Josip Broz Tito, the most man who held Yugoslavia together in it’s darkest, most fragile days, died on May 4, 1980. Though he left behind a united Yugoslavia free from the influence of Moscow, Tito failed to groom a worthy successor who could match his leadership skills and charisma to lead the country after his death. And so the beginning of the end of the hastily created country of Yugoslavia began to unfold.
After Tito, an eight-man revealing presidency in which the head of each Yugoslav republic took turns as the country’s head of state, ruled the country. The President of Yugoslavia was more of a ceremonial post than viable chief executive, as in practice each republic called the shots within its own territory. This in turn made it extremely difficult for each republic to effectively agree on much politically, causing worsening economic conditions and more dangerously, ethnic tension.
If you really want to get a more in-depth and reputable view for the causes and the breakup of Yugoslavia, I strongly recommend the documentary series The Death of Yugoslavia and some of the books below. For a quick synopsis, continue reading below.
Though going through a time of great prosperity during the 1960s, Yugoslavia in the 80s was crippled by foreign debt, high unemployment, spiraling inflation and decreased access to western capital markets. Not surprising given the region’s history, ethnic tensions were also flaring up, especially in the region of Kosovo, a region that was made an autonomous region by Tito but that was also still technically a province of Serbia. Kosovo was (and still is) a majority ethnically Albanian area with a sizable Serbian population as well. Starting in 1981, Albanian demonstrators demanded that Kosovo be given the status of a republic within Yugoslavia, similar to that of Croatia, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia. Not tolerating the separatist dissent, the Yugoslav army broke up the demonstration, but not the Albanians’ desire to separate from Serbia.
In 1986, the Serbian Academy of Sciences issued a Memorandum and a call for help stating that the Serbs in Kosovo were in danger and facing discrimination due to rising Albanian nationalism. They also alleged that Serbs in Croatia faced the same sort of troubles. Many Serb nationalists in the government felt that to protect as well as strengthen Serb interests, Yugoslavia should be decentralized in order to give Serbs, who made up the largest ethnic group in the country, more political power. However not all Serbs agreed. In fact, the Serbian League of Communists, most of whom were still loyal to the federalist ideal set by Tito, opposed the Memorandum.
The point of no return arguably came on April 24, 1987. Slobodan Milošević, at that time a fairly unknown politician who had been appointed to the post of Serbia’s Communist party chairman, was visiting the town of Kosovo Polje. There he met with representatives of the Serbian minority in Kosovo. A demonstration was held that seemingly was getting out of control until the local police arrived to break it up. As the Serbian protestors, some of whom were being beaten, were being dispersed, Milošević intervened and was recorded on television as telling the crowd “nobody has the right to beat you!” This apparent video op catapulted Milošević on to the national stage and made him an overnight hero and defender of all oppressed Serbs. Realizing that he had an opportunity to both consolidate his own powerbase as well as to further Serb interests within Yugoslavia, Milošević used the issue of Kosovo to expel more liberal-minded Serbs from high posts in the government. These posts were then given to Serbian nationalists or at least those more pliable to doing Milošević’s bidding.
Things internally for Yugoslavia got worse in March of 1989 when a new constitution formally ended the autonomy of Kosovo and another autonomous region known as Vojvodina, the later containing many Serbs. Political allies of Milošević also came into power in Montenegro, Macedonia and parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The hope for Milošević was that support from these republics would enable him to overrun Yugoslavia’s federalist system in favor of a more centralized government ruling from Belgrade. This centralized government of course was to be made up of Milošević and his allies. As the Berlin Wall came down in November of 1989 the Berlin and other Eastern European and Communist countries were becoming more democratic, Yugoslavia was doing the opposite and actually going back further in time. The country was reverting to a more hardline version of fasco-communism combined with a dose of Serb nationalism that under Tito would not have seemed possible.
Slovenia and Croatia, two republics that were not allied with Milošević vision, saw this centralization of the government under the banner of Serb nationalism as a great threat to their own rights and sovereignty. They decided to not sit idle and took matters into their own hands.
Part of the Series, “History of Croatia”
History of Croatia
Early History up until the Ottomans
The Ottoman advance and Austro-Hungarian rule
The Revolutions of 1848 and the Rise of Croatian Nationalism
World War I and the Creation of Yugoslavia
1930s until World War II
Croatia during War II
Croatia under Tito’s Yugoslavia
Yugoslavia: The Beginning of the End
The Homeland War and the Road to an Independent Croatia
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