Review: The Lessons of Yugoslavia

Metta Spencer, Editor Amsterdam and London: Elsevier Science, 2000 Clothbound. 378 pp. ISBN 0-7623-0280-

By John Bacher (reviewer)

Metta Spencer's The Lessons of Yugoslavia gives this tragedy an analysis based on the impact of dictatorship. Most of the authors, and the conclusions of the editor, point to "the democratic deficit model" for explanation.

Democracy Did Not Take Root

The politics of former Yugoslavia are rooted in the Ottoman and Austrian empires (all regions except Montenegro were governed by these vast empires) and a Europe rocked by the democratic revolution of 1848. Except for Sonja Licht (who addresses the impact of World War Two), contributors do not emphasize the history of Yugoslav political culture.

Nineteenth century liberal currents contained seeds for a democratic culture. Were it not for the machinations of various authoritarians, a democratic Balkan federation might have evolved to resemble the European Union. What emerged instead was a tragic-comic opera of militarized, despotic, and fractured kingdoms.

Robert Schaeffer's essay, "Democratization, Division, and War in Yugoslavia," comes closest to recognizing the impact of Leninism. He notes that various Communist Party factions "in the 1980s-90s inadvertently achieved the party's program of the late 1920s, when the party supported the right of self-determination for constituent nations and advocated the dissolution of the royalist state. 'Long live independent Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Vojvodina and Serbia!' the party proclaimed in the 1920s. With minor changes, this program might easily have been adopted by the party's contemporary successors."

As peace researcher R. J. Rummel points out in his book, Power Kills, from 1944 to 1947, Yugoslavia under Tito was actually among the fourteen states ranked highest for citizens murdered by their own governments. Although most of these deaths took place in the context of World War Two, because of Tito's 1948 falling out with Stalin, intense repression continued after the end of the war. Yugoslavian Communists were imprisoned in concentration camps, as Djilas points out, "simply because of having expressed pro-Soviet views among friends." This attitude exacerbated conflict in Albania, and in Kosovo between Serbs and Albanians, since the Albanian regime loyally sided with Stalin to defeat Tito's plans for absorbing it.

The nationalist prescriptions of Leninism doomed Yugoslavia by indoctrinating citizens on the right to self-determination. None of the authors explore Tito's massive ethnic cleansing of the German minority in Yugoslavia. Licht and Schaeffer do, however, give a full account of the Tito regime's tragic glorification of war, and show how it "prepared an armed populace to wage war on their own initiative."

Three Oppositional Analyses

In particular, three of The Lessons of Yugoslavia's contributors: Margarita Papandreou, Michael Chossudovsky, and Carleton University Political Science Professor Carl Jacobsen, do not share other authors' views that the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia was caused by a democratic deficit. Instead, they see Yugoslavia as a victim of the workings of NATO, the European Union, the United States and the International Monetary Fund. Papandreou and Chossudovsky suggest that European Union and International Monetary Fund aid to Yugoslavia, combined with assistance to "anti-communist groups," was deliberately crafted to ensure the country's disintegration. Papandreou goes as far as to ignore all human rights violations under Milosevic's dictatorship. She suggests the problems reflected a "woeful record of publicity and public relations."

Choussudovsky claims ethnic conflict was triggered by economic reforms "under the pro-US government of Prime Minister Ante Markovic" in which "state revenues which should have gone as transfer payments to the republics and autonomous provinces were instead funneled into Belgrade's debt." He sees Dayton Accords as a plot to turn Bosnia into a colony in order to control "coal and oil deposits" for companies such as the "Chicago-based Amoco." His argument that NATO's interest in Bosnia is motivated by lust for coal and oil appears ridiculous with the passage of time since all European Union states are closing their coal industries out of concern for global warming. As for oil, none has been discovered in Bosnia since Dayton, nor are the known reserves likely ever to be exploited. Despite Chossudovksy's problematic economic calculations, the administrative costs of peacekeeping in Bosnia will exceed the worth of its raw resources.

Spencer herself points out major flaws in Choussudovksy's claims of Western economic manipulation. Rather than NATO, in response to foreign pressure, being responsible for the cutting off of funds to republican governments, it was in fact those republican governments who cut off funding the federal government. She also points out that the nationalist foes of Markovic used their control over the press to discredit his reforms which brought necessary stabilization to Yugoslavia's currency.

In his analysis of foreign intervention in Kosovo, Carl Jacobsen defends Serbian nationalism. According to him, Milosevic simply followed the "separatist theologies" of Tudjman and Izetbegovic. Jacobsen accuses NATO of hypocrisy regarding the expulsion of Albanians, since member states acting the same way, as in "the deportation of millions of East European German populations" after the Second World War. This outrage against the Germans of Eastern Europe was not, in fact, carried out by NATO. The opposite was the case; NATO's foes, Stalin's allies-including Tito-were responsible for this forced exile.

Chossudovsky's, Papandreou's and Jacobsen's essays offer valuable information about conditions in the former Yugoslavia. However, the greatest value in their work is what it indicates about the theories of leftists in NATO states who make similar apologies for dictatorships in former Yugoslavia. Thus the German Green party legitimated the Milosevic dictatorship as a force that stood its ground against Western imperialism.

Many contributors' texts refute Jacobsen, Papandreou, and Chossudovsky's positions. In particular, Srecko Mihailovic and Ken Simons point out that, for all his faults, Tito can hardly be accused of ordering Serbian ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Mihalilovic notes that from 1946 to 1966 under Tito's rule, Kosovo was dominated by its Serbian minority. Simons notes that although Kosovo did experience an "Albanization" after the 1971 constitutional reforms, for instance, in the previously dominantly Serbian police force, these were employment quota policies, not ethnic expulsions.

The most eloquent of the contributors to The Lessons of Yugoslavia is Sonja Licht, who has long been an activist in Yugoslavia's democratic opposition. As a veteran and long persecuted democrat, Licht has the clearest understanding of how tyranny provided the basis for the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia. She wisely quips: "it is the only place on earth where World War Two is still going on." As someone who bore direct witness to acts of state repression, Licht's experiences challenge wide-spread romantic notions common to the international political left. In 1984, she saw mass arrests, as well as the fatal police beating of a worker carried out in order to disrupt a university lecture by democratic opposition leader Milovan Djilas.

Licht presents the more sinister side of Joseph Broz Tito's ethnic balancing act. She shows that his apparently accommodating attitudes towards the country's religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity had a darker side. For example, Tito's balancing attitude towards liberal reform Communists in Croatia and Serbia meant being "careful never to hit one without hitting the other." During the party purges of the 1970's, Tito replaced members with authoritarian Communists, creating the conditions for future Serbian and Croatian dictatorships. Those dictators in turn produced a decade of armed conflict and destroyed Yugoslavia's unity. Licht and other figures in Serbia's democratic and peace movements supported the creation of an international protectorate for Bosnia, eventually achieved by the Dayton Accords.

Peacekeepers, Peacemakers

Canadian army peacekeeping strategist David Last and nonviolent tacticians Jan Oberg and Dorie Wilsnack recount the difficulties of developing nonviolent responses to the threat of genocide. Last does indicate some successes, as in Teslic in 1992, when good inter-communal relations prevented Serb extremists from inciting violence against Muslims. Wilsnack details the work of the Balkan Peace Team in Croatia, Kosovo, and in support of the democratic opposition in Serbia. They were part of the effort that finally led to the deposing of the Serbian dictator.

Licht laments the feebleness of such efforts, insisting that assistance to similar oppositions can be more effective than military interventions. Her wisdom on the need for assistance to help the Serbian democratic opposition defeat the Milosevic dictatorship was eventually understood in Western capitals. Aid from Radio Free Europe and the National Endowment for Democracy (a non-profit foundation funded by the US government providing to the youth movement Otpor), with guidance from nonviolent strategist Gene Sharp, eventually helped provide the discipline to overthrow the Milosevic government. How many lives would have been saved if such lessons had been learned a decade earlier!

John Bacher is a St. Catharines writer.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2001, page 28. Some rights reserved.

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