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All Tito's Men Couldn't Put Yugoslavia Back Together Again : Balkans: The West's wishful thinking and pious assertions of the need for political stability won't stop the fighting. Let the republics go in peace.

July 07, 1991|Alex Alexiev | Alex Alexiev writes frequently on Soviet and Eastern European affairs

As the Ottoman Empire--universally known as the "sick man of Europe"--was disintegrating in the mid-19th Century, a French foreign minister was asked why the Western powers continued to support it. "Because" he replied, "the Ottoman Empire is the status quo."

A similarly faulty rationale appears to underlie Washington's and the West's support for the present-day "sick man of Europe"--Yugoslavia. Now, as then, wishful thinking and pious assertions of the need for political stability, whatever the cost, will do little to save a state doomed by history.

Glaring Western misperceptions of the inevitability of the historical processes unfolding in Yugoslavia are evident in the vacuous statements issued by the State Department and its counterparts in Europe. It is not unreasonable to argue that the brutal crackdown by the Yugoslav People's Army in Slovenia was, in part, encouraged by the conviction among military hard-liners in Belgrade that the West would countenance most anything to keep Yugoslavia intact. A Western about-face on Yugoslavia policy is all but certain now that scores have been killed and wounded in the fighting in Slovenia.

Still, the attitudes that produced the ill-conceived policy show clearly that the West is yet to understand that the much-touted "new order" in Europe, brought about by the collapse of communism, cannot be built from remnants--such as Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union--of the old order. To support these anachronistic structures is perhaps the best way to make sure that they will come down violently rather than crumble away peaceably.

That modern Yugoslavia is a remnant of the communist era is indisputable. The intellectual concept Yugoslavia--the Land of the South Slavs--was first given political form in the wake of World War I and the disintegration of Austria-Hungary, when the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians, later transformed into the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, was founded. From the beginning, it was a flawed entity: Many south Slavs were excluded, many non-Slavs included. Moreover, its component nationalities exhibited a wide range of religious, cultural and historical differences and antagonisms that undermined the raison d'etre of the new country.

Some 20 years later, the state disintegrated under the Nazi onslaught, and a bloody interlude of fratricide followed. Croatian fascists, now masters in their own rump state, slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Serbs, while Josip Tito's Communists were seemingly more zealous in exterminating non-communists than in fighting the Nazis. When Tito's partisans, with Western help, emerged victorious, they resurrected Yugoslavia as the most convenient form of imposing communism on the war-torn country.

Tito, an orthodox Communist, soon became "our" Communist after he quarreled with Josef Stalin, receiving large amounts of Western largess and political good will. By Soviet standards, Tito's communist system was benign, but hardly benevolent. The Communist Party was dominant, the secret police ubiquitous and dissent suppressed.

Nor were the Yugoslav rulers able to ameliorate deep-seated ethnic and national animosities, or to foster a new Yugoslav identity. The republics were given considerable autonomy under communist auspices, but national strivings were dealt with harshly and unceremoniously. As a result, some 40 years after its creation, communist Yugoslavia still lacked enough legitimacy and cohesion to survive a serious crisis. In the last census, in 1981, less than 5% of the population identified themselves as a Yugoslav.

The crisis whose culmination we are witnessing today began after the death of Tito, in 1980. The communist patriarch's passing, however, was not the only reason. The Yugoslav political system, having lost its ideological fervor long ago, gradually ossified and, as in other East European countries, became increasingly marked by bureaucratization, nepotism and inertia. Its economy--a strange brew of government control, local autonomy, "self-management" and half-baked reforms--slowly deteriorated; by the mid-1980s, the inflation rate was 2000%.

In such conditions, old grievances, ethnic animosities and nationalist agendas burst to the surface with a vengeance. Widening cleavages between the rich North and the poor South, the Catholic West and the Orthodox East, combined with age-old conflicts between the half-dozen main ethnic groups, made for an explosive mixture. The spark that ignited it was probably the conscious propagation of nationalism by the leadership of the largest republic, Serbia, as a kind of substitute ideology.

Serbia has always considered itself first among equals in Yugoslavia and the guarantor of the unitary state. The other "equals" see it as a heavy-handed power with hegemonic ambitions. These perceptions have been reinforced by Serbia's special role as the home of the most conservative communist leadership and of the bulk of the hard-line communists who run the federal army and the security organs.

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