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Injured people are led away as UN peacekeepers step in to separate clashing ethnic Albanians and Serbs in Kosovska Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, where several were injured and others were reported killed, March 17, 2004. (AP Photo/STR)
The Balkans
CBC News Online | Updated May 26, 2011

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The Balkans is a region fractured by rugged, mountainous geography and an often-violent history dominated by clashes between great powers, from the days of the Roman Empire to the more recent Yugoslav wars.

The word "Balkan" is Turkish for "mountain." The geographic extent of the region itself is a matter of controversy. Most often it's defined as a peninsula of southeast Europe bounded by the Black Sea, the Sea of Marmara, and the Aegean, Mediterranean, Ionian and Adriatic seas.

The peninsula was once part of the Roman and Byzantine empires but the Ottoman Turks claimed it by 1500.

Balkan countries include Albania, Bulgaria, continental Greece, southeast Romania, European Turkey, and the former Yugoslavian republics Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

Today's borders are the result of the Balkan wars of the early 20th century, treaties signed after the First World War and nationalist wars of the early 1990s.

The former Yugoslavian countries have experienced much strife over the last century. While the region's people are related linguistically, they are separated by history, culture and religion. These divisions ultimately led to the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was formed in 1918 after the First World War and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was originally known as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes but was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

Tito era

During the Second World War, Josip Broz Tito rose through the ranks of the Communist party of Yugoslavia to become its leader. Tito's partisans were organized with the aim not only of liberating the country from Hitler's armies, but of seizing power for the Communist party as well.

Tito consolidated power as the war wound down by purging his government of non-communists. In November 1945, a new constitution was proclaimed and Tito organized a strong army and a strong and loyal secret police force.

Tito tried to create a balance among Yugoslavia's different ethnic groups that would ensure stability as well as his control of the country. His system of "symmetrical federalism" was supposed to ensure equality among the six republics and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina). It frequently played the nationalities off against each other.

Yugoslavia drifted from Moscow's grip – and people enjoyed far more freedom to move than residents of other post-war communist countries.

After Tito's death in 1980, a collective presidency took over. It was unable to maintain the lid on the country's ethnic tensions.


Many observers mark 1987 as the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia. That was the year Serbian nationalist Slobodan Milosevic became the Serbian Communist party leader. Milosevic and his supporters began talking about a "Greater Serbia" which would consist of Serbia, Vojvodina, Kosovo (an autonomous region within Serbia), the Serb-populated parts of Croatia, large sections of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and possibly Macedonia.

In 1989, Serbia rescinded Kosovo's autonomy and sent in troops to suppress the protests of its largely Albanian population. Serbia tried to impose its authority on the rest of the country, but Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence in 1991.

The Yugoslavian army, controlled by Serbs, moved into Slovenia and fighting broke out. By the end of July 1991, all federal forces left Slovenia, although fighting continued throughout the summer between Croatian forces and the federally backed Serbs from Serb areas of Croatia.

In September 1991, Macedonia declared its independence, and Bosnia-Herzegovina voted for independence a month later.

In January 1992, Croatia negotiated a ceasefire and the United Nations sent in a peacekeeping force.

Bosnian wars

The situation was much more difficult in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The former Yugoslav republic was an ethnic mix made up of Muslims (40 per cent of the population), Serbs (30 per cent) and Croats (20 per cent). On March 1, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence. At the same time, Bosnian Serbs – backed by what remained of Yugoslavia – declared their own state, claiming 65 per cent of the republic's territory.

In May 1992, the UN imposed economic sanctions on Serbia and Montenegro and called for a ceasefire in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Most countries recognized Macedonia the following year, and Serbia and Montenegro declared a new Yugoslavian federation.

The war in Bosnia was characterized by a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," which was carried out mostly by the Serbs. By the time all sides agreed to end the fighting in 1995, more than 200,000 people had died and millions were left homeless. Countless others left the country to escape the fighting.

Talks in 1995 led to a peace accord between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. Milosevic became president of what was left of Yugoslavia in 1997.

But tensions increased again in Kosovo in 1997 and 1998 as ethnic Albanians chafed against Serbian rule. After negotiations between Albanian separatists and the Serbs broke down, NATO began bombing military targets throughout Yugoslavia in an attempt to halt attacks on ethnic Albanians. Thousands of Albanians were deported from Kosovo by the Yugoslavian army, controlled by the Serbs under Milosevic.

In June 1998, Milosevic withdrew Yugoslavian troops from Kosovo, and NATO peacekeepers entered the region. Meanwhile, Montenegro began moving toward increased autonomy.

Milosevic on trial

In the September 2000 elections, Milosevic was defeated by Vojislav Kostunica. Kostunica�s new administration later turned Milosevic over to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, where he was put on trial.

In March 2002, Serbia and Montenegro agreed to establish a restructured federal union, but four years later, Montenegrins voted in a referendum to leave the union, and in June 2006, the two became independent republics.

On March 11, 2006, as his four-year trial came to a close, Milosevic was found dead in his prison cell in The Hague. His supporters insisted he was a victim of foul play and was poisoned. Chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte suggested that Milosevic might have committed suicide to avoid a guilty verdict.

Two years later, one of Milosevic�s most-wanted henchmen, Radovan Karadzic, was arrested and put on trial before the ICTY for war crimes relating to the 1995 Srebrenica massacre and other atrocities committed during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Kosovo independence

In February 2008, Kosovo unilaterally declared independence and was soon formally recognized by the U.S. and several EU countries. Serbia refused to recognize the secession and contested it before the International Court of Justice, which in July 2010 ruled that Kosovo�s declaration did not violate international law. The decision is not binding but might push more countries to establish diplomatic relations with Kosovo. About 75 out of 192 UN member states and 22 out of 27 EU countries have recognized Kosovo�s independence, and the issue remains an obstacle to Serbia�s hopes of EU membership.

On May 26, 2011, notorious Bosnian Serb leader Ratko Mladic, a former commander of Serbian forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina and architect of the Srebrenica massacre who had evaded capture since his indictment in 1995, was caught by Serbian authorities. They agreed to extradite him to The Hague, where he will face war crimes charges before the ICTY.

After Mladic�s arrest, Goran Hadzic is the only other Yugoslav leader indicted by the ICTY who remains at large. Hadzic was a Serb leader in Croatia during the Balkan wars who was part of a group that unilaterally declared parts of Croatia to be autonomous Serb regions and set up a parallel government in the early 1990s. He is accused of ordering, committing and abetting atrocities against Croats and other non-Serbs in these areas.


MAIN PAGE Timeline: 1999-present Timeline: 1389-1999 Timeline: Slobodan Milosevic Map
IN FOCUS: Kosovo Podujevo massacre Srebrenica massacre CBC Radio doc on Srebrenica Besieged Sarajevo Bosnia-Herzegovina elections

Don Murray: A success story

War crimes: Bosnia

May 22, 2006
Montenegro chooses independence in narrow vote

May 3, 2006
EU suspends trade talks with Serbia

April 30, 2006
Serbia misses deadline to hand over alleged war criminal

March 18, 2006
Milosevic buried in quiet ceremony in his hometown

March 14, 2006
Tribunal formally closes case against Milosevic

March 11, 2006
Milosevic dies in jail, leaving war crimes trial unfinished

Nov. 22, 2004
Milosevic war crimes trial hears from former Russian minister

March 17, 2004
Ethnic clashes kill 22 in Kosovo

May 11, 2003
Montenegro votes for looser ties with Serbia

March 12, 2003
Serbian prime minister assassinated

Feb. 12, 2002
Milosevic's history-making trial opens in The Hague

April 1, 2001
Milosevic arrested, jailed, sedated

Oct. 29, 2000
Moderate leader claims victory in Kosovo

Oct. 6, 2000
Chretien pledges aid to Yugoslavia

Sept. 29, 2000
Anti-Milosevic rallies spread in Yugoslavia

Sept. 24, 2000
Elections in Yugoslavia a 'complete mess'

April 30, 1999
Yugoslavia and NATO still far apart on proposals

March 26, 1999
NATO air strikes hammer Yugoslavia for third night

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Serbia and Montenegro

Statistical Office of Kosovo


UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo

Centre for Peace in the Balkans

UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

Srebrenica report: Report of the Secretary-General pursuant to General Assembly resolution 53/35 (1998)

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