Yugoslavia R.I.P.

22 May 2006

Yugoslavia R.I.P.

By Gwynne Dyer

Within days of Montenegro’s successful referendum on independence on Sunday, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic will be arriving in Brussels to open talks on joining the European Union, while other Montenegrin diplomats arrive in New York to seek admission as the 193rd member of the United Nations. A country that was extinguished 88 years ago has risen from its grave — and the mini-empire that absorbed it has finally come to an end.

With Montenegro’s independence, the last vestige of former Yugoslavia is gone: Serbia has lost its seacoast and reverted to its land-locked borders of 1918. Yugoslavia was a project that was bloody at the start, bloody again in the middle, and exceedingly bloody in its last years in the 1990s. The lesson we should draw from this is: no more shotgun marriages in the name of tidiness.

As the Ottoman (Turkish) empire retreated down the western side of the Balkans during the 19th century, half a dozen Christian ethnic groups who spoke closely related South Slavic dialects were candidates for nationhood, but not all of them got it. The Slovenes and Croatians became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, which eventually absorbed the Bosnians as well. Serbia and Montenegro became independent states in 1878, but after the Balkan wars of 1911-12 the Macedonians were just handed over to Serbia (which almost doubled in size).

As early as the mid-19th century, many Serbs believed that all the western Balkans should eventually be ruled from Belgrade. In his famous Nacertanije (Programme) of 1844, Ilija Garasanin, Minister of Internal Affairs in a Serbia that was still technically under Ottoman rule, outlined the stages by which Serbian control might gradually extend to include the whole of the region, and generations of Serbs were taught to dream of that Greater Serbia. Their opportunity came with the First World War, which destroyed the Austro-Hungarian empire and left the Slovenes, Croatians and Bosnians free to seek their own destinies.

Where they all ended up, however, was in the new, Serb-dominated state of Yugoslavia. The victorious great powers let the Serbs have their way in part because they owed Serbia a favour (since it had fought on the winning side), but mainly because it was a tidier arrangement than cluttering up the western Balkans with half a dozen small countries. They even bundled long-independent Montenegro into the new Yugoslavia (althoughsome Montenegrins immediately revolted against rule from Belgrade).

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dominated by Serbia from the start: all of its prime ministers were Serbs, as were 161 of its 165 generals. So it fell apart at once when Nazi Germany invaded in 1941, and a Croatian fascist regime set out to take revenge on Serbians and assert its own independence: over half a million people died in Croatian concentration camps. Then Communist guerillas took power after the Second World War and reestablished Serbian domination, killing all those (mostly Croatians and Bosnians) who had collaborated with the Germans.

Communist Yugoslavia lasted almost half a century, but when it started to break apart in 1992 the Serbs would not let go, and it took four wars and a quarter-million deaths before Serbia finally accepted the loss of its South Slav empire. Even after that the European Union tried to hold Serbia and Montenegro together, bullying the Montenegrins into accepting a lopsided two-country federation (Serbia has twelve times as many people as Montenegro) in 2003. But the Montenegrins insisted on the right to a referendum on breaking up that union after three years, and last Sunday they exercised that right.

Kosovo will almost certainly also get official independence from Serbia by the end of this year, and there will then be seven countries where fifteen years ago there was only one. It is very untidy, and you could certainly accuse some of these countries of being driven by the “narcissism of small differences.” But THEY cared about these small differences, and bad things happened when they were ignored.

Serbia wanted to rule the western Balkans, but it never conquered the other ethnic groups. They were pushed into Serbia’s arms by great powers that wanted to keep things simple, and the result was almost a century of resentment and intermittent murder. Now it’s over, and they have to learn to live alongside one another again. It will be much easier if they have some larger context in which to submerge their differences, and there is one at hand: the European Union.

Slovenia is already an EU member, and Croatia and Macedonia are candidates. Montenegro is applying now, and Serbia would open talks tomorrow if it could get around the EU’s insistence that it hand over the worst Serbian war criminals first. Bosnia will take much longer, as it remains deeply divided between its Serbian, Croatian and Muslim “Bosniak” communities, and Kosovo isn’t even officially a country yet.

Will the EU actually take them all in? For the sake of peace in Europe, it should, but it will be up to 27 governments when Romania and Bulgaria join next year. Adding the western Balkans would increase the number of EU member states with full voting rights by another 20 percent while increasing the total population by only 5 percent. It’s a lot to ask, and we won’t know the answer for years.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 8 and 10. (“Kosovo…ignored” and “Slovenia…yet”)