The word "Balkan" comes from Turkish: it means mountain and has been applied to the area since the early 19th century. The Balkans is an area of southeastern Europe situated at a major crossroads between mainland Europe and the near east. The distinct identity and fragmentation of the Balkans owes much to its common and often violent history and to its very mountainous geography The Ottoman Turks invaded the region at the end of the 14th century and the Turkish rule lasted for some 500 years. The Austro-Hungarian empire grew stronger in the north and loosened the grip of the Turks at the end of the 17th century. A major redefinition of the Balkan political boundaries was enacted by the Treaty of Berlin in 1878. Serbia, Montenegro and Romania became independent, and the principality of Bulgaria was created. Slovenia, Croatia stayed under the rule of Austria-Hungary which also took control of Bosnia-Herzegovina. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Ottoman Empire was beginning to crumble. Sensing the opportunity, a wave of nationalism swept through the Balkans. War broke out in 1912, when Montenegrin troops moved across the border into the Ottoman empire. Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece joined the war a few days later. These Balkan allies drove the Turks out of Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania, which declared independence. Later the Serbs turned against the Bulgarians and occupied all of Kosovo as well as Macedonia. In 1914 Austria-Hungary, which governed Bosnia-Herzegovina at the time, sent the emperor's heir Franz Ferdinand to quell the unrest. He was promoting the idea of the southern Slavs playing a greater role in the empire as a bulwark against Serbian expansionism. He was shot in Sarajevo by a Serb nationalist, an event which triggered World War I.
After Austria-Hungary was defeated in World War I, the Versailles peace treaties defined a new pattern of state boundaries in the Balkans. The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was founded. In 1929 King Alexander I changed the name of the state to Yugoslavia - land of the southern Slavs.
The Serbs still dominated the government, which combined with an authoritarian monarchy gave rise to an anti-Serb movement. Many Croats in particular would have preferred independence and resentment led to Alexander's violent death in 1934,
World War ll brought fresh turmoil to the region. As German troops invaded, they were welcomed by Croatian fascists. Hitler rewarded the Croats with a nominally independent puppet state, which also incorporated Bosnia. the course of a series of overlapping civil wars, widespread atrocities were committed by all sides. In Croatia, Serbs, Jews, gypsies and anti-fascist Croats were killed in concentration camps. Serbia came under the control of German troops while the Italians occupied Montenegro. Rival partisans under Josip Broz Tito, a communist, and Dragoljub Mihailovic, a Serb nationalist, fought the Germans - when not fighting each other. Kosovo was occupied by Albanian and Italian troops whilst the Bulgarians invaded Macedonia.
Socialist Yugoslavia was declared by Marshall Tito in 1945. The communists were able to deal with national aspirations by creating a federation of six nominally equal republics - Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia. In Serbia the two provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina were given autonomous status. Communist rule restored stability and good relations with the west ensured a steady stream of loans. Later, however, national and ethnic tensions increased due to unequal development and a growing burden of debt. When Tito died in 1980 many expected the federation to break up but Yugoslavia was to survive for another ten years.
BY 1992 the Yugoslav Federation was falling apart. Nationalism had once again replaced communism as the dominant force in the Balkans. Slovenia and then Croatia were the first to break away but only at the cost of renewed conflict with Serbia. The war in Croatia led to hundreds of thousands of refugees and re-awakened memories of the brutality of the 1940s. By 1992 a further conflict had broken out in Bosnia, which had also declared independence. The Serbs who lived there were determined to remain within Yugoslavia and to help build a greater Serbia. They received strong backing from extremist groups in Belgrade. Muslims were driven from their homes in carefully planned operations that become known as 'ethnic cleansing'. By 1993 the Bosnian Muslim government was besieged in the capital Sarajevo, surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces who controlled around 70% of Bosnia. In Central Bosnia, the mainly Muslim army was fighting a separate war against Bosnian Croats who wished to be part of a greater Croatia.
The presence of UN peacekeepers to contain the situation proved ineffective.
American pressure to end the war eventually led to the Dayton agreement of November 1995 which created two self-governing entities within Bosnia - the Bosnian Serb Republic and the Muslim (Bosnjak)-Croat Federation. The settlement's aims were to bring about the reintegration of Bosnia and to protect the human rights but the agreement has been criticised for not reversing the results of ethnic cleansing. The Muslim-Croat and Serb entities have their own governments, parliaments and armies. A Nato-led peacekeeping force is charged with implementing the military aspects of the peace agreement, primarily overseeing the separation of forces. But the force was also granted extensive additional powers, including the authority to arrest indicted war criminals when encountered in the normal course of its duties.
Croatia, meanwhile, took back most of the territory earlier captured by Serbs when it waged lightning military campaigns in 1995 which also resulted in the mass exodus of around 200,000 Serbs from Croatia
In 1998, nine years after the abolition of Kosovo's autonomy, the Kosovo Liberation Army - supported by the majority ethnic Albanians - came out in open rebellion against Serbian rule. The international community, while supporting greater autonomy, opposed the Kosovar Albanians' demand for independence. But international pressure grew on Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, to bring an end to the escalating violence in the province.
Threats of military action by the West over the crisis culminated in the launching of Nato air strikes against Yugoslavia in March 1999, the first attack on a sovereign European country in the alliance's history. The strikes focused primarily on military targets in Kosovo and Serbia, but extended to a wide range of other facilities, including bridges, oil refineries, power supplies and communications.
Within days of the strikes starting, tens of thousands of Kosovo Albanian refugees were pouring out of the province with accounts of killings, atrocities and forced expulsions at the hands of Serb forces.
Returning them to their homes, along with those who had fled in the months of fighting before the strikes, became a top priority for the Nato countries.
Meanwhile, relations between Serbia and the only other remaining Yugoslav republic, Montenegro, hit rock bottom, with Montenegrin leaders seeking to distance themselves from Slobodan Milosevic's handling of Kosovo.
Yugoslavia has disappeared from the map of Europe, after 83 years of existence, to be replaced by a looser union called simply Serbia and Montenegro, after the two remaining republics. The arrangement was reached under pressure from the European Union, which wanted to halt Montenegro’s progress towards full independence. However, Montenegrin politicians say they will hold a referendum on independence in 2006. The death of Yugoslavia is only one of many momentous changes that have occurred since the end of the Kosovo conflict. Slobodan Milosevic lost a presidential election in 2000. He refused to accept the result but was forced out of office by strikes and massive street protests, which culminated in the storming of parliament. He was handed over to a UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and put on trial for crimes against humanity and genocide. Kosovo itself became a UN protectorate, though some powers have begun to be handed back to elected local authorities. One of the main problems in the province is getting Serbs who fled as Yugoslav security forces withdrew in 1999, to return to their homes.
Conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians threatened to erupt in late 2000 in the Presevo valley, on the Serbian side of the Kosovo border, but dialogue between Albanian guerrillas and the new democratic authorities in Belgrade allowed tensions to evaporate. There was, however, a major outbreak of inter-ethnic violence in Macedonia in 2001, again involving the Albanian minority. This was contained by Nato peacekeepers and ultimately resolved by political means.