Balkan Strategic Studies

March 2001

Can Yugoslavia Survive?

By Gregory R. Copley, Editor, GIS. By late April 2001, the question was almost moot as to whether or not Montenegro, one of the two states which comprise the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), would hold a referendum on secession from the FRY. Elections in Montenegro on April 22, 2001, did not give the pro-secessionists a true victory, one sufficient to guarantee success in a referendum. But with Yugoslavia -- that bold experiment in multiculturalism which began after World War I -- now down to only two components, the question has arisen whether the Federation itself has a future.

There is little doubt, however, that the relationship of the two states in the Federation, Serbia and Montenegro, will need to change. As well, the balancing of the functions of the states with regard to the Federal or national Government would likely also have to change if the present structure is again to become efficient and if Yugoslavia is to remain the powerhouse of the overall Balkan economy.

Many factors have conspired, in recent years, to force Serbs the numerically overwhelming population group in Yugoslavia to ask themselves the questions: "What is Serbia?" and "Who are the Serbs?" Many Serbs wish to avoid these questions. They believe the answers to the questions are self-evident, but they are not, and indeed by addressing these questions the third question arises: "What should Serbia be in the future? And how should the Serbs re-define themselves?'

Today, almost uniquely in modern society, the Serbs see themselves as they have historically seen themselves: as an ethnic, cultural, linguistic and geographically - linked grouping: a tribe or, at best, a "nation" in the classic sense of the word. And yet society began to evolve and redefine itself into modern statehood in the 16th and 17th centuries, to the point where the nation-state was a fundamentally geographically-based entity which contained citizens who were then said to be of that state. The state was no longer defined by the sphere controlled by a "tribal" leader, but rather by a complex of territorial boundaries, customs, language, laws and, underlying all of this, viability. Old tribal or ethnic-national geographic boundaries almost always became compromised in this process, traded off against increased prosperity and security. The population of the state was defined by those who lived within its boundaries rather than by ethnic categorization.

Serbs, after World War I, embraced the concept of a multi-cultural society, even though ethnically and linguistically their new state -- which ultimately settled down as the kingdom of Yugoslavia -- remained in many ways fairly homogeneous. The predominant differences between the members of the new society (Serbia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia and Macedonia) were either religious or historical-cultural. A fairly common umbrella of language, ethnicity and geographic similarity and contiguity, as well as history, gave Yugoslavia more to bind it together than was the case in most modern states.

The large Serbian populations of North America, Australia and so on, attest to the fact that the Serbia of today is more of a concept than a finite geographic or cultural entity. More than most people, however, the Serbs know who they are from a "tribal" or an historic viewpoint. What is now critical for the future of Yugoslavia is that this sense of who the Serbs are does not stop the renewal, the revival and the future possibilities of the Serbs as part of a nation-state from the 21st Century perspective. The fastest route to the dissipation of the Serbian state is for Serbs to gather in a Masada-like complex and attempt to hide in the fortress of the past. This is a real concern because the tendency to close off to outsiders is a phenomenon well-known in Serbian society and culture. So, then, what future awaits the Serbs? And what possibilities exist?

The most obvious options (and there can be many variations on these themes) include the following:

* 1. Attempting to preserve the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia as a two-state entity of Serbia and Montenegro;

* 2. Abandoning Yugoslavia as a federal concept and creating a unitary state in which Serbia and Montenegro join together;

* 3. Abandoning Yugoslavia and focusing on the creation of the state of Serbia as a sovereign entity, perhaps working toward creating a separate access to the Adriatic through negotiation, and possibly negotiating the union into Serbia of ethnically-Serbian parts of Bosnia-Herze-govina, and so on. In other words, reverting to the basic structure of the Kingdom of Serbia in a current setting and context;

* 4. Expanding Yugoslavia again to embrace a confederation which would include parts of the former Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the later Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, possibly including parts or all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, possibly Macedonia, and so on;

* 5. Creating new states within the existing boundaries of the FRY, including, perhaps, separate states for Vojvodina and Kosovo, with equal rights as states comparable with Serbia and Montenegro. This would create a federal structure more like Canada or Australia, with limited, or no, rights of secession, but with all defense and foreign policy controls in the hands of the Federal Government;

* 6. Working to create a totally different entity within the framework of the European Union, possibly including a confederation which could include a linkage with Macedonia and Greece, even, perhaps in some form, Albania. And so on.

There is no option for Yugoslavia which involves doing nothing, because doing nothing means that what will result will be an imposed solution which will be unacceptable to the Yugoslav population. The nearest thing to a "do nothing" option would be to end the Federal structure now in place, leaving Montenegro to its independence. This would result in a land-locked, reduced Serbia which would still face short-term separatist dissidence in Kosovo and elsewhere, possibly leading eventually to the further destruction of the state, or, at best, leaving it impoverished and self-absorbed in internecine squabbling. This is unacceptable and wasteful of the strengths and leadership which Serbia and Serbians can bring to the Balkans and Europe, and it would result in a vacuum within the critical core of Europe.

The process of disintegration has to stop somewhere and at some time. If Montenegro cannot remain joined with Serbia, then let that be the final step in the break-up of the Serbian family. Serbs themselves have to realize that they cannot continually fragment: for Vojvodina to seek sovereignty, for example, is like suggesting that Surrey should be autonomous from England. It will be difficult enough, as it is, to stop the Kosovo autonomy process from continuing to wreak havoc on Serbia, without indulging in further fratricide.

Any new option for Yugoslavia must again embrace other races, cultures, languages and religions as part of the state, despite the trauma which overcame Yugoslavia in World War II and in the 1990s. To achieve this, a conscious avoidance of xenophobia must be cultivated. Serbia does not compete as a culture with that of the Albanians or Croats. But as a nation-state, Yugoslavia, or Serbia, (in whatever form) must both compete and work with its neighbors to ensure that the state prospers and is secure, and has the maximum flexibility to interact with the rest of the world.