The collapse of Yugoslavia, and the resulting bloody civil war, has become the worst conflict to afflict any part of Europe for four decades. Neither the governments of the West nor the parties and movements of the Left have found it easy to orient themselves as the tragedy has unfolded, with partisans of the quick fix—namely throwing armaments at the problem—waxing particularly indignant and superior. In certain vital respects these particular Balkan wars have demanded something new, as counterpart to the novelty of the situation in former Yugoslavia. The passions which animated this disaster should not be ascribed only, or even primarily, to ancient enmities. Though the latter have played their part they were lent a potent new virulence, recklessness and desperation by such modern furies as wrenchingly unequal development, hyperinflation, mass unemployment, austerity programmes, media demagogy, militarism, political corruption, ethnic totalitarianism and that intolerant frenzy of unstable majorities that one could call democratic dementia. Indeed one of the most ominous aspects of the break-up of Yugoslavia is that its setting is only too modern and that its evolution in the eighties foreshadowed many of the domestic and international recipes which are being tried out in the nineties on other post-Communist states.

To survive in the modern world multinational states need a collective imaginary sustained by a modicum of administrative competence, democratic development, economic progress and hope for the future. Somewhat against the odds Switzerland and Spain, Britain and Belgium, Canada and India, have until now kept above the threshold. Up to 1970 Yugoslavia did achieve the necessary modicum but by the seventies the increasingly authoritarian and sclerotic rule of the League of Communists first threatened and then destroyed this achievement. The relatively greater legitimacy of Communist rule in Yugoslavia, deriving from the partisan war and the break with Stalin, at first gave a breathing space for the South Slav federation despite the poisonous legacy of the Ustashe and Chetniks, responsible for the slaughter of hundreds of thousands in the wartime years. The decision to make Kosovo, with its predominantly Albanian population, a province of Serbia rather than a separate republic turned out to be a fatal flaw. But otherwise Yugoslavia offered formal representation to its various nationalities; and for a period even Kosovo enjoyed a degree of autonomy.

Unfortunately the relative viability and legitimacy of the constituent parts of the old Yugoslavia has itself helped to make the conflict between two of its republics—Serbia and Croatia—more sustained and vicious. Following the 1974 reforms, themselves enacted partly in response to Croatian national reformism, political life and public power were increasingly channeled and concentrated only through republican government—crisscrossing ties and federal powers became increasingly weak. As the authority of the centre waned the political process threw up rival nationalist programmes. Democracy and nationalism grew together but within a restricted and stratified space. The decrepit power of the federal bureaucracy was strong enough to inhibit or suppress the growth of inter-republican democratic forces but too weak to contain the national popular forces in the republics. The 1974 reforms allowed republican-based media networks to replace federal arrangements whereby, for example, each republican centre took it in turns to present the main evening tv news. In Spain the peaceful post-Franco transition was assisted by the fact that the political parties, trade unions and social movements of the Left developed on a cross-national basis, and in alliance with democratic national reformism in Cataluña and the Basque country, and of regionalism in Andalucia. The remarkable growth of the Spanish economy in the decade and a half after 1977, propelling Spain into the ranks of the advanced countries, must have helped the chemistry of federalism, whatever social problems and injustices it bequeathed to the nineties. Yugoslavia federalism in the eighties was blighted by the double curse of authoritarianism and economic failure.

Slavoj Zizek has written on the tendency of those who live in the region to draw a line to their south after which Europe ends and Balkan backwardness begins, so that Austrians look down on Slovenes, Slovenes look down on Croats, Croats look down on Serbs, Serbs look down on Bosnyaks, Albanians or Macedonians. Zizek observes that such conceits now unfold in a highly specific context: ‘what is at stake in contemporary post-socialist states is the struggle for one’s own place: who will be admitted—integrated into the developed capitalist order—and who will remain excluded’.footnote1

Many Slovenes and Croats became seduced by the notion that they could simply join the advanced West, with its enviable prosperity and liberality, allowing their more backward ex-fellow-countrymen to find their own level. We are often reminded that Yugoslavia was divided by such ancient lines of division as that between the Western and the Eastern Roman empire, or between the Hapsburgs and Ottomans, or the Catholic and Orthodox churches—with all of these separating Croats and Serbs, despite their common language. While such legacies must surely have great significance, it is also true that Yugoslavia stood athwart the modern chasm separating the advanced world and the impoverished developing world. Croatia and Slovenia enjoyed greater prosperity than the rest of the federation and much richer pickings from the tourist boom. For its part Serbia was in a precarious middle position, with Macedonia and Kosovo far behind.footnote2