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Mainstream, VOL L, No 29, July 7, 2012

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of NAM and 20 Years since Yugoslavia’s Demise

Tuesday 10 July 2012, by Branislav Gosovic


The following article is based on a short statement made by the author at the Seventh European Centre for Peace and Development (ECPD) Conference on Reconciliation, Tolerance and Human Security in the Balkans—“New Balkans and the European Union Enlargement”—held in Milocer, Montenegro, October 21-22, 2011. In the text, “Yugoslavia” has been used to refer to post-World War II Yugoslavia, called the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) during the last stages of its existence, while “West Balkans” denotes the geographic space and territory that this country occupied and which today encompasses its successor, the “ex-Yu” states.


Yugoslavia was one of the countries that played an important role in the founding, launching and sustaining of the movement of the Global South. Its disappearance deprived the Non-Aligned Movement and Group of 77 of one of their leading member-states. This loss represented a handicap at the very time when the collective action of the developing countries in the world arena was beginning to falter. Moreover, how to respond to the Yugoslav crisis led to divisions among the developing countries, in particular within the NAM.

Yugoslavia was a country that stood for, championed and worked to translate into practice many ideas and objectives that the developing countries and their peoples shared and were striving for in their national develop-ment, their continuing struggle for national independence and against hegemony, and their quest for change and democratisation of the international system. Yugoslavia’s demise was symptomatic of the changing times and reconfiguring the world order according to the preferences of dominant global players in the unipolar geopolitical setting that began to take shape as the Cold War drew to its end.

Over the decades, as an active member of the Non-Aligned Movement and Group of 77 that had close relations with most countries of the South, Yugoslavia won not only the friendship and confidence of those states but also of their peoples. It was known for its struggle for independence and against aggression, when its people rose barehanded and fought successfully against the Axis powers during World War II and then, shortly thereafter, when it stood up to the USSR’s hegemonic aspirations. Also, it demonstrated that it was possible for a relatively small country to play an active role and have influence in the world arena when espousing ideas and a vision with global resonance. And it achieved international recognition because of the advances it made in its domestic develop-ment efforts, including its attempts to concep-tualise and put into practice innovative, alter-native socio-economic constructs and ideas.

The traumatic dismemberment of Yugoslavia and its disappearance was widely received with regret in the developing countries. They also did not expect that the new governing elites in the successor states would distance themselves from and loosen ties with the Third World, some denying similarities and shared objectives with the developing countries and their common front embodied in the NAM and G77, while proclaiming the West and Euro-Atlantic bloc as their natural home.
The year 2011 marks the 50th anniversary of the Non-Aligned Movement, inaugurated at the 1961 Belgrade Conference, and 20 years since Yugoslavia has been no longer in existence. It is an occasion to offer a few preliminary comments on the West Balkans and the Third World.

Political Delinking from the Global South…

TURNING their back to the Third World and non-alignment policy posture by Yugoslavia’s successor states was part and parcel of the new political and economic arrangements that were being imposed in the West Balkans. It was an aspect of the rejection of the socialist socio-economic system and denial of the very principles on which the post-World War II Yugoslavia was founded and had developed, the principles that were forged in the people’s liberation struggle against the Axis powers. It signalled a concerted effort, from without and within, to cleanse this political space from its legacies, including close links and affinity with the developing countries.

The declared objective was to secure benefits and fulfilment of development by (re)joining “Europe”, that is, the West, and adopting its credo. The new orientation was also a reflection of the aim to redraw the political map of the region in order to accommodate the nationalist schemes of various groups. For this to happen, it was essential to have the blessing and active support of dominant powers and neighbouring states, all belonging to the Western bloc.

As Yugoslavia began to totter, rumblings critical of cooperation with the “under-developed” Third World could be heard. Doubts about its benefits, as compared to alignment with the developed West, began to appear in the media. At the 1988 NAM Ministerial Conference in Cyprus, some, who felt they belonged on the West side of the East-West “demarcation line” in Yugoslavia, argued in the corridors that it was time to pull out of the Non-Aligned Movement. These under-lying tensions became more pronounced at the 1989 NAM Summit in Belgrade and were accentuated by the uncertainty in the ranks about the Movement’s direction and role in the post-Cold War environment. A campaign, originating in the North, questioned the value and logic of non-alignment and NAM in the changed global geopolitical context, with the disappearance of one of the two opposing superpowers and blocs and the end of the bipolar age.

Following the break-up of Yugoslavia and the beginning of armed conflicts in the region, at the 1992 NAM Summit in Jakarta, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Serbia and Montenegro), which claimed to be the sole successor state of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was excluded from the Movement. Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia opted out. Bosnia-Herzegovina, where one of the constituent groupings sought and relied on support from a number of Moslem developing countries during the 1990s war period, remained in the fold of the NAM. A similar separation to that with the NAM occurred also in relation to the Group of 77, the other arm of collective action by the developing countries in the global arena.

There was a degree of political and economic opportunism in the wish of the “ex-Yu” successor states to distance themselves from the South and its political and development goals and agenda. It was seen as a pre-condition for obtaining benefits from the North and being permitted to come under its umbrella (for example, admission to the OECD required that a developing country candidate renounces its membership in the Group of 77). Non-alignment as a policy stance and group action of the developing countries in general, were not to the liking of the developed countries and were contrary to the policy orientation, governance, economic arrangements and security-military alignment that they preferred and were expected to ask of the successor states.

It should also be pointed out that the dissociation from the Third World movement and objectives was very much in tune with the ascendant Right-wing policy outlook and reactionary nationalisms and ethnic agendas that engulfed the West Balkans. These were usually characterised by skepticism towards the “uncivilised” South. Thus, derogatory references to the developing countries and their peoples have often been heard. This is a reflection of an underlying racism and a “superiority complex” vis-à-vis the “periphery”, especially those of different skin colour, present in segments of the nationalist intelligentsia and public. Such outlook, earlier proscribed, gained public visibility and political legitimacy in the wake of the disappearance of Yugoslavia, when it began to be aired and disseminated by the media. Served under the cloak of the “democratic right to free speech”, these views also made their way into the domains of education, literature and arts, religion and family. With little or no serious effort to counter or censure them, they fell on fertile ground in a situation of economic and social crisis and uncertainty that began to be experienced by the majority of the population.

While some see themselves as belonging to what they describe as the “civilised West”, meaning the Atlantic (Anglo-Saxon-American) orbit, others see their roots as being in the East, that is, in the Slavic Orthodox sphere. Both of these options frown upon links and association with the South. The exception is the Moslem connection, which has helped sustain relations along Islamic lines between groups in some of the successor states and some countries of the South.

In sum, the desire to “leapfrog” underdeve-lopment, assert one’s own distinctive and “special” qualities, sport the “new look” and, thereby, assure “one’s rightful” place in and be embraced by the North, contributed, in part, to the policy of neglecting the South as an organised global political force. Bilateral ties with most developing countries were not maintained for lack of interest, capacity and resources on the part of successor states. There was also an ideological aspect reflecting the new policy orientation of tilting to the West, namely, cooperation with the two leading rising powers of the South was no longer pursued with the earlier degree of enthusiasm and intimacy – with China because of it being “communist” and with India because of its “socialist” and non-aligned leanings—while experiencing growing dependency, shrinking sovereignty, hobbled economic and social development common to many Third World countries.

Not surprisingly, the new loyalty and “partnership” did not fulfil many of the expectations. Today, two decades after the initial political distancing from the Third World collective, one can observe that the now “aligned” “ex-Yu” successor states have their national sovereignty curtailed and the economies are in a dependency mode. This situation is accentuated by their small size and weakness of their economies and domestic markets. It can thus be argued that the prevailing situation in the West Balkans is rather similar to that in many developing countries—geopolitically, politically, economically, socially and develop-ment-wise—and that, objectively, the “ex-Yu” successor states also belong to the developing countries’ family of nations.

The Third World is more variegated, frag-mented and often disunited in terms of everyday policies and practices than in the past. Never-theless, the developing countries continue to act as a group after more than 50 years of concerted action in the international arena. Their willing-ness to belong to, act and identify with this broad and varied grouping and the affinity and solidarity they exhibit are due to a series of factors, including levels of (under) development and challenges they give rise to; the history of having been colonised, aggressed and exploited by foreign powers; the state of being marginalised and excluded from the key policy-making and decisions that concern them and the entire international community; continued economic ties of dependence on the North, including external debt bondage; various forms of political submission and, in general, vulnerability to foreign interference in domestic affairs, often a diktat of national policies; and exposure to economic and political pressures, even open intervention and military aggression, including for the purpose of “change of government or regime” in case of “misbehaviour”, “disobe-dience”, or “excessive autonomy” of policy and action.
In different degrees, these traits are shared or situations experienced by the successor states of Yugoslavia. The fragmentation of what used to be a sizeable and diversified domestic economy of 25 million people, a dogmatic application of neo-liberal, one-fit-all, recipes—including disem-powering and disembowelling of the state; privatising and dismantling of public property, common goods and services; weakening of the developmental, social and economic roles of the state and placing it in the service of private interests and capital; renouncing of self-reliance and opening, wholesale, small, non-competitive economies to foreign goods, services, capital and investors—have all contributed to destabilising those societies and economies and weakening their foundations.

This was compounded by the “transition” process of wholesale dismantling of the socialist state and economy, crude application of “economy-in-transition” recipes for socio-economic overhaul and lack of adequate knowledge and experience for dealing with novel requirements, resulting, inter alia, in: deindustria-lisation and weakening of national S&T capa-bilities; foreign investors’ cherry picking through takeover of key sectors of the economy, for example, banking, mobile telecommunications, distribution of finished petrol products, extraction of renewable and non-renewable natural resources; and acquiring of bankrupted public or privatised companies at “firesale” prices.

The double-barrelled “reform” led, among other things, to depriving large strata of population of social security; high levels of unemployment; widespread and growing poverty; concentration of wealth in the hands of a small coterie of operators and entrepreneurs; steadily mounting external indebtedness, in absolute terms and relative to the GNP; weake-ning of national defence capabilities; progressive militarisation of the region by the eastward expanding NATO; and growing criminalisation and corruption of societies. In sum, it produced situations different from the development and sovereignty ideals and hopes that their peoples had been led to believe in and expect when the new journey was embarked on.
Today the successor states tend to find themselves in text-book situations of dependence, common to many Third World countries. They experience growing tutelage, conditionalities and cross-conditionalities from the centre: multi-laterally, via (the EU, MFIs, NATO, etc.); bilate-rally, through development assistance and the proactive embassies of key Western powers that have arrogated to themselves the right to provide guidance and detailed instructions to the new capitals regarding economic, social, defence, security, foreign-policy and governance matters and choices; and also indirectly via the market, services, education, media and information.

A barely masked contempt for the region on the part of developed “partners” exists. While considered of vital strategic importance due to its European location, it is also seen as a backward, underdeveloped, primitive periphery, where “balkanisation” and corruption are rife and endemic. This is a space to be retaken, subdued and “civilised”.

In fact, it can be argued that, in some ways, there has been a return to situations that prevailed in times past, with the West Balkans once again becoming a wide open playing field for realpolitik games of the powerful, games with global causes and implications. Today, the successor states, to paraphrase Montenegrin poet and ruler Njegos’ proverbial verses about the 18th century emerging states in the region, are much like single straws blown by powerful winds (“slamka medju vihorove”), facing the perpetual dilemma or curse of which empire to bow and declare loyalty to (“kome ce se prikloniti carstvu”).

As in the past, the presence and influence of exogenous players is facilitated by the centrifugal domestic forces that seek their support in internal affairs and disputes, and who see “alignment” of value for winning elections and staying in power. The new political and geopolitical set-up provides ample opportunity for involvement of outside actors, who can and do use for their own ends the obliging and/or weak domestic political forces and factions. This can accentuate negative and conflictual aspects of what remains a highly volatile situation, with simmering internal divisions and tensions, including ethnic, religious, class and regional, stirred up by the multiparty system and competition for power, and public drama enacted via the media.

The “alignment” prevailing today in the West Balkans, which has been exacted and imposed by the North, is a reflection of its global strategy directed at weak states in the South. Indeed, it can be argued that the case of Yugoslavia’s break-up, and what has followed to the present day, was of broader significance. It was a prominent, early pilot case for testing and getting the world public opinion and policy-makers accustomed or resigned to the interventionist, aggressive doctrine of planetary, full-spectrum dominance which denies the right to sovereignty and independence of weaker countries that veer in a significant way from or challenge policies favoured by or national interest of hegemonic powers. In this political environment the only alternative available to the weak states is that considered as the right one by the North.

Rebuilding Bridges with the Third World, in the Quest for Common Goals

THE above “diagnosis” may appear as somewhat harsh, but, broadly, it reflects the conditions in the West Balkans. The governing elites and general public in the successor states need to recognise and understand this situation and, importantly, how it is related to and caused by the wider global setting and existing world system. Thus, in their strategies, actions and respective policy orientation, they should identify commonalities, experiences and objectives shared with the developing countries.

This should serve as a basis for closer cooperation with the South, in the framework of the United Nations and other international organizations, and for strengthening ties with regional and sub-regional groupings in the South, as well as bilaterally with all developing countries. Such ties would help open important and diversified development opportunities for the “ex-Yu” successor states and enlarge their policy space in the global and UN arenas. It would, undoubtedly, provide some relief from excessive “patronage” and dependence on the North, whose “squid-like embrace” and multi-faceted influence, including its larger-scale geopolitical stratagems and agendas, reach deep into every pore and sphere of their national being and life.

The preceding generations had struggled to overcome the situation of political and economic marginality of a “client state”. This struggle, which still has resonance among the people, needs to be resumed in the novel conditions of the 21st century globalised or globalisation realpolitik, where corporate actors and financial capital play key roles and the North, in advancing its own interests and agenda, relies on its S&T advantage, including in communication and military domains, and uses various forms of “soft power”, such as dominance of inter-national organisations, concepts and discourse, including the design and implementation of global rules of the game, control of global media and the information system, and direct influence on national policies of individual countries.

Is the proposed option feasible given the vulnerabilities and dependence of the small states that have surfaced following the disappearance of Yugoslavia and the massive presence and direct involvement of major powers and exogenous actors, now firmly (re)installed, which consider the West Balkans to be their own backyard, an intercontinental crossroads and a geo-strategic region of Europe in which they have a very special interest and inherent claims?

Suggesting such reorientation is likely to be considered politically improper or simply unrealistic in view of the current circumstances, the prevailing state of mind, especially among the young who grew up in the “post-Yu” environment, the dogmas of the new politically correct worldview, or the conditioning and re-education of the public opinion that has taken place during the last two decades since the demise of Yugoslavia. The striking absence of national leaders, strong parties and organised political discourse of the Left in this region reduces chances of such an approach being advocated or forcefully pursued.

It is, however, an issue that needs to be raised and discussed, and it is heartening that some moves towards reviving the links with the South are being made. Nothing precludes closer economic and political cooperation with the majority of humankind that lives in the Third World, and with whom the West Balkans countries have so much in common. Remaining afloat in the existing economic and political environment is a challenge they all face and they can share relevant knowledge, experience and expertise. Indeed, such knowledge and insights could have been very useful to the “ex-Yu” successor states as they embarked, some-what “green”, on development and governance approaches prescribed by the North.

Nor should the “ex-Yu” successor states shun from openly identifying with the global demo-cratisation, equity and emancipation goals that the developing countries, as a collective, have traditionally championed. These countries’ uphill struggle for development and national sover-eignty continues. Today they face the global power politics of unipolarity, which go against the basic democratic principles of the UN Charter and which target and affect the weak in particular. Tomorrow they may be confronted by the global power politics of multipolarity, which, in spite of the inherent risk of several love-making elephants trampling on the grass, could provide them with greater policy space and freedom of manoeuvre.

The leaders and general public of the “ex-Yu” successor states should be familiar with the countries of the Third World, their achievements and the challenges they face. It is also desirable to re-establish physical and political presence in the countries of the South. In view of the high costs of national representation in so many states, the idea could be pursued of setting up in individual developing countries, or sub-regions, a common “West-Balkans” or “ex-Yu house”, as a shared facility. Here, successor states could have their office or an honorary consul, as a means of keeping open direct channels of communication and promoting cooperation.

Identifying and recognising common objectives and principles shared with the South in the global arena is called for, as well as establishing ties of cooperation with the NAM and G77 in their efforts to advance these in the United Nations and other international fora.

To initiate steps in the proposed direction would require political courage, because of the disapproval by dominant powers and the likely outcry from some domestic quarters. Such steps, if perceived as genuine and not purely instrumental (for example, business and investment benefits only), would be welcomed in countries of the Third World. And not only by them, but also by the democratic forces of the international community that perceive the symbolic and potential significance of the West Balkans on the world geopolitical map—where East, West, North and South meet and inter-mingle—for shaping the future of international relations and global governance.

Taking part in the struggle for global causes together with the developing countries would earn the “ex-Yu” successor states a more respected place on the global stage. It would relieve their governments and peoples, to a degree, from the feeling of being unimportant and at the mercy of those with power, money, or other superior means, a situation that was transcended during the period of their living and acting as one country in the post-World War II period.

As they experience frustration of being too small and peripheral, their yearning for appreciation by the international community has intensified. Trying to be a good student, getting a pat on the head and obtaining “brownie points” from the North for behaving and following its script is not a sufficient cause for national joy and pride, or indeed, grounds for global distinction. As a consolation, the public at large and often governments turn to the arena of sports where through exploits of individuals or teams, it is still possible to aspire to national greatness and global fame.

The Third World is a natural partner for the West Balkans states in their quest for develop-ment and dignified sovereignty. Today, the developing countries account for four-fifths of humankind. South-South cooperation offers an important potential and opportunity for the West Balkans states to diversify their develop-ment options, in addition to their ties with the North, and diminish dependence on the traditional centres of power, whose imperialist instincts and global designs continue unabated.

Some may question whether the notion of non-alignment, that is, the freedom of thought, policy and action, insubordination vis-à-vis hegemony of power politics and refusal to belong to a bloc, is possible or pays off for weak countries, especially in the present day and age. It is certainly needed and corresponds to the basic, unfulfilled premises of democratisation of international relations and system.
The non-alignment posture was a natural choice for Yugoslavia given its own and the region’s turbulent and often violent history at the crossroads of “civilisations”. What can be learned from its experience, break-up, and what has followed in the West Balkans since, offers insights that can be useful not only for charting the future of the region, but also for evolving a democratic, equitable, non-hegemonic and non-exploitative world order, the still distant goal posted at the time of creation of the United Nations seven decades ago and sought by the Global South.

Till recently the Acting Director of the South Centre, Geneva, and a UN official working in the area of environment, Branislav Gosovic is the author of The Quest for World Environmental Cooperation: The Case of the UN Global Environment Monitoring System, Routledge, London and New York, 1002.

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