Yugoslavia: Behind the Fragmentation

Kit Adam Wainer

The Fall of Yugoslavia:
The Third Balkan War
By Misha Glenny
New York: Penguin Books, 1992, 184 pages.

The Destruction of Yugoslavia:
Tracking the Break-Up, 1980-92
By Branka Magas
London: Verso, 1993, 359 pages.

The Fragmentation of Yugoslavia:
An Overview
By Catherine Samary
Amsterdam: International Institute for Research and Education, Notebooks for Study and Research, 1993, 46 pages.

THE TWENTIETH CENTURY may close much the same way it opened: with a Balkan tragedy of unthinkable proportions.

Echoing the explosions of 1914, the Yugoslav crisis reveals what is wrong with the contemporary world order. Like World War I, the current war in the former Yugoslavia will produce mass waves of refugees, casualties and devastation. It throws in our face such horrors that we would prefer not to see. But we must look.

The Bosnian disaster emanates from the decay of post-Stalinist society and the malaise of the modern world economy. It now threatens to infect much of Europe. Thus Catherine Samary begins her essay with:

“The Yugoslav syndrome haunts the ex-USSR The two federations seem to have exploded in the same way; the crises are similar, up to and including the difficulty of re-establishing the so-called “market economy,” that is to say capitalism. From this point of view, the Yugoslav crisis illustrates the most general features of the dead-ends of “actually existing socialism.” (5)

Misha Glenny, Branka Magas and Catherine Samary try to make this complex story comprehensible. Each examines the development of the Yugoslav war and provides important clues about its causes. Refreshingly, all three dispel some common myths: that Yugoslavia is a land of ages-old ethnic rivalries, that these conflicts lay dormant for four decades under the iron hand of Titoism, that cooperative coexistence of Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Moslems, Macedonians, Montenegrins, Albanians, Hungarians and Jews is an impossibility. Quite the contrary, Yugoslavia has a history of violent nationalism matched only by its legacy of internationalism. Yugoslavia may be the home of Croatians and Serbians, but it also yielded up the most effective anti-Nazi partisans. Casual references to ages-old nationalism are mere excuses for ignorance and inactivity. By brushing these aside, the authors have started the discussion on healthy terms.

Misha Glenny is a BBC correspondent who tells his story with journalistic vividness. Glenny describes the look and feel of an event while he is trying to analyze it.

His method is to switch back and forth from journalism to historiography. He may first recount the history of a certain region and then describe his personal ordeal with the area’s border guards. Glenny is a journalist first, an analyst second. However, when he focusses on historical study he is original and insightful.

Glenny’s work surpasses the others in its analysis of the various layers of the ex-Yugoslav bureaucracy in decomposition. He briefly paints pictures of the Serbian Chetniks, the Serb, Croat and Moslem intelligentsia and the social forces to which the different republican regimes relate. Glenny is concerned with why the ruling blocs of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia act as they do. He also tries to get inside the mindset of a fired Serb functionary who becomes a Chetnik. He is able to make one understand the extraordinary pressures of social decay, and the unexpected recourse individuals seek.

Glenny insists that both the regimes in Serbia and Croatia represent wings of the ex-Communist bureaucracies clinging desperately to their waning power. However, he will not dismiss nationalism as mere bureaucratic manipulation. He demonstrates how historical processes have reactivated nationalist rivalries, without relying on the cliché that such conflicts were always inevitable. A telling example is his description of Serb-Croat tensions in Croatia in 1990-91:

“The majority of the 600,000 Serbs in Croatia are urbanized. Before the war, they were generally well integrated into Croatian society and relations between these Serbs and the Croats could hardly have provoked the ferocious conflict which ripped through Croatia in 1991 ….. Yet it is [the] rural Serbs who control the broad swathes of countryside …. The economic horizons of the rural Serbs are limited, but the early post-feudal concepts of land and home are central to their thinking and sense of security. Passive for decades, when they believed their homes were under threat, their harmless ignorance transformed itself into something extremely dangerous.” (3)

Glenny detects a similar trend among the Croat peasants of Serbia. He insists, however, that it was not peasant anxiety but urban panic which finally ripped Yugoslavia asunder. Peasants hurt under the economic catastrophes of the 1980s. But in the early 1990s, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman purged the Serb intelligentsia from its long-held posts in the Croatian republican bureaucracy. This set off a great fear among Croatia’s Serbs that worse was soon to come. The combination of the destruction of the urban functionaries and the rural landholders provided a social base for conservative nationalism. Thus Serbian nationalism outside Serbia is not a plaything of Slobodan Milosevic. It has real roots.

Glenny subjects all of the republican bureaucracies to rigorous analysis as he attempts to dissect the varied components of nationalism. He demonstrates that, in each of the republics and provinces, nationalist warfare is a relatively recent and sudden phenomenon. There have been important conflicts in the past—the “Croatian Spring” of 1971 and the democratic struggles in Kosovo throughout the 1980s were important warning signs. Yet it is incorrect to describe the current crisis as the final stage of a process of national strife building up for decades. The economic collapse of the 1980s and the devolution of power from the federal to republican bureaucracies awoke dormant nationalist hostilities.

For a discussion of these latter factors one should turn to Branka Magas’ detailed study. As with any collection of essays and documents, The Destruction of Yugoslavia suffers from discontinuity and repetitiveness. But Magas’s work is extremely valuable. She closely examines the economic decline of the 1980s, the transformation of Yugoslav politics between 1987 and 1991, and the development of the workers’ movements over the past thirteen years.

Magas illustrates how the economic crisis of the 1980s brought an end to the Titoist era. Financial difficulties aggravated social tensions, internecine bureaucratic conflict and nationalist rivalries. Specifically, the decline of many “self-managed” industries led to the fall of important sectors of the bureaucracy (particularly in Serbia). Yugoslavia’s ability to pay off its foreign debts decreased and IMF pressure increased. The government responded by allowing inflation to skyrocket while even nominal wages dropped. This led to disaffection within the bureaucracies and active discontent within the working class.

Magas is at her best when she tells the stories of the courageous strikers of Kosovo in both the early and late 1980s. There Albanian miners staged massive sit-down strikes in protest against economic austerity, national discrimination and bureaucratic repression. Magas makes clear that for Yugoslavia the alternative to right-wing nationalism is a class solidarity which raises democratic demands. She argues that this dynamic was key to the early success of Yugoslav Communism.

If there is a weakness to Magas’ work it is her almost uncritical attitude toward the Croatian regime She justifiably points out that Milosevic is the region’s principal aggressor. However, unlike Glenny, she overlooks the ways in which Tudjman’s government has provoked real fears among the Croatian Serbs. She does not discuss Tudjman’s purge of Serbian functionazies. Finally, her book was written too early for her to detail Croatia’s role in “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia.

On this question Catherine Samary is the strongest:

“Tudjman’s party, which is currently in power, is a heterogeneous nationalist coalition which cannot be identified with the Ustashe, but which is not at all democratic. It received a lot of funding for its campaign from the far-right emigrants, which had an effect on the symbols and fist measures taken by the government in the direction of asserting the state to be a state of the Croat people in the ethnic sense …. This was not a ‘response’ to Milosevic’s policy but a symmetrical political line, the one corresponding to the other.” (22)

Samary’s brief essay provides a useful summary of the contemporary crisis. She takes head-on the clichés mentioned above and disputes them rigorously. Saniary also synthesizes the lessons of Yugoslav history. She highlights both the strengths and weaknesses of Yugoslav Marxism. She outlines Tito’s break with Stalin in 1948, the project of “self-management,” and Yugoslavia’s turn to Western creditors.

Samary’s historical discussion is most useful. We see both the triumphs and tragedies of Balkan developments since World War II. After 1945, the Balkans appeared to carry the brightest hopes for revolutionary Marxism. Revolutionary movements had taken power in Yugoslavia and Albania. Civil war raged in Greece. Communists were discussing seriously the possibility of a “socialist federation” which would unite Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania and Greece.

But Stalinism destroyed all such talk. The Kremlin had agreed at Yalta that Greece would remain part of the western sphere and that, therefore, Communist revolution in Greece was excluded. Stalin had made a similar deal for Yugoslavia which would have partitioned the country. Fortunately, Tito disobeyed Moscow’s directive. The Greek revolution, however, perished. Tito’s support for the Greek partisans was one of the final straws in the Moscow-Belgrade split. Soon Stalin reigned in the Communist leaderships in Bulgaria and Albania. The project of a Balkan socialist federation came to an abrupt end. Yugoslavia was left isolated.

Modern Yugoslavia is testimony to the horrible tragedy of Stalinism. An area which once featured such revolutionary and internationalist potential is now the site of ethnic cleansing. To understand this terrifying development one must peruse the pages of Yugoslav history, both recent and past Only then can we get past the clichés which mystify current events.

Glenny, Magas and Samary have each helped to uncover the real story. In combination the three works outline the history of post-war Yugoslavia and scrutinize the logic of today’s warfare. Read together, they provide a good start to an understanding of Yugoslavia. Any one of them alone is an invaluable first step.

July-August 1993, ATC 45