The Roots of
Contemporary Serbian Nationalism
Sometimes the unlikeliest of people comfort themselves in the blanket of inevitability shrouding the war that destroyed the former Yugoslavia. In 1995, as I rode from Prague to Terezin, a town in the western Czech countryside used during World War II as a transport stop for German trains sending Jews to concentration camps in Poland, I commented to the Jewish couple in the car with me on the sickening fact that ethnic warfare was still alive and well in the former Yugoslavia. The wife could merely shrug her shoulders and remark that "those people have been hating each other for centuries." It is all too easy to explain this idea of victimization as the product of centuries-old hatreds that were merely contained, but never fully exterminated, during the decades of Tito's strong rule over Yugoslavia. Such explanations are taken for granted in Western journalistic accounts of the war in the former Yugoslavia; terms like "simmering ethnic rivalries" and "long-suppressed hatreds" have become cliches in foreign reportage. Our eyes glide over these phrases, and they numb us, comfort us with the knowledge that the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia is nothing that could have been prevented. Why "comfort?" How could the concept of historic hatred ever be seen as "comforting?" The reason is quite simple: labeling the conflict "inevitable" lifts the blame from the shoulders of those of us on the outside. We can peer into the disaster area that once claimed to be the champion of brotherhood and unity and reassure ourselves that we are gazing upon just another bitter legacy of communism, whose collapse could not help but bequeath to Yugoslavia an explosion of ethnic warfare.
How easy it is to dismiss the problems of the Balkans as permanent and thus relieve our consciences of the painful and difficult process of examining the true roots of the crisis! In reality, these roots are strikingly similar to those of Hitler's rise to power in interwar Germany. Post-World War I Germany emerged into a world of toppled dynasties and empires, forced to face the new world order as an economic cripple plagued by rampant inflation. As Gorbachev's reforms in the Soviet Union threatened the integrity of the two pillars upon which Yugoslavia relied, communism and nonalignment with the Soviets, Yugoslavia in the 1980s had to confront a real crisis of economic and political values as annual inflation soared into the triple digits. And they did so without the support of Tito,
possibly the single most important unifying factor in the former Yugoslavia, since he died in 1980.
Much like Hitler, Serbian politicians like Slobodan Milosevic and Vojislav Seselj turned to stirring nationalist feelings and finding ethnic scapegoats in order to gain power while offering no real solutions to Yugoslavia's rapid economic and political deterioration. Recalling this haunting historical parallel is frightening. Few among us can confront the shameful fact that a virulent Serbian nationalism grew like a poisonous vine in the Yugoslavia of the 1980s, planted and fertilized by certain opportunistic politicians, strangling the life out of its very own land while those outside its grip failed to weed it out. But the time has come to examine the roots of Serbian nationalism and understand that Yugoslavia's collapse was not inevitable. Skillful political manipulators whipped up nationalist feelings of fear and victimization into a smoke screen to hide their inability to deal with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the Yugoslav economy and government. Leaders of other former Yugoslav republics besides Serbia, especially Franjo Tudjman in Croatia, were also responsible for using nationalism as a political tool, but we will focus primarily on the origins of Serbian nationalism in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Serbian nationalists in the late 1980s and early 1990s fostered and exploited a historic sense of the repression and suffering of the Serbian people. "The Serb is the new Jew, the Jew at the end of the twentieth century," said Dobrica Cosic, once a noted intellectual dissident in Tito's Communist Yugoslavia and one of the fathers of contemporary Serbian nationalism. He made this comment at a time when the rest of the world was beginning to look upon the Serb as the new Nazi, responsible for igniting the "powderkeg of Europe" by fanning the flames of nationalist hatreds. Although Cosic's remark may seem laughable on the surface, it must not be dismissed as the illogical rant of a misguided and deluded nationalist, for to do so would prevent any kind of understanding of recent Serbian nationalist mentality.
The document often considered to be the manifesto of militant Serbian nationalism is the Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences that surfaced in 1986, over a decade ago. The Academy gathered to brainstorm potential ways to halt the economic and political decay that had been plaguing Yugoslavia since the death of Tito. These intellectuals, however, found that Yugoslavia's problems as a whole could not be solved until the "anti-Serbian coalition that has sought to enforce the economic and political subjugation of Serbia" was stopped.1 The Academy's analysis of the causes of Yugoslavia's predicament was typical of the country's intellectuals, who had often been blacklisted by the League of Yugoslav Communists ("LCY") for their tendency toward regionalism
instead of unity. The romanticized idea of the "intellectual dissident" in the communist world usually brings to mind figures like Fang Lizhi in China, people who suffered under authoritarian rule because they demanded such progressive reforms as economic liberalization and a multiparty government. This image of the intellectual dissident is a sharp contrast with that of the former Yugoslavia, where the party and the intellectuals disagreed not so much on economics and politics, but on the highly sensitive "nationality question." Yugoslavia's intellectuals were divided by individual ethnic issues as their concern for broader Yugoslav issues diminished.2
The official title of the infamous 1986 memorandum is "A Group of Members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences, headed by A. Isakovic, on Topical Social Questions in Our Country." The LCY changed the title from the original, "The Crisis of the Yugoslav Economy and Society," in order to make clear that the majority of the party did not agree with the Academy's findings and thus distance themselves from the emerging band of Serbian nationalists. The memorandum did address some serious issues, including the "consensus clause" of the 1974 constitution that allowed one republic or autonomous province to veto a decision agreed upon by all the others, a situation that naturally prevented the efficient passage of much-needed legislation.
Unfortunately, the memorandum couched such pertinent criticisms in language designed to antagonize the other republics. It blamed Croatia and Slovenia outright for the disintegration of Yugoslav unity. "The prevailing ideology in these two republics [has] obliged their leaders not to defend the interests of the country as a whole, even in the economic interests of their own two republics, if it means curtailing their political autonomy," the memorandum alleged.3 The memorandum went on to decry that "the Serbian nation ... has not been given the right to create its own state," a reference to the Serbian minorities living outside Serbia, especially in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is interesting to note that the Serbian Academy never pointed to the Croatian minority in Bosnia-Herzegovina, for instance, as evidence that the "Croatian nation has not been given the right to create its own state." This snag in the assertions of victimization put forth by the Academy indicates a dangerous flaw in its logic.
Rather than relying on accusations of ethnic victimization, the Serbian Academy should have pointed out Serbia's legitimate economic concerns, such as the regional disparities plaguing Yugoslavia. Croatia and Slovenia had long been itching for significantly greater autonomy from Yugoslavia, primarily for economic reasons. They were by far the two most economically developed republics, and they longed for the free-market reforms that would free their
economies from the inefficient shackles of Yugoslav economic planning. And much like the Northern League separatist movement in Italy (which resents federal funding of chronically underdeveloped Southern Italian provinces), Croatia and Slovenia chafed under the Fund for Accelerated Development of Less Developed Regions ("LDRs"), a federal program which required enterprises in the More Developed Regions ("MDRs") to make large investment contributions to such regions as the autonomous province of Kosovo, one of the poorest regions in all of Europe. The contributions from Serbian enterprises, however, often exceeded those of Croatia and Slovenia, although Serbia was considerably less prosperous than her neighbors to the west. And the Serbian enterprises made those contributions without the loud complaints heard from Croat and Slovene political leaders.4
Yet the Academy chose to target impoverished Kosovo, whose ethnic Albanian majority, according to the memorandum, was in the process of perpetrating the "genocide" of the Serbian and other non-Albanian minorities in Kosovo. The Serbian nationalists' manipulation of the Kosovo dilemma was a fundamental facet of their agenda.
In the same year as the Academy's memorandum, 212 prominent Serbian intellectuals submitted a petition to the Yugoslav and Serbian National Assemblies demanding immediate measures to end the "lengthy process of genocide" in Kosovo. Were the ethnic Albanians guilty of attempting the "total annihilation" of non-Albanians in Kosovo, as Slobodan Milosevic, then president of the Serbian Central Committee of the LCY, declared in 1987?
The answer is no. Evidence of the wholesale extermination of the non-Albanian minority in Kosovo (primarily Serbs and Montenegrins) just does not exist. "Genocide" is an emotionally-laden word everywhere in the world, but perhaps even more so among Serbs in Yugoslavia, who were indeed victims of wartime atrocities during World War II. During this period, the Germans established a puppet government in Croatia led by the brutal Ustase, who slaughtered great numbers of Serbs and Jews in their own process of ethnic cleansing. Accusing Kosovo of genocide was a move calculated to release the ghosts of the past and provoke fear among the Serbian population both in and outside Kosovo. Making an unsubstantial charge of that magnitude, using one of the most horrific phenomena of human history as a political tool, is truly abhorrent.
The contemporary dilemma of Kosovo has ancient origins. The "Field of Blackbirds" in Kosovo is the site of the South Slavs' defeat by the Turks -- or, seen in a broader context, European Christianity's defeat by Islam -- in 1389. Although many non-Serbian Slavs participated in the now-mythical battle, the Serbs tend to claim the fighting
as exclusively their own. The Serbian nationalist sense of victimization and martyrdom rests on the Battle of Kosovo, where they were sacrificed to the greater good of Christianity, just as they were sacrificed in both world wars fighting for the Allies, and just as they were "sacrificed" to the greater good of Yugoslavia when Tito created two autonomous provinces within Serbia (Kosovo and Vojvodina) to prevent Serbian political dominance within the multinational state.
Serbian nationalist leaders like Milosevic pointed to the mass demonstrations at the University of Pristina in March 1981 as proof of Albanian irredentism, since the Kosovar Albanians were demanding de jure republic status. In the minds of some Serbs, this would be only one step away from Kosovo's secession to join Albania. The Serbian government repressed the protests by declaring emergency law, making mass arrests and imposing a curfew.
By the mid-1980s, Serbian leaders had decided the time had come for Serb demonstrations in Kosovo. In April 1987, the Serbian government paid for buses to transport 10,000 to 15,000 Serbs and Montenegrins to an area near Kosovo Field. Milosevic accompanied the protesters in order to decry the "Albanian nationalists' lack of respect for law, order and equality." He called upon the Serbs and Montenegrins, who had been exiting Kosovo in large numbers throughout the decade, to remain on the historic soil. "This is your land," he told them, effectively excluding the 90% ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo.5 When Kosovo police beat a Serb demonstrator at the rally in Milosevic's presence, he seized upon it as obvious evidence of human rights violations, ignoring the Serbs' physical intimidation of the Albanians during the 1981 unrest in Kosovo. In a speech to a cheering crowd on November 19, 1988, Milosevic made a dramatic plea on behalf of the Slavic minority in Kosovo, whose "boundless suffering [was] an incurable wound to their hearts and the heart of all Serbia." He went on to declare that "we shall win the battle for Kosovo regardless of the obstacles facing us inside and outside the country .... I can tell the Albanians that no one has ever found it difficult to live in Serbia because he is not Serbian."6
Not every Serbian politician fell in line with Milosevic and his followers on the Kosovo issue. Two prominent Serbian government officials, Serbian State President Ivan Stambolic and the President of the Belgrade City Party Committee, Dragisa Pavlovic, openly questioned the extent of the Serbs' and Montenegrins' persecution in Albania. They paid a high political price for crossing Milosevic by trying to take the steam out of his polemics against Kosovo. In December 1987, Stambolic was removed from the 13-member State Presidency because he was regarded as advocating a "soft" approach to the Albanians in Kosovo instead of the "hard" approach that would
presumably entail increased political and military control over the Kosovo province.
Milosevic effectively quieted most of his opposition, while his supporters found a new voice after years of silence in Tito's Yugoslavia. In June 1989, Belgrade television aired a documentary on Dobrica Cosic, who had been removed from the LCY Central Committee in 1968 because he criticized the party's handling of the problems in Kosovo. The Serbian LCY had been considering rehabilitating Cosic as well as Serbian Aleksandar Rankovic, the former head of the Yugoslav secret police who had been expelled from the party by Tito in 1966 for his excessive use of bugging devices and for his heavy hand in the treatment of the Albanian Kosovars. Rankovic had been evolving into something of a Serb legend since his death in 1983. His image was exploited by nationalists as another example of Serb martyrdom to Yugoslavia, a man of strength suppressed to protect the interests of Tito, a Croat. The national LCY weekly Komunist, however, did not share this romantic view of Rankovic. "His rehabilitation is being conducted on waves of anti-Albanian, revengeful, Serbian nationalism," the paper commented in 1989.7
One of the most extreme nationalists to emerge into the rabid atmosphere unleashed by Milosevic was Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the Serbian People's Radical Party and the revived Serbian chetnik movement. Merely using the term chetnik is a form of provocative historical manipulation. The chetniks were the Serbs' answer to the Ustase during World War II, an ultranationalist, anticommunist movement that massacred Croats and Muslims. By reviving this dark historical phantom, Seselj helped fuel fears among the non-Serbian communities in Yugoslavia, like the Croats, Muslims and Albanians. At a May 1991 rally to demand the removal of Tito's remains from Belgrade, Seselj explicitly warned the Croatian people that the Serbs would soon be avenged for the victims of Ustase atrocities. In an effort to quell the ever-rising tide of nationalist fervor, the federal government rejected Seselj's party's request for formal registration because the party was intent on exacerbating "nationalism, racial and religious hatred, and intolerance."8
Of course, reviving Ustase imagery was probably the worst possible way to counter this would-be chetnik propaganda, yet Ustase insignias and flags became disturbingly common in Croatia earlier this decade. Of all the fears propagated by the Serb nationalists, their most legitimate concern was for the plight of ethnic Serbs in Croatia. Almost 600,000 Serbs lived in Croatia, primarily in Slavonia and in the Krajina near the Adriatic coast. But as Amnesty International and Helsinki Watch reported in 1991 and 1992, the Croatian government, led by President Franjo Tudjman, engaged in activities that were either culturally insensitive to the point of downright stupidity, or
else calculated to antagonize the Serb minority in Croatia. The new "Croatian Constitution" banned the use of the Cyrillic alphabet for official communication (even in regions with a Serb majority). "Victims of Fascism Square" in Zagreb was renamed "Croatian Heroes Square," and the site of an Ustase extermination camp in Jasenovac became a national park. The Croatian Parliament even rehabilitated Archbishop Stepinac, the Catholic archbishop who collaborated with the Nazi occupiers in World War II. But most disturbing of all were the flagrant human rights violations perpetrated against the Serb minority, including arbitrary arrests and forced relocations. After all, some of the first instances of ethnic cleansing occurred in Western Slavonia, where Croatian Serbs were either expelled or massacred. The European Community's swift recognition of Croatia's independence in January 1992 only legitimized Serbian fears of encirclement, enabling Milosevic and his nationalist hacks in Croatia and Bosnia to foster an even greater "us against them" mentality, especially among the 2.5 million Serbs living outside Serbia proper.
The State Presidency continued resisting the tugging apart of Yugoslavia, demonstrating that nationalist fever did not afflict everyone in Yugoslavia, nor even everyone in Serbia. In fact, in 1991, 85% of army reservists in Belgrade refused their call-ups to be sent to Slovenia.9 Unfortunately, evidence of Serbian resistance to the Serb leadership was difficult to obtain, since Milosevic turned the media into his personal mouthpiece. In 1987, he purged the two major Serbian sources for print news, the daily Politika and the weekly NIN, as well as Radio-TV Belgrade. During the so-called "free" elections in December 1990, all favorable coverage in the Serbian media was devoted to Milosevic's party, the Socialist Party of Serbia ("SPS").
Luckily, some voices of dissent found their way out of Serbia. Some of the Politika and NIN journalists purged by Milosevic founded a new national weekly, Vreme 'Time' that actually practiced the objective journalism that once made Politika Yugoslavia's most respected newspaper. Within months of its first issue in October 1990, Vreme could already claim a higher readership than NIN, further proof that the Yugoslav public had maintained some critical spirit. One Serbian journalist, writing for a Slovene student paper, remarked on the sense of victimization being promoted by the Serbian media: "If I did not read those Serbian newspapers I would not know that you Slovenes hate us Serbs and that the Croats also hate us, as do the Albanian, Vojvodinian, Montenegrin, and Bosnian-Herzegovinian leaderships, that the West and the East also hate us, and that practically the whole world hates us." He ended by sarcastically noting how "everyone hates us except our wonderful leadership."10
This "wonderful leadership" fomented a destructive nationalism based on fostering feelings of Serbian victimization, using historical manipulation, the Kosovo issue, dirty politics and media control as their primary tools. As Milan Panic told the World Affairs Council in San Francisco in May 1993, "I do not believe the ethnic hatred we see reported every day here in the United States is real. It is not in the hearts of the people. It is their leaders who have much to gain by appealing to the worst instincts of desperate men and women."11
Men like Milosevic did more than take the lid off some simmering pot of ethnic unrest. They engineered that ethnic unrest by deliberately provoking hatred and fear among their people. To assert otherwise would be a retreat into the comfortable realm of "inevitability," a place where those who destroyed their own country can hide from their responsibility.
1. Milan Andrejevic. "The Troubled Intellectuals." Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 11, Number 48, Part 2. November 28, 1986. This quote is taken directly from the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences 1986 memorandum.
3. Slobodan Stankovic. "The Serbian Academy's Memorandum." Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 11, Number 48, Part 2. November 20, 1986.
4. Iraj Hashi. "Regional Polarization in Postwar Yugoslavia and the Impact of Regional Policies." Why Bosnia? Connecticut: The PamphleteerÕs Press, 1993, p. 319.
5. Slobodan Stankovic. "Kosovo: No Peace without Compromise." Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 12, Number 18, Part 2.
6. Patrick Moore. "Whither Serbia?" Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 13, Number 48, Part 2. December 2, 1988. This quote is taken directly from Slobodan Milosevic's November 19, 1988 speech.
7. Milan Andrejevic. "Milan Djilas and Aleksandar Rankovic to Be Rehabilitated?" Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 14, Number 27, Part 1. July 1, 1989.
8. Milan Andrejevic. "State Presidency Agrees on Measures to Prevent Further Ethnic Violence." Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 2, Number 23. June 7, 1991.
9. Bogdan Denitch. Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1994, p. 62.
10. Milan Andrejevic. "Serbian Journalist Criticizes Milosevic." Radio Free Europe Research, Volume 14, Number 27, Part 1. July 7, 1989. This quote is taken directly from a letter by Dejan Andric published in Tribuna.
11. Milan Panic. "The Yugoslav Crisis," delivered on May 26, 1993. Vital Speeches of the Day, July 15, 1993.
Ali, Rabia and Lawrence Lifschultz. 1993. Why Bosnia? Connecticut: The PamphleteerÕs Press.
Cohen, Lenard J. 1993. Broken Bonds: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia. Boulder: Westview Press.
Denitch, Bogdan. 1994. Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia. Minnesota: Minnesota University Press.
Glenny, Misha. 1992. The Fall of Yugoslavia. London: Penguin Books.
Krol, Marcin. 1990. "A Europe of Nations or a Universalistic Europe?" International Affairs, Volume 66, Number 2 (April).
Panic, Milan. 1993. "The Yugoslav Crisis." Vital Speeches of the Day. (July 15). Radio Free Europe Research Reports, 1986-1991.
Rusinow, Dennison. 1991. "Yugoslavia: Balkan Breakup." Foreign Policy, Number 83 (Summer).
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