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

No other Communist state was as intimately acquainted with Western lifestyles as Yugoslavia. Tourists going one way, and migrant workers the other, helped to dramatize the failings of an economic order where average gnp was still less than a fifth of that in Western Europe. While those Yugoslavs who swallowed the Western dream cannot be excused responsibility for their deeds, it is nevertheless true that the West, the European Community and the international financial organizations comported themselves in a disastrous way. In the eighties they imposed punishing repayment schedules and austerity policies which brought the country to the brink of economic collapse outside the coastal enclaves. In the nineties they offered covert encouragement to fissiparous forces and failed to adopt stern sanctions against Serbian truculence and militarism. The brave attempt made by the last government of the old Yugoslavia, that of Ante Marković, to assert a democratic federalism was sabotaged by financial measures that left it, by the end of 1990, unable to pay the salaries of its soldiers. The West’s disastrous failure to give generous economic support to Marković was prompted partly by stinginess, partly by anti-Communism—it was well-known that the League of Communists remained a force within the Yugoslav officer corps.

The international community did not wish to abandon Yugoslavia since it saw the federal authorities both as a guarantee for debts totalling $20 billion and as the best lever for remodelling its society and economy. But by obliging the federal government to adopt austerity and laissezfaire it destroyed its credibility and weakened its authority over the armed forces. Under Western pressure the federal regime was obliged to apply something like a fifth of the country’s total earnings to servicing its international debt. Real wages fell by 40 per cent between 1978 and 1983 and continued to bump along at this level for the rest of the decade. And since unemployment was running at a third or more of the labour force those in receipt of these low wages were comparatively fortunate. A section of the middle class, especially those with foreign connections or official contacts, continued to emulate the consumption patterns of their counterparts in the West.