Serbian Nationalism and the Origins of the Yugoslav Crisis

Peaceworks No. 8
By: 
Vesna Pesic

The dissolution of multinational communist federations and the ensuing armed conflicts that have emerged with their transformation into independent nation-states have returned the "national question" (i.e., the relationship of a national or ethnic group to a state that includes multiple ethnic groups within its territory) to the forefront of debates over international politics, law, and theory.

The dissolution of multinational communist federations and the ensuing armed conflicts that have emerged with their transformation into independent nation-states have returned the "national question" (i.e., the relationship of a national or ethnic group to a state that includes multiple ethnic groups within its territory) to the forefront of debates over international politics, law, and theory. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia, in particular, demonstrates the inability of the international community to rely on any solid legal principles, guidelines, or established mechanisms to avoid such chaos and mass suffering when constituent parts of these types of multinational states decide to go their own way.

The former Yugoslavia was an attempt to address three fundamental aspects of the "national question": (1) the right of a nation acting to create its own state through demands for national self-determination; (2) the right of a national homeland (whether sovereign state or republic within a federation) acting through its diaspora either to monitor the relative status of its conationals elsewhere, or to demand national unification and the redrawing of borders; and (3) the rights of members of national minorities to resist the majority's formation of a new nation-state either by seeking cultural or political autonomy or by seceding in order to unite with their own national homeland.

A multinational state, such as Yugoslavia, cannot attempt to resolve these questions in any one nation's favor, lest it risk the collapse of the entire state. If a resolution of the national question in Yugoslavia appeared to tilt in favor of any one particular group, the federation's internal balance would be upset. Thus, Yugoslavia was not only a mosaic of different ethnic nations, but also a system that was developed to accommodate these differences.

The creation and maintenance of Yugoslavia hinged on the interdependence of Serbs and Croats, the country's two largest national groups. These peoples "imagined" the borders of their respective states as overlapping and clashing. None of the other national groups the former Yugoslavia comprised, with the exception of the Slovenes, lived within clearly defined ethnic borders inside the federation. Large numbers of Yugoslav peoples lived within one of the other's "national" territory. Bosnia-Herzegovina posed the greatest challenge to the peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia because both Serbs and Croats lived there in large numbers, and because both Serbia and Croatia had historical pretensions to the republic's territory.

Almost every one of Yugoslavia's peoples has been perceived as a threat to another national group and has felt threatened itself. This general atmosphere of ressentiment, real or imagined, could easily be used to produce the feeling that one's national group was threatened with extinction as the object of another's aggression.

Ever since the founding of Yugoslavia, two distinct nationalist policies have struggled for primacy in the debate over the country's political future: Croatian separatism striving for an independent state and Serbian centralism striving to preserve the common Yugoslav state under its dominion. Croatian nationalism was separatist and oppositional, Serbian nationalism alternated between outright Serbian rule and a strict federalism governed through central government institutions. The Croatian policy supported the devolution of power from the center outward and found support among most other Yugoslav nations, which would eventually articulate their own national aspirations--Slovenian, Macedonian, Albanian, and (in the Bosnian experience) Muslim.

Both of these strident, ethnocentric, national ideologies preordained the failure of any attempt to constitute Yugoslavia as a modern unitary and liberal state. For Serbia, the Yugoslav state became nothing more than a vehicle for Serbian domination, which, in turn, stimulated Croatian national opposition. The first Yugoslav state (1918-41) was not only unable to pacify internal conflicts and dilute rigid national ideologies, but its collapse in World War II left no mechanisms in place to prevent extreme methods of resolving the national question.

The League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY) played the role of "mediator" among the quarreling Yugoslav peoples. It promised an ideological resolution of the national question through a social revolution that subsumed class and national distinctions within a socialist framework. While the country's major ethnic groups were constituted as nations within the new federation, the arrangement was best expressed by the classic Soviet formula, "national in form, socialist in content."

The tenuous supranational ideology of Yugoslav communism would eventually provoke the federation's crisis. The weakening and disappearance of socialism's ideological sovereignty raised perforce fundamental and profound questions about Yugoslavia's existence as a state, as happened in Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

Despite the regime's attempts to control national aspirations by institutionalizing them within the political and territorial boundaries of the titular republics, the more abstract aspects of nationhood could not be so confined. Conferring the sense of statehood upon Yugoslavia's major ethnic groups had far greater consequences in strengthening their territorial integration.

The immediate source of Serbian dissatisfaction in general, and the most tangible reason for the republic's nationalist reaction in particular, were the constitutional provisions that undermined Serbia's territorial integrity. Although the institutional system established under the 1974 constitution prescribed the "nativization" of all Yugoslav peoples within their territorial, republican frameworks, Serbia was frustrated in this regard. According to the constitution, Serbia was not a "sovereign" negotiating party like the other republics because of the "sovereignty" of its two autonomous provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina.

Serbian hard-liners' main interpretation of the "Serbian tragedy" in Kosovo was that ethnic Albanians had gained control through Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution, and that the only way to stop the "ethnic cleansing" of Serbs in Kosovo was to reinstate Serbian domination there. In the ambiguity surrounding the "Kosovo problem," hard-liners organized a putsch in Serbia's Communist party in 1987, bringing the most conservative elements into the party's leadership positions.

During 1988-89, Serbia's intelligentsia and Slobodan Milosevic's Serbian Communist party clique joined forces to encourage a national revolution to create a "unified Serbia" by tapping social and national discontent in the republic. The nationalist ideology of being threatened and hated fueled this Serbian mass movement.

This nationalist movement also mobilized Croatian Serbs by helping to organize meetings where they aired their demands for cultural and political autonomy. Such meetings only further supported the growth of Croatian nationalist movements, including the Croatian Democratic Union.

The advent of free elections in 1990 and the breakdown of the communist regime was the culmination of what had already been going on for more than a decade in Yugoslavia following Tito's death. Along with the process of democratization in the republics and the denial of that same process in the federal government, central state authority was becoming weaker, approaching a situation of anarchy that bore an unsettling resemblance to the collapse of the empire that used to rule the Balkans. Yugoslavia's breakup gave new meaning to the old notion of Balkanization.

As communism collapsed, the strategies of the political actors in each of the Yugoslav republics were determined by specific elements of the national question on the one hand, and the search for an exit from the communist system on the other. Yet, saving the communist regime remained the one method by which conservative elites in Serbia, including the Yugoslav National Army (YNA), could simultaneously preserve the Yugoslav state and achieve the goal of Serbian unification within one country.

The dual games (national and ideological) played by all the republics to a greater or lesser extent actually precluded both of two possible paths to a resolution of the federation's crisis. The republics' leaders were unable to either reimagine Yugoslavia as a democratic and minimal state or break away peacefully by creating new, separate democratic states.

Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union shared the same types of multinational federal institutions, ethno-demographic mix of populations, and large diaspora communities whose status would change significantly with the dismemberment of both federal states. Both cases involved the creation of new national states in which one ethnic group became predominant. If these and other multinational states share the same broad political and ethno-demographic elements, are there lessons from the Yugoslav crisis that the international community can generally apply to their dissolution and avoid the possibility of mass violence in their wake?

First of all, the international community should actively work with the relevant parties to arrange a temporary status quo compromise if the dismemberment of multinational states is not preceded by both an internal consensus on the terms for creating new states, including their borders and the status of minorities, and a clear conception of future security and cooperation arrangements.

The international community's recognition of the new states emerging from the Yugoslav federation's breakup was woefully insufficient to secure their peace and security. Not only must such recognition take into account the internal and external threats involved in each case, but it must be real in the sense that the new state must either be able to defend itself or be defended by international military forces. Otherwise the result is highly unstable situations that lead to victim-states and victimized populations.

In the wider context of the political transformation of East-Central Europe and the former Soviet Union, a more fundamental debate has been rekindled: the right to national self-determination and how this vague principle might be reconsidered and clarified in order to make it a workable concept in international law. The abuse of this right in the Yugoslav case underscores the need for such an examination, as the right to self-determination came to be equated with the right of ethnically defined nations/republics to secede from the federation, regardless of the mass violence such an act would surely entail. The republics' unilateral acts of secession were in turn met with internal acts of secession by minority ethno-national communities invoking the same principle of self-determination.

One crucial precondition for the peaceful application of the right to self-determination should be the respect of both territorial integrity and minority rights. Borders cannot be changed by force or without consideration of the consequences that the redrawing of international borders would have for all members of the state. Above all, there should be some international mechanism that provides for the renegotiation of borders and that encourages all sides to recognize the consequences of newly drawn international borders for all relevant parties.

Explaining Nationalism in Yugoslavia

The dissolution of multinational communist federations and the ensuing armed conflicts that have emerged with their transformation into independent nation-states have returned the "national question" to the forefront of debates over international politics, law, and theory. The forces fueling the breakdown of these multinational states have not been exhausted with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and Czechoslovakia. Most of the successor states of these federations are themselves breaking down. Whether there will be a third phase of breakdown that will require the resolution of new "national questions" remains to be seen.1

In this paper, I attempt to explain the disintegration of Yugoslavia and why its breakup was not a peaceful one. By way of this example, I also attempt to explain in general why and when the demise of multinational states creates ethnic polarization that seems "resolvable" only by force and even genocide. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia, in particular, demonstrates the inability of the international community to rely on any solid legal principles, guidelines, or established mechanisms to avoid such chaos and mass suffering when constituent parts of these types of multinational states decide to go their own way. In the concluding section of this study, I offer recommendations the international community may find useful in avoiding these kinds of conflicts in the future.

For many years, Yugoslavia functioned as a nation-state by providing a peaceful compromise to the conflicting, multifaceted, and perennial "national questions" posed by its constitutive parts. Multinational states, such as Yugoslavia, cannot attempt to resolve these questions in any one nation's favor, lest they risk the collapse of the entire state. If a resolution of the national question appeared to tilt in favor of any one particular group, Yugoslavia's internal balance would have been upset. Thus, Yugoslavia was not only a mosaic of different ethnic nations, but also a system that was developed to accommodate these differences. Joseph Rothchild emphasizes the almost unbelievable diversity of ethnic groups that Yugoslavia brought under one state: "By virtually every relevant criterion--history, political traditions, socioeconomic standards, legal systems, religion and culture--Yugoslavia was the most complicated of the new states of interwar East-Central Europe, being composed of the largest and most varied number of pre-1918 units."2 Maintaining political balance and diffusing ethnic tensions was the only way Yugoslavia could survive. If the Yugoslav state could not maintain these essential functions, the "separation" of its intertwined national groups in a full-scale war would be the probable result.

By its very nature, Yugoslavia has never had a staatsvolk ("state-people") that could "naturally" dominate by its numbers and serve as the foundation on which a modern nation-state could be built. (As members of the most populous national group, Serbs constituted only 40 percent of the total Yugoslav population.) The creation and maintenance of Yugoslavia hinged on the interdependence of Serbs and Croats, the country's two largest national groups. These peoples not only shared a common daily existence, but also "imagined" the borders of their respective states as overlapping and clashing. Thus, a Serbo-Croatian compromise represented the foundation of Yugoslavia.

None of the other national groups that inhabited the former Yugoslavia, with the exception of the Slovenes, lived within clearly defined ethnic borders inside the federation. Large numbers of Yugoslav peoples or peoples of neighboring countries lived within one of the other's "national" territory.3 Bosnia-Herzegovina posed the greatest challenge to the peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia because both Serbs and Croats lived there in large numbers, and because the two states--Serbia and Croatia--both had historical pretensions to the republic's territory.4 Bosnia-Herzegovina was an "apple of discord" between Serbia and Croatia, as the recent war over its division confirms.5

The very existence of Yugoslavia seemed to defy the history of relations among its different nations, which had already waged one ethnic and religious war among themselves with the collapse of the first Yugoslavia (1918-41). The feeling of resentment among Yugoslavia's nations, however, did not emerge from this experience alone. To be sure, Yugoslavia's national groups all share a common history of struggling to save their distinct identities and renew their lost medieval states--a history of repressive domination that fostered disloyal and militant minorities and arrogant and repressive majorities. Almost every one of these peoples has been perceived as a threat to another national group and has felt threatened itself. This general atmosphere of ressentiment, real or imagined, could easily be used to produce the feeling that one's national group was threatened with extinction as the object of another's aggression.6 Almost without exception, every Balkan nation has had some territorial pretensions or expansionist intentions in one historical period or another. The region's history has witnessed successive campaigns for "Greater Serbia," "Greater Croatia," "Greater Albania," "Greater Bulgaria," "Greater Macedonia," and "Greater Greece."7 National ressentiment extended into the relatively recent period of communist rule, as the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (embodied in Tito as the bearer of absolute power) frequently resolved national conflicts through repressive methods that were not easily forgotten. In the process of maintaining a balance of power among national groups, every nation/republic had reason to believe that it had been unjustly treated in the Yugoslav state.

The sheer complexity of the former Yugoslavia's current crisis has supported numerous interpretations of its origins. One explanation that has acquired a certain currency is "nationalism as a power game," which views the main cause of the Yugoslav crisis as an ideology (in the sense of "false consciousness") of "aggressive nationalism," perpetuated by members of the old nomenklatura who seek to preserve their threatened positions of power in the face of democratic change. Given that these government bureaucrats, party officials, and military officers were overwhelmingly concentrated in Serbia, this republic was the first to forge an effective conservative coalition under the banner of the old Serbian ideology to inhibit a "democratic revolution" that would drive them from power.8

In the "nationalism as a power game" argument, Communist elites in Yugoslavia's other republics faced similar reformist pressures and attempted to duplicate the Serbian leaders' strategy in their own republics. By promoting their own nationalisms, Yugoslavia's other republican leaders acknowledged not only that Serbian threats--real or perceived--must be countered, but that nationalism was the most successful card to play in maintaining their positions of power. Indeed, stirring up nationalist sentiment seemed to be the most convenient strategy for Yugoslavia's republican political elites, particularly when they could easily manipulate public opinion through their control of their respective republic's major sources of information.9

The problem with this approach is that it treats the "national question" as an epiphenomenon of the struggle to preserve power and privilege. In doing so, it forgets that political battles in Yugoslavia have almost always developed around the "national question." Such an understanding of nationalism as "false consciousness" discounts the power of national sentiment among the region's ethnic groups.

The alternative explanation views nationalism in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the former Yugoslavia as a result of historical desires of separate peoples to resolve their "national question." As such, nationalism is not viewed as a disingenuous ploy by political elites to hold onto power, but as a consequence of modernity in contemporary international society.10 The very idea of a "multinational state" implies the dynamic of the "national question." Multinational states significantly differ from multiethnic states, in that the former are composed of separate nations that want to establish their political autonomy in order "to ensure the full and free development of their cultures and the best interests of their people. At the extreme, nations may wish to secede, if they think their self-determination is impossible within the larger state."11 When we speak of the "communist federations" that are the subject of this work, we should keep in mind that these states "institutionalized multinationality."12

Yugoslavia was an institutionalized multinational state that managed to contain, in the full sense of the word, disparate and seemingly intractable national questions. If we accept the view that there are essentially three fundamental aspects of the national question, then Yugoslavia contained all three: (1) a nation acting to create its own state through demands for national self-determination; (2) a national homeland (state or republic) acting through its diaspora either to monitor the relative status of its conationals in the new states emerging from the federation, or to demand unification and the redrawing of borders; and (3) members of an alienated national minority suffering from discrimination and acting to resist the majority's formation of a new nation-state by either seeking cultural or political autonomy or seceding in order to unite with their own national homeland.13

In this respect, it should be kept in mind that all these aspects of the national question existed within one federal state, creating a specific internal dynamic that cannot be compared to a similar configuration of national questions in other independent states. These national questions have emerged in their most extreme forms (secession, irredentism, or the expulsion of minorities) in the process of Yugoslavia's disintegration. Once they were so formulated, with the understanding that their proponents could not abandon their commitment to their particular solution, war was more or less inevitable.

The question arises, then, why practically each nation took the most extreme position, which, in essence, made Yugoslavia's political relations a zero-sum game. Was the main cause of this situation the ancien regime's elites who launched "nationalism" as an ideology in order to protect their threatened positions of power? Or was it the prospect of finally resolving the ever-present "national question," which would be freed from the constraints of the old authoritarian political order with the arrival of democracy? The related question, in terms of the federation's survival, was whether Yugoslavia could either transform itself into a genuine democratic, federal state, or break up peacefully in light of: (1) conflicting national ideologies; (2) the existing collective decision-making structure, representing Yugoslavia's nations (through its republics' representatives) and the working class (through its vanguard, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia); and (3) the enormous apparatus of power that was created by the "authentic" socialist revolution--the authoritarian regime and the legacy of Tito's absolute rule?

If nationalism takes the form of a quest for national identity through the creation of a nation-state, the most important task is to show why and when the nation assumed such worth, thereby making nationalist demands such a successful political card to play.14 A more comprehensive analysis of nationalism, based on specific historical, institutional, and political factors, helps to avoid treating nationalism as an irrational, "false" phenomenon that can be wished away, or as a mere psychological template in the postcommunist search for identity. Following the more comprehensive analyses, this study will attempt to show that nationalism is a weapon for a new division of power in the process of deconstructing the political space of Yugoslavia and a dysfunctional prerequisite in the struggle for security among the new states emerging from the former multinational federation.

This analysis of nationalism's role in Yugoslavia's crisis will focus on three main factors:

  1. the contradictory institutional structures of the Yugoslav state;
  2. Serbian ressentiment; and
  3. the collapse of authoritarian rule.

The first part examines the contradictory institutional structures of Yugoslavia as a state. While Yugoslavia was a practical compromise solution to the conflicting national questions contained within its borders, the Yugoslav state lacked the integrative potential necessary to create institutional frameworks and workable procedures of democratic rule that could accommodate the conflictual relations among its different national groups. It was particularly unsuccessful in establishing the latter, as it was constantly trying to "resolve" national questions--mainly through its repressive state apparatus--that were anathema to the establishment of a democratic state. The next section explores this matter in detail, comparing the first Yugoslavia, the centralized, liberal state created after World War I, and the second Yugoslavia, the ethno-national federation created under communist rule. This section attempts to show how difficulties encountered in both of these state structures became a basis for future ethnic conflicts and the eventual disintegration of Yugoslavia. In short, both of these Yugoslavias proved unable to overcome the inherent antagonisms of the country's fundamental national question.

The second and perhaps the most salient factor of the Yugoslav crisis is Serbian ressentiment, which ultimately rejected both the second Yugoslavia and a possible "third Yugoslavia" as a confederation of independent states. From the mid-1980s, prominent segments of the Serbian intelligentsia, in conjunction with the republic's political and military elites, pushed Yugoslavia toward rapid disintegration with an offensive strategy of "finally settling accounts with `Tito's monster.'" An aggressive Serbian nationalism broke the thin thread holding together Yugoslavia's nations in a compromise arrangement, pushing toward an extreme solution of its national question through threats and warmongering: Either Yugoslavia's various nations would accept Serbia's vision of a "normal," unified state that served Serbian interests, or Serbs from all the republics would "join together" and achieve their national unity by force. The political elites in all the former republics took advantage of these extreme solutions as an opportunity to save their positions of power and privilege.

The third factor in this analysis is the collapse of authoritarian rule, which began right after Tito's death in 1980, and accelerated rapidly during the breakdown of other communist regimes throughout Eastern Europe in 1989. This collapse involved two simultaneous processes of disintegration. The first was the breakdown of the value system of socialist internationalism, which tipped the delicate balance between socialist universalism and ethnic particularism in favor of the latter. The second was the dissolution of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, which brought the very existence of the Yugoslav state into question--particularly if we keep in mind that socialist ideology, as defined by the LCY, provided the main integrative force holding the Yugoslav state together. With the disintegration of the state and its apparatus of repression, nothing could restrain the rise of nationalism--particularly Serbian nationalism--or return it to the framework of compromise. Far from laying the foundation for representative and responsive institutions that could accommodate the demands of Yugoslavia's nations, the introduction of political pluralism and free elections at this juncture created a "state of nature," bringing unmediated national conflicts to the stage of open warfare.

Thus, the situation in Yugoslavia during 1990-91 can best be described as a "decisive battle" for maximal solutions to the question of national boundaries and legitimate states.15 In order to provide a complete understanding of the events that led up to this battle and what they mean for the future of the former Yugoslavia, I examine these three factors in fuller detail.

April 1, 1996
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