Did the Conflict in Yugoslavia Begin With the Fall of the Iron Curtain?

Bosnians remember victims at a mass burial site.
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The conflict in Yugoslavia began in 1991 with the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from the Republic of Yugoslavia, and persisted through the 1990s with the Bosnian War in 1992 and the Kosovo War in 1998. While these events coincided with the fall of the Soviet Union at around the same time, the Yugoslavian conflicts occurred for different reasons and were not directly related to the fall of the Iron Curtain.

1 Cold War

The so-called Iron Curtain included Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania, all of which were ruled by communist governments with political and military alliances to the Soviet Union. While Yugoslavia was also a communist country during this time, it was not allied with the Soviet Union, and thus was not part of the Iron Curtain. According to the University of North Carolina’s Center for European Studies, the Yugoslavian conflict resulted from the fracturing of the many ethnic regions in Yugoslavia after the death of long-time President Josip Broz Tito in 1980.

2 Tito Era

Due to his success as the commander of Partisan forces in World War II, Tito rose to political prominence following the surrender of Germany. According to Rinna Kullaa, a fellow at the European Studies Institute, Tito was largely responsible for Yugoslavia's ideological split from Stalin’s Russia. This allowed Yugoslavia to have more independent economic and trade policies as well as neutrality and political autonomy during the Cold War. From 1956 until his death in 1980, Tito ruled the multiethnic Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia from its capital, Belgrade, in what is now Serbia.

3 Ethnic Divisions

Following Tito’s death in 1980, ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia intensified. Demonstrations by ethnic Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia were met with arrests from the mostly Serbian central government in Belgrade. After nearly half a century of relative ethnic tolerance under Tito, Slobodan Milošević rose to power in Belgrade on a nationalistic platform, stirring existing hatred among ethnic Serbs and Muslims in both Serbia and Bosnia. According to a BBC feature on Milošević’s rise, “Milosevic warned that if the Yugoslav nation dissolved, it would be necessary to redraw Serbia's boundaries to include Serbs living in other republics.” This signaled the beginning of ethnic conflict in neighboring Bosnia, which declared its independence in 1992.

4 Bosnian War

While Croatia and Slovenia ultimately negotiated for independence only months after armed conflict began, war in the region further intensified due to the formation of ethnic factions within Bosnia itself. Ethnic Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims each fought for control in the region. The war in Bosnia was the bloodiest of the Yugoslavian conflicts. While all sides committed atrocities, the Bosnian war is chiefly remembered for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serb forces.

Stephen Skok is an adjunct faculty member at DePaul University in Chicago, where he teaches courses in rhetoric and research writing. As a scholar, he specializes in the study of rhetoric and political communication. Upon entering the faculty offices during his first teaching assignment, he was routinely asked which professor he was there to see.