Bosnian Past in Debate: Cosmopolitan or Nationalist? – part 1

January 10, 2020

Yugoslavia was a very complicated country. Today, theorists consider the Yugoslav model to be one of the largest experiments in state organization in the world. The country was comprised of so many differences – different religions, nations, different levels of development, etc. In the 73 years of Yugoslavia’s existence, the country dealt with these unbalances. The country, particularly the one created after 1945, was based on the idea of tolerance, and not just coexistence, but indeed joint existence. And this proved to be possible.

The first Yugoslav Constitution from 1946 defined Yugoslavia as a federal state made of six federal units (Peoples’ Republic of Serbia, Peoples’ Republic of Croatia, Peoples’ Republic of Slovenia, Peoples’ Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Peoples’ Republic of Macedonia, and Peoples’ Republic of Montenegro), with the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and the Autonomous Kosovo-Metohija Region as parts of Serbia. Therefore, the Yugoslav federation was built as a federation of republics, not as federation of peoples, where the model used to construct the Yugoslav federalism was a copy of the Soviet model and where the historical regions inhabited by more than one nation were given the status of federal units (republics), while the ethnically mixed regions were given the status of a province or a region.

The beliefs that the national issue in Yugoslavia was a matter of the past, that it had been resolved through the communist revolution in the war, and that the concept of a federation as the best model for organizing the Yugoslav states had satisfied the national communities’ aspirations proved to be deceptive shortly after the end of the Second World War. The communist leaders’ statements about the national issue being resolved served the purpose of legitimizing the new authorities and the new social relations, and did not express a deep conviction of the righteousness of the publicly expressed views on the national issue. The federal organization of the country, with its six republics, was a way of satisfying national aspirations, but at the same time, the fact that only five nations had been recognized (Slovenians, Croats, Serbs, Macedonians and Montenegrins), leaving the status of Muslims unresolved, showed at the very beginning of the Yugoslav socialist state’s existence that the Yugoslav communists, in the new political and social circumstances, would have to deal with the national issue all over again.

Yugoslavia was the most complex case. With respect to the “national issue”, the new government walked a thin line. During the years between wars, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia had provided strong support to the unitary yugoslavism, even before the government formally adopted such a policy. Still, yugoslavism as seen by the communists was, at least in theory, rather different from what the majority of other unitarists proposed between the wars.

The issue of nationalism and literature in the post-communist Eastern Europe was exceptionally complex, primarily because, as one might think, it is not easy to decide how to understand nationalism in this context.

Various events and processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina mostly oscillated between advocating for decentralization on one hand, and political moves from the party leadership to prevent crossing the allowed threshold of democratization within a single party system of power, on the other.

During the period between 1957 and 1961, the general public may have had the impression that the Yugoslav party leadership vacillated between democratization and centralization of the role of party/state in the society, feeling that their leading position was threatened by both of these options. Reading the speeches of the then leading party officials, it is hard to understand which direction they had taken. The reform crisis in the 1960s had left its mark on the social, political, economic, cultural, and other areas of life in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In each of the other communist countries of the Eastern bloc, there was a clearly dominant national group, but each also had minority populations of various sizes. The official policy with respect to the minority was that of tolerance, but, particularly at the times of crisis when the communist authorities felt the need to preserve their legitimacy, this could backfire against the minorities.

The “new national identities” — Serbs, Croats and Slovenians — in socialist Yugoslavia did not have a problem with their own national identities; however, there were diverging views of the roles of such national communities in Yugoslavia. Their existence as national communities had never been questioned, but their mutual relationships collided on other issues. Generally, everybody had the feeling of inequality in Yugoslavia, and this feeling of inequality gained strength in times of crisis, seriously compromising the functioning of Yugoslavia as a country.

By 1989, President Milosević had undermined and weakened Yugoslav federalism, which forced others to start thinking about alternatives to Yugoslavia. The biggest problem of the Croatian ruling elites was how to restrain the tiger of Croatian nationalism, which was waking up, without losing power, and, if their power could not be maintained, how to prevent revenge and the loss of privileges after 40 years of dictatorship. The elites, which had failed to stand against Milošević, who started exporting his destructive nationalist forces to Croatia in June 1989, allowed the establishment of several new organizations after some procrastination – but these were not yet political parties. While this process was evolving, the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the Yugoslav communists lost every political advantage they had against the elites. Still, the League of Communists of Croatia would never have approved the elections if they had not been confident about their victory. They failed to stay in power; quite the opposite, they lost to the Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Community. This movement was self-confident, albeit without a fully developed ideology; still, they fit well with the Croatian national movement, which was almost unstoppable at the time. In these circumstances, without any defensive intervention from Eastern European elites, the Croatian communists lost power almost without any resistance, and they were certain, of course, that the new government would not start persecuting or harming them in any way.

This was the beginning of the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which already started to dissolve in the next year, leading to its ultimate division and disappearance.