Yugoslavia’s Ethnic Troubles (The World and I ~ August 1987)

To the Editor:

I read rather belatedly the delightful article by the Yugoslav expatriate Mihajlov [September 1986,] in which he successfully exposes the myth of Titoist Yugoslavia as a form of political charade. He is right in observing that it is now Yugoslavia’s turn to face increasing economic chaos and the complete erosion of federal authority. I would like, however, to point to some details that Mihajlov did not fully elucidate, and that may lead some uninformed readers to the conclusion that problems in Yugoslavia are exclusively due to communist mismanagement of the country’s economy. Equally important causes of Yugoslav problems lie in the intricacies of the Yugoslav multiethnic system. The lack in international consensus is by and large the main factor in political and economic instability in communist Yugoslavia, the factor that was also decisive for the failure of prewar non-communist Yugoslavia. It would therefore be wrong to assume that some Western-imported quick fix of liberalism and democracy could bring the everlasting remedy to a country still searching for its national legitimacy. Even in a highly democratic Yugoslavia, such as Mihajlov and probably many other scholars envision, the ethnic tensions, particularly those between the Serbs and Croatians, would simply not go away. Interethnic resentment in Yugoslavia must be understood as a predictable outcome of circumstances surrounding the creation of the Yugoslav state, which to this date, for many Yugoslavs, remains an artificial geographic entity. Ever since its inception at Versailles in 1919, Yugoslavia has been more in line with the panslavist ideas of nineteenth-century politicians than with the hard-core reality of the nationalist twentieth century. It should not come as a surprise, therefore, that the opponents of panslavism and its offshoot “Yugoslavianism” have traditionally been Slavs themselves! It is a sad but also instructive reality that Poles, Ukrainians, Slovaks, and Croatians often perceive their Slavic Russian, Czech and Serbian neighbors as a far greater threat than their non-Slavic neighbors. In many aspects Yugoslavia is the ideological and legal replica of the Soviet Union, with one major exception: Yugoslavia is eighty times smaller in size, and when ethnic ferment emerges within one constituent republic, its signals are rapidly sent to its neighbors. There is hardly any possibility of geographically accommodating one ethnic group in Yugoslavia without automatically raising the fears of others. This is particularly the case when unexpected demographic changes, such as those in the Serbian southern province of Kosovo, occur. Even before the Second World War, the ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia were in the majority. Today their tremendous growth has given them a complete numerical edge over the Serbian population in Kosovo, whose longstanding claims to an “historic” Kosovo of Serbian “ethnic purity” appear increasingly unrealistic. One could probably argue that demographically, for the traditionally oppressed ethnic Albanians, is the continuation of politics by other means. Despite the overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians, the police in Kosovo, just like anywhere else in Yugoslavia, are staffed predominantly with Serbian nationals, especially at command levels – a fact that only fuels the already existing anti-Serbian resentment in Yugoslavia. But the Albanian question is only the tip of the Yugoslavian iceberg. Ironically, at the time when Belgrade party communiqués, along with the pronouncements of many prominent Serbian intellectuals, pathetically deplore the exodus of Serbs from Serbian Kosovo, the same party communiqués and pronouncements pass over in silence the decade-long Croatian exodus from Bosnia and Herzegovina – the region to which Croatians lay ethnic and historic claims. And while the Serbian exodus often ends up in the historic parts of Croatian Bosnia and Herzegovina, or at “worst” in central Serbia, the Croatian exodus ends up in emigration overseas. Hundreds of thousands of Croatians scattered from Seattle to Sydney could certainly write, whether right or wrong, a long litany of their “historic” grievances. To many Western observers, who are often unable to grasp the meaning of nationalism in Eastern Europe, the interethnic tension in Yugoslavia appears negligible, or on the wane. Such a Western attitude is excusable given the totalitarian nature of the Yugoslav system, which forces its citizens to self-surveillance and utmost caution in discussing national issues with foreigners. Everybody wants democracy in Yugoslavia, and I have no doubt Mihajlov and other scholars do too. But democracy is not a perishable commodity to be sold to Yugoslavs as a short term loan, or wrought by inducing the party potentates to a miraculous shift in their behavior. Democratization of Yugoslavia implies first and foremost a thorough assessment of the very concept of Yugoslavia. Is Yugoslavia a viable reality for the twenty-first century? How will this third “democratic” Yugoslavia match the aspirations of its constituent nations? Last but not least, what role will Yugoslavia play in a crisis situation, and will that role be beneficial to the NATO powers? As long as democratic forces in Yugoslavia are stigmatized by the government and media as foreign agents, CIA conspirators, and fascist counterrevolutionaries, there is little hope for change. The atmosphere of a political witch-hunt in Croatia, for which the party officials bear great responsibility, can disappear only if the central government grants Croatians the legal right to speak their own language and stops using the “Serbo-Croatian” hybrid that is now mandatory in all public institutions, including the army. A good step in that direction would include the gradual removal of the Serbian-staffed police in Croatia and their replacement with Croatian officials. Such a positive action could significantly defuse the often irrational fear and hatred between the Serbs and Croatians that has long prevailed and that has inflicted immense human suffering on both peoples. But are the Titoist inheritors really ready for a dialogue with their democratic opponents? De they wish to widen or to bridge the gap between the rival Yugoslav nations? Have they not proclaimed themselves “democratic” and their opponents “fascists”? A case in point is my father, 72-year-old retired judge Mirko Sunic. His numerous appeals to the party for respect for the legal aspirations of the Croatian people, as well as for other nations in Yugoslavia, have never been heeded by the authorities; instead, he was recently sentenced to four years in prison on a charge of “hostile propaganda.” Another illustration is the horrifying death of a Jewish Croatian, Ernest Brajder. He died under extreme police torture – for collecting signatures for a petition (the so-called Zagreb petition) against the mistreatment and for the release of political prisoners.

Tomislav Sunic
Goleta, California