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The Balkans: the war in the former Yugoslavia (1991-1995)

the limits of interposition



Analyzing the stakes of French involvement in the war in ex-Yugoslavia implies first of all reflecting on the different temporalities constituting the substratum of the conflict. Indeed, the weight of history and, above all, of the interpretations made of it by local and external actors, is a key element of its study. The longest temporality explains the cultural, and especially religious, diversity of the Western Balkans. Mixing Christian1 (Orthodox and Catholic) and Muslim populations (from the conquest of part of the region by the Ottoman Empire in the 14th-15th centuries2 ), it also hosted Jewish communities expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the 15th century.

For Jasmin IMAMOVIC, it is this religious diversity lived in cordiality that forms the specificity of an entity such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, inter-community wars always being, according to the author, the product of imported conflicts.3 A second, average temporality allows us to grasp the problem of state-building, the element that triggered the conflict in the early 1990s. The countries that make up the former Yugoslavia belong to political groupings that did not allow the emergence at the same pace of constituted states: during the 19th century, some underwent emancipation processes in the broader context of the movement of nationalities in Europe, but only Serbia achieved independence and constituted a principality, which was fully recognised in 1878. However, a current favourable to the unity of the South Slavs developed during these decades, which was won during the geopolitical recomposition of Europe in the aftermath of the First World War thanks to the collapse of the Central Empires. In 1918, a "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes" came into being, renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

However, far from fully achieving the expected unity, it remained dominated by ethnic rivalries, particularly between Serbs and Croats. These culminated in the dictatorship of the Croatian Ustashi, who obtained from Hitler an independence in name rather than in fact. Having become a satellite of the Third Reich, the Croatian regime supported the Nazi genocidal policy towards the Slavic (Serb) and Jewish populations. The partisan war, under Tito's orders, leads to the reconstitution of a Yugoslavia after the Nazi defeat. The personality of the Marshal, who became President of the Council and then President of the Republic in 1953, offers a facade that unites the different ethnic and political entities of the country, without erasing tensions. The Constitution he put in place in 1974 established a difficult compromise between the federalist tendencies of the Croats and the unitary tendencies of the Serbs. Tito's death in 1980 unleashed contradictions that had only been muted. The following decade is now analysed as a preparation for the wars that broke out in 1991.

A third and final, short temporality highlights the immediate context of this war. The first factor concerns the fall of the USSR and the Eastern bloc. While titist Yugoslavia is notable for its non-alignment4, the collapse of the USSR leads to a reconfiguration of the continent's spheres of influence. The West supported democratic movements and could rightly think of integrating them into the Europe of liberal democracy. Conversely, the end of Soviet communism raised questions about the relevance of the survival of communism in Yugoslavia. Certain personalities, such as Slobodan Milosevic, embody the political personnel who find their survival in the transition from communism to nationalism. The second factor relates to the European geopolitical reconfiguration, which was then in a phase of acceleration5.

François Mitterrand feared at the time that the reunification of Germany6 would distract it from a European community that it had hitherto regarded as a mere palliative to its loss of power and, in the post-cold war context, commit it to reconstituting a Mitteleuropa under its control. It is therefore pushing for a rapid recognition of this reunification as well as for the deepening of European construction, through Economic and Monetary Union. If he succeeded in this respect, he failed in his assessment of the situation; both for historical reasons and for reasons of political culture, Germany and France took a different view of the crisis, which partly explains the European procrastination, even though the definition of a Common Foreign and Security Policy was one of the major axes of the Community's deepening.

A third factor intervenes in the definition of France's Yugoslav policy. As the Gulf War draws to a close and important lessons have yet to be learned7, the executive power finds itself confronted with a new conflict on the European continent, in a region that remains, for those who remember their history lessons, as the area from which the "spiral of alliances" that had apparently made the 1914 war seem inevitable was set in motion. The primary attitude of French diplomacy is to seek dialogue and conciliation at a time of increasing violence in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; France initially stresses the importance of respect for international law and does not wish to engage in a show of force or military intervention that the country would bear alone.


1 After a first evangelization in the 7th century, the region was again the object of a missionary policy in the 9th century by Saints Cyril and Methodius.
2 Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Bosnia came under Ottoman rule, while Croatia came under the rule of the kingdom of Hungary and Slovenia belonged to the Habsburg heritage territories.
3 IMAMOVIC Jasmin, "What is Bosnia and Herzegovina? "in COT Jean (ed.), Dernière guerre balkanique? Ex-Yugoslavia: testimonies, analyses and perspectives, Foundation for Defence Studies, L'Harmattan, 1996.
4 Triumphant at the Belgrade conference in 1961.
5 The Maastricht Treaty was drafted and negotiated during the years 1990-1991 and signed on 2 February 1992.
6 Proclaimed on 3 October 1990
.7 On the format of armies, the role and future of conscription, equipment, intelligence

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OPEX resources

This document is a working tool intended primarily for secondary school teachers who wish to work in depth on external operations (OPEX) in the classroom.


Monument to the dead in OPEX

War memorial



Operation Oryx




Multinational Framework

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