Sunday, February 15, 2009

"The Destruction of Yugoslavia" by Branka Magas--Part Two

Part Two: Interregnum (1980-88)

Part Two essentially covers the same time frame as Part One, but instead of focusing on events in Kosovo, the focus here is on the reaction of the post-Tito state to growing economic and social unrest, and on the growing rift between the Party and the working class.

We being with the death of Tito and the resulting fears of threats both external (which seem to have rightly not been considered as dire) and internal--specifically the danger of nationalism, and the dire economic situation the country found itself in. These twin dangers were not unrelated, as republican bureaucratic elites found that nationalism was an effective device to shore up their own power in reaction to economic fear and uncertainty. In the meantime, the working class was increasingly disconnected from the Party and shut out from any considerations of how to deal with the deteriorating economic conditions. With the Federal center weakened and more and more political power devolved to the republics (and more and more economic power devolved to local bosses like Fikret Abdic), the Party proved to be bankrupt of new ideas and of any ability to rally the working class to the cause of Yugoslav unity. Instead, repression and reaction, in hopes to squelching dissent and social disorder until the country somehow, some way managed to recover economically.

Magas notes, more than any other Western source I've read, how much the Polish coup and the resistance of Solidarity in Poland influenced and inspired events in Yugoslavia in the early 1980s. There were demonstrations and petitions in support of the Polish workers, and sometimes the Yugoslav state reacted repressively in reaction, including the mysterious death of Radomir Radovic, an activist worker who had a long history of fighting for workers' rights.

This occurred within the context of a broad campaign of increasing repression throughout Yugoslavia, as even meetings of intellectuals and academics were raided and banned, and participants often arrested, and sometimes incarcerated.

At this point, Magas considers the severe, almost punitive, measures the IMF imposed on Yugoslavia as a result of its enormous foreign debt and continuing economic decline. This is important, because many Left-revisionists have argued that these pressures by the IMF represented the sharp end of the wedge designed by Western interests to dismember Yugoslavia and it socialist economy. While their analysis is ridiculous on the face of it--they have little other actual evidence to support such a claim, even if one can believe that western financial interests desired to the violent disintegration of a nation which owed them so much money, and which possessed resources and an infrastructure which were of much more value intact that war-ravaged--it also ignores the fact that these economic problems were very real, and were not merely the product of Western conniving. Yugoslavia's economy was failing, and the political class lacked the will or the ability to rise above individual Republican interests in order to formulate a coherent, effective response. The alienation of the working class from the Party only furthered the problem--the response of the state was repression, denial, and wishful thinking.

One of the fatal weaknesses of Tito's rule was that he simply sucked all the oxygen out of the room, so to speak--there was no room in the political sphere of the country to consider the difficult realities that the deteriorating economic situation presented; the cumbersome collective presidency that Tito bequeathed to his beloved Federation after his death made it virtually impossible for a coherent, national response to these difficulties to be formulated, much less implemented. The Yugoslav press continued to report on the unpleasant realities the ruling elite and the Party continued to ignore, but the repression of strikes by worker in Bosnia and Macedonia by their respective republican governments--with no intervention on the side of workers by the Party, and no involvement by the Federal government--only underscored the continuing deterioration of the federal center and the growth of increasingly nationalist-leaning Republic governments. The Serbian crushing of unrest in Kosovo--without protest from the Federal government--further demonstrated how power was there for the taking, if unscrupulous demagogues were willing to fan the flames of nationalism, calling for "unity" in the face of unaddressed economic decline.

Decentralization was now a problem, turning republic governments into institutional conduits for nationalism and sectarianism, even as economic decentralization led to the creation of local bosses like Fikret Abdic even as it did nothing to strengthen the position of workers within "socialist self-management."

The campaign against Slovenia in the Serb press only underscored what was at stake--nationalism could be a tool for greater democratic freedom, as Slovene elites fought to maintain their republics political power within a Federation in which an otherwise desirable centralization was in actuality a front for Greater Serb hegemony. The increasing hostility towards the Slovene leadership from an increasingly Serb nationalist-controlled central government, as well as the growing belligerence of the Serb Republican government, in this period is another context which revisionists and Serb nationalist apologists routinely ignore when blaming Slovene separatism for the breakup of the country. Magas makes it quite clear that Yugoslav "unity" was, by the late 1980s, nothing but a sham.


Daniel said...

Yugoslav unity - a notion of "brotherhood" promoted by communist/socialist regime... did it exist?

How can "unity" work when, for example, Bosniaks were forbidden to use Bosnian language in the 1900s? Communists thaughts us that we don't exist and that we don't have our culture or history. For them, we were simply a religious group that should pick Serbian or Croatian side (that's what "Serboslavia" wanted us to do - to make a choice and become Serbs and Croats).

Daniel said...

I read on Dr. Marko Hoare's blog that Branka Magas is his mother. I never knew that.

Branka is a very smart person and I am proud of her scholarly historical work. I also want to thank you for reviewing her book.