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The Yugoslav Wars were a series of military campaigns fought in the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. The wars were complex: they have been characterized by bitter ethnic conflicts among the peoples of the former Yugoslavia, mostly between Serbs (and to a lesser extent, Montenegrins) on the one side and Croats (and to a lesser degree, Slovenes) on the other; but also between Bosniaks and other factions within Bosnia. The wars ended in various stages, mostly resulting in full international recognition of new sovereign territories, but with massive economic disruption to the successor state.
Often described as Europe's deadliest conflicts since World War II, they have become infamous for the war crimes they involved, including mass ethnic cleansing. They were the first conflicts since World War II to be formally judged genocidal in character and many key individual participants were subsequently charged with war crimes. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established by the United Nations to prosecute these crimes.
Although tensions in Yugoslavia had been mounting since the early 1980s, it was 1990 that proved the decisive year in which war became more likely. In the midst of economic hardship, the country was facing rising nationalism amongst its various ethnic groups. At the last 14th Extraordinary Congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in January 1990, the Serbian-dominated assembly agreed to abolish the single-party system; however, Slobodan Milošević, the head of the Serbian Party branch (League of Communists of Serbia) used his influence to block and vote-down all other proposals from the Croatian and Slovene party delegates. This prompted the Croatian and Slovene delegations to walk out and thus the break-up of the party, a symbolic event representing the end of "brotherhood and unity".
According to International Center for Transitional Justice, the Yugoslav Wars resulted in deaths of 140,000 people. The Humanitarian Law Center writes that in the conflicts in former Yugoslav republics at least 130,000 people lost their lives.
SFR Yugoslav dissolution wars (1991-1995)
In the years leading up to the Yugoslav wars, relations among the republics of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia had been deteriorating. Slovenia and Croatia desired greater autonomy within a Yugoslav confederation, while Serbia sought to strengthen federal authority. As it became clearer that there was no solution agreeable to all parties, Slovenia and Croatia moved toward secession. By that time there was no effective authority at the federal level. Federal Presidency consisted of the representatives of all 6 republics and 2 provinces and JNA (Yugoslav People's Army). Communist leadership was divided along national lines. The final breakdown occurred at the 14th Congress of the Communist Party when Croat and Slovenian delegates left in protest because the pro-integration majority in the Congress rejected their proposed amendments.
The first of these conflicts, known as the Ten-Day War, was initiated by the secession of Slovenia from the federation on 25 June 1991. The federal government ordered the federal Yugoslav People's Army to secure border crossings in Slovenia. Slovenian police and Slovenian Territorial Defence blockaded barracks and roads, leading to standoffs and limited skirmishes around the republic. After several dozen deaths, the limited conflict was stopped through negotiation at Brioni on 9 July 1991, when Slovenia and Croatia agreed to a three-month moratorium on secession. The Federal army completely withdrew from Slovenia by 26 October 1991.
Croatian War of Independence
The second in this series of conflicts, the Croatian War of Independence, began when Serbs in Croatia who were opposed to Croatian independence announced their secession from Croatia. Fighting in this region had actually begun weeks prior to the Ten-Day War in Slovenia. The move was triggered by a provision in the new Croatian Constitution that replaced the explicit reference to Serbs in Croatia as a "constituent nation" with a generic reference to all other nations, and was interpreted by Serbs as being reclassified as a "national minority". The Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) was ideologically unitarian, though at this stage predominantly staffed by Serbs in its officer corp, thus it also opposed Croatian independence, siding with the Croatian Serb rebels. Since the JNA had disarmed the Territorial Units of the two northernmost republics, the fledgling Croatian state had to form its military from scratch and was further hindered by an arms embargo imposed by the U.N. on the whole of Yugoslavia. The Croatian Serb rebels were unaffected by said embargo as they had the support of and access to supplies of the JNA. The border regions faced direct attacks from forces within Serbia and Montenegro, and saw the shelling of UNESCO world heritage site Dubrovnik, where the international press was criticized for focusing on the city's architectural heritage, instead of reporting the destruction of Vukovar, a pivotal battle involving many civilian deaths.
In March 1991, the Karađorđevo agreement took place between Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević. The two presidents tried to reach an agreement on the disintegration process of Yugoslavia, but their main concern was Bosnia, or more precisely its partition.
Meanwhile, control over central Croatia was seized by Croatian Serb forces in conjunction with the JNA Corpus from Bosnia and Herzegovina, under the leadership of Ratko Mladic. These attacks were marked by the killings of captured soldiers and heavy civilian casualties (Ovcara; Škabrnja), and were the subject of war crimes indictments by the ICTY for elements of the Serb political and military leadership. In January 1992, the Vance-Owen peace plan proclaimed UN controlled (UNPA) zones for Serbs in territory claimed by the rebel Serbs as the Republic of Serbian Krajina and brought an end to major military operations, though sporadic artillery attacks on Croatian cities and occasional intrusions of Croatian forces into UNPA zones continued until 1995.
In 1992, the conflict engulfed Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was predominantly a territorial conflict between local Bosniaks and Croats backed by Zagreb on one side, and Serbs backed by the Yugoslav People's Army and Serbia on the other. The Yugoslav armed forces which had disintegrated into a largely Serb-dominated military force opposed the Bosniak-majority led government's agenda for independence and along with other armed nationalist Serb militant forces, attempted to prevent Bosnian citizens from voting in the 1992 referendum on independence to prevent Bosnia from legally being able to secede. This did not succeed in persuading people not to vote and instead the intimidating atmosphere combined with a Serb boycott of the vote resulted in a resounding 99% vote in support for independence. On June 19, 1992, the Croat-Bosniak war broke out. The Bosnia conflict, typified by the siege of Sarajevo and Srebrenica, was by far the bloodiest and most widely covered of the Yugoslav wars. Bosnia's Serb faction led by ultra-nationalist Radovan Karadzic promised independence for all Serb areas of Bosnia from the majority-Bosniak government of Bosnia. To link the disjointed parts of territories populated by Serbs and areas claimed by Serbs, Karadzic pursued an agenda of systematic ethnic cleansing primarily against Bosniaks through genocide and forced removal of Bosniak populations. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in the United States reported in 1995 that 90 percent of all the atrocities in the Yugoslav wars up to that point had been committed by Serb militants.
The fighting in Croatia ended in mid-1995, after the Croatian Army launched two rapid military operations, codenamed Operation Flash and Operation Storm, in which it managed to reclaim all of its territory except the UNPA Sector East bordering Serbia. Most of the Serbian population in these areas became refugees, and has been the subject of war crimes indictments by the ICTY for elements of the Croat military leadership. The remaining Sector East came under UN administration (UNTAES), and was reintegrated to Croatia in 1998.
Beginning in 1994, the United States and the Soviet Union would help to broker peace between the factions. However, peace talks stopped in 1995 when Slobodan Milošević declared the annexation of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia (Republika Srpska), and with evidence that a planned invasion of the UNTAES. Despite the fear being denounced by both the USA and the USSR, Croatia would soon follow suit by declaring the annexation of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. The United Nations declared the protection of the remaining portions of Bosnia, supported by the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the desire for peace between the two superpowers, the United States held a strong support for the Croats, while the Soviets held a strong support for the Serbs.
By 1996, the war would end with the Berlin Accords. Despite the growing support for Bosnia, the accords allowed Croatia and Serbia to keep their annexed regions, as the people of the region did not wish to return to Bosnian control. The accords also declared that the free elections must be held in both Croatia and Yugoslavia within a few years.