The history of Southeast Europe, commonly referred to as The Balkans, is a messy one. Because much of the area’s bloody conflicts happened very recently, the remnants of war are raw and present in day-to-day life. When we first arrived in Zagreb, I naively searched “Decline of Yugoslavia,” hoping to get a snapshot of why there are now 6-7 sovereign states. Below is two weeks of piecing together an incredibly convoluted, yet still high-level, history of Yugoslavia.

This post is a bit lengthy and dry (I really know how to sell it, right?). We’ve met so many wonderful people who are genuinely interested in sharing their history, which I’ve found incredibly fascinating. If depressing-textbook-leisurely reading is your thing, please continue on. If not, more travel porn to come soon…

Why It’s So Complicated

Yugoslav history is an excellent reminder that history is subjective, not objective. As our friend Angela put it, if you asked a specialist from Zagreb, Belgrade, and Sarajevo to explain the history of Yugoslavia, you would hear dramatically different answers from each.

Throughout the past century, country borders have changed frequently, which can make events difficult to follow. The history of Yugoslavia is very much guiding the current social, political, and economic reality of the Balkans.


  • Names for the area have included Yugoslavia, Jugoslavia, Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY).
  • Included Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia (at the time including Kosovo and Vojvodina), and Slovenia.*

Religious Parties at Play

Terminology and origin, for me, is one of the most confusing parts of understanding the area and history. For the most part, I’ve heard basically two approaches 1) Generally, the names below refer to an individual or group’s religious identity, although often they also align with their geographic identity. It is unclear if the countries were named after the ethnic identities or the other way around.

  • Croats are often Roman Catholic
  • Bosniaks are often Muslim
  • Serbs are often Orthodox

2) From Nikola: Being a Serb is not a religion, and neither is being a Croat. Majority of Serbs belong, by birth, tradition and inertia, to Serbian Orthodox Church. Croats on the other hand are Roman Catholics, but not all Catholics in Serbia are Croats. The larges ethnic minority are Hungarians, who are Catholics, and there are other ethnicities too. Also, not all Muslims are Bosnians. I would say that Albanians are a sizeable minority of Muslims in Serbia.


  • Slavic: a language and ethnicity from Central, Eastern, and Southeastern Europe and North and Central Asia.
    • As an aside, there is an easy rabbit hole to go down here in researching Slavs versus Caucasians. Go for it if you’re interested and have a spare day on your hands.
  • Originally I wrote “Serbo-Croatian employs Cyrillic script.” Luckily Nikola reviewed my writing and responded, “You say Serbo-Croatian uses Cyrillic script, but that’s not true. The language can use both Latin and Cyrillic script, since the letters are interchangeable due to the unique nature of the language (“one tone, one symbol”), but neither of the scripts is dominant. In fact, Cyrillic is primarily used in Serbia, partly Montenegro, and the Serbian part of Bosnia. Slovenes and Croats do not learn Cyrillic script at all. Macedonians use the Cyrillic, but they don’t speak Serbo-Croatian. In Serbia we learn Cyrillic in first grade and Latin script in second grade. Most people use Latin in daily life. The state is using Cyrillic officially, but they are also obliged to provide you any document in Latin script if you ask for it.
  • Basically, if you speak Serbo-Croat, you can mostly understand anyone from Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, or Croatia. However, there are a few different declinations and the accent can vary a bit.


Original Formation of Yugoslavia after WWI

  • Leading into the First World War, what is now known as Serbia, was called the Kingdom of Serbia. The Second Balkan War (1913-1915) included present day Kosovo and Macedonia in the Kingdom of Serbia. Right after the end of the war and days before the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was formed, the Kingdom of Serbia absorbed the Kingdom of Montenegro.
  • Yugoslavia originally came into being as a way of breaking up Austro-Hungarian power. The State of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes became pals with the Kingdom of Serbia and so a country was born.
  • One plaque I read in Sarajevo lamented the city’s notorious role in headlines as the world watched the city open and close the 20th century with death. The First World War began on a bridge in Sarajevo with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. You probably learned in Social Studies that the Archduke’s assassination was the impetus for World War I, which is ironic because he apparently wasn’t that well liked.

Yugoslavia surrounding WWII

  • World War II is an entire research project on its own. The cliff notes are that Yugoslavia, during the war, mainly had two factions Chetniks and Partisans, which mostly aligned with Axis and Allied Powers respectively. Ultimately Tito led the Partisans with a vision for a federated Yugoslavia while Chetnik leader Draza Mihajilovic fought on a platform of Serbian Nationalism. Throughout World War II, ethnic tensions and genocide set the stage for post war Yugoslavia.
  • As World War II came to a close, Tito was a shoe-in for Prime Minister of Yugoslavia, his election formalized by a majority (only the National Front party members were permitted to vote) in 1945 fall elections.

Josip Broz (Tito)

  • Tito is heralded as the glue that brought and kept Yugoslavia together following World War II. It is often said throughout the Balkans that they didn’t practice Communism, but rather Titoism.
To honor Tito's birthday, each year batons were made and shared.
To honor Tito’s birthday, each year batons were made and shared. They were coveted and symbolize the country’s dedication to Titoism.
  • As with arguably every dictator, Tito’s legacy is controversial. It seems widely accepted that he was better than most dictators, in that he truly had a passion for peace, but he was still a dictator. Under his rule, families went hungry. He advocated strongly for centralized power over democracy arguing that Yugoslavia needed the unity to strengthen together. However, there were very few efforts to universalize Yugoslav education or culture between the republics, which did not help to facilitate unity and can be cited as a catalyst for the country’s eventual disintegration.
  • Tito admired Lenin while distancing himself from Stalin; he was put into power by the Communist International (Comintern). Reading through history, his quest for party centralism becomes eminently apparent leading up to his death and the eventual rise of the individual republics.
  • In my opinion, Tito’s legacy seems to parallel Kennedy’s in that the promise of his time in office may not match the actual work he accomplished.

Decline of Yugoslavia and Present Day

Generally speaking, Yugoslavia disintegrated for three reasons 1) Growing or continued religious tension 2) Tito was no longer the figurehead that kept the republic together 3) Serbia wanted to consolidate and centralize power while others did not. Arguably the social, religious, and political ills that broke the republic apart were present prior to the formation of Yugoslavia and continue to be pivotal in present day.


  • Capital: Ljubljana
  • Current Religious Composition: 57.8% Catholic, 29.4% Undeclared/Not Religious, 2.3% Orthodox, 2.4% Muslim
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: The Ten Day War followed Slovenia’s declaration of independence on June 25, 1991. The Slovenian Territorial Defense and Yugoslav People’s Army (YNA) fought from June 27 to July 7. On May 22, 1992 Slovenia joined the UN and May 1, 2004 it joined the EU.
  • Social and Political Ills: Of the Yugoslav countries, Slovenia has always been pretty fortunate economically. Their proximity to Austria and other western countries has proven very beneficial for the health of the country. This paper outlines Slovenia’s fiscal problems, which range from an aging population to excess social spending. Check it out if numbers and politics are your jam (i.e. if your name is Wes Olson).


  • Capital: Zagreb
  • Current Religious Composition: 86.3% Croat, 4.5% Serb, 1.5% Muslim.
    • Our friend Ivana added an addendum here: “I’d say Muslim or Islam, because  the name Bosniak is also referred to ethnical – muslims who live in Bosnia, and it’s not  the same. What I’m trying to say is that not all muslims in Croatia are Bosniaks”
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: June 24, 1991 Croatia declared independence. A notable portion of the population at this point identified as Serb and refuted the request to name the country State of Croats, instead opting for a faction of the territory to be the independent Serb state “Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK). A civil war ensued that effectively ended summer of 1995, and led to the current religious makeup of the state, after thousands of Serbs fled the country under persecution. Again, Ivana added, “Some Serbs stayed and declared the RSK, they fought against Croats because they weren’t ready to admit the independence of Croatia, some were obligated to leave, some of them chose to leave by themselves. There was also a part of Serbs who decided to stay and accepted the Republic of Croatia as their country.”
  • Current Social and Political Ills: At a picnic we attended in Zagreb, a number of people told us that unfortunately corruption is widely acknowledged and accepted in Croatia. I’ve also hear rumor that human trafficking is especially bad in Croatia but can’t confirm if it’s worse than in other Balkan countries.

Bosnia & Herzegovina (BiH)

  • Capital: Sarajevo
  • Current Religious Composition: 45% Bosniak, 36% Serb, 15% Croat.
    • Unlike neighboring Croatia and Serbia, Bosnian Jews tend to be Sephardic
    • From Nikola, “No one claims to be a “Bosnian.” They coined a new term “Bosniak.” This is to distinguish the nation from the region (I see you were wondering which is older). Present-day Bosniaks were once called Muslims (with a capital M, because it denoted an ETHNICITY, not religious group). In former Yugoslavia, muslim inhabitants of Bosnia and neighboring areas were called Muslims, and were officially recognized as an ethnicity, one of the constitutional nations of Yugoslavia.”
  • Departure from Yugoslavia:
    • Following the liberation of fellow Yugoslavian republics Slovenia and Croatia, Bosnia & Herzegovina declared independence with a referendum that passed with a 99.7% vote. The declaration resulted directly in the Bosnian War and ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in the winter of 1995.
    • The Siege on Sarajevo, which killed approximately 10,000 over nearly four years, was widely covered by western media.
    • During the Bosnian War 65,000 Bosniaks, 25,000 Serbs and 8,000 Croats were killed.
    • No Man’s Land is a dark comedy about two soldiers, one Serb and one Bosniak, trapped together during the Bosnian War. To better understand the conflict, I highly recommend watching the movie.
    • The Whistleblower details the excruciating reality of post-war Bosnia.
  • Social and Political Ills:
    • The Dayton Peace Accords, signed December 1995, effectively ended the Bosnian War and currently work as a constitution for the country. The impact of such an antiquated method for policy has prevented a great deal of progress and will likely cause even more gridlock in the near future.
    • After the Bosnian War and Siege on Sarajevo, the city literally became divided between Serbs and Bosniaks. Where interfaith couples were once happily married and accepted among neighbors, surnames were replaced to mask the religious identity. Our friend Nikola wrote, “People have lived there together for ages, they’re not the problem. Neighbors of different religions helped each other and respected each other’s holidays and traditions. The problem is the criminal politicians and the system. And unlike their neighbors in Serbia, the Bosnians are actually fighting it.”
    • Our guide, Teo, told us (and we witnessed) that petty theft (along with budging) is commonplace in Bosnia & Herzegovina because no one does anything to stop it. Teo took up familiar conversation with a man on the street, joking about Syrian refuges not wanting to come to their country. They laughed, saying the Syrians were smart not to seek asylum in Bosnia & Herzegovina as they would have to work but would be unable to find a job, unlike Germany where the government could provide aid.
    • Every city we visited in Bosnia & Herzegovina looked as if a war had happened there recently. The “Sarajevo Rose,” an imprint on buildings and sidewalks, left by grenades during the war, are visible throughout the country. Our hosts and guides continually warned us about wandering off roads and sidewalks, as mines are a still a very present concern just outside of city centers. Buildings are dilapidated and riddled with graffiti. I don’t remember seeing a single body of water, including the spring where drinking water is pulled from, that didn’t have exorbitant amounts of trash floating in it.
    • While fruits that demand a high price tag in the US, like figs, pomegranates, and kiwi, grow widely throughout the country, Bosnia & Herzegovina struggles with high-quality, organic food. According to Teo, independent farmers have stopped growing food in mass as the government out produces them, and for much cheaper. Food and products that other countries do not want is illegally shipped across the border and sold to supermarkets at a reduced rate. Farmers have started to grow again for their personal family and some have realized that Bosnian grapes can be sold outside the country for a reasonable price.


  • Capital: The former capital of Yugoslavia, Belgrade (Beograd), is also the current capital of Serbia.
  • Current Religious Composition: 93.59% Serb, 2.1% Muslim 1.97% Croat
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: Serbia was the last country standing after Montenegro declared independence in 2006.
  • Social and Political Ills:
    • Our friend Nikola is a responsible Serbian citizen, politically aware and open-minded, and he writes a blog about Serbian politics and homemade Ajvar. Unfortunately Angela (another friend) and him seem to be anomalies in Serbia, a country whose population has resigned to the corruption of its politicians. Nikola described Serbia’s Prime Minister, Aleksandar Vučić, and those that surround him with great distain, deploring how Vučić has insulated himself with people who think and act just like him.
    • When I asked how widely accepted gay rights were in the country, Nikola told us general opinion is that it’s a notion that’s been forced on the populace by the West and is thus invalid. Belgrade held a pride parade a few weeks prior to our arrival in an area that was heavily guarded. Apparently Vučić, who allegedly has ties to the country’s football hooligans, ordered Red Star Belgrade hooligans to refrain from intervening on the parade as a show of good will given previous incidents.
    • Nikola’s current hot button topic is the Belgrade Waterfront. Investors from the United Arab Emirates have bought land and rights to Belgrade’s waterfront, with plans to build a large complex of retail shops neighbored by chic condo buildings. His largest qualm is that the government sold its soul – and that of the country – to a single bidder without any consultation. One of my favorite publications, CityLabs, covers the issue, sharing many of Nikola’s views.
    • Guidebooks celebrate café culture where groups can be seen nursing a coffee for hours mid-day. In many ways, this phenomenon is made possible by the fact that 1/5 of population is currently unemployed.


  • Historically an autonomous region of Serbia. Some countries, including the US, recognize it as a sovereign country while Serbs continue to call it a part of Serbia.
  • Capital: Priština
  • Current Religious Composition: 95.6% Muslim and 3.69% Serb
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: In 1998 the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) sought independence from Serbia. The story of Kosovo’s quest for independence, like that of Yugoslavia, is multifaceted and ever-changing based on the vantage point from which it’s told. A plaque from the Historical Museum in Sarajevo details the KLA rebellion as follows, “The Serbian force targeted civilians, shelling villages and forcing Kosovo Albanians to flee” (read Muslims). “Following the failure of an internationally-brokered deal to end the crisis, NATO carried out a 78-day long campaign of air strikes against Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia. Within days of the strikes starting, tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees began pouring out of the province with accounts of killing, atrocities, and forced expulsions at eh hands of Serbian forces.” When Nikola was detailing the history of Kosovo, Albania, and Serbia’s relationship to us he brought up the rebellion and Bill Clinton and Madeline Albrecht’s roles in the engagement. Referring to Clinton, he described another side to the story “he basically bombed my entire country for 72 days.” Strikes ended June 1999 when Serbian President Slobodan Milsevic agreed to leave the area, however the conflict still looms large in politics for both countries.
  • Social and Political Ills: Fight for sovereignty from Serbia


  • Autonomous region of Serbia
  • Capital: Novi Sad


  • Albania was never a part of Yugoslavia, although Tito did have plans at one point to include it. The country has an incredibly turbulent history filled with communism, genocide, and isolationism. As the 20th century came to a close and the country turned towards democracy, conflict with Serbia caused many Albanians to flee from Kosovo.
  • This excerpt from Lonely Planet eludes to the international backing Nikola told us about surrounding the Kosovo/Serbia/Albanian conflict
    • “In spring 1999 Albania faced a crisis of a different sort. This time it was the influx of 465,000 refugees from neighboring Kosovo during the Serbian ethnic-cleansing campaign. While this put a tremendous strain on resources, the net effect has in fact been positive. Substantial amounts of international aid money have poured in, the service sector has grown and inflation has declined to single digits.”
  • Capital: Tirana
  • Descendants of the Illyrian Kingdom, they speak an indigenous language unlike any of the other languages in the area


  • Capital: Skopje
  • Current Religious Composition: 64.8% Orthodox and 33.3% Muslim
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: Macedonia, the first republic to declare independence, enjoyed arguably the most peaceful departure by referendum in September 1991
  • Social and Political Ills:
    • Immediately following Macedonia’s departure from Yugoslavia there have been some issues with the country’s name. Another slightly biased Greek article demonstrates controversy over Macedonia’s Hellenistic name and “secret agenda,” insisting the country be called FYROM (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia).
    • In 2001, the Albanian population in Macedonia sought independence in January 2001. Conflicts lasted nine months, resulting in defined rights for Albanians living in the country.


  • Capital: Podgorica
  • Current Religious Composition: 72.07% Orthodox, 19.11% Muslim, 3.44% Catholic
  • Departure from Yugoslavia: May 2006 received independence via the narrow passage of a referendum then in June of that year Serbia officially acknowledged the dissolution. Days later the EU and US formally recognized Montenegro as a country and at the end of the month Montenegro was admitted to the UN.
  • Social and Political Ills: Unlike the other former Yugoslav republics, Montnegro gained independence by an incredibly slim margin, which signifies that the country is still a bit divided. There is currently quite a bit of noise about misuse of public funds and political corruption at all levels.

Things That All Former Yugoslavian Countries Still Love Together

Coffee, listed as Turkish or Bosnian on most menus
Coffee, listed as Turkish or Bosnian on most menus. The drink is enjoyed over several hours outside cafes and in the company of friends.
The Zastava Koral, also known as the Yugo or the worst car ever made. Extra Yugoslavian credit for driving in the middle of the street or passing cars at the last possible moment, which is the only way people know how to drive.
The Zastava Koral, also known as the “Yugo” or the worst car ever made. Extra Yugoslavian credit for driving in the middle of the road or passing cars at the last possible moment, which is the only way people know how to drive in the area.
Graffiti on every building
Graffiti on every building
Rakija, which is essentially plum brandy/moonshine. A lot of it is homemade like the stuff sold at this honey fair.
Rakija, which is essentially plum brandy or moonshine. A lot of it is homemade, like the stuff sold at this honey fair.
Meat in all forms, but particularly Ćevapčići
Meat in all forms, but particularly Ćevapčići

* A note from Nikola: SFRY consisted of 6 republics, out of those, only Serbia had two autonomous provinces – Kosovo and Vojvodina. This came with the constitutional changes in 1974, which were not very popular among Serbian nationalists, but Tito quelled any opposition. Critics of this move claim, with hindsight, that they were right – Albanians in Kosovo rebelled in early 80’s, Serbs never felt safe, long-story-short: Kosovo is no longer under Serbian sovereignty. Vojvodina is another story. There were never any signs of desire to secede from Serbia, but the nationalists used Kosovo as a scary story, and are over exaggerating any disagreement of Novi Sad (administrative capital of Vojvodina and second largest city in Serbia) with official Belgrade. So, my note is about possible misunderstanding that neither Kosovo nor Vojvodina are presently part of Serbia. That’s definitely not true for Vojvodina, and for sure still not true for Kosovo.



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