged census.
Croats and Albanians did not stop until they claimed all the territory they could, and expelled or killed all the Serbs living there that could be a "disrupting factor." As I just described, the Bosnian Muslims are still working on it. The "let them go we'll protect the Serbs' minority rights" backfired spectacularly in Montenegro as well, where the NATO-backed regime embarked on a campaign of aggressive nation-building and historical revisionism intended to turn the once-proudest part of Serbdom into a new group identity that's rabidly anti-Serb.
THIS is why I am skeptical of Americans who believe some kind of peaceful separation and Balkanization of their own country is, or may, be possible. Once you cede legitimacy to the other side, especially an enemy that has no intent or incentive to leave you alone - but seeks to either subjugate or eliminate you outright - you lose the war even before the first bullet is fired.
Believe me. I was there.