The whole of history since the ascension of Jesus into heaven is concerned with one work only: the building and perfecting of this “City of God.”St. Augustine
THE ONLY QUESTION in western political philosophy is how people live together. All forms of government seek to answer this question. We most often talk about this in terms of thesis and antithesis, examining the differences between republicanism and monarchy, democracy and autocracy, prime ministers and dictators, power and autonomy, pluralism and homogeneity. These oppositional dichotomies tend to dominate our understanding of politics and distract from the similarities they often share. I find it much more illuminating to compare like cases than unlike cases. Which brings us to the idea, and the problem, of Yugoslavia.
The idea of a political union of the western Balkans dates to the 17th century and took its modern form following the 1848 national revolutions in Europe. During World War I, politicians in exile in London formed the Yugoslav Committee to pursue the project. As the war ended and the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes arose more or less organically as the constituent states declared independence and pledged loyalty to the new kingdom to be led by Alexander I.
Yugoslavia was one of only two polities that lived and died in the 20th century. The Soviet Union was the other. Several imperial regimes collapsed as Yugoslavia rose, but most had existed for centuries, dominating the western Balkans during that time. Twentieth century Yugoslavia was created to solve a 19th century problem, which was domination and interference from more powerful neighbors, including Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Turkey, Italy, Russia, and Bulgaria. All southern Slavic populations experienced this but with very different effects and outcomes. After centuries of being divided and conquered, the historically Slavic states determined they were stronger united.
This was true as far as it went. While the western Balkans shared history, language (mostly; Macedonian is more related to Bulgarian and Albanian has no peer anywhere), and some beliefs, in reality Serbia with the largest population was the most dominant republic. So after resolving the problem of external domination, Yugoslavia next had to address the problem of Serbian domination of the union.
Following Alexander’s assassination, the kingdom was named Yugoslavia. Germany invaded in 1941, one of the most costly misadventures in the war. Soviet-supplied communist partisans led by Josip Broz, known as Tito, were the most successful guerilla outfit in Europe. Tito managed not only to bleed the Germans: he sidelined the Yugoslav government in exile, consolidated power, and won material from both the Allies and from Italian forces stranded in the Balkans after the capitulation.
As the war ended, Tito had a strong hand. He had won over or coopted every other major political or opposition group in the country. With this coalition, he held the first election after the war in 1945 and won a majority of seats in parliament. The parliament promptly removed Peter II (he refused to abdicate and died an alcoholic in Denver in 1970) and rewrote the constitution as a socialist republic with Tito as head of state. He remained in control for the next 35 years.
Tito proved adept at driving the middle ground between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies, playing them off one another to the country’s benefit. He dodged several Soviet assassination attempts and co-founded the Non-Aligned Movement. Yugoslavia had perhaps the most workable, purely socialist economy in Europe, with factory and farm collectives operating independently in a kind of managed competition. There were no immigration restrictions so Yugoslavs traveled freely. The country’s exports (including firearms and Fiat cars built under license by Zastava) permitted foreign imports as well. For my friends in Warsaw Pact countries during this time, Yugoslavia was a consumers’ paradise compared to home.
There are, of course, many arguments for why Yugoslavia fell apart. Tito, the strongman, died in 1980. The parliament then decentralized the government and economy to the constituent republics. This needless, inefficient multiplication of government functions helped stall the economy. By the early 1970s, 20 percent of the Yugoslav workforce was employed abroad. Following the oil shock, the Yugoslav economy began to fall apart. The dinar cratered and the government soon buried itself in foreign debt to prop up production.
Into this crisis and power vacuum stepped recently radicalized ex-communist apparatchiks like Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman. Milosevic, as nominal president of the federal Yugoslavia, first deployed the Serb-dominated national army to corral republics like Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia from seceding. When this failed, he unleashed his army and irregulars in the Bosnian Republika Srpska to absorb Serbian populations centers and cleanse Bosnian Muslims from their country. This resulted in the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide of Srebrenica that provoked first UN and eventually NATO intervention to halt the slaughter.
The war, it should be said, was not unique at the time. As the Soviet central government weakened, republican leaders like Boris Yeltsin seized power and legitimacy. With Mikhail Gorbachev deposed and the special committee dissolved in 1991, the 15 constituent republics of the Soviet Union realized their independence. That came not without bloodshed, including the prospect of a pitched battle in Moscow between rival Russian and Soviet authorities. Gorbachev warned he would not intervene in his eastern European client states but did not hesitate to crush national demonstrations in the Baltic republics. Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, and Moldova all engaged in civil war after independence. The object of this violence, as in Yugoslavia, was political control.
But neither was the war inevitable. It was not the fated result after centuries of smothered ethnic hatreds and foreign domination. Political power can be shared peacefully. War is always a choice. That is why the comparison of similarly structured states and governments are more worthwhile than pitting opposites against each other. For example, the similarities between Yugoslavia and Belgium are clear to see: a loose federation of three semi-autonomous regions, divided by language and (partially) religion, each triplicating government services. As unsatisfactory and inefficient as this system of government is, it is impossible to imagine Walloons, Flemish, and ostbelgien taking up arms to destroy the state.
What is left behind in the former Yugoslavia? As my friend Peter Korchnak has diligently documented, there is much to remember and a powerful nostalgia for that country pervades those who fled the war only to return to a landscape they could no longer recognize. Yugoslavia made sense of the complex intersection of language, faith, and ethnicity especially in mixed marriages (which depending on the census ranged from 10 percent to 30 percent of all couples). It stood as an example of united opposition to fascism and genocide. It rejected as false the dichotomy between liberalism and communism. It meant something.
Yugoslavia was, in short, an ideal – an e pluribus unum in the Balkans – whose death, like the threat to democracy we now face, feels like a betrayal.