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Serbia and the breakup of Yugoslavia: the road to war

I’m watching you, photo: Predrag Trokicic

The same question has been repeated for three decades among the interested political, academic and general public: did the breakup of Yugoslavia have to be bloody? Some go even further and ask if the breakup was really inevitable. Both these questions are certainly an interesting topic of debate, but they are, at the same time, very ahistorical: hindsight is powerless before the actual events of history. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the war did happen, not just demolishing a multinational integration of impressive potential, but also destroying tens of thousands of lives and negatively affecting millions from Slovenia to Kosovo.

It is understandable that in such complex historical situations, when all the actors have at their disposal an enormous potential to seriously damage one another, singling one of them out would be a kind of reductionism, and it carries the danger of deviating from the truth as a whole picture. However, in this article I will be dealing with Serbia from the point of view of its role in the Yugoslav crisis, arguing that the greatest danger of a hostile outcome came from the politics of Serbia. Two basic points can be seen in the Serbian perspective: the new concept of Yugoslavia, and the consequences of the potential breakup of Yugoslavia.

When it comes to the concept of Yugoslavia, Serbia advocated for an option which no one else found acceptable. What Serbia was proposing was some kind of re-centralization of the Yugoslav federation. Although Yugoslavia as a country had certain dysfunctions of course, Serbia’s position rightfully created a feeling of unease that Serbian leadership had no intention of making the Yugoslav federation more functional, but rather of making the Yugoslav republics less independent as states than they actually were. The goal was to create a more efficient connection with Serbs outside of Serbia, by making their position an issue, which other republics rightfully saw as a type of guardianship over themselves. Those two things – functionality and statehood of the republics – were not, however, mutually exclusive, contrary to how it was presented in Serbia. The heart of the problem was that it was becoming increasingly difficult to achieve political agreements in a system which was based on such agreements.

The whole foundation of Yugoslav federalism could be summed up in the principle of agreements. Everything had to be taken into account: the form and the substance. Even immediately before the greatest crisis in 1989, there was a code of conduct and considerations which had to be respected. So for example, Borisav Jovic in his journal wrote: “Could I now step out into the public and state that Drnovsek and Suvar keep blocking constitutional changes? That would be the end of our collaboration, and the beginning of war in the Presidency. If we continued on like this, that could still be a possibility, but right now the public would blame me for being intolerant and aggressive. We must persist until we finish the job.” The main question is, however: why was an agreement no longer possible to achieve?

One of the more obvious responses to this question is the disagreement of opinions regarding what ought to be under the jurisdiction of common authorities. The type of integration (federation, confederation, alliance of states, etc.) was less important than the imperative that some form of integration remain. However, instead of searching for an acceptable minimum, Serbia opted for the maximalist opinion, which meant a re-centralization, even though they knew that would not be supported by anyone. The alternatives which the Serbian leadership considered were: either there would be a Yugoslavia ideally tailored to Serbian interests, or a political unity of the Serbian people in a “rump Yugoslavia” – a de facto Greater Serbia – without other Yugoslav nations and with a change to the borders of the republics. As a member of the Presidency of SFRY, Borisav Jovic in that context in 1989 wrote in his journal that he was afraid that “if Yugoslavia fell apart, a large portion of the Serbian people might remain outside Serbian borders unless another solution was won by force”.

There was no point in time when a clear “break” happened in the approach of the Serbian leadership to solving the Yugoslav crisis. The alternative solution – all Serbs in one country – was being prepared at the same time as the political action of preserving and re-centralizing Yugoslavia. It galvanized Serbs outside of Serbia, giving them false hope that there is a readiness and a strength to ensure their separation from the other republics (especially Croatia) in case of the secession of those republics from Yugoslavia. All the while the political leaders in Serbia did not conceal their opinion that should Yugoslavia break up, it could not happen along existing borders. Since this especially related to Croatia, its political leaders had no other choice but to, in case of a declaration of independence, accept the secession of territories populated by Serbs, hope that the YNA won’t agree to being used against a republic exercising its right to secede, or illegally arm themselves and prepare to defend their territorial integrity.

The culmination of this policy of refusal to accept the finality of the republics’ borders as the borders of potential independent states was the moment Serbia refused to accept the suggestion of the international community made during a conference in The Hague (September to November 1991). The suggestion introduced the possibility of an asymmetric community of independent states, in many ways similar to the type of integration used by the erstwhile European community. Regarding the issue which was of most interest to Serbia, the status of Serbs outside Serbia, the document guaranteed the broadest rights according to international standards, avoiding the term “minority” (for example for Serbs in Croatia), while at the same time guaranteeing a special autonomous status for “areas where members of a national or ethnic group make up the majority”. It was even guaranteed that members of a national or ethnic group “who live far away from members of the same group, for example in isolated villages” would have the right to self-government “to the extent in which it was feasible”.

However, none of that was convincing enough for Serbia, for two reasons: one, because the absolutely dominant notion by then was that all Serbs should remain in a single state, and two, because those same provisions would have to also apply to Albanian people in Serbia, that is, in Kosovo. Counting on the fact that the Serbian side was still the strongest militarily, even though it was “underperforming” when it came to mobilization and suffering from widespread desertion, the Serbian leadership believed they were capable of fulfilling their goals. This assessment turned out to be very wrong.

Of course, we should try not to succumb to emotional hyperbole. It seems like one could argue that no one actually wanted the war. However, war seemed more acceptable to some, due to the fact that they believed themselves to be the stronger force. This is primarily the case with Serbia, which imagined that its motto of “Defending Yugoslavia” will be sufficiently opaque a veil under which to unite all (or as many as possible) Serbs in a single state. “Defending Yugoslavia” was supposed to be a legitimizing formula for the army, for domestic affairs, and for the international community, which was not keen on the breaking up of Yugoslavia. The maneuver with Bosnia and Herzegovina – the famous offer to Alija Izetbegovic to be the president of a “rump” Yugoslavia – served the same purpose. The equation was straightforward to the extreme: the army would defend Yugoslavia (even a rump one), any attempt by those who wanted to secede to arm themselves was illegal and would compromise them, the constitution guaranteed the right of every nation to self-determination, the borders between the republics were administrative in nature… The only thing left was to succeed in having all interested parties either weak or naïve enough to accept without resistance such a platform from Serbia. That, understandably, did not happen. The rest is history – the history of a bloody war.

DwP, 25.06.2021.

Translated by Luna Djordjevic

Peščanik.net, 14.07.2021.


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Srđan Milošević, istoričar i pravnik. Diplomirao i doktorirao na Filozofskom fakultetu Univerziteta u Beogradu, na Odeljenju za istoriju. Studije prava završio na Pravnom fakultetu Univerziteta UNION u Beogradu. U više navrata boravio na stručnim usavršavanjima u okviru programa Instituta za studije kulture u Lajpcigu kao i Instituta Imre Kertes u Jeni. Bavi se pravno-istorijskim, ekonomsko-istorijskim i socijalno-istorijskim temama, sa fokusom na istoriji Jugoslavije i Srbije u 20. veku. Član je međunarodne Mreže za teoriju istorije, kao i Srpskog udruženja za pravnu teoriju i filozofiju i Centra za ekonomsku istoriju. Jedan je od osnivača i predsednik Centra za istorijske studije i dijalog (CISiD). Član je Skupštine udruženja Peščanik. Pored većeg broja naučnih i stručnih radova autor je knjige Istorija pred sudom: Interpretacija prošlosti i pravni aspekti u rehabilitaciji kneza Pavla Karađorđevića, Fabrika knjiga, 2013.

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