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History of Serbia

Important dates in Serbian history

Formation - 8th century
Independence - c.1166
Kingdom established - 1217
Independence lost to Ottoman Empire - 1459
First Serbian Uprising against the Turks - Feb 15, 1804
First Constitution - Feb 15, 1835
international Recognition - 1878
Kingdom of Serbs Croats and Slovenes formed - 1918
Socialist Yugoslavia formed - 1943
Breakup of Yugoslavia - 1991-1995
State Union of Serbia and Montenegro dissolved - June 5, 2006

Medieval Serbia (7th-14th century)

The Serbs entered their present territory early in the 7th century AD, settling in six distinct tribal delimitations:

- Raška/Rascia (present-day Western Serbia and Northern Montenegro),
- Bosnia (indistinct from Rascia until the 12th century),
- Zahumlje (western Herzegovina),
- Travunija (eastern Herzegovina),
- Paganija (middle Dalmatia) and finally
- Duklja/Zeta (predecessor to Montenegro)

The first recorded Serb princes were Vlastimir, Višeslav, Radoslav and Prosigoj. By that time, the country had entirely accepted Christianity. In Zeta, today's Montenegro, Bodin was crowned by the Pope (the first mention of this is a century later, in the 10th century. The rulers kept changing and the country accepted supreme protection from the Byzantine Empire rather than from hostile Bulgaria. Serbia was freed from the Byzantine Empire a century later.

The first unified Serb state emerged under Časlav Klonimirović in the mid-10th century in Rascia. However the first half of the 11th century saw the rise of the Vojislavljević family in Zeta. Finally, the middle of the 12th century saw once more the rise of Rascia with the Nemanjić dynasty. The Nemanjić were to lead Serbia to a golden age which lasted for over three centuries and produced a powerful Balkan state which had its apogee under the reign of Tsar Stefan Dušan in the mid 14th century, before finally succumbing to Ottoman Turkish subjugation (with Zeta, the last bastion, finally falling in 1499).

In 1170, after a struggle for the throne with his brothers, Stefan Nemanja, the founder of the Nemanjić dynasty, rose to power and started renewing the Serbian state in the Raška region. Sometimes with the sponsorship of Byzantium, and sometimes opposing it, the veliki župan (a title equivalent to the rank of prince) Stefan Nemanja expanded his state seizing territories east and south, and newly annexed the littoral and the Zeta region. Along with his governmental efforts, the veliki župan dedicated much care to the construction of monasteries. His endowments include the Djurdjevi Stupovi Monastery and the Studenica Monastery in the Raška region, and the Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos.

Stefan Nemanja was succeeded by his middle son Stefan, whilst his first-born Vukan was given the rule of the Zeta region (present-day Montenegro). Stefan Nemanja's youngest son Rastko became a monk and took the name of Sava, turning all his efforts to spreading religiousness among his people. Since the Curia already had ambitions to spread its influence to the Balkans as well, Stefan used these propitious circumstances to obtain his crown from the Pope thus becoming the first Serbian king in 1217. In Byzantium, his brother Sava managed to secure the autocephalous status for the Serbian Church and became the first Serbian archbishop in 1219. Thus the Serbs acquired both forms of independence: temporal and religious.

The next generation of Serbian rulers - the sons of Stefan Prvovenčani - Radoslav, Vladislav and Uroš I, marked a period of stagnation of the state structure. All three kings were more or less dependent on some of the neighboring states - Byzantium, Bulgaria or Hungary. The ties with the Hungarians had a decisive role in the fact that Uroš I was succeeded by his son Dragutin whose wife was a Hungarian princess. Later on, when Dragutin abdicated in favor of his younger brother Milutin, the Hungarian king Ladislaus IV gave him lands in northeastern Bosnia, the regions of Srem and Mačva, and the city of Belgrade, whilst he managed to conquer and annex lands in northeastern Serbia. Thus, all these territories became part of the Serbian state for the first time.

Under the rule of Dragutin's younger brother - King Milutin, Serbia grew stronger in spite of the fact that occasionally it had to fight wars on three different fronts. King Milutin was an apt diplomat much inclined to the use of a customary medieval diplomatic expedients - dynastic marriages. He was married five times, with Hungarian, Bulgarian and Byzantine princesses. He is also famous for building churches, some of which are the brightest examples of Medieval Serbian architecture: the Gračanica Monastery in Kosovo, the Cathedral in Hilandar Monastery on Mt. Athos, the St. Archangel Church in Jerusalem etc. Because of his endowments, King Milutin has been proclaimed a saint, in spite of his tumultuous life. He was succeeded on the throne by his son Stefan, later dubbed Stefan Dečanski. Spreading the kingdom to the east by winning the town of Niš and the surrounding counties, and to the south by acquiring territories on Macedonia, Stefan Dečanski was worthy of his father and built the Visoki Decani Monastery in Metohija - the most monumental example of Serbian Medieval architecture - that earned him his byname.

Medieval Serbia that enjoyed a high political, economic and cultural reputation in Medieval Europe, reached its apex in mid-14th century, during the rule of Tzar Stefan Dušan. This is the period when the Dušanov Zakonik (Dushan's Code) the greatest juridical achievement of Medieval Serbia, unique among the European feudal states of the period. St. Sava's Nomocanon, Dushan's Code, frescoes and the architecture of the medieval monasteries adorning Serbian lands are eternal civilizational monuments of the Serbian people. Tzar Stefan Dušan doubled the size of his kingdom seizing territories to the south, southeast and east at the expense of Byzantium. He was succeeded by his son Uroš called the Weak, a term that might also apply to the state of the kingdom slowly sliding into feudal anarchy. This is a period marked by the rise of a new threat: the Ottoman Turk sultanate gradually spreading from Asia to Europe and conquering Byzantium first, and then the other Balkan states.

Serbia under Turkish rule (14th-19th century)

Having defeated the Serbian army in two crucial battles: on the banks of the river Marica in 1371 - where the forces of noblemen from Macedonia were defeated, and on Kosovo Polje (Kosovo Plain) in 1389, where the vassal troops commanded by Prince Lazar - the strongest regional ruler in Serbia at the time - suffered a catastrophic defeat. The Battle of Kosovo defined the fate of Serbia, because after it no force capable of standing up to the Turks existed. This was an unstable period marked by the rule of Prince Lazar's son - despot Stefan Lazarevic - a true European-style knight a military leader and even poet, and his cousin Djuradj Brankovic, who moved the state capital north - to the newly built fortified town of Smederevo. The Turks continued their conquest until they finally seized the entire Serbian territory in 1459 when Smederevo fell into their hands. Serbia was ruled by the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries. The Turks persecuted the Serbian aristocracy, determined to physically exterminate the social elite. Since the Ottoman Empire was an Islamic theocratic state, Christian Serbs lived as virtual bond servants - abused, humiliated and exploited. Consequently they gradually abandoned the developed and urban centers where mining, crafts and trade was practiced and withdrew to hostile mountains living on cattle breeding and modest farming.

European powers, and Austria in particular, fought many wars against Turkey, relying on the help of the Serbs that lived under Ottoman rule. During the Austrian-Turkish War (1593-1606) in 1594 the Serbs staged an uprising in Banat - the Pannonian part of Turkey, and the sultan retaliated by burning the remains of St. Sava - the most sacred thing for all Serbs honored even by Moslems of Serbian origin. Serbs created another center of resistance in Herzegovina but when peace was signed by Turkey and Austria they abandoned to Turkish vengeance. This sequence of events became usual in the centuries that followed.

During the Great War (1683-1690) between Turkey and the Holy Alliance - created with the sponsorship of the Pope and including Austria, Poland and Venice - these three powers incited the Serbs to rebel against the Turkish authorities, and soon uprisings and guerrilla spread throughout the western Balkans: from Montenegro and the Dalmatian coast to the Danube basin and Ancient Serbia (Macedonia, Raska, Kosovo and Metohija). However, when the Austrians started to pull out of Serbia, they invited the Serbian people to come north with them to the Austrian territories. Having to choose between Turkish vengeance and living in a Christian state, Serbs massively abandoned their homesteads and headed north lead by their patriarch Arsenije Carnojevic. Many areas in southern Balkans were de-populated in the process, and the Turks used the opportunity to Islamize Raska, Kosovo and Metohija and to a certain extent Macedonia. A process whose effects are still visible today started.

Another important episode in Serbian history took place in 1716-1718, when the Serbian ethnic territories ranging from Dalmatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina to Belgrade and the Danube basin newly became the battleground for a new Austria-Turkish war launched by Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Serbs sided once again with Austria. After a peace treaty was signed in Pozarevac, Turkey lost all its possessions in the Danube basin, as well as northern Serbia and northern Bosnia, parts of Dalmatia and the Peloponnesus.

The last Austrian-Turkish war was the so called Dubica War (1788-1791), when the Austrians newly urged the Christians in Bosnia to rebel. No wars were fought afterwards until the 20th century that marked the fall of both mighty empires.

Modern Serbia (1804-1918)

Serbian resistance to Ottoman domination, latent for many decades surfaced at the beginning of 19th century with the First and Second Serbian Uprising in 1804 and 1815. The Turkish Empire was already faced with a deep internal crisis without any hope of recuperating. This had a particularly hard effect on the Christian nations living under its rule. The Serbs launched not only a national revolution but a social one as well and gradually Serbia started to catch up with the European states with the introduction of the bourgeois society values. Resulting from the uprisings and subsequent wars against the Ottoman Empire, the independent Principality of Serbia was formed and granted international recognition in 1878.

This period was marked by the alternation of two dynasties descending from Djordje Petrovic - Karadjordje, leader of the First Serbian Uprising and Milos Obrenovic, leader of the Second Serbian Uprising. Further development of Serbia was characterized by general progress in economy, culture and arts, primarily due to a wise state policy of sending young people to European capitals to get an education. They all brought back a new spirit and a new system of values. One of the external manifestations of the transformation that the former Turkish province was going through was the proclamation of the Kingdom of Serbia in 1882.

In the second half of 19th century Serbia was integrated into the constellation of European states and the first political parties were founded thus giving new momentum to political life. The coup d'etat in 1903, bringing Karadjordje's grandson to the throne with the title of King Petar I opened the way for parliamentary democracy in Serbia. Having received a European education, this liberal king translated "On Freedom" by John Stewart Mile and gave his country a democratic constitution. It initiated a period of parliamentary government and political freedom interrupted by the outbreak of the liberation wars. The Balkan wars 1912 - 1913, terminated the Turkish domination in the Balkans. Turkey was pushed back across the channel, and national Balkan states were created in the territories it withdrew from.

The assassination of Austrian Crown Prince Franc Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914, served as a pretext for the Austrian attack on Serbia that marked the beginning of World War I. The Serbian Army bravely defended its country and won several major victories, but it was finally overpowered by the joint forces of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria, and had to withdraw from the national territory marching across the Albanian mountain ranges to the Adriatic Sea. Having recuperated on Corfu the Serbian Army returned to combat on the Thessalonike front together with other Entante forces comprising France, England, Russia, Italy and the United States. In world War I Serbia had 1.264.000 casualties - 28% of its population (4.529.000) which also represented 58% of its male population - a loss it never fully recuperated from. This enormous sacrifice was the contribution Serbia gave to the Allied victory and the remodeling of Europe and of the World after World War I.

Serbia as a part of Yugoslavia (1918-1991)

Serbia was part of Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1991. This can be devided down to the following periods:

1918-1941 - The Kingdom of Yugoslavia
1941-1945 - The WWII
1945-1991 - SFR Yugoslavia
1991-1995 - The breakup of SFR Yugoslavia

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia (1918-1941)

With the end of World War I and the downfall of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire the conditions were met for proclaiming the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians in December of 1918. The Yugoslav ideal had long been cultivated by the intellectual circles of the three nations that gave the name to the country, but the international constellation of political forces and interests did not permit its implementation until then. However, after the war, idealist intellectuals gave way to politicians and the most influential Croatian politicians opposed the new state right from the start.

The Croatian Peasants' Party (HSS) headed by Stjepan Radic, and then by Vlatko Macek slowly grew to become a massive party endorsing Croatian national interests. According to its leaders the Yugoslav state did not provide a satisfactory solution to the Croatian national question. They chose to conduct their political battle by systematically obstructing state institutions and making political coalitions to undermine the state unity, thus extorting certain concessions. Each political or economic issue was used as a pretext for raising the so-called "unsettled Croatian question".

Trying to match this challenge and prevent any further weakening of the country, King Aleksandar I banned national political parties in 1929, assumed executive power and renamed the country Yugoslavia. He hoped to curb separatist tendencies and mitigate nationalist passions. However the balance of power changed in international relations: in Italy and Germany Fascists and Nazis rose to power, and Stalin became the absolute ruler in the Soviet Union. None of these three states favored the policy pursued by Aleksandar I. In fact the first two wanted to revise the international treaties signed after World War I, and the Soviets were determined to regain their positions in Europe and pursue a more active international policy. Yugoslavia was an obstacle for these plans and King Aleksandar I was the pillar of the Yugoslav policy.

During an official visit to France in 1934, the king was assassinated in Marseilles by a member of VMRO - an extreme nationalist organization in Bulgaria that had plans to annex territories along the eastern and southern Yugoslav border - with the cooperation of the Ustashi - a Croatian fascist separatist organization. The international political scene in the late 30's was marked by growing intolerance between the principal figures, by the aggressive attitude of the totalitarian regimes and by the certainty that the order set up after World War I is was loosing its strongholds and its sponsors were loosing their strength. Supported and pressured by Fascist Italy and nazi Germany, Croatian leader Vlatko Macek and his party managed to extort the creation of the Croatian banovina (administrative province) in 1939. The agreement specified that Croatia were to remain part of Yugoslavia, but it was hurriedly building an independent political identity in international relations.

World War II and it's effects (1941-1945)

At the beginning of the 1940's, Yugoslavia found itself surrounded by hostile countries. Except for Greece, all other neighboring countries had signed agreements with either Germany or Italy. Hitler was strongly pressuring Yugoslavia to join the Axis powers. The government was even prepared to reach a compromise with him, but the spirit in the country was completely different. Public demonstrations against Nazism prompted a brutal reaction. Luftwaffe bombed Belgrade and other major cities and in April 1941, the Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia and disintegrated it. The western parts of the country together with Bosnia and Herzegovina were turned into a Nazi puppet state called the Independent State of Croatia (NDH) and ruled by the Ustashe. Serbia was occupied by German troops, but the northern territories were annexed by Hungary, and eastern and southern territories to Bulgaria. Kosovo and Metohija were mostly annexed by Albania which was under the sponsorship of fascist Italy. Montenegro also lost territories to Albania and was then occupied by Italian troops. Slovenia was divided between Germany and Italy that also seized the islands in the Adriatic.

Following the Nazi example, the Independent State of Croatia established extermination camps and perpetrated an atrocious genocide killing over 750.000 Serbs, Jews and Gypsies. This holocaust set the historical and political backdrop for the civil war that broke out fifty years later in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and that accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992.

The ruthless attitude of the German occupation forces and the genocidal policy of the Croatian Ustasha regime generated a strong Serbian Resistance. The Serbs stood up against the Croatian genocidal government and the Nazi disintegration of Yugoslavia. Many joined the Partisan forces (National Liberation Army headed by Josib Broz Tito) in the liberation war and thus helped the Allied victory. By the end of 1944, with the help of the Red Army the Partisans liberated Serbia and by May 1945 the remaining Yugoslav territories, meeting up with the Allied forces in Hungary, Austria and Italy. Serbia and Yugoslavia were among the countries that had the greatest losses in the war: 1.700.000 (10.8% of the population) people were killed and national damages were estimated at 9.1 billion dollars according to the prices of that period.

Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1945-1991)

While the war was still raging, in 1943, a revolutionary change of the social and state system was proclaimed with the abolition of monarchy in favor of the republic. Josip Broz Tito became the first president of the new - socialist - Yugoslavia. Once a predominantly agricultural country Yugoslavia was transformed into a mid-range industrial country, and acquired an international political reputation by supporting the de-colonization process and by assuming a leading role in the Non-Aligned Movement. Socialist Yugoslavia was established as a federal state comprising six republics: Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro and two autonomous regions - Vojvodina and Kosovo and Metohija. The two autonomous regions were at the same time integral part of Serbia. Because of such an administrative division and due to historical reasons, the Serbs - the most numerous of the Yugoslav peoples - lived in all six republics and both autonomous regions. The trend to secure the power of the republics at the expense of the federal authorities became particularly intense after the adoption of the 1974 Constitution that encouraged the expansion of Croatian, Slovenian, Moslem and Albanian nationalism and secessionism.

The breakup of SFR Yugoslavia (1991-1995)

Between 1991 and 1992, Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina forcibly seceded from Yugoslavia, whilst Macedonia did so peacefully. The break-up of Yugoslavia was endorsed by the international powers that recognized the right of self-determination to all nations except the Serbs which generally wanted to continue living in Yugoslavia. The secessionist republics were quickly granted recognition by the international community in clear breach of the principle of inviolability of international borders of sovereign countries and without fulfilling the criteria that a given state has to meet to be recognized internationally. Serbia and Montenegro opted to stay on in the federation and at the combined session of the parliaments of Yugoslavia, Serbia and Montenegro held on April 27 1992 in Belgrade, the Constitution of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was passed thus reaffirming the continuity of the state first founded on December 1st 1918.

The dissolution of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro (2006)

In February 2003, Republic of Serbia and Republic of Montenegro adopted a new Constitutional Charter that transformed FR Yugoslavia into the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. The Charter gave rights to both member states to hold a referendum in three years and decide whether they would remain in the State Union. The Republic of Montenegro exercised this right in May 2006 and by popular vote decided to leave the State Union and declare its independence. On June 5, 2006, National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia passed a conclusion that the Republic of Serbia is a state and a legal successor of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

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