Main languages: Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian, Romani, Hungarian, Albanian
Main religions: Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Islam (mainly Sunni), Roman Catholicism, Protestantism
Main ethnic groups, according to the 2002 census (Serbia without Kosovo), are Serbs 6,212,838 (82.9%), Hungarians 293,299 (3.9%), Bosniaks 136,067 (1.8%), Roma 108,193 (1.4%), Yugoslavs 80,721 (1.08%), Croats 70,602 (0.9%), Montenegrins 69,049 (0.9%), Albanians 61,647 (0.8%), Slovaks 59,021 (0.8%) and Vlachs 40,054 (0.5%). Other estimates, including those of the World Bank, suggest there are 350,000 Roma.
Serbia is ethnically diverse. The ethnic makeup varies considerably from region to region, with Serbs making up 89 per cent of central Serbia but only 65 per cent of Vojvodina. Hungarians make up 14 per cent of the population of Vojvodina and are a majority in eight municipalities there. Bosniaks are the majority in three municipalities in the Sandzak. Albanians are the majority in two municipalities in southern Serbia bordering Kosovo. Slovaks and Bulgarians make up the majority in two municipalities each.
Serbs are a Slavic people and they speak Serbian, a language known before the war as Serbo-Croat, the dialects of which did not conform to ethnic categories in the former Yugoslavia. Since the early 1990s regional politicians have prompted the differentiation of the common language into Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian, and even Montenegrin ‘languages’, leading to some conscious linguistic changes along ethnic lines. Serbian is written in both the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets. Most Serbs are Christian Orthodox. Hungarians and Roma are the biggest minorities. Hungarians speak Hungarian and most are Roman Catholic. Roma speak mainly Romani and Serbian.
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Serbia lies in the western Balkans and is landlocked. Serbia borders Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina, and Croatia. Kosovo, in the south, officially remains part of Serbia, and negotiations over its final status continued into September 2007.
Serbs entered the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries. After several centuries of Byzantine and Bulgarian rule, during which time they were converted to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Serbian princes established an empire which extended over a large part of the Balkan Peninsula. In the late fourteenth century, the Serbian lands were incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. During the early nineteenth century, Serbia gained autonomy and in 1878 it was recognized as a sovereign state. At this time, however, the Serbian state did not include a large proportion of Christian Orthodox Slavs, who remained within Habsburg-ruled Bosnia and Hercegovina, Croatia, and Hungary. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as national consciousness was developing in earnest, Serbia endeavoured to bring these areas of Serb settlement under the rule of Belgrade.
After the First World War, Serbia formed a part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (after 1929, Yugoslavia). Despite the different historical, cultural and linguistic traditions of its constituent parts, the new Yugoslav kingdom was administered as a centralized state governed from Belgrade. Belgrade forced the Cyrillic alphabet on Croats, denied Macedonians the right to education in their own language, claiming that they were really Serbs, removed 45,000 Albanians from Kosovo, and replaced them with 60,000 Serb settlers. Resentment of Serbian rule facilitated the disintegration of the Yugoslav kingdom during World War II. During the war, many Serbs fought as partisans under Josip Broz Tito, although the nationalist Chetnik forces of Dragoljub Mihajlovic both fought against and, at times, collaborated with occupying Nazi forces.
The communists came to power in 1944-1945, and established the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Tito espoused ‘brotherhood and unity’ among Yugoslavia’s peoples, but tensions remained. Whereas Serbs had come to believe during the interwar period that they were the masters of Yugoslavia, under the communists, Serbs became increasingly convinced that they were being marginalized. Serbs did have the status of a nation and the Socialist Republic of Serbia was established within the SFRY; people in the five other republics believed that Belgrade had disproportionate power. In an attempt to defuse national movements, Tito approved a new constitution in 1974 that gave substantial rights of self-government to the Serbian provinces of Kosovo and the Vojvodina, which sharpened Serb feelings of resentment.
After the death of Tito in 1980 and the collapse of the Yugoslav economy, Yugoslav politics became increasingly polarized along ethnic lines. The SFRY was now governed weakly from Belgrade under an eight-person presidency, the chair of which rotated yearly among the constituent republics and Serbia’s autonomous provinces. In 1986 the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts published a memorandum that laid the intellectual groundwork for the rise of Serbian nationalism, rooted in historical mythology surrounding Kosovo and themes of victimization, including complaints about the Serb position within the SFRY. In the late 1980s, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic mobilized this discontent by championing the cause of the Serb ‘minority-within-a minority’ in Kosovo and by complaining of the bureaucratic devices used to reduce Serb influence within Yugoslavia. In 1989, the Serbian parliament revoked the right of self-government in Kosovo and Vojvodina, and Milosevic’s supporters took control of the republican government of Montenegro, giving Milosevic fully half of the votes in the federal presidency.
Belgrade’s grasp for the levers of power in the SFRY accelerated the break-up of the Communist Party in other republics, including Slovenia and Croatia. Milosevic played into the hands of nationalist Croatian politicians, whose rhetoric and action in turn rallied Serbs around Milosevic. Not only the Communist Party was crumbling; Milosevic’s moves to consolidate Serb control over the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) weakened another central pillar of Yugoslav unity. When Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in June 1991, Milosevic sent troops; Slovenia, whose population was only one per cent Serb, was not a high priority for Belgrade, and the JNA withdrew within days when the small republic put up a surprising level of military resistance. Milosevic turned his sights on Croatia, and from 1992 on Bosnia and Hercegovina, which also declared independence rather than acquiesce to a Belgrade-dominated central government and military. He sent troops and armed militias on the pretext of protecting Serb minorities, who in Croatia did face an increasingly hostile nationalist government. But Serbian government propaganda directed at those minorities exaggerated threats against them and, especially in Bosnia and Hercegovina, manufactured others in order to generate local support for the idea of a ‘Greater Serbia’, with its promise of security and dominance. For the time being, Milosevic did not take military action against the majority Albanian population in Kosovo, where Serb grievances had fuelled his political ascendance. In December 1992, US President George H.W. Bush issued the so-called ‘Christmas warning’, promising immediate American military action against Serbia if it should intervene in Kosovo. While Washington looked the other way in response to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, it feared that war in Kosovo and Macedonia could draw other countries into a wider conflict, including NATO members Greece and Turkey on opposite sides.
The wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina saw massive loss of life and displacement of people, which changed the ethnic make-up of the Balkans. Serbia saw an influx of Serb and Roma refugees and internally displaced persons, and lost many among its traditional minorities, in particular Hungarians, Croats, and Bosniaks, many of whom left along with many Serbs. The new Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprised Serbia and Montenegro. NATO intervention, co-ordinated with a joint offensive of the Croatian and Bosnian armies in 1995, changed the military dynamic in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina. Tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs fled into Serbia. Peace agreements in 1995 brought an end to the wars.
The Serbian economy had gone into steep decline under Milosevic, and the population was weary of international isolation. A 1997 shift in Montenegrin politics meant that the government in Podgorica now also opposed Milosevic. With his popularity on the wane, Milosevic played the nationalist card in Kosovo once again. In response to isolated attacks on Serb police and civilians in the province by a small band of guerrillas calling itself the ‘Kosovo Liberation Army’ (KLA) in early 1998, Milosevic ordered reprisal attacks on ethnic Albanian villages. As the violence escalated and western states showed no signs of intervening, Milosevic grew bolder and broadened his assault on Kosovo Albanian civilians, as well as guerrillas. In early 1998 the KLA was unpopular with most Albanians who feared it would trigger the kind of Serb assaults recently seen in Croatia and Bosnia. But as Milosevic targeted civilians, anger increased, creating near universal Albanian support for the KLA by 1999. The strengthening KLA posed a very real and increasing threat to minority Serbs in Kosovo, which in turn provided Milosevic with additional fodder for war propaganda at home. Amid mounting atrocities, NATO intervened in 1999, bombing Serb targets not in Kosovo and Serbia proper. Belgrade agreed to withdraw its forces from Kosovo and allow the province to be put under UN administration, although the territory would officially remain a part of Serbia pending agreement on final status. Serb discontent with Milosevic grew-some of it encouraged by opposition groups who opposed his military adventurism, but much of it also based in nationalist anger at his military defeats. Amidst blatant regime attempts at vote rigging, a motley opposition of youth activists, veteran opposition figures, nationalists and ordinary citizens-strongly backed by western governments-snowballed into a protest movement that toppled Milosevic on 5 October 2000.
The opposition leader who defeated Milosevic at the ballot box was Vojislav Kostunica. Although the international community widely hailed Kostunica as pro-western, his history included wartime criticism of Milosevic for doing too little to support the Bosnian Serb army and realize ‘Greater Serbia’. The prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had indicted Milosevic for war crimes in 1999, but Kostunica opposed his arrest. Only under heavy international pressure in 2001 was Milosevic arrested and transferred to face trial in The Hague. Near the end of his lengthy trial for alleged genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, Milosevic would die suddenly of a heart attack in 2006. Back in Serbia, the democratic transition suffered a terrible blow through the assassination in 2003 of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, who had been a major force for democratic change in Serbia.
As Montenegro continued to drift away from Belgrade’s orbit, in 2003 the EU exercised strong pressure to engineer a new state union to take the place of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia: a state simply known as Serbia and Montenegro. In 2006, the union between Serbia and Montenegro was dissolved when Montenegrins approved a referendum on independence. The Republic of Serbia was the legal successor of the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. In February 2008, Kosovo declared independence, which was recognized by many states around the world. In response, mobs in Belgrade attacked several western embassies and intimidated human rights defenders amid a markedly subdued police response. Russia vociferously opposed the declaration, and the EU member states split over recognition. Today, the Republic of Serbia is recovering from the political upheavals of more than a decade and a bad economic situation due to wars and international sanctions.
By referendum in October 2006 – amid meagre turnout and allegations of voting irregularities – Serbians approved a new constitution with a bare majority of 51.5 per cent. The constitution was drafted in cooperation with the Venice Commission and provides basic human and minority rights guarantees. However, it also includes troubling, if vague, provisions allowing the restriction of human and minority rights on an ad hoc basis, and confusing language on government authorities during a state of emergency, which can be declared by simple majority vote of the parliament.
The Republic of Serbia is a party to the main international human rights treaties, including European Convention on Human Rights and the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. In addition to the shortcomings in legislation in the field of anti-discrimination and minority protection, there are considerable problems with implementation of existing legislation and international obligations in fields such as education and participation for certain groups.
There is no comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation. There is no law on national minorities at the level of Serbia; there is a federal law passed in 2002 prior to dissolution of the federal state, but its current status is unclear. Serbia has established an office of Ombudsperson with minority rights among its responsibilities. A Serbian Council for National Minorities was established in 2004, and the Service for Human and Minority Rights was set up in 2006 to succeed its federal counterpart. National Minority Councils of the individual minorities exist. According to the 2002 Serbian Law on Local Self-Government, a Council for Interethnic Relations should be established in municipalities where minorities make up more than ten per cent of the population. However, many municipalities that qualify have not established these councils, and in municipalities where minorities are not in large numbers, no such mechanisms are foreseen.
The Serbian parliament includes seven representatives from ethnic minorities. Only the Hungarian and Bosniak parties have been regularly represented in parliament. In order to facilitate minority representation in parliament, minority parties do not have to meet the five per cent threshold necessary to stand for election. OSCE/ODIHR has advocated amendment of the Law on Local Elections to facilitate representation of minorities at the municipal level.
The economic situation in Serbia is difficult. GDP has fallen by more than 50 per cent since the early 1990s; this is combined with big increase in unemployment, decrease in salaries and pensions. The rural population is poorer than urban, and poverty is highest amongst vulnerable groups such as Roma, refugees, internally displaced, and the disabled. Poverty varies from region to region. Corruption is widespread and shaky governing coalitions are held together by the quarrelling parties’ shared interest in access to political patronage. Yet this has not prevented the fall of several governments since the ouster of Milosevic in 2000. New elections in May 2008 produced an awkward coalition the following month. The Democratic Party of President Boris Tadic formed a coalition consisting of the anti-nationalist Liberal Democrats, ethnic minority parties, and Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialist Party of Serbia.
The European Union is Serbia’s main trading partner and has the most political leverage, particularly within the context of Stability and Association Agreement (SAA) negotiations, as Serbia hopes to be a candidate country for accession. SAA talks stalled in 2006 due to Serbia’s failure to cooperate with the ICTY, but resumed in June 2007—coinciding with the arrests of two war crimes fugitives. All technical aspects were agreed in September 2007, but some member states of the EU were still insisting on arrest of the remaining fugitives prior to completion of the process leading to talks on EU membership.
The credibility of periodic government denials that the fugitives were in Serbia suffered over the years as it often subsequently emerged that they indeed had been in Serbia, and even under the protection of the country’s security services. Indeed, in 2002, then President Kostunica approved a military pension for Bosnian Serb fugitive Ratko Mladic, which was paid out through November 2005. Despite ongoing war crimes trials in The Hague and in domestic courts, many people still refuse to acknowledge the grave crimes committed in recent history, many of them in their name. Understanding the past and bringing war criminals to justice are pre-requisites for reconciliation.
In April 2008, the EU agreed to sign the SAA, but delay its implementation until Serbia achieved full cooperation with the ICTY. In June 2008, Serbia arrested ICTY fugitive Stojan Zupljanin, but the ICTY prosecutor reported to the UN Security Council that Serbia was not cooperating in apprehending the final three fugitives, whom the prosecutor said were within the government’s reach. That same month, the ICTY president referred Serbia to the Security Council for failure to cooperate with the tribunal on issues of access to witnesses and documents. The Netherlands and Belgium were the last hold-outs among EU member states insisting on ICTY cooperation prior to SAA implementation. Especially following negotiations in May and June 2008 leading to formation of a pro-western government, other EU members and the Commission were eager to advance Serbia’s EU integration, and prepared to water down the requirement for ICTY cooperation to this end.
However, the Dutch and Belgian governments remained steadfast in their refusal to approve Serbia’s SAA until full cooperation was achieved. In July 2008, Serbian authorities arrested one of the two most wanted fugitives, Radovan Karadzic, and transferred him to ICTY custody in The Hague. Karadzic had been living publicly in Belgrade under an assumed identity. His trial is expected to begin sometime in 2009.
With the arrest of Karadzic, two ICTY fugitives remain at-large: former Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic and former leader of the ‘Republika Srpska Krajina’ in Croatia, Goran Hadzic. Officials of the European Union and its member states welcomed the arrest of Karadzic, but said that the remaining fugitives also would have to be arrested in order for Serbia’s SAA to move forward.
President Boris Tadic, heartened by the meagre nationalist protests following Karadzic’s apprehension and eager to put the issue to rest once and for all, pledged to complete Serbia’s cooperation with the tribunal.
Nationalist politicians, notably former Prime Minister Kostunica, long posed a major obstacle to implementing democratic reforms. Nationalist influence also contributes to interethnic tensions and lack of tolerance in general, including at the local level, although the situation varies across Serbia.
Although police reform is underway, there continue to be problems within the police service, including a lack of professionalism and allegations of corruption. There are also reported incidents of police abuse, particularly of ethnic minorities, and failures of will to investigate such allegations. Some positive steps have been taken, including establishing a multiethnic police force in southern Serbia and community policing in Vojvodina.
Judicial reform has been slow, and some observers believe it suffered a serious setback with passage of the new constitution, which grants the government much greater weight in judicial matters.
The government formed in June 2008 may have broken Serbia’s protracted political stalemate and sidelined the hard-line nationalists for a time.
Centre for International Migration and Integration
[Jerusalem , Israel]
Tel: +972 2 655 7151
Forum for Ethnic Relations
Tel: +381 11 361 6654
Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia
Tel: +381 11 303 2408
Humanitarian Law Centre
Tel: +381 11 344 4348
Vojvodina Centre for Human Rights
Tel: +381 21 472 3020
Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR)
Tel: +381 11 3370 757
Roma and Ashkali Documentation Office
Tel: +381 38 246 299, +377 44 360 901, +381 63 767 6558
Rroma Women Centre Bibija
Tel: +381 11 262 7948, +381 11 262 7948
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- Roma in the Republic of Serbia and Hungary: The Challenges of Discrimination – A Comparative Report (2021)
- Roma in the Republic of Serbia: The Challenges of Discrimination (2021)
- The status of constituent peoples and minorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (2003)
- Minority Rights in Yugoslavia (2000)
News and updates
- Where to turn? Discrimination and barriers to justice are a reality for Roma in Hungary and Serbia (22 September 2022)
- MRG new report critically analyses EU’s handling of minority rights in accession process (25 June 2008)
- Serbia needs electoral reform to ensure effective minority participation (15 March 2004)
No active programme page is currently available for this country or territory.
- Roma Equality through Increased Legal Access (REILA): Increasing the access to justice of the Roma in Hungary and Serbia (2020)
- South-East Europe: Diversity and Democracy Programme (2015)
- Advancing Inclusion of Vulnerable Groups in Southeast Europe: Minority Rights Advocacy in the EU Accession Process 2006-2010 (2010)
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