Fighting Ethnic Nationalism – 10 Lessons from Yugoslavia

By Mike Phipps

Twenty-five years ago, the stable, prosperous state of Yugoslavia disintegrated into the most brutal and murderous conflict in Europe since World War Two. Socialists who had lauded Yugoslavia as a state that had forged a path independent of the Soviet Union were appalled to see the triumph of extreme nationalist movements that used the most horrific methods to pursue their goals. What lessons can we draw from that conflict that might be relevant to the rise of ethnic nationalism today? Here are a few:

  1. Don’t try to be an expert on which nationalisms are authentic and which ones aren’t. Put fundamental human rights ahead of national self-determination rights. The left was slow to respond to the break-up of Yugoslavia and when it did it was confused. Many were nostalgic for the Tito regime that ran for 35 years from the end of World War Two to 1980, on the grounds perhaps that it was represented some variant of socialism, independent of Stalin, albeit deformed, or that, despite well-documented abuses, it had at least kept the lid on ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’. In The Destruction of Yugoslavia (Verso 1993), Branka Magas noted the double standard of some on the left -”the fetishization of supranational states in the East by the very people who fear them like poison in the West.”
  2. Dont be formalist. The fact that policies were carried out by a rump ‘Yugoslavia’, utilising the resources of the Yugoslav National Army after Slovenia and Croatia had walked out of the federation, does not mean that Milošević’s Serbian nationalism which benefited from these resources was somehow more legitimate or even some kind of distorted attempt to hold Yugoslavia together. Nor does the fact that Milošević was seen as the main aggressor by the US and NATO exonerate him or his forces either from the unprovoked aggression or the murderous abuses that they committed.
  3. Tito’s own purge of opponents in the seventies helped create a generation of bureaucrats who would don the mantle of nationalism to extend their power. And here’s the third lesson: toxic ethnic nationalism can spring up anywhere, in so-called communist parties or in traditional liberal democratic formations, such as the UK Conservatives or US Republicans. I’m referring here neither to an inclusive, civic nationalism or even mainstream patriotism, but the exclusionary, racial nationalism that tends towards fascism But this does not need to come fully formed as its own movement, complete with uniforms: it is highly adaptable, draws on pre-existing widely-held notions about one’s nation-state – for example, the fact that 40% of people in the UK in a recent survey had a positive view of the British empire – built, remember, on centuries of slavery and exploitation. And it can become deadly very rapidly.
  4. The first target of ethnic nationalism is not necessarily another ethnicity or nation. It is just as likely to be those cultures and practices that construct a different narrative about what one’s existing nation is. Politicians here who would hesitate to directly attack other ethnicities have no problem, for example, denouncing multiculturalism. In Yugoslavia, it was multi-ethnic Sarajevo, living proof that different cultures could live harmoniously together, that bore the brunt of violence in the Serbian-Bosnian conflict. Leaders of ethno-nationalist wars do not want inconvenient examples of inter-ethnic convivencia to undermine their narrative. That’s why a free media must also be destroyed, along with anything else that expresses intellectual pluralism. Opposition to Milošević’s policies in Belgrade, for example, once a hub of liberal thinking, was ruthlessly suppressed.
  5. Ethnic cantonization is not the answer. Attempts to find peace agreements on a basis of ethnically separated communities ultimately just reward earlier ‘ethnic cleansers’ and incentivize more of the same. The broader point is that the search for ethnically pure nation-states anywhere is reactionary, divisive, exclusionary and ultimately illusory. Nation-states, insofar as they need to exist, must be inclusive and belong to all the citizens who live in them.
  6. Ethnic nationalism taps into long unchallenged beliefs but it is not always popular or successful. In 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina held a referendum in which two-thirds of the population voted for “a state of equal citizens and nations”. It was not to be: days later the Serbian army invaded and a campaign of rape and murder was undertaken in order to create new ‘ethnically cleansed’ realities.
  7. Its the economy, stupid. The 1980s were a time of economic austerity in Yugoslavia, with stringent cuts imposed on the country by the International Monetary Fund. The people blamed the corruption of the elite and sections of the elite used the tactics of national divisions to deflect the blame.
  8. Ethnic nationalism must be resisted in whatever form it appears. The cultural battle – vital for creating the symbols and guideposts that connect the dots of an ethno-nationalist historical narrative – often precedes the military conflict. Years before the 1990s Yugoslavia war broke out, Serbian historians were pushing for the rehabilitation of the wartime Chetniks as ‘freedom fighters’, rather than the extreme nationalist Nazi collaborators they were. Elsewhere the cultural battle takes other forms – here the activity of far right figures like ‘Tommy Robinson’ and his involvement with the ‘Football Lads Alliance’ needs to be much more robustly challenged on the terrain where it happens. In Croatia, when the nationalist leadership pushed for the internationally renowned football club Dinamo Zagreb to be renamed Croatia Zagreb for patriotic reasons, the club and its fans mounted a successful campaign to get its old name back.
  9. Nationalism picks up where it left off – and that means it usually targets Jews too. The fascist Ustashe in Croatia, active from 1930 and in power from 1941to 1945, was responsible for the killings of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Roma. Franco Tudjman, Croatia’s nationalist leader and first president following Yugoslavia’s break-up, notoriously said, “Thank God, my wife is neither a Serb not a Jew.” In Milošević’s Serbia, Vojislav Šešelj, later deputy prime minister of Serbia, organised a Chetnik movement that held rallies celebrating the ‘glories’ of World War Two Chetnik massacres of Croats and Muslims. His movement was responsible for some of the worst war crimes in the 1990s conflict.
  10. It never goes away and contaminates everything. Even today, nearly 25 years after the conflict in former Yugoslavia ended, politicians in its component parts repeatedly raise the issue of a couple of hundred yards of disputed territory on one of its borders to shore up their vote. The left might fervently hope that its social agenda will determine election outcomes, but unless we campaign consistently against the nationalist delusion in our communities, we may find our politics permanently distorted by this infection.