Former Yugoslavia

A Valuable Lesson in Political and Cultural Geography

Before jumping into the history about the breakup of Yugoslavia into the modern countries that exist today, watch this video about the Balkans. It covers a couple of countries you just learned about in the previous section as well as some of the countries we will cover on this page. 😉

The BALKANS Explained (Geography Now!)

Now, let’s jump into some history to understand this region!

Breakup of Yugoslavia animation
Breakup of Yugoslavia animation

The name Yugoslavia, applied to the region along the Adriatic in 1929, means Land of the South Slavs. From 1918 to 1929, the region had been called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Non-Slavic populations surround Yugoslavia. The region’s core is mountainous. The Dinaric Alps, with the highest peak at just below nine thousand feet in elevation, run through the center of the Balkan Peninsula.

Dinaric Alps
Dinaric Alps

The rugged mountains separate and isolate groups of Slavic people who, over time, have formed separate identities and consider themselves different from those on the other sides of the mountain ridges.

A view of the Dinaric Alps

Distinct subethnic divisions developed into the Slovenes, Macedonians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Croats, and Serbs, with various additional groups. These differences led to conflict, division, and war when the breakup of the former Yugoslavia began.

Ethnic map of Yugoslavia based on a 1991 census
Ethnic map of Yugoslavia based on a 1991 census

World War I started in the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia when a Serb advocate assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In the next conflict, World War II, there was also divisiveness within Yugoslavia: Croatia sided with Nazi Germany, but Serbia was an ally with the Communist Soviet Union.

Simple History: What Caused the First World War?

The region of Bosnia, with a Muslim majority, faced religious opposition from its mainly Christian neighbors. A group headed by Marshal Tito (a.k.a. Josip Broz) led Yugoslavia after World War II ended in 1945. Tito created a Communist state that attempted to retain its own brand of neutrality between the Warsaw Pact nations led by the Soviet Union and the NATO nations of the West.

Tito was a centripetal force for the region of Yugoslavia. For over forty years, he held the many ethnic Slavic groups together under what he called Brotherhood and Unity, which was actually the threat of brute military force. It appears to have been effective. The 1984 Winter Olympics were held in Sarajevo as a witness to the progress and unity of Tito’s Yugoslavia. At the same time, Yugoslavia started manufacturing a model of automobiles called the Yugo.

The Yugo was vigorously marketed in the late 1980s as a car that would fit into everybody’s life, providing basic economical and reliable transportation along the lines of the Volkswagen Beetle and the earlier Ford Model T.  The Yugo carried the tagline “Everybody Needs A Yugo Sometime.”

While the Yugo was not in the same league as high-end European luxury cars, the ability to make and purchase automobiles was a testimony to the rising industrial level of the Yugoslav economy. This progressive trend, unfortunately, was not to last.

The Breakup of Former Yugoslavia

Former Yugoslavia









Year of Independence:








Tito died in 1980. The unity that had helped hold the country together began to break down in the early 1990s with the Soviet Union’s collapse. With the dual loss of the Soviet Union and Tito’s strong policies as centripetal forces, the power struggle for dominance among the various ethnic groups began.

In 1991, Slobodan Miloševik began pushing for the nationalistic goal of uniting all the ethnic Serbs that lived in the various parts of Yugoslavia into a Greater Serbia. The efforts were not approved or supported by the UN, which rejected Yugoslavia for membership in 1992. At that time, Kosovo and Montenegro were part of the Serb state. Miloševik first sent the Yugoslav military to Kosovo to take control from the majority Albanian population and secure the region for Greater Serbia. Fearing war, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991. Yugoslavia was breaking up.

Miloševik then moved into Croatia to secure Serb areas for his Greater Serbia. After a brief but bitter war between Serbia and Croatia, the UN stepped in to halt the conflict. The first signs of ethnic cleansing were reported during this conflict. Serb military units would roll into a town or village and claim it as a Serb-only location. The Croats and any other people living there were forced to leave. Reports of assaults on women and the systematic killing of men of fighting age were documented. Sadly, ethnic cleansing began to be reported on all sides of the war. The bitter hatred between Croats and Serbs, which had been handed down from the World War II era, surfaced for a new generation. After the UN stopped Miloševik in Croatia, he turned to the Serb areas of Bosnia to expand his Greater Serbia. Bosnia immediately declared independence and was approved by the UN in 1992.

The bitter battle for Bosnia extended from 1992 to 1995, and Europe wondered if the Bosnian war would develop into World War III.

The Siege of Sarajevo was the siege of the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

The region of Bosnia included people of Serb, Croat, and Bosnian ethnic backgrounds. Bosnia broke up along ethnic lines. The Serb group supported Greater Serbia; the Bosnian group wanted independence. In March 1994, the Croat group signed an agreement joining with the Bosnian group against the Serbs. In 1995, with strong pressure from Europe and the United States, the warring groups signed a peace agreement known as the Dayton Accord, named after a meeting in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Accord accepted Bosnia’s borders and supported the creation of a unity government that was democratic and included the multiethnic groups. The country of Bosnia was divided into three parts: Serb, Croat, and Bosnian.

Why Do Croatia & Serbia Hate Each Other?| International Breaking News

Military forces continue to monitor and secure the regions of Bosnia. Portions of Bosnia under Serb control have declared themselves the Republic of Srpska and have attempted to create their own nation-state. The remaining territory of Bosnia (51 percent) consists of a joint Bosnian/Croat federation. Both regions have sublevel governments within the formal country of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Herzegovina is a small region extending from the city of Mostar to the southern border with Montenegro. In June of 2006, the region of Montenegro declared itself independent of Serbia.

Rick Steves’ Europe: Montenegro: Country of Contrasts (3 min.)

Montenegro uses the euro as its currency and has applied for WTO membership. Montenegro has privatized its main industries and is soliciting a tourism industry.

The War for Kosovo

Yugoslavia, under the leadership of President Miloševik, sought to ensure that Kosovo would never leave the umbrella of Greater Serbia. The 1.8 million Albanian Muslims who lived in Kosovo constituted 90 percent of the population by 1989. They did not want to live under Serb control. Serbia claimed that Kosovo was the heart of the Serb Orthodox Church and the cradle of the medieval Serbian Empire. The historic battles against the Islamic Turkish Ottoman Empire in Kosovo have been memorialized in Serb tradition and history.

The main opposition to the Serb power structure in Kosovo in the early 1990s was the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA). Many in the KLA wanted an independent Kosovo and an alliance with Albania. In 1998, Miloševik sent troops into areas controlled by the KLA. The civil war in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanian Muslims was devastating the region and creating thousands of refugees. The tension, hatred, and massacres by both forces further complicated the peace process. In March of 1999, NATO implemented a unified mission, called Operation Allied Force, to force Miloševik to discontinue the ethnic cleansing campaign and end the violence in Kosovo.

In June of 1999, Miloševik yielded to a peace agreement that brought Kosovo under the auspices of the UN and NATO forces, removed the Serb military, and allowed for the safe return of over eight hundred thousand refugees from Albania, Montenegro, and Macedonia. Miloševik lost his bid for the presidency in the elections of 2000, was arrested for crimes against humanity in 2001, and was transferred to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands. The charges brought against him included ethnic cleansing and torture. He died in 2006 while in custody before the trial ended.

NATO forces were stationed in Kosovo to keep the peace and work toward restoring order. After much negotiation between the UN and regional entities, the Kosovo Assembly declared its independence from Serbia in 2008. Serb officials overwhelmingly opposed Kosovo’s independence, as they had in 1991.

TRT World: The entire history of Kosovo explained
Warning: A bloody hand is shown and there are dead bodies and skulls.

Conclusion of Former Yugoslavia

Kosovo and the independent republics of former Yugoslavia provide an excellent study in the dynamics of ethnicity, culture, and political geography. The lessons learned from this region could be applied to many other areas of the world suffering similar conflicts, such as Chechnya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Congo/Zaire, or East Timor. Former Yugoslavia represents an example of how divisive centrifugal and devolutionary forces can lead to nationalism and eventually to war.

Centrifugal and centripetal forces in geography
Centrifugal and centripetal forces in geography

The drive toward a nation-state has fueled nationalism and conflict in the Balkans. The civil wars within former Yugoslavia have cost thousands of lives and destroyed an infrastructure that had taken decades to build. Geographers have called Eastern Europe a shatterbelt because of the conflicts and divisions that have occurred there.

In spite of the problems with the transition in Eastern Europe, the region has nonetheless seen enormous economic gains. Even Slovenia, once part of former Yugoslavia, has rebounded with strong economic growth. Many of the progressive Eastern European countries have been accepted into the EU. The map of the EU includes many of the developing Eastern bloc countries. Eastern Europe has experienced many transitions throughout its history. The transition from communism to capitalism is only one part of the geography and history of Eastern Europe.

Let’s recap all of the above with a video to help with retention:

WonderWhy: The Breakup of Yugoslavia

Here are a few short videos that show these areas in modern times and give you a feel for their geography and culture. Some longer videos are linked in the Guest Hollow Geography & Cultures Curriculum schedule!


Rick Steves’ Europe: Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina: Rebuilt and Healing (6 min.)


Rick Steves’ Europe: Dubrovnik, Croatia: Pearl of the Adriatic (5 min.)

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working.

Next: Chapter 7: Russia

Additional information and image credits:

Yugoslavia breakup animated gif
By Hoshie – Made by Hoshie; see above for more details on sources., CC BY-SA 3.0,
Topo map
By Future Perfect at Sunrise – Own work, Public Domain,
Former Yugoslavia map
CC BY 2.5,
Dinaric Alps map
By FelixReimann – self-made with GMT using mainly SRTM30-Data. Missing data was completed using the GLOBE dataset.Edited with Inkscape., CC BY-SA 3.0,
Dinaric Alps photo
By JukoFF – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
Ethnic map
By The Former Yugoslavia: A Map Folio, published by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in 1992. –, Public Domain,
By Chamelfo Ropatras;Cropped and levels adjusted by uploader Mr.choppers – Yugo Koral 65 GVX 1.3 1990, CC BY-SA 2.0,
Yugo info
Yugoslavia info
By LT. STACEY WYZKOWSKI –, Public Domain,
Siege of Sarajevo info
Forces graphic

2 thoughts on “Former Yugoslavia

  1. The video “NowThis World: Why Do Croatia & Serbia Hate Each Other?” Is private and can’t be watched.

    1. Thank you SO much for letting us know! We so appreciate you! I’ll look for a replacement asap!

Leave a Comment