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The Balkan Crisis: A brief history

The roots of the Balkan crisis of the 1990s, particularly those in the area identified as Bosnia-Hercegovina, are found in the history of what we call Yugoslavia beginning long before the birth of Christ, continuing into the Middle Ages and were exacerbated by developments before, during and after World War II. Here's an overview of the conflict:


Anthropologists agree that the first people that we know for sure settled in the Balkans area that at various times has been called Yugoslavia were Illyrians, an Indo-European collection of tribes.


The Romans conquered the area before the time of Christ, named it Illyricum and made it a province of its far-flung empire. Because of its crossroads location on the stage of Balkan trade and commerce, the rocky, hilly area has long been fought over, not because of its rich resources, but as a geo-political pawn.


After the empire fell, the area went through a continuous shifting of alliances and minor wars. Serbian settlement dates to the 7th century A.D. The increasingly powerful state of Hungary began to cast covetous glances at what we call Bosnia-Hercegovina during the 12th century, but before anything could be resolved in a definite way, the Turks invaded in 1386, introducing a new element in the already contentious ethnic mix, the Muslim faith, scholars tell us. It is worth noting at this time that very few real Turks settled in the area while it was part of the Turkish empire. Most of those who became Muslim, were local converts to the faith. As the people moved from the troubles that marked the Middle Ages toward the period identified as the Renaissance, the old problems were carried over in a new way: the local nobles in the 16th century decided to choose Islam over Roman Catholicism. Of course, many of their supporters followed suit. The group was motivated not only by a desire to save their holdings and their power, but also because they were Bogomils and as such still harbored strong feelings against anything Roman.


Austria-Hungary felt in 1910 that changes were necessary, but neither member of the coalition was willing to grant autonomy to the region or to allow the area to send delegates to its governing assembly or to the other's assembly. As a compromise, Bosnia-Hercegovina was granted a new constitution that bore a glaring defect that still haunts the area and Europe today. It shoved the voters into three separate electoral colleges, giving proportional representation to the three major religious groups -- the Orthodox Catholics, the Roman Catholics and the Muslims. This division, today, still provides rough edges as the citizens bump into each other trying to find ways to get along without conflict. Bosnia-Hercegovina is the most ethnically diverse of the area's republics, according to census figures. Consider that one-third of the country's residents are Muslim, one-third are Serbs and one-fifth are Croats. Most Serbs are Orthodox and most Croats are Roman Catholic. With those figures in mind, it is easy to see why the region has historically been ravaged by warfare.


Most European schoolchildren are familiar with the story of how the assassination of archduke Ferdinand and his consort, the Duchess of Hohenberg, on June 28, 1914 in Sarajevo launched World War I. The gunman, Gavrilo Princip was a Bosnian Serbian student who was an active member of the Mlada Bosna, group which had been formed among university and secondary school students to advance revolutionary ideas which, the group hoped, would lead to independence.


The German war machine in 1940 discovered it had a vulnerable southern flank and when Hitler was overcome by events and forced to send German troops into the Balkans, he found himself in a battle he could not win. The partisans, using their determination generated by pre-war moves toward independence and the geography of the area which took away any advantage of the better-trained and equipped German troops, managed successfully to harass the forces of the Third Reich to the point of distraction until the war could be successfully ended and a new country, Yugoslavia, established.


The disintegration of Yugoslavia as the Cold War was winding down, resulted from a breakdown of the nation-building of Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the wartime guerrilla leader who ruled Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980. Tito was dedicated to a global communist ideal that transcended individual ethnic nationalism. He also shrewdly recognized the threat to Yugoslavian unity posed by a strong Serbia, the largest of the country's republics. When piecing together post-World War II Yugoslavia, Tito deliberately divided Serbia into two non-contiguous provinces -- Vojvodina in the north and Kosovo in the south. The gerrymandering left one-third of the Serbian population outside their own province and an Albanian majority firmly in place.


The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe weakened the glue that had held together the diverse, mutually antagonistic ethnic groups of the former Soviet bloc. The Serbian desire for a reunified homeland manifested itself in a resurgent nationalistic movement. Serbian leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic, shaped the issues of alleged Albanian mistreatment of Serbs and a widespread sense of economic deprivation into concrete political goals. In 1989, violent Serbian demonstrations drove the constitutionally elected leaders of both Vojvodina and Kosovo out of office.


Meanwhile, Yugoslavia's government struggled unsuccessfully to cope with a plunging economy and the re-emergence of local nationalism. The 165-member Central Committee of the Yugoslav Communist Party held an emergency session in October 1988 but could not find a solution to the problem. Two months later, the entire Yugoslavian cabinet resigned. In January 1989, the Communist Party voted to give up its power monopoly. Yugoslavia's breakup began in May 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from the Serbian-dominated central government in Belgrade.


To keep Bosnia-Herzegovina from seceding, Serbia offered to redraw territorial boundaries. But the Muslim president of Bosnia rejected the Serbian offer because he felt it did not offer real power to the Muslims. He held a referendum on independence for Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnian Serbs boycotted the referendum, but 90 percent of those who did vote opted for Bosnian independence. On March 3, 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina was proclaimed an independent republic.


Bosnian Serbs rebelled, and an armed struggle broke out to determine which ethnic group would control the country. The Serbs justified their aggression by claiming that Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic wanted to turn Bosnia into a fundamentalist Islamic nation. (He is considered a religious moderate by Western diplomats.) Bosnia-Herzegovina was composed of 40 percent Muslims, 30 percent Serbs and 18 percent Croats. Although Bosnia's Muslims were in the majority with 2 million people, Bosnia's Serbian minority was better armed, receiving support from the neighboring Serbian army. Serbian militias, backed by the Serbian armed forces, took control of two-thirds of Bosnia. Afterward, the Bosnian Serbs launched a reign of terror against country's Muslim population.


Enforcing a policy of "ethnic cleansing," Bosnian Serbs set out to "purify" Bosnia by expelling Bosnian Muslims from the country. Bosnian Serb forces drove Muslims from their homes, subjecting them to mass rape, confinement in concentration camps and genocide. Although some atrocities also occurred in Croatian-held and Muslim-held areas, international alarm was aroused mainly by pictures of starving concentration camp inmates and civilian casualties in Sarajevo as its Muslim population was besieged by the Serbian army in March 1992. Serbian artillery daily bombarded city streets and marketplaces.


A NATO ultimatum brought about a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Serbian artillery in 1994. After a prolonged period of indecision, the world community took action to restore Bosnia's integrity. Peace negotiations held at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995 included presidents Milosevic, Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman of Croatia. The three agreed on a government structure for Bosnia -- a six-member council consisting of two Muslims, two Serbs and two Croats, headed by two co-chairmen to function as prime ministers. Government ministries would also be divided among Serbs, Croats and Muslims.

In March 1996, the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina was given back control of the suburbs surrounding Sarajevo. Under the peace treaty, the capital area was to be in the hands of the Muslim-dominated government. The United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal met the same month in The Hague, questioning Serbian soldiers about war crimes and issuing arrest warrants for Bosnian Serb officers. Serbians have refused to hand over officers charged with war crimes, instead regarding them as heroes.

The first national post-war elections were held in Bosnia in September 1996 under the supervision of NATO troops. Bosnia's multi-ethnic parliament met for the first time in January 1997 and appointed a cabinet.


A crisis of leadership has divided the Bosnian Serbs. The Serb half of Bosnia is now split in two -- with hard-liners who follow indicted war criminal and ex-president Radovan Karadzic on one side, and supporters of the Western-backed Biljana Plavsic on the other.

Karadzic had been president of Bosnian Serbia, but international pressure forced Karadzic to resign in 1996 because of his fugitive status as a war crimes suspect. Plavsic, his former protege, was voted president of the Bosnian Serb substate. Plavsic is, like Karadzic, a hard-line Serbian ultra-nationalist with a disdain for the concept of a multi-ethnic Bosnia and supported purges of other ethnic groups during the war. But in late 1995 she accused the Karadzic camp of corruption and trafficking in such items as gasoline imports and cigarettes.

The West supported Plavsic, seeing an opportunity to bring Karadzic to bay. Western leaders also believe her to be pragmatic, and feel there is a better chance for her to reach an accord with Bosnia's other half -- the Muslims and Croats. The hard-line Karadzic faction has been hostile to the West.

The power struggle typifies the region’s instability between and within ethnic groups. NATO forces maintain an uneasy peace at present, but their withdrawal is scheduled for June, 1998.

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