Balkan Express

The Balkans Babylon
by Nebojsa Malic
October 19, 2000

The Balkans is a stretch of land between the Danube and the southern tip of Greece, between the Adriatic and the Black Sea. It is also the only region in Europe where nations and cultures are still in the stage of dynamic development; few things are defined in that triangle of turmoil, and even fewer can be easily understood. Here the past, the present and the future of Europe all exist simultaneously. Lessons of the past and lessons for the future can be observed on a daily basis. What transpires in the Balkans will largely signal the shape of things to come in Europe and perhaps the rest of the world, just as the events of Europe's past shape what happens in the Balkans.

It is the Balkans, then, that this column will try to illuminate every Thursday, not "Southeastern Europe" or some equally sterile misnomer. Indeed, to call Balkans by any other name would be as if referring to the Holy Land as "Southwestern Asia" – geographically accurate, but utterly meaningless.


Though every people in the Balkans has a long history and a fairly unique ethos, and though they will all be covered on this page sooner or later as events require, the focus of Balkan Express at this point will be on the lands of the former Yugoslav federation. It is the heart of the region, the core of the Balkans social reactor, containing a potential – destructive and creative – similar to its nuclear analog. So for now, the spotlight belongs to the former Yugoslavia – a distinction its peoples would surely have foregone, had it been entirely up to them.


John R. Lampe subtitled his history of Yugoslavia Twice There Was a Country. Until the infamous events of the 1990s, Yugoslavia was largely remembered as a "Third Way" socialist country, leading the Non-Aligned movement. The record set for attendance of foreign dignitaries at the 1980 funeral of its president-for-life, Marshall Josip Broz Tito, still stands. Tito, who somehow managed to fight both the Soviets and the West, then get money from both, was often praised for unifying a large number of diverse peoples under a single banner. Yet the true unity of those peoples was amply disproved by the series of wars that destroyed Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Some say Yugoslavia died in the summer of 1991, when its northernmost region of Slovenia declared independence. Others put the end in 1992 when Croatians did the same, sparking a war over the status of Serbs in the territories Croatia claimed. Legally, Second Yugoslavia ceased to exist in April 1992 – just after Bosnia-Herzegovina seceded and plunged into civil war – when the last remaining territories of the old federation joined to form the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Of all the political and social phenomena in the world, this Yugoslavia is the most unusual. Like an exotic feature of Ripley's "Believe it or Not!" it has alternately been recognized and denied. The UN officially does not recognize its claim to succession of the old federation. NATO has unofficially bombed it for 78 days in 1999 and occupied a part of its territory. Its own citizens usually refer to it as Serbia – except for those who live in Montenegro, who cannot decide whether Yugoslavia exists or not. That is why they have worked on creating a separate state since 1998, but have not officially declared independence. It could be that their leaders are waiting for the decision by those who fund the Montenegrin budget – the U.S. government.

Last week, Reuters reported that Vojislav Kostunica, the newly elected president of this Yugoslavia, told Le Figaro that Yugoslavia really ceased to exist in 1992. The London Independent later carried the story quoting Kostunica more extensively. He thought that the term had lost its meaning back in 1992, when the Croats and Slovenes left that union of South Slavs (literal translation of Yugoslavia).

There are not many countries that can be partitioned, occupied, not recognized and sanctioned, while their own leaders aren't convinced of their existence. As such, Yugoslavia definitely deserves a closer look


It is a sad fact that there have always been less "Yugoslavs" than citizens or subjects of Yugoslavia. The term was more easily used by foreigners, who found it logical to call the people by their country of citizenship. But inside the country, the name never stuck. By the 1991 census, it was reduced to describing a category of children from ethnically mixed marriages, who thus lacked ethnic ("national") identity.

This is a long way down for a romantic idea of the mid-1800s, when groups of educated Serbs, Croats and Slovenes mulled a unification of all South Slavs in order to free themselves from foreign domination. Not surprisingly, the Turks, Austrians and Hungarians were not at all favorable to the idea of their rebellious but profitable subjects molding into a new, separate nation. Only after World War One, when Serb weapons and Entente peace treaties dispensed with their objections, did such a union become reality. It was named Yugoslavia in 1921, by the edict of King Aleksandar I Karadjordjevic, who became the king of Yugoslavia much like Kaiser Wilhelm I became the emperor of Germany, or Vittorio Emmanuel the king of Italy. But unlike the people forming Italy and Germany, who agreed to have more in common than not, Yugoslavia was torn from inception between the more numerous and already politically independent Serbs and the more Westernized Croats and Slovenes, who envisioned something less of a union with Serbia and more of a confederacy in which they would get full statehood. Aleksandar's kingdom was therefore doomed to a short life.

Aleksandar may have been an arrogant autocrat, but he was an ideological Yugoslav. His sons had a Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian name (Petar, Tomislav, Andrej). When he was killed in Marseilles in 1934, at the hands of a Macedonian assassin paid by Croatian separatists, his last words were reportedly, "Take care of Yugoslavia." His successors tried to do so by accommodating Croatian demands. By the time the Axis decided to invade Yugoslavia in March 1941, it was already too late. The Croats were poised to join Hitler and declare war on everything Serbian within the borders they claimed as their own.


The subsequent Croatian Ustashe atrocities are well documented. Generally less known is their effect on the Serbs, the Ustashe's principal victims. Shocked at the savagery of their former brethren, left leaderless by the exiled infant king, many Serbs were recruited by the Communist Party and formed a mainstay of its guerilla army. Some royalist "Chetniks"), though fighting for the restoration of the kingdom, could not realistically picture Croats, their Bosnian Muslim allies, and Albanians (who did everything to cleanse the annexed parts of Macedonia, Montenegro and Kosovo of all non-Albanian population) in that state, often expressing this case of ideological indigestion through attacks on those ethnic groups. The Communists found a shortcut around this dilemma; all who fought with them were good Yugoslavs, guaranteed liberty and equality in their version of workers' paradise. All others, no matter what they fought for, were enemies of the people. This attitude contributed greatly to the Communists' final victory over the Nazis, ideological enemies, and those who straddled the fence; it also facilitated their subsequent executions.

When Tito's Communists re-established Yugoslavia in 1945, it was a very different country. Aleksandar's kingdom was constructed around the existing government of royal Serbia, since no other Yugoslav people had a polity of their own at the time. The Communists, led by a charismatic and capable Tito, sought to deny legitimacy to the old regime by declaring their new Yugoslavia a federation of sovereign peoples, whose "republics" followed the Soviet example. But though they claimed that ethnic sentiments were atavistic and undesirable, the Communists did little to create a true Yugoslav identity. That would have meant engineering nationalism, which was against the accepted ideology. Instead, Tito successfully manipulated ethnic tensions to create a country in which he held the final judgment over the squabbling republic leaders.


Today, in retrospect, many Serb historians in the West portray the Communist Yugoslavia as anti-Serb. In the 1941-45 war, Serbs suffered the largest casualties of all the Yugoslav peoples. Still, the Communists fought with grim determination against the royalist guerillas in Serbia, and did little to prevent Ustasha atrocities against the Serbs. Srdja Trifkovic of the Rockford Institute goes so far as to suggest that the Communists considered the genocide against the Serbs useful, as it eliminated the "bourgeoisie" while driving the peasants and workers to their cause. At the end of the war, the communists continued to claim their greatest internal enemy was a "Greater Serbian bourgeoisie."

Despite this, the Serbs readily identified with a country for which they sacrificed over two million people. All other groups (thanks to the ethnic emancipation of Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians and Montenegrins under Communism, the official number of South Slavic peoples had grown) saw any attempt at Yugoslav universalism as a "Greater Serbian bourgeois counter-revolution." The psychological problem of the three-faced Kingdom became a problem of the new Federation, which first had five administrative/ethnic faces, then six, and finally eight

Whatever the motivation behind it, the Communist arrangement divided and weakened the Serbs while strengthening and consolidating all other Yugoslav peoples. No other republic had "autonomous provinces," though regional and ethnic criteria for that abounded. But no one in the Serbian Communist leadership either wanted or dared to question Tito's wisdom on this, especially after a bloody purge of the Party in 1948-52, during which the veteran Serb cadres were imprisoned at the Goli Otok gulag on charges of "Stalinism" alongside the few non-Serbs who similarly transgressed against the Party.

Whether the Serbs thought there was no reason to worry since Tito's borders were only administrative markers within Yugoslavia, or they were too afraid to challenge Tito and suggest the ultimate heresy – that the borders were motivated by nationalism – is irrelevant. Tito's word remained sacrosanct, and his borders set in stone, until the bitter end.


In 1968, when most of the world demonstrated against the status quo, Yugoslavia went through its own upheaval. But while Belgrade students demanded democratic reforms, the rest of the country demanded greater ethnic privileges. Kosovo Albanians, for example, chose that time to launch a drive for full republic status (and subsequent secession), while Croatia witnessed the birth of the Mass Movement (Maspok), the seed of its 1990s nationalist resurgence. Everyone was challenging Yugoslavia, except the Serbs.

When Serbs finally protested the appeasement of these challenges by the 1974 Constitution, their protests were ignored. A convoluted and contradictory political act, the 1974 Constitution simultaneously enlarged governmental bureaucracy and made the country ungovernable. While officially one state, one Federation with one citizenship, Yugoslavia had practically become a six-nation, eight-state confederacy, held together only by Tito's balancing act. When Tito died in 1980, this rapidly disintegrated house of cards was taken over by an eight-member committee.

Unlike Aleksandar, Tito never said any poetic last words. For another decade, the people swore to follow his path, but no one was sure what that really entailed. In retrospect, it looks as if that meant pretending that everything was normal. But if there is to be a date on Yugoslavia's death certificate, it would have to be 1974. The fragmentation of the 1990s was but decay of a rotting corpse that crumbled once Communism – the force that still held it loosely together – itself fell into the dust.


When the fragmentation began, separatists-dubbed-democrats all over the country cursed all the tenets of Yugoslavia – except the borders so cleverly designed by Tito and the Communists, and their useful red herring, the "Greater Serbian Menace." From Ljubljana to Zagreb, Sarajevo to Pristina, everyone was busy renouncing Yugoslavia and blaming Serbian Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic for "forcing" them to do so. Ironically, Milosevic cemented his own power by pretending to defend Yugoslavia with the same Communist ideology – which rested on denying all that was Serbian as dangerous and counter-revolutionary – that had partitioned and retarded Serbia for years. The ultimate effects of that halfhearted, cynical attempt are all too obvious.

Vojislav Kostunica was one of the people who criticized the 1974 Constitution for its destructiveness. He was fired from his University job in retaliation. Twenty-six years later, he was elected to preside over the ruins of the country that Constitution had brought down by encouraging separatism. Those ruins, even more ironically, consist of the only republic that was purposefully kept down as a potential enemy of Yugoslavia.

After losing almost three million people, suffering a genocide and living through four decades of political discrimination, the Serbs were the only ones left standing by the Yugoslav banner when the music stopped. So bitterly did they fight for Yugoslavia that when it disintegrated, they were left with far less than what they had before Yugoslavia's creation. Yet they believed in the dream, even after it betrayed them repeatedly. That, however noble, was also foolish. From that perspective, one can understand Kostunica's eagerness to give Yugoslavia a proper historical burial.

Nebojsa Malich left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo, and had contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specialized in international relations and the Balkans, Malich has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, which were published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.

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