Yugoslavia is tearing itself apart. Many of the country’s Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Hungarians and Gypsies realise that its continued existence is in doubt. They agree about little else. A week in Belgrade, where the ruling League of Communists decided to disembowel itself, and a week in Kosovo, where the Police shot dead 30 ethnic Albanians, convinced me that Yugoslavia is indeed on the verge of disintegration.
Vol. 12 No. 6 · 22 March 1990
From Branka Magas
One can understand a BBC producer’s frustration with what is happening in Yugoslavia today. Everyone who knows and likes the country, including the 23 million people who live there, feel much the same as Sam Miller: pain and bewilderment at their country’s evident malaise. Their anxiety explains some of the irrational responses that he describes in his Diary (LRB, 22 February). But the process of tumultuous change now engulfing Eastern Europe gives journalists an important role in shaping popular perceptions of the continent’s future. Superficial stereotyping must give way to serious understanding of the realities. This is why it is well worth examining the ‘facts’ and interpretations Sam Miller offers in his Diary.
We are told that the evening before Miller arrived at the door of what must have been the Hotel Grand in Prishtina, ‘a screaming crowd of thirty thousand Albanians had gathered outside the headquarters of the provincial government.’ The fact that the crowd was no bigger than twenty thousand, that it was not screaming but was largely silent and that it had gathered before the provincial Party headquarters – according to information coming from, so to speak, the horse’s mouth, in the shape of spokesmen for Kosovo’s democratic opposition groupings, who alone know what is happening on the ground – seems not to deter a journalist bent on providing his readers with a little ‘local colour’. In this colouring of local life, the fact that 35 people have died and over a hundred and fifty been wounded in unprovoked police action appears as little more than a brushstroke. Another 28 people died less than a year ago. Per Kosovo capita, this means that the casualties in the past year have been on a par with the recent carnage in Romania (latest estimates: six to seven hundred dead).
All the dead were Albanian civilians and all of them were unarmed at the moment of their death. Some of them were children. Should one trust, then, a journalist who does not speak Albanian when he says that ‘even in the few days I was there I saw [!] the political initiative pass from the more moderate of these leaders’ – of the Albanian community – ‘into the hands of those less willing to condemn violence’. Indeed? How many non-Albanians died or were wounded during those weeks? Which violence can he be speaking about, in a situation where an impressive array of modern weaponry, sufficient not just to control civilian ‘disturbances’ (armoured personnel-carriers fitted with powerful searchlights, handguns, rifles, tear gas, smoke bombs, water cannon, truncheons), but even to fight a small-scale war (tanks, supersonic planes), confronts kids throwing stones? And when the opposition was able to collect 400,000 signatures on a five-point declaration titled ‘For Democracy – Against Violence’ during the very time he was there – a fact which he omits to mention, maybe because it does not fit the picture he thinks he saw?
Yet it is precisely in these inaccuracies or omissions that we find the clues for a solution to the ‘Kosovo question’. For, contrary to Miller’s assertion that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question,’ a solution does exist. Indeed, it is obvious. The absence of inter-ethnic violence in Kosovo is the first aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any solution must rely. This suggests that, despite severe provocations, the Albanian population would like to see a peaceful solution to their problems within Yugoslavia. The 400,000 people who signed the declaration (more are signing as I write), and who amount to a sizeable proportion of the adult population of the province, desire the lifting of martial law; the release of political prisoners; free elections; a dialogue to settle differences. In other words, they wish to be treated like other Yugoslav citizens, who today are forming new political organisations free from police intimidation. We are dealing, therefore, not with a ‘sorry Balkan tale’, but with a more mundane question of democracy. The absence of democracy lies at the root of the ‘Kosovo question’. Democratic rights are being forcibly denied to Yugoslavia’s third-largest nationality – precisely as they are increasingly being asserted in the rest of the country. During the last nine years the Kosovars have lived under considerable repression and during the last year under martial law. Peaceful demonstrations in Kosovo are denounced as ‘terrorist’ actions and met with ruthless violence. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that young Albanians in Kosovo told Miller that ‘they too were ready to die like the people in – and the place-names were recited like a revolutionary mantra – Timisoara, Tiananmen, Palestine and South Africa’. This is no ‘revolutionary mantra’. These places in Europe, Asia and Africa symbolise one and the same thing: popular democratic aspirations negated by force of arms.
The second aspect of the ‘Kosovo question’ on which any future solution will rely is the recent emergence of a democratically-oriented Albanian leadership which has the confidence of the people. Its very existence is proof of the lasting heritage of the nationality policy established in earlier decades. This means that a rational dialogue on the ‘Kosovo question’ is possible and has as good a chance of success as any other inter-Yugoslav debate. The collapsing authority of the local Party has not, in other words, created in Kosovo a political vacuum to be filled by all kinds of revanchist forces. On the contrary, the Party’s authority has been replaced by that of a new political leadership whose democratic language can be understood and supported by all Yugoslavs, irrespective of their ethnic identity.
As Yugoslavia’s own post-war history (let alone that of, say, Switzerland or Canada) proves, multiethnic composition need not be a barrier to internal stability – provided the principle of national equality is respected. National equality is the necessary condition for the survival or development of any kind of democracy in Yugoslavia. The ‘Kosovo question’ is essentially a democratic question: it is simply the inversion of the ‘Milosevic question’ – i.e. the grim determination of Serbia’s ruling party to cling to power come what may. Vuk Draskovic, a ‘dead-ringer for Rasputin’ in Miller’s apt phrase, merely reflects the morbid side of this determination. The slower the transition to democracy is in Serbia, the more this kind of morbidity will extend to the rest of the country. The parallel with the Soviet Union, useful as it often is, is in the last instance of limited value, since Yugoslavia’s nationalities are far more intermingled than is the case with the Soviet Union. Unlike Russians, Serbs cannot retire behind well-defined national borders.
In other words, a multinational state, too, can rely on a sense of national identity. Indeed, Yugoslavia has always done so, having, unlike other countries in Eastern Europe, been an independent country since the war. It is a different matter, of course, when national identity degenerates into ethnic nationalism. But this, surely, must be true for other countries as well? Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria are, after all, also multinational states. A sizeable proportion of the Hungarian nation lives in Romania and Yugoslavia; the position of these minorities would not be helped by the rise of nationalism in Hungary itself. The degree of ethnic homogeneity in Poland may be higher, yet no appeals to nationalism can solve internal Polish problems. Confronted with the national problem in his country, a Habsburg official, one Feldmarschalleutnant von Scheure, exclaimed: Die Hunde sollen sich zerfressen! Such attitudes helped to bring about a situation in which the monarchy’s disintegration was a natural outcome. Miller suggests that a similar attitude underlies Western approaches to Yugoslavia today. If so, this is a grave error. For one thing, Yugoslavia’s federal structure, with or without the League of Communists, provides a good framework for resolving the differences that arise from its multinational composition. Secondly, the West has far better reasons for supporting Yugoslavia’s cohesion than it ever did in the case of the Habsburg state. Anyone who does not want to see a Lebanonisation of the European South-East and Centre must reject the idea that ‘in the long term, the federal authorities can do little to solve the Kosovo question.’
Vol. 12 No. 7 · 5 April 1990
From Sam Miller
I am replying to Branka Magas’s letter (Letters, 22 March) about my Yugoslavian Diary. First of all, apologies to all lovers of Kosovian minutiae: it was indeed the Party and not the Government headquarters which saw the first demonstrations of the latest Kosovo unrest. As for the number of people who turned out: 30,000 was the figure widely accepted in Kosovo – indeed by the various horses’ mouths referred to by Branka Magas. Ms Magas is wrong on some other points: local Communist leader Rahman Morina was prevented from being heard at this same demonstration, which Ms Magas calls largely silent. To talk about unprovoked (her italics) police action is a bit rich from someone who denigrates a journalist’s attempt to provide a ‘little local colour’: certainly these police actions against stone-throwing kids can be called unjustified, but hardly, in view of the stone-throwing, unprovoked.
Ms Magas says a solution to the Kosovo question is obvious. It is a matter, for her, of giving democratic rights to Yugoslavia’s ‘third-largest minority’. But the problem remains one of trying to convince Yugoslavia’s largest minority, the Serbs, that they should accept such a solution. Ms Magas’s ‘solution’ may be the most desirable one, but it is politically unviable. Serbian nationalists would not accept it. I feel considerable sympathy for the rest of her arguments. Ultimately she is more optimistic about the future of Yugoslavia than I am. I hope very much that she is right.