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Yugoslav Troubles

In response to:

Yugoslavia: the Awakening from the June 28, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

Mr. Scammell has provided us with a wide ranging survey of Yugoslavia’s troubles [NYR, June 28 and July 19], but he has made one error which has led him to be unfairly pejorative about Serb attitudes towards Kosovo. He is quite right to say that “the Kosovo question looms ever larger as the principal obstacle to progress.” Indeed things there have got worse since he wrote.

His mistake is to say that Kosovo was directly ruled from Belgrade until 1974. The constitution adopted that year was indeed the first to establish home rule for Vojvodina, and Kosovo but Tito was not a man to fuss over constitutional niceties. Already after riots in 1968 he had transferred absolute power to a group of Albanian communists loyal to himself. Its leader, Bakali, was told to refer any problems directly to Tito and disregard the legal obligation to work through the Serbian authorities.

Unsurprisingly, having been brutally repressed by the Serb Stalinists until 1968, the albanians took their revenge. When I made my own visits to Kosovo in 1981 and 1983 the Serb minority were certainly being harassed. In several villages there were ugly slogans “a clean Kosovo” (meaning a Kosovo without Serbs) inspired by tribal rather than religious feeling: a certain proportion of the Albanians declare themselves Christian.

In one village, after the shooting of the head of the last Serbian family remaining there, a Serb delegation appealed to General Ljubicic, then President of Serbia, to seek protection and compensation. They were told that this was an internal matter for the province and the general had no power to intervene.

The writer, Dobrica Cosić, gave me a confidential list of Serbs in Pristina, whom I met in conditions of secrecy similar to those required for meeting dissidents in the USSR. For years, Tito imposed an absolute ban on any reporting from Kosovo in the Yugoslav press.

Scammell is surely right to say that, with nearly 90 percent of the Kosovo population Albanian, the Serbs cannot perpetuate direct rule from Belgrade. What he fails to see is that the Serbian minority has good reason for its fears.

In “a new Yugoslavia” the Serbs would surely be right to insist on a federally enforceable bill of rights and a federal ban on incitement to racial violence. It would also be fair to allow the Serb Orthodox Church extra territorial control over Peć and other great Byzantine monasteries, which they cannot be expected to be willing to leave under Albanian stewardship.

Nora Beloff
London, England

Michael Scammell replies:

I agree with Nora Beloff that Tito was not unduly concerned with constitutional niceties, but I doubt that he transferred “absolute power” to anyone in 1968. The arrangement with Bakali sounds very similar to that which Tito traditionally established with all republican and regional leaders in Yugoslavia (and which was so thoroughly upset by the Croations in 1968–1971, hence Tito’s decisive intervention). I accept her point, however, that this arrangement was new for Kosovo and did signal a change in the balance of power between the Serbs and the Albanians there. With regard to the Serbian minority in Kosovo, I did not mean to suggest that they were not discriminated against at all, or that justice was entirely on the Albanian side. Unfortunately both populations have suffered atrocities and have reason to be fearful. What I tried to say in the space available was that the principal responsibility for the mess there today lies with the Serbs, and that the wave of hysteria whipped up by the Miloševíc government and the latter’s repressive policies in Kosovo are counterproductive. Of course Serbs too would benefit from a “federally enforceable bill of rights and a federal ban on incitement to violence.” Unfortunately the chief obstacle to any such bill of rights, either within Serbia or in the federation as a whole, is Miloševíc himself, who seems determined to restore the Titoist model.

In such conditions it is unlikely that the Albanians, should they have the power, would consent to the Serbs exercising “extraterritorial control” over Peć and the Orthodox monasteries on their territory. The key to fairness in these matters is a fair political settlement, from which other agreements would follow.

May I take this opportunity to clarify one or two statistical points that have been brought to my attention? In discussing the Croatian election results (which I received by telephone in the course of writing my articles), I indicated that Franjo Tudjman’s Croatian Democratic Alliance had received “70 percent” of the vote, thus gaining an absolute majority in the Social-Political Chamber of the Croatian Assembly. In fact, the Alliance secured 41.5 percent of the vote, but thanks to Croatia’s first past-the-post electoral system, gained just under 70 percent of the deputies elected.

Secondly, in describing a country where population figures have important political consequences, I am sorry to say that I cited some out-of-date figures. They came from a Yugoslav handbook consulted in Belgrade, which I now realize predated the 1981 census. According to that census, the figures for the nationalities discussed in my article are as follows: Serbs, 8,140,452; Montenegrins 579,023; Croats, 4,428,005; Slovenes, 1,753,554; Albanians, 1,730,364; Macedonians, 1,339,729. In addition, 1,999,957 people declared themselves to be Muslims, and 1,219,045 described themselves either as “Yugoslav” or as belonging to some other category.

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