A nation is often shaped by external events. Serbia's history has been punctuated by foreign invasions, from the time the Celts supplanted the Illyrians in the 4th century BC, through to the arrival of the Romans 100 years later, the Slavs in the 6th century AD, the Turks in the 14th century, the Austro-Hungarians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the Germans briefly in WWII. A pivotal nation-shaping event occurred in AD 395 when the Roman Emperor Theodosius I divided his empire giving Serbia to the Byzantines, thereby locking the country into Eastern Europe. This was further cemented in 879 when Sts Cyril and Methodius converted the Serbs to the Orthodox religion.
Serbian independence briefly flowered from 1217 with a golden age during Stefan Dušan's reign (1346-55). After his death Serbia declined and at the pivotal Battle of Kosovo in 1389 the Turks defeated Serbia, ushering in 500 years of Islamic rule. Early revolts were crushed but one in 1815 led to de facto Serbian independence that became complete in 1878.
On 28 June 1914 Austria-Hungary used the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian Serb to invade Serbia, sparking WWI. In 1918 Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Vojvodina, Serbia and its Kosovo province, Montenegro and Macedonia were joined together into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes under the king of Serbia. This lengthy title remained until 1929 when the country became Yugoslavia (southern Slavs).
In March 1941 Yugoslavia joined the fascist Tripartite Alliance, which sparked a military coup and an abrupt withdrawal from the alliance; Germany's reaction was to bomb Belgrade. Rival resistance movements fought both each other and the Germans, with the communist partisans led by Josip Broz Tito gaining the upper hand. In 1945 they formed the government, abolished the monarchy and declared a federal republic, which included Serbia and its autonomous provinces Kosovo and Vojvodina.
Tito broke with Stalin in 1948 and Yugoslavia became a nonaligned nation, albeit bolstered by Western aid. Within the nation, growing regional inequalities and burgeoning Serbian expansionism pushed demands by Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo for more autonomy.
By 1986 Serbian nationalists were espousing a 'Greater Serbia' to encompass Serbs in the other republics. This doctrine was appropriated by Slobodan Milošević, Communist Party leader in Serbia, to attempt to dominate Yugoslavia. This horrified the other republics, which then had to fight bloody wars against the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav army to gain their independence.
In April 1992 the remaining republics, Serbia and Montenegro, formed a 'third' Yugoslav federation without any provision of autonomy for Kosovo. This was the latest event in a series of brutal repressions by Serbia of the majority Albanians in Kosovo and violence, largely provoked by the army and police, erupted in January 1998.
The West produced a storm of protest plus an arms embargo. In March 1999 peace talks in Paris failed when Serbia rejected a US- brokered peace plan. In response to organised resistance in Kosovo, Serbian forces moved to empty the country of its Albanian population. Hundreds of thousands fled into Macedonia and Albania, galvanising the US and NATO into a 78-day bombing campaign. On 12 June 1999 Serbian forces withdrew from Kosovo.
In the September 2000 presidential elections, the opposition parties, led by Vojislav Koštunica, declared victory but their claim was denounced by Milošević. Opposition supporters from all over the country swarmed to Belgrade, took over the streets and occupied parliament. When Russia then recognised Koštunica's win, it was all over for Milošević, who had to acknowledge defeat.
Koštunica restored ties with Europe, acknowledged Yugoslav atrocities in Kosovo and rejoined the UN. In April 2001 Milošević was arrested and extradited to the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague.
In April 2002 a loose union of Serbia and Montenegro replaced Yugoslavia. The EU- brokered deal was intended to stabilise the region by accommodating Montenegrin demands for independence, but allowed for a referendum after three years. In May 2006 Montenegrins voted by 55.5% to leave the union.
In March 2003 Serbia's prime minister, Zoran Ðinđić, was assassinated. He had been instrumental in extraditing Milošević and had been trying to get rid of criminal elements from politics and business. His alleged killers were crime bosses and Milošević-era paramilitary commanders.
Between 2003 and 2004 three attempts were made to elect a new president but they failed due to voter apathy. Parliamentary elections in December 2003 were inconclusive but saw a worrying resurgence of nationalism. Power-sharing deals installed Koštunica as head of a centre-right coalition relying on support from Milošević's Socialist Party. Finally, in June 2004, Serbia gained a new president in pro-European Boris Tadić.
On 11 March 2006 Milošević was found dead in his Hague cell, ending another chapter in the region's history. In the same month talks commenced on independence for Kosovo but these look headed for a stalemate. Serbia will give everything but independence and Kosovo Albanians want nothing but independence.