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Passions v. Interests in Former Yugoslavia

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The disintegration of Yugoslavia was a triumph of nationalist passions over political interests. If the latter had prevailed, the process would at least have proceeded peacefully, as was the case with Czechoslovakia. Instead, three wars took place one after the other, in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, along with NATO attacks on Serbia.

Some of those passions can still be glimpsed in the region -- in divided Kosovo, in a Macedonia busy building statues to Alexander the Great. But the worst excesses have subsided.

"If you look back at the nationalist forces and parties in politics, society, and culture from the late 1980s, they certainly don't have the same ferocious, expansionist, and very self-intoxicated appearance," Mark Thompson, author of A Paper House: The Ending of Yugoslavia, told me in a short interview in London in January. "It's not revolutionary in the way that it was. It's not euphoric in the way that it was then when those individuals and groups who were opposing radicalism and starting to speak up for compromise were outshouted. Those groups supporting compromise appeared hopelessly tawdry and dull compared to these yelling, bellowing, all-singing, all-dancing popular fronts of nationalist mobilization. That's no longer there."

As the passions subside, political interests are reasserting themselves. "It's already the case in the cultural sphere," Thompson continued. "Economically, it's happening and will continue to grow. In some ways, after all, the establishment of sovereignty by the entities of the former Yugoslavia was a charade: a manifestation of largely non-existent power."

In the interview, Thompson also reflected on the role that social media might have played in the conflict if Twitter and Facebook had been around at the time.

The Interview

Some in the region, particularly those in Serbia who fought a long time against Milosevic, felt that it didn't have to happen the way it did, that the dissolution of the country didn't have to result in war. And the reason that it resulted in war was largely the function of a small coterie around Milosevic who had a particular political program and followed through on it rather ruthlessly. Do you agree with that?

If I had to summarize the key dynamics on the back of a postage stamp, I would use the language that you used. One can go on endlessly about the contributing factors and the further causes. But in essence the conviction of the elite of the League of Communists of Serbia was that they could recentralize the federation on Serbian terms, and they would use the threat of internecine violence as leverage to achieve that.

Milosevic was simply 10 years too late. If the Cold War had still been in existence, with that great iron brace around Yugoslavia effectively preventing a break-up or making a breakup by the most dissatisfied republics very much harder to achieve, then his coercive recentralization of the federation would very likely have succeeded.

Jumping ahead, some folks in the former Yugoslavia foresee a kind of recreation of Yugoslavia, not as a country of course but as some kind of regional network in which some of the economic structures are reconfigured, transportation systems reestablished, and so on. The now six or seven countries have still a lot in common and could benefit in fact from this kind of cooperation. Is that utopianism or a realistic scenario?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.