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Notes on the Balkans 1999


These few notes aim to provide some background to better understand who are the people who live in the Balkans and how they got themselves into the terrible mess they are in.




Historical notes

Ethnic Origin

When the Romans conquered the Balkan peninsula, it was inhabited by the Illyrians in the west, by the closely related Thracians in the south-east between the Danube and the Aegean sea and by the Dacians north of the Danube and east to the Black Sea. The Dacians, who were numerous, assimilated the Roman culture and became the ancestors of the Romanian people. When the Roman Empire was divided in 395, the Balkan territories west of the Drina River (today's Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina), stayed with the Western Roman Empire while those to the east (today's Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Bulgaria), went to the Eastern Roman Empire, later known as Byzantium. Pagan Visigoth, Hun and Lombard tribes moved into the area after the fall of Rome but these were absorbed in the 7th century by equally pagan Slavic tribes migrating south from their original territories north of the Carpathian mountains. Some of the Thracians were absorbed by Slavic tribes that became present day Serbs. Others, who had been conquered by Turkic tribes before the massive Slav migration,gave rise to today's Bulgarians and Macedonians. In the West, the Illyrians were also overrun by Slavic tribes. Most were absorbed into the ancestry of today's Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians, but some migrated south, resisted assimilation and became the ancestors of the Albanian people.

Excepting the Albanians (whose genetic origin is essentially Illyrian), it can thus be said that the Slovenes, the Croats, the Bosnians, the Serbs, the Montenegrins, and the Macedonians all share the same principal ethnic origin that goes back to the 7th century migration of the Southern Slavs. The name Yugoslavia meaning "Land of the Southern Slavs" refers to that basic fact.


The Serbs, the Montenegrins, the Bosnians and the Croats share the same language but the Serbs and Montenegrins write it with the Cyrillic alphabet and the Croats use Latin characters. It was called Serbo-Croatian until the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation but the Serbs now call it Serbian, the Croats call it Croatian and the Bosnians call it Bosnian. The Slovene and Macedonian languages are subtle variations of the Slavonic language that all original Southern Slavs spoke. They are closer to Serbo-Croat than Spanish is to French and only a little more different than American is to English.

Religious differentiation

In the 9th century, the Slavs under Byzantium's control (the ancestors of today's Serbs, Macedonians, Bulgarians and Russians) were converted to the Orthodox Church along with the Greek and the Romanians while the Slavs living west of the Drina (ancestors of today's Slovenes, Croats and Bosnians), accepted the Roman version of Christianity as did the Magyar tribes (Hungarians) and the Western Slavs further north (Slovaks & Poles), in the following century.

Turkish occupation and Islam

Toward the end of the 12th century the Serbian ruler Stefan Nemanja annexed Kosovo. In 1389 an invading Ottoman army inflicted heavy casualties on the Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo, leading to the conquest of Serbia by the Muslim Ottoman Empire in 1459 and of Albania and Bosnia soon after. Most of the Albanians and Bosnians left the Catholic religion to adopt Islam during the Ottoman occupation which lasted until 1912 but most Serbs held fast to their Orthodox religion until the Ottoman withdrawal in 1878. Those difficult four centuries left the Serbs with a collective persecution complex that was re-enforced by the ill treatment they were subjected to by the Nazis and Fascist Croat government during WW II. It is during this period that Serbs crossed the Drina to establish Orthodox communities in what is now Bosnia-Hercegovina.

Albania & Kosovo

In 1878 Albanians formed the League of Prizren to resist Ottoman rule but it was only in 1912 that anti-Ottoman resistance in Kosovo assumed a broad scale and succeeded in expelling the Ottomans. Kosovo was included in the newly independent state of Albania in 1912, but the following year the Great Powers (Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, Britain, Italy, and Russia) forced Albania to cede the region to Serbia.

"Ethnic cleansing"

The forced to displacement of vanquished civilian populations is not new in a history of mankind. It has often been practiced by barbarians taking over land for their own use. It has also been practiced by so-called civilized powers for the same purpose, for example the deportation by the British of the French speaking Acadian people from what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in Canada.

What is novel in this case is the term "ethnic cleansing" that was given to this odious practice as if the removed elements were contaminants whose elimination was justified by the "cleaner" state of the land after the purge. The term "ethnic cleansing" is an interesting example of how imaginative language can be used to manipulate opinion against minority rights.

War of religions

In fact, what we have witnessed in Bosnia should not be called "ethnic cleansing" because the Serbs, the Croats and the Bosnians all speak the same language and share the same ethnic origin. The three groups are of the same "race" and share the same genetic material. They are cousins who have adopted different religions. What made some of them candidates for elimination by their Slav cousins was their religion, not their ancestry. What happened in Bosnia should be called "religious cleansing". The atrocities committed by Serbs were condoned by the Orthodox religious authorities who did not criticize Miloševic before the summer of 1999 when they had to distance themselves for it had become obvious that he was a looser. Nor did the Pope speak up against the "religious cleansing" carried out by the Catholic Croats back in 1993...

Although Albanians are ethnically different from Serbs, it is seems that it is their Muslim faith rather than their language or their ancestry that marks them as candidates for elimination as it was in the case of the Muslim Bosnia's and the Catholic Croats. The argument that Serbia cannot be separated from sacred Orthodox churches and monasteries located in northern Kosovo brings to mind those that launched the medieval crusades to save the Holy Lands!

Finally, it is difficult to pretend that the recent Balkan civil wars were not based on religious prejudice when you take into account the alliances backing the warring parties. The Croats and Bosnians are ethnically related to the Russians just as closely as the Serbs are but it is the interest of Orthodox Serbs that Orthodox Russia chooses to defend against their Croat and Bosnian cousins. Similarly, the Greeks are not related to the Serbs and in fact have been their enemies more often than not but they are Orthodox and they did refuse to cooperate with NATO even if they are a member of that organization. Also consider the speed with which the partly Catholic European Community recognized Catholic Slovenia and Croatia, and the generosity of Iran providing the Muslim Bosnians the arms they needed to survive!

"Ethnic strife" bah!, these are wars of religious intolerance, just like the one in Northern Ireland!





Slobodan Miloševic

Slobodan Miloševic was born in Serbia of Montenegrin parents in 1941 and joined the Communist Party of Yugoslavia when he was 18 years old. He graduated from the University of Belgrade with a law degree in 1964 and began a career in business administration, eventually becoming head of the state-owned gas company and president of a major Belgrade bank.

Miloševic entered politics full-time in 1984 and took over as head of the local Communist party organization in Belgrade that year. Miloševic introduced a populist political style appealing directly to the Serb people over the heads of party officials. He gained political capital by being the champion of the Orthodox Serb minority in Kosovo against the 90% Muslim Albanian majority and became the leader of the communist party in 1987. In 1988 he replaced the party leadership in Kosovo and Vojvodina provinces with his own supporters, and in 1989 the Serbian assembly elected him to the republic's presidency.

In 1990 Miloševic pushed through changes to the Serbian constitution abolishing Kosovo's autonomy. Miloševic's centralist policies created a fear of Serb domination in the other republics and Serbia's continuing resistance to political and economic reform accelerated the breakup of the Yugoslav federation. In 1991, first Slovenia and Croatia and then Macedonia declared their independence. In 1992 the Muslims and Croats of Bosnia and Herzegovina also voted to secede.

In response, Miloševic ordered the Yugoslav Federal Army to assist Serb militias fighting to unite their portions of Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia to create a "Greater Serbia". After three years of full-scale civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina, however, Serb militias were unable to overwhelm the Muslim forces there, and in 1995 the Croatian army chased most of the Serbs out of their historic enclaves in Croatia. By this time Serbia's weak economy was suffering severely from trade sanctions that had been imposed on Yugoslavia by the United Nations in 1992. In order to lift the sanctions, Miloševic had to withdraw his active support of the Bosnian Serbs and to sign the Dayton peace agreement on their behalf in November 1995, thus ending the civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

As Serbia's president Miloševic continued to dominate the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia inaugurated in 1992 which consisted of only Serbia and Montenegro. He maintained his power by the repression of political opponents and the control of the mass media. When Serbia's constitution prevented him from seeking a third term as president of Serbia, he got himself elected president of Yugoslavia in June 1997.

In February 1998 Miloševic ordered Yugoslav military forces into Kosovo to join Serbian police in suppressing growing unrest among the region's Albanian population. The repression was brutal, torture and rape were commonplace and hundreds were killed while thousands had to flee to Albania and Macedonia. Despite international criticism, Miloševic refused to withdraw his troops until NATO's air strikes forced him to do so in June 1999.


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