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  • Minorities, Majorities, Law, and Ethnicity: Reflections of the Yugoslav Case
  • Tibor Várady (bio)

I. Introduction

The disintegration of Yugoslavia’s multicultural community has become the most dramatic and brutal event in post World War II Europe. After several decades in which diversity was reasonably protected and fostered, slanderous stereotypes of ethnic intolerance broke loose, and reality moved to match these negative stereotypes. Increasing numbers of Serbs, Croats, Moslems, and others have started to behave exactly the way irresponsible and rancorous members of rival groups have depicted them. The result is a grotesque state of mind, in which Radovan Karadzic, one of the most important leaders of a nation which until recently enjoyed international sympathies, explained that “[w]e Serbs are not against the whole world; the whole world is against us.” 1

For those who have lived through the years of the Yugoslav quagmire, as well as for those who have observed it, one of the most intriguing questions today is how the Yugoslav multicultural community was structured. What made it viable, at least temporarily? Not less challenging is the [End Page 9] question of how a multicultural coexistence can be re-structured in the successor states of the former Yugoslavia.

II. Minorities and Majorities: Changing Concepts and Notions

A. “Nations” and “Nationalities”

Ever since its founding after World War I, and throughout several changes in both its name and its social structure, Yugoslavia has had a minority problem. Simultaneously, Yugoslav legislation did not always recognize the term “minority,” and it was often unclear which ethnic groups were included in the term “minority” or alternate expressions. The term “minority” was not used in the federal constitution of 1974, nor in any of the corresponding constitutions of the six Yugoslav republics and two provinces. A terminological distinction was made between “nations” (narodi) and “nationalities” (narodnosti). “Nations” were the Slavic nations founding the Yugoslav (South Slav) state, which included Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and Moslems. The other ethnic groups, Slavic and non-Slavic alike, were called “nationalities.” According to a frequently used and stressed criterion, “nationalities” were those ethnic groups that had a state outside of Yugoslavia—such as Albanians, Hungarians, Slovaks, Romanians, or Italians—while “nations” had Yugoslavia as their only form of statehood. 2 It was understood that “nationalities” were actually the minorities.

When the distinction was made, it had no particular relevance in practical terms, nor did it yield different individual or collective rights. Its significance was merely symbolic. Nevertheless, symbols carry great importance in this part of the world. In the spiral of competing nationalisms, symbols are relied upon by most people as indicators of direction. When Croatia, striving for greater independence, proposed in 1990 the transformation of Yugoslavia into a confederation, one of the counter-arguments most vehemently advanced by Serbs and Serbia was that such a transformation would reduce the Serbs living in Croatia to a “nationality,” i.e., a minority. Serbia—with a non-Serb population of about 35 percent, 3 the [End Page 10] overwhelming majority of whom belonged to “nationalities”—kept insisting upon a hierarchy of group rights, and that “nations” were entitled to more than “nationalities.” Croatia—at that time with a non-Croat population of about 22 percent, the majority of whom belonged to the Serbian “nation” 4 —challenged this distinction.

The debate over these semantic differences, or quasi-differences, was further fueled when the rather controversial notion of the “right of people to self-determination” 5 became the key slogan of various political aspirations. The term “people” translates into Serbian and Croatian as narodi, a word which also means “nations.” Consequently, because the term “people” was used as opposed to “nationalities,” i.e., narodnosti, it has been argued that only narodi have the right to self-determination. This terminological coincidence was used to replace the context of some international documents with the context and terminology of the 1974 Yugoslav constitutions.

It would be quite difficult to justify a differentiation between “nations” and “nationalities” on the grounds of either the individual or collective rights of group members and groups in a minority position. The right of an ethnic group to use its own language and alphabet, as well as...

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