Yugoslavia and the ghosts of nationalism

  • Themes: The Lost Decade - 1990s Week on Engelsberg Ideas

The breakdown of Yugoslavia in the 1990s shattered optimism in liberal democracy and transnational cooperation. History did not end – it continued.

A burned-out building during the Seige of Sarajevo
A burned-out building during the Seige of Sarajevo, 1994. Credit: Andia/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

The 1990s, we were told, would be the era in which transnationalism would triumph over nationalism. No-one would pursue empire and the shadows thrown by the two world wars would disappear in the radiant sunlight of liberal democracy. Instead, the ghosts of ultranationalism were awakened and roamed the darkness of the Balkans, when a successful transnational experiment – Yugoslavia – was violently pulled apart.

In 1989 the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama had published his influential essay ‘The End of History?’. Three years later, when it came out as a book, the question mark had disappeared. We were witnessing, he wrote ‘the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. Fukuyama and his supporters did not suggest that events of significance would no longer happen, but they were naïve in agreeing that ‘at the end of history’ as Fukuyamu wrote,  societies would ‘end their ideological pretensions of representing different and higher forms of human society’.

And then more than 100,000 people were murdered in the middle of Europe when nationalism and religious bigotry swept through Yugoslavia. It continued through most of the decade, wiping one country from the map and replacing it with seven.

Yugoslavia loosely translates as ‘Land of the Southern Slavs’ and indeed most of the populations were Slavic, but they were also Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, and among other things were Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Muslims. Until its fall they were all in one state, but mostly divided into distinct regions. Its nucleus was formed from parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after the First World War and named Yugoslavia in 1929. Dominated by Serbia it held together as a unit until the Second World War despite challenges from nationalist movements, notably in Croatia. During the war much of the country was occupied by the Axis powers, Croatia became a puppet of Nazi Germany and a multi sided civil war ensued in which the Partisan movement emerged triumphant which paved the way for Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Party to lead the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The relatively soft dictatorship of Tito presided over what was, for a communist country, a successful economy. The party succeeded in forming a Yugoslav identity that covered some of the cracks opened up by the earlier civil war. But after his death in 1980 they began to reappear. The collapse of communism in eastern Europe in 1989 meant numerous countries established their independence from a central power (Russia) with the inevitable knock-on effect in Yugoslavia. Despite being a communist country, Yugoslavia was not aligned with the Soviet Union. Its leaders felt Moscow was a threat to its integrity, and with that threat removed so was a major incentive for Yugoslavian unity.

It was a sixty-year experiment which could not survive the more powerful forces of centuries of history. There have been variations of a Croatian state since the seventh century, Serbia has existed since the thirteenth, and at times a Serbian Empire has covered most of what became Yugoslavia. It lost territory to the Ottomans, regained some of it during the Balkan Wars  1912-13, and set about trying to keep it in the 1990s.

The end of the Cold War thawed the permafrost which had frozen other earlier conflicts and, in some of the former Soviet satellites, allowed inter-communal disputes to flare into violence as for example in Nagorno Karabakh. Elsewhere, there were examples of ethnic- and class-based conflict – Rwanda is a case in point. And there was religious extremism in the form of violent Islamism that began to spread worldwide in the 1990s.

There was another sort of wishful thinking going on in the decade – the belief that economic liberalism would lead to political liberalism. The Russian dash to capitalism failed to democratise its institutions. The ‘end of history’ failed to end Moscow’s ancient desire to control the flat land to its west to protect Mother Russia. Instead, it set out to reimpose itself in its former empire resulting in military action in Georgia and Ukraine – both examples of how force has been used to redraw the maps.

In China, the Communist Party had every intention of becoming a capitalist giant but no intention whatsoever of allowing its one billion people to become part of the universal liberal democracy previously foretold. Nor did it make any moves towards dismantling its own empire in places such as inner Mongolia, Tibet and Xinxiang. Beijing will not even contemplate anything more than a sham, limited autonomy. The example of Yugoslavia and elsewhere has shown it what can happen.

The 1990s were also a time when it became fashionable to write off the nation state, an intellectual fashion still stalking some salons. In 1997, in an influential essay published in Foreign Affairs magazine, Jessica Mathews argued that the end of the Cold War and the rise of technology rendered the nation state obsolete. Instead, supranational organizations such as the EU and the UN would take on many of the state’s responsibilities even as big business handled many people’s personal affairs such as pensions.

It didn’t work out like that. The EU and UN failed dismally in the Bosnian War and it took the hard power of the US to bring about its end . It was a similar story in Kosovo.

In Yugoslavia there remained deep rooted senses of identity and a desire for self-government. We ignore such sentiment at our peril and risk handing the initiative to the type of brutish charlatans who fanned the flames of ultra-nationalism and climbed over bodies to reach power in the 1990s.

Prejudice appears to be latent in societies, ready to strengthen when governments are unable to respond in a manner deemed appropriate in times of economic and or cultural upheaval. Democratic accountability is required if we want stable societies, but accountability is not something for which supranational organizations are renowned. Nation states have been responsible for some of the most terrible crimes committed in history, but the liberal nation state remains the best system for organizing large complex societies. It was written off far too early. Conversely transnationalism does not necessarily equate to good governance. For all its good points Yugoslavia was a dictatorship. Its destruction was tragic and from it has grown Slovenia – a modern nation state liberal democracy no longer beholden to the whim of Belgrade. 

There was nothing wrong with dreaming of a time when our ideologies would not divide us, when we could agree on a global system. It is a noble aim. But if you believe the era is upon us, and make policy accordingly, for example by not spending enough of the Cold War ‘peace dividend’ on robust defence, then nasty surprises await. On the very last day of the 1990s Vladimir Putin became president of Russia. The decade was not the end of history; it was its continuance.


Tim Marshall