What's in a Flag?

What's in a Flag?

What's in a Flag?

Answers to your questions about the news.
June 18 1999 4:15 PM

What's in a Flag?

Pictures of Russian tanks rolling into Kosovo ahead of NATO's schedule have dominated this week's front pages. Many of the tanks sport the Russian flag--a white horizontal stripe over a blue stripe over a red stripe. But what are the Serbian onlookers holding? Are they upside-down Russian flags?

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Yes and no. Yes, they are upside-down Russian flags, but an upside-down Russian flag happens to be the Serbian flag--red over blue over white. If you guessed this has something to do with common Slavic origins, you guessed right.

The original Russian flag was created by Peter the Great after a 1699 visit to the Netherlands. Almost every Slavic country eventually adopted a flag design that combined at least two horizontal stripes of red, white, or blue.

The flag of the Yugoslav kingdom, created after World War I, adopted the last unused design combining all three colors--blue over white over red--and included a coat of arms. In 1946 this coat of arms was replacedwith the red, five-pointed star of inter-continental Communist unity. The Yugoslav Federation flag, adopted in 1991, abolished the star but did not resurrect the coat of arms.

The Russian flag was discarded after 1917 and replaced with a Soviet look-alike. But the czarist flag made its reappearance on the international stage when Boris Yeltsin waved it from atop a tank as the 1991 Soviet coup collapsed. It was readopted after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Flag associations are so strong in the Balkans that in 1998, in the wake of the Dayton accords, the United Nations created from scratch a politically neutral, pan-European flag for Bosnia and Herzegovina(blue with diagonal gold stars), widely derided as a "corn flake flag." Nevertheless, the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims (green and white with crescent), and Bosnian Croats (red over white over blue) still cling to their traditional colors.

Explainer thanks the vexillologists at Flags of the World and reader Geoff O'Quest.