bosnia report
New Series No:43-44 January - April 2005
Yugoslavia Croatia, Serbia
by Zorica Stipetic

The interview reproduced here in edited form was conducted by Darko Hudelist, prominent Croatian journalist and author of a monumental recent biography of Franjo Tuđman, on behalf of the Belgrade weekly NIN on the occasion of its seventieth anniversary. ‘Zorica Stipetić is a Croatian historian best known for her two works on interwar Croatia: The Communist Movement and the Intelligentsia and August Cesarec - arguments in favour of revolution [Cesarec was a leading Croatian Communist executed by the Ustashe in 1941]. This latter work won her the prize of the city of Zagreb and NIN’s own annual literary award in 1982. She was a member of the central committee of the Croatian League of Communists in the 1980s, and as such lobbied strongly for multi-party elections in 1989.’ (NIN)



NIN: How did you as a left-wing historian experience the collapse of Yugoslavia and of socialism?

Stipetić: I was never what in Croatia is often described as ‘Yugonostalgic’. Nevertheless, I found it a very painful experience. The process leading to it was of long duration so it was not unexpected, but the violence and the betrayal of all values were so brutal and frightening that it could not but cause pain. We historians who worked on the history of Yugoslavia never got far, since in our different ways we were all aware of its destructive contradiction.

What was for you the most dramatic moment of its break-up?

The agony of Vukovar, and then of Srebrenica. It was also terrible when Serb bodies turned up on rubbish dumps in Croatia, when friends told me about the disappearance of Serbs from Gospić and Karlovac.

Why did Yugoslavia fall apart in fact? How would you separate external from internal causes?

Yugoslavia’s task was to protect the existence of small nations. Croatia needed Yugoslavia to safeguard its existence and development, once World War I had destroyed Austria-Hungary. Although Yugoslavia has been called a prison of nationalities, none of them was assimilated into an imaginary Yugoslav nation. In fact, Yugoslavia permitted them to complete their political formation, and this indeed was its historical meaning. Once the external danger had passed, with the end of the Cold War, and history turned to creating a united Europe, Yugoslavia was no longer needed.

Dobrica Ćosić in his writings speaks of ‘diaspora nations’, meaning in particular the Croats and the Serbs.

There is no doubt that this aspect supplied the main motive for the war and its bloody nature. One must not forget, however, that World War II began with the quest for an all-German national unification, ie, with the slogan of ‘all Germans in the same state’. This idea of a total and violent integration of ‘diaspora nations’ is characteristic of Fascism and Nazism. What happened here was thus nothing new in Europe, but the fact that it could occur again was a very frightening experience.

We cannot avoid here the question of the 1986 SANU Memorandum. Its key authors have argued that their aim was to save, not to destroy Yugoslavia, but that Croatia and Slovenia wished to leave.

I share the general opinion in Croatia that the Memorandum was a platform for a Greater Serbia. It should be recalled that the Serbs were presented there as losers, Serbia as a victim of Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia as a ‘prison of nations’. In Croatia in the 1990s too, the Communist movement was proclaimed totalitarian and anti-Croat, while the Ustasha movement was identified as a movement for national liberation.

The authors of the Memorandum, as well as many Serbian historians and politicians, insist that two years were fateful for Serbia and the Serbs: 1966, the year when Ranković was purged; and 1974, when the new constitution was proclaimed. Was Tito wrong so brutally to remove Ranković, who was the highest-ranking Serb in the Yugoslav Communist hierarchy?

Given the Communist practice, Ranković’s political execution could not have been done more elegantly. I myself believe that Ranković was loyal to Tito. His centralist concept, however, at that moment clashed directly with that of self-management. It was a life or death issue. Ranković, who I would think was not a nationalist, did in the end predictably defer to his own nation, and to UDBA [the state security service], most of which, as is well known, was recruited from among the Serbs. Nevertheless, he was smoothly replaced. The consequences of this for Serbia must have been considerable, given that in a way he brought together Serb nationalists and part of the older Serb Partisan generation, on the one hand, and the police on the other; and given also that for over twenty hears he had been in charge of cadre policy for the all-Yugoslav party. The fact is that no reform of the party or the system could proceed on the basis of his concepts.

You are saying that Tito was right to remove Ranković, and that Kardelj was right and Ranković was wrong. Why was Kardelj a positive person and Ranković a negative one?

I am convinced that Tito was right, and that Kardelj played a positive role in these developments.

Yet Dobrica Ćosić has argued that it was Kardelj who destroyed Yugoslavia, whereas Ranković wanted to protect it.

But why should one accept unquestioningly what Ćosić says? He himself has been the bearer of a destructive conception of Yugoslavia. Kardelj was responsible for Yugoslavia’s break-up in the sense that he was fostering democracy from below, through self-management. He recognised the progressive side of national emancipation, and believed that a good Yugoslavia was one that served all its nations and citizens equally. That was the only Yugoslavia that made sense, from the historical point of view. On this I agree with Kardelj.

What do you think of the argument popular among Serbian historians and politicians that the 1974 constitution, which was mainly Kardelj’s work, contained many anti-Serb elements, that it aimed to weaken Serbia within Yugoslavia?

I would agree with the second part of your sentence, and the problem of Serbia still remains unresolved. Serbia’s predominance in Yugoslavia - I am referring here to Ranković’s role in party appointments, to the powerful army in which most officers were Serbs, to the disproportionate Serb presence in state and party bodies - was so great that the others simply failed to see that Serbia too had a national problem. If I were to criticise Tito and Kardelj, I would blame them for removing the so-called Serbian liberals from power in 1972. That was absolutely wrong.

Could one say then that the creators of the 1974 constitution underestimated the likely reaction of the advocates of Serb national integration, who emerged in force ten years later?

Perhaps. Great-Serb hegemony cast into the shade all other problems, one of which was how to ensure that Serbia would become constituted like all other republics.

Talking of national integration in the area of former Yugoslavia, ever since 1968 Dobrica Ćosić has been advocating a ‘re-composition of the Yugoslav space’. And then in 1971 Tuđman came up with the formula of ‘cultural and territorial integration of the Croat national being’. What do they have in common and where do they differ?

They clearly upheld similar concepts of national unification, which could not be realised, however, in view of the actual Serb and Croat ethnic distribution. Such projects were also unrealistic at the time, since Yugoslavia’s continued existence was supported by both East and West. Such a re-composition of Yugoslavia could not be achieved without war. But as you know, political utopias are very often realised in a more limited - or even in the worst possible - form. As I have said, such types of extreme nationalism are of the same nature as fascism and Nazism.

Are you saying that Ćosić and Tuđman were ideologically fascist?

What I am saying is that seeking to unite by force parts of a nation scattered over other territories is characteristic of fascism. Fascism, however, is a complex and developed ideological system, that includes other aspects and not only extreme nationalism. Ćosić and Tuđman in my view did not have a developed world view, but only this national idea: one-sided and ruthless.

How do you explain the fact that when the break-up of Yugoslavia appeared imminent, hardly anyone in Serbia advocated the independence of Serbia within its AVNOJ borders? In Croatia, by contrast, the idea of independence within AVNOJ borders was strong.

One must bear in mind the nature of modern Serbia’s formation, the fact that it acquired an ever larger territory through wars. This is why the AVNOJ borders were treated as provisional. Greater Serbia is an old programme, which acquired a clear articulation at the time of World War I. The Yugoslav Committee at the time worked hard to persuade Serbia to give up Greater Serbia in favour of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was not a Serbian invention. It was conceived by the South Slav nations living within Austria-Hungary.

Why do you think the international community opted for the independence of states rather than of peoples, which is what the Serbian leaders were demanding?

Because the constitutional situation was clear on this question. The constitution guaranteed both the internal borders and the right to self-determination.

Milošević and Jović insisted that all Serbs wherever they lived had the right to leave Yugoslavia.

Given that the Serbs lived in several republics, this meant war. I do not recall, however, any war that ended by uniting all members of a nation. When the Slovene nation joined Yugoslavia, it left one third of itself in Austria and Italy. Croatia too left a good number of its nationals in Italy, as Hungary did in Yugoslavia, and so on. A nation cannot be collected like so much grain. Croats live in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but Croatia has recognised its borders.

What, in your view, is the perspective for Croatia and Serbia?

It seems that right now we can be optimistic about Croatia. It has finally rid itself, it seems, of the notion of Greater Croatia and now appears concentrated on building a civic society within its given borders. It is also ready to share its sovereignty with other states within the EU. Serbia, on the other hand, lags behind in all these respects. It has not solved the problem of Kosovo, and until this problem and that of Republika Srpska are solved it will not be able to join the EU. Serbia still lives with the problems of the 19th and 20th centuries, and has not been able to create a new identity for itself appropriate to the 21st century.


This is an edited translation of the interview published in NIN (Belgrade), 27 January 2005


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