Yugoslavia's Rule-or-Ruin Minorities Try to Go It Alone


Pittsburgh -- It is tempting to see the announced secession from Yugoslavia of the republics of Slovenia and Croatia as a victory for democracy, as the latest and perhaps ultimate step in a contest between these "Western-oriented, democratic" republics and the "hard-line Marxist" regime in Serbia and the communists in the army. The reality is hardly so comforting. In all the Yugoslav republics, but particularly in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia, the democratization of politics and the free elections of 1990 have produced nationalistic regimes that are veering toward totalitarianism in their militarization, rigid control of the press and use of the machinery of government. Ironically, the only major political force that supports democratic freedoms and a market economy is the federal government of Prime Minister Ante Markovic, a government that is an unelected carryover from the old one-party system because Slovenia and Serbia have not permitted federal elections to take place.

In 1990, the electoral message that worked in each republic was one of strong ethnic nationalism: that Slovenia is the state of Slovenes, Croatia the state of Croats, Serbia the state of Serbs, in which minorities would enjoy little protection. Yet the minorities are substantial: perhaps 15 percent in Slovenia, 25 percent in Croatia, and more than 30 percent in Serbia. In an inversion of the classic problem of democratic theory, which is the protection of minorities from a permanent majority, the politics of these republics has centered on the protection of the majority from the minority.

The tenor of the nationalistic politics of the ruling parties in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia might be compared to that of the American South in the 1950s and early '60s, when the way to power was to be most firm on the "Negro problem." In American terms, the political spectrum of the party in power in Croatia might run from George Wallace circa 1963 on the left, to David Duke circa 1990 on the right -- and that does not include the real extremists, not yet in power.

In Serbia, extremists who verge on fascism are gaining in strength, in part in response to the chauvinism of the other republics, itself in part a response to the chauvinistic Serbian nationalist politics that Slobodan Milosevic used to come to power in 1987. The major difference is that Mr. Milosevic took control as a nationalist communist in what was then a one-party state, while the ruling parties of Croatia and Slovenia mounted their nationalist assaults when the one-party system had fallen.

The nations of Yugoslavia have historically had periods of good relations, but have also engaged in mutual hatred and strife. World War II in Yugoslavia was a brutal, multifaceted blend of resistance to occupation, civil war and communist revolution. A fascist regime installed in Croatia by the Germans had a state policy and practice of genocide against Serbs, Jews and Gypsies, killing many thousands in concentration camps and in village massacres. At the same time, Serbs killed Croats and Muslims. Finally, at the end of the war, the victorious communists murdered thousands of Croat and Slovene prisoners, and executed the Serbian general Draza Mihailovic.

With such historical tensions, any regime that wanted to avoid trouble would be solicitous of the feelings of the minorities. However, the new regimes, having come to power on nationalistic platforms, are antagonistic toward the minorities within their borders. In Croatia, where more than 600,000 Serbs live, and where some areas are almost entirely Serb, the newly elected government in 1990 antagonized the minority by, first, instituting a state emblem that was very similar to that of the wartime fascist regime, and then began a process of removing Serbs from many jobs, particularly in the police. At the same time, the Croatian government armed an ethnically pure Croatian paramilitary force. In response, and goaded by the Serbian government, Serbs in a Serb-majority area of Croatia have armed themselves, and declared their secession from Croatia.

The republics have carried out a trade war between themselves, imposing blockades, special taxes and outright confiscation of assets of firms from other republics, in defiance of the federal constitution. Serbia has been the most egregious offender in this regard, but its moves have been answered by Croatia.

Tensions within and between republics have been kept at high pitch by a "verbal civil war" between the major media in each republic. Unfortunately, and despite their claims of "democracy," the three major republics have seized control over the television, radio and major press outlets within their territories, and have prevented or severely hindered the activity of the federal television channel created by Prime Minister Markovic. In yet another irony of the aborted democratization, the Yugoslav press has gone from being the most free in socialist Europe to being the most controlled. The major exceptions are a new, independent news magazine and a federally supported daily paper, both issued from Belgrade, and a low-power but high-impact independent television station also in that city. These media operate despite the opposition of the Serbian government, and there is nothing comparable to them in Croatia or Slovenia.

In this situation of rising hostility between increasingly authoritarian, nationalistic republican regimes, the only voice of reason has been that of Mr. Markovic, who has attempted to implement economic and political reforms despite the opposition of the republican governments. These reforms have been blocked by Slovenia and Serbia. The Yugoslav army, castigated by Croats and Slovenes as "communists," has taken a principled stand of intervening only to break up inter-ethnic conflict. Now, the army has been called upon to keep order and to prevent the break-up of the country.

But why shouldn't Yugoslavia break up? Primarily because to do so would only condemn the Yugoslav peoples to economic chaos and perpetual armed hostility, perhaps an intensive arms race punctuated by wars, all of which would be dangerous to the peace of the rest of Europe as well as disastrous for the Yugoslav peoples themselves.

To avoid this fate, a truly federal structure is needed, one that provides mechanisms for ensuring human rights in the face of nationalistic regimes; for ensuring a market economy in the face of protectionism; and that prevents the establishment of hostile, competitive republican armies by instituting a truly joint system of command and defense. Perhaps most important, a new federal structure must be able to assure the freedom of the press. Were it not for the verbal civil war between the republican governments, there would be little possibility of a civil war on the ground.

Unfortunately, the governments of Slovenia and Croatia will not even consider any kind of true federal structure. While they have proposed a "confederation" of sovereign states as an alternative, a careful reading of their proposal shows it to be an empty shell, with neither a central government nor any mechanism for solving problems of its members. Acceptance of that "solution" would only ratify the disintegration of the country, and would provide no means to overcome problems, economic, legal or political.

By their actions and their positions, the governments of Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia offer nothing but economic chaos and interethnic strife, within and between their republics. Far from being a triumph of democracy, the secession from Yugoslavia of Slovenia and Croatia is a manifestation of the dark forces of nationalism that have driven European politics into two major wars in this century.

Robert Hayden teaches anthropology at the University of Pittsburgh. He has done extensive research in Yugoslavia, most recently this year as Fulbright distinguished professor of law in Belgrade.

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