As a Balkan kingdom, Yugoslavia
n republic, or a pariah
state, Serbia has never failed to be at the centre of its region's history. The country's often-turbulent politics, revolutions and palace coup
s have provided many in the West with their abiding images, frequently verging on stereotypes, of Balkan life.
Serbia lies in the heartland of the Balkan peninsula, and is centred on its capital city of Belgrade
through which the Danube
runs. It was predominantly a country of small peasants until the Communist-led industrialisation of the twentieth century. Modern-day Serbia also includes the Vojvodina
, between Belgrade and southern Hungary
, and the much-contested region of Kosovo
, in the south-west.
language, formerly known as Serbo-Croatian
, belongs to the Slavonic
family and uses the Cyrillic
alphabet common to most Orthodox nations. Serbo-Croatian contained three separate dialects; the Serbs' is the ekavian
variant, so-called for the pronounciation of a common vowel. The ijekavian Croat
s' word for time is vrijeme
on the ikavian
coast), which is vreme
to a Serb.
The first Serbian flag, which belonged to the medieval emperor Stefan Dušan
, bore a red double-headed eagle
on a yellow field. From the nineteenth century onwards, Serbia's colours have been a typical pan-Slavic
red, blue and white horizontal tricolour
, bearing the royal escutcheon
Its coat of arms contains four očile
, or firesteel
s, plates used in Orthodox religious services to burn fire underneath icon
s and wreath them in smoke. They were introduced as a national symbol by Saint Sava
: shaped like the letter C, they represent the letter S in Cyrillic, and stand for his saying Samo sloga Srbina spašava
- Only unity saves the Serbs
. The Byzantine
emperors had made similar use of their alliterative motto on their own arms.
Empires and Myths
s arrived in the Balkans
as part of the seventh-century influx of Slavs from the Eurasian steppes. Their society was led by the chieftains of the various clans, and the strongest chieftains would become the rulers of the medieval states which ebbed and flowed over what is called Serbia today. The greatest of these dynasties was the Nemanjid
s, whose state was called Zeta
. One of them, Stefan
, was crowned the first Serbian king in 1217
Only two years later, Stefan's brother Saint Sava
took advantage of Byzantine
weakness (a common pastime for ambitious Serbian rulers until the Ottoman
s appeared on the scene) to establish an independent Serbian Orthodox
church. Even after the Serbs lost their political independence, the church would help to preserve their identity, and would be looked upon by the nationalists of the nineteenth century as the cradle of their Serbhood.
Serbia's most glorious ruler was Stefan Dušan
, who came to the throne as emperor in 1331
and extended his territory as far as Epirus
, in the north of Greece. His weak successors were in no state to resist the Ottoman advance into Serbia; in purely military terms, the most significant defeat took place on the Marica
river in 1371
, but the battle enshrined in Serbian myth took place at Kosovo Polje
Both the Ottoman sultan
and the Serbian leader
were killed in this engagement, and even if to a strategist it was no more than a costly draw, the events of the battle were transmuted into epic poetry and Serbian legend. Kosovo, which already contained some major Serbian Orthodox monasteries, became a holy site
in Serbian memory, and would be revived as a symbol of the nation's martyrdom
. Serbia's national day, Vidovdan
, remains the anniversary of Kosovo Polje on June 28
Although pushed back by its fourteenth-century battles, the medieval Serbian state was not finally overcome until 1459
, when Serbia passed into Ottoman control for four hundred years. In Serbia, the Ottoman government essentially functioned to collect taxes and recruit child conscripts for the janissary
corps. The Empire's millet
system, under which the leaders of the various religions legislated for their own faithful, allowed many other matters to be handled by the Orthodox church, which was led by the Patriarch of Peć
, a Kosovo monastery.
, it fell to the Patriarch to organise the Serbs' Great Migration
into the Vojvodina. The Habsburg Empire
had fought the Ottomans since they entered Europe, using the Balkans as their battleground, and after the Siege of Vienna
chased the Sultan's forces all the way to Belgrade.
The Serbs had welcomed the Austrian advance, but when it was reversed 40,000 villagers chose to take flight from the Ottoman reprisals. Many of them would settle in the Habsburgs' Military Frontier
, its first line of defence against the Ottomans, and produce generations of Austria's most dedicated soldiers.
One such regiment proved of great service in 1804
, when the First Serbian Revolt
against the Ottoman authorities broke out under the leadership of a bandit chief called Karađorđe
, a name translating simply as Black George
. Karađorđe's first rising was defeated in 1812
, but his resistance was remembered as yet another example of Serbian defiance, and inspired the Second Serbian Revolt
This revolt was led by Miloš Obrenović
; his descendants became one of Serbia's royal dynasties, and Karađorđe's the other. The rivalry between the two broke out in 1817
when Obrenović had Karađorđe assassinated, and would scar Serbian politics for ninety years. Obrenović was compelled to recognise Karađorđe's son Aleksandar I
as his successor in 1842
; the same pressures forced Aleksandar from power in 1858
in favour of the House of Obrenović once again.
A minister of Aleksandar's, Ilija Garašanin
, was the first to set out a nationalist programme for a Greater Serbia
, which would include the Serbs' cherished Kosovo and also Bosnia-Herzegovina
, parts of Croatia
and the then separate kingdom of Montenegro
, with assured access to the Adriatic Sea
. At much the same time, the folklorist Vuk Karadžić
was collecting traditional Serbian epics (and making up his own), and codifying the Serbian language; together, he and Garašanin were the fathers of Serbian nationalism.
Piedmont of the Balkans
Serbia won full independence from the Ottomans in 1882
, officially graduating from a principality
to a full kingdom. The Obrenović monarch, Aleksandar
, was a compliant Habsburg client, but in 1903
was assassinated in his bed by conspiratorial officers from the Black Hand
circle led by Dragutin Dimitrijević
. Aleksandar had scandalised many of his subjects by installing his mistress as Queen Draga
; the woman was murdered alongside him, and the Obrenović dynasty ground to a halt.
The events of 1903 produced international outrage, and left Austria-Hungary
with the permanent headache of an assertive Serbia. Not only the Serbs of the Monarchy, but many of its Croats and Slovene
s too, began to look to Serbia to fulfil their national aspirations in a way that Austria, and even more so Hungary
, could not. Serbia's wily prime minister, Nikola Pašić
, consciously cultivated Serbia's identification with Piedmont
, the kingdom which had led the unification of Italy
, Serbia and the other Balkan kingdoms took advantage of the Italo-Turkish War
to make a grab for the remaining Turkish territory in Europe - roughly, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia and Thrace
- in the First Balkan War
. This and the Second Balkan War
, fought when Serbia's rival Bulgaria
disputed the Macedonian settlement, left Serbia doubled in size.
Influential Austrians, notably the chief of staff Conrad von Hoetzendorff
, had already been itching to go to war with Serbia ever since economic sanctions
, the so-called Pig War
had failed in the mid-1900s. Their justification came in 1914
, when the heir to the throne Archduke Franz Ferdinand
was assassinated on a visit to Sarajevo
by a Bosnian Serb student, Gavrilo Princip
: it was no coincidence that the attack took place on June 28.
Princip and his friends had been funded and armed by the Black Hand, and Vienna blamed the highest levels of Serbian government; the ensuing diplomatic kerfuffle brought on World War I
. Pašić quickly associated himself with the cause of the Habsburgs' South Slavs
, although their relationship remained stormy throughout the war amid suspicions that he was more concerned with Macedonia than, say, the Slovene lands.
Serbia proved no match for the Habsburg army
once they were reinforced by the German general Mackensen
, and the Serbian soldiers were forced to retreat across the Balkan mountains to the safety of the Adriatic in the bitter winter of late 1915
; the retreat would be remembered as another epic for the annals of Serbian heroism.
As Austria-Hungary fell apart in late 1918
and World War I drew to an end, her South Slavs chose to unify with Serbia to create the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes
under the House of Karađorđević, who had been re-installed in 1903. Many of the new kingdom's Croats believed that undue prominence was given to the Serbs in the new, centralised kingdom, especially after 1929
when King Aleksandar II
instituted a royal dictatorship
During World War II
, practically every European Axis
power was allotted at least a slice of Serbia: the Vojvodina went to Hungary, and Kosovo to Mussolini
's satellite of Albania, while Germany administered 'Serbia proper' through a puppet leader, Milan Nedić
. The Karađorđević dynasty escaped to London
, where part of Claridge's
hotel had to be temporarily declared Yugoslav sovereign territory to allow their son, born in the royal suite, to be eligible for the succession.
resistance army, led by a Yugoslavian army colonel called Draža Mihailović
, became associated with Serbian nationalism as the war went on; the atrocities committed by some Chetniks, not all under Mihailović's control, tarnished their reputation and attracted more young Yugoslavs to the Partisan
s of Josip Broz Tito
- by 1943
Mihailović was spending more time fighting the Partisans than the Germans.
In Tito's Yugoslavia, Serbia was recognised as one of the federation's six constituent republics, and Kosovo and the Vojvodina were given the anomalous position of autonomous province
s within Serbia. Many citizens' memories, still raw from what had effectively been a civil war overlaid on the wider European conflict, remained suspicious of anything that could be interpreted as Serbian dominance.
Such concerns underlay the purge of Tito's hardline comrade and secret police chief Aleksandar Ranković
, when he put up too much opposition to the economic liberalisation that Tito favoured at the time. Ranković's purge, followed by that of the Serbian liberal leaders in 1972
when Tito changed his mind, paved the way for the generation of technocrat
leaders which included Slobodan Milošević
Milošević's Rise and Fall
Among Serbs disenchanted with Titoism thanks to an endemic economic crisis, and alarmed at the upsurge of Kosovar Albanian
nationalism, their own nationalism resurfaced during the mid-1980s in a sensationalist, often aggressive, form. Scare stories of anti-Serb Albanian violence abounded, most infamously a rumour that a Serb farmer had been sodomised with a bottle. The opportunistic Milošević latched on to this climate in 1987
, stepping forward when a Serb demonstration at Kosovo Polje turned violent to declare that 'No-one is allowed to beat you'.
Milošević spent the next few years consolidating his power in the Serbian and Montenegrin republics, withdrawing the autonomy of Kosovo and the Vojvodina in 1989
. His attitude, and the nationalism he espoused, made Croatia
- experiencing its own nationalist revival - all the more anxious to leave the federation once it became obvious Slovenian hearts were set on secession. The JNA
, the Yugoslavian army, which attacked the two republics when they declared independence in June 1991
, fell increasingly under Milošević's control.
Visions of Greater Serbia resurfaced once Bosnia-Hercegovina declared independence too in early 1992
, and Milošević reportedly colluded with the Croatian president Franjo Tudjman
to partition Bosnia between them - at a time when the Croatian army was fighting rebel Serbs in the Krajina
and eastern Slavonia
supported by the JNA. The extent to which top Serbian politicians knew of, funded and ordered the Bosnian Serb
army, and the policies of ethnic cleansing
it pursued, is under painstaking investigation by the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague
Milošević's 'Yugoslavia', meanwhile, took the form of a nominally socialist dictatorship composed only of Serbia and Montenegro. While Milošević's family and associates grew rich on the profits of smuggling
and sanction-busting, many Serbs resented the hyperinflation
, and came to see through the official media's chauvinism and its diet of turbofolk
Milošević signed the Dayton Accords
, ending the war in Bosnia, but a few years later turned his attention to Kosovo and the repression of the emerging Albanian guerrilla movement, the KLA
. International talks with Yugoslavia on the status of Kosovo failed, and NATO bombed
Serbia and Montenegro in 1999
to force Milošević to comply.
In October 2000
, Milošević's attempts to deny his loss to Vojislav Koštunica
in a presidential election was met by a revolution
against his regime. While Serbian politics since the revolution were more transparent, they were also marred by rivalry between Koštunica, president of Yugoslavia, and the Serbian prime minister, Zoran Đinđić
. The euphoria of 2000 turned to apathy, and in late 2002
several rounds of elections for the Serbian presidency had to be annulled due to low turnouts.
In early 2003
, a much-discussed agreement between Serbia and Montenegro consigned Yugoslavia - and Koštunica's current job - to history: the two republics would remain in a loose confederation
for three years, with independence a possibility at the end of that time. The inclusion of Kosovo, effectively an international protectorate
since 1999, as an integral part of Serbia was a potential source of controversy.
In March of the same year, the pro-European Đinđić, who had announced a crackdown on the organised crime
which had been endemic ever since the Milošević era, was shot dead outside government buildings in Belgrade: it was speculated that his assassins belonged to one particular gang afraid they were next in line.
Ivo Banac, The National Question in Yugoslavia
Misha Glenny, The Balkans
Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth and Revenge
One node can't be comprehensive, and it's long enough already. Anything in bold is either noded, or should be; by all means /msg me if there's anything to add.