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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

- Raka/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, Vieslav, 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 aslav Klonimirovi in the mid-10th century in Rascia.
However the first half of the 11th century saw the rise of the Vojislavljevi family in Zeta. Finally,
the middle of the 12th century saw once more the rise of Rascia with the Nemanji dynasty. The
Nemanji 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 Duan 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
Nemanji dynasty, rose to power and started renewing the Serbian state in the Raka region.
Sometimes with the sponsorship of Byzantium, and sometimes opposing it, the veliki upan (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
upan dedicated much care to the construction of monasteries. His endowments include the Djurdjevi
Stupovi Monastery and the Studenica Monastery in the Raka 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 Prvovenani - Radoslav, Vladislav and
Uro 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 Uro 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 Mava, 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
Graanica 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 Deanski. Spreading the kingdom to the east by winning the town of Ni and the surrounding
counties, and to the south by acquiring territories on Macedonia, Stefan Deanski 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 Duan. This is the period when
the Duanov 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 Duan 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
Uro 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

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

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

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.