A grotesque war is taking place in the middle of the European continent. It is an attack on lives, livelihoods, homes, villages, historic and religious buildings, and also on fundamental human values. A year ago, few people had heard of ‘ethnic cleansing’.footnote1 Now it is clear that we are witnessing a new phenomenon different from, but scarcely less horrific than, Nazism. The international establishment—foreign governments or international institutions like the European Community, the United Nations, or the csce—have stood helplessly by, veering from one mistaken position to another. On the one hand, there are those who explain the war only in terms of Serbian aggression. Serbia is viewed as representing the vestiges of the former Yugoslav totalitarian state, while the new nation-states are regarded as democratic or at least potentially democratic. Supporters of this view favoured early recognition of Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina and now they favour various forms of pressure on Serbia, including strengthening sanctions, establishing a no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina, bombing Serbian airfields, and lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnians. On the other hand, there are those who interpret the war in terms of competing national interests. They tend to oppose military involvement by the West and seek a political solution based on ingenious compromises between the warring parties. They consider that early recognition of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, before compromises could be reached, was a great mistake and they fear that increased pressure on Serbia could reduce the chances of a negotiated agreement.

Both these positions are statist approaches. They are based on ‘realist’ assumptions, to use the International Relations jargon, that is to say they assume that political and military leaders are the only relevant actors and that the conflict can be defined in terms of political and military goals. There is a third position which interprets the war both in terms of competing nationalisms, and in terms of the legacy of totalitarianism, these being understood in societal as well as political terms. According to this view, the current wave of ethnic nationalism (although the term ‘ethnic’ needs qualification) is a post-totalitarian phenomenon, a social malformation, based on ethnic exclusivism and separatism. It is a widespread phenomenon, to be found in the Transcaucasus region, and the Baltic states, as well as the former Yugoslavia. It has taken a particularly cruel and barbaric form in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo, particularly but not only in Serb-controlled areas. According to this interpretation, no acceptable or sustainable solution is possible with the present leaderships. Whether the former Yugoslavia becomes eventually one, six, or twenty states, the aim has to be the restoration and preservation of multi-ethnic communities through whatever means are appropriate—political, military or economic. This approach could be said to advocate a civic solution.

The three books under review roughly reflect these three positions.footnote Mark Thompson’s book sees the main problem as Serbian aggression although he is critical of Croatia. John Zametica argues that the cause of the war is incompatible ‘national aspirations’. Misha Glenny defines the war in Croatia as ‘in part a nationalist war and in part a war of territorial expansion sponsored by Serbia and the jna (the Yugoslav Peoples Army)’ (p. 180) and he vividly describes the explosive combination of a disintegrating state apparatus, historic fears, deteriorating rural and urban conditions, roving protection rackets. Both Mark Thompson’s and Misha Glenny’s books are impressionistic. In Mark Thompson’s book, a well-known theatre director from Subotica in Vojvodina explains to a sceptical Thompson what he means by Yugoslavism: ‘To be Yugoslav is not to claim a nationality, it’s a statement about one’s position in the world and in history. It’s not like being a Serb or Slovene or English. To be Yugoslav means “I want to be at home in Slovenia and in Serbia. I like Macedonian rhythms, I like Slovenian melancholy, I belong to the Mediterranean”; that’s what Yugoslavia means, a cultural feeling that one belongs to a civilization of some kind. Of course, there are a lot of people around who prefer the sweet sensation of belonging to very narrow communities, whether regional or national, but I feel like many other people in this country’ (p. 249). In this sense, both books have a Yugoslav flavour. They meander vividly from region to region, offering the reader illuminating glimpses of Yugoslav complexities. Mark Thompson’s book is more literary and historical—an engaging mixture of epic stories, travelogue, poems, encounters with boisterous poets, amusing journalists, and sensitive film directors. Misha Glenny’s book is reportage, including some extraordinary eye-witness accounts of the war-torn areas and of the main villains of the story. John Zametica, in somewhat welcome contrast, provides a very clear and straightforward analysis of the origins and evolution of the conflict as he understands it.

In what follows, I will focus on the different interpretations of the conflict, then investigate the phenomenon of ethnic nationalism, and finally discuss possible outcomes of the present situation.

There are, of course, many different positions on the nature of this complicated war. The three positions outlined are not always coherent or consistent nor do the three books always faithfully reflect them. They can be gleaned from a series of disagreements about the key events and concepts of the war.

First of all, there is disagreement about the nature of Yugoslavia. Mark Thompson says that the idea of Yugoslavia was ‘beautiful, inspirational and delusive’. He says Bulgarian,footnote2 Croatian, Serbian and Slovenian are distinct languages and that racial kinship was insufficient to overcome differences of history and culture. ‘As a state, it was. . . .impossible’ (p. 2). John Zametica strongly disagrees with the view that Yugoslavia was an ‘artificial’ creation which he says implies complete ‘disregard for historical facts’ (p. 6). He argues that there was no history of Serb-Croat rivalry before World War I. The two nations were close racially and linguistically and had fought together against the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans. The problem was rather the undemocratic nature of the two Yugoslavias. The first Yugoslavia, between the two wars, was a unitary state which was criticized both by the Croats and by the Serbian Democratic Party. The second Yugoslavia was, in theory, federal but in practice held together by a centralizing one party system. The 1974 constitution decentralized institutions without releasing the grip of the League of Communists. It was, says Zametica, ‘designed to offer decentralization as a substitute for political pluralism. In fact, it was a recipe for chaos’ (p. 9).

The argument that Yugoslavia is ‘artificial’ implies that there are ‘natural’ nation states. All nation states are ‘artificial’, i.e. social and political constructions, imposing a national homogeneity on often huge cultural differences.footnote3 The difference between Croatian and Serbian is, according to Glenny, no greater than that between Scottish and English and certainly less than, say, Geordie and English. He was thus astonished to attend a meeting where the Croatians demanded simultaneous translation from Serbian to Croatian. Zametica says that when it was created, Yugoslavia was no more implausible than, at that time, Czechoslovakia, Poland, or Rumania. This region is so ethnically mixed that the break-up of multi-ethnic empires after World War I merely meant the creation of mini-multi-ethnic empires. Yugoslavia has turned out to be impossible but there is no reason to suppose that the new nation-states in the process of creation—Croatia with its large Serbian minority and, above all, Bosnia-Herzegovina, will be any less ‘artificial’.