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Vol 2, No 15
17 April 2000
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Sam VakninThe Myths of Yugoslavia
Part I of a series of articles debunking Balkan misconceptions
Sam Vaknin

The Yugoslav war is a dispiriting tale about human solidarity. Very few people sympathized with the Slovenes when the war began, just as the Slovenes themselves unanimously closed the doors of their new state immediately after the war. The Croats showed no solidarity to anyone, just as few showed any to the Croats. The Serbs had no sympathy for anyone at all, and no one showed any understanding for the Serbs. Few people had ever shown solidarity with the Albanians, just as Albanians were deaf to other people's troubles.

The Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić in The Culture of Lies (1998).

Your land is here. Here are your houses, your fields, your gardens, your memories. You are not hoping to leave them, are you, because life is hard and because you are subjected to injustice and humiliation? It was never in the spirit of the Serb and the Montenegrin peoples to succumb before obstacles, to quit when one has to fight, to be demoralized in the face of hardship.

Slobodan Milošević, Kosovo, 1987.

"All those who are not prepared to 'defend the glory of the Serbian nation' had better lay down their arms and take off their uniforms," the general told them. And, incredibly, they all did, including their commanding officer... "They were standing there and I got furious and shouted at them to remove everything including their underpants, and with the exception of one man they all removed their military issue underpants and marched off completely naked. I was still hoping that they would change their mind, but they didn't."

Serb general who wanted to shame conscripts into fighting in Croatia, quoted in Duško Doder and Louise Branson, Milošević: Portrait of a Tyrant, (1999).


graffiti in Belgrade, 1999.

We oppose all those who want to divide your country because we are on the side of good and against evil.

Iraqi President Saddam Hussein assuring Serbian envoy Dragan Tomić that Iraq was prepared to send troops to Serbia.

The object of war is not to die for your country but to make the other bastard die for his.

US Army four-star General George S Patton.

Given the number of sins committed in the course of 20 centuries, [reference to them] must necessarily be rather summary.

Vatican official Bishop Piero Marini, justifying the brevity of Pope John Paul II's plea for forgiveness of sins committed in the name of the Catholic church.

Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable, if they last long enough.

Film director and actor John Huston playing Noah Cross, the corrupt magnate in Roman Polanski's Chinatown.

I have spent the last decade reading books and articles written about Yugoslavia by luminaries from East and West alike. I wonder if there ever was a subject so enshrouded by myths and inexactitudes, platitudes and wrongs, errors and omissions, lies and distortions. This is a list of the more common of these, organized in chronological order.

1. The Balkans was entirely under the domination of a crumbling and venal Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire was a well organized, highly structured and intricate urban bureaucracy which gradually diverged from Rome. The latter -the Western remnant of the former unified empire- did indeed crumble under the weight of internecine warfare, nepotism, cronyism, corruption and capriciously murderous dictatorships. Byzantium, though, continued to flourish for another millennium. In any case, only a part of the Balkans was incorporated into the Byzantine reign, and the border between Byzantium and Rome still exists today - it is the contemporary line demarcating Serbia from Croatia.

The Balkans were organized in a strictly feudal system, and the Slavic tribes that descended from the north during the fifth, sixth and seventh centuries AD fit nicely into this hierarchical scheme. Still, feudalism was much less rigid than it was made out to be. Certain regions, such as Dalmatia and Slavonia in Croatia and Herzegovina in Bosnia, maintained a degree of autonomy comparable to that of Kosovo under the Tito-era constitution. Balkan feudalism, in other words, was not a replica of the Western variant. It was, rather, a "federal" approach, a compact between indigenous lords and their nominal superiors.

2. The Croats were always pro-Germanic

When Rome imploded, it left a black hole of stupendous proportions. Both Croatia and Slovenia hurried to declare their independence and to assume a growing degree of sovereignty. The "Croatia" and "Slovenia" of that time were not the modern nation-states they are today, but were the rough equivalents of fiefdoms, extended estates of local (and imported) aristocracy - feudal lots. The sovereignty of that era is equivalent to the autonomy enjoyed today by states within the United States of America.

Still, the unilateral actions of Croatia and Slovenia were at least evolutionary if, indeed, not revolutionary. They constituted a loosening and new exegesis of the feudal code. Asserting their new standing among other political units, both Croatia and Slovenia fought-off numerous invasions and attempted invasions by Magyar (Hungarian) tribes. It was only when the sustained pressure became unbearable, and further defense of the realms untenable, that they (very reluctantly) turned to the Germans - Charlemagne's Franks, at that time.

The Serbs -the contemporary epitome of ultra-nationalism- were the ones who, quiescently, accepted Byzantine rule, as did Bulgaria (which included today's Macedonia), Montenegro and Dalmatia. A few enclaves remained independent, but these were encouraged by Byzantine rulers, mainly for economic and trade reasons. Thus, Ragusa (later renamed Dubrovnik) continued, uninterrupted by the tectonic political shifts around it, to trade with Italy, becoming the "Hong Kong of the Balkans" for centuries after.

Inevitably, Slovenia and Croatia became Roman Catholic, while Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia became Eastern Orthodox; religion in the Balkans, as we shall see, is often a matter of expediency. Religious convictions were the result of granted concessions, economic prowess, brutal repression or political calculations. The right religion, like the right party affiliation years henceforth, guaranteed speedy access to the bureaucracy, a decent living, education and tolerable safety. Being political-economic juggernauts, all religions in the region were zealously missionary: they all proselytized in rich Dalmatia, for instance.

3. The Bosnians were good (Orthodox) Christians before they were forced to convert to Islam

Bosnia was always considered to be a lowly and primitive place by the other inhabitants of the Balkans - sort of the poor, always needy relative. Tucked between Croatia and Serbia, mountainous and endowed with a prelapsarian nature, Bosnia was almost psychedelic or surreal.

It was here that one of the most doctrinally severe heresies developed among Christians, as Bogomilism engulfed the entire destitute populace in no time. It was a powerful, populist and rebellious rhetoric, and the subversive Bogomil message threatened both the Church and the (feudal) state, bearing an uncanny resemblance to both the Reformation and Communism. It looked ominously unstoppable.

All Bosnians were officially branded "heretics" and Catholic powers were encouraged to exterminate them on sight. The Bogomils were largely the ones who later converted to Islam - mostly willingly and for reasons of convenience, as upon conversion they could buy land and obtain positions in the Ottoman administration. The rest of the population, having remained Catholic, joined forces with the predominantly Catholic Croats and, as centuries passed, these Bosniacs came to regard themselves as perfect Croats, just as Orthodox Bosniacs identified themselves as Serbs. Neither, however, were Croats or Serbs in the first instance.

During the 12th century, Rome was forced to collaborate with Hungary against the Bogomils, enhancing Hungary's stature considerably. Rome repaid Hungary's kindness with the territories of Croatia and Bosnia. Thus, Christian heretics in Bosnia "helped" introduce Hungary into the region as an uncontested superpower, though not for long. The Hungarians even supported a rump Serb kingdom following the apocalyptic defeat of the Serbs at the hands of the Turks in Kosovo in 1389, though the Serb kingdom lingered on for 70 more years before surrendering to the Ottomans.

The only ones to constantly, consistently and continuously rebel against the Hungarian occupation were Bosnian peasants (mostly Bogomils). The Ottomans assisted them in this worthy (from the Turkish point of view) endeavor and later, when the Bosnian forces were depleted, annexed the territory themselves. The first seeds of conflict were thus sown. The Bosnians welcomed the Turks, converted to Islam, joined their administration and owned land. True, they were Slavs but their religious heresy (first Bogomilism, then Islam) was further compounded by their national betrayal. The Serbs hated the Turks, and had no intention of remaining Turkish subjects for long.

4. The Serbs were never welcome in Croatia; they were always an alien body

There were almost no Serbs in Croatia until the Austrian occupation. The Austrians and the local Croat population were terrified by the possibility of a renewed Turkish invasion. To fend-off Turkish troops, Croatia called upon Serbs, mortal enemies of the Ottomans, to come and settle its border zones. The Serbs agreed, settling in today's Krajina, forming rather ferocious, well-armed paramilitary militias and declaring their settlements autonomous "(martial) camps or zones" within Croatia.

Their role was not only defensive, as they joined the Austrian army in its invasion of Ottoman-controlled regions, including Macedonia, in 1689. When the Austrians were defeated, Serbs throughout the Ottoman empire, by now considered traitors, fled. A sizable group of Serbs emigrated from the heartland of the ancient Serb Kingdom, a wind-swept plateau called "Kosovo". The Albanians, relegated to Albania's mountains by superior Serb forces three centuries earlier, hurried back. The Turks encouraged them to convert to Islam and they became close allies of the Ottoman administration (see Sam Vaknin's article The Myth of Greater Albania).

5. There is a religious and cultural affinity between the Greeks and the Serbs

It goes deeper than that. The Greeks, Russians, Bulgarians and Serbs collaborated in two Balkan Wars against the Ottoman Empire in an effort to re-carve the map of the Balkans.

The idea, in 1912 was to "liberate" Kosovo, Macedonia and Albania and to punish the collaborationist and separatist Albanians in Kosovo and Western Macedonia. This the invading Serbs did with a vengeance, burning villages and crops, looting and killing. This precipitated a nationalist movement in Albania proper. Fearful of being conquered and annexed by Serbia and Greece, the Albanians declared independence. The leaders of the independence movement were, inevitably, Muslim.

In the meantime, everyone ganged up on Bulgaria and, in the skirmish that ensued, Serbia won both Macedonia and Kosovo. With the Sick Man of Europe thoroughly defeated, the Serbs a regional superpower once again and Russian influence steadily growing, the Habsburgs, as the only remaining imperial power, became the next logical target.

Sam Vaknin, 17 April 2000

Part II of The Myths of Yugoslavia will be published in CER next week.

The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.

DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.

Moving on:


Catherine Lovatt
Securitate Shuffle

Saša Cvijetić
Croatia's Crisis

Jan Čulík
Political Control of Czech TV

Sam Vaknin
Yugoslav Myths

Mel Huang
Instability in Latvia

Magali Perrault
Social Democrats and Nazis

Gusztáv Kosztolányi
Hungarian Censorship

Andreas Beckmann
After the Floods

Židas Daskalovski
Interview with Labina Mitevska

Elke de Wit
The Einstein of Sex

Elke de Wit
Wasted Lives in Changing Times

Culture Calendar:

Hall and Perrault
Europe's Right

Czech Republic