Dr Pere Vilanova, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, has served in many international missions, among which, Head of the Legal Office of the European Union Administration in Mostar – Bosnia Herzegovina in 1996, Supervisor of the elections in that country in 1996 and 1997, International Advisor of the High Representative in Bosnia Herzegovina, as member of the international team to draft the new Electoral law, in 1998-2000; in an exploratory mission to evaluate the electoral system of Albania, at the request of the Ambassador of Spain in coordination with OSCE and the Council of Europe; observer or technical advisor of the elections in several other countries; etc.

Thirty years after the end of the bipolar world: the disintegration of Yugoslavia and its regional consequences

By Pere Vilanova

Thirty years after the end of the Cold War, or, if you prefer, the collapse of the bipolar system, it is useful to reflect on one of its most dramatic regional aspects. To this end, and from the point of view of the growing importance of regional studies in the field of world politics, special attention should be paid to the Balkans and, specifically, to the region of the former Yugoslav Federation, where tensions overflowed in 1991.

From this perspective, not only is the central role of Yugoslavia reaffirmed in the geopolitical problems of the Balkans, but also its legacy can still be felt today, after thirty years, despite the fact that other countries in what is only known as he “Balkan region” have been normalizing their situation, albeit in a very uneven way. Uneven in terms of its internal stabilization, and in terms of its links or dispersed approach to the main regional international organizations (NATO, Council of Europe, OSCE, and especially the European Union). Although they have done so at different rates and with varying degrees of success, for all practical purposes, countries such as Romania and Bulgaria are already part of “Europe”, while others, such as Albania, have made substantial progress on the road “to Europe”, as defined through its multi-layered architecture (the EU, NATO, the Council of Europe and the OSCE). The remaining countries of the former Yugoslavia have followed dramatically different dynamics in the ambitious push toward European integration. Compare, for example, Slovenia with Kosovo, Macedonia with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro, or Croatia with Serbia.

If Yugoslavia was the hard core of the Balkans, and its disintegration was the most dramatic episode (on European soil) of the entire restructuring of the former Eastern bloc, then it is necessary to reflect and analyze once again the variables that affected this process. Let us not lose sight, for these purposes, that the starting point (beyond the symbol that was the fall of the Berlin Wall) was common, the balance over thirty years is extraordinarily diverse, dispersed, and uneven. Right away, it can be hypothesized that there is no single and exclusive factor in this systemic crisis, as no such explanation has been convincingly presented in the 30 years that have passed since then. In other words, the crisis cannot be attributed to a single cause, either from a “macro” perspective (the collapse of the USSR, the disintegration of the Soviet bloc), since Yugoslavia had full functional autonomy within the bloc since 1948 in forward, or from a “micro” perspective (the resurgence of old ethnic-nationalist rivalries within Yugoslavia itself). The federation clearly did survive for 45 years not only because of the formally authoritarian regime of Tito (single party, communist ideology, etc.). In short, to avoid oversimplification, several factors must be taken into account. This is what is intended on these pages.


Variables: Initial consideration

Yugoslav / Balkan geopolitics has always been volatile. A simple glance at maps of the Balkans from 1810 to today reveals constant border changes, a high rate of conflict due to friction between territories and different national groups, and strong competition between neighboring actors. Between the Congress of Vienna (1815) and the early 20th century, the border between the main empires (the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and, on the outer edges, the Russian empire) gradually shifted eastwards, to the detriment of the Turkish power. The two world wars saw in two different ways the continuation of this phenomenon, displacing more people, giving rise to new border changes and tensions, and causing the appearance, disappearance and resurgence of additional grievances. Although this affected Balkan countries such as Romania, Greece, Bulgaria or Albania, it had a particular impact on what is known today as the former Yugoslavia. As a result, this territory has had its own “post-Cold War” in geopolitical terms.


Collapse of the bipolar system: breakdown of the international order

The year 1945 saw the emergence of a new version of Yugoslavia, different from what had made its appearance at the end of the First World War. After the start of the Cold War and, above all, of Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, the balance of power in Europe helped Yugoslavia to survive as a state and to control its independence. There was also solid and genuine support for his government and form of state, mainly translated into the narrative of anti-Nazi and anti-fascist resistance.

However, Yugoslavia’s strategic location between two political-military blocs in post-war Europe and its policy of ideological and political equidistance, which operated for several decades, was unable to withstand the collapse of the bipolar structure at the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia was a “collateral victim” of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its role as a mediator between East and West and its leadership in the Non-Aligned Movement became irrelevant. As a result, it was no longer able to attract the political and economic support from the West. The impermeability of the West to the new situation in Yugoslavia was evident in its inability to support the new economic forms undertaken by the Markovic government (1988-91).

Economic difficulties were one of the factors (though not the only one) responsible for the constitutional crisis, which was used by ethnic nationalists (and in particular by radical Serbian nationalism from 1986 onwards) to undermine what was, even by Western European standards, a relatively stable and viable project. It can be argued that the collapse of Yugoslavia is due not only to ethnic tensions, not even to the collapse of a classical political dictatorship, but rather to the disintegration of the international order, which had exerted a strong influence in Yugoslavia. However, this is a restrictive and only partial view.

One of the Yugoslav paradoxes regarding the crisis and collapse of the Soviet Union lies in how Gorbachev’s reforms were perceived.

The Yugoslav leaders saw perestroika and glasnost not as a loss, but rather as a victory for their own brand of socialism.

With few exceptions, the Yugoslav communists initially welcomed the policy of detente between East and West as another recognition of the success of the Yugoslav path to socialism. The reforms undertaken in Eastern Europe were not seen as a threat and the Yugoslav leaders did not initially feel endangered by the changes. However, this vision ultimately could not compete with the dynamic “end of communism (as a type of state) = end of federalism (as a form of decentralized state) = rise of separatist nationalisms”.

As the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, Yugoslavia had a sufficiently independent foreign policy and considerable influence at the United Nations and other international forums. As noted above, the end of the bipolar system took away this highly visible international position.

At the geopolitical level, it is worth comparing the case of Yugoslavia with the disintegration of the Soviet Union to see if the reasons for the Yugoslav collapse were the same or if there were other specific factors. Despite certain key similarities between the two cases, such as the end of communism, the explanatory overlap was limited, although the fall of the Iron Curtain as a whole had an undeniable impact on Yugoslavia.

The first step is to identify the causes. A brief analysis shows the need to identify multiplecauses, since none taken alone could have resulted in such fatal consequences (the war between 1991 and 2001). In short, what triggered the collapse of Yugoslavia was the accumulation of various variables (or causes) that are generally taken separately or in a disorderly fashion.

To perform this analysis, it is necessary to first define the variables (which we identify as “n”). The most important were the following:


  1. The breakdown of the international order
  2. The collapse of the Soviet Union
  3. The foreign interventions
  4. The ethnic factor
  5. Demographic trends
  6. The economy
  7. Nationalist leadership
  8. Crisis and disappearance of the Yugoslav federation in institutional and social terms

Consequently, “n” can be defined as 8 causes for the Yugoslav Federation as a whole. One problem with this approach is that the causes, or their respective weights, varied in each republic. Ideally, therefore, the equation would have to be modified in order to take into account the specific importance of each cause in each individual republic and then to examine them in the resulting set. Therefore, in order to understand the collapse of Yugoslavia, the different causes would have to be studied as a whole. However, that is beyond the scope of this article.

This is a formal approach, since the internal causes of the Yugoslav crisis can be traced, at least, to:

  1. The federal leadership vacuum following the death of Tito in 1980 and the paralysis caused by the “Serbian bloc” from 1987, when it was driven to block the rotating federal presidency earlier than it would have been the turn of the Croat leader Stipe Mesic.
  2. The fact that the Serbian minority in the Croatian regions of Krajina and Eastern Slavonia had already held illegal referendums on self-determination in August 1990, and the League of Communists of Yugoslavia had already expelled the Slovenian communists the same year.
  3. The fact that the elections in the republics of the Federation (in which all the republics participated) were held legally and were prior to the aforementioned declarations of independence.


Some Considerations Regarding Superstructure

  1. The breakdown of the international order (the consequences of the end of the East-West confrontation). Yugoslavia’s strategic position as leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, sandwiched between two antagonistic political-military blocs in post-war Europe, and its policy of ideological and political equidistance, could not withstand the collapse of bipolar structures at the end of the Cold War. Yugoslavia could no longer compete in importance with other regions of the world and, as a result, was unable to attract political and economic support from Western Europe.
  2. Direct global consequences of the disappearance of the USSR. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Yugoslavia vulnerable to the fragilities of Central and Eastern Europe, giving way and “legitimizing” different nationalist forces, which represented themselves as the standard bearers of “national liberation” alternative to the failed model of a communist state. The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union had consequences throughout the continent, with substantial differences throughout Eastern Europe, even in countries that were not part of the USSR itself or of the so-called “people’s democracies.”
  3. The foreign intervention. Between 1991 and 1995, the sum total of foreign interventions of varying intensity in Yugoslavia consisted of a series of failed mediation attempts by the European Union and different commitments by different countries in the crisis. While Germany was accused of being pro-Croatia, there can be no denial of the pro-Serbian bias of France, of the general inhibition of the UK, or of the low profile maintained by almost every other country in the then EU at the time.
  4. The ethnic factor. Both ethnic and religious (or nominally religious) factors contributed to the conflict, as did demographic imbalance and socioeconomic gaps between the groups. Today, many experts believe that most of the blame (indeed, the responsibility for the plan) for the disintegration of Yugoslavia rests with Serbian radical nationalism, beginning with the memorandum published by the Serbian Academy in 1986 and the rise of Milosevic to power in 1987. It is also worth remembering that Kosovo was an autonomous province of Serbia, (not of the Yugoslav Federation), whose status was unilaterally revoked by the parliament of Serbia, not of Yugoslavia, in March 1989, long before the centrifugal dynamics of the federated republics in 1991.
  5. Demography. Because of rising birth rates and heavy immigration, the population of Kosovo had gradually shifted in favor of the Kosovar Albanians. This was wielded in Serbia as a threat, causing a rise in Serbian nationalism and a backlash against Albanian Kosovars. However, this was not a new factor. Milosevic had already manipulated such feelings in 1987 and 1989, in his famous speech at Kosovo Polje in that year.
  6. The economy. The economic crisis of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s and the growing gap between developed and underdeveloped regions (be they republics or provinces) severely hampered the future of Yugoslavia. The more developed republics clamored for independence with an eye to future development, and to Western Europe and its most important organizations. The crisis unleashed a constituent conflict which, in turn, led to a crisis in the state itself.
  7. Nationalism. Communism left a strong mark on the economy, as well as on the social and psychological aspects of the Yugoslav economy. With the end of communism, new opportunities for economic and social progress appeared. The emergence of national identification as an alternative gave rise to new forms of grievance with the immediate past, which had a decisive impact on the transition from the point of view of economic and social expectations. Nationalism was the strongest of the competing ideologies as a “post-communist magic potion” in Yugoslavia, and therefore the alternative to gain the most support because of the crisis of communism.
  8. The crisis of the Yugoslav Federation (loss of cohesion after the death of Tito). Within a few years of Tito’s death, ethnic schisms had rekindled and underlying problems that had been resolved at the end of World War II had resurfaced. Everyone, from the political leaders to the majority of the population, had probably overestimated the overcoming of the pre-communist past.

An assessment of the importance of each cause shows that some causes were the result of others and that interactions between different causes sometimes had a domino effect, triggering a series of consequences. For example, the impact of nationalism was multiplied (but not created) by economic and demographic differences, or, at least, by what were perceived as such differences.


The case of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Dayton peace agreements as a paradigm and heritage

The subsequent events are well known: successive wars between summer 1991 and September 1995, the definitive destruction of the Yugoslav Federation, the intervention of the NATO in Kosovo against Milosevic, etc. However, the final act of the show is especially worth mentioning, as it is not by coincidence that all the most destructive aspects of this peculiar historical process are concentrated in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

At the end of 1995, three crucial decisions regarding the end of the war were taken in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and, by extension, in the former Yugoslavia. First, the Dayton peace agreements (General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina) were signed on November 21. Second, a formal signing ceremony was held in Paris on December 14. Third, the London Conference on the Implementation of the Peace Agreement was held on December 8 and 9 in the intervening period between above mentioned dates. Twenty-five years later, an attempt can be made to take stock of one of the most ambitious peacemaking and peacekeeping operations undertaken by the so-called international community, at least on European soil, since the foundation of the United Nations. From this perspective, the international community’s approach to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia was manifestly incoherent: from 1991 to September 1995, its actions were ambivalent and contradictory; from that moment, it used the force of punishment against the Serbs in Bosnia and lobbied strongly for the signing of the Dayton peace agreements as soon as possible. This requires a very deep reflection on the lessons that the international community must draw from the Balkan conflict with regard to both conflict prevention and post-war management and reconstruction.

To sum up, one day or another the pros and cons of the process started under the Dayton peace accords will have to be weighed and the results are contradictory. Largely, they depend on initial expectations. In short, when the expectations include, at a minimum, full compliance with the requirements within a year (or less, if the initial timetable on their application is accepted), the results are clearly insufficient. However, when expectations included, to begin with, the end the war, the consolidation the peace, the separation of adversaries, and slowly but steadily to make pressure on all the parties of the conflict so that they move towards the same possible and shared solution, then the results are more complex and positive. In other words, we have to focus on the criteria used for evaluation and the time frame used to measure the results, not just compare with abstract ideal models.

In general (and this is a valid perspective for regional geopolitics in the Balkans), the result is clear: after thirty years of war and instability, there is only one horizon, and its name is Europe. This horizon can only be achieved through internal reconstruction processes in each of the countries involved and through membership and integration into the different “houses of the European security architecture”: NATO, the European Union, the OSCE and the Council of Europe. Or for example the recent information on the initiative for an Open Balkan Initiative as a space for enhanced cooperation between Serbia, North Macedonia and Albania. In short, there is no “plan B”, and it is telling that Serbia has been so slow to join the regional movement.