The former Yugoslavia – independence and the fate of minorities

TransConflict is pleased to present the first part of a chapter of “Confronting the Yugoslav controversies – a scholars’ initiative”, entitled “Independence and the Fate of Minorities (1991-1992).”

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Conflict Background


By Gale Stokes

The question of what status minorities might have in the successor states to socialist Yugoslavia was one of the central issues that informed the Wars of Yugoslav Succession, especially for many Serbs.(1) This chapter does not lay out a narrative of the early years of that conflict, nor is it a general discussion of minority rights throughout the 1990s or for all of the Yugoslav republics. It confines itself to the period 1991-1992 and assumes that readers will have a reasonably good grasp of the basic narrative. Instead the chapter focuses on why the minority issue was so important, asks how real the threat was to certain minorities, analyzes the impact of Alija Izetbegović’s commitment to Islam, discusses the question of leadership, and evaluates the significance of the Badinter Commission’s rulings.

Socialist Yugoslavia dealt with minority issues in an original way but was never completely successful in removing nationalism from politics. Communists in Tito’s Yugoslavia (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia—SFRY) did not accept the notion that majorities and minorities could be determining factors in political decision-making, nor did they use the concept of ethnic or religious minority.(2) Instead, they recognized the country as consisting primarily of six Yugoslav nations (narodi): Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and since 1968 Muslims (as an ethnic category/nation, now calling themselves Bosniaks). These six peoples were in principle equal, so that the Serbs, constituting between 35 and 40 percent of the country’s population, were considered formally equal to the Montenegrins, at less than 3 percent. All six nations were considered constitutive peoples, that is, peoples with their “own” republic, even if they happened to live outside of that republic. With minor exceptions, Yugoslavia’s numerous other peoples were classified as nationalities (narodnosti), although they enjoyed specific rights associated elsewhere with minority rights.(3) The originality of the Yugoslav socialist framework was that no one in Yugoslavia was a minority, regardless of the actual size of a population or territory. Indeed, the concept of “minority” lost its neutral meaning and acquired negative – and occasionally insulting – connotations. Careful wording of Yugoslav constitutions, and of constitutions in the republics and provinces, made sure that the word disappeared from polite usage.

Tito’s regime condemned prewar Yugoslavia for its unitarism, centralism, statism, and bureaucratism, and dismissed the underlying principles of parliamentary government on which it had been founded. In its place the communists offered a decentralized system of workers’ self-management that they claimed offered dignity to all peoples, both narodi and narodnosti, under the overarching banner of socialism. Tito believed that ethnic groups could take pride in their identity and cultivate their culture more effectively in the Yugoslav socialist system than under either “bourgeois” democracy (i.e., prewar Yugoslavia) or Soviet style communism. Even more important than the cohesion this rejection of the past achieved was the contrast Yugoslav communists drew between self-managing socialism and Soviet style communism. Yugoslav communists were convinced, as were people in many parts of the world, that there was no going back from socialism to previous socio/economic systems—the direction of history was forward and socialists were progressives who were in tune with that world-historical direction. But there were different types of socialism. The Yugoslavs believed that worker self-management was significantly superior to the state socialism they associated with Stalin and his conservative successors. Because they considered the ethnic and national tensions lurking under the surface of Yugoslav society obsolete throwbacks to a discredited past, they did not assign a level of importance to these tensions that events later proved they deserved.Instead, Yugoslav theorists emphasized the threat from bureaucratic centralism. When the Soviet Union went out of existence, therefore, their assumption that socialism was a progressive force collapsed and their definition of themselves in terms of contrast with the Soviet Union became meaningless. The Yugoslav Communists were left with no levers of legitimacy. As Jović puts it, “the Yugoslav elite was totally unprepared and surprised when the Soviet system collapsed and liberalism, contrary to their expectations, entered the Yugoslav identity-making arena and emerged victorious.” (4)

When communism went under, the carefully constructed Yugoslav political vocabulary disintegrated. Previously “incorrect” concepts now became favored by new (anticommunist) elites, while verbal markers of socialism, including narodnosti in its old sense, became obsolete. At least some members of almost every ethnic group in the former Yugoslavia suddenly became frightened that they would be permanently relegated to the demeaning status of “minority,” outvoted in elections, pushed out of jobs, and otherwise discriminated against. Indeed, at least one scholar holds that this fear was “the greatest determinant of ethnic nationalism throughout the region.”(5) This reaction had some basis in fact, but both Slobodan Milošević and Franjo Tudjman, the leaders of Serbia and Croatia respectively, purposely exaggerated the negative aspects of becoming a “minority,” making them the basis of their public justifications.

The lack of moderating leadership certainly made the minority situation much more difficult than it might have been, but the underlying problem lay in the contradiction at the heart of nationalism. The idea of nation is not possible unless there are those who are not part of the nation. There must be an “other,” or the idea of nation makes no sense. Given the mixed populations of Eastern Europe, the creation of nation-states there in the 1870s and at the end of World War I simultaneously created minorities. The question of minority status was not a side issue, but grew out of the fundamental structure of the nation-state system into which the former republics of Yugoslavia suddenly emerged as newly independent states. Minority issues arose in the former Yugoslavia not because of Balkan peculiarities, therefore, but as part of the continuation of a long European process of redrawing state borders along ethnic lines.(6) Just as the collapse of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire created a volatile situation for both new nations and new minorities in post-World War I Eastern Europe, so the collapse of the multinational Yugoslavia created a difficult situation for its peoples in the 1990s.

‘Independence and the fate of minorities’ is a component of the larger Scholars’ Initiative ‘Confronting Yugoslav Controversies’ (Second Edition), extracts of which will be published on every Friday.


1) For convenience, the terms “Serb” and “Croat” are used throughout. It must be kept in mind, however, as Drago Roksandić correctly points out, that these Yugoslav ethnic groups were not monolithic political blocks, especially before the outbreak of war.

2) The following is based on Dejan Jović, “Fear of Becoming a Minority as a Motivator of Conflict in the Former Yugoslavia,” Balkanologie, December 2001, 21-26; and Dejan Jović, “Communist Yugoslavia and its ‘Others,’” in Ideologies and National Identities: The Case of Twentieth-Century Southeastern Europe, ed. John R. Lampe and Mark Mazower (Budapest: CEU Press, 2004), 277-302, as well as other input. Silvano Bolčić also contributed to this section.

3) The glossary to the 1974 constitution of the SFRY defined narodnosti as “members of nations whose native countries border on Yugoslavia.”

4) Jović, “Communist Yugoslavia and its ‘Others,’” 290.

5) Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, “Nationalism after Communism: Lessons Learned,” East European Studies Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Meeting Report 303, 8 September 2004.

6) For elaborations of this point see Gale Stokes, “Containing Nationalism: Solutions in the Balkans,” Problems of Post-Communism 46, no. 4 (1999): 3-10; and Gale Stokes “Can Money Buy Stability in the Western Balkans? Lessons from the Recent Past,” Newsnet 44, no. 1 (2004): 1-5.

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