Power, not ideology, holds Yugoslavia together


I WAIT and I worry. I devour every news story about the conflict. Yugoslavs are killing Yugoslavs. It is one of my worst nightmares. I am a Serbian-American with family still back in the old country, and I am very proud of my culture's glorious heritage.

But I am profoundly saddened by the events in Slovenia and Croatia and the part the Serbian government has played in tearing at the seams of the country while claiming to keep it together. The fact that the leaders are communists is only incidental. This has nothing to do with political ideology. It has to do with power.

Slobodan Milosevic became the president of Serbia last year because he pushed the right button -- nationalism. It has a powerful appeal. It was a precious nationalism that preserved Serbian culture during the 500-year occupation by the Ottoman Turks. It was a positive nationalism that brought 2 1/2 million Serbs to Kosovo Polje in June 1989 to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the defeat that signaled the beginning of that occupation. Milosevic was there, already a prominent voice, and he did not miss his chance. But his brand of nationalism is divisive.

Since World War II, many Serbs have felt, because of their majority status, that they had to express themselves more as Yugoslavs than as Serbs. So when Milosevic passionately called for Serbs to proclaim their heritage, he conjured up images of Serbian suffering at the hands of the Turks and the Croatian Ustashe. If we are nothing else, we are proud. And that appeal worked, even though many Serbs with whom I spoke in Serbia drew a distinction between Milosevic's nationalism and their new-found freedom to express themselves as Serbs. A Serbian priest in Kotor, along the Adriatic coast, poignantly made that clear to me.

That Easter (1989), for the first time in seven years, the Serbs of Kotor observed the traditional Serbian Orthodox custom of walking around the outside of the church at midnight services on Holy Saturday. For that he was grateful, but he was also concerned about the ruptures that nationalism might cause.

Certainly, Milosevic believes his own rhetoric. But Milosevic's nationalism has a fundamental goal -- power. To that end he (and the other communists), as much as anyone, are responsible for the crisis in Yugoslavia. But there are others, too. There are also ultra-nationalists, to one extent or another, in Croatia an Slovenia. And let us not forget the West. Yugoslavia is an artificial nation-state, forced together after World War I by the winners to satisfy their notions of security and stability in the Balkans. Americans forget that history and easily dismiss the current troubles as so much internecine struggle among tribes with a heightened capacity for violence. That image is patently offensive.

Yugoslavia was a tenuous idea from the beginning; as a reality, it was held together only by power, most recently by the repression of Marshall Tito. The communists who are trying to carry on his legacy must realize that it is time to let Slovenia and Croatia be free as they wish. Without resorting to measures that would destroy both republics and Yugoslavia, the federal government cannot force them to be part of the country when they choose to be independent.

A civil war would be the ultimate catastrophe because it would be less about the integrity of Yugoslavia than about ancient rivalries. And war would never resolve them. It would only create new history that would be the basis for some future conflict. Croatia and Slovenia should be allowed to pursue their independence through a negotiated settlement. And there should be mutual respect for all the country's ethnic cultures.

Only then can the Yugoslavs overcome the history and circumstances that have brought them to this awful place.

Danilo Yanich teaches in the College of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware.

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