Requiem far Yugoslavia

Branka Magas

As with any bereavement, the hardest thing for those left behind is accepting the fact of death. But now even I am forced to admit defeat after years spent keeping the log of Yugoslavia’s march towards the point of no return. It is merely a sign of my irresponsible faith in some last-minute miracle that it should have taken a full-scale Federal Army attack on one of Yugoslavia’s constituent republics to force me to accept that the past must be buried. Over the past four years or so I had become increasingly convinced that Yugoslavia was indeed dying. That it was just a matter of time. That its death made sense and should be welcomed. Yet even now, as I insist that the last rites be performed and the international community recognise the reality of Yugoslavia’s collapse, the appropriate response to this death eludes me.

A Yugoslav, I think of my country in all its magical, seductive variety of landscapes, nationalities, languages, religions, histories and regional identities. Bosnia, northernmost outpost of European Islam, its minarets interspersed with Christian-Orthodox and Catholic steeples, has ever since Roman times firmly resisted the encroachment of the Mediterranean world – my own world – into the Balkan core. This is where the bell began to toll for Austria-Hungary, another multinational state which failed its peoples. Gavrilo Princip has entered the history textbooks, but few would recall that he was just one of a generation of Croat, Slovene, Serb and indeed Moslem and Montenegrin plotters against an empire already dead in all but name.

A Croat, I think of my Serb friends in Belgrade and our friendship born in the bright light of 1968. In the mid-Eighties we fought together against an earlier attempt to stem the tide of democratisation in Yugoslavia. Macedonia, which has gone on, decade after decade, producing some of Yugoslavia’s finest poets, I know less well: but the row of books behind my desk contains histories of Macedonia and a soon-to-be-used Macedonian-Croat dictionary. The many jokes I, a Dalmatian, have shared with my Albanian compatriots about our common Illyrian origins cannot have been completely jokes, for how otherwise would you explain why I felt so much at home with them? And what should one make of the fact that it took ten years of pedantic examination by experts, not to speak of passionate quarrels, to distinguish the poetry and language of Mountain Wreath – one of the masterpieces of Balkan literature, written by the Montenegrin Bishop-Prince Njegos in the middle of the last century – from those of a similar work written by Ivan Mazuranic, first commoner Ban of Croatia, in the purest literary Croat? For Slovenia my affection has if anything blossomed during the last five years, in the heat of obsessive arguments and counter-arguments about the future of socialism in Yugoslavia, compelling me to acquire a working knowledge of Slovene. These ties, as much as the formal state structures, made us Yugoslavs. Yet when I called a Slovene friend a week or so ago – it already seems like years – Yugoslav Army MIGs were flying over Ljubljana and she was rushing off with her small children to an air-raid shelter. As I write these lines, the radio reports MIGs in action over Osijek, a city in north-eastern Croatia which participated in the Croatian national revolution of 1848, when the issue of South Slav unity was addressed for the first time.

Hard as I try, I am not yet ready to accept the break-up of Yugoslavia. Yes, the red star adorning the Federal Army uniform and the country’s flag is now a cruel deception. But I think of my uncle, still in his teens, dying in 1943 in Sumadija, the heartland of Serbia and one of the most beautiful parts of Yugoslavia. A Partisan fighting side by side with his Serb comrades, he, too, wore a red star on his cap. When this Croat ‘National Hero of Serbia’ was commemorated just a year ago in Krusevac, the old capital of Serbian kings which in the Thirties became a Communist stronghold, the occasion was packed with Serb war veterans. The young workers who were there must by now have been recruited into the Federal Army, and sent to fight against Croatia. That the Krusevac ceremony was a requiem, not only for the Partisan dead, but also for Yugoslavia, was already clear. For at the very moment when the Croat visitors (my mother among them) were being welcomed by their hosts, other Serb war veterans and active army officers were busy training terrorist groups in Croatia’s mountains for a war to the finish against the republic’s democratically-elected government, then barely four months old.

I think of Slovenia and Croatia and recall the last – indeed the only other – time in postwar history when Yugoslav MIGs were used to intimidate a Yugoslav people. A year before the Krusevac event, in March 1989, the assembly of the ‘Socialist Autonomous Province’ of Kosovo met to consider amendments to the constitution of the ‘Socialist Republic’ of Serbia which were designed to strip the Albanian nation of its political rights. The Yugoslav People’s Army aided the deliberations by encircling the assembly building with tanks, while MIGs swooped low to remind the people’s deputies that effective power comes out of the barrel of an air-to-surface rocket-launcher. Kosovo’s forced subjugation ended the Yugoslav Federation in all but name, and proved beyond any doubt that Great Serbian nationalism – that old enemy of Yugoslavia, which the Partisans thought they had slain on countless battlefields across Yugoslavia – was once again on the move.

Yugoslavia was not, as so many claim today, an artificial state. But its viability always depended on political commitment to – and institutional arrangements for – the full equality of its constituent nationalities. After 1945, there were frequent changes to the Federal framework to meet the country’s growing diversity, until, in 1974, the new Federal constitution acknowledged the effective sovereignty of the six republics. The two provinces acquired similar constitutions and became equal partners with the republics at the Federal level. In 1987, however, an assortment of Serb generals and party or state functionaries carried out a coup within the League of Communists of Serbia. Adopting a plan drafted by the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, and aimed at making Serbia once again – as in prewar days – dominant, they set the republic on a collision course with the rest of Yugoslavia.

Until as late as 1989, the project seemed to be working. The governments of Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosovo were toppled one after another, and replaced by men (and two, maybe three women) whose only virtue was absolute loyalty to the Serbian regime. In Kosovo resistance was fierce, including mass demonstrations and two general strikes. I recall the nine-day hunger strike of Kosovo miners – traditionally the backbone of the local Communist Party – conducted deep down in the shafts of the old zinc and lead mine of Trepca. It was lifted only when the President of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia promised a restoration of Kosovo autonomy: a promise he and his companions had no intention of keeping. Instead, the province was occupied and ‘pacified’ by state terror.

The Serbian campaign had by then grown in scope, targeting Croats (‘Ustashe’), Moslems (‘Fundamentalists’ or ‘Islamicised Serbs’). Macedonians (‘Southern Serbs’), Slovenes (‘selfish exploiters of the Yugoslav South’). In reaction, first the Slovene, then the Croat Communists took the decision to institute multi-party democracy in their republics. It was this decision which, in March 1990, finally put an end to the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, the party that created the present-day federation out of the ashes of the war, and then ruled it for the next forty years, growing more conservative and corrupt in the process, and eventually ditching its last ties to the working class. Meanwhile Serbia’s formal incorporation of Kosovo and Vojvodina, and its de facto rule over Montenegro, had the effect of redistributing legislative and executive power in the country to Serbia’s advantage, destroying a balance maintained ever since the war. The Federal structure began to totter and on 27 June 1991 crashed down once and for all. Yugoslavia was an empty shell. The institutions remained in place: there was something you could call the Yugoslav Presidency, the Yugoslav Assembly, the Yugoslav Government, Yugoslav economic policy – but these were mere forms, devoid of any substance.

In so far as Serbia was successful, it was because of the support it found in the Army. The symbiosis between the Army and the Serbian regime, based on increasing Serb dominance within the officer corps, was reinforced after the Communist Parties were removed from power in all the republics except Serbia and Montenegro. As first tank units, then the Air Force, went into action against Slovenia – with the same threat hanging over Croatia – the Army spoke of its constitutional duty to defend Yugoslavia’s territorial integrity. But what kind of unity could the generals have had in mind when they were waging war against two of the nations which had created Yugoslavia in the first place? The Yugoslav Presidency, the Army’s supreme commander-in-chief – which in principle, though not in reality (since Croatia and Slovenia would have vetoed it), could alone have authorised this war – was no longer in existence, the victim of yet another act of wanton destruction on the part of the Serbian state leadership of all that went by the name of Yugoslavia. The path of its hegemonic drive is littered with such casualties, of which the worst has been the trust and solidarity derived from the Yugoslav nations’ common struggle against Fascism.

Imagine Belgrade during these days. In one of its central streets, the staff at the Ministry of Defence is working late into the night, planning further military operations in a war that has not been formally declared and for which everybody disclaims responsibility. In the nearby square, the Federal Assembly and Government carry on with their meetings, unable or unwilling to stop the generals. Slovenes and Croats have departed, Macedonians are demanding the recall of their conscripts, Moslem and Albanian deputies condemn the aggression. At the same time, in the Serbian Assembly a few doors away, MPs talk of a Serbian army under Serbian control – as if it did not already exist! – interrupting their work only to face Serbian mothers demanding the return of their sons from war. Further to the west, Slovene and Croatian populations are being mobilised into self-defence units. Many young Slovenes and Croatians are dying – together with young army conscripts from all parts of the country. And all the time the supposed Yugoslav capital remains calm. The military may have taken charge of the country’s politics, but there is no general state of emergency, there are no tanks guarding key buildings and crossroads in Belgrade, no martial music broadcast on the radio. That Belgrade remains peaceful while war invests Ljubljana and Zagreb shows how deeply implicated official Serbia is in the military’s enterprise. This is its war.

The failure of the military to impose its diktat on Slovenia and Croatia, however, has forced the Serbian regime finally to unveil its Plan Number Two: the carving of a Greater Serbia out of a prostrate Yugoslavia. It was inevitable that the Socialist Party (ex-League of Communists) of Serbia would sooner or later take up the Chetnik (or extreme nationalist) banner. But this project has failed before, and it will fail again. Serbia is economically too backward and Serbs are numerically too weak for Yugoslavia to be turned into a Greater Serbia. The trouble is that Milosevic’s regime long ago burnt its boats, and faced with a choice between its own collapse and a continuation of the war by other means, has chosen the latter. Unless ... As the mind sifts through various possible ways in which the catastrophe might perhaps still be averted, the only hope that keeps returning is that the two republics can resist long enough for popular resistance to the war to emerge in Serbia itself. It was, therefore, with great excitement that I read how the inhabitants of Loznica, a small town quite near Krusevac, had interposed a human barrier to stop army reservists being sent against Croatia on the very day that General Negovanovic appeared on Belgrade TV to hurl yet another military imprecation at the two western republics.

The Serbs – pushed into the role of aggressors – are victims of this policy no less than the rest. In Serbia, as in other parts of Yugoslavia, right-wing nationalism threatens the home nation as much as it does the alleged national enemy. Over the past year, much of the Yugoslav population has either been supplied with weapons, or armed itself on the black market. Yet despite this, and despite the heady rhetoric of state-sponsored nationalism, the Yugoslav peoples have so far shown little desire for all-out civil war. But Milosevic and the generals are allowing them no choice. However hard one scrutinises the words and actions of the various parties in power across the country, one will find that only Milosevic’s regime depends for its survival on the pursuit of war. Yet look at the population of Serbia – burdened with huge unemployment, or irregular payment of subsistance wages, persistently cheated by promises never delivered on. Why should it wish to wage war?

In March this year hundreds of thousands of young women and men demonstrated for three days and nights against Milosevic’s aggressive policies. Milosevic – that great scourge of Serbia’s enemies – was forced to invite the Army to defend him against his own people. A week later, 750,000 metal, leather and textile workers came out on strike across Serbia, and only two days before the military attack on Slovenia the Serbian trade unions threatened a general strike, to force the republican legislature to throw out a Bill that would effectively have removed the right to strike. But who will give voice to this craving for peace and democracy? Opposition MPs speak in unison with the ruling party about a Greater Serbia. But will the young recruits really fight for the politicians’ imperial ambitions?

War is the supreme test of any political formation. This one will show how deeply the achievements of post-war Yugoslavia are rooted in the hearts and minds of its peoples. The federal organisation of the state – the solidity of the nation-states created by post-war Yugoslavia – has provided all the structures needed to defend national and democratic rights. And if the determination of Slovenia and Croatia proves anything, it is that Yugoslavia has been an association of equal and sovereign nations. They will fight hard to prevent the borders of Yugoslavia’s six republics and two provinces being redrawn in order to bring a Greater Serbia into being. They must be supported. Of all the various underpinnings for a lasting peace in the Balkans, two are crucial: the rights of national minorities and the inviolability of the borders (unless they are changed by the will of the freely-elected assemblies of the eight federal units).