Former Yugoslavia 101: The Balkans Breakup If you're confused about how the former Yugoslavia dissolved after the fall of communism, you're not alone. The country was melded together after World War I from six major Slavic groups and its post-communism breakup has largely followed ethnic lines. Michele Norris has a primer on the new states created in the Balkans since 1989.

Former Yugoslavia 101: The Balkans Breakup

Former Yugoslavia 101: The Balkans Breakup

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If you're confused about how the former Yugoslavia dissolved after the fall of communism, you're not alone. The country was melded together after World War I from six major Slavic groups and its post-communism breakup has largely followed ethnic lines. Michele Norris has a primer on the new states created in the Balkans since 1989.


There was a time when it seemed like a good idea to have a single state on the Balkan Peninsula for Europe's South Slavic people. Yugoslavia, literally land of the South Slavs, was formed after World War I. It brought together six ethnic groups. They spoke a common language, Servo-Croatian, but they had different histories, different beliefs, and distinct identities. After World War II, Yugoslavia was subdivided along ethnic lines into six republics and forcibly held together by Tito under communist rule. But when Tito died and communism fell, those republics pulled apart.

In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia each declared complete independence from Yugoslavia. A bloody war then broke out in Croatia where Serbs tried to create their own state. A year later, Macedonia formed its own state with little conflict. Next to go was the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But Bosnian Serbs wanted to stay with what was left of the Yugoslav Federation and that led to three years of war.

The last of the Yugoslav republics, Serbia and Montenegro, held together until 2006. And that brings us to this weekend, when Kosovo declared it's independence from Serbia.

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Q&A: The State of Kosovo

Kosovo, in yellow, surrounded by its Balkan neighbors. Click to view a larger map of the region. Lindsay Mangum, NPR hide caption

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Lindsay Mangum, NPR

A map of Kosovo and its Balkan neighbors.

Lindsay Mangum, NPR

After years of dispute over Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province is expected to declare its independence this weekend.

The plan includes keeping NATO's peacekeeping force in place — and having the European Union take over from the United Nations in overseeing the judicial system and ensuring rule of law.

Serbia has rejected the idea of an independent Kosovo, but has said it would not use force against the province.

Here's some background on the situation:

Where is Kosovo?

Kosovo is in southern Europe. It is a landlocked area a bit smaller than Connecticut — north of Macedonia, east of Albania, south of Serbia, and west of Bulgaria. It's at nearly the same latitude as the "ankle" of Italy.

What is Kosovo's legal status?

Kosovo is technically still a part of Serbia, which was the dominant republic in the former Yugoslavia. But since 1999, Kosovo has been run by a U.N. mission and protected by NATO troops. When Yugoslavia existed as a country, Kosovo was — for part of that time — an autonomous area within Serbia.

What led to the current situation?

In 1999, NATO bombed Serbia in order to stop what the organization called a "campaign of terror" against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, carried out by the then Yugoslav military and irregular Serb paramilitary groups. At the end of the bombing, the Security Council approved Resolution 1244, which gave a U.N. mission the responsibility to administer Kosovo, while developing elements of a local provisional government, until a final political solution could be arranged for Kosovo.

The antagonism between Serbs and Albanians has roots that date back to the Middle Ages. These tensions have flared into violence in varying degrees since then, including in the years just prior to the 1999 bombing.

What has Russia's stance been?

Russia's major public objection is that the United Nations doesn't have the right to carve up sovereign states and warns this will set a bad precedent. Moscow refers frequently to U.N .Security Council resolution 1244, which mentions the U.N. "commitment" to the "sovereignty and territorial integrity" of Yugoslavia. In addition, Moscow backs Serbia in saying that Serbs in Kosovo have not, and cannot be, adequately protected, and says further talks should be held between Serbia and Kosovo.

The United States and the Kosovo government have rejected the idea of more talks, and the U.N. envoy has said the possibilities for discussion are exhausted. The United States also argues that Kosovo is a unique case and should not be seen as setting a precedent for other independent-minded or "breakaway" regions around the world. The situation in Kosovo is being watched closely by people elsewhere around the world who have been seeking their own states, including the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Basques in Spain. A number of such conflicts directly involve Russia, including in Chechnya, Transdniestr, South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Why is this important to the United States?

The United States got involved militarily against the Serbs in Kosovo in 1999 after sitting out similarly horrible wars in Bosnia and Croatia. The U.S.-led NATO bombardment set the stage for U.N. governance of Kosovo — and for the current question of its future status. In the U.S. view, the only possible path to stability in the Balkans region is for Kosovo to become independent.

What are the chances of more violence in this area?

Officials from both sides have assured the international community that they would not resort to violence. After the December 10 deadline for an agreement passed without any resolution, Kosovo's prime minister-designate, Hasim Thaci, began talks with his ethnic Albanian political rivals. Thaci leads one of the biggest ethnic Albanian parties.

At the same time, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said his country would not accept European Union supervision in Kosovo, and would abandon efforts to join the European Union, if the group recognizes Kosovo as an independent state. The Serbs have insisted that the Kosovo question must be resolved in the United Nations Security Council. That's because Russia, a traditional ally of the Serbs, has a veto on the council. Russia has already said it will ask the U.N. Security Council to nullify any unilateral declaration of independence by the Kosovo Albanians.

Serbia has said it would not use force against the breakaway province, though it's possible that fringe elements on both sides could take advantage of the uncertainly to re-ignite violence.