Yugoslavia, Communism, and Empire
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
just seven years later, it was gone.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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."
never hurts to repeat that, in the Balkans, irony is one of
the major players on history's stage.
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).
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.
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
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.
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.