The history preceding the conflict: Yugoslavia up till 1991

Chapter 1
The era up till 1945

1. Introduction

In January 1991 J. Fietelaars, the Dutch ambassador to Yugoslavia, sent a message from Belgrade to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in The Hague that Slovenia was virtually certain to leave the Federation of Yugoslavia.[1] The Dutch diplomat felt this would lead to a political momentum where Croatia would rapidly follow Slovenia’s example and the remaining republics of Bosnia-Hercegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro would no longer wish to belong to the remnants of a Yugoslav state that would be dominated by Serbia.

An answer to the question of what would happen if Yugoslavia were to disintegrate came on 16 January from none other than President Milosevic of Serbia during a four-hour lunch in Belgrade with the European Community ambassadors to Yugoslavia. Here, Milosevic indicated ‘the ultimate compromise’ that Serbia was prepared to make if Yugoslavia were to collapse: ‘If this cannot be achieved peacefully, Serbia will have to opt for the power resources that we have at our disposal but they (the remaining republics) do not possess.’ According to the coded message that Ambassador Fietelaars sent to The Hague, the Serbian president continued by saying:

‘… [B]ut let there be no misunderstanding about this: if a federal Yugoslavia is no longer supported then the Serbian willingness to make sacrifices is rendered superfluous and is robbed of its value. We will then return to our starting point, to our Serbia. But this is not the present administrative department but the Serbs’ fatherland, and the Serbs in Yugoslavia who declare themselves in favour of a return to the Serb fatherland have the right to do this and the Serbian people will enforce that right.’[2]

Milosevic told his diplomatic audience that Serbia had no objection to Slovenia leaving the Yugoslav state structure because hardly any Serbs lived there. In Croatia, where 650,000 Serbs lived, ‘the borders will be adjusted and the Serbian enclaves will be secured. This is inevitable and is non-negotiable. Otherwise leaving the federation cannot be accepted and will be opposed by every available means.’ As yet the Serbian leader had reached no conclusions about Macedonia’s position. But Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina would have to remain a part of Yugoslavia. ‘There’s no place for concession.’[3]

Five months later Slovenia and Croatia declared independence on 25 June 1991. During the days that followed, images appeared throughout the world of terrified Yugoslav People’s Army conscripts who had found themselves caught up in a real war in Europe. For 45 years Europe had been synonymous with the absence of war. This almost idyllic situation came to an abrupt end in June 1991. For the Europeans, war was no longer something distant.

At first it still seemed like a ‘drôle de guerre’: an operetta-like war in Slovenia. It was a war that would last for ten days and would claim no more than a few dozen dead and wounded.[4] By contrast in Croatia, which had also proclaimed its independence, the conflict between Belgrade and the renegade republics rapidly took a sinister turn. Serbs and Croats were fighting a war where the Geneva Convention was repeatedly violated.

The conflict spread to Bosnia-Hercegovina in April 1992. This occurred shortly after the United Nations had decided to station troops in Croatia that were known as the United Nations Protection Force, or UNPROFOR for short. It was under this UNPROFOR flag that the Netherlands soon became involved in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as ultimately it was also to be in the fall of Srebrenica. This was because UNPROFOR’s mandate was rapidly extended to include Bosnia.

The Netherlands contributed to the UNPROFOR peacekeeping force from the very start. At first its contribution included a signals battalion and a transport battalion but this was later extended to the formation of a fighting unit in East Bosnia in March 1994. This meant that the Netherlands had sent 2339 armed soldiers to the former Yugoslavia so that the Dutch were the fourth largest supplier of troops to UNPROFOR (after France, Great Britain and Jordan) and were the eighth worldwide in terms of the 17 United Nations’ peace operations that were currently underway.[5] In addition, approximately 400 men of the Dutch Royal Navy and an additional 400 members of the Dutch Royal Air Force were deployed for the operations in and around the former Yugoslavia. Moreover, with its contingent of 50 unarmed UN observers, the Netherlands also supplied the largest proportion of the 600 United Nations Military Observers (UNMOs) in the former Yugoslavia. Most of the unit, or ‘Dutchbat’ as it was known in UN jargon, was stationed at Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave in East Bosnia. Its role was security, a task for which other countries had shown little enthusiasm.

In July 1995, sixteen months after the deployment of the first Dutch fighting battalion, Bosnian Serb troops overran the United Nation’s Safe Area of Srebrenica. The Dutch UN troops who were present were forced to abandon their task and over the following days several thousand Muslims were killed in the forests and at execution sites in this ‘safe area’s’ immediate vicinity.

Many felt that this was proof of the moral bankruptcy of an international community that had worked for three years without finding a political solution to the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. This was a bitter blow, certainly when bearing in mind the radical changes to the world stage that had recently occurred. The world order had changed radically since the reformer Mikhail Gorbachev had taken office in Moscow in 1985: Soviet control over Eastern Europe had been dismantled, the Berlin Wall had fallen and, finally, Communism had ceased to be the Soviet Union’s governing movement in the summer of 1991. This led around 1990 to a general sense of euphoria about the new world order that had been created by the end of the Cold War which had dominated international relations for more than 40 years. This euphoria became still more intense at the beginning of 1991 when an international force under the leadership of the United States rapidly ended the occupation of Kuwait. American President George Bush declared that his country had entered the war against Iraq because of ‘more than one small country; it is a big idea, a new world order’.[6] This new world order would include new forms of co-operation between countries, a peaceful settling of differences, international solidarity against aggression, arms reduction, arms control and the fair treatment of all peoples. It was received with general acclaim.

However, there was also cause for concern. Now that a suicidal war between East and West was no longer an issue, there was an increasing awareness that there were also fewer restraints on outbursts of violence, particularly in the Balkans.[7] Indeed, rather than suddenly improving, the international context had simply changed. This does not alter the fact that the violent outbursts in the Balkans in the early 1990s were difficult to understand within this international context.

The violence in the Balkans was also in stark contrast to the solemn tributes at the 1980 funeral of Josip ‘Tito’ Broz. This event in a still-united Yugoslavia was attended by the largest imaginable collection of heads of state from both East and West along with the Non-Aligned Movement countries. All of them paid their last respects to the man who, for 35 years, had enabled Yugoslavia to gain a unique position and respect in the world.

What happened in the 11 years between 1980 and 1991 when the country that Tito had forged together was finally to disintegrate? Where are the causes of the dramatic end of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia? Do these causes exclusively exist in Yugoslavia itself or were there also external ones? Have other nations or the international community either intentionally or unintentionally contributed to the collapse of Yugoslavia’s political structure? Would it have been possible to try to prevent this deterioration externally? And what were the outside world’s options to end or to limit the conflict once it had started? Which routes were open here and what resources were available? These questions are mainly discussed at the beginning of the preceding history because they are necessary for a good understanding of the events that occurred in and around the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. What follows reveals an all-too-frequent collision between the reality of international decision-makers and the reality of the developments within the region itself. The consequences were to be fateful.

As was previously stated, a good understanding of the events in Srebrenica can only be achieved by exploring the history of Yugoslavia. This chapter has already referred to President Tito who managed to maintain his country’s unity for dozens of years. We must now focus on the period of his regime and on the preceding era so as to be able to understand that the conflict in the early 1990s had an extensive and contiguous history.


[1] Hazewinkel, ‘Beleid’, pp. 10 and 13.

[2] ABZ, DDI-DEU/ARA/00408, Joegoslavië/Binnenlandse politiek/Servië, Fietelaars 14, 21/01/91.

[3] ABZ, DDI-DEU/ARA/00408, Joegoslavië/Binnenlandse politiek/Servië, Fietelaars 14, 21/01/91.

[4] Zametica, Conflict, p. 15 mentions the Slovenian armed forces sustaining 19 fatalities with the federal army incurring 45.

[5] Apart from the three countries already mentioned, it came after Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia. M.A.W. Scheffelaar, ‘De blauwe onmacht’, Carré 1995, no. 11, p. 11; the Information Service of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, ‘Nederlandse militairen in en rond voormalig Joegoslavië. Stand van zaken 1 maart 1994’.

[6] Quoted in Dore, Japan, p.116.

[7] K. Koch, 'Het nieuwe dreigingsbeeld, Nederlandse defensie tegen een nieuwe achtergrond’, p. 11.