Why Did Yugoslavia Break Up?

Professor Mitja Zagar is a specialist at the University of Ljubljana on international law and constitutions, as well as on ethnic relations. He was a speaker at Science for Peace's March conference, "The Lessons of Yugoslavia." Afterwards he talked further with Metta Spencer about the collapse of his former country and the wars that followed

By Metta Spencer | 1997-05-01 12:00:00

METTA SPENCER: What destroyed Yugoslavia?

MITJA ZAGAR: In the long term, it is impossible to preserve a state through oppression or promises alone. The mechanisms of the state must realize common interests. Unfortunately, there was a total absence of constitutional tools for the prevention, management, and resolution of ethnic conflict.

SPENCER: What would such mechanisms look like and why didn't they exist in the constitution of Yugoslavia?

ZAGAR: We needed institutions to identify common interests, to mediate, and to prevent the blockage of the necessary political consensus. The right to veto certain decisions would give groups some protection from injury.

Post-World War II constitutions in Yugoslavia espoused the communist idea that the national liberation movements had resolved all ethnic and class conflicts. Any ethnic conflicts in the post-war period were resolved by informal mechanisms within the Communist Party (the League of Communists of Yugoslavia) or by President Tito. Their moral power and public image, or in some cases repression, calmed situations. The government was able to pacify opposition with the promise of an improved standard of living, either through internal development or foreign aid, until the '80s. Yugoslavs working abroad also contributed to the economy.

This changed with the death of President Tito in 1980 and the dissolution of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in the late '80s and in 1990. The loss of these centripetal forces put Yugoslavia on the road to disaster.

SPENCER: What about traditional mechanisms of resolving conflicts?

ZAGAR: There were diverse methods and rules that determined the relations and communications between different ethnic groups. Traditionally communities had a leading member communicate their interests and mediate conflict. Often two communities lived next to one another but hardly ever met and interrelated. It was clear where intermarriage was possible and where it was not. These channels varied from place to place, but generally were undemocratic and intolerant. Nevertheless, they prevented conflict between communities. At the same time, there were places, sometimes just the next village, where different ethnicities did mix in friendship, work, marriage and other bonds.

When the state began to influence people more directly, its authority conflicted with traditional mechanisms. Some of the latter were prohibited.

SPENCER: Should they have been?

ZAGAR: In some cases yes, but others should have been transformed or kept insofar as they promoted cooperation. Conflicts are a normal state of affairs in every pluralistic society. It is their escalation which prevents normal functioning and becomes dangerous. Traditional mechanisms prevented escalation, and the state did not replace them.

SPENCER: Did those intermediaries straddle the communities? For example, were they part of mixed marriages?

ZAGAR: Not necessarily. They were people of high repute within a community, often formal office-holders, such as priests or the wealthy. The state called these mechanisms undemocratic and abolished them.

SPENCER: How was this done?

ZAGAR: Property problems, trade disputes, and the like were transferred to the courts, to administrative bodies and to the police so the role of local mediation was diminished and started to fade away. Direct intervention occurred when traditional mechanisms were perceived as parallel to administrative ones. This was motivated by the fear that other methods would rival state ones.

SPENCER: I was told in the early '80s that Yugoslavia was the most decentralized country in the world. Did this hasten the break-up? Does decentralization hasten the break-up of states in general?

ZAGAR: Centralization and decentralization are simultaneous trends in every society. It is a question of balance. If interests within a state are similar, then a high level of centralization is acceptable. If interests are diverse then decentralization is a better solution. What states and constitutions must do is provide the framework for common interest, the central unifying force in all states, which will in the long term ensure the existence of the state. When this disappears, even unitary states tend towards dismantling, or at least change. In the long term, repression or other methods will not keep people together.

In Yugoslavia after the late '80s there were two parallel systems. One was decentralized, provided by the 1974 Constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, and the other was the Party system, which was centralist but was slowly decentralizing. The latter was parallel to the state, possessed the monopoly of power, and had kept the country together.

SPENCER: So the Party was unified?

ZAGAR: Not all the time, but it was much more unified than the state itself.

SPENCER: Did something change in Yugoslavia to make people's interests less compatible?

ZAGAR: The cultural, political and economic divisions were widening. There were two competing political concepts-one of them unitarist, which was fighting in the '80s to reinstall the Party monopoly in the political system, one of them decentralist which advocated further democratization in a Western style. There was no mechanism to provide a fair forum for debate between these factions and no way to force a dialogue. Most importantly, common interest didn't seem to exist. Previously, the League of Communists and President Tito had indicated common interest and mobilized people. It was not part of the constitution.

So the death of Tito and the demise of the Communist Party led to a multiplicity of interests. Specific interests were formulated at the republic level, which resolved internal differences to a certain extent, but hindered co-existence, interplay, and the creation of new common interests.

SPENCER: You said recently that in the former Yugoslavia there was a correlation between support for democracy and decentralization or separatism, while the opposing ideology of centralization was primarily a Communist one.

ZAGAR: Basically, this is true. Prime Minister Markovic was a reformist who proposed some economic centralization but otherwise the main proponents of centralization were traditional Com-munists. Tendencies of democratization and decentralization formed within some more liberal communist republics in the 1980s. Serbia and Montenegro demanded a more unified federation and a stronger Communist Party while Slovenia and Croatia demanded further decentralization and more democracy.

This conflict was seen as an ethnic conflict between Serbia and Slovenia, even though it was essentially a political one between the respective leaderships. Croatians and Serbians were traditionally perceived as in conflict, so when Croatia joined in, this was also seen as ethnic, not political and economic.

The late '80s were a struggle for succession to President Tito. Milosevic saw the void first and tried to succeed Tito, while other leaders pushed for more autonomy. Milosevic began to declare opponents' proposals unconstitutional and counter-revolutionary, using traditional Communist language to delegitimize them, reducing the opportunity for negotiation and compromise. Communi-cation eventually became impossible.

SPENCER: If you disagreed with Milosevic you were counter-revolutionary and therefore not to be spoken to?

ZAGAR: It was more complex, but yes.

SPENCER: I see a parallel here with Russia, where the so-called democrats supported Yeltsin and wanted to break up the country, while the Communists wanted to hold it together. In the West, there was no linkage between belief in democracy and secession. Most of us wouldn't have wanted the Soviet Union or Yugoslavia to break up, but we did want them to become democratic.

ZAGAR: Slovenia and Croatia wanted independence, but they might not have dismantled Yugoslavia if more agreeable arrangements could have been made. Cooperation in the form of a communal entity was possible. Some international players, including the U.S., tried to keep Yugoslavia together at all costs, to show the USSR that they disapproved of secession. The USSR dismantled anyway and everyone forgot Yugoslavia.

Messages from abroad were often mixed. On the one hand, democratic movements were encouraged in Slovenia and Croatia. On the other, there were signs that the West would tolerate drastic measures to preserve unity, such as repression and the imprisonment of certain leaders. So everyone in Yugoslavia interpreted these messages as support for their own cause. Internal factors were most important in the crisis, but the importance of international factors should not be understated.

SPENCER: Was there any option both to democratize and keep the former Yugoslavia together?

ZAGAR: The constitution did not provide the structure to resolve differences and, because of all the differences, there was no consensus to change the constitution. It was a vicious circle. Joining the European Union could have given Yugoslavia mechanisms to resolve differences and would have helped democratization, as it did in Greece, Spain and Portugal. If there had been pressure and help to reform the federation the situation might have been resolved. If Yugoslavia had been included in a larger system, two different political systems could have co-existed in the country.

SPENCER: In anglophone Canada there is a lot of opposition to the notion of "distinct society." Was there the same kind of opposition to asymmetrical federalism in Yugoslavia?

ZAGAR: The problem with Meech Lake was that it referred only to the francophone community and not to native communities. This inclusion might decrease the conflict occuring between francophone and anglophone Canada.

In Yugoslavia the problems were worse because proposals for reform, decentralization, and asymmetrical federalism were proclaimed unconstitutional and counter-revolutionary and thereby eliminated from legitimate political discourse. Thanks to the democratic tradition, this has not happened in Canada.

SPENCER: The crunch came in the dispute over whether to have a federal election or separate elections in the republics. Didn't Slovenia take the lead?

ZAGAR: After democracy took root in certain republics, elections were needed because the existing structure was no longer representative of the balance of power. But the building of democracy takes time. The environment in the republics was not a Western one. Even Slovenia, which had gone through a transition, did not have a tradition of party organization or established party ideologies. The timing of elections is a chicken-and-egg dilemma because without elections these mechanisms cannot be introduced.

Organizing federal elections was also a problem. Would they be done in accordance with the existing system which was incompatible with political pluralism? There was a need for restructuring, but no consensus on how to do it. The smaller republics would not agree to a proportional system of federal election.

SPENCER: Should the holding of republic-level elections have been contingent on having a federal election as well?

ZAGAR: I don't think that was possible. There was a gap and elections were necessary to fill it.

SPENCER: But did the elections make the situation worse?

ZAGAR: Not in Slovenia. In Croatia, had it not been for the war, the elections would have helped normalize the situation. In Bosnia-Hercegovina it could have been better had it not become a clear-cut ethnic division. Simply copying the Western system was not a good idea for certain parts of Yugoslavia. Slovenia was the exception. No one took this into account. Nobody tried to search for alternative solutions. Here, informal support from the international community would have been welcome.

In retrospect, I think the point of no return came in 1988 when Milosevic consolidated his power within the Communist party in Serbia. After that, enforcement or at least encouragement from abroad was necessary.

SPENCER: You were involved in writing the constitution for Slovenia. What was done to protect minority rights?

ZAGAR: We studied over 100 constitutions and almost all the international documents that made provisions for human rights and tried to include most of the recent developments in the Slovenian constitution of 1991. We included the protection of minorities, prohibition of discrimination, equality of cultures and languages, and freedom of religion in the document. We drew lessons from Yugoslavia and other parts of the world that have encountered problems regulating inter-ethnic relations and protecting minorities. We established direct representation in the parliament for very small minorities (Hungarian and Italian) because normal political processes would not have given them a voice. These representatives have a veto on decisions that violate minority rights. The constitution also provides these groups with a level of cultural autonomy, the right to education in their own language, access to media, and to make some local decisions. Only the Gypsy community was too dispersed to benefit from these provisions. Ethnic Hungarians and Italians are also free to develop cooperation with their mother states, and the Slovenian state is bound to support minorities and the infrastructure to realize their special rights.

SPENCER: Wonderful.

ZAGAR: It is one of the many possible ways to go. This method contributes to ethnic understanding and cooperation and is also welcomed by the minorities themselves.

Peace Magazine May-June 1997

Peace Magazine May-June 1997, page 20. Some rights reserved.

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