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Some Comments on the National Question in Yugoslavia

Mike Jones

CONTRARY TO the view expressed by some sections of the left, there is no Bosnian nationality. The population, apart from Jews, Gypsies and remnants of the indigenous people living there before the arrival of the South Slav tribes in the ninth century, is made up of those same South Slavs that later became Croats or Serbs. Historians differ as to whether Croats and Serbs differentiated before or after their arrival in the Balkan Peninsula. What did eventually cause national identity to develop was the division of the Christian Church between Rome and Byzantium, one using Latin and the other the Greek language. Croatia, Dalmatia and Bosnia were on one side of the line, while Serbia was on the other; hence the latter developed a cyrillic alphabet in spite of speaking the same language. A Serb and a Croat identity developed but not a Bosnian one. Why?

In the fifteenth century Ottoman Turkey expanded into the Balkans. After the Serb defeat at Kosovo Polje, the Turks looked to Bosnia. "Bosnia was a kingdom divided against itself owing to the unresolved tripartite struggle for supremacy between Catholics, followers of the Bosnian Church and Serb Orthodox.... Bosnia remained a country weakened by religious incoherence.... (Rather than resentful adherents of the Bosnian Church who had undergone forced conversion to Catholicism assisting the invading Turks.) It is more likely that Bosnia collapsed in the 1450s and 1460s because it was poor, underpopulated and divided into virtually independent fiefdoms" (Marcus Tanner, Croatia: A Nation Forged in War, 1997, p.29 – I believe that this is the first English-language history of Croatia).

Under Turkey the Serbian Church "maintained its position as the sole institution keeping alive the idea of ’Serbdom’.... Thanks to this, most Serbs retained their Orthodox and thus Serbian identity. This contrasted with Bosnia, where, lacking a strong national church, many people converted to Islam following the conquest in 1463" (Tim Judah, The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, 1997, p.45).

Judah relates how a Serb identity developed. "What made them Serbs then was religion.... the vast majority of Serbs have always identified themselves as such, or have even become Serbs, as a result of being Orthodox #150; as opposed to being Muslim or Catholic. In an age before nationalism Serbs would just as often identify themselves as Orthodox and Croats as Catholic.... Today the vast majority of Serbs are not religious; but few would deny they were Orthodox" (ibid, p.43 – my emphases).

Dalmatia had been ruled by Venice and France and its incorporation into a Croatian identity is relatively recent. Judah points out: "In many parts of Dalmatia and Bosnia Croatian or Serbian identity was not so deeply entrenched, even well into this century, as people would describe themselves as Catholic or Orthodox or Dalmatian before they would as Serb or Croat. National identity was to develop late in these mixed regions" (ibid, p.11 – my emphases).

In 1878 Bosnia was occupied by Austria, and in 1908 it was annexed. Inside Bosnia-Herzegovina one had three main religious-cultural entities but not three nationalities. No Bosnian identity had emerged and would not later in the first Yugoslav state. In the post-World War II Yugoslavia, although Bosnia-Herzegovina would be set up as a political-administrative entity, part of Tito’s balancing act between the assorted national republics, no Bosnian identity emerged but a Yugoslav one did develop. In my opinion, one can make an analogy with the Six Counties of Northern Ireland. There is no Ulster nationality, but two entities who see themselves as either Irish or British depending on their religious-cultural origins.

Few people wanted to break from Yugoslavia until Slovenia and Croatia left, but then the rising ruling class, as represented by Izetbegovic et al, did not want to remain in a rump Yugoslavia dominated by Serbia. Izetbegovic said that war would break out, but he believed that he would be supported by the West and thus would overcome those wanting to detach parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina to make greater Croat and Serb states. But during those early days the demonstrators against the break-up saw themselves as Yugoslavs and not Bosnians (TV footage showed the red flags and posters of Tito, who expressed that idea in their eyes). Precisely because of historical experience, the Serbs feared being a minority in a Muslim-led Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The concept of "ethnic cleansing" is a nonsense, as the three religious-cultural entities are of the same ethnic roots. The term originated with the fascistic Ustashe movement between the two world wars, and the Serbs, along with Jews and Gypsies, were to be "cleansed". The Serb case has not been understood (to grasp why things occur one must first study the arguments, without necessarily accepting them), because a racist caricature has been portrayed in much of the liberal press, which the Muslim lobby among the left has taken over, which gives no rational explanation of Serb feelings. One must examine the Serb struggle for independence from the Ottomans, World War I when they were "betrayed" by the Croats fighting for the Central Powers, and then the massacres of Serbs in Bosnia by Ustashe and Muslim SS units, etc. All nations have myths, so just as one needs to critically approach Dunkirk, the Charge of the Light Brigade or Custer’s Last Stand, etc, one needs to look at what the Serbs believe. As Al pointed out, the charge that Serbs were raping Muslim women systematically to produce Serbs was ridiculous. Rape occurred and who defends it? But precisely because the three Bosnian religious-cultural entities are of the same ethnic origin, the charge could only be accepted by those ignorant of the true state of affairs.

Yugoslavism ("Jugoslavenstvo") developed out of the disappointment following 1848-49, with the aim of uniting the South Slavs. The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 resulted in Serbia nearly doubling in size. Austria wanted a war to cut Serbia down to size. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been annexed by then, and Croatia was almost ungovernable. The defeat of Austria led to the Czechs and Slovaks declaring independence on 28 October 1918. Croatia followed, and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was established, later changed to Yugoslavia. That was the result of a popular movement which had been underway since the latter 1880s. The Communist International (CI) saw the Yugoslav state as "a prisonhouse of nations" and – falsely – as a product of the Versailles Treaty. It rapidly became a state dominated by Serbia, but it was a result of "Jugoslavenstvo" and not Versailles. The Comintern view is set out by Trotsky in the article ("Letter to Yugoslav Comrades") reproduced in What Next? No.6.

The Versailles states (Poland, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia) were seen by Soviet Russia and the CI as tools of the Entente and thereby hostile to the Soviet Union. Whereas the Yugoslav Communist Party (KPJ) upheld Yugoslavism with the rights of autonomy up to secession. The CI flirted with the Croatian Republican Peasant Party of Stefan Radic and with Macedonian separatists. Stalin criticised the KPJ’s position already in 1925. By 1928 the KPJ was forced to change its position and drop Yugoslavism. It went so far, during the ultra-left turn of 1929-34, as to describe the Ustashe as "a national-revolutionary peasant movement", though it did not excuse the Ustashe’s terrorism. The introduction of the Peoples Front line meant that Yugoslavia now required sustaining as a bulwark against "fascist dictators".

CI policy on the national question at times coincided with the interests of the Soviet Union, and often perversely so – there can be no doubt about that. The expert in this field was none other than J.V. Stalin. Interestingly in this regard, in his book Reminiscences (1982), Edvard Kardelj quotes from notes made during talks with Stalin in April 1947, where the latter asked how many Macedonians there were in Yugoslavia, and was shocked when Kardelj told him "about a million and a half". He asked what language they spoke and whether they had literature, etc, in it. The expert who offered advice in 1925 clearly knew nothing of the Macedonians. Also of interest is what Kardelj relates about the Yugoslav efforts during the Moscow conference in March-April 1947 to get the big powers to accept the Yugoslav claim on the territory in Carinthia populated by Slovenes. The Western powers opposed any change to the border with Austria, and Molotov did not strongly fight the Yugoslav case. The plebiscite of 1920 was cited by some to negate the Yugoslav argument. In the zone in question then the vote was 40% for inclusion in Yugoslavia and 60% for staying in Austria. Kardelj argues that the outcome was not decided "upon national, but upon social and economic lines", as the Austrian Republic was progressive as opposed to the conservative Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. Austria was economically more developed with a democratic political system, hence the 1920 vote was not so much a rejection of Slovene identity as a rejection of what the then existing Slovenia had to offer. As a Slovene, Kardelj had studied and written on the question.

In the January 1994 issue of New Interventions, a letter from me entitled "Once More on Bosnia" relates an analogous event concerning the Danes of Schleswig. The referenda of 1920 in Schleswig (lost to Prussia in 1864), led to the northern zone voting to return to Denmark, while the rest remained German. National minorities remained in both parts of Schleswig. But with the end of World War II a huge upsurge of Danish identity took place in South Schleswig. A movement developed calling for a revision of the border, among both Danes and Friesians. The highpoint of the movement was almost 100,000 votes for the SSV (the minority party) in the elections for the Schleswig-Holstein Diet in Kiel. The votes represented 57% of the native population, and had a referendum taken place it would have led to a border revision. Yet only 12,800 had voted for Denmark in the 1920 plebiscite.

The Danes who voted to stay in Germany in 1920 voted in similar fashion to the Carinthian Slovenes, i.e. "upon social and economic lines". Weimar Germany appeared a better prospect than Denmark. But by 1945 the reverse was the case. The western powers opposed plebiscites in both cases. In the Danish case, the government had no wish for a border revision, as it would result in an addition to the 25,000 or so German minority.

Among the 100,000 who voted in 1947 for the SSV, there must have been people who always saw themselves as Danes, others who rediscovered their national identity as a result of the horrors of the Nazi regime, but also yet others whose links with a Danish nationality were somewhat tenuous or even non-existent. As conditions in South Schleswig stabilised and improved, the support for the SSV fell to some few tens of thousands and remains similar today.

What seems of significance to me in the above examples is precisely the social and economic aspect of "national consciousness". In "Politik i Sydslesvig 1945-1979", an account of the said years in the 1980 annual of the Grćnseforening (association to support Danishness in the border area, particularly the German side), Eskild Bram writes: "It is characteristic that the predominant part of the Danish minority belonged to the working class." The leading lights, on the other hand, tended to be businessmen, farmers or from the liberal professions. The Danes below the border were active and even prominent in the labour movement and its parties. That explains the low vote to return to Denmark in 1920, according to some authors.

Already in the 1960s, one frequently heard complaints in Yugoslavia about Slovenes and Croats, etc, having to pay taxes to help develop Macedonia, Kosovo, etc. Or contemptuous remarks about the backward "orientals", meaning the Muslim women in the fields or washing clothes in streams – from Serbs, I presumed. The movement to break up Yugoslavia was reactionary, from outside interests like those of German business, or from internal business interests. The people propelling the break-up were the class forces looking to exploit the divided masses. The nationalist poison aimed to displace class solidarity and socialist consciousness. For example, the Krajina Serbs, out of self-preservation, had been among the first to rally to Tito’s partisans. They stayed loyal to the CP, and still were to the reformed one, until the Krajina cut itself off from Croatia and the nationalists took over through pressure and thuggery. Just as the Bosnian Muslims had stayed loyal to Tito and his legacy. The Izetbegovic regime was no better than the others. Those who pretended so have abandoned class politics for bourgeois liberalism and Peoples Frontism. Rather than resist the obscuring of the class content of the nationalists, they have acted as assistants. Those who did oppose the nationalists from a class viewpoint, in Croatia and the Krajina in particular, suffer gaol, beatings etc. We should identify with such people, not with the nationalists, not to speak of Joe Rassool’s Islamic zealot volunteers.