Yugoslavia – History

February 2, 2024

Paul Kay

Depending on how old you are, you will likely remember Yugoslavia. It does not exist today, but the locals clearly remember it. You can’t visit Yugoslavia today, but you can visit the countries that were part of it at one time. Yugoslavia is a term that means “land of the South Slavs.”

Before it became Yugoslavia, the region that would later make up the country was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After World War I and the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was established in 1918, with the support of the Allied powers. This new state brought together many different ethnic groups and territories that had previously been part of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire. The new kingdom was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

King Peter Karadordevic I of Yugoslavia 

The first Yugoslavia was a monarchy ruled by the Karadordevic dynasty, but it was plagued by political instability and economic difficulties. It’s best known for the two “Peters.”

Peter I Karadordevic, was the King of Serbia from 1903 to 1918 and later the first King of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later known as Yugoslavia) from 1918 to 1921. 

King Peter Karadordevic II of Yugoslavia 

His son, Peter II Karadordevic, was the last King of Yugoslavia, reigning from 1934 to 1945. Crown Prince Alexander Karadordevic, is the current head of the Karadordevic dynasty, who is a prominent figure in Serbian politics and culture.

The rise of fascist movements in the 1930s led to increased tensions between the different ethnic groups in the country, and the kingdom eventually dissolved at the beginning of World War II. The monarchy was abolished in 1945 and the country was renamed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1946.

When Yugoslavia was dissolved in the early 1990s, it broke off into the following countries that we recognize today:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Croatia
  • Macedonia
  • Montenegro
  • Serbia
  • Slovenia
  • Kosovo 

Kosovo is a bit different than the other countries. The United States and most members of the European Union (EU) recognize Kosovo’s declaration of independence from Serbia in 2008. However, Serbia, Russia, and a significant number of other countries—including several EU members—did not. 

Kosovo has been inhabited for thousands of years and has been part of various kingdoms and empires throughout history, including the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman empires. The region’s population is mainly Albanian, with significant minority populations of Serbs, Montenegrins, Bosniaks, and Roma.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Kosovo was an autonomous province within the Kingdom of Serbia, and later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. After World War II and the establishment of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, Kosovo was granted the status of an autonomous province within the Socialist Republic of Serbia.

In the 1980s, tensions began to rise between the Albanian majority and the Serbian minority in Kosovo, as the Albanian population began to demand greater autonomy and rights. This led to a period of civil unrest and violence in the 1990s, and in 1999, NATO intervened in the Kosovo War, which resulted in the withdrawal of Yugoslav forces and the establishment of UN administration in the province.

In 2008, Kosovo declared independence from Serbia, but it is not recognized as independent by Serbia and some other countries. Despite this, it has been recognized by over 100 countries and it is a member of some international organizations.

Today, Kosovo continues to face challenges as it works to establish itself as an independent and stable state, including ongoing tensions with Serbia, issues related to the status of its ethnic minorities, and the need to address poverty and unemployment.

I am not a politician or a history major, but I was interested in what happened to Yugoslavia. I was particularly interested since we planned to visit Slovenia and many other of these countries.

From my research, Yugoslavia broke up for many reasons and the reasons will differ from the three major sides of the division including: Serbians, Muslim and Croats. Yugoslavia came into existence after World War I in 1918. As I’ve learned in history, many countries’ boundaries were created as a result of war. Yugoslavia was formed from territories of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire with the Kingdom of Serbia and constituted the first union of the South Slavic people as a country.

As I said earlier, Peter I of Serbia was its first sovereign of Yugoslavia and the official name was changed to Kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1929. After World War II, the monarchy was abolished, and Yugoslavia was renamed the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia when a communist government was established. 

Josip Broz Tito of Yugoslavia

As a result of the war, it now included small territories from Italy. Josip Broz Tito ruled the country as president until his death in 1980. 

Yugoslavia had six republics which included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia, Serbia and Slovenia. Within Serbia, it designated two provinces called Kosovo and Vojvodina. After Tito’s death, the republic split apart, and ethnic wars began. The wars were mainly focused in Bosnia and Herzegovina along with parts of Croatia and Kosovo.

Slobodan Milosevic Yugoslavia

Ethnic tensions between Albanians and Kosovo Serbs remained high over decades of struggles. In 1987, Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia. He centralized control over Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro which made the Serbs happy. However, the western republics of Slovenia and Croatia wanted more democracy and less socialist/communist rule.

During 1990, the socialists (former communists) lost power to ethnic separatist parties in the first multi-party elections held across the country, except in Serbia and Montenegro, where Milosevic and his allies won. Nationalist rhetoric on all sides became increasingly heated. 

The Yugoslav Wars began, first in Croatia and then, most severely, in multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina. The wars left long-term economic and political damage in the region, which are still felt there decades later.

Slobodan Milosevic served as the President of Serbia from 1989 to 1997 and as the President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from 1997 to 2000. He was also the leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia from its foundation in 1990. After the Yugoslav Wars, Milosevic was arrested in 2001 and was subsequently put on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on charges of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. He died in his prison cell in 2006 while his trial was still ongoing.

All of the former republics are attempting to become stable again after the war. There were no winners in the war, only losers. Religion was a part of the war but so was control. NATO was involved in the conflict and there were plenty of wartime atrocities.

The history of the people goes back to Roman times and war was common. When ethnicity was more important than maintaining and improving economic stability, war was inevitable. The political leaders didn’t allow any healthy political debate. Instead, a horrible war turned into a near holocaust.

A united Yugoslavia is no more, and the various nations are enjoying a time of independence and pride in their nation. Not all of the former Yugoslavia is part of the EU, but a roadmap is there for the taking. In the future, they may all be united again in an economic union.

When we visited Serbia, it was interesting to listen to the locals about Tito and Milosevic. Some of the older people reminisced fondly of one or both of them. Most of the younger people thought they were happy they were no longer around.

I take no side in this conflict and wish that all people can enjoy peace and prosperity. As a tourist, I look forward to meeting people in their new country of identity and exploring and interacting with their culture.

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