Serbian Nationalism and the Origins of the Yugoslav Crisis
The Role of Serbian Ressentiment
Thus far, this study has attempted to explain the fragility of the Yugoslav state in terms of both the dominant national ideologies that shook its foundations from its very creation and the institutional frameworks within which national conflicts evolved.
Tito's principal strategy in maintaining national peace sought to curb the power of the largest republic (Serbia) and prevent the separation of the others from the federation. After his death, such a peace had little chance of surviving absent a supreme arbiter. No legitimate political institutions existed in Yugoslavia to both regulate conflicts among different national groups and support the ideal of a unified nation-state, a common situation for all multinational states in the communist bloc. This circumstance was particularly convenient for the rise of ethno-nationalism in these countries.43
Sources of crisis in Serbia: The nationalist response
The crisis in the former Yugoslavia, characterized first by the political disintegration of the country and then by its descent into full-scale war to alter republican borders, cannot be understood without an analysis of the crisis that broke out in Serbia in the mid-1980s. This crisis had its origins in the powerful nationalist movement under the leadership of Serbia's Communist party. Initially, it sought the restoration of the Yugoslav federation based on the authority of the Communist party, but it soon grew into a movement for the creation of a “Greater Serbia.” With each passing day, this movement intensified national conflicts and pushed the crisis toward the denouement of war that eventually engulfed all of Yugoslavia. The country could have embraced a democratic response to the collapse of the communist system only under the condition that all participants pursue a moderate policy.44 Unfortunately, Yugoslavia was robbed of such a conditional alternative with the triumph of conservative factions in the League of Communists of Serbia and the ascension of Slobodan Milosevic as its leader in 1987.
The Serbian crisis had multiple origins, three of which can be identified as the most profound.
Serbia's problematic position under the 1974 constitution. As noted previously, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia was not immune to the forces that rendered federation-wide institutions ineffective in guaranteeing Yugoslavia's existence. The LCY's waning authority as the basis of Yugoslav integration was viewed by the Serbs as jeopardizing the Serbian national interest for all Serbs to live in one state. “Every Serb who had participated in the national liberation movement became convinced that the new Yugoslavia was becoming an inter-nationally founded federation in which . . . the ideological principle had precedence over the national.” This conviction, “as shown by the identification with Yugoslavia as a formula of inter-nationalism, was the core of most Serbs’ national consciousness up until 1974. . . .”45
This fundamental legitimacy crisis was bolstered by the existing constitutional arrangement that defined Yugoslavia as a state by “mutual agreement” of the republics and provinces. Yugoslav sovereignty had been essentially seized and divided up among the federation's national groups. The symmetry established between the republics and provinces vis-à-vis an empty central authority made it senseless for Serbia to maintain its “internationalist” position against the “nativist” positions of other republics.46 Yugoslavia's future was heading toward either confederation or disintegration as the communist system weakened. The Serbian cultural and political elite did not accept such a future, fearing that the forces propelling Yugoslavia toward dissolution would also destroy the fundamental Serbian national goal–that all Serbs live in one state. Viewed as such, Serbian nationalism was a reaction to the fading of what Serbs considered a symbiosis between “Serbianism” and “Yugoslavism” that was mediated by the communist system. With the disappearance of this symbiosis, the problem of the Serbian diaspora clamored to be resolved once again.
The immediate source of Serbian dissatisfaction in general, and the most tangible reason for its nationalist reaction in particular, were the constitutional provisions that undermined Serbia's territorial integrity. Although the institutional system established under the 1974 constitution prescribed the “nativization” of all Yugoslav peoples within their territorial, republican frameworks, Serbia was frustrated in this regard. According to the constitution, Serbia was not a “sovereign” negotiating party like the other republics because of the “sovereignty” of its two provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina.
According to the 1974 constitution, the republics and provinces were almost completely on equal footing regarding rights and duties. At the federal level, provinces had veto power, equal representation in the collective Yugoslav presidency, and the right to represent their own interests without consulting the republic–most often in opposition to it. Serbia's representation at the federal level covered only the territory of “Serbia proper” (i.e., Serbia without its autonomous provinces), even though such a jurisdiction was not defined in the constitution. In ethno-demographic terms, this meant that Serbia's representatives in the federation could speak for only 42 percent of the Serbs living in Serbia.47
Following the period of constitutional reform in the late 1960s, Serbia's provinces seized all the attributes of statehood–legislative, judicial, and executive powers–even those not constitutionally granted to them. The provinces changed their own constitutions independently, maintained relations with foreign countries (e.g., Kosovo with Albania), and created their own territorial defense. Laws were passed by consensus of all three units; if the provincial parliaments did not accept Serbian proposals, they applied only to Serbia proper.
Soon after adoption of the 1974 constitution, the Serbian leadership called for a change in the Serbian republic's status. Why it wasn't changed immediately is obvious: The constitution could not be changed because the federation's members could not reach an agreement regarding this matter.48 In 1976, the Serbian leadership submitted a request to change the constitutional provisions specifying the republic's composition, seeking to encompass Serbia's provinces formally. The document justifying this request to change Serbia's status was called the “Blue Book” (made public only in 1990). Denounced as a nationalist tract, the document was received with “knives” by political leaders in the other republics and particularly in the provinces.49
The situation continued into the early 1980s, when the focus of attention shifted to Kosovo, the Serbian province that was the scene of growing ethnic tension. The Serbian leadership at the time, headed by Ivan Stambolic, made concerted efforts to change the status of Serbia vis-à-vis its provinces with the agreement of the other federation members. However, opening up discussions on this matter was becoming an increasingly painstaking process. In order to change the constitution, an effective pro-Serbian coalition was required. When none was forthcoming, Serbia interpreted the maintenance of the constitutional status quo as the work of an anti-Serbian coalition. After the outbreak of nationalist demonstrations in Kosovo in 1981, in which ethnic Albanians demanded republican status for Kosovo–which would bolster claims to the right to self-determination–the question of Serbia's constitutional jurisdiction took on even greater importance; its resolution spelled either political survival or failure. Indeed, Kosovo's threat to Serbia's territorial integrity had been gaining momentum since 1968, when the Kosovar leadership gave its support to an Albanian national movement in the province whose principal goal was to gain republican status for Kosovo.50
Kosovo and the “ethnic threat.” Demonstrations among Kosovo's overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian population were the second reason for the crisis. Setting Kosovo apart as a de facto republic created the conditions for a Serbian nationalist reaction. Kosovo was considered the cradle of Serbian medieval culture and the symbol of national history and mythology.51 During the first years after the 1981 Albanian demonstrations and the imposition of martial law in Kosovo, the LCY provided the official, socialist interpretation of the disturbances, branding them as instances of “counterrevolution” by Albanian separatists. Viewed in such a way, the Yugoslav leadership avoided identifying ethnic factors as the cause of unrest.
A starkly different interpretation of these events emerged from the Serbian party leadership, which capitalized on the symbolic meaning of Kosovo and latent Serbian nationalism in order to strengthen its arguments for changing Serbia's constitutional status. The Serbian Communist party redefined Kosovo as an ethnic threat, tapping national myths surrounding Kosovo and the history of the great Serbian medieval state. The federal government tolerated Serbia's ethnic reaction, which centered on the possible loss of Kosovo as a “holy land.”52 The “Albanian enemy's” goal, according to the Serbian party leadership, was being realized by the forced expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo,53 while ethnic Albanians escaped prosecution from a sympathetic provincial government for crimes such as rape, murder, theft, desecration of Serbian graves, and various other types of intimidation.54 Serbian emigration from Kosovo came to be viewed by Serbia as nothing short of an exodus under the pressure of Albanian nationalism, although clearly there were other factors at work.55 Anyone who dared to mention these other reasons (economic, educational, etc.), particularly if the person was from another Yugoslav republic, was ruthlessly attacked and denounced as an enemy of the Serbs.56 Serbian grievances were not thoroughly investigated, since the very act of checking suggested doubts about the Serbs’ claims of victimization.57 Not even repression of the “rebellious” Albanians, the military occupation of Kosovo, or the imprisonment of hundreds of Albanians changed Serbs’ opinion that their brethren in Kosovo suffered increasing persecution, evidenced by continued Serbian emigration from the province.58
The main role in defining the situation in Kosovo was taken over by an organized movement of Serbs from Kosovo that had the support of the Orthodox Church and the Serbian intelligentsia. These Serbs’ demands were almost always aimed at constitutional changes that would establish a united Serbia, but they endeavored even more to change the ethnic domination in Kosovo. Their main interpretation of the “Serbian tragedy” in Kosovo was that the ethnic Albanians had gained control through the 1974 constitution, and that the only way to stop the “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs in Kosovo was to reinstate Serbian domination there.59
Both interpretations of the problem, the constitutional position of Serbia as an unequal party in the federation and the matter of ethnic Albanian domination in Kosovo, distanced Serbs from a diagnosis of the republic's real problem: determining the basis of Serbia's political community and its political identity. To be sure, the same problem applied to Yugoslavia as a whole, but it is not an exaggeration to say that the locus of Yugoslavia's demise was in Kosovo. The federation was politically unequipped to protect its citizens–Serbs and ethnic Albanians in this case–because it had no nonviolent instrument (above all, the rule of law) at its disposal to neutralize and pacify these types of ethnic conflicts.
The ethnic politicization of Kosovo increased the number of interpretations of the conflict, depending on who was speaking: “genocide” (the Serbian interpretation), “normal migration” and “vehicles of Serbian nationalism” (Slovenian), “dispossession of ethnic Albanians and political terror” (Albanian). These interpretations strained relations among the republics. On the one hand, Slovenia and Croatia backed the Albanian nationalist movement. On the other hand, Serbian responses increasingly acquired overtones of nationalism, repression, propaganda, and outright lies.60 Kosovo demonstrated that ethnic conflicts could be invented and exacerbated through media propaganda. This effective tool became the principal mechanism for intensifying ethnic conflicts in Yugoslavia. In essence, the media dramatically staged reality for millions of Serbs and turned whatever potential existed in Serbia for ethnic hatred into a self-fulfilling prophesy.
The antidemocratic coalition. The third factor in the Yugoslav crisis involved the concentration of the old regime's conservative forces in Serbia. The privileged layer of central and local Communist party bureaucrats and members of the state's power apparatus (military and police) viewed with concern the nascent democratic changes taking place in the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Democratization of the “first country of socialism” threatened Yugoslavia's status quo and the privileges and positions these elites enjoyed. They were threatened by domestic liberal opposition as well, which was strongest in Belgrade at the time. In the ambiguity surrounding the “Kosovo problem,” these conservative political elites organized a putsch in the Serbian Communist party in 1987, bringing to the forefront the party's most conservative elements, led by Slobodan Milosevic.
The party conservatives’ support of the military apparatus was not hidden. General Ljubicic, one of the most influential officers in the Yugoslav National Army, greeted Milosevic's candidacy as president of the Serbian Communist party with this encomium: “Slobodan has committed himself to the battle against nationalism, against liberalism, and against all forms of counterrevolution in Belgrade.”61 Criticism of the moderate wing in the League of Communists of Serbia as being unfaithful to Tito's politics was accurately read as an accusation of having betrayed national interests. On both tracks–defending Tito's cult of personality and resolving the Kosovo problem–a power struggle took place through party purges, consolidating the party's victorious faction, establishing control over the most influential media outlets, and attacking the liberal opposition.62
Serbia's conservative power apparatus tapped new sources of energy and support in the wellspring of Serbian national frustration. The Yugoslav National Army excelled in this technique, with its “evaluations of the situation” that characterized the “soft communist” reformers as agents of the “new world order,” whose goal was to deny “socialism [the ability] to rectify its mistakes and show its strength.”63 The Western countries (especially Germany) were routinely denounced as enemies of Yugoslavia for both undermining socialism and destroying the Soviet Union as a state and military power. In fact, the army was an instrument not of the state, but of the party; as such, it was the main political force (together with the Serbian party faction that maintained its power) posing the most formidable obstacle to change. When communism began to split along all its seams, the army rushed in first to help defend the system. Its actions should come as no surprise, since it was defending its own privileges. Officers in the YNA joined Yugoslavia's conservative apparatchiks in dragging Serbia into an “antimodern” revolution, which became the social and political background for defending the Serbian national question.64
By the end of the 1980s, a powerful and effective antidemocratic coalition was firmly in control of Serbia's political scene. One side consisted of extreme nationalist elements in the Serbian Orthodox Church and the Serbian intelligentsia, whose role was to produce propaganda and formulate nationalist ideology. The other side consisted of the conservative party apparatus, the army, and the police, who used this nationalist ideology to hold onto their positions of power. Although their motives were different, the members of this “nationalist-communist” coalition65 complemented each other and jointly pursued an aggressive policy of tearing down Yugoslavia and recasting it in their own mold: Either Yugoslavia would become a country according to Serbian (i.e., Serbian Communist party) standards, or else Serbia would embark on the path toward creating a “Greater Serbia” by force. In the end, the new country would encompass all of Yugoslavia's Serbs and keep the members of the ancien regime in their privileged positions.
Escalation of the conflict: The Serbian offensive strategy
The principal mechanism for escalating interethnic conflicts in a multinational state begins when political elites in tenuous positions of power successfully portray their ethno-nation as being threatened by another.66 The political players will then manipulate this “ethnic threat” to advance their interests in holding onto political power and/or vanquishing competing elites. Members of Serbia's broad coalition of conservative political, military, and cultural elites pushed each other toward an extremist definition of the “national threat,” creating a constant escalation of the conflict among all the other Yugoslav nations. The more this coalition emphasized the perception that the Serbian nation was threatened, the more the other ethnic nations perceived threats to their own security. This defensive reaction was, in turn, used to confirm the threat to Serbia, giving it the right to increase the level of its “defense.”67
This vicious circle of defending against ethno-national threats began in the 1980s with the “ethnic threat” in Kosovo and the uncertainty over the survival of Yugoslavia's state and society. The conflict developed in the context of a preemptive vision of Yugoslavia's disintegration, which incited the struggle for power and security among all of its nations’ political leaders. Reality was becoming more and more a daily fabrication based on mutual name-calling and consciously crafted lies. Ethnic clashes were becoming more frequent and more intense in a political scene whose script was becoming increasingly predictable.68
For its part, Serbia used three offensive strategies for grabbing power while working to ensure Yugoslavia's disintegration and, at the same time, beginning the process of nation- and state-building. The Serbian leadership's new vision of state-building now relied on mass nationalist movements that coalesced around the idea of redividing the Yugoslav space and creating a powerful, all-encompassing Serbian state.69 This new vision informed the Serbian intelligentsia's redefinition of Serbia's national identity, as reflected in regularly repeated media images and historical myths.70
Serbian ressentiment. The very expression of Serbian nationalism and the new vision of the Serbian state invoked by Serbian nationalist intellectuals aggravated ethnic tensions.71 The task of redefining the Serbian nation was undertaken by both the conservative faction of the Serbian intelligentsia and the Serbian Orthodox Church in collaboration with the political leadership, which had control over the mass media. The reawakening of Serbian national consciousness followed classic methods of “nation-building,” including descriptions of “national treasures” and cultural uniqueness.72 They encouraged the Serbian national community to imagine itself as an “endangered species” that urgently needed its own state in order to protect itself from other “species.” The basic emotion upon which Serbian national identity was built was the enmity of other Yugoslav peoples.73 This is best illustrated in the words of the writer and “father of the Serbian nation,” Dobrica Cosic: “The enemies of the Serbs made Serbs Serbs.”74 Another well-known Serbian writer expressed the same thought: “The Serbian issue was started and opened by others. They straightened us out by blows, made us sober by offenses, woke us up by injustices, brought light and united us by coalitions. They hate us because of Yugoslavia, and now it seems they do not leave her, but us.”75
Ressentiment–the dominant sentiment of being threatened and hated throughout Yugoslavia–informed Serbian nationalism, which consisted of two basic components. One was entirely for domestic purposes, providing the conservative Serbian leadership with a convenient taxonomy of real and fabricated Serbian grievances against Yugoslavia's other nations. By constantly returning to this repertoire of current and historical wrongs, the Serbian leadership was able to keep nationalist passions running high.
The second, external, component contained a revision of Serbian relations with other nations and with Yugoslavia as a whole. This new set of relations appeared for the first time in 1986 with the unofficial publication of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts’ draft “Memorandum,” which was an attempt to present systematically the situation of the Serbs as a whole nation. Based on that document and many positions taken by well-known Serbian writers and members of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts appearing daily in the Serbian media, seven key themes of Serbian ressentiment are identified here.76
- Yugoslavia is a Serbian delusion.According to this theme, Serbs were naively duped into accepting Yugoslavism and the fraternal bonds of its other nations, while those “brothers” were continually building their ethno-national states on the bones of dead Serbs who fought in wars of liberation. Only the Serbs love Yugoslavia, they were the only ones to fight for her, they were the only ones to abdicate their Serbian nationality in the name of Yugoslavian unity. They lost considerable “historical time” in coming to the realization that Yugoslavia was a Serbian delusion. They had everything to lose in accepting the Yugoslav project, and other nations had everything to gain. The Serbs were the victims of their own futile Yugoslavism: “The contemporary Serbian national consciousness is soiled by ideological fraud . . . with its strongest spiritual footing in its national defeats, the illusory Yugoslavian. . . . The contents and forms of national consciousness of other Yugoslav nations are a priori anti-Yugoslav.”77 But now, “there is a growing consciousness that Yugoslavia is a mass grave of the Serbian people. . . .”78
- The conspiracy against the Serbs. During their entire Yugoslav history, Serbs were exposed to the conspiracy of the Comintern, the LCY, and Tito (the Croat) and Kardelj (the Slovene), who played the leading roles in Yugoslav decision making and who implemented Yugoslavia's anti-Serbian policy. As part of its social revolution and the struggle against Serbian hegemonism, the LCY acted to reduce Serbia to the Turkish pasha's outpost in Belgrade and promoted the disintegration and assimilation of the Serbian people: “Austro-Hungarian and Comintern ideology united in Titoism. In setting up republican-political territories, developing republican etatisms . . . and instituting the 1974 constitution, Titoism was doing everything to disintegrate the Serbian nation, and it succeeded in doing so.”79
- Serbia is exploited. Serbia was economically exploited by Croatia and Slovenia, which explains its economic backwardness. The largest part of the Serbian Academy's “Memorandum” was devoted to this theme, formulated in the following way: “During the entire postwar period, the economy of Serbia was exposed to nonequivalent exchange. . . . There is not the slightest degree of suspicion that the relative retardation of Serbia primarily resulted because of smaller investments per capita, and not because of the effectiveness of investments. . . . One gets a picture of an oppressed and neglected economy in the Yugoslav space. . . . The situation of Serbia should be observed within the pattern of the political and economic domination of Slovenia and Croatia, who were the initiators of changes in all of the previous systems.”80
- Serbs are the losers, because they are the only ones who do not have a state proper. They win at war, but lose in peace. All their war victories were canceled out in peace settlements (i.e., two Balkan wars and two world wars). Serbs, along with the Montenegrins, sacrificed their earlier states for the foundation of Yugoslavia. “The nation which after a long and bloody struggle came once again to have its state [that is, after the long Ottoman occupation], which alone fought for and acquired democracy, and which in two world wars lost 2.5 million compatriots, lived to see that a party commission created by the party apparatus found that after four decades in the new Yugoslavia it was the only nation that did not have its own state. A worse historical fiasco in peacetime could not be imagined.”81
- Serbs are exposed to the hatred that all Yugoslav people have toward them. Hatred toward Serbs is a dominant theme in the writings of Serbian intellectuals, expressed in many different ways. Each Yugoslav nation has its own distinct hatred toward Serbs. For instance: “Macedonian Communists have simply `Macedonized’ Serbs (i.e., they have committed ethnocide against Serbs in their republic).” And so it goes for each nation. This theme in Serbian ressentiment contends that the republic had to endure “the unequal and humiliating position of the Serbian people in the present-day Yugoslavia under the rule of an anti-Serb coalition, especially of `Serbophobia,’ which in the last decades has grabbed wide layers of Slovenian, Croatian, Albanian peoples, and some parts of the Macedonian intelligentsia and Moslems. . . . The Albanian national minority for longer than two decades from its motherland hounds the most populous Yugoslav people.”82 The Serbian nation is “surrounded by hatred, which made its peace more tormenting than the war.”83
- Serbs are exposed to genocide, again perpetuated by their enemies’ enduring and immutable anti-Serb policies.84 The motive of Serbia's leaders in provoking fear and ethnic clashes was to remind Serbs of genocide's ever-present proximity and to prevent a new genocidal campaign against Serbs. This theme was renewed in a variety of ways, but mainly through the display of photographs and accounts of Ustashe atrocities against Serbs in all of the republic's major newspapers and on television programs.85 An exhibit devoted to Serbian genocide traveled around Serbia for months.
Orthodox priests demanded that they be allowed to take Serbian victims murdered in World War II out of mass graves and to rebury them with dignity.86 Exhuming mass graves and the reburial of remains has a symbolic role of defining the borders of the Serbian state: Where there are Serbian graves, there are also Serbian borders. The number of past genocide victims increased every day during this particular Serbian nationalist campaign, which led to disputes with Croatia over the exact number of Serbs murdered. The number of victims was, in fact, overstated in order to force the Croats to publicly deny the inflated numbers. In such a fashion, the Serbs could conclude that Croats wanted to hide their genocidal crimes against Serbs in order to deflect attention from preparations for another future campaign: “It seems to me that that which disrupts relations between Serbs and Croats now is connected to the genocide which was perpetrated against the Serbian people by [the Croatian Ustashe regime]. . . . We can conclude that this hiding of genocide represents an appeal to history for a repeat. . . .”87 Thus, “Serbs are the people who are constantly exposed to genocide.”88
- A national state of all Serbs. An identity created from others’ hatred meant that inevitably Serbs would want to “clean their house” of all those who hated them: “After genocide, . . . after the 1974 constitution, . . . it is difficult to understand why Serbs today do not reasonably and obstinately aspire to a state without national problems, national hatreds, and Serbophobia.”89 “We Serbs have to learn to think that we can live alone.”90 Thus, the issue of a Serbian national state is seen as an “issue of freedom and the right to exist for the Serbian ethnos as the whole of its spiritual, cultural, and historical identity, irrespective of the present-day republican boundaries and the Yugoslav Constitution. If this freedom and the right are not respected, then the historical goal of the Serbian people–unification of all Serbs in one state–is not realized.”91
These nationalist themes, which were perpetuated by the Serbian intelligentsia through the republic's major media outlets, would not have been entirely successful if they had not been taken up by Serbia's political and military elites as part of their daily activity, although they did not publicly express such views. Serbia's conservative intellectuals and, later on, the republic's nationalist opposition parties, were the voice of official nationalist policy. At the beginning of 1991, it was officially disclosed that Slobodan Milosevic accepted the right of all peoples to self-determination, but he did not accept the existing republican borders. In March 1991, at a closed meeting with the leaders of all Serbian municipalities, Milosevic stated the possibility that Serbs could “live alone”:Borders, as you know, are always dictated by the strong, they are never dictated by the weak. Therefore it is basic for us to be strong. We simply believe that the legitimate right and interest of the Serbian people is to live in one state. That is the beginning and the end. That legitimate interest of the Serbian people does not threaten the interest of any other nation. Anyway, why would they need those Serbs who bother them so much in Knin, Petrinja, Glina, Lika, Banija, Kordun, Baranja, if this problem is of such magnitude? And, if we have to fight, God help us, we will. I hope they will not be so crazy to fight with us. Because, if we cannot work and produce well, at least we know how to fight.92
Political mobilization: The “antibureaucratic revolution” and the unification of Serbia. The only way out of this “national catastrophe,” according to Serbia's intelligentsia, was by encouraging a Serbian uprising. The hope was for a national revolution in which the Serbs would again be able to create their own national state. This so-called antibureaucratic revolution, which was organized from above by Milosevic's party clique with the help of Serbs from Kosovo and the secret police, drew upon the nationalist ideology of “being threatened and hated.” During 1988-89, the revolutionary forces took shape as a mass movement to create a “unified Serbia,” successfully tapping social and national discontent in the republic, especially over the situation in Kosovo. Political mobilization developed through mass “meetings of solidarity” with Serbs from Kosovo. These meetings were used as an extra-institutional way of tearing down the leaderships in Serbia's provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo) and in Montenegro. More than sixty such meetings were held across Serbia, in which 3.5 million people participated. There were few places in the republic where these “meetings of truth” were not held. Although the slogans varied from place to place, they were all distinctly nationalist and even racist in content. For the first time, people appeared at these meetings dressed in Chetnik regalia.93 At the November 1988 meeting of “Brotherhood and Unity,” held in Belgrade and attended by more than one million people, calls for hounding Slovenia out of Yugoslavia were publicly heard for the first time. At the same gathering, Milosevic spoke in ominous tones about the use of force:
This is not the time for sorrow; it is time for struggle. This awareness captured Serbia last summer and this awareness has turned into a material force that will stop the terror in Kosovo and unite Serbia. . . . People will even consent to live in poverty but they will not consent to live without freedom. . . . Both the Turkish and the German invaders know that these people win their battles for freedom. . . . We shall win despite the fact that Serbia's enemies outside the country are plotting against her. . . . We tell them that we enter every battle with the aim of winning it.94
Just a few short months after Milosevic's speech, Serbia seemed to be preparing for such a battle. The republic enacted a series of sweeping repressive measures in Kosovo in March 1989. A coup d'état brought a Serbian puppet regime to power in Montenegro. At the same time, the populist and authoritarian Serbian national movement invested its national leader with absolute power, thereby making democratization and a clear break with the ancien regime impossible.95
In the already weakened Yugoslav presidency, Serbia could no longer count on a majority of votes in the collective body. The attempt of the Serbian Communists to dominate the LCY failed at its extraordinary (and last) congress in January 1990, when the Slovenian and Croatian representatives walked out, thus signaling the end of Yugoslavia's Communist party.
Mobilization of the Serbian diaspora: The Croatian nationalist response. Serbia's third strategic move involved the mobilization of the Serbian diaspora in Croatia by directly linking its loyalty to Serbia's survival. Ethnic skirmishes using diaspora Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina were planned with the idea of tearing the republics apart along ethnic lines. In the climate of nationalist hysteria surrounding a “unified Serbia,” the Serbian nationalist coalition had little trouble spreading rumors of possible genocidal campaigns directed at the Serbian diaspora communities in these republics. Such rumors were largely intended to mobilize the diaspora Serbs, and they would not have been successful had there been no recognizable strain of Ustashe nationalism in Croatia's official policy. If Croatia had not fallen victim to its own national chauvinism, Serbia's entire strategy would have failed.
Slovenia was the first to clash with Milosevic, attacking him for destroying the leaderships in Vojvodina and Montenegro. These attacks were welcomed with open arms, since they rallied Serbs around anti-Slovenian sentiment. At the same time, Slovenia was using Milosevic to justify its plans to secede from Yugoslavia. In fact, secession was already under way in 1989, when the Slovenes proclaimed that federal laws were valid in Slovenia only if they conformed with Slovenian law. The Croatian Communist party kept silent because of the republic's Serbian minority, ever aware that an attack on Milosevic would cause a major rift with Croatian Serbs. Yet, the silence could not last forever.
Serbia's mobilization of Croatian Serbs started with an unsuccessful attempt to organize a meeting of solidarity in Knin with Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo. Belgrade inundated the Knin gathering with constant messages, and the Serbian Orthodox Church assisted by publishing a text that claimed the situation of Serbs in Croatia was worse than that of Serbs in Kosovo and that such terror would force Serbs to migrate toward the east.96 The Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts also contributed by organizing a conference on the Croatian war memorial at Jasenovac, once more heating up the unavoidable theme of the Croatian genocide of the Serbs; an accompanying tract accused Croatia of assimilating Serbs living in the republic. The Serbian Writers Association also organized a meeting in 1989 with the theme of “Serbophobia,” where Croatian genocide was once again featured prominently. Finally, all kinds of Serbian emissaries were sent to Knin to incite Croatian Serbs, and the response this time seemed promising. The meeting was set for February 28, 1989. Well-trained “advance people” came from Serbia, shouting out Slobodan Milosevic's name and carrying posters with his visage looking out over the crowd, waving the Serbian national flag, and singing nationalist hymns.97
Soon after this event, the Croatian Democratic Union appeared on Croatia's political scene. During the creation of the nationalist party, its leader, Franjo Tudjman, accused the Croats of being silent, and attacked the system in which the “sovereignty of the Croatian people” had been made an impossible goal. In the republic's parliament just a couple of days later, it was suggested that the Croatian Constitution be changed so that it would no longer stipulate that Croatia was also a state of the Serbian people. Thus, the process of Croatia's ethnic homogenization began.
Finally, at the February 24, 1990 inauguration of the Croatian Democratic Union, in the presence of Ustashe émigrés and Croats waving their national flag, Tudjman delivered his well-known remark that the “Independent State of Croatia [under the Ustashe regime] was not only a chauvinist state, but also the result of specific historic facts and the will of the Croatian people to create their own state.”98
During this short period, Croatian Serbs became tightly organized. They formed their own party and began to express their territorial pretensions. First, they expressed these ideas as the need for cultural and then political autonomy; finally, they threatened secession if Croatia were to become an independent state. Meetings were held throughout the republic at which young men appeared in Chetnik regalia, shouting “This is Serbia!”
Tudjman won the elections in Croatia. This was the greatest gift that Milosevic and the rest of Serbia's nationalist coalition could have received. After Tudjman's victory, unremitting media propaganda from both sides further exacerbated the conflict. Now Serbs were really threatened, and war was no longer a remote possibility. The labels that each side had attached to the other had in fact become their identities: Both Chetniks and Ustashe had reappeared in Yugoslavia.