Yugoslavia staggers towards break-up


By Steve Painter

The Yugoslav government's military actions against the breakaway Slovenian republic will almost certainly speed rather than slow the break-up of the Yugoslav federation. Already, there are clear signs of demoralisation in the heavily conscript army and unrest in the other republics, including Serbia. There are reports of clashes between the army and protesters in Croatia.

With 20,000 troops and 500 tanks bogged down in Slovenia, the army has moved even larger forces to the borders of the rebel republic, but it would take a massive invasion to defeat the irregular forces of the Slovene Territorial Defence. Mountainous Yugoslavia is ideal territory for guerilla warfare, as Tito's partisans proved by tying up some 25 German divisions during World War II.

Support for independence is almost total in the 90% Slovene local population, which has taken quickly to passive resistance tactics such as removing road signs and denying supplies to the invading troops.

If even more central troops are needed to occupy tiny Slovenia, with its 1.9 million population, any number of other problems are likely to flare out of control elsewhere in the federation.

Internal problems

Of Yugoslavia's six constituent republics, only Serbia and Montenegro are not seriously considering independence. Meanwhile, Serbia has serious internal problems, with almost 2 million Albanians in Kosovo province kept under control only through a regime of virtual martial law for the past two years, since their autonomous parliament attempted to declare independence. Then there are the problems of a growing opposition inside the republic, and a restive Muslim minority.

Only last March, tanks appeared briefly on the streets of the federal and Serbian capital, Belgrade, to put down student-led protests against the policies of strong man President Slobodan Milosevic, who became the first republican leader ever to call for army support against a popular protest. Following the killing of two protesters on March 9, demonstrations spread through most of Serbia's main towns, and there was a four-day occupation of Belgrade's main square.

At that time, the independent Belgrade weekly, Vreme, carried an appeal from Serbian intellectuals, stating: "Milosevic cannot implicate the whole of the Serbian nation in the creation of enemies for which his despotism has been responsible. The Serbian people are no longer willing to allow Slobodan Milosevic to keep us

in isolation, to feed us with lies, to beat us and burden us with historic mortgages ... we demand that Slobodan Milosevic immediately resign his post."

Slovenia and Croatia began moving towards independence after free, multiparty elections in April-May 1990 returned coalition governments similar to those in other parts of post-1989 eastern Europe. The governing DEMOS coalition in Slovenia is made up of seven parties ranging from Greens to Christian Democrats and including a Social Democratic organisation that emerged from the Communist Party youth. At present, the parliaments of Macedonia and Bosnia-Hercegovina are both discussing independence declarations.

Unlike the polls in Croatia and Slovenia, Serbia's most recent elections, in December 1990, were run by state bodies closed to opposition parties. Dominating the mass media and the electoral commissions, and campaigning on a platform of Serbian chauvinism, Milosevic's Socialist Party (the renamed Communist Party) won a big majority. The main opposition was extremely right-wing and also extremely Serb-chauvinist.

While Milosevic and his organisation descend directly from the Communist Party, their real political roots are in the greater Serbia chauvinism that has blighted the Yugoslav federation from its beginnings in 1918. Some observers suggest there is little to prevent Milosevic and his supporters swinging right across the political spectrum to fascism.

Serbian chauvinism is unquestionably the main force driving Yugoslavia towards break-up. None of the non-Serbian republics sought independence as their first option. Both Slovenia and Croatia initially wanted a looser confederation that would ease the grip of the Serbs over the central government while preserving the benefits of federation.

Historic grievances

Grievances against Serbian domination of the federation date right back to 1918 when the Serbian king, Alexander Karageorgevic, imposed a monarchical system with the assistance of French troops, ignoring popular support for a more democratic arrangement.

The Yugoslav federation became a possibility with the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the first world war, when Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina were freed to join Serbia and Montenegro. Serbia was easily the largest and strongest state in the region, having wrested independence from the Ottoman Empire nearly 100 years before, in the late 1820s. Wild, desolate, sparsely populated Montenegro had also enjoyed a long period of independence.

After 1918, Alexander ruled in alliance with foreign capital, but

by 1929 there was so much unrest he staged a military coup and ruled as a dictator. After the establishment of Josip Broz Tito's Communist government following the second world war, tendencies towards Serbian dominance were held in check to some extent, though never eliminated.

Grievances against Serbian domination were important in the development of the "Zagreb Spring" liberalisation movement of the early 1970s. Present Croatian President Franjo Tudjman was a leader of the Croatian Communist Party at that time, and was jailed for nine years following Tito's repression of the liberalisation. Present Yugoslav President Stipe Mesic was also jailed for his role in the Zagreb Spring.

The events of the early 1970s strongly influence present developments, as it was then that many of the present leaders were purged from the Communist Party, and a major devolution of power to the republics and provinces was initiated. As well, the armed forces were granted a large measure of autonomy, a fact that might yet prove decisive in the short term. The collapse of Communist Party rule leaves the armed forces with no obvious political master.

Since Tito's death in 1980, tendencies towards Serbian domination have grown rapidly. A deep and prolonged economic crisis has sapped the power of the central government, with the Serbian government assuming more and more weight.


Several months ago the Serbian government began manoeuvring against attempts by the other republics to create more room for themselves. Calls by Croatia for more autonomy for the republics were met by successful campaigns to stir up unrest among Serbian minorities in the other republics, particularly Croatia (whose Serbian minority is 11.5% of the population) and Bosnia-Hercegovina (32% Serbian minority).

These moves led to clashes and some deaths as Serbian-majority areas in Croatia, and later in Bosnia-Hercegovina, declared themselves independent. In mid-June, the Croatian parliament responded by adopting a charter guaranteeing the rights of minorities. Not all of Croatia's Serbs support the breakaway attempts. Deputies of the Serbian minority continue to sit in the Croatian parliament.

Similar manipulation of Serbian diaspora populations had previously been used to deprive Serbia's autonomous provinces, Kosovo (90% Albanian), and Vojvodina (21% Hungarian) of their special, autonomous status, and to impose a puppet government in Montenegro.

Since March, Milosevic has plunged the federal government from one

constitutional crisis to the next, with the aim of making the federal institutions unworkable. First, he attempted to have the eight-member federal presidency declare a nationwide state of emergency. But the army hesitated, fearing a breakdown in its own discipline.

Stymied, Milosevic engineered the resignation of President Borislav Jovic and three other members of the body, among other things leaving the army without a functioning commander in chief. Eventually that crisis was resolved when Jovic withdrew his resignation and the other three members also returned to the body.

In mid-May there was another crisis when the annual rotation of the presidency fell due, and Jovic (representing Serbia) was to step aside for Stipe Mesic (representing Croatia). The rotation of the presidency among the republics was one of the reforms introduced in the 1970s. In violation of the federal constitution, Serbia, supported by hand-picked representatives of Vojvodina, Kosovo and Montenegro, blocked Mesic's appointment.

While Mesic was eventually recognised in the midst of the Slovenia crisis, it seems the army is unwilling to accept his position as commander in chief. Milosevic has probably destroyed the federal presidency. It seems Greater Serbian chauvinism is also close to finishing off the Yugoslav federation, at what cost remains to be seen.