bosnia report
New Series No: 21/22 January - May 2001
Yugoslavia, Serbia and the future - four texts
by Latinka Perovic


Why did Yugoslavia Fall Apart?

Explanations as to why Yugoslavia fell apart are bound to vary. What is important, however, is the wish to reach a proper understanding of the true causes, since otherwise it will be impossible to secure peaceful coexistence of the peoples who inhabit this area. Despite their best intentions, foreign diplomats too will be unable to establish a durable peace, unless they understand the true nature of the war.

What, then, happened to the former Yugoslavia? To gain a proper understanding one would have to go far back into the past. But Yugoslavia’s emergence at the end of World War I does provide a logical starting-point. Yugoslavia was an essentially liberal project, in that it presumed the co-existence of a great variety of differences: historical, confessional, linguistic, cultural, economic and civilizational. Each of the nations that it came to embrace rightly expected to realize its own vital interests within Yugoslavia: this was the necessary condition for their acceptance of the latter as their state. The project demanded a strategy of complementary economic development; great tolerance for cultural and civilizational differences, as well as respect for individual rights and freedoms; the establishment of democratic institutions that would permit free expression and harmonization of diverse interests; and an understanding that such a complex state required an equally complex system of government. Yugoslavia lacked all of this. It was nevertheless a challenging project: one that demanded great effort not in the sense of self-sacrifice, but in the sense of self-improvement.

With respect to the First Yugoslavia (1918-41), two main views predominate in the historiography of the Yugoslav nations. In one view, the First Yugoslavia was a modern nation state whose consolidation was prevented by ‘separatist’, i.e. national, movements that in the end could be contained only by recourse to dictatorial rule. In the other view, the First Yugoslavia was a centralist and unitary state under Serb political hegemony. These views express two different state concepts: one federalist, the other centralist. The struggle between them made Yugoslavia permanently unstable. The Serbs identified with a Yugoslavia that they treated de facto as an enlarged Serbia. The Croats and Slovenes, on the other hand - guided by their own historical aspirations and also by a political pragmatism reflecting the constellation of forces established at the end of World War I - accepted Yugoslavia as a political solution, but rejected Yugoslavism as a supra-national ideology. Any ideology based on pan-Yugoslav unitarism and state centralism was bound to provoke resistance among the non-Serb nations on Yugoslavia.

During World War II Yugoslavia was renewed on a federalist basis. The bearers of this project were the Communists, who emerged as a political force in all the country’s nations. The fact that they took power after a bloody war, however, combined with the monist nature of their ideology, made Yugoslav federalism largely notional. The sinews of the Yugoslav state were supplied by the party and the army. This combination proved strong enough to tame the passions that had exploded during the war, whose most tragic expressions were the genocides committed against Serbs in Croatia and against Muslims in Bosnia. It proved incapable, however, of creating a stable framework for the free expression of objectively different interests. A mechanism that would ensure their harmonization was ultimately incompatible with a system of political arbitration monopolized by a single party - and, in the last instance, by Tito as its leader. This was the basic contradiction of Yugoslav Communist federalism. It did made the life of the Yugoslav nations both tolerable and prosperous, but the federal state’s functioning was conditioned by the rule of a centrally organized Communist party.

At the end of World War II centralism prevailed in the name of raison d’état. Its logic was: either the state will be unified, i.e. strongly centralized, or it will fall apart. As a protection against foreign threats, this logic made some sense. The use of force as an instrument for solving national differences and individual national interests, however, subverted Yugoslavia’s essence. Everything that the proponents of a liberal state saw as favouring Yugoslavia’s preservation was perceived by the proponents of force as leading to its break-up. The two state concepts - federalist and centralist - represented, in other words, two essentially different concepts of social organization. The historical end of Communist party rule inevitably re-opened the question of state organization. It did not automatically imply the break-up of the common state. It did, however, entail a re-definition of the social and political foundations upon which the state had rested.

Historically speaking, the first question to be posed was the need for economic modernization and the establishment of a democratic system of government. Rejection or acceptance of this need created the main line of division within the party. This divide manifested itself also in relation to the organization of the state. Those who defended the existing social and political relations defended also the fictitious form of federalism. Those who sought change, on the other hand, demanded a new, more confederal, type of state association, based on agreement over a minimum of central state functions; consensual decision-making in areas of common interests; an end to the party’s political monopoly; freedom of the media; a reduction of military expenditure; free elections; respect for human rights, etc.

The question of Yugoslavia’s future after Tito was posed before the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The conservative response, which prevailed in the early 1970s, i.e. before Tito’s death and two decades before the fall of the Berlin Wall, contributed decisively to subsequent developments. At the start of the 1970s, the regime decided to treat the national movement in Croatia as an exclusively separatist movement. In Serbia, meanwhile, the orientation towards market economy and democratization - which signalled the end of Serbia’s identification with Yugoslavia - produced an equally rigid political response. The removal of the political leaderships in the two largest Yugoslav republics cowed the forces of change in the others as well. The state security and military complex evoked the danger of civil war and Yugoslavia’s break-up, and Tito went along with this. During the last decade of his life he too became subject to manipulation.

The constitution of 1974 appeared to offer the right formula for Yugoslavia’s survival. Increased autonomy for the republics and provinces was accompanied, however, by a constitutional affirmation of the role of the party and an enhanced political role for the army. The systemic contradiction of Yugoslav federalism thus remained unresolved. At the same time, right-wing nationalists defeated in World War II, Stalinist dogmatists repressed in 1948, members of the state security service removed in 1966, and an orthodox left seeking a return to original Communist values, were all preparing their revenge. A tactical alliance between these differently motivated forces gradually changed into a strategic one. Their unity was ultimately achieved in Serbia.

The political revolution that took place in Serbia in the late 1980s invested the old ideological regime with a new life. The process was carried out under the slogan of social equality and Yugoslav unity. Once events in Eastern Europe had made the dominant Communist ideology untenable, however, Serbia’s rulers began to fan the flames of nationalism. Their initial programme was the Serbianization of Yugoslavia. This caused resistance and encouraged other Yugoslav nations to seek independence. Serbia’s response was to start the war. The main war aims were clearly posed: redrawing of internal borders, exchange of populations, reorganization of the Balkan political space. The idea behind this extensive engineering enterprise was unification of all Serbs in a single state. Belgrade’s approach rested on various combinations of ethnic and historical principles, depending on what in the circumstances best suited the Greater Serbia concept.

The war brought into the open the old tension between liberal-federalist and dogmatic-centralist concepts of Yugoslavia. From the point of view of the centralists, the main guarantor of Yugoslavia’s unity was the army, in which 70% of officers were Serbs. This army had been made into a significant power on the grounds of the existence of an external threat, but its role had always been primarily internal in nature: defence of the order that kept the Yugoslav nations together. Once it came to be used for resolving internal conflicts, this military machine destroyed the Yugoslav state itself. As soon as the Yugoslav army started to defend Yugoslavia against all its constituent nations except for the largest one, it became clear that Yugoslavia was lost. The war destroyed for good Yugoslavia as a liberal and democratic idea. However, it also destroyed Yugoslavia as an imperial idea. The war proved that neither idea had been strong enough to prevail: both were defeated at the same time. The fact that Yugoslavia fell apart does not mean, however, that this outcome was inevitable. There were alternatives, but they were never considered. The war was started by the Serbian elite in the erroneous belief that it would be brief, that it would take place outside Serbia, and that it would cost no more than 80,000 to 100,000 lives.

Yugoslavia existed for seventy years. Within it, the scattered Serb nation realized its vital historic interests: national freedom and national unity. The fact that the Serbs were living together with other nations, which also had their own vital national interests, should have steered them towards cooperation, compromise and tolerance. The Serbian elite, however, did not raise itself to the level of its historical responsibility, for it failed to grasp the fact that Serb national interests demanded the surrender of all imperial ambitions. This elite displays to this day a great confusion in regard to Yugoslavia. It used to describe it as a prison-house of the Serb nation, while at the same time blaming the separatism of other nations for its break-up. It never bothered to ask itself how it is possible to blame four out of six republics for separatism, or how Yugoslavia could possibly be a threat to the existence of its largest nation. Paradoxically, it denounced the former Yugoslavia, but kept its name and demanded that Serbia be recognized as its sole legal successor.

While no one is wholly innocent in regard to Yugoslavia’s break-up, it is also the case that only Serbia possessed the necessary strength to destroy it. Yugoslavia was thus defeated from within. The greatest sin of Western Europe was its failure to grasp in time that Yugoslavia had become the site of a deadly struggle between liberal and imperial ideas, and that it was necessary to side with a liberal concept of the state in which human rights are inseparable from national rights.

Translated from Latinka Perovic, Ljudi, dogadjaji i knjige [People, Events, Books], Belgrade 2000, pp.96-100


A Post Scriptum

Mika Tripalo and Latinka Perovic were two of the most prominent Yugoslav republican leaders - respectively Croatian and Serbian - purged in 1971. In an interview conducted with them both by Omer Karabeg for Radio Free Europe in November 1994, they added this post scriptum to Yugoslavia’s break-up. For the full version of this fascinating interview, see Ljudi, dogadjaji i knjige, pp. 150-54.

Perovic: The break-up of Yugoslavia represents in my view a retrograde historical phenomenon. There was a lack of will to find a political compromise. I refer here in particular to Serbia’s responsibility for the break-down of negotiations dealing with Yugoslavia’s confederalization. I believe, however, that Yugoslavia cannot be re-created, and that the existence of separate national states is a reality that must be recognized: i.e. they must be recognized within their borders.

Tripalo: History has unfortunately shown that the nations in this area have failed to find a model on the basis of which they could articulate a common life. I myself took part in practically all constitutional commissions before 1970, and know how difficult it was to find a mutually acceptable model. There was, on the one hand, a desire on the part of some very influential circles in Serbia to rule over Yugoslavia; on the other hand, there was a desire on the part of the other nations that their republics be maximally autonomous. Due to this conflict, Yugoslavia was bound to fall apart sooner or later. It is true, however, that if the proposal for its confederalization had been adopted, the eventual separation could have been achieved peacefully and without so much bloodshed. War could have been avoided in principle, but given how strong the tensions in the country were something had to give - though none of us expected that the war would be quite so brutal and ugly. If one looks at the war, it becomes clear that it is not a civil war, a class war, or anything other than a war for territory, a war for an enlarged Serbia. This has proved partially successful: there is Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while Serbia also controls part of Croatia.

Perovic: I agree that Serbia viewed Yugoslavia as practically an extension of itself, while for the other nations it was a provisional solution: they accepted Yugoslavia only to the extent that it helped them preserve their national identities. The right formula was not found, however, and this failure led to the country’s dramatic break-up. But Yugoslavia was ripe for fundamental changes, including greater national independence. This would have created a sense of national security, on the basis of which one could have negotiated the creation of a new association of equals. The war, in other words, could have been avoided. Its conduct, on the other hand, entailed a departure from certain important principles. In the case of Serbian politics, this involved a peculiar combination of ethnic and historical principles. In the case of the international community, it involved acceptance of ethnic cleansing and the right of conquest.

If one looks for the causes of the war, I do not think that they are to be found in the appearance of nationally-based parties. I agree with Tripalo that the war had been brewing over a long time, and that its primary cause was the perception of Yugoslavia as an enlarged Serbia. If you have a state in which many nations live and within which they have also acquired states of their own, and if you then treat these nations as, so to speak, tenants, it is obvious that you are creating a situation in which war becomes unavoidable. And then there was the Serb-dominated army, moved by a centralist and egalitarian ideology. This is why I do not think that national parties were the generators of the war. The generator was rather a rigid centralism which rejected any democratic solution of the national question. Foreign diplomats who describe this war as a civil war overlook the fact that Yugoslavia was a multinational state.

The key to solving the crisis lies, in my view, in the hands of Belgrade and Zagreb. The war was from the start a war between Serbia and Croatia. Theirs is a historical conflict which, in the last instance, is motivated not so much by the desire to create national states as by a desire for regional domination. The partition of Bosnia would consequently solve nothing - it would only sharpen the conflict over which of them should be the regional hegemon.


The Upside-Down World of Myth-Makers

According to the Kosovo myth, the Serbian prince Lazar perished in Kosovo on St Vitus’s Day 1389

The first edition of Miodrag Popovic’s Vidovdan i casni krst [St Vitus’s Day and the Holy Cross] appeared twenty five years ago, when it was received as an act of sacrilege. Representing a new approach to a subject that lies at the heart of the Serb nation’s historical consciousness, for this very reason it was not submitted to a scientific historical investigation. Dare one say that this its third re-edition points to a maturation of that consciousness and a recognition that myth is not the same as history?

The brutal and unprecedented political instrumentalization [by Milosevic’s regime] of the Kosovo myth represents also its historical culmination, in the sense that it marks the start of the process of its degeneration. In such situations knowledge becomes quite irrelevant. Herzen says that a people must become stupid before it disappears. So the new edition of Vidovdan i sveti krst must be welcomed also for this reason.

The book deals with the crucial question of the relationship between historical consciousness and historical knowledge. Both play an important role, albeit not in equal measure, in the development of all nations. Historical consciousness represents a sedimentation of many myths, while historical knowledge results from the study of historical processes ‘such as they are, not such as they ought to be’. As Professor Popovic reminds us: ‘Mature civilizations know the difference between mythical and historical thought, between poetry and reality, between tale and actuality.’

Here we have proof that it was not necessary to write monographs on Vuk Karadzic, Djuro Danicic or Petar Petrovic Njegos - i.e. on the history of Serb Romantic thought - in order to be able to foresee the danger as long as a quarter of a century ago: ‘The persistence of the Vidovdan myth into our [20th] century, and with it the confusion between historical and mythical reality, between a true struggle for freedom and retained pagan affinities (revenge, slaying as a form of divine offering, revival of the cult of the heroic age), reflects in all its aspects a society guided by untamed mythical proclivities. Historically speaking, the Vidovdan myth has played a crucial role in the development of the [Serb] national idea; but as a permanent state of mind it may well prove fatal to those who are unable to wrench themselves from its pseudo-mythological and pseudo-historical labyrinth. In contrast to the poetic and national imagination of the Romantic era, if modern thought and human spirit remain bound by it they could experience a new Kosovo: an intellectual and ethnic defeat.’ This foresight could arise only from a critical, non-ideological approach to the history of one’s nation; from a desire to pose the right questions and seek answers to them.

When the historian and legal theorist Slobodan Jovanovic asked his father, the founder of the Serb liberal tradition, Vladimir Jovanovic why his generation had found it necessary to imbue Serb national history with so many myths, his father replied: ‘We had nothing else to begin with. Serbia was a dead sea.’ One hundred and fifty years have passed since then, not a great deal of time from the historical point of view. ‘The myth was not created in one go’, writes Professor Popovic. Historical consciousness and historical knowledge exist in parallel and often combine: what matters, however, is the quality of their mutual interaction. When I read Vidovdan i casni krst twenty-five years ago, and in it the statement by the historian and most learned monk Jovan Rajic which the author had chosen as the epigraph for his book: ‘It will be difficult to win the Slavs away from their ancient habits’, I was already engaged in historical research which sought to test and explain Rajic’s pessimistic prognosis. My work has focussed on two Slav peoples: the Serb and the Russian. In both a division took place in the 19th century which - as Georgi Florovsky has said in relation to the Russian Slavophiles - exhibited something that was ‘eternal and permanent’. In the case of the Russian people, the division was between Slavophiles and Westerners. In the Serb case, there was a polarization between proponents of the Enlightenment and Romantics. Professor Popovic tells us that this division was ‘the expression of a more general social polarization between adherents of the "new" and the "old" thought. Dositej Obradovic, Stefan Stratimirovic, Lukijan Musicki and other Rationalists wished to root out all traces of paganism in Serb culture. The Romantics headed by Vuk Karadzic and Petar Njegos, on the other hand, initiated a new literary culture embracing the pagan cultural inheritance to be found in folk poems, and in the customs and language within which folk poetry was formed.’ At the end of his study Professor Popovic poses the question of the ‘duality of Serb religious and national thought at the start of the 19th century’, which implicitly contains also an answer: ‘Has this conflict between the mythical and the rational been resolved, or does it silently continue to this day?’ There is no doubt that it does, at the expense of enlightened and rational thought. The French Slavist Michel Aubin has registered, in his book on Dositej Obradovic, surprise at the existing tendency to minimize Obradovic’s contribution to Serb thought and culture.

Rational thought derives from experience, not fiction. It assumes precision, not fluidity of concepts, as well as the potential to reach out to the other and to the different. The underdevelopment of rational thought, combined with the existence of a powerful mythological consciousness results in the creation of new myths. The late Serb historian Ivan Djuric, in his study Life under the Paleologues: Palaces and Huts, records Vuk Karadzic’s remark that ‘the Serbs believed that Istanbul was not built by human beings, but had built itself’. According to Djuric, ‘the Serb patriarchal culture of the Ottoman period could not rationally conceive of a city like Istanbul. It could not do so, since it went beyond its experience. [...] Until such time as their own homeland had provided the necessary experience, the inhabitant of an as yet non-existent Europe saw in Constantinople an emanation that was outside the given order of things, familiar yet distant, desired yet disliked, but certainly mythical.’

Myths act as a barrier to experience, while lack of experience generates new myths. History, as Professor Popovic has said, appears like a labyrinth: I would say like a descending circle, because the historical consciousness of nations that do not produce knowledge of their history is bound to degenerate. In 1856 Turgenyev, responding to the Slavophiles who were great proponents of Russia as it was before the reforms of Peter the Great, stated: ‘There are no trees without roots. Konstantin Sergeyevich [a leading Slavophile], as it seems to me, would like to see roots in the place of branches.’ In other words, there are no nations without a past, there is no civilized nation which cannot tell the difference between myth and history, and there is no modern nation whose future lies in renewal of the past.

This text has been translated from Ljudi, dogadjaji i knjige, pp, 235-7


Post-Milosevic Serbia does not yet exist

The victory of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) at the September 2000 elections was the product, above all, of the socio-economic bankruptcy of Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. The opposition had no programme other than his overthrow; but despite its heterogeneity it was finally able to unite around that goal. So people voted to avoid a complete catastrophe, about which the opposition leaders spoke but which the electorate had already long experienced. And that was decisive. No one, however, spoke about the sources of the catastrophe. The blow was directed primarily against the figure of Slobodan Milosevic. From his throne as adored national leader and greatest Serb of the twentieth century he was reduced to the rank of an ordinary dictator, war profiteer and usurper. This had far more of a psychological than a political meaning.

The very fact of Slobodan Milosevic’s overthrow, the fact that he was forced to recognize the electoral victory of the opposition and abandon the office of President of Yugoslavia - was the result of a combination of several factors: increased bitterness among the voters at the regime’s pretence to speak in their name; strong pressure from abroad; but also the defection of certain of the spiritual architects of Slobodan Milosevic’s political programme, and above all of the main instruments of his rule - the army and police. Bloodshed was avoided and many saved their skins - but their programmes as well. In Serbia Slobodan Milosevic remains present not just physically but politically: reelected president of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), bearer of its electoral list, and increasingly even interpreter of the last ten years of agony. This applies particularly to the instruments of his rule, a case unique in Eastern Europe.

Nevertheless, the change in regime has brought about a definite easing of conditions and awakened definite hopes, particularly among the young. Most important has been the involvement of the world and the rapid inclusion of Serbia within international organizations. The world was itself frustrated by its inability to approach isolated and frozen Serbia from any side whatsoever. It could help neither Serbia nor itself. This effect of Slobodan Milosevic’s departure is the most important and will have the greatest consequences. On certain conditions, of course, that are not spoken of at present: one must strike while the iron is hot. Without inner energy and a huge effort to rebuild the devastated Serbian society and to restore shattered relations with neighbouring states - above all the former Yugoslav republics - the sense of relief will diminish and hope be extinguished. Why ?

The political programme that found in Slobodan Milosevic merely its most effective executor has still not been called into question here. Even if it did not in fact represent his true convictions, he indisputably carried out in the name of this programme social and political engineering comparable in intensity only with that of the fascists or the Bolsheviks. The individual responsibility of Slobodan Milosevic is undeniable; but it is not sufficient to explain the decade spent in the wilderness by the Serb nation. Without an explanation for this, there can be no enlightenment.

Post-electoral explanations for the causes of Yugoslavia’s collapse, or even for the defeat of state socialism in Eastern Europe, are not so aggressive as at the time of the wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo; but they do not differ greatly from the pre-electoral explanations. The arrogance toward others has not disappeared, nor has the pretension that Serbia should return to the original position of the Greater-Serbian national policy.

The current shameless struggle for personal position is convincing the impoverished majority that the old-newcomers too have no notion of the concept of common weal. This creates a sense of the futility of engagement and reduces hope in the possibility of fundamental change. The voters have little sympathy for the tactical manoeuvres of the new government, but expect definite evidence of a break with the old order. This was already apparent in the December elections.

The blurred picture of the causes of Serbia’s social catastrophe, and the avoidance of any discussion of the roots, manifestations and consequences of Serb ethnic nationalism, create two dangerous illusions. The first is that Serbia should receive compensation for its losses: above all, territorial and financial compensation. The second is that international humanitarian assistance in food, medicine and fuel, which is helping to ensure that society does not experience a complete collapse and degenerate into anarchy, can become a permanent source of maintenance for us in our state of sickness.

An effort at sober analysis of the past decade shows that in Serbia there have been various forms of resistance to nationalism and war: the mass avoidance of mobilization, which contributed also to the emigration of a large part of the country’s most educated young people; the individual opposition to nationalism of a respectable minority among the intellectual elite; and the victory of the opposition in local elections in many towns. This resistance was morally important and represents a certain capital for the future of a Serbian society whose reserves have been massively depleted. It is understandable that in the flood of nationalism such resistance remained without effect. But it is worrying that the attitude of the majority toward the bearers of this resistance has not changed even today. For the majority has been impelled to resist for a different reason: humiliating poverty. But it does not see this poverty as the unavoidable price for four wars (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo) and two (the ‘anti-bureaucratic’ and the ‘bulldozer’) revolutions, all during the course of a single decade in a small and poor nation.

It still remains for Serbia to confront the truth and the scale of the catastrophe. The question is whether she it the strength to endure such a confrontation. At issue, above all, is the scale of the crimes that were deemed legitimate in the struggle for an ethnically pure state. It is an illusion that they can be forgotten, or absolved by a formal apology. That would deepen a mistrust towards us that is worse than the state of war. Within Serbia, moreover, it would smooth the path for reaction rather than for opposition. A new opposition, since the present or former one is in programmatic terms just a new form of the old. Its politicians, from the same generation as Milosevic, have with a small number of exceptions simply modified his Greater-Serbian programme. A part of this opposition still attacks Milosevic from the right, for having failed to realize the dream of a Greater Serbia and for having signed the Dayton and Kumanovo agreements.

In our eager anticipation of an end to political monopoly, it is nevertheless necessary to distinguish between opposition and reaction. The former is supported by young people and appears when a regime ‘is approaching its end’. Reaction derives from the bearers of traditionalism, the representatives of surviving cultural models, and appears when ‘something has been destroyed and the new is being created’. So it is important that the nationalist fetters are burst in Serbia, that society becomes genuinely pluralist, and that through competition between different programmes a social and political balance is achieved. This is Serbia’s deepest national interest, which does not exist just for itself.

The political mechanism that guaranteed the monopoly of power has been destroyed. The ideology it guaranteed collapsed before it. The politics it served in lieu of the vanished ideology became impotent when it collided with the depths of society. So the possibility of an alternative has been created. The preconditions for it are still slender; but they could shrink still further and even disappear if the orientation towards further time-wasting, i.e. the postponement of any confrontation with the truth, becomes dominant. Claims, coming from the world outside, that a fundamental change has taken place in Serbia are taking away the desire for reality; often they are mere flattery, which tells serious Serbs that we are not being taken seriously.

Slobodan Milosevic is no longer president of Yugoslavia, but post-Milosevic Serbia does not yet exist. For it to emerge, a break with the policies that disabled Serbia’s development is essential. Perhaps it will not bring votes or guarantee status; but it is the only answer to the question of why we are where we are, and under what conditions we can move forward. Criticism and even skepticism toward every government is necessary to society and state alike. Without that the majority cannot come of age, psychologically or politically.

This article has been translated from Helsinska povelja, no. 35, December 2000


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