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Croats, Slovenes and Serbs, 1970-91

It has been written that it was not ethnic hatreds or religious differences that created the coming conflicts; it was the conflicts that inspired the hatreds and reminded people of their religious and ethnic differences. Conflicts arose over economic and political concerns. The Croatians and Slovenes were more economically developed, and they resented wealth they created being sent south to the poorer regions of Yugoslavia. Also there was resentment that the ruling Communist Party was dominated by Serbs, that the federal government was located in the Serb capital, Belgrade, and that Serbs dominated the military.

In 1980 Tito died, and that year Yugoslavia's foreign debt became a crisis. There state was mismanaging the economy. Debt had been mounting in the 1970s as Yugoslavia had borrowed from the West, expecting that with its economic growth it could pay off its creditors. Instead, in 1980 came inflation with prices that began increasing 60 percent every six months. With this hardship, disagreements and strikes for higher wages and lower prices erupted. More than before, Croats and Slovenes were blaming the Serbs for their troubles and complaining about Serb hegemony, and they began seeking more local power with which to defend their interests.

Those holding political power at the federal level and within the Communist Party had promised to uphold the Tito legacy, but they failed to hang on to Tito's popularity. Across Yugoslavia were those who had disliked socialism and Communist rule from the start – among them people from families who had owned small businesses and had lost those businesses to socialist planning. And however much the Communists represented justice and equality to some in Yugoslavia, economic failure, including the inability to buy things, increased the dislike for Communist rule.

Demands were rising across Yugoslavia to replace Communist Party control with a freely competitive multi-party system. Serbs feared a drift toward independence by the republics. Serbs were living in these various republics (like the Russians living in the Baltic states and Ukraine) and the Serbs feared that independence would challenge Serbian rights as citizens within those republics.

In 1986, a Serb from Montenegro, Slobadan Milosevic, became the head of Yugoslavia's Communist Party. The Party was splitting along ethnic lines. Milosevic played to Serb fears. In 1987 he purged the Party of rivals. Kosovo remained an issue with Milosevic, and in 1988 he told a rally of hundreds of thousands of Serbs that Serbia would win the battle for Kosovo despite enemies who were plotting against Serb rights there.

Milosevic believed that the Serbs in Kosovo were being mistreated. He abolished Kosovo's autonomy. Kosovo's population was 88 percent Albanian. The Albanian language and cultural institutions were suppressed. Albanians claimed Kosovo as Albanian from ancient times and themselves as descendants from the ancient Ilyrians, native to the region before the arrival of the Slavs. The Serbs saw Kosovo as the battle ground between Islam and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and they saw Serbs as the victims of Turkish aggression from the fifteenth century and as having been driven from Kosovo in large numbers periodically since then.

The years 1989 and 1990 were the years that communism collapsed in Hungary, Poland and Czechoslovakia, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. In Yugoslavia, Milosevic gave up his post as chairman of the Communist Party and became President of Serbia. The demand for multi-party elections increased, but Milosevic refused. The Slovenes, Croats and other ethnicities rebelled. In February. 1990, Milosevic sent troops, tanks, warplanes and 2,000 more police to Kosovo. By the end of February in Kosovo more than 20 people were killed and a curfew imposed, and Albanians in Kosovo were being thrown off their jobs.

In July, Albanian legislators in Kosovo declared Kosovo's independence. The Milosevic regime dissolved the Kosovo assembly. Strikes and protests by the Albanian majority continued. Milosevic's repression in Kosovo frightened the Slovenes and Croats. The Slovenes rewrote their constitution, walked away from positions in the federal government and from the Yugoslav Communist Party Congress of that year, and they declared themselves independent.

Elections in the six Yugoslav republics at the end of 1990 brought to power people favoring independence. In Serbia, Milosevic had widespread support among Serbs. The breakup of Yugoslavia was a fact, and the Yugoslav Communist Party, now almost exclusively Serbian, renamed itself the Socialist Party of Serbia.

Now that the Soviet Union no longer existed, the United States still favored unity and amity among the Yugoslavs, but not if it was at the cost of democracy. Nationalist leaders in Slovenia and Croatia interpreted the US lack of forthright opposition to independence as favorable to their cause, and they believed they had just as much right to self-rule as had the American colonists in 1776.

The presidency of Yugoslavia had been rotating among Yugoslavia's various ethnicities, and in 1991 it was scheduled to pass to a Slovene. Instead, Milosevic abolished Yugoslavia's collective presidency. Slovenians took up arms to struggle for independence.  In a ten-day war the Slovenes pushed the Serb army out of Slovenia.

The Krajina region of Croatia had a large Serb population. Serbs were twelve percent of the Croatia's population – about 600,000 in number. Serbs in Croatia saw hundreds of their fellow Serbs being purged from positions in local governments. The purged were largely Communist Party people, but Serbs nonetheless. The Serbs in Croatia saw the names of Croatian dukes and barons appear in public places, including the names of some who had served in Croatia's World War II government. Remembering the Croat massacre of Serbs during World War II, the Serbs of the Krajina region were fearful, and they believed that at best they would be without equal rights in an independent Croatia. If the Croats could declare themselves independent, the Serbs of Krajina reasoned, then they could declare themselves independent of Croatia. The Serbs in Krajina picked up their weapons, barricaded themselves against the Croatians and began cleansing their area of Croatians. Milosevic and the Serb army saw themselves as protecting the rights of Serbs in Croatia and gave their support to Serbian moves there. In the war between the Croats and Serbs, Serb forces, in the autumn of 1991, shelled the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, a favorite tourist attraction on the Adriatic coast. Cyrus Vance, former Secretary of State in the Carter administration, was appointed by the United Nations as a mediator, and in November 1991 he was sent to Croatia to negotiate a cease-fire.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.