Once upon a time there was a country called Yugoslavia. It was a medium-size country in the southeast of Europe, and more than 23 million people lived there. It was not democratic, but it had a fair name in the world. Its king was called Tito. Being both largely rural and socialist, this country was not rich. But it was getting a little richer. Most of its children grew up thinking they were Yugoslavs. They had other identities, too, and strong ones. Slovenes already talked of the “narrower homeland,” meaning Slovenia, and the “wider homeland,” meaning Yugoslavia. Its Albanians were always Albanians. But still, it was a country.
In the last decade of the twentieth century, this European country has been torn apart. At least 150,000, and perhaps as many as 250,000, men, women, and children have died in the process. And how they have died: with their eyes gouged out or their throats cut with rusty knives, women after deliberate ethnic rape, men with their own severed genitalia stuffed into their mouths. More than two million former Yugoslavs have been driven out of their homes by other former Yugoslavs, many deprived of everything but what they could carry in precipitous flight.
In this former country, the grotesque spectacle of a whole village burned, looted, and trashed has become an entirely normal sight. “Yeah, the usual story,” says the journalist, and drives on. A few people have grown rich, mainly war profiteers, gangsters, and politicians—the three being sometimes hard to distinguish. The rest, save in Slovenia, have been impoverished, degraded, and corrupted. Real wages in Serbia are estimated to be at the level of 1959—in the rare event of your actually being paid a wage. In Kosovo the killing, burning, plundering, and expelling went on throughout the summer of 1998, even as West Europeans took their holidays just a few miles away. It went on though the leaders of the West had all repeatedly declared it would never, ever, be allowed to happen again. Not after Bosnia.
If you look at a current political map of Europe, you may conclude that the former country is now five states:Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (known to diplomats as the FRY, pronounced as in “French fries”). But the reality on the ground is at least nine parts. Bosnia is still divided between a “Serb Republic” (Republika Srpska) and a Croat-Bosniak Federation, which itself is effectively divided between Croat-controlled and Bosniak (or “Muslim”)-controlled areas. The FRY is divided between what may loosely be called “Serbia proper,” Kosovo, and the increasingly independent-minded republic of Montenegro. But even “Serbia proper” should be disaggregated to notice the northern province of Vojvodina, with its large Hungarian minority, and—a delight to the diplomatic historian—the still partly Muslim-settled Sandjak of Novi Pazar. Perhaps one should also distinguish the Albanian-settled areas from the rest of Macedonia. That makes twelve ethnically defined parts to be going on with.
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.