Losing the war in Yugoslavia
One of the hardest things to comprehend about the war in Croatia is what it seems to tell us about the fragility of the whole Yugoslav project. Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia and Slovenia have all declared independence with popular plebiscites to back them up. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s parliament has proclaimed a sovereign republic. Serbia is attempting to extend its frontiers by force of arms. The collapse of the state system in this part of Europe has been as swift as it has been astonishing. Debate about whether Yugoslavia has always been an artificial state is thus inescapable, but one has to look beyond the seventy years of Yugoslavia’s existence in order to understand, on the one hand, the relationship between the Yugoslav nations and, on the other, their sense of individual identity and purpose. The second break-up of Yugoslavia is the result of Serbia’s decision after 1987 to challenge the post-war Federal order in favour of its own domination – or, failing that, the creation of a Greater Serbia. For that to happen, however, Serbia itself had to be recast in an anti-democratic mould – it had to become Milosevic’s Serbia. And for this to happen, it was necessary to impose upon the Serb nation a sense of being surrounded by racial enemies threatening its biological survival. Serbia’s return to the past was more than the simple repossession of an older national project: only by releasing the demons of racial enmity upon the Yugoslav house of nationalities could Milosevic be sure of its destruction.
The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
[*] The Hatt-i-Sherif was the Imperial Decree of 1829 which established Serbia’s autonomy within the Ottoman Empire.
Vol. 13 No. 23 · 5 December 1991
Branka Magas wrote in your last issue about the anti-war opposition in Serbia, mentioning among others Nenad Canak of the Social Democratic League of Vojvodina and the Anti-War Centre in Belgrade. Both have since become victims of Serbian state terror. On the night of 7-8 November, at the behest of the military authorities, Nenad Canak was arrested and taken to the local military barracks. There he was told that he had been drafted into the Army. Nobody knows where he is today. Janos Szabo, president of the Crisis Centre for Anti-War Activities in Senta, a town in northern Vojvodina, had been arrested two days before. Both Canak and Szabo had supported the town’s decision to hold a referendum on the war and on the Army’s illegal mobilisation of reservists in Serbia. The Social Democratic League of Vojvodina, the Democratic Union of Vojvodina Hungarians and the Democratic Union of Croats in Vojvodina have all protested against these arrests. The official press has been waging a systematic campaign against anti-war activists, describing them as ‘direct supporters of the fascist hordes in Croatia’ and thus effectively calling for their lynching. Two days after Canak’s arrest, thugs demolished the premises of the Anti-War Centre in Belgrade. Anti-war activists are frequently attacked. Pavlusko lmsirovic, another activist mentioned in the article, was badly beaten up last October.
The anti-war campaigners need all the support they can get. They represent the possibility of a democratic future for Serbia. We appeal to the readers of the LRB to add their voice to the protests against the harassment of the anti-war movement in Serbia.
Croatian Peace Forum,
Vol. 14 No. 2 · 30 January 1992
In her piece on Yugoslavia (LRB, 21 November 1991), Branca Magas fails to raise the question which is at the core of the present conflict: do the Serbs, ‘both the most numerous and the most dispersed nationality’ in Yugoslavia, have the same right as other nationalities in that country to choose a state in which they will live? Some of Ms Magas’s comments suggest a negative answer to the question. The creation of a Greater Serbia, she writes, ‘which entailed the inclusion of a substantial non-Serb population’ in a Serbian state, ‘fed the appetites of the Serbian bourgeoisie’. But what about a Serbian state or states which do not entail the inclusion of substantial non-Serb populations and which do not ‘feed the appetites’ of any baddies of any class? This is a question of the utmost importance to the Serbs living in the areas of Croatia and Bosnia where they are a substantial majority. Now Ms Magas would, I hope, not deny that there are some such areas. The census of 1981, conducted by the Yugoslav Communist authorities whose legitimacy she accepts, shows what these areas are. Given her endorsement of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, she would probably not argue that the creation of a Serbian state or states would infringe the sovereignty of the state of Croatia. The present government of Croatia not only denies any sovereignty of the federal state but also denies having any, even historical links with it. As the Serbian President Milosevic (whom she strongly dislikes) keeps insisting, the creation of any sovereign states, whether Croatian or Serbian, effectively destroys this Yugoslav ‘house of nationalities’, as Ms Magas fondly calls it. This indeed may be her reason for objecting to the creation of a Serbian national state. But then she would have to object to the creation of a Croatian national state, which she never does.
Ms Magas correctly notes that the Yugoslav Communists saw the Serbian desire for their national state (‘Great Serb nationalism’ in their jargon) as a ‘permanent threat’. This was indeed a most serious threat to Communist rule over Yugoslavia. But does this entitle Ms Magas or anyone else to deny the Serbs a right to choose a state in which they will live? If Ms Magas’s ideology prevents her from asking questions such as these (they may be too bourgeois), perhaps it is time to find another expert on Yugoslavia who could ask and, perhaps, even try to answer them.