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Vol 2, No 16
25 April 2000
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Sam VakninMore Myths of Yugoslavia
Part II of a series of articles debunking Balkan misconceptions
Sam Vaknin

Click here to read part I of this series, The Myths Yugoslavia

6. Serbs were always anti-Western and the USA was first involved militarily in the Balkans during the Kosovo Crisis

The First World War pitted the most unlikely enemies against one another. Austria - Turkey's most avowed enemy - attacked Turkey's other mortal foe, Serbia. Bulgaria, which collaborated with Serbia, Russia and Greece against the Ottomans in the First Balkan War, joined the Turks against its former allies. The Albanians collaborated enthusiastically with Turkey's adversary, Austria, against the Serbs, and were rewarded handsomely. The Austrians made Albanian an official language and integrated Albanian nationals into their administration.

The United Kingdom and France supported Russia against the Ottoman Empire which, hitherto, they had done everything they could to heal and stabilize. The Croats and the Slovenes, as conscripts in an Austrian army they had regarded as an occupier, fought their Slav brethren, the Serbs. Actually, American forces joined Britain and France and landed in Greece to aid the Serb army against the German-Austrian-Bulgarian-Turkish axis.

The seeds of the Second World War were thus sown and the USA was inextricably intertwined in this intractable region. America intervened a second time in the Balkans when it sent troops to back up an Italian claim for the small enclave of Zara on the Dalmatian coast in Croatia in 1919.

7. Vojvodina is a Hungarian province that was given to Serbia as spoils of war

The rich and fertile region of Vojvodina did, indeed, form an administrative unit within Hungary, yet it always maintained a unique status. It was a duchy. It was always Serb. And its autonomy was granted by the Habsburg emperor himself (or herself). Thus, it answered directly to Vienna.

8. Yugoslavia has been in existence between 1918 and 1990

There is a very tenuous connection between the blatantly pro-Serb and anti-everyone-else dictatorship of King Alexandar and the Tito Federation. The first federation was a toned down version of the Serb Empire of yore. The national entities within Yugoslavia were abolished a decade after the country had been established, and the internal borders were redrawn to shatter the contiguity of other nationalities and to cohere Serb domination.

While the "First Yugoslavia" existed on paper until 1941, it had, in reality, ceased to function at least a decade before. The King was murdered by an Ustaš (a member of the Croatian nationalist organization, the Ustašas) in 1934. Mussolini's Italy was in cahoots with the Ustašas, and had more influence in Croatia than Belgrade itself. The Regency council that replaced the assassinated monarch merely formalized reality by granting Croatia extensive autonomy. When the Regents signed a Stalinesque pact with Hitler, all hell broke loose in the form of a British sponsored coup. The Nazis invaded, bombed Belgrade and pacified the country. It was the death certificate for a long-festering corpse.

9. The Yugoslavs of all nationalities fought the Nazis tooth and nail

The truth, alas, is much less heroic. Pro-Nazi governments were installed in Serbia and Croatia. The Serb government was supported by the ancien regime and by a sizable part of the population. Fond stories of the Nazi occupation still abound in many of the republics of former Yugoslavia.

The Nazis were Germans, the living emblems of civilization, the blond, Aryan, chocolate- and gum-dispensing gods. In Croatia they were positively adored. Macedonians were patiently amused with them and with their Bulgarian proxies, although they grew impatient with Albanian collaborators. Serbs, ever pragmatic, collaborated. Vojvodina was happily reunited with Hungary.

Kosovars acted cruelly against their own in a Greater Albania within the framework of an Italian installed government with the ever-menacing Deva as Minister of the Interior. The Albanians were sufficiently grateful, though, to form militias and join the military effort - on behalf of the Axis, of course. So did the Bosnians, who even yielded an SS division of their own.

Death camps operated in Croatia in which Serbs, Jews and Roma were indiscriminately maltreated. Serbs, Bulgarians and Croats deported Jews, mostly to Auschwitz. Serb military formations of independent views were sent, by their own government, to German lagers.

Two isolated resistance movements operated in the areas of the First Yugoslavia. The Croat Partisans, a Communist guerrilla force, wanted to restore Yugoslavia to its former glory, while Serb Četniks wanted nothing to do with other Yugoslavs.

With the exception of a few months during 1941-2, everyone supported the Communists. The Četniks, therefore, joined forces with the Nazi and Fascist occupation forces against their "comrades," the Partisans. Thus, the end result was that Croat Ustašas and Serb Četniks fought -in the name of post-war separatism and self-definition- against Communist Partisans. History records that the latter emerged from the war so strengthened and victorious that they tried to annex Trieste from Italy. Only an intervention by the West prevented it.

But it didn't take long before Tito turned on his Soviet benefactors. Yugoslavia was the first country in the Soviet bloc to encourage foreign knowledge and foreign investment in some of its industries, including strategic defense. It was the first to implement an IMF austerity plan following years of IMF lending in the 1960s.

It was also the only one to keep its borders open, with its people free to come and go, while instituting a functioning market mechanism through the hybrid known as "social ownership" and "self-management." No wonder Stalin issued a contract hit on Tito's head.

Albania also went its own way with the reclusive and paranoid Hoxha - but Tito's strategy was not the result of a clear mental disorder.

10. The Serbs were discriminated against in the Croat Tito's federation

A pillar of Tito's strategy was to ruthlessly dismantle nationalist projects, replacing them with viable multi-ethnic alternatives.

Bosnia was the laboratory in which inter-ethnic marriage and economic collaboration were tested, while in Kosovo Tito encouraged the Albanian population to stay put or to move in. In Croatia, he devolved power to Serb municipalities.

Statistically, though, Serbs dominated the two most important power structures in Yugoslavia: the Communist Party and the JNA (Yugoslav National Army). The latter was Tito's only guarantee against Russian (and perhaps Western) invasion, as well as against the kind of disintegration that took place a decade after his death.

Bosnia became the largest defence industry centre in former Yugoslavia (quite contrary to its rustic image), and Slovenia and Croatia were transformed into civilian industrial centers and concentrations of heavy industry.

11. Yugoslavia was an open society and Tito succeeded in holding it together by the sheer power of his personality

Yugoslavs were the only ones in the East Bloc to carry their own passports and to travel abroad freely. Yet freedom of expression, especially concerning nationalistic matters, was very restricted.

Social unrest and nationalistic stirrings were very prevalent. The decade of the 1960s saw brutally suppressed demonstrations in both Belgrade and Priština, and the early 70s witnessed the "Croat Spring," which led to mass detentions and the opening-up of Stalinist gulag camps throughout the country.

The pressure was so intense, that, in 1974 -clearly fearing disintegration- Tito purged the old guard, his onetime comrades in arms, and unveiled a new constitution. It granted limited autonomy to the republics and to Vojvodina and Kosovo, while a posthumous rotating federal presidency was supposed to assuage any feelings of bias and discrimination at the top.

This, evidently, was too little and too late. Kosovo continued to erupt periodically. In 1981, for example, the police killed 11 students and arrested thousands in one day of demonstrations. But the truth is that Yugoslavia was held together by the oldest glue of all - money. It borrowed USD 20 billion to finance its improbable transition from an agrarian society to an industrial one, and was among the IMF's heaviest borrowers during the 1960s.

When the IMF called its loans, Yugoslavia was exposed for what it was: a basket case. As long as all the republics shared the loot, there was little incentive for them to disengage. But the structural imbalances of contributions versus rewards pitted affluent Croatia and positively rich Slovenia against dirt-poor Macedonia and relatively poor Serbia and Montenegro. They simply refused to continue to cough-up the money.

At its beginning, protest was channeled to "safer" arenas: an anti-nuclear movement in Slovenia and a pacifist movement in Croatia, for instance. But not much later on, the masks fell and the true nationalist faces underneath were exposed.

The JNA was there to tackle precisely such a situation. Composed of all nationalities, but commanded by Serbs, it intervened.

Sam Vaknin, 24 April 2000

Click here to read part I of this series, The Myths Yugoslavia

Yet More 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.

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Sue Bagust
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