Sat, 11 Sep 1999

Lessons from Yugoslavia

The article is based on a paper presented by Makmur Keliat, a University of Indonesia lecturer, at a recent seminar on the Non- Aligned Movement with the theme "The Crisis of Yugoslavia and the Role of Non-Aligned Movement", organized by the university's Non- Aligned Movement Study Center.

JAKARTA (JP): Yugoslavia presents an interesting paradox from the European continent. While large parts of Europe, as shown in the case of the European Community, have been in the continuous process of integration, Yugoslavia has displayed a contradictory trend.

When the country became a federal republic on Nov. 29, 1945, it included six republics -- Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia- Herzegovina, Macedonia and Montenegro. In June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. Macedonia followed suit in January 1992. Bosnia-Herzegovina took the same step in 1992. The remaining republics that have agreed to unite and declared themselves the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia are Serbia and Montenegero.

The latest mass media reports have given an impression that the process of disintegration might continue unabated. Though a peace plan to end the Kosovo conflict was accepted in June 1999, after the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) 11-week air war against Yugoslavia, there is no clear indication that Kosovo separatists, mainly represented by the Kosovo Liberation Army, will cease their demand for independence. In addition there has been a report that Montenegro is also moving slowly toward independence. Therefore, it may not be an exaggeration to say that Yugoslavia in the post cold war has been remarkably noted for the process of its disintegration.

In order to avoid emotional bias in discussion, this article attempts to analyze the conflict in Yugoslavia by focusing on two kinds of tensions that may have taken place in the country -- between the idea of state and that of nation, and between demand for democratization and demand for national unity. In a nutshell, the article tries to show that the break-up of Yugoslavia is the outcome of these two tensions.

Let us begin from the first tension. Seen from a historical perspective, Yugoslavia is almost similar with Indonesia in the sense that the existence of the state precedes the existence of the nation. Indeed, the term Yugoslavia, meaning the Land of the South Slav, was coined in 1929 by King Alexander I.

Indeed, a hundred years before the establishment of Yugoslavia, one could find in the country the Serbs who were predominantly Orthodox, the Albanians and the Bosnian people who were primarily Muslim, and the Croats and the Slovenes who were dominantly Roman Catholic. To a large extent, one could also say that Yugoslavia was established as a multi-nation-state. This, in turn, brought about a huge task for the government to convince its citizen, whose cultural and historical backdrop were so diverse, that the idea of the state would represent the idea of nation.

It is under these circumstances that the conflict in Yugoslavia need to be understood. Accordingly, Yugoslavia is distinct from countries that have been endowed with homogeneous cultural and historical legacy, such as Japan, in which the establishment of nation precedes the establishment of state. Yugoslavia is almost like Indonesia where nation building seems to have become an unfinished and painstaking business. In this regard, the main difference may lie in the form of government. The form of federal government on the basis of ethnic landscape, adopted by Yugoslavia when it was established in 1945, appeared to have worked effectively only for a short-term solution.

The overlapping boundary line between ethnic jurisdiction with political jurisdiction structured within a form of federal government has a great tendency to erect a psychological block for the whole populace in their efforts to search for a single national identity. Rather than weakening traditional sentiments, such a federal government seems to have cultivated a distinctive feeling in the mental constructs of the entire ethnic groups that they are basically different culturally. This has also become evident in the north-eastern part of India, where various separatist movements have recurred in Nagaland, Mizoram, Megalaya and Assam. However, there is a striking difference between Yugoslavia and India.

In Yugoslavia, the federal government was not established along with the political mechanism for participation, while in India, there has been political pluralism as clearly indicated by the presence of many political parties and the freedom of expression. Such political circumstances were absent in Yugoslavia.

During the late president Josip Broz Tito's leadership, political participation was only channeled through a centralized communist party. What is the difference then is that though the separatist movement has posed a problem for the Indian federal government, it has failed in gaining wide political support from local people. The majority still put their strong belief in the idea of political pluralism.

In fact, if one looks back to the history of Yugoslavia, she or he would come to know that the conflict provoked by ethno nationalism has been there through several generations. The only difference is that the spirit of ethno nationalism in the past did not turn into violent conflict on a massive scale due to the figure of Tito.

When he was still alive, Tito was seen as an undisputed leader, despite the fact that he was not a Serb. Very few people dared to challenge him and the policies he imposed were largely accepted with no significant criticism.

In the mean time, the cold war had also made it easy for Tito to cultivate a sort of united feeling among the populace. Since the collective and bitter memories from the Balkanization period were still vivid, Tito did not face a huge task to mold a dominant perception that the country could easily turn into the theater of war because of other regional power's intervention.

It is in this context that Yugoslavia's foreign policy since the very beginning was designed not to side with any bloc and the most important priority at the time of cold war was how to preserve its independence and territorial integration.

The crucial moment came out shortly after Tito passed away in 1980. Almost similar with the case of Indonesia after former president Soeharto stepped down in May 1998, Yugoslavia was immediately faced with the crisis of national leadership not only in terms of its legitimacy but also in terms of its power effectiveness. This was clearly symbolized by the adoption of collective leadership in the presidency.

At a glance, this solution seems to have been motivated by the idea of political democracy that no one could govern Yugoslavia like Tito had ruled the country. On the other side of the coin, however, such a collective leadership could also indicate the failure of political institutionalization.

The political framework left out by Tito did not work, particularly in the context of leadership succession, as there has been a power vacuum since he passed away. In this context, Tito can be considered as the most proper example of a successful dictator as he never intended to prepare for his successor. It, therefore, will not come as a great surprise, that there has been political disaster since his rule.

Now let us discuss the second tension. Many had pinned their hopes that when an authoritarian leader was ousted from power and if market reform was introduced, then the prospects for the evolvement of stable democracy would become bright. This has not turned into reality in Yugoslavia.

In fact, following the death of Tito, several market reforms had been introduced and the most progressive one had been launched when Ante Markovic was appointed as prime minister of Yugoslavia in 1989. He was noted for his strong advocacy for a Western economic system. It is also worth mentioning that the first free election, as a symbol of democratization, was carried out in 1990. Ironically the election were won by politicians who advocated the secession of their republics from Yugoslavia. As a result, the demands for separation has become increasingly stronger. Why has this happened?

The first reason may lie in the lack of vision among the ruling elite after the end of cold war. It has been clear that ideology, following the end of cold war, has ceased to be a glue for the preservation of the national unity. From a political point of view, the ruling elite in Yugoslavia seems to have not been well prepared for this abrupt change. Before the break-up of the country, they could not find answers to the following question: What is Yugoslavia for? Where is the country heading? Who is now the common external enemy?

As a matter of fact, not only the Albanians, the Bosnians, the Croats and the Slovenes were disappointed with the system built by Tito, but also the Serbs as an ethnic majority. All ethnic groups seem to have their own version and interpretation of the historical events. As such, making objective judgments seems to be impossible unless one takes a partisan stance.

An example can be learned from the case of the Kosovo conflict. Serbians have insisted that Kosovo is the cradle of their civilization and for this reason they have demanded that the status of special autonomy for the Kosovo province given by Tito in 1974 should be abolished. On the other hand, Albanians who are the majority in Kosovo have put forward another version of history. They have argued, it is their ancestors who were the first settlers in the province and by saying so they have refused to accept the argument aired by Serbians. Keeping this debate in mind, one can see that the history of Yugoslavia tends to be seen by political leaders and intellectuals of all ethnic groups not as an asset but as a liability.

The second reason may lie in the lack of democratic tradition. It has been clear from the case of Yugoslavia, as shown earlier, that the free general election and market reforms conducted by breaking state monopolies of economic resources are not a sufficient condition for democratization. What has lacked, referring to Habermas' conceptual thinking, is the existence of a public sphere, through which private individuals are engaged in rational critical debates concerning public matters. The validity of each statement would be judged not by baseless racial or religious sentiments but solely by reason. The absence of this condition would generate only a political change without democratization.

After more than 30 years ruled by a totalitarian government, it is reasonable to say that Yugoslavia does not have sufficient institutional resources for the evolvement of critical, rational debate. Moreover, intellectuals who dared to raise their criticism against Tito were punished severely. Milovan Djilas is a case in point. He was put in jail by Tito simply because he wrote the book The New Class, criticizing the behavior of Yugoslavia's communist party elite.

Without a long tradition for critical debate, it is no wonder the political elite after the death of Tito have been strongly encouraged to raise communal sentiment to the effect of equating the idea of democracy with the idea of self-determination. This is certainly a misleading interpretation. It also has not come as a great surprise if territorial integration, as a symbol of national unity and one of the very foundations of the state, has not been accepted without question.

Thus, at least two lessons can be picked up from the break-up of Yugoslavia. First, the hostile relations between different ethnic and religious groups in the country is not the cause of the current conflict. By contrast it is merely a natural product of the totalitarian government inherited from the era of Tito's leadership. Second, there is no short-cut and instant formula for the evolvement of democracy, particularly for developing countries marked by diversity of culture and history and by a lack of tradition for critical debate.