To most folks twentieth century Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic fantasy that ended tragically in the 1990s in a virulent civil war, mostly concentrated on but not confined to Bosnia.
Therefore you may ask why I took up this book by Fred Singleton written in the mid 1970s when Tito was still alive. Well the solution is simply I wanted to investigate the circumstances which resulted in the first major armed conflict in Europe since the end of the Second World War and more specifically the lessons in it for additional multi-ethnic states like mine. For of one thing we could be sure and that is that the Yugoslav civil war was not one of a kind and would not be the last at the break-up of multi-ethnic states. What is significant about Yugoslavia is the southern Slavs were united for as long as they were, through much of the twentieth century into one entity, first as a kingdom and subsequently as a republic.
Background to Conflict
Why then did things grow as they did? These are the obvious questions that strike us on any consideration of the Yugoslav issue. To answer the second question first it would be worthwhile reading the most recent book on the issue by Robert West,’Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia.’ I have not as yet but do intend to. However certain obvious things happen to us even before reading that book which is that Yugoslavia existed though in a different form even before Tito’s coming on the scene. Second Tito did not preside over a typical communist state under the stewardship of the L.Y.C. For example private enterprise and tourism were permitted to flourish at a time when they had been heresy into the Communist world. Tito might be thought of as a mild dictator in that respect. He however did enable a nation with modest resources to punch above its weight in global affairs. However he also showed Yugoslavia was able to diversify its options when Cominform turned its back on the country. The remarkable part of this independence was that it did not lead to a Soviet invasion as happened in Czechoslovakia or Hungary. This must be attributed entirely to Tito’s leadership.
Yugoslavia and the Soviet Collapse
Many are tempted to view the Yugoslav civil war from the prism of the Soviet collapse but in my opinion there are limits to such a perspective. For example Yugoslavia wasn’t a typical communist state as stated earlier. However the de-legitimization of this L.Y.C. ideology, of what was a one-party state proved fatal. Also it had been by this time over a decade since the death of Tito in 1980. Undoubtedly the hand of Tito could have been a steadying factor in steering the country through a tricky period but this wasn’t to be. A favorite Western premise is that the rise of ethnic nationalists like Milosevich contributed to the civil war. However this ignores the fact that ethnic loyalties were always paramount in Yugoslavia and had even caused Tito to warn of a potential collapse of the federation according to Fred Singleton. Similarly the cleavage between Roman Catholicism of Croatia and Eastern Orthodoxy of Serbia proved too combustible since it reflected fundamentally different cultural traditions.
Conclusions for the future
Yugoslavia definitely started out well but the failure to create institutions and foster democratization ultimately proved fatal. Economic liberalization alone was not enough. Similarly geography also proved aggressive as the mountainous terrain of the nation impeded the development of national infrastructure that might have welded the nation into a cohesive entity. As far as Fred Singleton’s comprehensive work on the subject is concerned that the book’s most significant lacunae is obviously that it came out too soon, before the twentieth century was truly over. One wishes he had waited for the 1990s to complete and introduced a chapter on the civil war.
From a modern perspective that the chapters on nationalism and geography are of topical interest. While the ex-Yugoslavs May Not contemplate a revival of the dead nation they would do well to facilitate cooperation among themselves through multilateral frameworks for the sum is always greater than the parts and this is nowhere more evident than in the Balkans today