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The New Yugoslavia’: An Exchange

In response to:

Yugoslavia: the Awakening from the June 28, 1990 issue

To the Editors:

In the decade since Tito’s death, the familiar paradigms within which post-1945 Yugoslavia has been commonly seen—revisionist Communism (“Titoism”), self-management, non-alignment, federalism—have become ever more nugatory. As the country’s political life has fragmented among its eight constituent republics and provinces, editors have tended to shy away from such forbidding complexity. So it was very welcome to see NYRB devoting a generous number of pages to Michael Scammell’s articles [NYR, June 28 and July 19]. However, what a waste not to have given that space to an author who knew rather more about his subject!

The list of simple factual errors (leaving aside those corrected in the author’s response to Nora Beloff in NYRB 16/8/1990) is too long to give in full, but the following are particularly salient. 1. There are not “at least as many Serbs as Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina,” but almost twice as many, and “most of that republic’s inhabitants” are not Muslims, but just over 42 percent: the ethnic composition of this central republic (coveted as it is by Croat and Serb ultras alike) is of crucial significance in the country’s current crisis of identity. Serbs do not make up 90 percent of the population of Vojvodina, but about 53 percent: the province’s ethnic diversity was a main consideration in according it the autonomous status that has now been forcibly removed by the Milošević regime in Serbia. 2. The Slovene and Serbo-Croat languages are no more “reciprocally comprehensible” than Italian and Spanish. 3. The “fascist state set up by Pavelić’s Ustasha party” was the result not of Croatian disillusionment with Yugoslavia (real as that was), but of Hitler’s wartime dispensations: to suggest otherwise implicates the Croat nation en bloc in a decision over which the overwhelming bulk of it had no control. Similarly, Croatian participation in “Tito’s Communist federation” was not “on the rebound from Pavelić,” but the end result of four years of mass resistance to the imposed Ustasha puppet state. 4. Vllasi and “a dozen Albanian Communist leaders” did not take the side of ethnic Albanian demonstrators in March 1989. 5. In 1968, Yugoslav students were not “bloodily suppressed by the riot police”—outside of Kosovo—but demobilized by a skilful conciliatory speech from Tito. 6. The “liberal” Party leaders in 1970–71 were not “revisionists” whose criticisms “echoed those of Djilas or the Praxis group.” Neither egalitarian nor particularly democratic in inspiration, they were modernizers favouring greater recourse to the market and greater freedom at the republican level from the constraints of the Party centre. 7. The 1974 Constitution, although finally adopted after the “liberals” had fallen, was very much a product of their thinking: far from seeming “to curb republican autonomy for good,” it did exactly the opposite, enshrining a far greater degree of republican autonomy than hitherto! Hence, the raising of the status of the provinces to that of de facto republics—and federal units in their own right—was not insisted on by Tito “almost incidentally,” it was of a piece with the constitution as a whole. 8. Dobrica Cosić was not expelled from the League of Communists “in the early days of the Croatian spring” because he “criticized the Croatians for excessive nationalism.” He was expelled in 1968, for opposing any real autonomy for Kosovo—which until 1966 had been controlled by hardline Interior Minister Ranković and his secret police. (This mistake is particularly serious, because Cosić has played a pivotal role in the whole ideological construction of a Serbian nationalism centred on the Kosovo myth and the ludicrous fantasy of a “Comintern-Vatican conspiracy against the Serb nation.” As such, he has been Milošević’s true mentor. The current armed rebellion in Serb-inhabited areas of Croatia has followed a scenario for dismembering that republic which Cosić was already outlining five years ago). 9. Fanatical Serb nationalists are indeed threatening to move the Albanians from Kosovo by force: there has been a sustained campaign in the Belgrade press on the need for mass explusions. 10. The statement that the press in Serbia is “more outspoken than it was” is highly misleading. There is no freedom in the Serbian mass media for anyone wishing to challenge the nationalist compact, and the Belgrade press has become a deeply depressing and largely unreadable brew of neo-Stalinist conformity and xenophobic ravings. To cite a survey by the London Financial Times (6 July, 1990): Milošević “turned the Serbian media, once a beacon of liberalism, into a bastion of nationalism and dogmatism. Politika, once the doyen of the Yugoslav press, became the mouthpiece of the Milošević clan and its sycophants.”

The inaccuracy and confusion displayed here—doubtless due to lack of a linguistic knowledge that would have saved the author from reliance on what his interlocutors told him, but compounded by use of a very narrow and flawed selection of English-language sources—fatally undermine Scammell’s historical and political judgments. Given constraints of space, I shall confine myself to two crucial weaknesses, one underpinning, the other crowning the whole article.

The first concerns the nature of the revolution itself. There is ample room for discussion about the “dark side” of Yugoslav communism: its relationship with Stalinism, its use of violence against class enemies at home as well as against Nazi invaders, and so on. But a view of the revolution based on the philippics of anti-communist zealots and conspiracy-mongers like Beloff, Lees and Martin takes us into real “evil empire” country. There is an enormous weight of evidence, Yugoslav and non-Yugoslav, eye-witness and scholarly, for the two central facts contested by such contras. 1. That Mihailović and his chetniks, royalist and purely Serb-based, had by 1943 come to see the Communists rather than the fascist occupation forces as their main enemy, and acted accordingly (i.e., “collaborated”). 2. That the Yugoslav Communist Party under Tito was successful in organizing an immensely popular resistance, cutting across national divisions and holding down large German forces, because it rejected the whole basis of the pre-war state—characterized by royal dictatorship, Serb hegemony and the corrupt, oligarchical rule of an exploiting class—and preached a new order based on national equality and social justice. In short, there was a revolution, and a popular one, which—whatever flaws it may have contained from the start or subsequently developed—cannot be reduced to a Communist plot. Morever, that revolution has some achievements to its credit, in terms of social and national equity, which not just socialists but all democrats should defend. Not to understand this is to understand nothing of Yugoslavia’s postwar history.

The second major weakness—not unconnected with the first—concerns the reasons why the intellectual oppositions in Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia did not come together in the late eighties. Scammell claims that “by far the most influential” unofficial organization created in the eighties, in reaction to the trial of the “Belgrade Six,” was the Committee for the Defence of Freedom of Thought and Expression founded by Cosić in Serbia, and suggests that Croatian and Slovene intellectuals—in the first case because they “didn’t dare join,” in the second because “they didn’t want to appear to be anti-Croat”—missed a golden chance to create an all-Yugoslav opposition by joining Cosić’s committee.

The truth is very different. Ever since the 1981 demonstrations in Kosovo, the over-whelming majority of abuses of human rights and “freedom of thought and expression” had occurred precisely in the province, with ethnic Albanians providing at least 80 percent of Yugoslavia’s prisoners of conscience. Cosić and the Serbian intellectuals grouped in the Academy of Science and Writers’ Union (although some did, very belatedly, oppose the draconian sentences routinely handed out in Kosovo for minor offences like slogan-writing) never defended the “freedom of thought and expression” of their Albanian fellow-citizens; on the contrary, they provided the crucial ideological underpinnng for the whole anti-Albanian campaign. (It is regrettable that Scammell should make no mention of the grotesque 1986 “Memorandum” of the Serbian Academy of Science in this context, since it was emblematic in the mobilization of most Serb intellectuals behind the project of forcibly incorporating Kosovo into Serbia against the will of its population.) So although Croatian and particularly Slovenian intellectuals were quite prepared to take up the cudgels against the trial of the “Belgrade Six,” they could never have seen the Cosić committee as providing any kind of basis for a principled all-Yugoslav democratic opposition. Such an opposition could only be forged on the basis of a whole-hearted defence of the principal democratic achievement of the 1941–1945 revolution: a federal order based on national equality.

Given the extreme disparity of development in Yugoslavia, from Slovenia at one extreme to Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro at the other, there are huge objective difficulties in creating any all-Yugoslav political force. The disintegration of the League of Communists testifes to this, even if it might not have occurred without the advent to power of Milošević. Scammell does not seem to grasp the real significance of the latter’s actions over the past three years. It is not just that he has legitimized and promoted a resurgence of Serb chauvinism; not just that he has defended a neo-Stalinist conception of monolithic party power within his own republic and sought to extend it to the country as a whole; not even just that he has conducted an anti-Albanian policy entailing permanent violence, repression and ethnic discrimination in one part of Yugoslavia. It is that, in the pursuit of these goals, he has deliberately attacked the constitutional order of the whole country, using classic fascist methods of destabilization and extra-legal violence. (The recent suppression of the Kosovo Assembly was merely the latest and most flagrant example.) This has been a tragedy for the Serbs themselves as much as for the other national groups, creating enemies on all sides: Albanians, Macedonians, Croats, Hungarians, Slovenes, Bosnian Muslims. Under cover of a rhetoric identifying Serbian and Yugoslav interests, he has been the great foe of Serbia’s real historic interests—which lie within a wider federal order—and the real destroyer of the Yugoslav project. If nationalism (albeit in a less aggressive guise) is now riding high in Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo as well as in Serbia—if, for example, an overwhelming Slovenian majority in favour of remaining within Yugoslavia has been transformed over the last year into the current majority support for independence—this is the the direct and entirely predictable result of Milošević’s dead-end policies. Friends of Yugoslavia should be in no doubt: this is not a time for bland optimism, however well-intentioned. The only Yugoslavia that can survive, even at this late hour, is one in which its nations and national groups have equal rights. This, the guiding principle which allowed the Partisans to bring about the country’s re-emergence as a single—federal—state in 1945, is precisely what Milošević has now so brutally called into question. Quintin Hoare
London, England

Michael Scammell replies:

I am puzzled by the ad hominem tone of Mr. Hoare’s letter, which seems to derive from a quaint British tradition of substituting insult for argument. Hoare thinks that I lack the necessary linguistic knowledge for commenting on Yugoslavia, and derides my citation of English-language sources (conveniently overlooking the fact that I was asked to review books written in English, not in other languages). I am fluent in Serbo-Croatian, have good command of Slovene, and can read Macedonian fairly easily. Hoare does not state his own qualifications in this field, nor has he the grace to acknowledge that the bulk of his arguments, and many of the statistics he cites, are drawn from an article by Branka Magaš, “Yugoslavia: The Spectre of Balkanization,” that appeared in No. 174 of the New Left Review in April last year. Since Hoare’s name appears on the masthead of the New Left Review, I assume that this is no coincidence. Hoare pretends to find ten “simple factual errors” in my article. On closer inspection, no fewer than six of these “errors” turn out to be matters of opinion dressed up as fact (points 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, and 10). In the case of the remaining four points, Hoare is wrong about two of them, (5 and 9), and right about precisely two more (1 and 8). Let me elaborate.

  1. I pointed out in my reply to Nora Beloff that I was far from my home base when writing these articles and for much of the time without easy access to reference books. I was aware of guessing at the population statistics for Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Vojvodina, and it was sloppy of me not to remember to check them at the proof stage. Hoare, however, makes altogether too much of this slip, for not even he claims that it substantially alters my argument. Hoare also neglects to mention that the results of the 1981 census, whose figures he cites so confidently, were hotly contested at the time, and are still disputed by many commentators inside Yugoslavia.

  2. Any attempt to describe the relationship between Serbo-Croatian (itself consisting of two national variants and numerous dialects) and Slovene (with its own dialects) in a brief phrase will suffer from incompleteness. My definition was a practical one, based on the fact that thousands of “guest workers” from the south are managing to survive and work satisfactorily in Slovenia without knowing Slovene (albeit with linguistic difficulties), while Slovenes visit and work in the south under similar conditions. Hoare, with his vast erudition, might also be expected to know that the Kajkavian dialect of Zagreb and north Croatia bears great similarities to Slovene.

  3. Hoare oversimplifies in his characterization of the Pavelić regime. The Croatian fascist state was certainly part of Hitler’s wartime dispensations, but the Ustaša party and government were overwhelmingly Croatian in composition and enjoyed the support, at least initially, of a significant proportion of an embittered population. How does Hoare explain the passivity and silence of Macek and the Croatian Peasant party (still the strongest party in Croatia) in the face of Pavelić’s rise to power? To acknowledge this fact is not at all to accuse the Croatian nation en bloc of supporting fascism. On the contrary, it was the revulsion of a majority (but again not all) of that same population that led to mass resistance against the Ustaša and support for the Partisans.

  4. I am puzzled by Hoare’s flat assertion of knowledge of Vllasi’s sympathies in March 1989. Why else does he suppose that Vllasi was arrested?

  5. Hoare is wrong. The demonstrating students in Belgrade became involved in street brawls with other youth groups (at whose instigation is not clear) and both sides were violently separated and beaten by riot police. It was only after these skirmishes that Tito made the speech which Hoare terms “skilful,” and that others would call “duplicitous.”

  6. By omitting my qualifying phrase “in some ways,” Hoare misrepresents my comment about the “liberal” republican leaders of 1970-1971 and the similarity of some of their criticisms to those of Djilas and the Praxis group. His “reply” is therefore pointless.

  7. More oversimplification. It is true that the 1974 constitution reflected the thinking of the “liberals,” but that is a tribute to the wisdom of their policies and the strength of their arguments, not to Tito’s magnanimity. Why else does Hoare suppose that the “liberals” themselves were sacked and replaced by yes-men? It is only with hindsight that we can see how the new constitution eventually fostered what it had been designed to prevent.

  8. Mea culpa. Cosić’s expulsion from the League of Communists did coincide with the start of the Croatian spring, to which he was equally opposed, but the principal reason was his attitude to Kosovo, as Hoare indicates.

  9. I did not say that Serb nationalists were not “threatening” to remove Albanians by force. I said the threat was unrealistic.

  10. It should have been clear to Hoare from my use of reported speech that the statement about the Serbian press being “more open” was made by Djilas, not by me. I agree with Hoare’s characterization of the Serbian press in general, while not subscribing to his tabloid terminology.

Hoare makes two further assertions that should not go unchallenged. The first is his statement that the reason the Slovenian and Croatian opposition-minded intellectuals didn’t support Cosić’s Committee for the Defense of Freedom of Thought and Expression was that the committee failed to defend the rights of Albanians against the Serbs. This is not true, and is another example of Hoare’s penchant for arguing from hindsight. I was in touch with most of the principal figures involved in all three republics both at the time the initial talks took place (1984–1985) and in the years following, and Kosovo was not then mentioned as an important point of disagreement. The Albanian question became a critical issue much later, and only then was it sometimes used as an ex post facto justification for the decision of the Slovenes and Croatians not to participate.

The second canard is not dissimilar from the first. “If nationalism…is now riding high in Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo as well as in Serbia,” Hoare writes, “…this is the direct and entirely predictable result of Milošević’s dead-end policies.” While (as I made clear in my articles) I share Hoare’s detestation of Milošević’s policies, and heartily agree that Milošević has immeasurably aggravated an already tense and difficult situation, Hoare oversimplifies once again. The truth is that “nationalism” never died in Slovenia and Croatia (nor in Serbia for that matter). It was possible to meet weighty intellectuals thirty years ago, at the beginning of the Sixties, whose views on Yugoslavia and the place of their republics in the federal framework were virtually identical with those of the opposition leaders today (in some cases, of course, they are the same people). To attribute the whole phenomenon to Milošević and his policies is to be guilty of that very Serbo-centrism that Hoare excoriates. Indeed, the Serbs turn out to be the villains in both these instances.

A possible reason why Hoare misrepresents the ideas and motives of the human rights (and later political) leaders in Croatia and Slovenia emerges from his egregious comment that “[they] could never have seen the Cosić committee as providing any kind of basis for a principled all-Yugoslav democratic opposition. Such an opposition could only be forged on the basis of a wholehearted defense of the principle democratic [Hoare’s emphasis] achievement of the 1941–1945 revoltuion: a federal order based on national equality.” Were Hoare better acquainted with the leaders in question, he would know that the last thing they have in mind is a “defense” of the “achievements” of the 1941–1945 revolution, since they regard that revolution as having achieved neither the democracy nor the national equality that Hoare praises.

Hoare is blind to this circumstance, because he is blind to the contradictions in his benign view of the history of the Yugoslav revolution and its aftermath. It is true that he sees problems in the propaganda version of a popular revolution inaugurating a golden age of democracy, equality, and social justice. He admits to flaws and shortcomings, and accepts that the League of Communists (not to speak of Yugoslav society as a whole) is disintegrating—how could he do otherwise in the teeth of all the evidence? Yet he does not care to investigate too closely the reasons why, or to question the viability of the original Titoist model. Everything will be all right, it seems, if only the Yugoslavs will return to the purity of their revolutionary aims.

Hence Hoare’s distaste for any fundamental revision of postwar Yugoslav history, and his heavy-handed attempts to caricature those who question hitherto accepted wisdom as “anticommunist zealots and conspiracy-mongers” who inevitably inhabit “evil empire country.” The point is that we are still only beginning to learn about many things that happened during the Yugoslav revolution, and have far to go until we know the full story. If Hoare reads his newspapers, for instance, he will recognize the names of Sošice, Jazovka, and Kocevski Rog. These are the places where mass graves and caves have recently been found (or rather, their existence has been revealed—they were known about all along) containing the bodies of people shot without trial as part of that same revolution. One contains five thousand bodies, another ten thousand, and the third up to sixteen thousand—and they may be only the tip of the iceberg. How do these massacres fit into Hoare’s rosy picture of “social and national equity”? It is not “zealotry” to want to know about these facts, or to wish to incorporate them into one’s assessment of the “achievements” of the revolution. To paraphrase Hoare: not to understand the importance of such reassessments, and thus the force of the opposition’s current drive to make human rights a central plank of their policies, is to understand nothing of the political situation in contemporary Yugoslavia.

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