The break-up of Yugoslavia

Submitted by AWL on 5 June, 2019 - 9:25 Author: Sarah Correia

Sarah Correia is a researcher at the London School of Economics. She will speak at Ideas for Freedom, 22-23 June, on the case in Eastern Europe where the collapse of the old bureaucratic “one-party” regime around 1989 led to outright regression — the breakdown of the federal state of Yugoslavia into war.

The understandings of how things worked between nationalities in the old Yugoslavia varies. But a lot of the time there were no big apparent issues. The idea of being “Yugoslav”, and that being compatible with diverse national sub-identities was popular. A significant minority saw themselves as just “Yugoslav”. Often children were not very conscious of which national sub-identity they belonged to. That was especially true in Bosnia, and especially in the cities in Bosnia. It gradually became different in Serbia.

Serbia does not have the same ethnic mix as Bosnia. As early as 1981 there was growing agitation there, especially in Serbian Orthodox Church and intellectual circles, about Serbs allegedly being persecuted in Kosova, and even about “genocide” against Serbs. Kosova was always an exception in the structure of Yugoslavia. It had never come into the federation voluntarily. It was conquered, first by Serbia in 1913, and then by Tito in 1945. And that exception, gradually, poisoned the whole set-up.

Kosova had the status of an autonomous region within Serbia. There were some measures of liberalisation after 1968. From 1981 there was a nationalist backlash. There were student protests in Kosova, at the university of Pristina, initially around conditions in their halls and canteens and so on. A new generation in Kosova was gaining some confidence after decades of the population being overwhelmed by the conquest of 1945. Soon the protests took up the question of autonomy. There was no talk of secession then, but there were some demands for Kosova to become a republic in the Yugoslav federation rather than a sub-unit of Serbia. There was massive state repression and many imprisonments.

At that time maybe 10% of the population of Kosova was Serb. There was emigration, of both Albanians and Serbs, from Kosova to other parts of Yugoslavia, for economic reasons. Some intellectuals interpreted that as Serbs being driven out and being unable to live in the territory which (in medieval history) had been the cradle of the Serbian nation.

At first the agitation was about individual rights of dissent, then it became expressed in terms of collective rights, and then it evolved into nationalism. There were no similar issues in Bosnia at the time. The Communist Party policy of balance between nationalities and self-censorship to mute nationalist grievances was generally accepted. Nationalists now say: “we got along because we were forced to get along”. Yet today, somehow, everyone misses Yugoslavia. Life was better then. People had jobs. Towns had factories.

In the early 1980s, Serbia was the most liberal part of Yugoslavia, except perhaps Slovenia. But the liberals who lived within the system were slowly reshaped by a shift from defending nationalists in the name of individual rights towards collective nationalism. It was something like what we see now in Britain, with the move from defending racists in the name of individual rights to collective assertions of racism.

There was a political shift to the right among dissident or semi-dissident intellectuals all across Eastern Europe in the 1980s. In most countries it took the form of a shift to neo-liberalism, sometimes by people who had placed hopes in Eurocommunism in the 1970s and seen them disappointed. In Yugoslavia, though, the shift to the right was a shift to nationalism.

Tito died in 1980. That created a lot of uncertainty in the regime. Tito had been the final arbiter. No one replaced him. There was much effort by the regime to reconfigure itself, with the rotating chair of the collective presidency for example.

Even so, up to the late 1980s there was still widespread allegiance to the regime and identification with Yugoslavia. I remember going to Srebrenica in 2008. It was half-deserted, and I knew it had been the scene of a terrible atrocity. But I also thought, looking at the houses: the people here in the 1990s had a level of life better than in small towns in my own country, Portugal, at that time. There was poverty in Yugoslavia, but nothing like the levels of poverty in Portugal even in the 1980s and 1990s. There were some slums in Belgrade, where the Roma lived for example, but nothing like the shanty towns round Lisbon, which began to be cleared and replaced only from the late 1980s.

Slobodan Milosevic, who became president of the CP in Serbia from 1986, was a trail-blazer for the nationalist right across Eastern Europe, way before Orban. Individual contingency is important here. Someone else might have seized the initiative, and then things would have gone differently. He was the first person to mobilise the nationalism that was brewing into an effective political force, and then to place his allies so that he could dominate the media spectrum. Milosevic did not break with the Communist Party legacy or the Partisan tradition. Instead he “nationalised” them. He always claimed to be a Yugoslav and a socialist. He presented himself as the person who could secure continuity. He was able to attract both hard-core nationalists and people with some general nationalist feeling who did not think of themselves as nationalists, and change the political identity of his supporters.

His appeal was in some ways similar to the “no more experiments” appeal of pro-market opponents of other regimes in Eastern Europe in 1989, only his particular “no more experiments” programme was one which would gradually transform the idea of a big Yugoslavia into that of a big Serbia. He appealed to a sense of keeping what people already had.

Nevertheless, his regime became a kleptocracy, and a regime which needed to be in a state of war to keep going. Milosevic never had as much support as Orban has today. 1987 was the start of Milosevic’s ascent to power, continued in 1988 and 1989 with a movement he called “the anti-bureaucratic revolution”, with an appeal something like Farage now in Britain.

There were huge rallies of up to a million people. The Communist Party machine was working for those rallies, but there was more to them than that. Conflict with Slovenia and Croatia followed, and the collapse in early 1990 of the federal Communist Party. There were still federal state institutions, but no longer an all-Yugoslav party.

Milosevic got half the seats in the collective presidency by getting his supporters in as representatives of Vojvodina and Montenegro and Kosova. In a parallel process the Yugoslav army became a Greater Serbian army. The army always saw its main duty as to preserve Yugoslavia, and historically the officer corps had always had a strong Serb majority. Milosevic’s ascent was independent of the army, but once he was in power there was a convergence of interests, an alliance, between him and the army.

The Communist Party in the republic of Croatia, in anticipation of the need to open up to multi-party elections, created a proportional representation system skewed so as to massively favour the party with the highest vote. They did that because they expected they would win the highest vote. But the nationalists won the election, and the system helped. The Communists had not take into account the dynamics of the election campaign — as with the Tories and Brexit, here. The big nationalist parties did not campaign for war; on the contrary, they campaigned as being able to reassure people that they could assert their identity and be secure.

It was relatively easy to co-opt the Partisan tradition to nationalism in Serbia. In Croatia, Tudjman had to resort more to “the invention of tradition”. He himself had fought with the Partisans in World War 2, but he topped that up with appeals to anti-Partisan tradition. The Croats thought that they were more economically developed than the rest of Yugoslavia, the economic powerhouse that was dragging the other republics on behind it. After World War 1, Croat nationalists were a chief driving force in the creation of the first Yugoslavia, because they thought that only a federation of the south-Slav peoples could resist the threats of external domination which otherwise would overwhelm the separate small nationalities.

They knew the history of domination by the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and feared domination by Italy. The movement towards secession by Croatia was not a German plot, as some describe it, but it was facilitated by the fact that the Croats saw external friends rather than external enemies. They observed how Portugal, Spain, and Greece had been integrated into the EU, and saw those as models which Croatia could follow. There has long been a very strong “European” identity in Yugoslavia. In Bosnia, even the more religious Muslims also had a strong “European” identity. The visa regime which people in Bosnia face today is experienced as deeply painful.

Slovenia became independent in June 1991, with only a brief attempt by the Yugoslav army to prevent that. Croatia declared independence, and a fierce war followed in 1991-2 between Croatia and the “Yugoslav” (now in fact largely Serbian) army.

It seems difficult to understand why Bosnia chose to declare independence in March 1992, and trigger a larger war that would last until 1995. I think it was a matter of the Bosniac Muslim leadership not being prepared for what was going to come. They seem to have expected that the international community would somehow protect them. They did not have the understanding that the Albanian leadership in Kosova had then, that it was better to build up strength and wait: the Milosevic regime would not last forever.

The leadership was not competent, I think. Alija Izetbegović was the wrong person in the wrong role. It seems that Izetbegović was even undermining the efforts of people in his own party to make preparations for the threat of war. He didn’t believe Serbia would be so brutal, though in retrospect it seems so obvious. Even in 1991 there were still individual Muslims being drafted in the Yugoslav army and going to fight in Croatia. Then only months later they would be in a Serbian concentration camp. There were also draftdodgers, of course.

Serb nationalism in Bosnia was different from Serb nationalism in Serbia. It did not openly break from the Partisan tradition, but tried to annex more of the Chetnik legacy. On the other hand, Croat nationalists in Bosnia were more moderate than Croat nationalists in Croatia itself. The Bosniac Muslim leadership came from the tradition of the Young Muslims repressed by the Yugoslav regime in the 1980s. It was more connected to the Islamic structures in Bosnia than to any Yugoslav tradition. Islam in Bosnia is much more centralised, much more organised like the Catholic Church, than Sunni Islam is elsewhere. It has been like that since Ottoman times.

For a long time it had a modus vivendi with the Communist Party, because the Islamic community was modernist, and very much against Sufism, for example. During the Bosnian war most of the Arab states sided with Milosevic. Turkey and Iran supported Bosnia, and Iran supplied weapons, with American help. After the war, it was different: all the Islamic states scrambled to get involved in the reconstruction.

European diplomacy made a negative contribution in the early 1990s. Germany did side with the nations that wanted independence, but the other European states were strongly opposed to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, for fear of precedents. And the European diplomats also had a nationalist mindset. They assumed multinational states couldn’t work.

Even before the Bosnian war broke, their big plan for peace involved forced transfers of population. That played an important role in encouraging the ethnic cleansing during the war. Even in the Serbian leadership, partition was not initially a goal. They thought in terms of a maximalist demand to dominate the whole of Bosnia. Partition emerged during the war.

What are the usable memories which shape political prospects in Bosnia now? There is the lived memory of the war. That acts as a deterrent against any new war. People are very cautious. Since the war there have been very few incidents of violence. That is good. But the memory also makes society passive, with little appetite for political change. The political parties in power are plundering the population, but efforts to unseat them are very limited. People say: “As long as they don’t start shooting…”

There is another “memory” which is mostly not lived experience, and that is a strong nostalgia for Yugoslavia. Nostalgia can have a positive role. It can underpin projections into the future. In practice, this nostalgia doesn’t have that positive role. It’s escapism.

Among the Bosnian Serbs, the division between the Chetnik and Partisan traditions is strong and pervasive, but it is like a family secret. During the war years the Partisan legacy was openly attacked — memorials vandalised, and so on — but nowadays there is a precarious accommodation of the two legacies. In Croatia there is a very disturbing revival of the Ustashe and fascist legacy. It’s a bit like the Brexit populists here.

For instance, the city of Split had a very strong Partisan tradition, and that’s under strong attack. Nationalist graffiti have revived, for example among young football hooligans. In Serbia there is a process of reintegration of the Chetnik legacy and the legacy of Milan Nedić, the Nazi-Quisling leader during World War 2. Politics in Serbia now is completely dominated by people from the Chetnik legacy, though they look moderate compared to Orban.

In Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia, everyone who can leaves the country. That is easier from Croatia, because it is in the EU. From Serbia and Bosnia there is a massive drain of doctors and nurses, but also a stream of people going to Germany, Italy, or Austria on 90-day visas for temporary work. The driver is not so much poverty, but lack of prospects and hope.

The wish to leave is not based on the idea that they will have a much better material life abroad, but that they will live in a healthier society. Even people who think they will have a poorer individual standard of living abroad want to leave.

•Sarah Correia was talking to Martin Thomas from Solidarity

Yugoslavia timeline

From 15th century: most of the region ruled by Ottoman Empire

19th century: Serbia wins independence. Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia ruled by Austro-Hungarian empire.

1912-13: Balkan wars. Ottoman Empire pushed back, Serbia gains control over Kosova and Macedonia.

1918: first joint Yugoslav state formed. On Croatian initiative, but becomes heavily dominated by Serbian monarchy.

During World War 2: Catholic-fascist (Ustashe) Nazi puppet state in Croatia, ruling also over Bosnia. Nazi occupation regime in Serbia. Serbian royalists (Chetniks) sometimes fight Nazis, but more often collaborate. Stalinist-led Partisans fight Ustashe, Chetniks, Nazis, and win.

1945: second Yugoslav state. Stalinist-ruled, federal.

1948: Stalin attempts to topple Yugoslav leader Tito, whom he sees as too autonomous, and fails. Tito steers distinctive course (heavy reliance on market mechanisms, “self-management” in industry, free emigration) within “one-party” state model.

1980: Tito dies, replaced by “collective presidency” with rotating membership.

1988-9: Milosevic conducts “anti-bureaucratic revolution” in Serbia, actually a successful drive to establish Serbian (his) control over federal institutions.

1991: Slovenia and Croatia declare independence. Small military clashes in Slovenia; big war between Croatia and Milosevic.

1992: Bosnia declares independence. War with many atrocities until 1995, when Bosnia becomes independent under intricate big-power supervision.

1999: Milosevic launches drive to slaughter or drive out Kosovars. NATO intervenes, defeats Milosevic. Kosova eventually becomes independent under big-power supervision. Milosevic falls from power in 2000.

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