The myth of ethnic politics
by a book review Attila Hoare
Yugoslavia as History - Twice There Was a Country,
by John R. Lampe,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 1996.
The war that broke out in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s is undoubtedly one of the most misunderstood of modern history. Beyond the disinformation of Western governments and the ignorance of journalists, the reason for this must be sought in the failure of historians and other intellectuals to explain the history of Yugoslavia that led to the war. Textbook histories of Socialist Yugoslavia written prior to its collapse are remarkable in their neglect of the national question; the authors preferring to concentrate on the Tito regime’s handling of domestic and diplomatic crises and its economic achievements or failures. The need for a reevaluation of the history of Yugoslavia in light of the recent war is therefore pressing.
John R. Lampe’s textbook Yugoslavia as History - Twice There Was a Country at first appears promising. In his introduction, Lampe indicates some of the long-term structural and ideological contradictions that plagued the Yugoslav project from its birth to its demise, and stresses that a united Yugoslavia was viable only when political, economic and military conditions were favourable. His narrative is "federalized" throughout, with different sections dealing with the different peoples and regions of Yugoslavia, an improvement on the "unitary" structure of many earlier textbooks.
Unfortunately, however, Lampe does not appear qualified for his task, outside of the economic sphere in which he specializes. His text is riddled with startling omissions and factual errors. He gives an overview of the history of the Yugoslav peoples since the middle ages, but the Kosova Albanians do not enter the story until theÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌä Balkan Wars of 1912-13; his account of Yugoslav unification in 1918 omits any mention of Montenegro’s union with Serbia; his account of the 1928 crisis in Yugoslavia makes no reference to the formation in Zagreb of a separate parliament by dissident Croatian and Croatian Serb deputies; his account of World War II treats each region separately but leaves out Macedonia; and the watershed 1981 demonstrations in Kosova are not even mentioned. He states that the borders of Ottoman Bosnia did not change between 1699 and 1878, though they changed in 1718, 1739 and 1833; that Srem was given to the Croatian Banovina in 1939, when only the western part was; and that the leader of the White Eagles in 1992 was Vojislav Seselj, though it was actually Mirko Jovic.
In describing the descent into war of the 1980s and 90s, Lampe is like many sympathisers with the Titoist project unable to confront the awful truth: that the Socialist Federal Yugoslav state was not the impartial guarantor of peace and equality between its six constituent republics, a Hobbesian leviathan sitting on the lid of a Balkan pressure-cooker; but was itself an expression of an unsolved national question and an actor in Yugoslavia’s demise. Lampe consequently blames the decentralizing aspects of the 1974 constitution for giving the republics freedom to bring down Yugoslavia. The devolution of power to the republics, which would "stoke the fires of ethnic self-interest and exclusivism", both weakened the federal government’s ability to respond to the economic crisis of the 1980s, and gave free reign to rivalry among the republican Communist parties that `turned into full blown ethnic politics by the late 1980s’. At the same time, Lampe describes this "ethnic politics" purely in terms of conflicts between the national groups within each republic, as though the policies of the Yugoslav government, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and the Serbian leadership had no bearing on Croatia’s treatment of its Serb minority, or on relations between Muslim, Croat and Serb political parties within Bosnia.
Lampe writes of the harrassment of Serb minorities by Croats and Kosova Albanians, but makes no mention of the Yugoslav People’s Army’s bloody suppression of Albanian protests in 19889 or its use to close down the Kosova provincial assembly. He writes of the mass Serb demonstrations that toppled the Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosova governments, but omits to mention that they were organized by Milosevic’s police - all this "ethnic politics" taking place well before the elections of 1990. He is equally silent about the crucial facts pertaining to the aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina: the arming of sections of the Bosnian Serb population; the establishment of "Republika Srpska" in ethnically mixed territories; its creation well in advance of the country’s declaration of independence. All this preparation for war, moreover, like the attack on Slovenia in
June 1991, took place while the Federal government of Ante Markovic - whose programme supposedly represented a way to avoid the conflict - was in office.
Furthermore, Lampe appears unaware of the contradiction in his own thesis: namely, why a conflict between multi-ethnicrepublics over economic resources and constitutional prerogatives should culminate in the "civil war" transcending republican boundaries that he describes, between the Bosnian government and the leadership of the principal Bosnian Serb political party or between the Croatian government and Croatian Serb rebels. Are we talking here of an interstate conflict between the six republics, or of a series of distinct civil wars between ethnic groups within each republic?
Lampe appears unaware of the difference, claiming that in 1989-90 "Krajina Serbs staged their own confrontations with local Croats and - encouraged most by the Milosevic media - began to demand autonomy within Croatia, cultural if part of Yugoslavia and political iÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌäf not. A direct Serb-Croat confrontation had always
threatened the very survival of any Yugoslavia, from the first such fatal intersection in 1927-28 forward". Yet 1927-28 saw an alliance between Croats and Croatian Serbs against Belgrade, whereas 1990 according to Lampe saw an alliance of Croatian Serbs and Belgrade against Croatia. Such paradoxes are only obscured by talk of "ethnic politics", a wholly meaningless term by which Lampe absolves himself of any obligation to investigate his subject seriously.
Finally, Lampe repeats the Serb-nationalist complaint that "the much debated European and American recognition of Bosnia-Hercegovina on April 6" was "a date thoughtlessly chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia and the bombing of Belgrade in 1941". The date can only be described as "thoughtlessly chosen" if one assumes that international recognition of Bosnia-Hercegovina was an attack on the Serb nation reminiscent of Hitler’s attack fifty-one years previously, or if one believes that such considerations really were the reason behind the Serbian onslaught on Bosnia in 1992. Lampe should be aware that 6 April was the date of Sarajevo’s liberation from the Nazis in 1945, by a multi-ethnic resistance movement encompassing Serbs, Muslims and Croats. A more appropriate date for recognition of Bosnia-Hercegovina could scarcely have been chosen.