Fallacy II: 'Age-Old Ethnic Hatreds

ERIK GORDY

February 28, 1993|By ERIK GORDY

"Centuries-old ethnic hatreds" is the capsule summary mos Western reporters use to explain what's driving the conflict in the former Yugoslavia. It is largely untrue.

An examination of the history of the area shows not only a long tradition of coexistence and cooperation among the various South Slav groups, but that none has been able to advance without forming coalitions with the others.

While their differences may now appear irreconcilable, the Serbs and Croats have fought each other exactly once in history, during World War II.

But it was the Partisans, a multiethnic force promising equality for all national groups, who overwhelmed both of these chauvinist armies and set up a unified Yugoslavia.

Moreover, there is evidence of cooperation between Serbs and Croats going back as far as the fateful battle of Kosovo in 1389. While Serbian nationalists point to this battle as the great formative moment of Serbian nationhood, Croatian and Slovenian soldiers fought on the side of the Serbs against the expansionist Ottoman Empire.

In the 19th century, the Austro-Hungarian empire encouraged ethnic strife between Croats and Serbs in Dalmatia and Croatia-Slavonia, provinces under their control which corresponded roughly with the present borders of Croatia. But the anti-Serb parties sponsored by the Empire could neither compare in membership nor compete with the Serbo-Croatian Coalition, which joined with the Slovene National Party to emphasize the common interests of the South Slav peoples against Austro-Hungarian domination.

In Bosnia, where land frequently changed hands during the time that empires ruled the Balkans, peasants formed multi-family groups made up of both Christians and Muslims to farm the land collectively. When the Austro-Hungarians took over an area, the peasants would appoint a Christian family to head the group; when Ottomans took control, the peasants would appoint a Muslim family. This collaboration allowed peasant families of both religions to circumvent the discriminatory policies of whichever power was in control.

Real political trouble between Croatia and Serbia developed only after World War I. The new state of Yugoslavia quickly revealed itself to be dominated not just by the old government of Serbia but by Belgrade business interests who neglected the peasants of Serbia as much as those of Croatia. In the parliamentary elections of 1935, an opposition coalition led by the Croatian Peasant Party received overwhelming support in Serbia -- despite the fact that ethnic hatred was said at the time to be reaching a peak.

Now as then, the groups who make the news are those with a vested interest in promoting ethnic hatred -- leaders of private armies such as Radovan Karadzic (the leader of the Bosnian Serbs), or former Communist politicians who have discovered nationalism as a way of saving their lost popularity, like Franjo Tudjman (president of Croatia).

Meanwhile, what is happening on the ground? Ordinary civilians, against whom the war is being conducted, are forming groups to carry on the tradition of multiethnic cooperation, often at great risk.

* In the Serbian-controlled region of Vojvodina, a group of Serbs, Hungarians, Ruthenes and Gypsies are organizing to try to prevent the militarization of their region and the expansion of the war.

* In the ravaged Croatian town of Osijek, a multiethnic group is working with refugees traumatized by their war experiences.

* A letter from the besieged Bosnian town of Trebinje to the Belgrade magazine Vreme discusses the multiethnic peace movement there, which has received no news coverage or other recognition. More is known about the multiethnic staff of the Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje, continuing somehow to produce their paper from the basement of their bombed-out building.

There are undoubtedly more groups in the former Yugoslavia cooperating, pushing for peace, and building the bridges that will make possible what institutions emerge from this horrible war. Without private armies or seats at the U.N. negotiations, they rarely gain a public voice. Since they oppose the nationalism of their governments or of the gangs which are destroying their towns, they are largely prevented from organizing, publishing, or otherwise communicating. But they are the voices of people struggling non-violently for survival -- the only hope for the future of the region.

Erik Gordy is completing a Ph.D at the University of California, Berkeley. He wrote this commentary for Pacific News Service.

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