Twentieth Century Yugoslavia

To most people twentieth century Yugoslavia was essentially a multi-ethnic dream that ended tragically in the 1990s in a virulent civil war, largely concentrated on but not confined to Bosnia.

Therefore you may ask why I took up this book by Fred Singleton written in the mid 1970s when Tito was still alive. Well the answer is simply I wanted to investigate the circumstances which led to the first major armed conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War and more specifically the lessons in it for other multi-ethnic states like mine. For of one thing we can be sure and that is that the Yugoslav civil war was not one of a kind and would not be the last in the break-up of multi-ethnic states. What is significant about Yugoslavia is that the southern Slavs were united for as long as they were, through much of the twentieth century into a single entity, first as a kingdom and subsequently as a republic.

Background to Conflict

Why then did things develop as they did? Was Tito the central figure who held everything together? These are the obvious questions that strike us on any consideration of the Yugoslav issue. To answer the second question first it would be worthwhile reading the latest book on the issue by Robert West, ‘Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia.’ I haven’t as yet but do intend to. However certain obvious things occur to us even before reading that book and that is that Yugoslavia existed though in a different form even prior to Tito’s arrival on the scene. Secondly Tito didn’t preside over a typical communist state under the stewardship of the L.Y.C. For example private enterprise and tourism were allowed to flourish at a time when they were heresy to the Communist world. However the failure to evolve into a multi-party system provided the coup de grace to Yugoslavia. Tito might be considered a mild dictator in that regard. He however did enable a country with modest resources to punch above its weight in global affairs. However he also showed Yugoslavia was able to diversify its options when Cominform turned its back on the country. The remarkable aspect of this independence was that it didn’t result in a Soviet invasion as occurred in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. This must be attributed entirely to Tito’s leadership.

Yugoslavia and the Soviet Collapse

Many are tempted to view the Yugoslav civil war from the prism of the Soviet collapse but in my view there are limitations to such a perspective. For example Yugoslavia wasn’t a typical communist state as mentioned earlier. However the de-legitimization of the L.Y.C. ideology, of what was a one-party state proved fatal. Also it was by this time over a decade since the death of Tito in 1980.Undoubtedly the hand of Tito would have been a steadying factor in steering the country through a tricky period but this was not to be. A favorite Western assumption is that the rise of ethnic nationalists such as Milosevich contributed to the civil war. However this ignores the fact that ethnic loyalties were always paramount in Yugoslavia and had even caused Tito to warn of a potential collapse of the federation according to Fred Singleton. Similarly the cleavage between Roman Catholicism of Croatia and Eastern Orthodoxy of Serbia proved too combustible because it reflected fundamentally different cultural traditions.

Conclusions for the future

Yugoslavia undoubtedly started out well but the failure to develop institutions and foster democratization ultimately proved fatal. Economic liberalization alone wasn’t enough. Similarly geography also proved hostile as the mountainous terrain of the country impeded the development of national infrastructure that might have welded the country into a cohesive entity. As far as Fred Singleton’s comprehensive work on the subject is concerned the book’s biggest lacunae is of course that it came out too soon, before the twentieth century was truly over. One wishes he had waited for the 1990s to finish and introduced a chapter on the civil war.

From a contemporary perspective the chapters on nationalism and geography are of topical interest. While the ex-Yugoslavs might not contemplate a revival of their dead country they would do well to facilitate cooperation among themselves through multilateral frameworks for the sum is always greater than the parts and this is nowhere more evident than in the Balkans today