Brief on Yugoslavia

Map Austria Hungary Bosnia Yugoslavia Bree

To most folks 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 restricted to Bosnia.

Thus 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 additional 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 at the break-up of multi-ethnic states. What’s significant about Yugoslavia is 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 afterwards as a republic.

Why then did things grow 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 have not as yet but do intend to. However certain obvious things happen to us even before reading that book and that is that Yugoslavia existed though in another form even before Tito’s coming on the scene. Secondly Tito did not preside over a typical communist state under the stewardship of the L.Y.C. For example private enterprise and tourism were permitted to flourish at a time when they had been heresy into the Communist world. Tito might be considered a mild dictator in that respect. He however did enable a country with small 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 did not result in a Soviet invasion as happened 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 deadly. Undoubtedly the hand of Tito would have been a steadying factor in steering the nation through a tricky period but this was not to be. A favorite Western premise is that the growth of ethnic nationalists like Milosevich contributed to the civil war. However this ignores the fact that cultural loyalties were always paramount in Yugoslavia and had caused Tito to warn of a possible collapse of the federation based on Fred Singleton. Similarly the cleavage between Roman Catholicism of Croatia and Eastern Orthodoxy of Serbia proved too combustible since it reflected fundamentally different cultural traditions.

Yugoslavia definitely started out well but the failure to create institutions and foster democratization ultimately proved fatal. Economic liberalization alone was not enough. Similarly geography also proved aggressive as the mountainous terrain of the nation impeded the development of national infrastructure which may have welded the nation 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 modern perspective the chapters on nationalism and geography are of topical interest. While the ex-Yugoslavs May Not consider 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 now

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