Why did Yugoslavia fall apart?

With Susan L. Woodward.



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Episode Transcript

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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your guide Peter Korchnak.

Why did Yugoslavia fall apart? A simple question that I hear a lot, but one that’s without a simple answer. In fact, so not simple I wrote a book about it.

Well, okay, a master’s thesis that was later turned into a slim book. By the way, do not buy it on Amazon. Long story but basically I will get zero dollars from that sale.

Anyway, almost 25 years ago I wrote a master’s thesis at the Central European University in Budapest comparing the dissolutions of Yugoslavia and my country, Czechoslovakia. I purposely avoided analyzing the wars of dissolution. In the Yugoslav case I felt that one, the topic was beaten to death by experts and bandwagon riders alike, and two, the dissolution that had preceded the armed conflicts was usually kind of thrown in among the causes of the wars and not analyzed sufficiently. Three, I saw, based even on my own experience but also that of the Soviet Union, that states can disintegrate without war, so there’s much more to it. And finally, comparisons of the Czechoslovak and Yugoslav cases were few and far between (though, I must say, those that did exist focussed on the same things that I did).

Anyway, I asked the question, Why did seemingly stable federations break up after the collapse of state socialism?

In searching for the answer, I classified then existing explanations into three groupings. Ethnic or nationalist conflict explanations blamed Yugoslavia’s dissolution on ancient hatreds among the country’s constituent ethnic groups. Though to be fair, many analysts did see ethnic mobilization and the rise of nationalism as a result of other factors, such as the communists’ nationalist policies or the economic crisis of the 1980s.

Political explanations ascribed the main cohesive function of the federation to Tito, whose death triggered the country’s unraveling despite the support of federal institutions, including the Communist Party. Some scholars focussed on the peculiarities and consequences of Yugoslavia’s decentralized political system and on the related failure of the political elites to agree on the new setup of the government.

And finally, economic explanations pointed to the increasing disparities among Yugoslavia’s regions and to the federation’s economic decentralization, which led to the fragmentation of Yugoslavia’s economy.

Each of these explanations has some useful elements but, more importantly, each suffered from some major weaknesses, mostly being kind of single minded, as if there was a single principal cause, albeit with a bunch of factors, and there was a marked lack of comparative perspectives. So I basically blended the three and created an explanatory model.

In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, I’ll share some thoughts on why and how Yugoslavia disintegrated.

But first I’ll say this: Yugoslavia the country may be gone, but Yugoslavia the lived experience, the idea, the memory is very much alive. It’s the reason why this podcast exists in the first place.

I recently ran a survey of my readers and listeners—actually the survey is still up at RememberingYugoslavia.com, please do share your thoughts on the past, present, and future of Remembering Yugoslavia. Many people shared their thoughts on what the show means to them. Words like these energize me:

  • “Yugoslavia is no longer just in my heart, it is kept alive by your efforts. I greatly appreciate all that you do.” wrote Nick
  • Ana wrote, “As a person born in the mid-90s with a great interest in Yugoslavia (and history in general) the podcast is a great boost to help me deep dive into topics that I would usually just skim through. Yugoslavia was a place where all of my family grew up but also a place that I didn’t get to experience, so this is a great way to learn more about it.”
  • And another listener wrote, “Finally I feel understood and it feels sometimes like therapy because I am a Yugoslav, but as you always say, we were born in a country that no longer exists. Sometimes listening to your podcast I have even tears in my eyes.”

What keeps me going on another level, is your generosity. Thank you Brandy, Carlos, Christina, Toby, and Victoria for your recent contributions.

If the podcast means something to you, if you learn something or if you find it therapeutic, if a lightbulb goes off or if you laugh or cry, or hell, if my soothing voice helps you fall asleep, join Brandy, Carlos, Christina, Toby, and Victoria and donate. Especially if you’ve been meaning to give and haven’t quite got round to it, now might be a good time. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/DONATE.


PETER KORCHNAK: So why did Yugoslavia fall apart? To help answer the question I invited the main source for my own explanation to join me here today.

Susan Woodward teaches political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is the author of Socialist Unemployment: The political economy of yugoslavia 1945-1990 and Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution after the Cold War. Her last book was a critique of international intervention and state failure. She spoke to me from New York City, which provided a sonic backdrop to our conversation.

Before we talk about why Yugoslavia fell apart, we have to examine what kept it together in the first place.

Socialist Yugoslavia’s stability rested on three pillars.

SUSAN WOODWARD: I would start with the political system. The League of Communists designed the political system and then governed it did so with a commitment to the multinational composition of the population that was a result of this many empires that ruled the different parts of Yugoslavia, the Ottomans, the Hungarians, the Austrians, the Venetians. And they did so with a federal system, that guaranteed political rights to the concept of national self determination.

And so the party itself is a one party was also therefore, in many ways a multi party system because each one governed separately, each party governed separately in each republic.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Communist Party of Yugoslavia was established in 1919 in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. It was essentially an underground party until after the Second World War. Tito was its leader from 1937 until his death in 1980. In 1945, the Party established a one-party system in federal Yugoslavia modeled on the Soviet Union.

After the split with the Soviet Union, the Party reformed a bit and rebranded into the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. As the constitutional set up of the country went the Party’s followed, or perhaps vice versa—the Party was the state.

While the League of Communists of Yugoslavia was the federal communist party, each republic and province had its own branch, the League of Communists of Slovenia, the League of Communists of Croatia, and so forth. There was also a separate branch within the Yugoslav People’s Army.

Over time, decentralization of the country from the federal to the republican level went hand in hand with the decentralization of the Party, with republican branches gaining progressively more autonomy and power within their republics.

SUSAN WOODWARD: Each of the six republics of the federal system represented the right to self determination of Yugoslavia’s six nations, and decision making at the federal government was by consensus. And equally important, I think is the system became ever more decentralized starting already in the late 1950s.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s first post-war constitution followed the Stalinist model. The country comprised six republics organized in a federal system. The Communist Party merged with and took over the country’s political administration and established a centrally planned economy.

After the 1948 split with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia diverged from this path, pursuing instead its own policies, in both politics and economy, both internally and externally. Domestically, the new direction was workers’ self-management, a devolution of economic power to the level of enterprise. Self-management ran parallel to the decentralization of political power from the federation to the republics. Both economic and political devolution followed the rhetoric of the withering away of the state, a very Marxist concept.

The 1963 and particularly the 1974 constitutions progressively eroded the power of the federal government in favor of the republics. The goal was twofold: one, to maintain the legitimacy of socialism, and thus of the communist party and of the common state, and two, to ease disputes among the republics. But what ended up happening was that Yugoslavia became so fragmented politically and ecomically, it became a de-facto confederation of six independent economies with loose mutual economic ties pursuing their own interests at the federal expense. Try as Tito and his successors did to encourage integration and solidarity under the umbrella of the federal League of Communists, the army, and socialism, fragmentation only increased in the 1980s and eventually lead to a nearly total gridlock of federal decision-making and politics increasingly assuming an ethnic guise.

The rhetoric of solidarity often ran into the reality of power imbalances within the federal structures. In 1971, Montenegrins were about 2.8 percent of Yugoslavia’s population but 6.3 percent of all communists and, thanks to their intensive involvement in the People’s Liberation War, even more among the top brass. Serbs in 1981 comprised 36 percent of Yugoslav population, but 47 percent of Party membership. In the army, the JNA, the ratio of Serbian officers was 65 percent. Conversely, though Slovenia, and to a lesser extent Croatia, were the most developed republics and the engines of the Yugoslav economy, they lacked, of felt they lacked, corresponding political influence on the federal level.

At any rate, in and of itself, the federal, decentralized setup had its advantages, and indeed kept the country together.

SUSAN WOODWARD: I think the benefits for stability were not only, as seems obvious, the legitimacy that the commitment to the rights of national self determination of all peoples of Yugoslavia was very clear. The decentralization meant that threats could be dispersed and not accumulate. There was much flexibility.

I have friends, for example, will Macedonian friends who would go to Slovenia when they couldn’t get a hearing on something, some complaints they had to Macedonia and then they take it to Slovenia, and vice versa. So there was a lot of flexibility in the system, a lot of plurality.

And also, in addition, not necessarily tied to the decentralization, but the political system allowed for a great deal of freedom of political opinion and action. Because it was within each republic, there was again, didn’t accumulate, wouldn’t be threatening to the entire system.

PETER KORCHNAK: The first pillar of Yugoslavia’s stability, its political system, was in and of itself a balancing act.

Now that’s the political level. In my work I focused Yugoslavia’s economic policy as the crux of its dissolution. I mean, I had just come out of the University of Economics in Bratislava, where professors who had until a few years before taught Karl Marx were huge Milton Friedman fans. I focussed on the policy of equalization and the conflicts it engendered, and built a model of dissolution based on elite mobilizations. Here’s what happened.

[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Miss Moon” by Mello C]

Yugoslavia’s republics and provinces were wildly divergent in terms of their levels of economic development. In 1960, GDP per capita in Slovenia was five times that of Kosovo, in 1980, seven times; GDP per capita of Croatia, about two thirds of Slovenia’s, was nearly double that of Macedonia.

Early on the communists recognized that such economic imbalance across the country was a barrier to Yugoslavia’s overall economic development. They also assumed that a greater balance would encourage greater solidarity across the land. So they devised a policy to equalize the levels of economic development, mirroring it on the principle of brotherhood and unity, that is of national equality and working-class solidarity among the Yugoslav nations.

Equalization was first to be achieved by industrialization based on heavy industries.

The main tools of this policy were federally allocated investments and grants. Flaws appeared early on. For example, Montenegro received a disproportionate ratio of funds due to the bargaining power of Montenegrin political elites. Misallocation and waste occurred from the outset.

In recognition of these early failures, the system was reformed in 1965. Two wonderfully named instruments were established to manage the process: the Federal Fund for Financing Faster Development of Economically Underdeveloped Republics and Autonomous Provinces, and the General Supplementary Resources for Financing Social and Other Services in the Underdeveloped Republics and Autonomous Provinces.

The underdeveloped regions received other forms of assistance in addition to the money out of the Fund and the Resources, such as access to credits, loan forgiveness, lower customs duties, and so on.

Croatia, Slovenia, and to a lesser degree Serbia, and Vojvodina were the contributors to these mechanisms, with Croatia contributing the most, about a third, while Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo the recipients. Early on Bosnia and Herzegovina was the biggest recipient, but by the 70s Kosovo received the most, going from one third of total in 1971–75 to two thirds in 86-88. In all, about 8 percent of Yugoslavia’s total GDP was dedicated to equalization.

Long story short, the equalization policy was a disaster. Not only did the share of underdeveloped regions in Yugoslavia’s economy not catch up, it remained about steady overall and in fact declined on the per capita basis, particularly in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

There were several reasons for this. The developed regions in the West grew, pulling away from the Eastern rest; recall the growing divergence of GDP per capita of Slovenia versus Kosovo I mentioned earlier. In the underdeveloped areas, populations grew faster than in the more developed areas, which also led to greater unemployment and other issues. While these regions had the abundance of labor, the money went to capital-intensive uses such as heavy industries, so there was a mismatch. They couldn’t absorb all that money coming their way, lacking as they were the capacity to build these new industries so fast. And, the worst part, a lot of the funds were misallocated or wasted on unintended or unproductive uses, like libraries of football stadiums, which are great but won’t grow your economy’s output in the long run.

The richer republics, Croatia and Slovenia, weren’t all too happy about this. As soon as its first negative results showed, the policy of equalization became a source of contention, between the republics and the federation and between and among the developed and less-developed republics and provinces.

Politicians in Slovenia and Croatia complained about investment misallocation, inefficiency, and waste of resources. Consequently, they pushed for federal decentralization, which as I mentioned earlier, they did keep getting with the constitutional revisions. Possessing greater economic competitiveness—Slovenia was said to be more integrated with Western Europe than with Yugoslavia—they knew they could be better off alone than with the paupers holding them back.

Conversely, those in the underdeveloped regions felt disadvantaged by the industrialization policies. They argued that, in spite of the construction of new industries there, they remained raw materials suppliers for the developed regions. More reliant as they were on federal funding they argued for even larger amounts of aid from the federation and, consequently, favored centralization.

The decentralization vs. centralization dispute created a vicious circle, with all sides emerging dissatisfied, and threatening the delicate balance upon which Yugoslavia rested.

If you’re detecting echoes in our century of Germany complaining about the profligacy of Greece and Greece getting constantly bailed out by the EU, you are correct. In fact, when that crisis was in the spotlight after the Great Recession, some compared Yugoslavia’s issues with European Union’s, asking whether the former had any lessons or perhaps warnings to offer to the latter. But the EU appears to have been stronger than Yugoslavia was.

Yugoslavia did decentralize and the federation weaken, the goal being to maintain the balance among constituent parts and appease the dissatisfied ones. But the inter-republican conflicts became more pronounced.

And because each republic was more or less ethnically defined, with Bosnia and Herzegovina as the greatest exception and the butt end of others’ grievances, the link between territorial, that is republican slash provincial, and ethnic issues assumed greater importance. This is the very source of the confusion of those who claim Yugoslavia’s dissolution and the ensuing wars were based on ethnic conflict.


The second pillar of Yugoslavia’s stability was—

SUSAN WOODWARD: —individual rights and therefore individual security.

All states provide some political, civil, and social rights. But we can remember that Yugoslavia was a socialist country, which meant social property rights (only private rights in the agricultural sector) but a market system. And this combination gave not only great social and economic equality and extensive welfare—education was free healthcare was free rents and housing were very low. And if you were in the urban area, if you were in a non-agricultural place of employment, you had full job security. And with job security, came lots of other what we could call welfare benefits.

And until the 1980s, there was an ever improving standard of living, with an emphasis starting in the early 1960s on consumerism. There was freedom to travel. If you had a Yugoslav passport, you could travel free without visas to more countries in the world than any other country in that period of time. So I think the freedom to travel was certainly envied by people in the rest of eastern and central Europe.

Not only did Yugoslavs have a generally good life, this translated in my experience to a genuine love of country. Pride in Yugoslavia for many reasons, maybe we might even call it patriotism, but certainly legitimacy of the of the system for what people received.

PETER KORCHNAK: Many guests on this show, and many people I speak with personally, have highlighted the individual rights and benefits they enjoyed in Yugoslavia.

The red passport in particular makes a frequent appearance. Add to that vacations, consumer goods, pop culture, and you’ll be hard pressed not to conclude Yugoslavs had it good, particularly in comparison to the countries of the Eastern Bloc.

The third pillar of stability—

SUSAN WOODWARD: —was Yugoslavia’s international position. And this has much to do with Tito’s layered leadership, which he was mainly focused on foreign policy and diplomacy, was able to take benefits from each of the three parts of the international system at the time, the West, the East, and the Non-Aligned Movement, which Tito was a part of creating. Yugoslavia had economic ties in all three systems. You can imagine the number of trading options. They had independence from the Soviet bloc.

And most important to me in the analysis I do of the end of Yugoslavia was the ability to borrow capital loans from both the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank starting very early in the late 1940s, when Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet leadership.

But also you could add on the international position, not only resources that the Yugoslavs were able to get as a result of their position[ing] balancing among the three blocks. But they had lots of world sports competitions that gave Yugoslavia real prestige and pride for the citizens. Yugoslav engineers and construction companies went all over the world, especially in African countries doing projects. I know of, have friends who grew up outside of Yugoslavia, because their parents were in doing that economic development work. And there was a lot of international investment, although Yugoslavia was dependent on the international economy and its own position of semi-development. So that meant that this investment was often on supplier credits and producing intermediate goods.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s good life was in large part financed by debt. If you’re American, this hits pretty close to home, doesn’t it. Yugoslavia’s dependency on foreign investment to finance growth in the 1950s and 60s had created huge deficits. To finance the deficit, Yugoslavia turned to borrowing, which came largely in the form of American aid and IMF loans, until almost all of its deficits were covered by debt. The repayment of debt was financed by further debt, and on the cycle went.

Debt in and of itself isn’t a horrible thing, even as it reached 18 billion dollars by the 1980s. After all, it was working, for many many years. But—

SUSAN WOODWARD: —by the late 1970s, the International Monetary Fund decided that the economic management, that means macroeconomic management of the country, was failing totally because of the level of decentralization and so it insisted, in order to get its debts repaid, a real centralization of macroeconomic policy. The Slovenes didn’t like that. They reacted very strongly against losing control over their export earnings and their control over debt repayment that would then be tied to the whole country that was not as wealthy as Slovenia. And so the ability to contest federal taxation redistribution by each of the republics, which is part of the negative aspects of decentralization that you mentioned, was I think, not only causing more economic difficulties, but it certainly led to the IMF making this decision that it was too much.

PETER KORCHNAK: Back to centralization vs decentralization we go.

Now, many people believe it was Tito who held the country together. After he died in 1980, the country went with him.

What seems to be overlooked in these accounts is, one, the country continued to exist for another 11 years after Tito. That’s nearly a quarter of its postwar history.

Two, Tito was far from charismatic. Just look at some of the archival footage of Tito speaking in meetings. He seems like an impostor, who knows he’s a peasant kid among the college crowd. “He was quite popular, liked by most, even adored by many—but “charismatic”: never,” wrote the economist Branko Milanović. In fact, a lot of communist leaders and dictators lacked charisma, even as they cultivated the cult of personality. It was particularly this averegeness that mattered. Tito embodied the ideology, the masses, the history which spoke through him, concludes Milanović.

And three, Tito was an apparatchik, skilled at bureaucratic and power maneuvering, as well as military, as the war experience had demonstrated.

SUSAN WOODWARD: The only thing Tito did was when he thought there was a real threat to the breakup of Yugoslavia, he would intervene to stop the quarreling among the top political leaders of each republic. Keep in mind that I said that one of the characteristics of this federal system is that you had to have consensus in all decision making, which of course meant for a lot of stagnation in decision-making as well, blockages.

PETER KORCHNAK: Father Tito breaking up the fights and pacifying the Children Republics. Is how I’ve heard one observer put it.

SUSAN WOODWARD: Otherwise, from my perspective, Tito’s almost entire role for Yugoslavia was managing and creating this magnificent international position that gave them far more resources then they, by their own domestic resources should have had, and a stature that was truly genuine.

PETER KORCHNAK: More on international factors in a bit.

SUSAN WOODWARD: But what I think is important about the focus on Tito is he dies, right at the point where the difficulties for Yugoslavia really begin, and that’s 1980. So 1979 is the world debt crisis, when the International Monetary Fund decides to get tough on all countries that owe money. But also at a time when the Federal Reserve in the United States raised interest rates, I’m forgetting the shockingly high—

PETER KORCHNAK: High inflation at the time led the Fed to raise the interest rate from 14 percent in January to 20 percent in December 1980.

SUSAN WOODWARD: And because most countries carry their debt in dollars, all of a sudden everybody’s debt, from those people who are indebted to the IMF for example, have way too much debt they couldn’t repay.

So the timing of Tito’s death looks like too many people that it was the his absence. But I say no, quite the contrary. What happens is you begin to get a debt crisis that Yugoslavia is a part of. In the 1980s, the economic policy for Yugoslavia was driven by this IMF requirement, not only to recentralize macro economic planning, which I mentioned the Slovenes were very opposed to, but also to impose economic reforms what we now called neoliberal marketization austerity policies.

PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia’s economy sputtered, as did the world’s as it entered a recession, and things got worse at the ground level.

SUSAN WOODWARD: The solid middle class, professional, administrative, political class, mainly in the Party, but not only, who were kind of the bedrock, really, in many ways are the bedrock of all democracies, all of a sudden, their sons and daughters are becoming unemployed, or not getting jobs rather. So it hits them. And that, I think, which is a consequence of the economic crisis, and the economic policies of the IMF was requiring for their debt repayment, I think that begins to erode the political loyalty of that class to the party and to the socialist order.

And having— remembering that the not only the federal system, federalism was a basis of stability, and now it’s being challenged on the one hand by the Slovenes on federal taxation and on the and re-centralization and on the other hand by the IMF requirement. Now, we’re talking about the employment commitment. And well, keeping in mind that welfare, social and economic rights were tied to one’s job, so if you’re unemployed, and all of a sudden you don’t have those rights. And there were limitations on imports in order to repay the debt so that meant a lot of consumer goods were no longer available.

In other words, the good life that I mentioned, was reversed by these austerity policies.

PETER KORCHNAK: The IMF-imposed austerity measures led to increasingly frequent strikes. Inflation grew to a 1,000 percent in 1989. Official unemployment ballooned to 17 percent, with youth unemployment as high as 60 percent; many large companies went bankrupt; wages were frozen and real earnings fell by a quarter by mid-decade; there were periodic shortages of electricity, petrol, and staple goods, even food. People who could travel to the West to buy records and jeans were now faced with rationing of gasoline and cooking oil.

Divorces, drug addiction, and the perceptions of threats to ethnic or national groups from other groups increased. Overall dissatisfaction grew, creating fertile ground for alternative narratives, alternative to socialism that is, to take hold. Already in the early 1980s surveys found dramatic drops in Yugoslavs feeling positive about the socialist system or the party and growing doubts the government could solve the situation. And as popular as they were, constitutional and market-oriented economic reforms launched in 1989 were too little too late, in fact coming as the last straw in the dissatisfaction of the developed republics.

For more on the situation in Yugoslavia in the 1980s, check out Episode 36, “Dream of the Yugoslav 80s.”

One other part of the deal was gone too.

SUSAN WOODWARD: One safety net that also supported the stability of Yugoslavia, starting in the mid 60s, was the foreign worker possibility of how many people went to Gastarbeiter, guest workers, to Germany, Belgium, and Switzerland. So that was a way of stemming disappointment about unemployment among people, urban youth. But then that’s not available in the 80s either.

PETER KORCHNAK: So that’s the domestic context of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Decentralization and conflict over resources tore the country apart from above. Deterioration of the standard of living and of the legitimacy of the socialist regime tore it apart from below. The pillars upon which the country’s balance rested crumble.

In the international arena—

SUSAN WOODWARD: The European Union, then the European Committee community, is beginning this next phase of integration. And Slovene politicians notice this. Now, I’m not wanting to blame everything on Slovenes but I think it’s very interesting to see how the characteristics of Slovenia were very suitable for solving the debt crisis and for joining the European Union, but not true for the rest of Yugoslavia. So that’s what’s beginning to happen at the international level.

By 1988, 89, the United States decides that because of Gorbachev’s policies in the Soviet Union, it no longer needs an independent communist country, namely Yugoslavia. So it’s all of its support, which had been so essential to maintaining the IMF and World Bank support and many other elements of Yugoslavia’s independence, says it no longer matters. It actually moves Yugoslavia, in the State Department, classification of countries into Eastern Europe at that point, symbolically acknowledging that he doesn’t care anymore, whether Yugoslavia is independent. And then, of course, the Eastern Bloc disappears, the Non-Alignment Movement becomes less important.

PETER KORCHNAK: The Cold War structure presented the principal constraint on Yugoslavia’s external policies and internal developments. Yugoslavia had positioned itself outside and between the two blocs, neutral, non-aligned.

In terms of security, the federal unity of the Yugoslav republics was forged by the Soviet threat. The 1948 split, the 1953 invasion of Hungary, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia, the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan all reinforced the notion the Soviet Union is a hostile power that could rip Yugoslavia into pieces at any time. There’s nothing like an external enemy to rally disparate interests around the flag.

The West supported the continued existence of the Yugoslav federation as a counterbalance or buffer to the Soviet power in Eastern Europe, both politically and, as you heard, economically. When the Soviet Union, announced its political withdrawal from Eastern Europe, all experiencing economic decline just as Yugoslavia was, the primary external threat to Yugoslavia’s existence disappeared and Yugoslavia lost its importance for the West. In other words the end of the Cold War enabled Yugoslavia’s disintegration by creating an environment where it could dissolve.

SUSAN WOODWARD: And one of the things that to me is important about this international context, is not only that it’s psychologically difficult that Yugoslavia is abandoned by the United States and the opportunity for Slovenia to see it has a way out if it declares independence, but also the Yugoslavia’s national independence, had been based on a defense strategy of two components.

One was local level, territorial defense forces. Everyone in high school and university had were required to take training to be in the defense forces if it were necessary. The federal army that was then— its purpose was to defend the country against external invaders, at least as a deterrence.

One of the consequences of this decentralization for the federal budget is most of the federal budget was for the Yugoslav Army. So when Slovenia sees that it doesn’t really need that defense, or it really never did, anyway, and that if it doesn’t like the fact that it’s having now to pay more for the federal budget, you begin to get even among youth, students in Slovenia, criticizing the army. And I think that is really quite critical to what happens at the end.

If you’re not a great power, your position economically and politically in the international system is essential to what your capacities are domestically. And so I would put much more emphasis on the fact that the international sort of ballast, shall we say, all of the aspects of what was essential to Yugoslavia’s very good life, political status, legitimacy at home, really depended on what happened to its international system.

PETER KORCHNAK: The international context of the 1980s and turn of the 90s, in other words, the economic crisis and the end of the Cold War, are crucial elements in Yugoslavia’s dissolution. I’m not saying, as a lot of people in the region do that, it was this or that country, the US or Germany or what have you, that caused Yugoslavia to fall apart. I am saying that the fall of the Soviet empire exerted an external shock on Czechoslovakia, other Eastern Bloc countries, and Yugoslavia. It released the external constraints both on socialism and, in the case of federal states, borders.


PETER KORCHNAK: The model I created for the mechanics of Yugoslavia’s dissolution (and Czechoslovakia’s) was based on relative deprivation and elite mobilization.


First, let’s keep in mind it was not Slovenia but Slovenian politicians, not the Czech Republic but Czech politicians who made and implemented politically relevant decisions that led to the two countries’ dissolutions. So when I talk about rich or underdeveloped republics, about Croatia or Serbia, I’m not talking about some abstract entities, but their representatives, their leaders—their elites in other words.

Relative deprivation refers to the difference between what you have and to both what you potentially could have in the future and, even more importantly, to what others have. Relative deprivation is particularly apparent in the context of modernization that socialist countries underwent.

To be sure, modernization leads to improved material conditions. But these improvements in turn cause a shift in aspiration levels: people cease to compare their situation with their own and instead compare it with that of other groups. The more you have, the more you want but also the more you see others getting more, even though of course you deserve it more.

Feelings of unfairness and injustice can develop as a result, spilling over into conflict. The worse-off group mobilizes to make higher demands toward the privileged group which in turn, perceived these demands as a threat to its political, economic or social status, and mobilizes in order to protect and defend it.

Yugoslavia’s equalization policy caused the elites of the respective groups to claim relative deprivation and mobilize accordingly. As Yugoslavia modernized and redistributed resources to equalize economic development levels, underdeveloped regions were improving, so they wanted more money and hence more centralization. Particularly Serbia, a relatively less developed republic containing the country’s poorest region, Kosovo, but possessing relatively more federal power, wanted more redistribution and greater centralization. Political elites here perceived deprivation relative to their own status and to what they were missing out on. They mobilized offensively, that is not like insults but offense, demanding more resources or concessions due to the shift in their aspiration levels. Thus mobilized, they were interested in the continued existence of Yugoslavia to continue extracting economic or, such as was the case of Serbia, political resources from the federation.

Conversely, the better-off republics were improving much faster, felt they could do even better, and compared what they were missing at the expense of the Macedonias and Serbias. Their perceived deprivation was relative to their own missed potential as well but principally directed at the groups they felt were holding them back. They mobilized defensively, in reaction to the other group’s demands, in order to protect their status.

This process of offensive vs. defensive political mobilization was in play throughout entire existence of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia—and it eventually led to the dissolution of both federations. The offensive and defensive mobilization of republican slash ethnic elites created a pattern of action-reaction. And once the international situation allowed for secession, the defensive reaction eventually led to the two countries’ dissolutions. Loss aversion being a stronger impulse, defensive mobilization as a response to a threat to an ethnic group’s established position results in a more vigorous collective action than offensive mobilization, which aims to exploit opportunities. Once the Slovenian or Croatian elites perceived threats to the loss of their legitimacy, based in large part on the economy as it was, they acted accordingly. While it was Serbian and Slovak nationalism that was most visible and got the most blame for the dissolutions, it was Slovenia and the Czech Republic who abandoned the federal states first.

Political and economic transition, such as occurred after Tito’s death, in terms of the end of socialism and the Cold War, created uncertainty about security and the distribution of power and accelerated the patterns of political mobilization of both masses and political elites. Add to that the worsening economic situation in the 1980s, which intensified competition among Yugoslavia’s republics and provinces for shrinking resources, so that political discussions concerning the redistribution of federal resources reached a fever, and soon ethnic fever pitch. The process started from the top, i.e. the respective elites worked to maximize their power interests by mobilizing the respective populations around the sense of relative deprivation. And that mass mobilization, through the media, rallies, and so on, became ethnic in its form, drawing on rhetorics of victimization, in past wars or socialism itself.

There you have it. Yugoslavia (and Czechoslovakia) broke up—because they could.


Dennison Rusinow has pointed out the tendency in the analyses of Yugoslavia’s disintegration and the death of Yugoslavism as “the ultimately inevitable consequence of the artificiality of the Yugoslav state and Yugoslavism (presumably in contrast to the naturalness of a nation-state and nationalist ideologies).” Indeed, even many fans of Yugoslavia say it had to dissolve, it was a made up country, a failed experiment. To drive home the point they point out how it happened, in war and ignominy. The fact it didn’t survive is proof it was a failure.

PETER KORCHNAK: A lot of people consider Yugoslavia to be a failed experiment, especially due to the fact the how it fell apart, you know, in war and ignominy. The fact that it didn’t survive is proof that it was a failure, so to speak.

SUSAN WOODWARD: Oh my goodness, 1945 to 1990, that’s a pretty long time.

PETER KORCHNAK: Ironically speaking, Yugoslavia was a success in another way: it did indeed wither away, according to plan.

SUSAN WOODWARD: Having visited it every three years or so since 1965, and seeing what a good life people had, and how much they loved their country in that kind of genuine way, the way I love mine, you know, I think that was a, it was quite a successful case.

Then one, of course has to look at the criteria. What did one care about? Did one care about job security and free education and welfare? I think there was a lot that was successful, certainly in the Yugoslav case.

PETER KORCHNAK: In the extended episode, Woodward goes into the causes of the wars that followed Yugoslavia’s breakup and the lessons Yugoslavia may or may not have for Ukraine and the U.S. This extra is available exclusively to the contributors of Remembering Yugoslavia. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/DONATE to donate and get access today.

PETER KORCHNAK: Speaking of war, the armed conflicts of Yugoslavia’s dissolution cannot be ignored in the discussion of the country’s death.

SUSAN WOODWARD: I do teach civil war. And one of the things that I think is too complex to discuss is the dynamic of civil wars. And so I’m using the term civil war for Yugoslavia because it was in many ways a civil war, played out between republics and within republics.

But I think the first thing to know, the longer it goes on, and therefore my international component kicks in again, the more the United States on the one hand and the European Union on the other take steps that I think prolonged the dissolution in the sense of the military aspects. At every step, the worse it gets, the more complex it gets, the harder it is to stop.

But if we can look at the beginning, why did not just dissolve with the decisions of the Badinter Commission in August 1991 that Yugoslavia, to use the Slovene term that they wanted to use, that Yugoslavia was in the process of dissolution.

PETER KORCHNAK: The former French minister Robert Badinter died, at the age of 95, just a few days before this episode’s release. The Arbitration Commission of the Peace Conference on Yugoslavia, which he led, was established in 1991 by the European Community to advise on the resolution of legal issues around Yugoslavia’s disintegration.

SUSAN WOODWARD: The first step was the Slovenes declare independence and take control over their borders. They have been preparing a new army for the entire decade. And the prime minister of Yugoslavia, as one would expect anywhere protecting the integrity, territorial integrity of his country, ordered the army to go retake control of those border crossings. So that’s already, you can see, military.

Second, already in the two years before the Croatian declaration of independence, there were right-wing paramilitaries organizing in localities and causing quite a lot of serious violence. I even refer to some violence in the Krajina, in the south of Croatia, as a kind of equivalent to Kristallnacht, the German case in the 30s. And this activity was in the Croatian case, as we’re talking now chronologically, was happening against Serbs in an area which served were minority were dominant for historical reasons, because it was the military border between the Habsburgs and the Ottomans. Serbs begin to mobilize against this. So you begin to get what I would call a civil war within Croatia, begun by these right wing paramilitaries.

And then I think, really critically, the European Union decisions in 1991, to recognize Slovene and Croatian independence, while refusing to renegotiate the borders of the republics, so that you could get new nationally defined states instead of what had been the federal system, meant it became a matter of existence for not only the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia, but for Croats in Bosnia, eventually for Muslims in Bosnia, and we can go on at length, then it’s, I think, almost inevitable, that it became contest over territory. And once it’s contest over territory, it’s a war.

PETER KORCHNAK: A lot of people from the former Yugoslavia who are living in the West, compared or, presented warnings or comparisons with the situation in the former Yugoslavia back then and that leads me always the question of what are the comparisons? And what can we in the United States learn from the example of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, obviously the United States being also a federal structure? And then, of course, we have these other armed conflicts happening in Ukraine, also part of the former country, and there’s of course, Israel, Israel slash Palestine. And so what are some of the lessons for us today, whether we’re in the U.S. or Ukraine or Israel, from Yugoslavia’s dissolution?

SUSAN WOODWARD: The discussion about whether the literature on civil war applies to the current situation in the United States, can we predict that we’re heading towards a civil war, I think is inappropriate in the sense that it doesn’t apply to the American case.

I feel strongly that in what the Yugoslav wars taught me is that, people who say that it was ethnic animosities, hostilities is the caused the fighting, I say no, it’s exactly the reverse. It’s the war and the violence that causes the hatred. And that’s certainly what seems to be going on in our country right now. And that worries me a great deal.

But I think the lessons for the Ukraine – Russia case are really quite worth paying attention to. On the one hand, of course, Russia invaded, this is [a] Russian aggression, there’s no question about that. I think we all agree. So in that sense, it’s an entirely different situation. Similarly the Israeli occupation of Palestine, both the West Bank and Gaza, it makes it very difficult.

But in the case of the Ukraine, Ukraine is, as you will probably know—I referred to the Serbian area, border area in Croatia as krajina, it’s the same Slavic word, kraj, meaning border—Ukraine is a borderland created by multiple empires. It also has people who are committed to the national rights of self-determination and security defined territorially and other and so many of the issues that’s what’s going on in the war and also would be necessary to negotiation. I think we can learn, I think, by mistakes from what happened by outsiders in the Yugoslav case. And the importance of the role of the United States is also worth paying attention. And finally, as a borderland, if when I talked about Yugoslav independence, Ukraine neutrality is probably would be the lesson that we could most take from what was successful for Yugoslavia.

PETER KORCHNAK: Standing between the blocks are a superpower, so to speak up

SUSAN WOODWARD: And taking advantage of being— I think people think of neutrality as a as a negative thing. Quite quite the contrary, it Yugoslavia benefited?

PETER KORCHNAK: Yeah, well, maybe Zelensky can be a Tito figure.

SUSAN WOODWARD: If the U.S.’ll let him.


[BACKGROUND MUSIC – “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić]

PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia:

CHIARA BONFIGLIOLI: The Partisans wouldn’t have made it without the support of women.

PETER KORCHNAK: One hundred thousand women fought in Tito’s Partisan army and two million helped the effort in other ways. They continued their emancipatory struggle after the Second World War. Gender equality, however, remained elusive. In the next two episodes of Remembering Yugoslavia, we’ll look at the roles and achievements of Partisan women in the People’s Liberation and Cold Wars.

Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts, follow to make sure you don’t miss out, and subscribe to support us.

[OUTRO MUSIC – “Jugoslavijo / Od Vardara pa do Triglava” by Horn Orchestra]

PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, sources, embeds, links, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.

The extended version of this episode, featuring additional interview footage with Susan Woodward, is available exclusively to donors. Go to RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate today.

Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić.

The track “Rainmaker” by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons.

Special thanks to Heather VanValkenburg.

I am Peter Korchňak.