Sunday, May 21, 2006

Yugoslavia is still the solution

As the people of Montenegro vote on whether to sever their links with Serbia, here's my review of the book 'Yugoslavism: histories of a failed idea (1918-1992)', which appeared in the New Statesman in 2003.
Back in the 1830s, the notion of a single, unified South Slav state, as propounded by the Illyrianists, was a good idea. Nearly two hundred years later, it is still is. As Slobodan Jovanovic pointed out on the eve of the attack by the Axis powers in 1940, a Federal Yugoslavia is the best way the people of the Balkans can guarantee their independence and protect themselves from domination by foreign powers.

Review of 'Yugoslavism: histories of a failed idea' (1918-1992) edited by Dejan Djokic

On 4 February 2003, quietly and almost unnoticed, while the rest of the world's attention was focused on the charade of weapons inspections in Iraq, a country disappeared from the map of the world. The final dissolution of Yugoslavia and its metamorphosis into the Republic of Serbia and Montenegro passed virtually without comment in the British media, with almost no one picking up on its deep significance. Yet it was an event that ought to have been mourned by democrats, socialists and progressives the world over.

Yugoslavism: histories of a failed idea is a timely collection of 21 essays edited by Dejan Djokic that seeks to explore the history of the "Yugoslav" idea - or "Yugoslavism" - between the creation of the first state in 1918 and the demise of the second Yugoslav Federation in 1992. While the book contains a variety of viewpoints and perspectives, some consistent and recurring themes can be discerned. First and most important, there is the challenge to the idea - which persisted throughout the history of the country and became so fashionable in certain western circles in the 1990s - that Yugoslavia was, in some way, an "artificial" state. As Dennison Rusinow points out in the book's opening essay, the core of the Yugoslav idea, first formulated by the mainly Croat "Illyrianist" awakeners in the 1830s, was that the South Slavs, having the same ethnic origin and speaking variants of the same language, were actually or potentially a single nation and consequently endowed with a "natural right" to independence and unity in a state of their own. In short, the land of the South Slavs was a lot less artificial than the states that succeeded it in the 1990s, championed so enthusiastically by anti-Yugoslavs such as Margaret Thatcher.

By the time of Yugoslavia's creation, as the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1918, two approaches to nation-building had emerged. "Integral Yugoslavism" favoured by King Alexander, and put into practice after he assumed dictatorial powers in 1929, sought to build "a single nation and a single sense of national belonging - a country where there would be no longer Serbs, Croats or Slovenes, but only Yugoslavs". A bullet from a Macedonian assassin hired by Croatian fascists ended both "integrationalism" and the life of King Alexan der in 1934. The second approach was "Yugoslavism", which, in Rusinow's words, "acknowledged and approved enduring separate nationhoods and sought federal and other devices for a multinational state of related peoples with shared interests and aspirations". It was this anti-centralist definition of Yugoslavism that was, by and large, to prevail over the next half-century of Yugoslavia's history. At the same time, attempts to build a common national consciousness continued. In his chapter on interwar Yugoslav culture, Andrew Wachtel describes how the writer Ivo Andric and the sculptor Ivan Mestrovic eschewed both supranational Yugoslavism and separatist nationalism in order to create a "synthetic" Yugoslav culture that could "join the existing tribal cultures into a new and dynamic culture suitable for the new state". By the 1960s, these and other attempts to build a common Yugoslav identity could be said to have succeeded. Intermarriages meant that more and more citizens were describing themselves on government census forms as "Yugoslavs". The leadership of Josip Broz Tito had given the country a high international profile. Yugoslav football and basketball teams achieved international success and were cheered on from Split to Sarajevo. Yet as Dejan Jovic points out in his excellent chapter on Yugoslav communism, at the very moment when the national question seemed to have been finally put to sleep by the public at large, the communist elite chose to reopen the issue. Jovic correctly regards the ideological victory of the anti-statist Edvard Kardelj and the abandonment of Tito's "brotherhood and unity" concept in the late 1960s as the start of the process of Yugoslavia's disintegration. Many still believe that Tito's death in 1980 marked the beginning of the end but, in reality, "deTitoisation" had already begun in 1974 when the Kardeljist constitution removed all but foreign affairs, security and defence from the domain of the federal government, and stipulated that the power of the federation derived from the republics (now described as "states") and not the other way round. From then on, any public expressions of Yugoslavism became tantamount to statism and as such almost an anti-socialist activity. By the time the staunchly pro-Yugoslav Slobodan Milosevic emerged on the scene in the late 1980s to demand the reversal of the Kardelj reforms, the damage had been done. The 1974 constitution ensured that Kucan, Tudjman and Izetbegovic were able, when the west whistled, to declare independence from the federation and plunge the whole region into a bloody civil war.

In the book's concluding chapter, a personal "Funeral Oration" for Yugoslavia, Aleksa Djilas contends that if the west could "fly back in time" to the early 1990s, they would have acted differently. I am not so sure. The destruction of a militarily strong, non-aligned nation and its replacement by a succession of weakened Nato and IMF protectorates suits the new rulers of the world perfectly. The truth, as Djilas himself acknowledges, was that so long as the Soviet Union existed, Yugoslavia had its uses as far as the west was concerned, but once the Berlin Wall came down, it was in the way. What is clear is that it is the people of ex-Yugoslavia, many of whom never wished for the break-up of their country, who have been the big losers. As economic problems mount up, the novelty of statehood seems less appealing in Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia, and Serbia and Montenegro are under a state of emergency. Kosovo is Europe's first mafia-run state, while the poor Bosnians have the ultimate humiliation of being governed by Lord (Paddy) Ashdown.

Back in the 1830s, the notion of a single, unified South Slav state, as propounded by the Illyrianists, was a good idea. Nearly 200 years later, it still is. Yugoslavia, in the words of Djilas, "remains the most sensible and practical, the most anti-destructive answer to the South Slav national question". It is, as Slobodan Jovanovic pointed out on the eve of the attack by the axis powers in 1940, the best way the people of the Balkans can guarantee their independence and protect themselves from domination by foreign powers.

N.Clark/New Statesman 2003

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