Losing the war in Yugoslavia

Branka Magas

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.

For Serbia as for other Yugoslav nations, Yugoslavia was the particular form in which its own national unification took place. In the mid-19th century, out of 3.2 million Serbs barely a third lived in the semi-independent Principality of Serbia, the rest being divided almost equally between the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and, in each case, intermingled with other Slavs and non-Slavs. That the Principality would play the role of national centre pressing for unification was inevitable, but what form this unification would take was disputed. Of the many options, two emerged as dominant: the creation of a Greater Serbia, by means of territorial expansion of the Principality (which entailed the inclusion of a substantial non-Serb population); or a South Slav (perhaps even Balkan) union of equal nations, to be achieved by joint action. If the first fed the imperialist appetites of the Serbian bourgeoisie, the second became part of the heritage of Serbian socialism and later of its Communist extension.

Even though ‘Yugoslavia’ was formally to prevail in 1918, the circumstances of the new state’s creation made it into a de facto Greater Serbia. After the 1941 debacle, it was not enough to mobilise the non-Serb nationalities in a common Partisan struggle: it was necessary also to win the Serb nation over to the alternative programme of a Yugoslav federation if there was to be any chance of preventing a renewal of the Great Serb stranglehold over a reborn Yugoslavia. Post-war Yugoslavia, in other words, was born from the ashes of Greater Serbia. Despite the part that Ustashe Greater Croatia had played in Hitler’s New Order, the Yugoslav Communists did not see Croatian expansionism as a lasting problem: it was Great Serb nationalism which remained the permanent threat – because Serbs were both the most numerous and the most dispersed nationality, because of their inter-war domination, and because of the tendency of a centralised bureaucracy to ally itself with the strongest nation, a tendency facilitated by the decision to keep Belgrade as capital city.

When, in the second half of the Sixties, Yugoslavia embarked upon a major reform of the Federal system, aimed at divesting the central organs of much of their earlier authority, its success depended on the attitude of the Serbian Communist leaders. Latinka Perovic’s recently published account of this period gives valuable insight into how the battle for the heart of the Serb nation was conducted during the crucial years between 1967 and 1972 when this constitutional overhaul – the greatest since 1945, and the last during Tito’s lifetime – took place. Perovic was Serbian Party Secretary at the time and her book was written as a kind of private balance-sheet immediately after her dismissal in the 1972 purge of ‘liberals’. Some of its arguments are worth discussing here, not only because they stand in sharp contrast to the dominant political discourse in Milosevic’s Serbia, but also because the disappearance of the Serb ‘liberals’ – they were expelled from the Party and spent twenty years in political disgrace – prepared the ground for the eventual resurgence of Great Serb nationalism, and hence for the current war. Reading the book today, one is struck by its prescience.

To begin with, Perovic refutes two theses much in vogue in Serbia today: that the constitution of 1974, which transferred the bulk of power from the Federal organs to the republics and provinces, was imposed on Serbia; and that Yugoslavia’s internal borders were always seen by Serbian political leaders as merely administrative. On the contrary, reform of the Federation was premised on the notion of the sovereignty of the republics and their titular nations. ‘Since the republics were not created by the administrative division of a single state territory, but as expressions of the nations’ right to their own statehood ... it is impossible to deny the nations’ right to decide for themselves how to allocate the surplus created within their own republics in the name of a single political system or market.’ On the one hand, a centralised economy led to political impotence. On the other, a decentralised economy carried with it the danger of the rebirth of a more virulent nationalism. Yet it was impossible to continue as before: ‘to demand of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia that it maintain a degree of unity greater than the level of objective economic and social integration within Yugoslavia means pushing it into permanent conflict with reality.’ That is why the reformers, in Serbia as in other parts of Yugoslavia, placed their hopes in a democratisation of the political system by way of the institutions of ‘socialist self-management’. The Serb national programme had to be rewritten in the new language of democracy and economic modernisation.

The Communists were faced with a particularly difficult task in Serbia, where identification with a centralised Yugoslavia had deep historic roots. The ‘greater part’ of Serbian ‘public opinion saw the changes not only as a weakening of the position of Serbia within Yugoslavia, but also – given the greater autonomy of the provinces – as Serbia’s disintegration from within’. Perovic’s colleague Milentije Popovic, addressing the Serbian Party Central Committee, made the point that ‘as’ Communists of the most numerous nation, we have the greatest responsibility to ensure that the relationship of forces underpinning national equality is not destroyed within the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.’

The Serb reformers believed that Serbia, instead of ‘nurturing imperialist aspirations which it has never been able to sustain, should look to itself and its own development’. History, they argued, had ‘divided, scattered and inseparably mixed’ Serbs with other nationalities and only in the context of a democratic Yugoslavia would the Serbian nation find its ‘cultural and spiritual unity’. In a major attack on Great Serb nationalism, Perovic spelt out its main components, the very components which fifteen years later would provide the ideological basis of Milosevic’s regime: 1. the notion that ‘Serbia and Serbdom are endangered in this Yugoslavia’; 2. the strategic exploitation of Serb populations living in the other republics and the two provinces; 3. a tendency to fan anti-Croat sentiment; 4. a readiness to question the equal status of the national minorities within Serbia itself as well as the status of the two provinces. ‘Taken together, these components form the broad basis for a counter-revolution aiming to foster illusions in the Serb nation regarding its leading role as the largest nation in Yugoslavia.’ The other main enemy identified by Perovic was Federal centralism, ‘which always sought support in Serbia: by ruling Serbia it hoped also to dominate others. In Order to weaken the supra-national bureaucracy, which was a threat to each Yugoslav nation equally, it was crucial that the democratisation of Serbia – and its emancipation from Federal centralism – should not be stopped.’

Only by recalling the Serbia of 1971 can we gain a true understanding of the reversal represented by Milosevic’s Serbia. As Bogdan Bogdanovic, an architect, a former mayor of Belgrade and a courageous opponent of Milosevic, noted in a recent interview, this is an old man’s war. Battles lost at the start of the century are being re-fought as a substitute for creating a modern nation-state. The tragedy of Yugoslavia, displayed in the systematic destruction of Croatia by the Serbian-dominated Army, is equally the tragedy of Serbia:

Serbia has lost this war. When I say ‘this war’ I am not thinking only of the current one, but of all our modern wars and our entire modern history from the Hatt-i-Sherif to the present day.[*] One hundred and seventy years have passed since the proclamation of the Hatt-i-Sherif, and in the course of all that time a state like Serbia – in Europe – should have made a far greater political, cultural and economic leap. Today we should be at least where Hungary is, or where the Czechs are. A feeling of failure lies at the very heart of Serb nationalism ... There is a sense of having missed out. This history gambled away – this century and a half gambled away – is what can be described as a lost war. But when I speak of the lost war, I am speaking also of the events taking place today. When we look on TV at the various maps showing Serb and non-Serb villages, and how far the ‘defenders of Serb villages’ have advanced, we see that these ‘defenders of Serb villages’ are surrounding Vukovar; the ‘defenders of Sarb villages’ are attacking Osijek. We see the map of destruction broaden. The irresponsible, indeed disgusting Belgrade press presents these as some kind of victory. They write about advances and liberation, and the ordinary, already deeply indoctrinated people get the feeling that we Serbs are winning the war. This is a terrible misconception.

What the war has done to Croatia and its people is clear for all to see. What is less evident is its effect on the Serb nation. Officer arrogance induced by superior firepower; mindless use of military hardware; a never-ending production of generals; forced recruitment of Serbian reservists; a socially-biased draft; drunken volunteers taking the place of a once disciplined army; atrocities against civilians and ‘enemy’ prisoners; looting and burning of occupied cities and villages; the destruction of cultural monuments; a wanton disregard for soldiers’ lives – these are all part of this dishonourable war. To make things worse, a craven Parliamentary opposition emulates the Great Leader’s tough stand on how ‘all Serbs must live in the same state’. Serbia has never before been reduced to such a state of moral prostration.

It is against this background that we must see the courage of the few who, despite continual threats to their lives, have opposed the war by encouraging desertion and helping young men avoid the draft. Those like Jelka and Pavlusko Imsirovic who helped to create the Anti-War Centre; Ivan Djuric’s Reform Party; the Women’s Lobby; the editors and journalists of Vreme; Nenad Canak’s Social Democrats in Vojvodina; the members of the Yugoslav Democratic Initiative; the deserters and the draft-dodgers; the families protesting against the mobilisation of their menfolk and all the tens of thousands of young Serbs who rallied against Milosevic in March this year – they are proof that Serbia’s democratic tradition is not exhausted. They alone speak a language to which the other peoples of what was once Yugoslavia can respond.

[*] The Hatt-i-Sherif was the Imperial Decree of 1829 which established Serbia’s autonomy within the Ottoman Empire.