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  • Serbia's Road to War
  • V.P. Gagnon Jr. (bio)

Not so long ago, Yugoslavia was the shining star of Eastern Europe. Although it faced structural problems similar to those of the other socialist countries, it was open to Western culture, its citizens traveled and worked throughout Western Europe, its political elite was much more cosmopolitan and Western-oriented than that of other socialist countries, and concepts of liberal democracy were openly discussed and advocated within the ruling Communist party. Indeed, at a time when Mikhail Gorbachev was taking the first tentative steps in the process of change within the Soviet Union, in Yugoslavia secret-ballot multicandidate elections were being held not only within the Communist party, but also among the wider population for top state officials. Within the ruling party itself, arguments were being made about the necessity of multiparty democracy and of private property as the "pillar of the economy." Although the Yugoslav federation clearly faced some restructuring and political conflict, it was far ahead of the curve compared to other socialist countries in the region.

In the forefront of these liberal trends was Serbia's Communist party and much of the Serbian intelligentsia centered in Belgrade. Democratic currents were also strong in Slovenia and existed in every Yugoslav republic's communist party to some extent. Yet Serbia's centrality as the largest republic, the Serbs' status as the largest nationality group in Yugoslavia, and Belgrade's dual status as both the federal and the Serbian capital made Serbia's liberals extremely well-placed to guide the country toward pluralism.

Since the spring of 1991, however, Yugoslavia has been consumed [End Page 117] by a cruel, multisided war that has left hundreds of thousands dead, turned millions more into refugees, and horrified the entire world. Although often explained and even justified in terms of ethnicity and the historical and cultural legacies of the Balkans, the war has in fact been part of a purposeful and rational strategy planned and carried out by the minority of political actors in Serbia who were most threatened by democratizing and liberalizing currents within the Serbian Communist party. Far from being the spontaneous eruption of "ancient ethnic hatreds" brewing in a cultural and historical context hostile to democratization, or the natural result of some objective conflict of interest between ethnic groups, the war was begun precisely because of the relative strength of homegrown pressure for political pluralism and support for liberal democratic values, especially in Serbia.

A shared desire to halt these trends brought together a coalition comprising conservatives at the top of the Serbian party, local and regional party elites whose position and power were integrally bound to the old system, old-line Marxist intellectuals, and elements of the Yugoslav Army (JNA) whose political power and material privileges were the first targets of democratic forces. This coalition used the rhetoric of ethnicity and nationalism to provoke violent conflict along ethnic lines—first to mobilize against Serbian party reformists and to take control of the Serbian and other republic-level parties, and then to prevent newly active noncommunist democratic forces in Serbia from mobilizing the wider population against the regime. The original goal was to recentralize the Yugoslav federation under a newly monolithic and hard-line Communist party. When the revolutionary events of 1989-90 in Eastern Europe and a backlash against Serbian policies in other Yugoslav republics made this objective unattainable, Serbian conservatives moved to destroy Tito's Yugoslavia and to build on its ashes a "Greater Serbia" in which they could continue to use an image of threatened Serbdom to slow or halt the shift toward pluralism sweeping the region. This strategy not only severely weakened the democratically inclined opposition within Serbia, but also bolstered antidemocratic forces in the other republics, particularly Croatia. Conflict along ethnic lines was thus actively created and provoked by certain political actors in order to forestall native trends toward democratization.

The conventional wisdom about Yugoslavia's ordeal is that democratization was impossible because of the supposedly ancient ethnic hatreds that burst forth as soon as communist rule ended and that doomed the region to nightmarish violence. Ethnic conflict is thus taken as natural and inevitable, and...


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pp. 117-131
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