The southern Slavic states of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia begin to emerge as cultural and political entities early in the first millennium. The states are collectively known as Yugoslavia.

Surrounded by powerful and often aggressive neighbours - Italy to the west, Austria and Hungary to the north, and Russia and Turkey to the east - and unsettled by internal conflicts, the states strive for independence and dream of federation.

Religious tension between Roman Catholics centred in Slovenia and Croatia and Orthodox Christians based in the eastern states is complicated when the Islamic Ottoman Empire invades the region in the 15th Century and begins a 400-year occupation. When the Ottomans are finally removed after the First World War they leave large populations of Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Kosovo province of Serbia, and Albania.

After the Ottomans have gone attempts at unity among the southern Slavic states are frustrated by historical, cultural and religious conflicts, rifts which are deepened during the Second World War when varying ethnic and political groups use the cloak of the war to brutally pursue rivalries.

With the backing of the Soviet Union, Yugoslav communists led by Marshal Josip Broz Tito take control of the southern Slavic states following the war. The Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia is proclaimed on 29 November 1945.

It comprises the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. An ethnically mixed Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and a mostly Albanian Autonomous Region of Kosovo are created within Serbia.

Tito rules the federation for nearly four decades, introducing a unique form of "self-managed communism" that avoids many of the abuses of the Soviet system. The federation is renamed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1963.

The veneer of Yugoslav stability begins to crumble when Tito dies on 4 May 1980. The prosperous northern states of Croatia and Slovenia start to agitate for autonomy. Macedonia and the Muslim majorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serbian province of Kosovo repeat the call. Serbia has political power under the federation and does not want change. The poorer southern state of Montenegro supports the centralised federation and backs Serbia.