November 29, 2001

Republic Day
Yugoslavia, Communism, and Empire

On November 29, 1943, Communists from all corners of then-occupied Yugoslavia gathered in the Bosnian town of Jajce, as the Antifascist Assembly of Yugoslavia's People's Liberation (AVNOJ). Invoking the Wilsonian doctrine of self-determination and their own two-year war against the Nazi occupiers, the Communists claimed their assembly was the only legitimate government of Yugoslavia. In a night session, they produced a one-page document proclaiming the establishment of a new, federal state.

One typed page, two signatures and a stamp redefined Yugoslavia for the next five decades. For the next 47 years, November 29 – Republic Day – was Yugoslavia's Fourth of July, and the Jajce document its Declaration of Independence.


To hear the Communists tell it, by virtue of the Jajce proclamation Yugoslavia was transformed from a shaky constitutional monarchy plagued with ethnic problems, then occupied and divided by the Nazis, into a socialist workers' paradise of brotherhood and unity.

Yet November 29, 1943 could also be classified as a coup d'etat, facilitated by the facts on the ground: Yugoslavia had been partitioned by the Nazi invaders and their allies in April of 1941, and its royal government had fled into exile; the Communists commanded a substantial fighting force that had fought the Nazis for over two years; they had established a government in the territories under their control. Also, by late fall, 1943, the tides of war had turned decidedly against the Axis. Italy had surrendered to British and American troops, while the Germans lost their entire force in North Africa and suffered a crucial defeat by the Soviets at Kursk that summer. Yugoslav Communists, led by the charismatic and mysterious Josip Broz Tito, felt it was the perfect time to stake their claim to the spoils of victory, preempting the increasingly helpless royals and their loyalist guerillas in the country.


On November 29, 1945, after the Nazis surrendered and the Communists established full control over Yugoslavia, AVNOJ met again and officially abolished the monarchy, declaring the Federal People's Republic of Yugoslavia. For the next 35 years, Yugoslavia saw peace, development and relatively harmonious coexistence between its ethnic groups, under the watchful eye of its Supreme Leader, Tito.

The first, royal, Yugoslavia had been plagued by ethnic nationalism, most radically manifested by the Croatian separatists. Their fascist wing, the Ustasha, had actually governed almost half the old Yugoslavia as the "Independent State of Croatia" (NDH) allied to the Reich. The Ustasha genocide against the Serbs, Jews and Gypsies had destroyed any hope of coexistence between Serbs and Croats – until the Communists came up with an overriding ideology that made it possible again. It was called "brotherhood and unity," but in reality had more of a Machiavellian, "divide and conquer" twist.

Tito did not seek to eliminate nationalism, as one might expect of a Communist. He merely swept its inconvenient parts under the rug, and used the rest to advance his agenda. For example, by lumping the Ustasha with all other non-Communist militias in the chaos of Nazi occupation ("domestic traitors"), Tito relegated their genocide to the level of moral equivalence with common wartime atrocities committed in the course of internecine fighting. Serbs and Jews murdered by the Ustasha got their monuments, but dwelling on the genocide's ethnic essence was out of the question.

Dividing Yugoslavia into six "republics" and two "autonomous provinces" further enabled Tito to play the ethnic groups against each other, while maintaining ultimate authority. By emancipating the Bosnian Muslims and Macedonians as constituent "nations," he increased the number of official identity groups. By emphasizing a separate, non-Serb, Montenegrin identity and giving Albanians control of Kosovo, he broke up and weakened the Serbs.

Though it is theoretically possible that Tito harbored some personal grudge against the Serbs, being a Croat-Slovenian himself, it is more likely that the new Yugoslavia's anti-Serb bent ("Weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia") was simply a pragmatic Communist policy, a natural enmity towards the largest ethnic group, whose history of freedom and nationhood threatened the legitimacy of Communist rule. Long before 1943, the Communists had harped on about the evils of the "Greater Serbian bourgeoisie" and the monarchy as its embodiment. Had Croatians been the dominant group in a noncommunist Yugoslavia, perhaps they would have been targeted just as much. It is impossible to tell, though.


Remarkably, Tito's strategy worked for a long time. Unified by socialism, able to coexist under "brotherhood and unity," enjoying its self-proclaimed neutrality in the great struggle between the Communist and Capitalist empires, Yugoslavia prospered for a while. No doubt this was because Tito's brand of Communism was really socialism – it allowed private property (though with severe limitations) and was far less repressive than Stalinism or Maoism, at least after its first decade. So popular was Tito himself, that his funeral in 1980 still holds a record for the number of world leaders in attendance. With the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia seemed to have reached its zenith.

Yet just seven years later, it was gone.

The speed with which Yugoslavia disintegrated, the ease with which ethnic nationalism replaced Communism as the ruling ideology, and the viciousness with which the former "united brothers" set upon killing each other over land and power seem inexplicable only if one completely ignores the obvious. Tito's Yugoslavia had been one great Potemkin Village, in which appearances of prosperity, normality and coexistence were powerful enough to convince the people of their truthfulness, but could not stand up to economic or historical realities.


By the mid-1970s, Tito was dying. So was Yugoslavia, both politically and economically. Galloping inflation combined with unprecedented political fragmentation, enshrined in the 1974 Constitution that created a deeply dysfunctional confederation of ethno-Communist fiefdoms. Tito's succession by the "Presidency" – a committee of eight representatives of each federal "republic" and "province" – only meant the end of an ultimate authority that could keep the ethnic fragments in check.

Two events in 1989 helped shatter the rapidly dissolving country: the short-term prosperity created by major economic reforms, and the collapse of Communism. The first created a wave of rising expectations among the people, increasing their readiness to revolt against a system that threatened further prosperity. The second effectively removed the ideological glue that kept Yugoslavia together. Into the resulting vacuum rushed the ethnic nationalists, the ethnic "republics" and "provinces" fertile ground for their separatist agendas.

Besides, as mentioned before, ethnic issues were never really resolved – only repressed, or used for ideological purposes. One such issue, Kosovo, had already boiled over by 1981, just a year after Tito's death.


Is the idea of Yugoslavia only a chimera? Both its incarnations, the 1918-1941 monarchy and the 1943-1991 Communist federation, certainly were. The proof is in the speed with which they disintegrated, and the sheer eagerness of some of its constituents to participate in that disintegration.

It is, of course, theoretically possible that, given different circumstances, South Slavic peoples would have created a harmonious union based on their closely related language(s), if not their different histories, religions and political experiences. Perhaps the greatest tragedy is that the choice was never put to the actual people. Yugoslavia was created by power-hungry elitists, redefined by power-hungry Communists and destroyed by power-hungry demagogues with a distinctly fascist flavor. The only thing any of them ever "asked" the people was to give up their lives and their property in the service of their State(s).


Yugoslavia, of course, had a profoundly deep impact on the Balkans. It created stability, however artificial and temporary, in a very chaotic part of Europe. Its existence helped commerce and peace, just as its demise(s) created shockwaves of disturbance.

The legacy of Communist Yugoslavia is perhaps most undeniable in its successor states: in the name still claimed by the dysfunctional union of Serbia and Montenegro; in the borders between successor states, drawn arbitrarily by the Communists; in the nostalgic reminiscences of survivors, embittered by the sycophantic kleptocracies they've lived under for a decade; in the delusions of those who believe "brotherhood and unity" could be resurrected without (or even with) their Communist fundament; even in the widespread, persisting loyalty to the State and the incomprehension of personal liberty.


Then there is the impact Yugoslavia's disintegration had on international relations. As greedy rulers of republics strove to become presidents of nation-states, they enlisted foreign help, quickly internationalizing the issues of secession and succession. Yugoslavia first became the playground of the nascent European Union, then of the UN, and finally of the US and NATO. In the course of the past decade, dozens of international laws, conventions and traditions were broken and discarded, beginning with the recognition of secessionist republics in 1991-92, culminating in the 78-day orgy of bombing over Kosovo, and continuing with the vivisection of Macedonia. Through the portal of Yugoslav chaos, occupation and colonialism resurfaced as forms of foreign policy, as did gunboat diplomacy – updated for the 21st-century as "humanitarian bombing."


It never hurts to repeat that, in the Balkans, irony is one of the major players on history's stage.

Yugoslavia's name survived even as the idea and the state itself did not. Today, only Serbia still holds on to it. Yet its Communist leadership had not made it to the 1943 meeting in time, and was never consulted about establishing the Yugoslav federation (to say nothing of the Serbs in general).

In 1991, the European Community (EU) decided to dictate the terms of Yugoslavia's dissolution, shoving aside the Yugoslav constitutional provisions for the formula concocted by the Badinter Commission. Its basic premise was that self-determination belonged to federal polities, not peoples or ethnic groups. Furthermore, upon the secession of such polities, the federation was ruled to be nonexistent. This "death by recognition" not only created a peculiar precedent for future federations, it also quite successfully demolished Yugoslavia and the USSR.

Most importantly, perhaps, this formula guaranteed the outbreak of successionist wars, since the real dispute was not the secession itself, but the control of territories inhabited by constituent peoples that secession would turn into minorities – Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, Croats in Bosnia, Muslims in Serbia...

Ten years later, the top representative of EU foreign policy came to Yugoslavia to "press the estranged republics of Serbia and Montenegro this week to work quickly on a constitutional roadmap that could bind them together." (Reuters) The man in question is none other than Javier Solana, who oversaw the terror-bombing of that very same Yugoslavia two and a half years ago, and engineered the "constitutional" reform in Macedonia that was at best a travesty, at worst a heinous crime.


Imperialist meddling has not stopped, and will not stop, with the death of Yugoslavia. It was foolish to ever believe otherwise. Just as it was foolish to believe that any idea, no matter how noble or peaceful at conception, could survive being imposed and maintained by force. On this Republic Day, may Yugoslavia serve as a gruesomely demonstrated case in point. It could help its troubled spirit rest in peace.

Text-only printable version of this article

Nebojsa Malic 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 contributed to the Independent. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia and Serbian politics, many of which have been published by the Serbian Unity Congress. His exclusive column for appears every Thursday.


Past Articles

Republic Day

Surrender in Kosovo

A False Choice for Kosovo

Death by Protectorate

Perverted Justice

The Meanings of Madness

Arrogance of Power

Reflections on Revolution

War Without End

Battle in the Balkans

Intersections of Fate

Macedonia's Tragedy Masquerading as Farce

A Day to Remember

The Serbian Standoff

Macedonia's Futile Surrender

Murdering Macedonia

Rambouillet Repeated?

Empire's Willing Servants

Kostunica's Choice

Betrayal in Belgrade

The Empire Shows Its Hand

The Return of Kings

Meditations On The Edge Of The Abyss


Terms of Betrayal

Presevo – A False Victory

The Balkans: Land of Delusions

Enemies at the Gates

ICG's Blueprint for Destruction

Kosovo: Between Death and Taxes

Madness in the Mountains: Montenegro's Looming Secession

A House Divided


Empire at the Gates

Macedonian Maelstrom

Pax Americana

The Fourth Balkan War

Mayhem in Macedonia

Surreal Realm

Santayana's Curse

The Croatian Conundrum

March of the Black Eagle

Showdown in Belgrade

Out of the Shadows

With a Grain of Salt

Crusade's End

The Worst of Times

Moments of Transition

Déja Vu

The Crucible

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