Yugoslavia’s dissolution; hypothesis and considerations.

Christian Costamagna


Structures of Governments & Nationalism


As the ancient philosophers, we could imagine the structure of power in the human societies as a pyramid:



At the apex we have a Monarch. Then, in the middle, we have the Optimates. At the base there is the people. One single form of government could be prevailing (eg. a Monarchy), but the power could be also shared, so in this case it is called a mixed form of government.

These forms of governments could be called:




Let’s now apply this model to Socialist Yugoslavia, a form of authoritarian government:





We could suppose, in this artificial simplified model, that the form of government, in Socialist Yugoslavia, was formally mixed, composed of all three forms, although the “monarchy” level (Tito) prevailed over the other two.

After the death of Tito in 1980, the power shifted to the “Aristocracy” level of analysis.




Along the 1980s, the social and economic crisis was eroding the legitimacy of the leadership of the Party.

Moreover, “the people”, groups of ordinary citizens, together with the intellectual elite “non conformist” or openly dissident toward the political elite who held the power, they were raising new demands, new hopes: more often than not, they were questioning the power.

New ideas and needs in the society, old problems were surfacing again. The opponents of the Socialist system, seen as democrats (or may be just useful anti-communists) by the West, were supported by the Free world in order to erode the socialist regime. Most of those “democrats” or simply “anti-communists”, and in particular the more prominent with a more visible impact, were nationalists (like Vojislav Kostunica). On the other hand, the West supported the regime with financial help. This was, at the time, the best form of anti-Soviet propaganda (to have a Socialist heretic country like Yugoslavia).

Serbs in Kosovo, during the 1980s, felt they were victims of genocide, committed by Albanians. Albanians wanted Kosovo to be formally a Yugoslav republic, and not just a province of Serbia. Slovenes thought they were exploited financially by the “southerners”. Moreover they were teased by the presence of Bosnians and Serbs working in Slovenia. Also Croats felt quite uncomfortable in Yugoslavia. It is enough to remind the role of the Croatian expatriate communities toward the Yugoslav state. All of this happened in a period of high unemployment and inflation.

Essentially, every people of Yugoslavia felt exploited. They wanted more social justice, equality, more participation. In the 1980s, the “fruit” was ready to be “plucked”.

Here comes the fracture into the elite, the Yugoslav “Aristocracy”.




A part of the Socialist regime elite, like Slobodan Milosevic, understood that in order to gain legitimacy and save the regime, the best option was to adopt and adapt the general discourse prevailing the Serbia in the 1980s: and this was Serbian nationalism. This form of Milosevic’s populism later became a plebiscite of the Serbian nation in his favour. Somehow Milosevic political thought is not so distant from Machiavelli’s one. The “prince” should listen to the desire and wishes of the people. On the other hand, politicians like Ivan Stambolic or Stipe Suvar (as Francesco Guicciardini was opposed to Machiavelli), were in favor of an aristocratic/optimate form of government (the oligarchy of the League of Communists and its elite). Last but not least, Milosevic’s political thought could be framed as an “anti-imperialist”. The problem is: should we approach the study of Yugoslavia with the post-colonial approach? (http://www.postcolonial-europe.eu)

In other Yugoslav republics, the communist leaders avoided such a strategy, while Milan Kucan, in a sober manner, simply adopted many issues of the Slovenian opposition. The non-communists leaders, in all the Yugoslav republics, before and after the fall of the regime, adopted usually an outspoken nationalist and possibly populist political style and method.

This wave of nationalism(s) in Yugoslavia was inspired, may be, with the best intentions: for democracy, for social justice, equality, emancipation, participation. Every leader adopting this strategy claimed to be simply defending his “people” against the others. On the other hand, it was a way, for the political elite, to stay in power or gain power and legitimacy.

In this sense, it is possible to say that:

1)     Nationalism is empowering the people – it cut virtually the distance with the “aristocracy” (political elite and elite in general). An example: Milosevic’s Anti-bureaucratic revolution 1988-1989.

2)     Nationalism (like populism) could often be a victim of (an easy) demagogy. It could be labeled as a way in order to get rights, power. The power to do something, to have something. This power could be the power to be free from slavery, oppression.

3)     Democracy, per se, is just an empty word. Every democratic regime, in a state, has its own “aristocracy” or may be “oligarchy”. It was so in Socialist Yugoslavia. What distinguish the political elites is the relation with the “people”, the citizens”, is the way of conduct of this elite. The “aristocracy” can co-opt the best individuals on merit, it can give rights to the citizens. But it can also be “closed”, corrupted. In the latter case it could be deaf to the requests of the society at large, asking for more justice, more rights, the respect of the human rights.

4)     After the French revolution, the complex of values, the quest of rights, democratization, walked along with nationalism and populism.

5)     Nationalism could be considered a subordinate sentence, whereas the main sentence is made of “power” and “form of government” in the society.

Does democracy means nationalism?

The scholar work done in the past 20 years about the area of Western Balkans was mainly aimed at finding an explication to the dissolution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the following decade of wars. Not rarely those works were biased and based, as it is typical of “instant history”, on limited sources.

The above mentioned scholarship is often devoted to the study of contemporary political history. Left aside the war related topic, the dissolution of the state became very soon popular and disputed. I will not here, once again, try to summarize the various and many theoretical approaches to the topic, because I assume they are already well known. I can mention here the work done by Jasna Dragovic-Soso[1] for a general overview. It is natural that there are so many possible explanations, like cultural, economical, personalities, external factors, the 1974 Yugoslav constitution and many others. It just depend by the point of view, the methodological approach of the scholar.

Moreover, in the last few years, after the “War in the Balkans” topic seems retreating from bookstores’ shelves, even in the English language scholarship there is a renewed interest in the more sociological/culture aspects of Socialist Yugoslavia: Yugoslavia’s Sunny Side – A History of Tourism in Socialism 1950s-1980s edited by Hannes Grandits and Karin Taylor (2010), Bought and Sold: Living and Losing the Good Life in Socialist Yugoslavia written by Patrick Hyder Patterson (2011) and Remembering Utopia, The Culture of Everyday Life in Socialist Yugoslavia, edited by Breda Luthar and Marusa Pusnik (2010), just to quote a few.

From my personal point of view, in the field of historiography there is one basic methodological assumption: there is a fast track, and it is typical of political History, administrative institutions, and it can even change overnight (the events). It can be labeled as microhistory. Then there is a cultural dimension, bounded to the values of a human society, and it takes years or generations before it can change radically. This can be called longue durèe. Of course in between those two temporal dimensions we can imagine another one, that of ideas, “the spirit of the times”, that like a virus, can spread from a continent to another, especially in the younger generations.

I believe that the existing scholarship about the dissolution of Yugoslavia is partly characterized by a general misunderstanding: there is a competition and confusion about the main factor who led to the dissolution of the state, ranging from the ancient hatred of the Yugoslav nations to the German/Vatican recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia. This situation is conditioned by the feelings toward what once used to be a country, those who miss it (yugo-nostalgia), and those who think it was an artificial construction desired by Western powers.

I propose a very simple subdivision in four categories:

  • Regime change in 1990 (not well covered in the scholarly literature)
  • Yugoslav state dismemberment in 1991
  • War
  • Internationalization of the conflict – Western (non)intervention

This sort of conceptual map can help to distinct the main steps in the dissolution of the Yugoslav state, considered in what I called above the “fast track” of History, the time span related to a short elapse of time and the changes that can happen in the administrative institutions of a state.

Still, there is one element that must be added to the dissolution of the Yugoslav state, and I think it was overlooked by many because it is politically incorrect according to the values of the Western Society: from the theoretical point of view, democracy (here intended as the multiparty elections held in 1990 in the various Yugoslav republics), with the victory of nationalist oriented political parties, put an end to the (con)federal state. The simple message is: Yugoslavia could not be democratic. Is this position really sustainable by sound facts?

Of course it is well know that Yugoslavia, as state, was basically since the beginning plagued by nationalism, and to say that this multinational state was destined to dissolve, soon or later, is clearly determinist and disputable: I reject the determinist point of view. On the other hand, assuming that a multinational state can function just under a kind of dictatorship and a dictator (like Josip Broz Tito) is as well objectionable.

Even so, from the comparative point of view, after the fall of the Berlin wall[2], in Europe we had indeed three multinational socialist federations crumbling down into small pieces, and, by contrast, the two German states reunited. Moreover, overstretching the comparison, even Belgium, today, continues to have governance problems related to its multinational character. Nonetheless it still exist on the political map, like Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Coming back to Yugoslavia, and in particular to Socialist Yugoslavia, we should ask why multiparty democracy should have destroyed a multinational (con)federation. In the case of Yugoslavia, democratic oriented dissidents were quite different from the rest of Eastern Europe; even so their form of disagreement existed, had a role in the development of the events before and after the 1980s. The Western democratic or at least non socialist values, in Socialist Yugoslavia, were nurtured and propelled by two main actors: the intellectuals in the field of the humanities and the churches. The Yugoslav dissidents, non communists, democrats, were essentially confined into the boundary of their nation (Serb, Croat, Slovene…). There was, in the mind and public discourse of the Yugoslav dissidents, a sort of equivalency between Yugoslavia (as concept) and communism, communism and absence of freedom. On the other hand, democracy was imaginable just inside a single nation. That is why I said that democracy, under such conditions, led to the dissolution of the Yugoslav state in 1991. There was clearly a deep, non negotiable, antagonism in the new Yugoslav leaders, from Ljubljana to Belgrade (here I consider Slobodan Milosevic as an ancien regime’s member, who got new legitimacy using demagogy and populism; in this sense, compared to the other Yugoslav communists, he was “new”). I am aware that there were also other intellectuals, like Predrag Matvejevic, that were in favor of a democratic Yugoslav state; still, like the federal prime minister Ante Markovic in 1990 and his political party, they had no real appeal on the people, no grass roots support.

Paradoxically, the democrats, “philosophers who became kings”, were the political leaders closer to the instances and wishes of the people, were or became against the Socialist system, exploited demagogical tricks, and led Yugoslavia, as a political community, to its end. I am not, here, extending this single case to an absolute truth, valid in each instance. I am simply trying to explain why this happened to Yugoslavia after the end of Socialist regime. Actually there was in Yugoslavia a real conflict of mentalities, ranging from the most open and western oriented in Slovenia, like the ecological or pacifists movements in Slovenia, to the close and paranoid mentality prevailing in the Yugoslav People Army, a mentality who considered any influence of the West as a “special war” against the country (like in the case of general Veljko Kadijevic). From a certain point of view, the highly contested work of Samuel Huntington, The clash of civilizations, can appear less provocative than it was thought to be.

Actually, the very same balance between freedom/democracy and absence of freedom/authoritarian system even today is not so clear and undisputed. The so called “democratic deficit” in the European Union, in the context of the demagogical refuse of Euro and Europe by the radical parties and movements, especially during a period of crisis, could be an indicator of the need of non democratic instruments for the governance (like the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in order to keep the country functioning).

After this theoretical digression, coming back to the dissidence in Yugoslavia, it should be questioned how was it possible to happen? Where was located the reservoir of dissidence, democracy and nationalism in Yugoslavia? As stated above, the main bastions of resistance to  Socialism were clearly the institutions related to the national identity, like cultural associations and religious ones.

In this conceptual framework, considering the short lived post Socialist Yugoslavia (1990-1991) as a political community tore apart by democracy, made up of nationalist oriented dissidents, could lead us to explore a new possible field of research, what I called above the “cultural track”, the slower one.

Did democracy destroy Yugoslavia?

Did democracy destroyed Yugoslavia? Could Yugoslavia survive without an authoritarian regime? Is it possible to advance a new interpretation of the dissolution of SFRY adopting the “classical” canon for the best form of government?

If we accept this interpretative frame, after the death of the monarch Josip Broz Tito, the optimates (the communist elites), during the 1980s, came into conflict in order to fill the gap of political legitimacy. Milosevic became a “plebeian tribune”. In the context of a multinational state, nationalism, in Gellner’s meaning, became the engine for enhancing people’s support towards the leadership. It was an element of modernization. Populism became the primary political style, in part due to a fragile civil society.

 Finally, in 1990, thanks to the introduction of multi-party democracy, the fracture in the Yugoslav political elite was consumed. At the Yugoslav level, this meant nothing less than anarchy. This new condition of anarchy (after all, like in Albania in 1997) the state “withered away”. So, as a result of non-negotiable visions about a future Yugoslav community, war followed.

First of all we can’t simply assume that the introduction of the democratic regime in a multinational state necessarily implies that it is condemned to explode (after all we already mention the case of Belgium and Canada, but also Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia). Then, even if this was historically true for the post-socialist Eastern federations (Czechoslovakia and Soviet Union plus Yugoslavia), the state dissolution does not have to end into a war.

The responsibility is to be found in the political elites, in the political leaders personalities. But what about civil society? What about culture, values, ideas? Does a warmonger leader simply reflect the attitudes of his/her countrymen?

[1] Jasna Dragović-Soso, “Why did Yugoslavia Disintegrate?,” in State Collapse in South-Eastern Europe. New Perspectives on Yugoslavia’s Disintegration, ed. Lenard J. Cohen et al. (West Lafayette, Ind. : Purdue University Press, 2008), 14.

[2] Of course I do not underestimate the external reasons and influences in the making and dissolution of the Yugoslav state. Here I deliberately focus on the internal factors. For the transnational dimension of Yugoslavia state building see Vesna Drapac, Constructing Yugoslavia, a transnational History, 2010.