My Europe: what we can learn from the collapse of Yugoslavia | Reviews | DW
Was it worth it? A decade of war? Flight? Shifting? If you could find a representative group among those who live in the seven countries that rose from the rubble of Yugoslavia – among the old ones who experienced the fall of the country, or among the younger ones who only know a post-Yugoslav reality. – most would say “no.”
But such a group does not exist. There isn’t even a Yugoslav company to represent anymore. If you ask people in the different old republics, you get vastly different answers. In fact, the only citizens who seem to have fond memories of the multi-ethnic state are those of Slovenia.
They say it was OK, actually quite good, adding that it’s a shame some aspects are missing. Yet, they argue, it couldn’t go on forever. This sentiment is widespread, but is it true? Were things really going well in Yugoslavia?
Norbert Mappes-Niediek has been a correspondent in South-Eastern Europe for 30 years
“Yugoslavs” are essentially non-existent among Kosovo Albanians, for example. For them, the last decade of Yugoslavia’s existence has been too traumatic. Although war did not rage in Kosovo as elsewhere during this period, citizens there were subjected to police terror. On the other hand, in Serbia, North Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and even – albeit in a low voice after a third beer – in Croatia, many people publicly deplore the fall of Yugoslavia.
For example, in large surveys conducted more than 10 years after the war and independence, the majority of respondents cited Josip Broz, better known to the world as “Tito” – the leading figure in the former republic so much maligned – as the greatest Croat of all time. .
Attempts to place Franjo Tudjman, the father of Croatian independence, in this place have been largely rejected. And Stjepan Mesic, for example, the country’s second president after independence, proudly titled his memoir, How we destroyed Yugoslavia. The move didn’t go well and the title was changed to How Yugoslavia was destroyed in its second impression.
Diversity was not the problem
Yugoslavia carried the seeds of its own demise for years. But it was not the cultural diversity of its population that was the problem – other nations, from India to Switzerland or the United States, known as an “immigration country”, have been able to master differences well. greater. Rather, the question was how the country handled this diversity.
In its first iteration as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1918 to 1941, the approach was to ignore national, religious and cultural differences. But the opposite was manifested: the difference being declared unimportant, the relative majority – composed of Serbs – extended its influence far and wide.
The end of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia: German soldiers bring Yugoslav prisoners of war through Belgrade in 1941
When the Communists took control of the country following the invasion of Nazi Germany and a civil war that broke out along ethnic lines, they vowed not to make the same mistake. Old national identities were strongly respected during the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, and new ones – Macedonians, Bosnians and eventually even Roma – were added.
As long as national identity functioned along folk lines, following the Soviet model, and all political decisions were made by a communist central government, the system worked. But as communism began to lose its credibility in favor of parliamentary democracy around the world – and as the tradition of partisan war glory faded – national identities gained political significance.
Yugoslav partisans in Bosnia with their leader Tito (center, in dark uniform with light coat) in 1942
Ethnicity, not democracy
Whether it was political posts, jobs, finance, highway construction, factory sites – in socialist Yugoslavia, ethnicity was the “key” that had to be observed. Majority decision making has become impossible because one national identity has always prevailed over another.
Although every decision was aimed at achieving an optimal balance, it could never be stable. When this balance began to shift, as in Croatia in the early 1970s, Tito only needed to speak out and those who disturbed public order were quickly jailed.
The replacement for the great national arbiter Tito should have been a person with ancestors of all Yugoslav nationalities. But it was impossible. In theory, the collective eight-person state presidency designed to take on this role would allow majority decisions. Yet when a nation was outvoted, there were immediate cries that the republic was falling apart. But when “reformer” Slobodan Milosevic took power and he and his “Serbian bloc” ignored these considerations, the republic was well and truly at its end.
Croatian President Tudjman (left) and his Serbian counterpart Milosevic attended the Dayton peace conference in 1995
The logic of sharing
Yugoslavians praise the multi-ethnic state of the former republic as a model for the future. They say the original was destroyed by jealous foreign powers or evil politicians – depending on who you talk to. But a society that distributes its wealth and power along ethnic lines shouldn’t be surprised when an ethnic conflict comes to dominate all aspects of life.
In the end, dividing the ruined republic was the logical step. In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere in the world, there were many evil politicians ready to bring the experiment to its bloody conclusion.
This does not mean that Yugoslavia has never been lucky. In the late 1960s, when democratic optimism swept the world, young Yugoslavs, too, rose up to fight for liberal values. Most were primarily concerned with civic equality rather than national equality.
But Tito and the old guard around him had no desire to introduce more democracy. Instead, it was decided that the best way would be to fine-tune the ethnic balance of the republic. In the end, everyone felt exploited by everyone, and rightly so.
Yugoslavia will never exist again. But other multi-ethnic countries and quasi-states face the same challenges the republic faced before its collapse – reason enough to avoid any hint of arrogance by looking back.
Norbert Mappes-Niediek is the author of several books on the region and for 30 years was South Eastern Europe correspondent for various German media.
This article was translated from German by Jon Shelton