Societal security and the explosion of Yugoslavia

By Håkan Wiberg

Written in late 1992 or early 1993

The Yugoslav crisis since the late 1980s has been one of the most complex in European history. This complexity consists in the multiplicity of sources of conflict behaviour: economic, cultural, political, constitutional, international, etc. It also consists in the “spider web” character of the conflict pattern between political leaderships: interconnected triangular relations with shifting coalitions, each change having effects on the entire pattern.

Academic specialization, journalistic criteria of newsworthiness, political demands for mobilizing simplifications and plain ignorance have interacted in tending to picture the Yugoslav conflicts as a set of isolated bilateral one-issue conflicts, usually also with clear value directions. It will therefore take many years before we see any solid and comprehensive analyses. Trying to anticipate them already now would be hubris.

The present section merely attempts to present some components of the complexity and to highlight some background causes before focusing on how the concept of societal security may contribute to a more comprehensive analysis.

Nations and political units

There were many nationalities in former Yugoslavia; there are still many in most of the units it has broken down into. Let us, however, limit ourselves to those that play a significant role in the conflict processes, looking first at the peoples and then at the territorial units. For several reasons, the numbers given must be taken cum grano salis.

The Serbs
The Serbs share a historical identity going back to the medieval Serbian empire, followed by centuries of struggle against Turkish rule before a small Serbia with some autonomy was recreated in 1815. The increasing autonomy culminated in international recognition as independent in 1878; territorial expansion southwards first liberated all Serb areas from Turkey, then incorporated areas with predominantly Albanian and/or Macedonian population. Many Serbs living in the Habsburg empire, it was only in 1918 that virtually all Serbs lived in one state: the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, renamed Yugoslavia in 1929.

Serbs are Orthodox, whether actively religious or completely secularized. They mostly use the Cyrillic alphabet; most of them can also read the Latin alphabet and some cannot even write in Cyrillic. The church has played a central role in Serbian identity, especially in the Turkish period, when the church represented the Serb nation in the Turkish millet system. In those days, the primary distinction was in terms of religion: “Turks” denoted ethnic Turks as well is Moslem Slavic speakers. The Serbs in former Yugoslavia were distributed as follows: 60 percent in Nuclear Serbia, 16 percent in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 14 percent in Vojvodina, 7 percent in Croatia, 2 percent in Kosovo and small fractions elsewhere.

The Croats
The Croats share a historical identity going back to the so-called Triune Kingdom (Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia) in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was then incorporated into Hungary for 800 years: four centuries in the Hungarian empire, a few generations under Turkish rule and two to three centuries under Habsburg overlordship, the last fifty years with the Hungarians as Herrenvolk. The States Rights confirmed by the Hungarian king in 1102 played a central role in Croatian identity, in particular in early nationalist mobilization since the 1820s, initially focusing on the competence of the sabor (assembly) of the Croatian nobility. Croats, Hungarians and Austrians alike being Catholics, religion played a lesser role in identity, language a larger role.

The Croats first objected to German replacing Latin as administrative language, then strongly resisted attempts at Magyarization after 1867. In those days, there was little reason to differentiate strongly between “Serbian” and “Croatian”, and there was cooperation between grammarians and linguists in setting norms for what was sometimes referred to as “Serbo-Croat”. After 1918, it was primarily religion that set Croats off from Serbs; it therefore came to play a much greater role in identity, at the same time as it became more important than before to differentiate the languages. Four fifths of the Croats in former Yugoslavia lived in Croatia, one sixth in Bosnia-Herzegivina and less that 3 percent in Vojvodina.

The Albanians
Albanians are, at least linguistically, descendants of the ancient Illyrians. Their language with its Tosk and Geg dialect groups is highly distinct from all neighbour languages. Another historical element of identity goes back to the late middle ages and resistance of Albanian principalities against the Turkish invasion. After that, however, most of the Albanians were moslemized, in particular those who lived or became settled in Kosovo and its surroundings; even there, however, there are Christian minorities. Modern Albanian nationalism goes just over a century back in history, and was originally in terms of language and literature, but also in terms of resistance against Serbia and Montenegro taking over Albanian populated areas from Turkey: minor parts in 1878-80, major parts, including all of Kosovo in 1912-13. Three quarters of the Albanians in former Yugoslavia lived in Kosovo, one fifth in Macedonia, 3 percent in Nuclear Serbia and 2 percent in Montenegro.

The Moslems
The Moslems are descendants of bogumils, Serbs and Croats (the relative proportions are highly disputed) that were moslemized after the Ottoman conquest in the fifteenth century; that gave them a privileged position in the Ottoman empire in relation to other Slavic speakers, Orthodox and Catholic. This gave no simple key to political positions in Bosnia-Herzegovina: they fought the Turks in 1830 to block political reforms; in 1861-62, they largely fought with the Turks against a Christian rebellion backed up by Montenegro; in 1875-78, many of them joined the rebellion against Turkey; in late 1878, they were largely alone in an attempt to fight the Austrian occupation.

Whereas “Moslems” has always appeared as a category in statistics of religious groups, it was only in 1974 that citizens could state “Moslem” as nationality in censuses. Five-sixths of the Moslems in former Yugoslavia lived in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 8 percent in Nuclear Serbia and 4 percent in Montenegro (primarily in Sandjak Novipazar straddling these two republics) and 3 percent in Kosovo.

The Slovenes
The Slovenes were a part of the German and Austrian state formations for more than a millenium; they never had an independent state of their own (except, possibly, before the conquest by Charlemagne). Being Catholics (with a Protestant minority), their primary criterion of distinction was their language, which is more similar to Czech than to Serbo-Croat. About two percent of the Slovenes in former Yugoslavia lived outside Slovenia.

The Macedonians
The Macedonians are also South Slavs, speaking a language which (in its normative form) is more similar to Bulgarian than to Serbo-Croat. The area of present Macedonia was alternately a part of the medieval Byzantine and Bulgarian empires before being conquered by the Turks about 1400 A.D. Their Orthodox religion distinguished them from the Turks, and Macedonian nationalism was manifested in rebellions, the major one in 1903 (Ilinden, St. Elijah’s day). About 4 percent only of the Macedonians in former Yugoslavia lived outside Macedonia, primarily in Nuclear Serbia and Vojvodina.

The Montenegrins
The Montenegrins are the descendants of the Zeta Serbs, the only part of the Serbian people that managed to defend its independence against the Turkish invasion. Their identity is strongly based on history and Orthodox religion. Already before World War I, some wanted to join Serbia (the Whites) and some opted for continued independence (the Greens); this division is still there. Out of the Montenegrins in former Yugoslavia, over 70 percent lived in Montenegro and almost all the others in different parts of Serbia.

The Hungarians
The Hungarians, about 400,000, live in the parts of Hungary that were ceded to Yugoslavia in 1918; nine tenths of them in the Serbian province Vojvodina, and most of the rest in Croatia. They are Catholics, with a Calvinist minority. Identity is primarily defined by Hungarian language and culture.

The Yugoslavs
One more nationality has to be mentioned: Yugoslavs, who formed 5.4 percent of the population in the 1981 census, but had decreased to 3.0 percent in the 1991 census. Some of these were ideological or idealist Yugoslavs, others saw this nationality as a way of avoiding choices between the others. The percentage of Yugoslavs was highest in ethnically mixed areas, in particular Vojvodina and Bosnia-Herzegovina. When increasingly having to choose, most of them have presumably become Serbs.

Any attempt to write exhaustively about the territory of former Yugoslavia would fill a big volume: land has shifted hands between so many empires and local states. If a “part” is a piece of territory that has had an undivided administrative history in the last few hundred years, already the Republic of Croatia in former Yugoslavia consisted of at least fourteen parts, the last one being added from Italy in 1947. By the same criterion, former Yugoslavia must have consisted of between 50 and 100 parts.

When Yugoslavia was created in 1918, there was a systematic attempt not to identify administrative parts of it in ethnic terms. Each banovina (or Zupanja) was named after a major river, and their boundaries were often different from the historical ones. It was only in 1939 that a political deal, the sporazumen, defined a specific province of Croatia. The post-1945 constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) divided it into six republics and furthermore divided Serbia in three parts: what has above been called Nuclear Serbia plus Kosovo-Metohija and Vojvodina, the autonomy of which was originally more nominal, but became more real in the period 1974-90, except for the repeated state of emergency periods in Kosovo. Let us now look at the ethnic composition of these units before the 1991 wars.

Slovenia has a great majority of Slovenes, decreasing from 97 percent in the 1948 census to 88 percent in 1991. Serbs, Croats and Moslems are a couple of percent each, largely postwar labour migrants; the autochtonous Hungarian and Italian minorities are even smaller, but are the only ones recognized as minorities in the present constitution of Slovenia.

Croatia has had around 77 percent (plus or minus 1-2 percent) Croats in postwar censuses. The Serbs were 12 percent in 1991, the Yugoslavs 2 percent and all other groups at most one percent each. Serbs constitute majorities in a number of municipalities in the Krajina area and the largest group in a few others; on the other hand, a large fraction of them constituted small minorities in major cities. The 1990 constitution changed the status of the Serbs from being a nation to being a minority; this was a major factor behind the Serb rebellion in Knin and elsewhere in 1990.

In Vojvodina, the Serbs are 57 percent; many of them immigrants from after World War I or after World War II. Hungarians have decreased from 26 to 17 percent after World War II; they constitute a majority in a number of municipalities and the largest group in a few others. Yugoslavs are the third largest group with 8 percent, followed by 3 percent Croats and 2 percent Slovaks.

In Nuclear Serbia, the Serbs are 87 percent of the population (almost constant over time), Moslems and Yugoslavs about 3 percent each; all other groups are in the magnitude of one percent or less.

Kosovo has seen the most drastic changes. The Albanian majority was 65 percent in the early postwar years, had grown to 77 percent in the 1981 census and an estimated 82 percent in the 1991 census, which was boycotted by the Albanians. The growth clearly accelerated after the autonomous status in 1974, but there are differing interpretations as to whether the decreasing absolute numbers of Serbs and Montenegrins primarily depended on economic push and pull factors or on Albanian maltreatment. At present, the Serbs are 10 percent, Moslems 3 percent and Gypsies 2 percent.

In Bosnia-Herzegovina there have also been long time changes. The Serbs appear to have been a narrow majority at the time of the Austrian occupation in 1878, but soon lost that position, remaining the largest group until around 1970, and were 31 percent in the 1991 census. The Croats decreased from 24 to 17 percent from 1948 through 1991, whereas the Moslems increased from 31 to 44 percent in the same period. In 1991, there were also 6 percent Yugoslavs; no other nationality was larger than a fraction of one percent.

In Montenegro, the percentage of Montenegrins has gone down from 91 to 62 percent between 1948 and 1991, at which time there were also 15 percent Moslems, 9 percent Serbs, 7 percent Albanians and 4 percent Yugoslavs.

In Macedonia, finally, the percentage of Macedonians has decreased slowly from 69 percent in 1948 to 65 percent in 1991, in which year there were also 21 percent Albanians, 5 percent Turks, 3 percent Gypsies and 2 percent Serbs. These figures have been contested by Albanian leaders, who claim that the true figure for Albanians is about 40 percent.

It is quite difficult to account for long time, or even postwar changes in population composition. Among the obvious sources of changes are forced resettlement in the interwar period; losses and refugees in 1941-45; changes from self-stated religion to self-stated nationality as basis of statistics, especially in case of Moslems; differential fertility; differential internal and external migration; individual reclassifications between censuses, especially in Montenegro; improved accuracy in censuses catching more people from previously underregistered low-status groups; and so forth. Even the changes that look drastic can therefore be given very tentative explanations only.

Causal components: a checklist

It is far too early for any confident assessment of their relative weight of different factors in the complex causality pattern. The order in which they appear in the checklist below  is not to be interpreted as an order of importance.

Yugoslavia was in economic crisis for a couple of decades before the war, manifested in decreasing and eventually acceleratingly negative economic growth after the economic reforms in 1965. By these reforms, the element of central planning (by means of credit decisions in the National Bank, etc.) that had previously supplemented the self-management system was abolished; many of the later problems may have derived less from the abolition than from its occurring without anything else being positively put in its place. Each available buffer turned out to be ephemeral and have negative long term effects. This is true of the encompassing labour migration (peaking at more than one million people working abroad) that was encouraged after 1965 to offset the effects of what the economic reformers optimistically expected to be a limited period of transition unemployment.

Large sums of hard currency remittances went home to Yugoslavia, but at the expense of domestic shortages of qualified labourers, who then found the Yugoslav labour market largely closed when they tried to return. It is also true of the borrowing spree of cheap petro dollars in the second half of the 1970s. Most of these loans were squandered on a consumption financed by wage increases with no backing in increased productivity rather than productive investments. The combined skyrocketing after 1980 of real interest rates and of the US dollar caught Yugoslavia in a debt trap.

When the second buffer was also used up, the economy got into a free fall of inflation and unemployment amid a series of aborted attempts to do anything about it; the real income of the (non-existing) average Yugoslav was approximately halved in the 1980s, and the drop accelerated towards the end of the decade. This was worse than the depression of the 1930s, and got still worse by people resorting to individual buffers, neglecting their urban jobs in favour of the family farm that many still had connections to and of various kinds of black or grey market operations to make ends meet. Given this, it would have been surprising if various forms of political radicalism had not emerged. The issue was rather what kind to expect to be predominant: left wing, right wing, populism, nationalism or various combinations.

A second element of economic crisis had to do with distribution. In spite of attempts at interregional equalization by transfers and investments, the income per capita ratio between the richest part (Slovenia) and the poorest part (Kosova/Kosovo) grew from three times in the late 1940s to about five times in 1965 and eight times by the late 1980s. The transfers were sharply reduced after the 1965 reforms, but all parties complained: Slovenia and Croatia about spending too much on development aid to the poor and inefficient South; Serbia about being a contributor rather than the receiver it should have been according to economic statistics; and the other parts of Yugoslavia about receiving too little and about the widening gap to the more developed parts. In addition, the others tended to accuse Serbia of siphoning some of the aid off on its way from North to South. Here, as well as in other issue areas, a pattern was created of everybody feeling cheated.

A third element was economic desintegration. Over the decades, decreasing parts of the production in the republics went into trade with each other and increasing parts to intra-republic trade and to direct trade with other states. As economic ties between the republics weakened, the local economies became more inward-looking and/or more linked as satellites to much more powerful foreign centres in southern Germany and northern Italy.

Constitutional conflicts

Even before its birth in 1918, Yugoslavia suffered from constitutional conflicts. In the  1917 negotiations between politicians from Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, the Serbs called for a centralized state of the type normal in most of Europe, largely copied from the prewar Serbian constitution. Slovenes and Croats, however, preferred a looser confederation. In the first rounds the Serbs prevailed, in particular after the monarchist coup d’état in 1929 but the issue continued to be catastrophically divisive, as demonstrated by the holocaust in 1941-45. After 1945, a federation was formed, where the republics had some measure of autonomy, which was continuously increased in several rounds of constitutional compromises in the following decades. The necessity of finding a particularly Yugoslav road to socialism after the rupture with Stalin in 1948 gave rise to a political innovation reducing both the power of the central government and that of the republics: the system of samoupravljanje (self-management) on municipal and enterprise level.

Whatever the intentions, that system was never as self-managed as it looked in political rhethoric, and the economic reforms of 1965 contributed to its degeneration into a protectionist system of local patrons (party, technocrats) and clients, which used borrowed money for wage increases rather than productive investments. The constitutional compromise of 1974 further increased the autonomy of the republics and the two “autonomous provinces” in Serbia: Vojvodina and Kosova/Kosovo. Yugoslavia having become a loose federation of eight units with very different economies, the possibilities of handling the economic crisis by political decisions largely disappeared: in practice, the constitutional complexities endowed each unit with a veto against any change.

One constitutional element of great importance, being based on (the Yugoslav version of the Leninist version of) the categorization of people into nations, national minorities (or nationalities) and ethnic groups. As nations were regarded those peoples whose primary existence was in Yugoslavia: Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Montenegrins and Macedonians; after 1974, the Moslems were given the same status. People whose majority was found in another state: Hungarians, Albanians, Turks, Italians and several others, were regarded as national minorities and therefore could have no claim to a republic of their own; this was also true for those classified as ethnic groups, e.g., Jews and Gypsies (Roma and Sinti).

Latent ethno-national contradictions

For a long time postwar Yugoslavia offered a picture of peaceful coexistence having succeeded, except in Kosovo/Kosova. Yet there were several underlying historical traumas that defined latent conflicts. Residing in long-standing popular sentiments, they contributed to the postwar series of constitutional com-promises. These latent conflicts were occasionally exacerbated by political manipulation. This was initially local (Kosovo/Kosova) or quickly put down (Croatia in 1971); after the mid-1980s, it spiralled between the political leaderships of the units – and then trapped the politicians.

Three of these historical traumas are of particular importance. For the present purpose, we will summarily describe them. How well they correspond to what has been established so far about actual historical events is another matter; and in any case the traumas are defined by the different historical memories of the peoples involved, not by professional historiographers.

The trauma between Serbs and Croats is of modern origin. To the extent that Serbs and Croats had fought each other in the days of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires, it had been as soldiers, not as peoples. A widespread Croatian view is as follows. The basic cause lies in the Serbs dominating post-1918 Yugoslavia. The royal family Karadjordjevic was theirs, the Orthodox Church was favoured and the Serbs had a virtual monopoly in the military and police forces. Croatian – and other – protests were repressed, even by political assassinations, and this got even worse under the post-1929 royal Serbian dictatorship. In 1941, the Croats finally recovered their own state after many centuries of foreign overlords, but the German and Italian tutelage led to its being ruled by their puppet Ante Pavelic who engaged in massacres on Jews, Gypsies, Croatian democrats and Serbs. Croats constituted the bulk of Tito’s partisans, suffering vast causalties in the fight against the Ustaša regime. Their sufferings were increased massacres against civilian Croatian population that the Serbian ultra-nationalists, Cetniki, engaged in; and by Tito’s Yugoslav bolsheviks exterminating Croatian troops and civilians that had been sent back to Yugoslavia by the Allies. After the war, the communist regime was anti-Croatian and expressions of Croatian national sentiment were oppressed by censorship, imprisonment and party purges.

Through many Serbian eyes, the conflict originates in Croatian sabotage of the post-1918 constitution, which made it break down in 1929. Croatian terrorists, Ustaša, then engaged in political assassinations, most notably of King Alexander in 1934. After Hitler’s attack, Pavelic got his Greater Croatia (including most of Bosnia-Herzegovina). His idea of a “final solution” for the two million Serbs there was “kill one third, convert one third, expel one third”, and Ustaša  managed to slaughter several hundred thousands of Serbs in concentration camps and in local massacres. During and after the war, the Serbian partisans were persecuted and massacred by the communists led by the Croat Tito. The communist regime was anti-Serbian, expressions of Serbian national sentiment were oppressed by censorship and imprisonment and the constitutional changes making Vojvodina and Kosovo have a say in the affairs of Serbia, but giving Serbia no say in their affairs, etc.

The second trauma is between Serbs and Moslems, primarily in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak. Through many Serbian eyes, the Moslems were – willingly – used against the Serbs by Turks, Austrians and Ustaše. Through Moslem eyes, the history is one of racist Serbian behaviour against the Moslems, including attempts to have great amounts of them exported to Turkey, and culminating in Serbian Cetniki engaging in genocide against Moslems in Bosnia-Herzecegovina.

The third trauma is between Serbs and Albanians. Albanians tend to see it in terms of a ruthless Serbian occupation since the 1878 of increasing areas of autochtonous Albanian land. The creation of Yugoslavia also meant a Serbian colonization of Kosova and racist attempts at Serbianization and of exporting Albanians to Turkey. Serbian massacres against Albanians were not limited to World War II; they went on after that, first under the Serbian Home Minister Aleksandar Rankovic until 1966, after which new peaks came in 1968, in 1981 and in the recent period. A widespread Serbian version of the same story is one of the Turks driving the Serbs out from the historical heartland of their state, implanting Moslemized Albanians there instead. During World War II, the Albanian fascists, Balli Kombetar, collaborated with the occupiers against the Serbs, driving many of them out. In postwar Yugoslavia, one of the worst anti-Serb measures of Tito consisted in rewarding Albanian riots by installing in 1974 a corrupt Albanian government which discriminated against Serbs; many of them were killed or threatened, and had to flee north for safety.

It must be repeated that this is a description of popular perceptions originating from family traditions or political propaganda. They mostly have some historical background, and sometimes much; there are naturally great disagreements between their bearers as to how many were killed etc., to what extent different peoples took part, whether events were typical or exceptional, and so forth. Each group tends to see itself as a historical victim of brutal oppression and even genocide. During most of the postwar period such feelings could not be given much public expression; they were oppressed in the name of national reconciliation (“Brotherhood and Unity”), but that certainly did not make them disappear from, e.g. oral family traditions. What most people in one group see as a genuine historical grievance is is several cases dismissed by the other group as mythical, or at least monstrously exaggerated; this exacerbates the traumatic relations by adding the extra trauma of not being heard.

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