Amidst breathtaking changes in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia appears as a cadaver that simply refuses to rot away. Not long ago the Yugoslav communists could claim to be the first initiators of their self-styled perestroika, and their maverick self-managing communism engendered considerable awe in many Western well-wishers. Today, however, Yugoslav institutions are turning into anachronisms, and Yugoslavia’s ill-conceived federalism has pushed its six constituent republics to the brink of civil war.
With the recent electoral success of conservatives in Slovenia and Croatia, Yugoslavia is the only country in Eastern Europe where non-communist governments in the north cohabit with communist governments in the south. Constant ethnic provocations and chauvinist slurs from all six republics have made Yugoslavia an ungovernable and unlivable state whose break-up is threatening to turn the Balkans into European Lebanon. Bracing for the coming deluge, Slovenia and Croatia are already bidding farewell to the remainder of Yugoslavia and are eagerly courting the favors of their West European neighbors.
Without Slovenia, or possibly without the southern province of Kosovo, where the Serbs still exercise their iron muscle, Yugoslavia could continue to hobble on, but its life would not last a minute with Croatia’s walkout. The second largest and richest republic and arch-rival of Serbia, Croatia is experiencing a nationalist revival whose aftershocks are putting the last nails in the coffin of fractured Yugoslavia. The secessionist drive among Croatian and Slovenian nationalists has been met with hostility and outright fear among influential Serbs and their power base in the army and diplomacy. Left to itself, and cut loose from affluent Slovenia and Croatia, the lone Serbia knows all too well that it is doomed to shrink fast into an obscure landlocked Balkan state.
The terminal illness of Yugoslavia probably would never have occurred without the emergence several years ago of the wildly popular Serbian communist leader Slobodan Milosevic – a man who rose from a provincial apparatchik to a chief torchbearer of Serbian nationalism. Milosevic’s fiery speeches galvanized Serbs, triggering in turn similar nationalist appetites among other scared republics. Today all four major ethnic groups are displaying an impressive litany of past injustices, angrily blaming each other for their real or perceived ethnic plights.
No less ominous is the conduct of the Serbian intelligentsia. Once it could proudly claim to be the most progressive and reform-minded in Eastern Europe; today it has entered an alliance with the mob rule. However, its support of Milosevic’s heavy-handed policy in the southern province of Kosovo has yielded results different from those it originally anticipated. The continuing exodus of ethnic Serbs from this little enclave, which by now is 80 percent populated by the Moslem ethnic Albanians, will further legitimize neighboring Albanians’ claims to an ethnically pure and aggrandized Albania. The skyrocketing baby boom among Albanians is already changing the demographic picture of the entire Balkans.
Among Yugoslav nationalisms there has never been a net loser or a net winner; the rendering of ethnic justice to one ethnic group is invariably perceived as injustice by another group. More than any other European state, the patchwork of Yugoslav nations, which were glued together by force rather than by consent, has earned Yugoslavia a sorry name of a levitating “seasonal state.” One wonders what will happen with superpowers’ security arrangements when Yugoslavia disappears from the map.
Ironically, Yugoslavia’s survival so far is due to its shifting ethnic balance of power as well as to the lack of any organized pan-Yugoslav opposition. The very inter-ethnic anarchy of Yugoslavia accounts also for its morbid longevity. Undoubtedly, if the events of 1914 or 1941 were to be repeated today, Yugoslavia would immediately disintegrate, with Slovenia and Croatia flocking to the West, and Serbia shrinking farther under the watchful eyes of its inimical Hungarian and Bulgarian neighbors.
Today, the remainder of the Yugoslav Communist League, with its power base in Serbia, has been caught unprepared. Ethnically fractured and ideologically discredited, the communists can no longer resort to the cliché of external “Soviet threat,” or point to internal “reactionary fascists” in order to keep themselves in power. Even hard-line communists must admit that there are simply no more scapegoats.
Can Yugoslavia survive? Yes, but only as an authoritarian or a totalitarian state led by its largest ethnic group. A democratic Yugoslavia is a contradiction in terms. A democratic Yugoslavia can exist only if it breaks up first.
Tomislav Sunic teaches European politics at California State University, Fullerton. He is the author of the forthcoming book “Against Democracy and Equality: The European New Right” (Peter Lang Publishing)