Fact Sheet

Former Yugoslavia Biological Overview

Former Yugoslavia Biological Overview

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This page is part of the Former Yugoslavia Profile.

On 17 June 1925, Yugoslavia signed the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons. 1 This treaty, which Yugoslavia ratified on 12 April 1929, also included prohibitions on the use of bacteriological warfare. Yugoslavia ratified the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWTC) on 25 October 1973. 2 Following the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 the various successor states independently acceded to the Convention: Slovenia on 7 April 1992, Croatia on 28 April 1993, Bosnia Herzegovina on 15 August 1994, and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) on 24 December 1996. Although a chemical warfare (CW) program was publicly revealed in 1993, no allegations of biological warfare related research or production activity have been leveled at Yugoslavia. As far as is publicly known, Yugoslavia and its successor states have fully adhered to the biological warfare provisions of both treaties.

As was typical of modern military forces, the Yugoslavian Army (VJ—Vojska Jugoslavije) established, and its successor, the Serbian Army (VS – Vojska Srbije) maintained, a branch (ABHO – atomsko-biolosko-hemijske odbrane) responsible for detecting and defending against the consequences of biological warfare and other WMD attacks. 3 As part of a wider set of military reforms in the mid-2000s the importance of NBC defense was downgraded. This resulted in the ABHO’s elimination and the re-designation of the 246th NBC Defense Battalion as a general purpose service directly under the Land Forces Command. 4 The NBC (Nuclear Biological Chemical) Defense Training Center in the town of Krusevac was re-assigned to the Training Command. 5 The other Yugoslavian successor states maintain NBC Defense capabilities and participate in NATO training exercises and operations to varying degrees. 6

The Serbian Army is provided with a full range of individual and collective protective equipment intended to enable its continued operations in the event of a biological attack, much of it based on Soviet designs, some of it of local manufacture. Most of the other Yugoslavian successor states are similarly equipped. The Trayal Corporation based in Krusevac produces NBC protective equipment for individuals including masks, filter cartridges, gloves, and protective suits. It also produces filter equipment for military vehicles. 7

The Military Medical Academy (VMA – Vojnomedicinska akademija) located in Belgrade, which in the past was associated with the Yugoslavian CW program, maintained a Department of Biological Warfare Defense within the Institute for Epidemiology into the early 2000s. This department is no longer listed on the VMA website and may have been disbanded. 8 There are no indications of research into offensive BW applications.

Diseases endemic to the former Yugoslavia’s territory include anthrax, which produces sporadic outbreaks in herd animals; Crimean-Congo hemorrhagic fever concentrated in Kosovo; cholera; tularemia, which produced a small epidemic in the period 1998 to 2000; and typhus. 9 In August 1967 there was an outbreak of a hemorrhagic fever in Belgrade, Yugoslavia and in Marburg and Frankfurt, Germany. The causative agent was identified as an RNA filovirus and given the name Marburg. These cases were tracked to infected monkeys imported from Africa, and there were no subsequent cases. In March and April 1972, Yugoslavia successfully contained Europe’s last outbreak of smallpox. 10 Although it is conceivable that samples of these disease agents might have been retained by Yugoslavian medical authorities for future use by military programs engaged in defensive or offensive research there is no evidence pointing to such a development.

On the basis of available information it appears extremely unlikely that Yugoslavia or any of its successor states have pursued the development of an offensive biological warfare program. Neither the prolonged hostilities of the 1990s nor the removal of the Milosevic regime in 2000 produced any revelations in this area. As is the case with all countries capable of undertaking basic research into microorganisms and the production of pharmaceuticals and vaccines, there is a latent capability that would allow a biological weapons program to be initiated in the event that a political decision was made to do so.

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Geneva Protocol
Geneva Protocol: Formally known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, this protocol prohibits the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and bans bacteriological warfare. It was opened for signature on 17 June 1925. For additional information, see the Geneva Protocol.
Ratification: The implementation of the formal process established by a country to legally bind its government to a treaty, such as approval by a parliament. In the United States, treaty ratification requires approval by the president after he or she has received the advice and consent of two-thirds of the Senate. Following ratification, a country submits the requisite legal instrument to the treaty’s depository governments Procedures to ratify a treaty follow its signature.

See entries for Entry into force and Signature.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
The BTWC: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC) prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons. Countries must destroy or divert to peaceful purposes all agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery within nine months after the entry into force of the convention. The BTWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975. In 1994, the BTWC member states created the Ad Hoc Group to negotiate a legally binding BTWC Protocol that would help deter violations of the BTWC. The draft protocol outlines a monitoring regime that would require declarations of dual-use activities and facilities, routine visits to declared facilities, and short-notice challenge investigations. For additional information, see the BTWC.
Chemical Weapon (CW)
The CW: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines a chemical weapon as any of the following: 1) a toxic chemical or its precursors; 2) a munition specifically designed to deliver a toxic chemical; or 3) any equipment specifically designed for use with toxic chemicals or munitions. Toxic chemical agents are gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical substances that use their toxic properties to cause death or severe harm to humans, animals, and/or plants. Chemical weapons include blister, nerve, choking, and blood agents, as well as non-lethal incapacitating agents and riot-control agents. Historically, chemical weapons have been the most widely used and widely proliferated weapon of mass destruction.
The common name of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, as well as the name of the disease it produces.  A predominantly animal disease, anthrax can also infect humans and cause death within days.  B. anthracis bacteria can form hardy spores, making them relatively easy to disseminate.  Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR/Russia have all investigated anthrax as a biological weapon, as did the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Anthrax-laced letters were also used to attack the U.S. Senate and numerous news agencies in September 2001.  There is no vaccine available to the general public, and treatment requires aggressive administration of antibiotics.
Cholera: A disease of the digestive tract caused by the bacteria Vibrio cholerae. A water-borne disease, cholera infections usually occur via contaminated water or foods. Cholera causes severe diarrhea followed by severe dehydration, and can result in death within hours or days. Sanitation in the developed world has greatly lessened cholera’s public health impact. Unit 731 of the Japanese Imperial Army used cholera against the Chinese military and civilian populations during World War II.
Tularemia is a disease caused by Francisella tularensis, a bacterium that is native to rabbits and aquatic mammals, but is also one of the most infectious pathogens to humans. Tularemia can survive in harsh conditions, and just one organism can cause human infection. Tularemia aerosols can incapacitate a patient within one or two days. Tularemia infection causes fever and skin lesions, and can eventually develop into pneumonia. The Soviet Union and Japan investigated F. tularensis for bioweapons purposes during World War II, as did the United States during the 1950s and 1960s.
Epidemic typhus has affected numerous military campaigns, including Napoleon’s invasion of Russia and the Eastern front during WWI. Typhus causes widespread vascular damage, and patients experience flu-like symptoms before the onset of delirium and neurological symptoms. Because typhus is effectively treated by antibiotics, typhus is not considered a particularly significant BW threat.


  1. High Contracting Parties to the Geneva Protocol, SIPRI, accessed 6 October 2009, archives.sipri.org.
  2. “Status of the Convention,” Organization for the Prohibition of Biological Weapons (OPBW), www.opbw.org.
  3. 246. Bataljon ABHO, accessed 7 October 2009, sr.wikipedia.org.
  4. LTC Ivan Lazarevic, “The CBRN Country that came in from the Cold,” CBRNe World, Winter 2008, p. 16.
  5. LTC Ivan Lazarevic, “The CBRN Country that came in from the Cold,” CBRNe World, Winter 2008, p. 16.
  6. As an example Slovenia maintains the 18th Nuclear Biological Chemical (NBC) Protection Battalion which has participated in several rotations of the NATO Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear Defence Battalion. Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Defence Battalion: The Alliance's multinational CBRN defence capability, NATO website, accessed 30 September 2009, www.nato.int; Annual Report of the Ministry of Defense for 2005 (Republic of Slovenia Ministry of Defence: Ljubljana, 2006), p. 9-10, www.mors.si.
  7. “Protective Devices,” Trayal Corporation, 7 October 2009, www.trayal.co.rs.
  8. Website of the Military Medical Academy Epidemiology Institute (in Serbian), 8 October 2009, www.vma.mod.gov.rs. Note that the English version of the MMA website make no reference to the Epidemiology Institute.
  9. Branislav Lako, Elizabeta Ristanovic, Miroslav Spasic, Radivoje Prodanovic, Roman Djuric, “The First Epidemy of Tularemia in FR Yugoslavia,” ASA Newsletter, Issue No. 86, 26 October 2001, p. 19-21, www.asanltr.com.
  10. Jonathan B. Tucker, Scourge: The Once and Future Threat of Smallpox (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2001), pp. 86-89.


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