The Lasting Impact of the Breakup of Yugoslavia

This is part of our special feature, Imagining, Thinking, and Teaching Europe.
This is part of our roundtable on European Integration.


The long history of peoples and movements throughout the Balkans has situated Yugoslavia in a particularly interesting position culturally, geographically, and politically. Although the region has experienced many fascinating historical transformations, one significant event in particular changed the course of local, regional, and even global history. Indeed, the breakup of Yugoslavia has had a profound and lasting impact on the Balkans, Europe, and the world. Within the Balkans, the history of former Yugoslavia has led to complex identities and sentiments of belonging. Following the death of Yugoslavia’s leader, Josip Broz Tito, in 1980, uncertainty facilitated ethnic animosities. These tensions exploded in the conflictual and violent breakup of Yugoslavia throughout the 1990s. The Yugoslav Wars that followed the breakup were a violent series of conflicts in which atrocities were committed. In response to the conflict, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was created to serve as an impartial mechanism for justice in the Balkans (“About the ICTY”). In addition to its localized and international impacts, the breakup of Yugoslavia regionally impacted Europe through former Yugoslav emigration throughout Europe and discussions of potential European Union integration of former Yugoslav countries. Yugoslavia’s disintegration has had a lasting impact on identities, migrations, international law, and the European Union locally, regionally, and globally.

The breakup highlighted ethnic identities in opposition to formerly Yugoslav identities, causing reconsiderations of identities and belonging. From December 2017 to January 2018, I conducted interviews with Serbs in Belgrade regarding changes in their identities and citizenships following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Interlocutors often cited the conflictual breakup of Yugoslavia in inducing changes in their identities. They added that they had developed new perceptions of belonging in the state within which they resided during and after the breakup. In some cases, participants did not wish to identify with the new state’s citizenship to which they were assigned according to geographic location. As a result, respondents recalled experiencing identity crises in reacting to potential displacements and changes to theirs and their peers’ national identities. Interviewees who experienced the breakup in Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, or Serbia further reevaluated their identities as citizens of a new state that was no longer Yugoslavia. They also discussed rethinking their relation to ethnic others and members of their ethnic group with differing post-war identities. For example, an interlocutor who is ethnically Serbian claimed she was a Zemljanka, or woman of the Earth/World, and that she resisted identifying with any post-Yugoslav ethno-national identity. This woman discussed that, since the breakup, she had had to reconsider her interactions with other ethnic Serbs and with other former Yugoslavs of different ethno-national identifications. Such reconsideration of one’s positionality and belonging in the post-Yugoslav context was confirmed by many other interlocutors who added that this rethinking resulted in difficulties adjusting to the post-Yugoslav way of life in Serbia.

In addition to the rethinking of identities that pervaded the post-Yugoslav space, animosities grew due to the ethno-politically charged nature of the breakup. Within the Balkans, the politicization of ethnicities and nationalisms perpetuated the conflict as new borders created new citizenships, separating people that were once unified as “Yugoslavs.” New citizenships required people to reconcile their identities as no longer Yugoslav, but rather nationals of present former Yugoslav countries. In Serbia, in some instances, people were entitled to citizenship of multiple former Yugoslav countries, while others were left without any citizenship, becoming refugees in countries with which they ethnically identified. This complicated the relationship between ethnicity and nationality. Thus, in the immediate post-Yugoslav period, sentiments of belonging were called into question. In addition to influencing sentiments of belonging, the persistence of antagonisms between former Yugoslavs, particularly ethno-national others, leads us to consider methods of easing tensions and the nature of identity formation itself. As tensions take time to dissolve or mend, and as ethno-national and political issues continue in the region, the future of socio-political relations among former Yugoslavs remains uncertain—as exemplified by the current situation in Montenegro in which tensions of religion and identity between Serbs and Montenegrins have been progressing. Thus, in addition to influencing antagonisms between former Yugoslavs, the breakup has significantly changed Balkan identities and citizenships with enduring effects.

The breakup resulted in vast migrations of former Yugoslavs from their republic of origin to the post-Yugoslav republic with which they more strongly ethno-nationally identified or in which they felt safer. Within the Balkans, accommodating refugees had significant socio-economic impacts. For instance, Serbian refugees have reported lengthy processes to obtain citizenship in the former Yugoslav country with which they ethno-nationally identified. Although the breakup of Yugoslavia has profoundly impacted the Balkans, its consequences throughout Europe are sometimes overlooked. For instance, the breakup resulted in migrations of former Yugoslavs to other European countries, including Germany, Hungary, Austria, and Sweden, among others (Kamm 1992, 1). During the 1990s, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria in particular became hubs for Balkan emigration and continued to be main destinations in the following years (Bonifazi and Mamolo 2004, 525). In these countries, Balkan emigration was so prominent that former Yugoslavs made up 13.8 percent of the foreign population of Germany, 12.8 percent of that of Switzerland, and 42.7 percent of that of Austria (Bonifazi and Mamolo 2004, 525). As former Yugoslav refugees adapted to life in other countries, they incorporated new ways of life. The interchange of customs also resulted in changes for the locals. Such changes can be clearly seen in food consumption, imports of “foreign foods,” immigrants becoming involved in sports, fashion trends, and art (“European Migration Network: Impact of Immigration on Europe’s Societies”). Thus, not only has the breakup induced a reevaluation of identities within what was once Yugoslavia, but it has also spread such reconsiderations throughout Europe through the experiences of former Yugoslav immigrants and refugees.

The breakup of Yugoslavia has had an extensive impact on issues of sovereignty, nationalism, international law, borders, and disintegration. Because present borders in the Balkans do not necessarily reflect ethnic distributions, discussions arose about ethno-national boundaries and ethnic minorities. The breakup also paved the way for the creation of ad hoc tribunals and alternative legal mechanisms at the international level. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, the first of its kind, only recently came to a close. The Tribunal significantly informed international law by setting precedents for future cases. The ICTY was created in response to the violence following the breakup of Yugoslavia and subsequent Yugoslav Wars and had jurisdiction over individuals in the territory of former Yugoslavia beginning in 1991 (“Mandate and Crimes under ICTY Jurisdiction”). The Tribunal served to prosecute those who violated international humanitarian law during the 1990s and aimed to restore peace in the Balkans (“Mandate and Crimes under ICTY Jurisdiction”). The ad hoc nature of the Tribunal and its international approach aimed to deter people from violating international laws, facilitate truth-telling, and set a precedent that the international community would not be a bystander to atrocities (Akhavan 1998, 741-742). In addition to creating a historical record, the Tribunal has created international legal norms for dealing with atrocities and certainly set a precedent for the structure and creation of international legal mechanisms of accountability worldwide.

Of further legal concern is the creation or legalization of new state borders and declarations of independence. The term “Balkanization” has become popular in discussions of disintegration and has forced us to question the security of present borders in numerous contexts of regional/national fragmentation. With growing unrest among ethnic minorities throughout Europe and elsewhere, the concept of Balkanization perseveres and may apply to future fragmentations. This concept has induced reconsiderations of international notions of sovereignty, specifically concerning ethnic, linguistic, and related claims for or against sovereignty. (Richmond 2002, 381-382). Most recently, the dispute over the status of Kosovo continues without resolution, bringing to the fore issues of international law, sovereignty, minority rights, and borders that will set a precedent for the international community.

Since the breakup of Yugoslavia and the entrance of Slovenia and Croatia into the European Union, the potential integration of other former Yugoslav countries has been a hot topic throughout the Balkans. Slovenia was admitted into the European Union in 2004, followed by Croatia in 2013, while Serbia, Montenegro, and North Macedonia remain candidate countries and Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo stand as potential candidates. The fact that not all former Yugoslav countries have joined the European Union has sometimes induced sentiments of jealousy in countries that await membership. For example, in 2018, Serbs I met living in Serbia reported being jealous of Croatian or Slovenian citizens who are able to travel and work abroad easily. However, with some progress being made by Montenegro, Serbia, and North Macedonia to satisfy membership conditions, it will be interesting to see how the nature of European Union enlargement develops in the coming years. Particularly because of Brexit, the potential of new European Union member states, and growing nationalisms, the European Union is at a significant point in its development.

In recent years, nationalisms have strengthened, contributing to former Yugoslav countries gaining independence, and more recently, to Brexit. Additionally, displacement of peoples due to civil unrest also brought to the forefront questions of citizenship, identity, and belonging. As a result of the continuous flux of migrants and refugees, ethnic, national, and personal identities have been contested (Eriksen 2010, 3). Incorporating Balkan voices that had previously been “othered” by Western Europe may change existing European ideals.

The breakup of Yugoslavia has taught us to question international, European, and Balkan laws and norms. Through reconsiderations of belonging, the breakup led former Yugoslavs to reposition themselves in post-Yugoslav, European, and global spaces. In addition to influencing conceptions of identity in the Balkans and among former Yugoslav immigrants, it also led to numerous guides for international law. The breakup and responses to it set precedents for ad hoc tribunals and inform current discourses of national independence. Furthermore, the breakup created two new EU member-states and more candidates for entry. The Balkans have often been represented as Europe’s “internal Other,” onto which Western Europe has often “projected its anxieties” (Vezovnik and Šarić 2015, 238). As a result, the potential incorporation of the remaining former Yugoslav countries into the European Union could bridge the European/Balkan divide, bringing about a reflection on the meaning of European identity and thought. Twenty years later, the breakup of Yugoslavia continues to influence the Balkans, Europe, and the international community through issues of identity, migration, nationalisms, and international law.


Nikolina Zenovic is a graduate student at the University of Chicago studying Social Sciences, concentrating in Anthropology. She is currently working on a Master’s thesis about Serbian identity among the diaspora community in Chicago.



“About the ICTY.” United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Accessed December 30, 2019.

Akhavan, Payam. “Justice in the Hague, Peace in the Former Yugoslavia? A Commentary on the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal.” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol 20, no. 4 (1998): 737-816.

Bonifazi, Corrado and Marija Mamolo. “Past and Current Trends of Balkan Migrations.” Espace, Populations, Societes, 2004-3 (2004): 519-531.

Eriksen, Thomas Hylland. Ethnicity and Nationalism: Anthropological Perspectives. London, England: Pluto Press, 2010

“European Migration Network: Impact of Immigration on Europe’s Societies.” European Commission. Luxembourg: Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, March 2006.

Kamm, Henry. ‘Yugoslav Refugee Crisis Europe’s Worst since 40’s.’ The New York Times, 24 July, 1992, p. 1.

“Mandate and Crimes under ICTY Jurisdiction.” United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Accessed December 30, 2019.

Richmond, Oliver P. “States of Sovereignty, Sovereign States, and Ethnic Claims for International Status.” Review of International Studies, Vol. 28, no. 2 (2002): 381-402.

Vezovnik, Andreja, and Ljiljana Šarić. “Introduction: Constructing Balkan Identity in Recent Media Discourses.” Slavic Review, Vol 74, no.2 (2015): 237-243.


Photo: The Hague, The Netherlands – September 24, 2017: Building of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia | Shutterstock
Published on June 3, 2020.


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