Wall Street Journal August 26-27, 1988 ~ Yugoslav Solution: Ethnic Questions Should Come First

Since 1980, the year of President Tito’s death, Yugoslavia has been edging toward a political, economic and ideological crisis. Until last year, the Communist League had been able to achieve a semblance of stability by repeatedly reassuring its disgruntled citizens that "next year it will be better." But the ongoing deterioration of the Yugoslav economy and the continuing ethnic ferment has finally made the party hard-liners realize that the survival of the country depends on urgent political and economic overhaul.

Yet the solution is not easy to find. Though the party has shown more good toward dissenting voices and has gone as far as to admit large-scale corruption and mismanagement among some of its top-ranking officials, it is still miles away from adopting a market economic and genuine political pluralism. The recently thwarted military coup against the most liberal and prosperous republic of Slovenia, still hotly debated in this tiny western-most republic, bears witness that Yugoslav authorities are deeply divided, and that hard-liners and liberals have diametrically opposite political and economic objectives.

The central issue behind the continuing struggles in Yugoslavia is again the unresolved question of the country’s five different nations that live side by side. Ethnic animosity between Western European and Byzantine Balkan cultures brought pre-war Yugoslavia to its collapse. Today it is again shaking the country’s fragile unity, albeit this time with more vocal ethnic contestants. As the case of Slovenia shows, the increased demands for autonomy only corroborate the fact that liberalization cannot be a piecemeal process.

The liberalization is pompously advocated in the sphere of economics, in the case of multiethnic Yugoslavia it will necessarily spill over into demands for more national autonomy. In fact, it appears that the chaotic Yugoslav economy has only served as a catalyst for bringing to the fore the dormant, yet ever-present ethnic tensions, splitting the once-monolithic Communist League along national lines. Many Yugoslav observers, including the dissidents, no longer speculate whether Yugoslav peoples should stay together in this multiethnic makeup. Rather, their main concern is whether it is still feasible to have a true democracy while ignoring the voices of the increasingly self-assertive nations.

The party’s standard response to the ethnic aspirations of its constituent republics is that too much liberalization and democracy could result in nationalist outbursts and separatist tendencies that could lead the country into another civil war. In reality, however, the problem is the party’s "Balkan cuisine" mentality, dishing out artificial and fabricated crises and thus playing off one nation against another.

But neither does the climate among the Yugoslav dissidents look rosy. Traditionally divided along ethnic lines and unable to move beyond their regional ghettos, the dissidents and substantial numbers of Yugoslav intellectuals now are poorly equipped to provide a valid solution to the mounting problems of Yugoslavia. Whenever the Serbian dissidents try to appeal to the sense of Yugoslav solidarity, they seldom find support among Croats and Slovenians.

The apprehensions among Croats and Slovenians probably make some sense. So far the Serbian party leadership has tacitly condoned the resurgence of nationalism in its own republic, while simultaneously warning against the ghost of Slovenian and Croat nationalism that purportedly threatens Yugoslav unity. On top of it, Serbia, which has traditionally functioned as the backbone of the Yugoslav ideal and the bulwark of the country’s stability, is experiencing its own troubles-brought about by the pressure from its own southern flank, populated by predominantly Moslem ethnic Albanians. The "Albanian question" didn’t exist as long as Tito was alive.

Today, however, the Albanians have the agenda of the party leadership, which refers to it as Serbia’s "Palestinian question". The demographic explosion of the non-Slavic Albanians has sent shockwaves throughout Serbia, confronting the population with the prospect that they might soon be driven out of their historical lands by the more proliferate ethnic Albanians. In Yugoslavia, ethnic rivalry seldom occurs harmlessly, and often one nation’s gain is another nation’s loss.

A vivid indication of the prevailing winds came last weekend, when 20,000 Serbs and Montenegrins mobbed the streets of Montenegro’s capital, Titograd, demanding weapons to settle their dispute with the Kosovo Albanians. That followed fourteen recent demonstrations for direct Serbian control over Kosovo and Vojvodina. The regime’s warnings against the gathering seem only to encourage them.

Located in a sensitive spot of Europe’s non-aligned socialist Yugoslavia has meant that the end of World War II played the role of an ideological and geographical buffer zone between the two superpowers. Undoubtedly, a divided or disintegrated Yugoslavia could hardly be in the interest of either the West or the Soviet Union. Yet hopes that a liberation process can be judiciously allocated in the realm of human rights and the economy, while bypassing the national grievances, may prove to be a dangerous delusion.

Mr. Sunic teaches comparative communist systems at the University of California in Santa Barbara, California.