The Trouble With Yugoslavia

May 18, 1991

Yugoslavia's 24 million people are preoccupied with how difficult it is to keep that country together when the nationalist passions driving them are Serb, Croat, Albanian, Slovene and Macedonian rather than Yugoslav. With strong autonomist and free-market movements in Croatia and Slovenia and with dominant Serbs insisting on centralized and Serbian-run communism, the Serb Communists broke the rules by repudiating the Croatian in line to assume the rotating chairmanship of the collective presidency.

What they ought to think about is how much worse it would be to break apart. No clean split is in sight. Except for Slovenia, nationalities do not coincide with borders. One-fifth of Yugoslavs are estimated to live in families of mixed nationality.

Part of Croatia that is historically Serbian wants to secede and some of its people have died in the attempt. Yet these Serbs are not contiguous to Serbia or a majority of the Serb minority in Croatia. Vojvodina, an autonomous province (of Serbia, not Yugoslavia) is a mosaic of non-Yugoslav nationalities, such as Romanian and Hungarian. If they tolerate Yugoslavia, they would never accept living in a mono-national Serbia.

And then there is Kosovo, another autonomous province of Serbia. Almost all its people are Albanian. It might seem reasonable for them to secede and join Albania, but no one in his right mind would do that during the present state of affairs in Communist Albania. Furthermore, Kosovo was the heartland of medieval Serbia and the site of a momentous battle in the 14th century (which Serbia lost). Serbs are very attached to it. Little Albania would never attack Yugoslavia to acquire Kosovo. But if Kosovo were in revolt against a Serbia at war with Croatia, that could be another story.

Yugoslavs not only need Yugoslavia, they have always known so. Slovenes hated being part of Austria. Croats resented Hungary. Serbs fear Turkey and Greece. What Yugoslavs need is more tolerance toward each other.

Croats and Slovenes might concede that autonomy, not independence, is what they crave. Serbs might agree they are not a majority of the whole country. Ethnic Albanians in Kosovo might admit to delight that their country is not Albania. Slobodan Milosevic, the charismatic Serbian nationalist-Communist leader, might reflect that his pretensions frighten everyone who is neither Serbian nor Communist, and moderate them.

Otherwise, they are headed to a catastrophe that would treat Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Albanians and all the others quite alike.

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