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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2008 > October 11, 2008 > Yugo-Nostalgie

Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 43


For a Comprehensive Approach to the Problems of the West Bankans

Friday 17 October 2008, by Branislav Gosovic


I. Missing Dimensions

The past, present and future challenges and problems that concern the “West Balkans”—now used to denote the former republics of the SFR of Yugoslavia that have emerged as sovereign states from this country’s break-up—cannot be understood fully unless analysed within the broader context of world politics and with appropriate recognition of Yugoslavia’s post-World War II role and place in the global arena.

When this complex and controversial problématique is discussed in scholarly literature, the geo-political perspective is seldom given the importance and attention it deserves. The role of exogenous actors and forces among the significant factors of this country’s violent disintegration is usually denied or ignored. This dimension is also mostly absent in clichés and standardised explanations used in the mainstream policy discourse, or conveyed to the broad public, especially via the media.

The dominant analysis concerning Yugoslavia, both in the West Balkans and internationally, is generally negative and tends to belittle its record and experience. The country is treated as a deviation and a failed state, to be blamed for its own predicament and deserving to be relegated to the dustbin of history.

The above two closely interrelated blind spots in analysis, public perception, and debate, are not accidental. Yugoslavia was meant to be forgotten, while how and why it was eventually consumed by its internal conflicts had to be understood in a given, prescribed manner. A resulting explanation, imposed by the currently dominant unipolar, global power configuration, is a reflection of political preferences, ideological orientation and a framework of analysis that the new geo-political reality projects and seeks to impose worldwide, including in the European theatre and in its West Balkans-specific context. The choreography, control and management of analyses, knowledge, facts and information applied in the case of Yugoslavia were early instances of a significant dimension of unipolarity and globalisation, namely, that of a systematic configuration of public discourse and the shaping of world public opinion by the global power centres of the North.

A fuller understanding of the situation in this highly exposed and coveted strategic crossroads is called for. A holistic approach to Yugoslavia’s vanishing, and to what has taken place since then would be welcomed by many in the West Balkans. It would also be appreciated internationally, especially in developing countries where Yugoslavia enjoyed respect. Many in these countries felt affinity with Yugoslavia. They remain dissatisfied and skeptical of official “truths” and prevailing analyses available internationally, which emanate almost exclusively from Northern sources and reflect the official policy line and outlook of key developed countries, focusing selectively on domestic factors, failings and culprits.

The trajectory of Yugoslavia, starting with 1941, needs to be seen and explained from a global perspective. Yugoslavia played a role in North-South and East-West conflicts. It was a socialist country and a developing country. Its saga needs to be analysed in the context of its quest for development, including its efforts to evolve a specific nationally derived model. It strove to maintain its sovereignty and dignity, and to participate in and play a role in the management of world affairs. This is an aspiration common to the overwhelming majority of humankind living in developing countries, which are affected by and vitally dependent on the external environment.

The story of Yugoslavia’s fall is of wider significance. It concerns the nature of the evolving global order, how it is managed and will be managed, and by whom. It is of particular relevance for the countries of the South.

This story is also of significance for the peoples of former Yugoslavia, for their efforts at reconciliation and their cooperation. Each of these peoples has been served a different, selective and self-serving version of the turn of events and of the responsibilities involved, much like in the classic Japanese film Rashomon. In spite of differences, the nationalist variants that are dominant today have one thing in common, that of being hostile to post- World War II Yugoslavia, ideologically adverse to what it stood for, dismissive of its achievements and record, and assigning to it the blame for what happened.

The peoples of the West Balkans have been under the influence of and often entrapped by nationalist rhetoric, atavism and mythology, by local patriotism and chauvinism, and by events or characteristics specific to their parochial settings. They have also been exposed to and swayed by the tenets of neo-liberal globalisation and promises of a wonderland awaiting them just around the corner through the so-called transition. They generally have an inadequate grasp of, and cannot assess critically, the larger picture and how it relates to the events in their former country and indeed to their own lives today. Incomplete or skewed knowledge makes it easier to channel local political discourse and public opinion in a manner that sustains divisions, tension and mistrust and undermines efforts to rebuild links and to renew cooperation.

A broader analysis would be beneficial especially to younger generations that have grown up in the post-Yugoslavia period, which has been characterised by efforts to erase from collective memory anything positive about this country, whose ghost continues to be seen as politically menacing by the new establishments. Brought up in the new environment, young people have little awareness and knowledge of Yugoslavia and of its place in the global system. They are mostly exposed to its negative and one-sided portrayals that ignore or discredit its significance and distort its record, while emphasising issues that serve nationalist purposes and goals and/or demonstrate the superiority of the new order and state of affairs.

II. Yugoslavia’s Role Recalled

IT needs to be recalled that Yugoslavia occupied an important place and played a role in the post-World War II global order, beyond its real power and economic weight. Its political orientation, the policies that it advocated and what it stood for under its then leadership and socio-economic system were of more than local significance and had an appeal beyond its borders. It showed that ideas, principles and objectives of universal value matter and can endow even a small country with a global presence and a degree of moral and political influence in the international arena.

Among the elements that accounted for Yugoslavia’s relevance and image that it projected were the following:

• The uprising in 1941, followed by the epic People’s Liberation War (the only militarily significant home-grown resistance during World War II in occupied Europe) against the superior and dominant Nazi and Fascist aggressors (who, it might be recalled, broke up and carved the country among themselves, some of their local collaborators and also some neighbouring countries, and actively fomented inter-ethnic and inter-religious conflicts). The People’s Liberation War, which was accompanied with nation-building and a social revolution, served as a reference to many at the beginning of the age of liberation movements, popular rebellions and armed struggle against colonial powers in the Third World.

• “Brotherhood and unity” and solidarity, as underlying principles of a multicultural, multi-ethnic, secular federation founded on the equality of the six constituent republics, which replaced the pre-war monarchy and unitary state, were of interest to the newly emerging countries, many of which also consisted of a patchwork of national and ethnic groups, and faced the challenges of statehood and nation-building following their liberation from colonial rule.

• In the post-war period, fundamental socio-economic reforms, a system change, national mobilisation and domestic self-reliance in rebuilding and lifting out of underdevelopment a predominantly agricultural country and launching its society and natural resources-based economy onto a path of industrialisation, transformation and modernisation of agriculture, and infra-structural development, as well as providing a wide strata of the population with secure livelihoods, employment, social services, social benefits and education, all appealed to the countries facing the challenges of independence, nation-building, development and modernisation.

• In 1948, and the aftermath, its resistance and standing up to the hegemonic designs of one superpower to dominate it, including through threats of a military invasion, to turn it into a marionette and determine its national politics and choices, and more generally its refusal in the period that followed to be drawn into military alliances or bloc politics and become a client-state or satellite of anyone, endowed it with a global standing and respect, planting one of the early seeds of the policy of non-alignment.

• Its playing a major role in inspiring, establishing and making functional the Non-Aligned Movement and the Group of 77, both of which embody the shared, collective aspirations of the developing countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, thrust it into an active and prominent position in the world arena. Over the years it came to be perceived as one of the leading proponents of the Third World struggle for: economic and political independence; territorial integrity and non-interference in domestic affairs; influence and role in the multilateral arena; placing development at the centre of global concerns, and changing the inequitable structures and processes of the dominant world order. It also worked for a strong Organisation of the United Nations, based on the democratic participation/representation of the member-states and multilateralism, serving both as a global rampart against hegemony, unilateralism and militarism of the powerful, as well as the institutional platform to bolster the influence and power of the small, weak and marginalised majority of its member-states in their quest for a new equitable international economic and political order, and a change in the global structural status quo that in more ways than one remained rooted in the age of power politics, colonialism and imperialism.

• In attempting a pioneering, home-grown search for an alternative socio-economic model of development, including direct, popular participation and citizens’ role in socio-economic decision-making— as a basic human right— through workers’ self-management and novel forms of social ownership in the economy, differing from traditional forms of private and/or state ownership, as well as decentralisation and devolution of state functions to the local level. Some of these efforts attracted more than academic attention.

However, these very traits that accounted for Yugoslavia’s relevance and influence during decades were also seen by some as a challenge,
including to the global system and structures

under their control. These traits were openly disapproved and belittled in the world arena with the changes brought about by the ascendance of neo-liberal globalisation, resurgence and dominance by the political Right, and the major geo-political shifts at the end of the Cold War, including the collapse of the East Bloc and of its attempted challenge to the world system. The above was accompanied and underpinned by a new intellectual construct, a politically and ideologically correct global “party line”, propagated in public discourse, and diffused via the media, learning and educational systems. Locally, in the West Balkans, the newly emerging political forces had, or showed little sympathy for the orientation of their ex-country and, in their desire to be fully in tune with and to prove their full conversion to the new outlook, did their best to distance the new states issued out of Yugoslavia from those aspects that made their former country of relevance in the global context, including by changing the historical record.

III. Yugoslavia as a Microcosm

YUGOSLAVIA was a developing country. It represented a microcosm, a global crossroads of sorts, where, in a relatively small geographic space, a broad range of problems, challenges and conflicts that concern the contemporary world, and figure centrally on the global UN agenda, were manifested and converged.

It straddled the interface between the East and the West, between the North and the South, and between development and underdevelopment. It was also a rather unique sector on the European continent where differences in religion, language, and cultures, as well as ethnic differences and conflicts intertwined and coexisted in a challenging historical and geographic environment. Its regions ranged from those that were relatively highly developed to those that were underdeveloped and where patriarchal lifestyles still prevailed, with North-South divides within the country often superimposed and coinciding with other divisions.

Thus, what transpired in Yugoslavia and has continued to affect the West Balkans can also be seen as acting out some of the main challenges that are of planetary significance and relevance.

Yugoslavia was not merely another “trouble spot”, an unsuccessful economic and social development model, or indeed a failed “experiment” in nation-building and modernisation. It was also a window into the many challenges and fractures that affect the contemporary world, in particular the pursuit of geopolitics of dominance and expansion, the troubled relations between the North and the South, the so-called “clash of civilisations”, as well as the tensions between the market economy and society, and controversies regarding the role of the state and global governance.

Its crisis, and how it was dealt with, was a prelude to and a testing range for events elsewhere soon thereafter under the aegis of the new unipolar world order and rising unilateralism and the hegemony of power. It foretold the possibility of conflicts and processes involving similar problems and controversies that led to spiralling violence and took this country apart, occurring not only in vulnerable countries and regions, but also at the global level.

What happens in developing countries is subject to the influence and interference (uninvited or invited) of outside forces and powers, from near and from afar, today even more so than in the past. With the globe as a playing field, most of the time such intrusion is not inspired by the best interests of those who live in a given geographic location. Nor is it guided by some higher values and objectives that are of interest to the world community or are embodied in the UN Charter and other instruments of international public law, noble-sounding and skilfully packaged public declarations notwithstanding. Rather, national interests, global objectives and often the base motivations of the dominant powers inspire such interference. It has become systematic and pervasive, and affects all spheres of governance and of political, economic, social and cultural life of those many countries that are exposed and at the receiving end.

In a world of unipolarity this exposure to dominant powers has greatly intensified. It is bolstered by concepts, usually first articulated by the Northern think-tanks and intellectuals, backing up their countries’ global strategies. Such concepts as “end of sovereignty”, “preventive war”, or the “duty to intervene” are then anointed with legitimacy, often with the help of international commissions and through the United Nations, and are used selectively, especially against the weaker indocile states, that have no one to turn to for support in what is by definition a highly lopsided match.

Indeed, the dominant powers, relying on their global reach that extends into all spheres of life and existence, now claim for themselves the right to defend and protect their interests against threats anywhere—real, imaginary, fabricated or provoked—by the unilateral use of force, and by any means, including military retaliation, sanctions and all types of pressures. The room for manoeuvre and autonomous policy choice of the developing countries in both domestic and foreign affairs has therefore shrunk markedly. Furthermore, the neo-liberal globalisation process, in combination with a “missionary” drive by all means available, including military force, to spread “democratisation” worldwide, both with a “one-size-fits-all” prescription and their mechanistic, often forced, dogmatic transplantation, has multiplied and diversified points of pressure and direct interference in developing countries and contributed to their vulnerability and growing dependence.

Yugoslavia, in a sense, served as a “guinea pig”, or a laboratory, where initial application and testing of given strategies and policies took place. These were not effectively contested and world public opinion got used to or resigned to them as a fact of life in a unipolar world, including the dismantling and disappearance of what used to be an important country, combined with “regime” and system change. A precedent was created and the door was opened for their application elsewhere, including by targeting countries for destabilisation and fragmentation.

IV. Yugoslavia Unwanted

The SFR of Yugoslavia, what it symbolised and its actions were not necessarily to the liking of the Western powers, or for that matter of the East Bloc, although for its own different reasons. It was considered irksome, in particular, by the conservative establishments in the West. After all, it was openly challenging the dominant system, power structure and underlying paradigms. Its influence among developing countries was not necessarily appreciated. However, though the country was seen as being in the “opposite” or “enemy” camp by the very fact of its non-alignment, and was exposed to continuing open or sub rosa pressures, at the same time it was tolerated and given support, being that it was considered of strategic value in the broader context of the Cold War and the global confrontation between the two superpowers and their respective blocs.

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union on the horizon, which effectively sealed the destiny of Yugoslavia, it was no longer necessary to sympathise with or support, or indeed tolerate this country in its socialist variant. As the marked political shift to the Right in key developed countries and the ascendant neo-liberal globalisation restored and re-legitimised some of the premises of the earlier historical epochs—premises that had been challenged in the post-World War II period, including by the East Bloc and, by the rise of anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism and the struggle of the newly independent nations of the South for autochthonous development, for sovereignty over their natural resources, and for political and economic independence—the so-called “Yugoslav road”, up to then praised in contrast with the rigid system, restrictions on individual freedoms and consumer deprivations prevailing in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, could now be dismissed and the country openly challenged, as part of the overall Cold War victory and the regional settling of accounts.

Thus, three important external elements of Yugoslavia’s stability were no more. First, the collapsing USSR removed a critical geo-political prop on which the country had relied. Secondly, the implosion of the centrally-planned socio-economic model in the East Bloc and the worldwide spread of neo-liberal globalisation also pulled the rug from under Yugoslavia’s efforts to evolve ways that would combine and reconcile the market with the social and political objectives that it espoused as a socialist country. Thirdly, the West was no longer interested strategically in the country and in providing it with support.

By then, the Yugoslav federation having been launched by the 1974 Constitution on a decentralisation road de facto towards a confederation was neck-deep in its internal development- cum-governance crisis. The crisis began to spiral out of control with the onset of the 1980s and the efforts to adapt and adjust to global changes which only deepened the political crisis and exacerbated economic and social conflicts and tensions, most acutely across national and ethnic divides. The notion and concept of Yugoslavia, embodied in the SFR of Yugoslavia, was deprived of meaningful external support and allies that could have helped the country to weather this critical stage, when it was experiencing multiple internal crises. Pressures mounted from strong, well-organised centrifugal forces, acting both from within and without, often in a tacit or even open alliance with one another with the common objective of deconstructing Yugoslavia, to deny the value of its basic principles and its viability as a state.

The smouldering nationalisms were stoked and erupted with vengeance once readmitted into the public and policy arenas. The three major self-righteous nationalist agendas and religions, while all claiming self-defence and innocence, were aggressive and included irredentist and territorial claims. They emerged as the main mobilising force, sidelining other political groupings and effectively neutralising those many citizens that continued to endorse Yugoslavia and the values and goals on which it rested. The use of media and TV for expressing nationalist and religious invective and intolerance, and the nascent multiparty system and elections decentralised to the level of republics and commandeered by nationalist forces, could not but add to tensions in a traditionally volatile political environment and confrontational social culture. Using the democratisation opening to channel the political debate into local nationalist choices and conflicts, in fact helped neutralise and marginalise the still dominant countrywide majority political support for Yugoslavia’s socio-political model and experiment.

The events that engulfed Yugoslavia, propelled by unstoppable, incendiary nationalisms, were thus also a counter-revolution, the restoration of the capitalist-bourgeois social order and regime change, and the turning back of the historical clock. In a manner, they were a delayed episode of World War II and the rewrite of its conclusion in the Balkans, with the Western Allies now supporting the agenda of the political successors of those who belonged to the Axis camp, while turning against the People’s Liberation War and its legacy embodied in the SFR of Yugoslavia. This was in part a consequence of the shift to the Right embodied in the global geopolitical changes and its manifestation in the Yugoslav space. It was also a reflection of the traditional political and ideological affinity of key powerful and influential actors in the West for the domestic forces that were allied with the Axis on the losing side in Yugoslavia in World War II, which were welcomed and enjoyed generous material and financial support in the diaspora.

The irony is that the erupting nationalisms brought together otherwise incompatible bedfellows, from both the Right and the Left, with the latter prioritising nationalist over their broader political agenda. Thus, there was no organised, effective countrywide resistance of the progressive social forces to nationalisms and the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Those on the Left, who did not jump on the nationalist bandwagons in their respective republics, were fragmented and isolated from each other, without effective organisation, theoretically disarmed and politically disunited, and prostrate vis-à-vis the resurgent reactionary, often extremist chauvinist nationalisms, now allied with the rising tide of global capitalism and the instant prosperity for all that it was supposed to bring. As a result and vis-à-vis the combined nationalisms, globalisation and transition tides, to the present day, the Left has no effective voice or presence on the post-Yugoslav scene.

One is thus led to observe that it is the progressive political orientation that provided the foundations and a vision that maintained post-World War II Yugoslavia. The global shift to the Right, and its multiple consequences thus undermined both the external and domestic pillars of the country’s stability.

Indeed, one of the reasons why Yugoslavia managed to thrive in peace and be relatively stable during almost five decades was precisely that it did not have to make a deeply divisive geopolitical choice for its many peoples, namely, of jumping into the lap of the Western camp, or into the bear hug of the Soviet bloc, and by its, so to say, “belonging to the world” by pursuing the non-alignment policy and maintaining a safe distance from the global powers. Today, this choice, which now appears in the form of the “civilised” and “democratic” West and the still “pagan” and “authoritarian” East—now both solidly capitalist—continues as a source of conflict in some of the new states themselves. Yugoslavia also managed to do well thanks to its efforts not to fall into the free market or centrally planned modes of economic and social organisation, and by trying to steer a middle course, thus buffering highly divisive ideological conflicts, social strife and the political volatility that these issues and choices generate domestically, as is the case today.

Both of the above underlying, overlapping dilemmas, by erupting into the open and becoming a matter of political choice, only added impetus to the nationalist agendas and tensions, which could not be contained or managed by the weakened, disunited and disoriented central federal authority and party, vis-à-vis the emboldened and empowered centres in the republics.

Yugoslavia’s domestic problems and conflicts, failures and oversights, the structural dilemmas of the federation and strategic errors made over the decades, including well-intentioned reforms that were taken advantage of and abused by the forces of disintegration, and indeed the personalities and leaders involved, have been amply described and debated, and are not of concern in this essay. However, the domestic factors, while a “necessary” condition, were not by themselves a “sufficient” condition for the demise of the country. The external factors and environment played a critical role as well. The two in combination made up the “necessary and sufficient” conditions that accounted for Yugoslavia’s break-up. This fundamental fact has been downplayed, or categorically rejected, especially by the exogenous actors that were directly and deeply involved in the tragedy that befell this country and its peoples, and which they could have helped to avoid.

The factors of a general character related to the external environment included: the external-debt crisis and the destabilising structural adjustments that sapped the country’s economic strength and reflected unfavourably on the standards of living and the predisposition of the common people and, gave rise to multiple acute feuds among the constituent republics and autonomous provinces over the macro-economic policies and how to divide the shrinking pie. This often pitted different groups in multi-ethnic local settings against each other in competition for jobs and employment. The geopolitical changes sweeping the planet, including the changing dominant political and economic outlook and the balance of power, also played significant roles.

The manner in which Yugoslavia’s chronic difficulties and problems, which extended over a period of years before the final break-up, were approached and dealt with by the international community, namely, the key powers and their leaders, with their attitudes, hidden agendas and calculations, often sheer ignorance and lack of appreciation of the local complexities, was also an important exogenous factor in the crisis.

Most importantly and centrally however, had the European countries assumed a positive, enlightened, pre-emptive, economically generous approach and opened in a timely manner the door for Yugoslavia’s entry into the EFTA and EEC (which was not the case as most of the members of these two regional groupings were not prepared to consider this possibility), or had the major Western powers taken a firm position regarding the imperative need to maintain the country’s territorial integrity—and not encouraged and allowed secession, or taken the sides of and favoured some nationalisms against others instead of defending Yugoslavia—the violent break-up of the country could have been avoided, the subsequent wars would not have taken place, and the pending transition and democratisation processes managed more purposefully and made less traumatic.

A positive and constructive approach by the international community and insistence on a gradual resolution of the accumulated problems within Yugoslavia as a single state would have spared the country and many of its peoples the tragedies that befell them because of the break-up and the wars that resulted. And it would have made it possible for the country to resume economic growth and development in a common, possibly modified framework, including eventually by joining the European Union, which was on the horizon.

But it was probably wishful to think that such a positive approach could have materialised. There was a marked absence of global statesmanship and vision and no genuine international effort or interest among key players to help channel domestic problems in the direction of a peaceful resolution within the framework of one country. Rather, Yugoslavia, steered by its then leaders, was allowed and assisted to go over the brink. The raging conflicts were an opportunity to exercise on European soil the emerging doctrine of humanitarian interventionism (or “ingerence” in its original French formulation), which has been also referred to, somewhat less kindly, as “humanitarian imperialism”.
The events in Yugoslavia were the harbinger of the nascent unipolar new world order, of unilateralism and interventionism in the projection and exercise of power, of the double standards applied by the dominant actors, and of the erosion of some basic principles of the UN Charter. Fateful decisions affecting others were taken by the leaders of the dominant powers, often lightly and based on their own priorities, mistaken, falsified or tendentious analyses, and ignoring or overlooking the consequences, including in human lives and misery.

Openly, or less so, some of the important international players had cast their preferences with and given open political, spiritual, material and even military support to some nationalist groups and their agendas, including plans for secession from the common state, a repeat of sorts of the World War II scenario in these latitudes.

Others did not show their cards, or were content to see the ongoing processes continue, while reiterating in public the need to maintain the integrity of the country. Still others traded away this declared support and agreed to bless its dismemberment in exchange for bilateral economic concessions in the context of the Maastricht Treaty negotiations. A mechanistic application of democratic instrumentalities and a legalistic approach to highly conflictive issues in complex environments under the impulse of foreign powers only aggravated the situation.

Under the gloss of positive rhetoric, with a good deal of wringing of hands and the convenient excuse of les jeux sont faits, the key powers and others were looking forward to the post-conflict period. Regaining control of the fragmented economic and political space in this geo-politically strategic region was a welcome prospect and an unstated objective. Their influence was assured via sponsorship of the emerging, weak mini-states, which were sure to be eager and indeed had no other option but to seek their support and fall once more into their tight embrace.

The situation was somewhat reminiscent of earlier epochs, especially the pre- and World War I times, when the major players engaged in the carving up of countries and wilful interventionism, a pattern of behaviour that was more difficult to pursue while the bipolar situation after World War II lasted, and with the UN and its Charter playing important roles.

Yugoslavia’s break-up and dismemberment was going to be, as it eventually turned out, an important side benefit of the Cold War victory for the Western powers, including régime and socio-economic system change. Yet, this was achieved at a very high and unnecessary local cost in human life and personal tragedy of mostly innocent and helpless people, in physical destruction, especially at the very centre of the country where the contending reactionary nationalisms, animated to a significant degree by the three religions and their political allies, intertwined and pressed on with mutually incompatible claims, including territorial ones, in a difficult situation of negative economic growth and development, and all taking place in an overarching context of contending ideological paradigms.

It meant that these powers could move in now as peace-makers, to intercede between the antagonistic groups, and eventually as direct participants in the conflicts and in determining their outcomes. This, incidentally, served a useful purpose not only of testing new weapons and systems, but also to establish a solid foothold in this up-to-then off-limits, carefully guarded “non-aligned” Third World space in the middle of Europe, and to modify the geopolitical map.

It also meant regaining full access to these lands, in a region they considered and treated traditionally until the end of World War II as their own proximate periphery and sphere of influence, and to its many natural and strategic resources. And it meant that after many decades this geographical space would be once more fully open to the economic, political, military, cultural and religious presence and domination by exogenous powers and forces, some with a long and questionable history of previous involvement locally, including through war, territorial conquest and occupation, and with influential segments of their publics still holding revanchist grudges and territorial claims.

Only lip service was paid to the need to maintain Yugoslavia as a single country and no significant player from the North took its side, while the UN General Assembly, representing the collectivity of nations, was quiescent and marginalised. An important UN member country was simply written off, this in itself being a major violation of the UN Charter and international law. Its viability as a state was denied. Western academics, who have largely dominated the scholarship on Yugoslavia, have produced a good deal of intellectual ammunition as to why Yugoslavia was an artificial (Wilsonian) creation and not a viable state, had no reason to exist and should be broken up, as if to ease the conscience of the political circles for their actions, or absence of action. For decades, these arguments were hardly present in the mainstream academic literature, except among the far-Right and Cold Warrior academics. These ideas emerged from the woodwork and were catapulted into the front line by the changing political environment and the ascendance to power of the Right-of-the-Centre political forces in the key countries of the North. It should be noted that these arguments were made consistently by the nationalist immigrant groups which had sided with the Axis during World War II. In the post-War period, as diaspora in exile, they were nurtured and financed by key Western powers and their secret services, as their ideological and political allies waiting for the appropriate moment to come. In fact, they were an important realpolitik instrument used in the Cold War struggle, where pitting of nationalisms and religions against one another and the break-up and division of Yugoslavia, much as was done by the Axis powers during World War II, was an important strategic option. Funding by proxy the spread of fundamentalist Islam in the 1980s that affected parts of Yugoslavia, where secularism and religious tolerance and moderation had prevailed earlier, was part and parcel of a broader destabilisation strategy of a similar nature. Thus, the very construct of Yugoslavia that was forged through the resistance and war against the Axis powers was in fact targeted and besieged throughout the post-World War-II period.

Once disintegration processes and verbal aggressions, provocations and physical hostilities between key actors had reached an advanced stage, a legal rationale for a state in dissolution was elaborated by a commission of distinguished legal experts at the request of the European Community, to provide a justification for Yugoslavia’s dismemberment and help make it a fait accompli. Indeed, this report was de facto the basis for the internationally pronounced death sentence for the SFR of Yugoslavia that was read out at the Hague Conference in the autumn of 1991, a sentence which, given the nature of the country, the events that had already taken place and the preparations made for the conflict, could not result in a “velvety”, negotiated divorce, as was done in the case of Czechoslovakia, or to a degree in the USSR.

Symptomatically, nothing was done by the international community to recognise publicly the existence, and even less so to give material, political and moral support to those millions of Yugoslavia’s voiceless citizens who were or felt Yugoslav (many of whom could not or did not wish to be boxed into a single ethnic or religious category), were supportive of the community of South Slav peoples and wanted Yugoslavia to continue and survive, were opposed to the nationalist forces and Right-wing agendas that these expounded and the fratricidal conflicts that were bound to follow, and most of all were for peace and against war. Thus, possibly one of the largest “national” categories and a binding tissue of the country, which could have provided the foundation for peace and cooperation, were deliberately ignored. Its importance was belittled and numbers minimised (as was done by nationalists within the country who fully agreed with one another on this matter and used census figures to prove the non-existence of such a core constituency). Its political and human rights were denied while, at the same time, democratic entitlements, including the secession rights of different national groups were proclaimed, encouraged and supported.

Siding with the nationalist forces of disintegration was not accidental or new. The proven and familiar divide et impera strategy, which had wrought tragedy and disarray in this vulnerable part of the world on a number of occasions in the recent and more distant past, was once more openly at work. Traditional strife, historical grudges and feuds among the locals, and the passionate political temperaments fired up by the democratisation process were once again exploited by the major players for advancing their own goals and interests.

The global media, with the notable involvement of the PR companies and the usual presence in the background of the intelligence services, were used and coordinated in support of this strategy, to secure acceptance by the world public opinion of the “story” based on custom-made analyses and explanations, and to keep the UN membership quiet, especially the NAM which normally espouses the principles of national sovereignty and the inviolability of territorial integrity of UN member-states, and non-interference in domestic affairs. The NAM could not adopt a collective stand on this complex matter that gave rise to many dilemmas for its large and diverse membership. In the end, it did not utter a word about the disintegration and sacrifice of one of its founding and important members. This was due inter alia to the religious dimension of the internal Yugoslav conflict, which caused a division between members of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC) and other developing countries in the the NAM. Only a few isolated voices, mostly from Africa and countries with multiethnic and multicultural composition, recognised publicly the deeper implications of the unfolding Yugoslav story and its potential ramifications for countries of the South.

The task was made much easier thanks to the globalisation of media control and the use and manipulation of information as a weapon, making it possible to diffuse and market a scripted story —which by being the only story “in town” became the story that won—including by the use of analyses, information and even carefully chosen and edited photos and other visual and audio materials generated and orchestrated by the same sources in the North.

It was back to the “Balkans” de novo. The “Balkanisation” syndrome of global ill-repute— bottled up for decades and wishfully declared to have been overcome once and for all—was unleashed again. It rebounded with vengeance on the wings of “democratisation” and multiparty politics. The proven incendiary methods—including moral and physical harassment, killing and violence, all of which were widely publicised and whenever possible visually depicted by TV and other media—and nationalist demonology, to which an angry, disoriented and increasingly divided and insecure population was exposed, or sucked into willy-nilly, bore their bitter, familiar fruits.

The big players rushed into the policy vacuum and filled the fragmented space resulting from the break-up of the SFR of Yugoslavia. They were now jockeying for positions of influence and dominance in the framework of peace-keeping and conflict prevention, pursuing those accused of war crimes and meting justice to war criminals, preaching and teaching “governance”, “democracy” and the “market” in their mission civilisatrice in this European frontier region, liberalising, de-industrialising, privatising and reforming local economies according to the Washington Consensus blueprint, creating conditions friendly to foreign investment, reforming the local societies and, in the process consolidating their own positions and influence.

The new independent states born out of Yugoslavia’s break-up found themselves simultaneously in a situation of developing countries (external debt, structural adjustment programmes and the weakening of the state), transition economies (major socio-economic changes, political democratisation, shock therapies, massive privatisation and dismantling of the public sector) and war-torn societies (dislocation of economies, physical and social destruction, ethnic and religious hatred and conflict).

All three conditions implied deep social, economic and political perturbations, rapid and forced changes and, for the overwhelming majority of the population, a significant drop in living standards that had already been stagnant for years. The new states had to internalise, but from a position of weakness and with no questions or dissent allowed, the neo-liberal globalisation orthodoxy prescribed by the global power centre. They were supplicants to join the European Union but found themselves at the very end of the queue, while only a few years earlier Yugoslavia already had an established place and was by far the best prepared and positioned for membership of all potential candidate countries. And they had to face a modified geo-political order, with an eastwardly expanding Western military alliance coveting their territories, one into whose sphere of influence they were now firmly entangled and whose protection and patronage they had to seek, or simply accept.

Thus, a country and its peoples that once prided themselves on a significant degree of independence in all spheres of life and national and international policy, slipped backwards into a historically familiar, inferior and subservient condition of client-states or satellites (“partners” or “allies” in double-speak), indeed protectorates, quite similar to those of many developing countries that had been colonies of the North or continue to be trapped in spheres of influence of developed countries, and of late their global “defence” systems. Today, rather similar to the pre-World War II period, they have willy-nilly to accept a direct and indirect, but always overwhelming, presence of key Western powers in their no longer sovereign national policy space, and being dependent for development on foreign aid, capital and direct investment, and on a NATO military umbrella for defence.

(To be continued)

The author, who holds a Ph.D in Political Science from the University of California, Berkeley, is a retired UN career official. Most recently, that is, from 1991 to 2005, he was in charge of the Secretariat of the South Centre, an intergovernmental think-tank of developing countries.

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