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After the Cold War and the death of Tito,

Yugoslavia breaks-up in 1991. This leads to the
creation of seven independent States nowadays.
Some of the countries (Slovenia and Croatia)
quickly consolidated its resources and managed
to integrate in the European Union, while others
still struggle to build a democratic state
(Kosovo). The aims of this study were to
critically analyze the causes of the break-up and
identify their role in the equation. Subsequent to
this, the linkage between causes was examined.
There are seven major groups of arguments
explaining the collapse of the Federation, and the
interrelation between them was identified, for
example, the nationalistic reason has evolved
from ethnical and cultural arguments, and was
strongly motivated by political will and
UNDERSTANDING THE economic injustice.
Carolina Dodon
BALKAN BREAKUP Conflict Resolution and Democracy

The former Yugoslavia was a federation of six Socialist Republics: Bosnia and Herzegovina,

Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Each of this Republics had its own

characteristics related to the economic, social, religious and ethnic environment, but all of them

believed in the same idea of having a strong federation of The South Slavs. Even though Yugoslavia

had a very strong ideology supported by good aims, it breaks-up in 1991 and leads to several wars.

Dejan Jovic, lecturer in politics at the University of Stirling in Scotland, treats the topic under

seven causes: economic, ancient ethnic hatred, nationalism, cultural, international, the role of

personality and the fall of empires (101). Much uncertainty still exists about the relationship between

the causes, to what extent and which of them were direct causes and which were indirect?

It has commonly been assumed by scholars like Niko Tos and Vesna Bojicic that the economic

crisis that covered Yugoslavia in the beginning of 80s led to an intense gap between more developed

regions on one side (Slovenia and Croatia) and the less developed ones (Kosovo) on another. Due to

this Slovenia and Croatia were the first ones to call for independence. Later, this became a motivation

also for Bosnia and Herzegovina. The key problem with this explanation is that Yugoslavia

disintegrated at the moment when it was showing some hope related to the economy, thanks to Ante

Markovics economic reforms, that eliminated the inflation, moreover the personal income increased.

The numbers show that there was a gradual decrease in inflation:

The inflation rate, which for the month of December had climbed to 56%, had by the

end of January fallen to 17.3%; by February it was down to 8.4%, by March to 2.4% and for

April it registered only 0.2% industrial productivity has also increased and foreign loans

have been secured to aid the restructuring of the economy (Plestina 166).

Woodward holds the view that the economic crisis triggered constitutional conflict, which

resulted in the crisis of the state itself, but this would not have necessarily resulted in the break-up

(28-29). Most probably, these small developments in the economy were not enough to keep

Yugoslavia together.

The cultural, nationalistic and ancient ethnic hatred arguments are inter-connected and it

would be impossible to motivate one without another. The cause of the nationalism is directly

connected with history and culture, as there are a number of important differences between Serbs,

Croats, and Bosnians. First of all, Serbs are Orthodox, Croats are Catholics and Bosnians are Muslim,

due to what empire held power other their territories. Additionally, Serbs were not concentrated just

in the Socialist Republic of Serbia, but also on other Republics: 30% of Bosnias population and 10%

of Croatians (Anderson 11-12). This is the reason why Milosevic, the former president of Yugoslavia,

who is ethnically Serb, manipulated with the nationalism of the Serbs and promoted a Greater-Serbia

idea. Laura Silber, Balkans correspondent defined Milosevics action as destruction through a

venomous campaign of nationalist aggression (38). Moreover, 20% of Bosnias population were

Croats (Anderson 12), after Croatia got its independence in 1992, the president Tudjman played the

same game as Milosevic with the scope to divide Bosnia. Misha Glenny, a British journalist argued

that the central factor in the Yugoslav break-up was the relationship between the two biggest ethnic

groups, the Serbs, and the Croats:

The essential problem of a Yugoslav state lies in the numerical and political dominance

of Serbs over Croats; the essential problem of a Croatian state lies in the numerical and

political dominance of Croats over Serbs (100).

Still, Yugoslavia managed to exist peacefully for 46 years (1945-1991) despite the ethnic,

cultural and nationalistic differences. A possible explanation is the role of the personality, more

specifically Titos role. Tito was the first president of Yugoslavia, he managed to balance all the

disputes within the federation due to his charismatic figure on one hand, but more important as he was

above the law. In 1974, Constitution declared Tito as a president without limitation. He was no longer

just the supreme politician, but the state itself (Tepavac 64). This made Tito an objective arbiter who

succeed to mediate the conflicts within the country. Yugoslavia was seen as a multi-ethnic empire

during his ruling, where Tito didnt associate himself with any ethnic. (Hobsbawm 92). After Titos

death in 1980, disputes arise and there was no central leader, with strong recognition from each citizen

to solve the conflicts.

Another cause could be attributed to international powers. After Cold War, Yugoslavia loses

its strategical position between West and East, and with this, it loses the support from the external

actors. David Owen, former British foreign secretary who was sent as a mediator to already divided

Yugoslavia in 1992, claims that the European Union took actions to prevent the conflict in Yugoslavia

too late, EUs ignorant attitude together with the wrong perception of the conflict led to the break-up

of the federation. (48)

The topicality of the study is determined by the fact that there is not a consolidated opinion

regarding the cause of the break-up of Yugoslavia, all the causes listed above try to complete, rather

than exclude each other, to offer an objective overview on the break-up of Yugoslavia. For a deeper

understanding of the whole picture, one has to take into consideration not just one, or several, but all

of them as interdependent causes, as taking them separately will lead to neglection of important

aspects and to confusion.

The main aim of this study is to investigate and compare different causes of the disintegration

of Yugoslavia, while the specific objectives of this study are to review the existent theories, to

determine their role, to show how they are interdependent and to offer an alternative in their


The research strategy is qualitative, designed descriptive, to underline the different factors

referred to the Break-up. The research methods are literature review, qualitative analysis of the

mass-media articles and reportage covering the conflict and the exploration of alternative.

The scientific value of this paper is to fill the gap that shall describe the interconnection of

the causes in question. As understanding the links between causes will lead to a clear and

comprehensive picture of the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The practical value is determined by the

complexity of the conflict and it can be used as a case-study for other conflict regions with similar


This paper is composed of the following sections:

Abstract to offer a short overview of the paper;

Introduction, which provides background information about the material, its topicality,

defining the aim and objectives and explaining the methods used, additionally, it shows how

it was structured;

Main body gives background information about each cause separately, argued by different


Conclusion is explaining the interdependence of the causes and lists the outcomes of the


Work Cited list.


The Economic Element

The Economic Cause was widely debated by scholars, rather it triggered the crisis in

Yugoslavia or it was a direct cause. It is assumed that the economic crisis from the1970s and early

1980 developed a gap between north and south of Yugoslavia. The north felt slowed down by the poor

south, while the south complained that the developed north is not offering them enough assistance.

Republics such as Slovenia and Croatia claimed for independence for reasons of their further

development and they opposed attempts to limit their economic autonomy provided by the

constitutional compromise in 1974. In 1987, Slovenia claims that it has more chances of economic

prosperity outside of Yugoslavia, rather inside. (Tos).

Woodward argues that the economic crisis triggered constitutional conflict, which resulted in

the crisis of the state itself. Yet, it would not be enough reasoning for the disintegration of the country.

Paradoxically to the arguments based on the economical decrease, Yugoslavia, in fact, collapsed at

the moment when new market-oriented prime minister Ante Markovics economic reforms were

offering their first positive results, additionally, he eliminated the inflation and increased the personal

income of the citizens of all 6 republics. This were signs of hope for the future of Yugoslavia, yet

what seemed to be hopeful like a new beginning was but a very brief lull before the proverbial storm


Also, as a proof that economic crisis wasnt the reason for the collapse of the federation is the

attitude of the main leaders of the Yugoslav republics (Milan Kucan - Slovenia; Franjo Tudjman -

Croatia, and Slobodan Milosevic - Serbia) in the last stage of the negotiation regarding the future of

Yugoslavia with EC. All of them refused political compromise in return for substantial economic

support from EC, that led to the economic failure for all post-Yugoslav states, with a small exception

for Slovenia and Croatia.

Hobsbawn calls the economic crisis as a purely negative event rather than a cause of the

break-up. Despite the economic stagnation, still, Yugoslavia was the most developed from all East

European societies.

It is clear that the economic element played a role in the break-up equation, however, leaving

out the human agent, especially of the political actors it cannot fully explain the political phenomena.

The International Role

It can be easily argued that international actors played an important role both, at the rise and

the fall of Yugoslavia. A significant help was offered to Yugoslavia when it was created, both in 1918

and 1945, but also after to keep its existence. This was due to the strategic position that the Federation

had. Unfortunately, after the Cold War, it lost this ace. The fall of the Berlin War disadvantaged

Yugoslavia. Following this, it was difficult to attract international attention, both on economic and

political issues. Woodward calls this actions the insensitivity of the West. She claims that

Yugoslavia collapsed because of the disintegration of the international order, by which Yugoslavia

was strongly influenced.

The former Yugoslav defense secretary, General Kadijevic, argues that due to the collapse of

Soviet Union, Yugoslavia become vulnerable and this led to west-oriented republics to demand

independence (in case of Slovenia and Croatia).

On another side, we can blame the international actors for not reacting fast enough to the

conflicts within Yugoslavia. On one hand, EC/US wasnt aware of the complexity of the crisis within

the federation (even though CIA warned US in November 1990 that Yugoslavia would violently fall

apart within 18 months, although the crisis point was seen as Kosovo, not Croatia or Bosnia) (Cohen),

on other hand it had another priority at that time (Gulf War).

Also, EC didnt have the instruments/institutions that would deal with the crisis. When finally,

EC sends a mediation mission to offer aid if political compromises are achieved, Slovenia and Croatia

were too close to secession, and it was too late for negotiations. Also, it was difficult to understand

the ECs will, on one hand Germany and Austria supported Slovenia and Croatia and lobbied their

independence in the EC, on another hand the UK and France tries to keep Yugoslavia together. The

contrary opinions within EC werent very helpful to Yugoslavia. When ECs peacekeeping efforts

were unsuccessful, the EC began to hand over its tasks to the UN in the last months of 1991.


Indeed, EC and US reacted too late in the crisis, but it cannot be seen as a primary cause of the

break-up, as Yugoslavia wasnt fully depended on this external powers, moreover it was promoting a

self-management policy and it was relying on internal resources.

The Nationalism Argument

After the fall of Communism, nationalism was stronger than liberalism, Djilas claims. Being

stronger it constituted the main alternative. Also, it is important to underline that the nationalism from

1980s was mostly created by intellectual elites, rather than an authentic feeling. Why it was possible

to awake such strong nationalistic feelings? There are a lot of differences among republics: historical,

economic and cultural. And with a constant ideological narrative it isnt very difficult to accommodate

it in peoples everyday life and thoughts.

Also, the nationalism become stronger due to the 1974 Constitution that promoted anti-statist

ideology (self-management as an alternative to the state). By treating Yugoslav constitutive nations

as completed (as Kardelj formulated it in 1970), and their republics as sovereign states (as formulated

in the 1974 constitution), the ideological narrative of Yugoslav communism in practice shielded and

promoted nationalism in its constitutive nations. As Goati argues the seeds of Yugoslav collapse are

within the political elite. By promoting a non-ethnic base for Yugoslav unity, the elite made

nationalism the main rhetorical antipode to the dominant ideology of the regime. Additionally, by

declaring everyone who is against the system a nationalist, they promoted nationalism is the main

alternative, most genuine opposition of the regime. Excluding it from public sphere led to the inclusion

of it underground sphere.

After communism, the nationalistic groups wanted to establish the state that was missing, not

persevering one that already exists. For Poland or Hungary, the 1989 revolution meant establishing of

their own independent state without Soviet patronage. While these nations saw Soviet Union as the

main obstacle in creating their state, Croats, Slovenians, Albanians saw Belgrade as the main obstacle.

The difference is that Hungary and Poland are rather a homogenous ethnically, and this wasnt the

case of Yugoslavias republics. With Serbs living on the territory of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, with

Croats living both in Croatia and Bosnia, and with Kosovo and Albanians in Serbia. After Yugoslav

independence from Moscow, there was no external actor to blame for the crisis and this weakened the

federation unity.

As there was a lack of a single Yugoslav cultural space and political institutes that would

represent every single citizen of Yugoslavia, the creation of the Yugoslav nation was very difficult, if

not impossible. The separate culture system resulted in creating 6 political nations and after their

independent states.

Countries democratization also didnt play favorable in keeping the federation united. With

the massive protest from Kosovo Serbs and Montenegrins (minority rights) as well as public demands

from Slovenia (who feared of becoming a minority in Yugoslavia), the Yugoslav elites should have

thought of new ways to keep the federation together. Although neither Milan Kucan nor Slobodan

Milosevic were originally ethnic nationalists, their political pragmatism and the context in which they

acted led them to act like someone who has jumped on to the tiger of nationalism and is

finding it difficult to get off again without the tiger eating him (Owen).
The (realistic) chance of Yugoslavia becoming a member of the European Union in the

foreseeable future, in which case national identities would have found themselves under two supra-

national lids (Yugoslav and European) additionally mobilized the sense of being endangered among

the ethnic nationalists. It was based on fears (primarily among the intellectual and political elites) that

the status of their ethnic groups would be decreased from one of completed constitutive nations (as

recognized by the 1974 constitution) to one of a minority in the new democratic structure of the

country (Horowitz). Consequently, the nation-states were seen as not only desirable, but as a necessary

protector against this trend.

The Cultural Explanation

The division between Eastern and Western Christianity and between Christianity and Islam

couldnt play an invisible role in the collapse of Yugoslavia. John Stuart Mill is his book Consideration

on Representative Government suggest that where there is not a common shared culture you build a

government on the national sentiment. Most probably, this was the case of Yugoslavia, as they tried

to create Yugoslav identity rather than ethnic/cultural one, but it wasnt strong enough to keep the

federation together. It is obvious that cultural, religious, linguistic, economic, historical diversities

motivate nations to build their own independent state, and within Yugoslavia these differences were

too big and significant to be ignored.

Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian president used the cultural argument in his narrative to justify

the break-up of Yugoslavia and also to legitimize the conflict between Croats and Bosnians in Bosnia-

Herzegovina. (Wachtel)

This aspect is very interesting to analyze, as arguments can be brought from early history of

any ethnic group and it brings very logical explanation to the break-up. But it is unclear why

Yugoslavia managed to exist in symbiosis of all this different cultures (Catholics, Orthodox, Muslims)

for 45 years and collapsed so suddenly and in short time. We definitely must give credits to peoples
beliefs and to the importance of self-identification through culture (even though usually these beliefs

are created by opinion-makers and ideologues and used to manipulate masses). Most probably there

were still hate between cultures that was planted long time ago, and was just covered by the shining

illusion of Yugoslavian unity.

The Role of Personality Controversy

Yugoslavia had 2 personalities that played an important role in its collapse. First is the Josip

Broz Tito and the second Slobodan Milosevic.

Tito, during his service was the only one who took decisions regarding the federation, he was

the one deciding in regards to foreign affairs, defense, security, etc. His strategy was to identify

himself with the state, not with an ethnical or nationalistic group, and this helped to solve any

cultural/ethnic disputes that could arise, and legitimized him before every citizen. With his politics,

he was keeping Yugoslavia together, even though the federation was decentralized following 1974

constitution. This is why, it is commonly assumed that with the death of Tito, Yugoslavia was also

sentenced to death.

On another hand, there was Slobodan Milosevic, who tried to follow the same path the Tito

did (at the beginning he was even seen as Tito), but affiliating himself to an ethnic group and

promoting a strong nationalistic rhetoric, he didnt manage. Hoping to rise the nationalism of the Serbs

located in other republics, rather than Serbia, wasnt seemed appropriately by other leaders. Most

probably, he didnt play the cards right with Slovenia and after Croatia, that lately, as snow-ball effect

led to more and more conflicts.

For sure, both of them influenced decisively Yugoslav politics and not only, but it is too narrow

to say that Yugoslavia was living in peace or broke-up due to one personality. All the decisions and

actions they were taking were also influenced by other factors and they were catalyzed by citizens or

elites wills. Both of them tried to find a compromise between their own views and those of others.

The role of personality is a strong one, but it isnt strong enough to explain the break-up fully.

The Fall of Empires Argument

Eric Hobsbawm drafted this argument, explaining that Yugoslavia developed as a multi-ethnic

empire (on the model of Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian Empire that had before its creation included

its main regions (Kedourie)), rather than to become a nation-state constructed by liberals. It can be

seen as a possible explanation for Titos period of the ruling, as he never identified with any ethnic

group. As a Communist, the ideology was more important for him, than the nationality, he became a

supra-national arbiter in inter-ethnic conflicts. Progressively, the ideological leaders were substituted

by representative leaders of republics, so there wasnt anymore the supra-national position at the top

of the empire. The 1974 constitution was the transition from an empire-like ideological structure to a

fragmented semi-confederalist, this was too large extent the beginning of the de-Titoization of

Yugoslavia, that de facto started 6 years after his death. Unlike Tito, Milosevic could not be seen as

an impartial arbiter, but more as a representative of one segment of the society (Serbs). In order to

become the new Tito, Milosevic had to change the constitution and destroy the existing political

system of semi-confederalism, and when he tried to do this, others decided to leave.

The fall of empires argument is very complex, as it links several other elements and theories

like weakness of nationalism, the role of personality, ideology, etc.), it is difficult to compare

Yugoslavia with real empires, where commonly there was a dominant nation and which used colonial

expansion in order to lower tensions inside the metropolis. Yugoslavia can be called metaphorically

an ideological empire, rather than a classical one.


Yugoslavia collapsed and in response there were created 5 independent states. As showed in

this paper there are many theories and arguments to explain what happened. It is very difficult to

declare which cause was the most important and relevant to the crisis, as they are all interconnected

and interdependent. Some of them played the role of triggers, some of catalyzers, some were direct,

while other indirect, some were genuine, and other more conspirator, some were internal and other


It is clear that in early 1990, Yugoslavia was in a very delicate and fragile situation, and

nationalistic emotions and actions of first, Milosevic and then by Slovenia's leaders and Croatia's

President Tudjman, were sufficient to trigger violence. Structures to handle the disputes were lacking

internally (Yugoslavia), as well as externally (EC). EC and other external actors missed the chances

to solve peaceful all the disputes, and there for sure was a real need for it.

Even though some causes of the collapse are logical and evident, one shall also take in

consideration the human factor, the subjectivity and sometime illogical actions that one can take.

Speaking here of everyone: elites, political powers, masses, but also every single citizen. It is very

difficult to neglect history, your ethnic provenience, religion and values. Where there was impossible

to create a new set of values, the Yugoslav ones to satisfy the needs of all groups, the collapse was


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