Serbia National History


Present-day Serbia was originally the Roman territory of Dalmatia. In the 7th Century AD Slav tribes from the Carpathian Mountains region moved into Dalmatia and displaced the Romanised population. In the 9th Century the settlers accepted the authority of the powerful Byzantine Empire and became Orthodox Christians.

The first Serb kingdom was formed in the 11th century, after a successful revolt against Byzantine control. In 1169 the Nemanjic ruling dynasty was founded and a process of territorial expansion began. At the height of it’s power, under Stephan Dushan (ruled 1331-1355), the kingdom controlled Serbia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and parts of Bosnia and Greece. In June 1389 Serbia and it’s allies were decisively defeated by the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Kosovo Polje. After a period of resistance, the last areas of Serbian territory fell under Ottoman rule in 1459.

In 1804-1813 a revolt against Ottoman rule was led by Djordje Petrovic (‘Karadorde’), but ultimately failed. A second revolt in 1815-1817 under Milos Obrenovic was more successful, resulting in Serbia gaining partial autonomy. The defeat of the Ottomans in the Russo-Turkish War of 1829 saw Serbia established as a fully autonomous Principality. In 1867 Turkish garrison troops were withdrawn from Serbia and in July 1878 the Treaty of Berlin formally gave full independence to Serbia. In March 1882 Serbia became a kingdom. During the 1800s Serbia transformed itself from a backward principality into a modern state comparable with any other in Europe. Rapid industrialisation soon bestowed growing economic and military power.

By 1900 many of the old kingdoms surrounding Serbia were still under Ottoman or Austro-Hungarian rule. In 1912 Serbia founded the Balkan League with Bulgaria, Greece and Montenegro. The first Balkan War in 1912 ended in an armistice, but in 1913 renewed fighting saw defeat of the Ottomans and their withdrawal from the Balkan region. The territories under Austro-Hungary remained unchanged. On 28 June 1914 Bosnian-Serb Gavrilo Princep assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand – heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne – in Sarajevo, the capital of Austrian-controlled Bosnia-Hercegovina. Serbia was accused of actively supporting the assassins. On 23 July 1914 an ultimatum was delivered by Austro-Hungary demanding that Serbia suppress all anti-Austrian terrorist organisations. Russia sided with Serbia and Germany supported Austria in the dispute. The ultimatum expired on 28 July 1914 without result and so war was declared on Serbia. This marked the start of the First World War.

Fighting on home territory, the Serbian Army gained a number of victories over the invading Austro-Hungarians, but additional German forces and the entry of Bulgaria into the war on Austria’s side in October 1915 was too much to resist. The Serbian Army was forced to retreat over the mountains to the Albanian coast. From there it was taken to Corfu by Allied shipping to recuperate. In mid-1916 the Serbian Army joined Entente forces under French leadership in Greece and Macedonia. An attempted offensive by Entente forces was soon halted and the Salonika Front settled into a stalemate. In September 1918 Entente forces launched a two-pronged offensive into Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia and in 10 days Entente forces entered Bulgaria iself. The rapid collapse of Bulgarian forces allowed the Serbs to enter Belgrade on 1 November 1918.

Following the surrender of Germany and Austro-Hungary after the First World War, a multi-national South Slav (Yugoslav) state was established on 1 December 1918 under Serbian leadership, formally entitled the “Triune Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”. The new country incorporated the territories of six separate states: Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia (all with mainly Orthodox Christian populations, and until recently part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire), Croatia and Slovenia (both mainly Roman Catholic population and formerly part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and Bosnia-Hercegovina (formerly Ottoman, and with a significant Moslem minority). The new country was a hastily arranged union, and Serb political domination was resented by the non-Serbs.

As a result of growing Croatian separatism, in 1929, the King set up a royal dictatorship, and the name of the kingdom officially became Yugoslavia. Following the assassination of the King in 1934, the leadership became pro-German. On 27 March 1941, the leadership was deposed by an anti-German military coup, but the Germans immediately invaded the country. (This invasion delayed the attack on the Soviet Union by more than a month, possibly losing valuable time for a decisive win on the Eastern Front). Croatian Fascists supported the Germans, while royalist Chetniks and communist Partisans offered resistance. With Allied support, the latter grew strong enough to liberate Yugoslavia in 1944-45.

On 29 November 1945 a communist controlled Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established. In 1948 relations with the USSR were broken off. In 1951 a mutual assistance pact was signed with the UK and USA. The original Stalinist government was gradually replaced by an increasingly decentralised federation. Economic problems and resurgent ethnic conflict brought an end to communist rule in 1990 for Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina – each of which declared independence from Yugoslavia between June 1991 and February 1992. The Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army tried to halt the secession of Slovenia by force, but failed. Subsequent moves towards independence by Croatia appeared to threaten the safety of the ethnic Serb minority population, which had lived in the Krajina region of Croatia for centuries. Amid talk of establishing a ‘Greater Serbia’, Serb nationalists occupied one third of Croatia, and initiated a civil war in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

In 1992 a new Yugoslav Federal Republic was established, comprising the two remaining republics of Serbia and Montenegro. Between 1993 and 1995, Croatian military offensives drove the Serbs from the occupied areas, displacing many thousands of ethnic Serbs who fled into Serbia. In 1995 NATO air power finally brought about a ceasefire in Bosnia.

From late 1997 there was increasingly violent unrest in the formerly semi-autonomous Serbian province of Kosovo. Serbian citizens of ethnic Albanian descent, who formed the majority population of the province, had been demanding the restoration of local autonomy. This activity has violently suppressed by Serb security forces. A local guerrilla force, known as the UCK, began attacking Serbian security forces within Kosovo. Throughout 1998, the escalating conflict attracted increasingly desperate attempts at a diplomatic solution by several countries. Before these attempts had been exhausted, Serb forces had initiated a campaign of systematic expulsion and extermination of the ethnic Albanian population from Kosovo. Some 850,000 refugees were soon forced to flee into neighbouring countries.

On 24 March 1999, NATO was reluctantly forced to commence a series of increasingly severe air attacks on Yugoslavia, named Operation ‘Allied Force’, in an attempt to force a withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo. In the meantime, the increasingly Western-leaning government of Montenegro was caught between the Serb-dominated Federal Government in Belgrade and it’s wish for normal relations with the rest of Europe. In 1990, Yugoslavia was one of the richest countries in Eastern Europe, but after ten years of rule under President Milosevic, it had now become one of the poorest. On 8 June 1999 an agreement was signed with NATO obliging Serbia to withdraw all it’s armed forces from Kosovo. On 12 June 1999 Operation ‘Joint Guardian’ commenced when NATO and Russian peacekeeping forces entered Kosovo to restore order and assist in re-building the region.

Yugoslav Presidential elections were held on 24 September 2000. The huge turn-out of voters meant that the ‘head start’ in false votes for Milosevic was overcome by the many genuine votes for the opposition candidate, who was unofficially declared the clear winner. Milosevic subsequently had the election results annulled. Angered at this denial of justice, the Serbian people were roused to a popular uprising on 5 October 2000 and forced Milosevic from office. The pro-democracy opposition candidate was then declared the new President. New Serbian elections in November confirmed the take-over by pro-democracy parties. Milosevic was subsequently tried for war-crimes at The Hague.

The new moderate Yugoslav president was immediately seen by ethnic-Albanian extremists as a obstacle to independence for Kosovo. From late in 2000, their terrorist campaign against Serbs inside Kosovo was stepped up and cross-border raids into Serbia itself were launched. In 2001 this campaign included rocket attacks on Serbian security forces in Serbia and bomb attacks on convoys of Serbian vehicles entering Kosovo. Kosovan Serbs inevitably retaliated. NATO forces attempted to maintain order.

In March 2002, Serbia and Montenegro agreed to draw up a constitution to create a new Serbia & Montenegro Federal Republic, in a deal aimed at preventing the secession of Montenegro from the Federation. This caused some political problems in Montenegro, but pro-agreement parties were re-elected and in February 2003 the new constitution was ratified.

In March 2004 Kosovo saw the worst ethnic violence since the 1999 Crisis, when riots left 19 dead and hundreds injured. Serbian homes and churches were attacked and burnt by ethnic Albanian mobs. The NATO-led peacekeeping force was able to restore order, but UN administration of the province was widely criticised.

On 21 May 2006 Montenegro voted narrowly in favour of independence from Serbia in a national referendum. The break with Serbia was formally made on 3 June 2006, dissolving the Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

Leave a Comment