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Historical Perspective: Yugoslavia, a Legacy of Ethnic Hatred

By Jason Fields, Associated Press Writer

(EDITOR'S NOTE: When a major story breaks, the events leading to it are sometimes lost in the headlines. "Flashpoint" was created to give context to these often complex stories. )

The horrors of the concentration camps didn't create it. Over 30 years of violent repression under socialist dictator Josip Broz Tito couldn't wipe it out. Exhaustion from war and fear of international force have barely kept a lid on it.

What has consumed the Balkans over the course of generations is the hatred of Serbs for Croats. Croats for Slovenes. Slovenes for Montenegrins. Montenegrins for Muslims. Muslims for Macedonians. Macedonians for Albanians.

All these ethnic groups (who look identical to the outside observer) share one thing in common: the Balkan peninsula. Finding anything else in common is a challenge. All of them are Slavs, except the Albanians. All them speak dialects of Serbo-Croatian except the Albanians, Macedonians, and Slovenes. They are all Christian, except the Albanians and a group of Muslims (mainly in Bosnia-Herzegovina) who may be descended from either the Serbs or the Croats, or both.

Where did these groups come from?

The Slavic tribes arrived in the area in the 7th Century as part of a massive migration which led to the settlement of not only the Balkans but much of Eastern Europe. Around the same time, most of the tribes converted to Christianity.

The Albanians are descended from people who lived in the Balkans for more than 2,000 years. The current Albanians speak a language which originated in those times.

In the centuries following the Slavic tribes arrival, the groups formalized into nations which fought wars and traded with each other. The Great Schism between the Roman and Byzantine churches in 1054 further divided the inhabitants of the Balkans. The Western-leaning Slovenes and Croats became Catholics, while the Serbs, Bosnians, Macedonians and Montenegrins joined the Orthodox Church.

Croatia was conquered by Hungary in 1102 (which later became the Austro-Hungarian Empire), while Serbia remained independent until 1389, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the battle of Kosovo Polje. Even though the Serbs lost, the battle itself has become a central pillar of Serb ethnic consciousness, symbolizing defiance and independence in the face of even an unbeatable foe.

Foreign domination of the region lasted four hundred years. During that time, the Slavic groups worked hard to maintain their identity. The Turks outlawed the practice of Christianity and made a strong push to convert those under their control to Islam. Many of the converts congregated in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There is a question as to whether the group now known as Bosnian Muslims were originally Serb or Croat. Both sides claim this group as kinsmen.

As the Ottoman Empire began to disintegrate, the Congress of Berlin divided up Turk holdings in the Balkans. Bosnia was awarded to the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1878. At the same time, both Serbia and Montenegro were recognized internationally as independent nations.

Serb nationalism took the center of the world stage in 1914 when Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The assassin wanted Bosnia to be given to Serbia. Ferdinand's death was used as a pretext for starting World War I.

Following the war, the Serbs annexed Bosnia and then joined with Croatia and Slovenia to form one nation under the Serb king and called the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. It was shortened to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia (South Slavs) in 1929, but discord was already on the rise. Croatian nationalists assassinated King Alexander in 1934.

The Nazis supported a fascist Croatian regime during World War II, which was known worldwide for it's brutality. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were killed under the Nazi sponsored government.

Following the war a strong Communist government, under Josip Broz Tito, stamped out nationalism in the Balkans and created Yugoslavia, joining together Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Tito's government broke with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in 1948 and became a staunch ally of the West. The West in return helped finance a socialist Yugoslav state. Tito's ruthlessness kept nationalism at bay, but couldn't stamp it out.

After the dictator's death in 1980, the country began to dissolve. The first free elections held in Yugoslavia in 1990 brought nationalists to power across the nation. Slovenia and Croatia declared independence in June 1991. Slovenia's break was largely peaceful, but a bloody ground war in Croatia lasted six months and killed 10,000.

Macedonia voted for independence in 1991 and NATO peacekeepers were sent to the region to prevent bloodshed.

The Muslim leadership of Bosnia declared independence in 1992, but Serbs and Croats living in the region fought to remain allied with their respective nations. A bloody three year, three-way war left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was accused of supplying the Serb side with war material and moral support. Years of sanctions on Serbia helped to change Milosevic's position. He became a peace broker during a conference held in Dayton, Ohio in 1995. Following the conference a fragile peace was established under U.S. auspices, but it is unclear whether it will lead to a more lasting settlement.

The rump Yugoslavia, comprised of Serbia and tiny Montenegro face further problems from Albanian minorities, who speak their own language and are Muslim in the predominantly Christian countries.



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