ESSAY QUESTION: Why was the break-up of Yugoslavia violent? (68)
The dissolution of Yugoslavia was accompanied and followed by dreadful wars. Scholars still don't totally agree on the reasons that caused such a violent break-up of the country. Since other states, like the Soviet Union or Czechoslovakia, collapsed peacefully at the same period, namely at the end of Cold War, it is worth wondering what makes the specificity of the former Yugoslav state, which could thus explain why the collapse of Yugoslavia was violent. Given that “the war in Yugoslavia was not the international community's fault. The war was planned and waged by Yugoslavs. It was not historically inevitable.” Then the question that this raises is: what pushed the people to wage war to their neighbours and to perpetrate terrible deeds fully consciously, whereas they had lived together peacefully? Truly, ethnic tensions were high, but this is definitely not a specificity in a multinational state. Moreover, the state was suffering economic hardships and political and institutional logjams because of the constant priority of the ethnic or national group over any other features. Subsequently, nationalism proved to be the main leading force in order to overcome the whole system's weaknesses. Indeed it was, in particular for the political elites, who, by waving the flag, gained immediate support from the mass, which eased their pursuit of their goals. So the violent collapse of Yugoslavia did not result from one special reason, but emanated from a series of intertwined factors, making up a tensed background, and from the will of a few leaders not only to resist the regime and the state dissolution, but primarily to draw out the most of it.
The background of Yugoslavia break-up already bore tensions due to an array of various factors: historical, cultural, economic, institutional. Even though these did not lead to the war by themselves, they set a tensed context, nesting a potential violent break-up, since whoever was looking for scapegoats in order to justify one's goal, easily found them in such a tensed situation. Indeed, the cultural-historical factor is likely to have turned a mere state dissolution into a violent one. Moreover, the theme of “ancient hatreds” is recurrent in the scholars' work, though it is not unanimously considered as one of the main causes for the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia. It is even a refuted explanation because deemed too simple for justifying a war, hence the failure of the international community in preventing and addressing the conflict, while sticking to this explanation of ancient ethnic hatreds. According to Schoenfeld, Sabrina P. Ramet postulates: “this is why the circulation of “ancient hatreds” theory in some Western capitals was so pernicious- because it drew those powers into making inappropriate responses to the carnage.” However, without looking at this explanation alone, but rather as one precondition for war among many others, it seems a sensible argument. This is particularly true when history and myths are re-vivified through manipulation and propaganda, becoming as such easy justifications for raising resentment among one ethnic group towards another, as it will be seen later on. The Balkan history especially brims with conflicts, grief and rancour, on grounds of first religious differences in the 17th century, then territory and most of all ethnicity. A monarchy led by Serbs between the two world wars, while infringing national rights of non-Serbs, a mutual massacre between Serbs and Croats under the Nazi occupation, and opposite representations about Socialist Yugoslavia...are so many memories deeply linked to resentment because of “the menacing way in which the past has always haunted the present in Yugoslavia.” Likewise, myths and traditions bear great importance in the Balkans cultures. According to Allcock, as Ramet notes, “systematic mutilation of the enemy, in which the eyes, the nose, and the genitals are often targeted, has a long tradition in the Balkans”. The Myth of the traitor Vuk Brankovic, for example, has prompted a culture of suspicion in Serbia . For Franjo Tudjman, the president of Croatia and nationalist hero, answered for the Ustacha regime by claiming that it was “not only a quisling organization and a fascist crime, but was also an expression of the Croatian nation's historic desire for an independent homeland” . In turn, Slovenia felt as the “sacrificial offering on the altar of Yugoslavism” since it considered that it was paying for the economic development of poorer regions of Yugoslavia and had also been subjected to the Usatasha and communist terror. In short, as Cohen puts it: “the basis for such intense feelings can be traced to the transgenerational socialization of negative stereotypes” . Subsequently, the expression of respective nationalisms used to dig their roots in History, myths and symbols. As a result, every group believes in a cult of victimhood, due to the domination or repression of the other. Nevertheless, such beliefs fomented out of History and myths do not necessarily lead to war, especially in socialist Yugoslavia, where the relations among nations not only were peaceful, but also were characterized by high rates of interethnic marriages, for instance. Nonetheless, in the violent dissolution of the state, the part of the political elites has to be taken into account, in the way they encouraged the aggressive behaviour of the minorities (especially Serbian and Croatian). As such, “a painful past can serve as a pretext for cooperation, as in Spain, or conflict, as in Yugoslavia”.
Another favourable feature to the violent break-up of Yugoslavia is the general state of crisis that it was experiencing while the authoritarian rule was collapsing, after more than 35 years ruling. Indeed, whereas Yugoslavia suffered strong economic disparities, highlighting ethnic tensions, the collapse of socialism, as well as the death of Tito in 1980 raised worrying issues about institutions, and a fear of the unknown. Many socialist countries experienced the destruction of socialism and the state, but that happened peacefully in the Soviet Bloc and in Czechoslovakia for example, whereas it occurred in a destructive way in Yugoslavia. V. Bunce argues that such a difference of endings results from prior differences in the institutions. In Yugoslavia, contrarily to the Soviet bloc, military control was not centralized, and the Yugoslav military had always protected the regime and the state from foreign threats as well as domestic threats , hence the share of responsibility for the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia of the military, as it will be shown later on. Another flaw of the Yugoslav institutions that arguably led to the war lies in its very form of government. Indeed, Yugoslavia, a federation that rather looked like a confederation, (“a union of states which is less binding in its character than a federation” ), was torn by the different republic's interests, who had become increasingly powerful, in terms of decision-making regarding their respective national interests. Indeed, with a high decentralisation after the Constitution of 1974, the centre was weakening, while the republics were isolating from each other, leading understandably to “a series of protracted stalemates over economic and political reform and ultimately over the future of the regime and the state”. Moreover, the institutional debate emerged since the very creation of the State of Yugoslavia, between Croats seeking for more independence, and Serbs determined to preserve a Yugoslav unity under their control. The government, becoming less central, incredibly lost efficiency and legitimacy, especially with the advent of the 1990s elections. Furthermore, each of the Republic's national goals remained hampered by Serbian expansionism, and national rights were largely infringed. Effectively, the Serbs felt they were not having their due in such a system, which emphasized resentment against the other ethnic groups. Thus, the very creation of Yugoslavia as a federation of ethnocracies announced its dissolution along ethnic features. As such, the ideological struggle as well as the institutional structure was at stall. In addition to the system illegitimacy, the economic harshness, the issue of cultural diversity versus a nation-state, the implementation of democracy, and the increasing denial of human rights made the ferment of a probable war. So the violent alternative of Yugoslavia break-up aroused since, in this state of crisis, any threatening attempt was immediately considered as a major blow to the whole fragile system, in which waging war allowed to preserve one's interest in a decaying and no longer legitimate structure. It is to be reminded though, that such background factors cannot explain the descent into war by themselves, but that they set the opportunity for war to be waged. Undeniably, “the war was not unavoidable. A real choice existed: a democratic process of change, or the violent destruction of society and the state” . The reasons why the second alternative occurred, emanating from the previously exposed background, are now going to be identified.
The main path toward war was the emergence of an increasing nationalism, turning chauvinistic and aggressive when prompted by the elites and leaders of the decaying Yugoslavia. Nationalism not only spread rapidly in the whole society for the pursuit of genuine nationalist goals, but also as the tool of many actors, permitting the manipulation of the mass for achieving one's end. According to V Pesic, “a multinational state as Yugoslavia cannot attempt to resolve [national] questions in any one nation's favour, lest it risk the collapse of the entire state”. Effectively, Croats and Serbs have always regarded their respective countries' borders mutually encroaching on the other. Moreover, each nation felt it had been repressed or under the dominion of another nation, looking from a long perspective. In short, each national group felt it was undermined by the Yugoslav federation. The national question that is “the relationship of a national or ethnic group to a state that includes multiple ethnic groups within its territory” is therefore raised in an uneasy way. That leads up to the issue of the right to self-determination which was highly appealed to, while confounded 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 the internal acts of secession by minority ethno-national communities invoking the same principle of self-determination.” Subsequently, nationalisms have grown in order to assert the right of self-determination on ground of latent resentments among the different ethnic groups, and against any move from the other ethnic group interpreted as a threat for the whole nation. Furthermore, the nationalist rhetoric had been concealed so much under Tito's rule that it naturally burst out on the heels of his death. What was particularly destructive was the emergence of strong nationalisms in order to respond to extreme forms of the national issue (secession, violation of minorities' rights...). Besides, the rise in nationalism among an ethnic group was considered as a threat to the others who, in turn, radicalised the forms of their own nationalism: “nationalisms do not develop in isolation, but interact with each other to produce a spiral of radicalisation.” In 1990, the crisis in Kosovo was a landmark for Serbian nationalism, because of the symbolic meaning it was bearing. Then, the first glaring contribution to the rise of nationalism, as well as its politization, was the publication of the “Memorandum” by the Serbian Academy of Sciences and art in 1986. It gave a blatant criticism of Yugoslavia, pointing out the exploitation of the Serbs, and most of all denouncing the genocide of Serbs in Kosovo, while appealing to the Serbs nation to raise arms since it was threatened. On the aftermath of its advent, a series of institutions and actors in the civil society such as the Serbian Orthodox Church, Universities, associations of writers, the medias, the ruling party as well as the opposition...all made of the nationalist theme their fer-de-lance. The main goals it bore were “reforming socialism, recentralizing the state, and, failing that, establishing in the wreckage of the state a new and Greater Serbia”. Consequently, the other nations, feeling increasingly unsafe, in turn exacerbated the nationalist wave. As an example, in Slovenia in February 1987, the review Nova Revija published a manifesto calling for an emphasis on the national position while returning to Slovenia's Christian tradition and later on, clearly stated that Slovenia should secede from the Yugoslav Federation. As to sum up, V. Bunce contends that “it was the explosive interaction between nationalism and regime collapse, then, that produced the war in multinational and multireligious Yugoslavia” . However, aggressive nationalism is the result of human agency, which, therefore, bears the main weight of responsibility for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia.
The explanation of nationalism as the route towards war is tightly linked to the Yugoslav leaders since they encouraged it in order to legitimate their goals. Most scholars agree to pin the blame for the war on the Republic's leaders, who intentionally incited it: “all three of those leaders, Kucan, Tudjman and Milosevic chose to pursue policies so unyielding that the inevitable result was confrontation” , and they give emphasis on the part played by the Serbian leadership. Ramet expresses it in these terms: “and with the rise of Milosevic to power began the countdown to intercommunal war”. Effectively, while Tito had adamantly prevented any nationalist movement from emerging, Milosevic was the first one to openly put forward the nationalist idea, subsequently paving the way for a wave of paranoia. Croat nationalism then retaliated quickly in that same form of Serbian aggressive nationalism. As such, the ethnic gulf was accentuated and any proposition on ground of ethnic rights was heartened and put under high scrutiny. What shows the prime role of the leaders in the exacerbation of nationalism is the fact that the public would have looked for a compromise whereas leaders were fiddling with nationalist symbols in order to assert their political dominion. As long as the Serbs are concerned, they preferred keeping Yugoslavia but “Milosevic preferred a centralized Greater Serbia to a weak Yugoslavia”. In order to attain that, Milosevic took advantage of the growing nationalism among the intellectuals in the 1980s, and monopolized the nationalist rhetoric as to make of it the bottom line of his policy. In that way, nationalism among the political elites was mainly instrumentalized to maintain power or to extend the borders. In effect, the transition towards democracy threatened the old nomenklatura, namely bureaucrats, party and military officials, who were seeking ways to maintain their power. Launching the nationalist theme in a situation of ethnic tensions was the ideal means in order to de-mobilize the population and focus it on a genuine and sensitive topic rather than risking a democratic revolution that would desintegrate them. Serb nationalism as the historical desire of achieving the reunification of all Serbs was met in Milosevic's project of a Greater Serbia. Implementing such a project through waging war during the state dissolution was Milosevic's favoured way. In order to do so, he asserted Serbian nationalism for gaining political support through media control, propaganda and the emphasis on historical events and myths. “The Milosevic regime did, indeed, try to “lock” Serbs in the past, or at least in the regime's version of the past”. For example, “the government in Belgrade encouraged the discontented Croatians Serbs, spreading propaganda about the inevitable repetition of the Ustasha genocide against the Serbs in World War II. With the rejuvenation of these memories, Serbia's leaders promoted the fear of a complete return to the past among Croatia's Serbs, pushing them even closer to the precipice of war”. What's more, Milosevic celebrated the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, symbolically unifying the whole Serbs of Kosovo. Indeed, the complaint of the Serbian minority in Kosovo against the Albanian majority was the first case that Milosevic took advantage of for launching his project, since, according to Stambolic, the President of Serbia and former Milosevic's friend, he “became aware that Kosovo was only the launch pad. The goal was Yugoslavia.” So he went on with an increasing scapegoating policy supporting a chauvinistic nationalism. He also took identifiable decisions which appeared like direct threats to the other nations: the boycott of Slovenian goods, the placement of paramilitaries among the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia, and further crackdown in Kosovo, (like the abolition of its autonomy and Vojvodina's one, in 1989) and among other ethnic minorities retaliating to this Serbian threat. All that led to an interminable spiral of radicalisation. As a result of an increasing extremist nationalism supported by the political elites, a “security dilemma” emerged, making the probability of war just one step away since any attempt to increase one's security would actually decrease it because it was considered as a threat by the other party. To sum up, the war was mainly triggered by the political elites, “who had nothing to gain and everything to lose from a peaceful transition from state socialism and one-party rule to free market democracy”.
Finally, the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), linked to the human agency, also had a prime role in the violent break-up of Yugoslavia. With the death of Tito, and the dissolution of the Communist Party rule, the JNA was the only remainder of Socialist Yugoslavia. Because of similar interests of the military and Serbia, namely preserving a centralized and socialist state, the JNA is regarded as “an extension, at first accidental and then later quite deliberate of Serbian national interests”. Furthermore, according to Miroslav Had¸ić, if those tight interests constitute the premises for war, “the link between Milosevic and the JNA Generalstaff shows itself as an inevitable and fatal cause of war”. As such, in Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, as soon as there were some beacons of insurgency along the borders, the JNA would intervene straight away in order to save the state. In that manner, in ethnically mixed areas, donning any nationalist signs was as risky (if not more) as under Tito's rule, and without even mentioning the role of the paramilitary groups. In summary, the JNA also bears responsibility for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia, especially because of its close link to the Serbs national interests. Thus, as it has been exposed, Milosevic's tools for the pursuit of his project of a Greater Serbia, and the other leaders' means of retaliation proved to be particularly aggressive.
In conclusion, the blame for the violent break-up of Yugoslavia cannot merely be pinned on the political elites, though they bear the major part as active actors; rather, a series of intertwined factors have prepared the ground for the emergence of war at the same time as the dissolution of the regime and the state. Of course, the leaders have seen in the war the opportunity to break the economic, political, and institutional deadlock as well as to maintain their power or extend their dominion. Their means resulted on particularly extreme behaviours, in particular an aggressive and radicalized nationalism. In that manner, war was not historically inevitable but principally was the choice of a few at the expense of many.