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The demographic distribution and ethnic outlook of the Serbs exerted paramount influence on the shape of the modern Yugoslav state from the very beginning. The Serbs were Yugoslavia's most populous and most dispersed nationality. Although concentrated in Serbia proper, in 1981 they also accounted for substantial portions of the population of Kosovo (13.2 percent), Vojvodina (54.1 percent), Croatia (11.5 percent), and Bosnia and Hercegovina (32.2 percent). Historically, the first cause of this scattering was the severe oppression of Serbs under Ottoman occupation, which led to migration to the unoccupied territory to the west. After World War II, Yugoslavia's first communist government tried to define the country's postwar federal units to limit the Serbian domination believed largely responsible for the political turmoil of the interwar period. This meant reducing Serbia proper to achieve political recognition of Macedonian and Montenegrin ethnic individuality and the mixed populations of Vojvodina, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Hercegovina (see Formation of the South Slav State , ch. 1).

The Serbs' forefathers built a rich kingdom during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, then suffered under Ottoman occupation for 370 years (1459-1829). During the Ottoman era, the Serbian Orthodox Church preserved the Serbs' sense of nationhood and reinforced the collective memory of past glory. The church canonized medieval Serbian kings; fresco painters preserved their images; and priests recited a litany of their names at daily masses. Until the nineteenth century, virtually all Serbs were peasants; the small percentage that lived in towns as traders and craftsmen wore Turkish costume and lived a Turkish lifestyle. Until the twentieth century, peasant Serbs lived mainly in extended families, with four or five nuclear families residing in the same house. An elder managed the household and property (see The Family , this ch.).

The independence movement of the nineteenth century brought significant cultural changes to the Serbs. During that century, the scholars Dositej Obradovic and Vuk Karadzic overcame stiff opposition from the Orthodox Church to foster creation of the modern Serbian literary language, which is based on the speech of the ordinary people. Karadzic adapted the Cyrillic alphabet to the form still used in Yugoslavia.

After World War I, the Serbs considered themselves the liberators of Croatia and Slovenia--nations whose loyalty the Serbs found suspect because they had seemed unwilling or unable to rise against Austria-Hungary in the independence struggles that preceded World War I. The Serbian political elite of the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia was extremely centralist and accustomed to wielding unshared power. On the eve of World War II, the Yugoslav Army officer corps and the civilian bureaucracy were dominated by Serbs (two Croats and two Slovenes were generals; the other 161 generals were either Serbs or Montenegrins). Serbian hegemony in interwar Yugoslavia triggered a militant backlash in Croatia, Macedonia, and Kosovo; during World War II, Croatian nationalist fanatics butchered Serbs, Jews, and Gypsies with a brutality that appalled even the Nazis (see Communist Takeover and Consolidation , ch. 1).

The Serbs' memories of their medieval kingdom, their 1389 defeat by the Ottoman Turks, their nineteenth century uprisings, and their heavy sacrifices during twentieth century wars contributed significantly to their feeling that they had sacrificed much for Yugoslavia and received relatively little in return. In the late 1980s, a passionate Serbian nationalist revival arose from this sense of unfulfilled expectation, from the postwar distribution of the Serbs among various Yugoslav political entities, and from perceived discrimination against the Serbs in Kosovo in the 1970s and 1980s (see Serbia , ch. 4). In this process, the Serbian Orthodox Church reemerged as a strong cultural influence, and the government of Serbia renewed celebrations of the memories of Serbian heroes and deeds. These events caused leaders in Slovenia and Croatia to fear a resurgence of the Serbian hegemony that had disrupted interwar Yugoslavia (see Regional Political Issues , ch. 4).

The Serbian-Albanian struggle for Kosovo, the heartland of Serbia's medieval kingdom, dominated Serbia's political life and café conversation in the 1980s. Between 1948 and 1990, the Serbian share of Kosovo's population dropped from 23.6 percent to less than 10 percent, while the ethnic Albanian share increased in proportion because of a high birth rate and immigration from Albania. The demographic change was also the result of political and economic conditions; the postwar Serbian exodus from Kosovo accelerated in 1966 after ethnic Albanian communist leaders gained control of the province, and Kosovo remained the most poverty-stricken region of Yugoslavia in spite of huge government investments (see Kosovo , ch. 4; Regional Disparities , ch. 3). After reasserting political control over Kosovo in 1989, the Serbian government announced an ambitious program to resettle Serbs in Kosovo, but the plan attracted scant interest among Serbian émigrés from the region.

In the republics of Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina, the Serbs' situation was more complex and potentially more explosive than in Kosovo. Despite denials from the governments of both republics, Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia and Hercegovina complained bitterly in the late 1980s about ethnically based discrimination and threats. The Serbian government reacted with published exposés of World War II atrocities against Serbs and the Croatian chauvinism that had inspired them.

Data as of December 1990

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