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Beyond Ethnic

As Yugoslavia collapsed, conservative elites exploited the language of nationalism primarily as a means to stay in power, V. P. Gagnon argues. by Florian Bieber 12 September 2005
The Myth of Ethnic War: Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s
, by V. P. Gagnon, Jr. Cornell University Press, 2004. 217 pages.

If not ethnic, what else? The reader need go no further than the title of The Myth of Ethnic War to get an inkling that the author will suggest that ethnicity was not at the root of the wars in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia. At first, V. P. Gagnon seems to argue as much of the literature published in recent years does: the wars in Croatia, Bosnia, and finally in Kosovo did not arise from "ancient ethnic hatreds" – this dead horse has received more than its necessary flogging over the years – but erupted as a result of manipulation of the citizenry by political elites. However, Gagnon goes one step beyond and suggests that the regimes in Croatia and Serbia did not engage in war for the purpose of mobilizing the nationalist masses or gaining legitimacy. Instead, he introduces the concept of "demobilization" as a process by which political elites discourage the political activism of the population. Demobilization thus is a broad technique of political elites to weaken civil society, moderate the rhetoric of opposition parties, and minimize civic engagement. The "authoritarian wars," as one might be tempted to redub the conflicts of the Yugoslav succession, were thus instruments in the hands of what Gagnon calls "conservative elites" to take political weapons out of the opposition's hands. His analysis of the rich empirical data brings him to conclude that nationalism was not powerful before the beginning of the wars themselves, that the wars were not popular in the two countries, and that the conflicts did not "mobilize" large parts of the population in a nationalist frenzy.


Drawing on numerous surveys conducted by Yugoslav social scientists in the late 1980s, Gagnon, who teaches at Ithaca College in New York State and has widely published on former Yugoslavia, makes a convincing case that ethnic stereotypes and nationalist world views were not widely popular, particularly in ethnically diverse regions of Yugoslavia such as in Bosnia and parts of Croatia.

He thrashes out how the nationalist parties won the elections in 1990 and subsequently, not on a platform of ethnonationalist extremism, but of moderation. The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), in particular, is a good example of a party that generally positioned itself in the political center, with more nationalist parties (Vuk Draskovic’s Serbian Renewal Movement in 1990, Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party subsequently) as dark threats mobilizing support for Slobodan Milosevic's "moderate" Socialists. Even as the parties played the card of moderation, neither the SPS in Serbia nor Croatian leader Franjo Tudjman's Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) ever enjoyed the support of the absolute majority of the population, highlighting the constraints to the ruling elites. The hypothesis that most Serbs and most Croats did not want war – most of the youth, anyway – is bolstered by the observation that governments, particularly in Serbia, found it very hard to drum up enough conscripts for the army. The shortfall of reservists forced the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to revise its ambitious plans for Croatia, as the last defense minister of Yugoslavia, Veljko Kadijevic, admits in his memoirs, Moje vidjenje raspada Jugoslavije (My View of the Breakup of Yugoslavia): young men's draft resistance "became a major limiting factor in carrying out plans to deploy the JNA, more than all the other problems put together.”

Gagnon's argument against the idea that ethnicity was more than a tool wielded by conservative elites to secure their hold on power is coherent and convincing. By the time the regimes headed by Milosevic and Tudjman finally gave way within a few months of each other, the ethnic question had receded, Gagnon writes. Control over power and resources was no longer as intrinsically linked to the state, the "privatization" of businesses to tycoons close to the HDZ in Croatia being a case in point. Thus resistance against "transition" decreased and conservative elites' grip on state organs subsided.

Gagnon’s arguments are refreshing and lucid. His challenge to some of the conventional wisdom on former Yugoslavia joins a line of recent works, some from within the region, some by outsiders such as Eric Gordy in The Culture of Power in Serbia, that have demonstrated how authoritarian leaders made nationalism into a political instrument. While it is not hard to be sympathetic to the argument, the question arises whether this explanatory approach does not attribute too much influence to elites and neglect nationalist mobilization among the population prior to its exploitation by elites.


Gagnon relies heavily on the notion of "conservative elites" to describe the governing circles in Serbia and Croatia. These circles did in fact largely grow out of the conservative wing of the Yugoslav Communists. The term "conservative," however, is so broad that it hardly helps us understand the nature of the elite that took power in each republic. If we understand "conservative elites" in opposition to "democratic elites" in the party, as argued in the 1990s by Latinka Perovic, historian and head of the ruling League of Communists in Serbia in the early 1970s, we also find many conservatives who sided against the rising nationalists. In fact, a significant part of the elites in Vojvodina, Serbia, and Montenegro which were swept away in the "anti-bureaucratic revolutions" instigated by Milosevic in 1988 were part of that conservative elite, as were some of those who made incessant critiques of nationalism in Croatia. What is striking is why Milosevic made a choice for authoritarian and nationalist policies in 1987. As a rising star in the party, his career could have taken a path similar to that of Milan Kucan in Slovenia. Both rose through the ranks as pragmatic reformers in the mid-1980s, but while both survived the end of Yugoslavia and Communism, one made a career as a democratic reformer, the other in being largely responsible for the wars which ravaged former Yugoslavia and finally as a resident of a Hague prison cell. As Jasna Dragovic-Soso’s excellent study of Serb intellectuals (‘Saviours of the Nation’: Serbia’s Intellectual Opposition and the Revival of Nationalism, 2002) highlights, much of the liberal and reformist elites had already turned to nationalism in the 1980s, before Milosevic came to power. While certainly conservative elites existed and in part supported nationalist agendas to secure political or economic power, the persuasive force of nationalism needs to be recognized beyond its purely manipulative function. By no means primordial or inevitably leading to the violent breakup of the multi-ethnic state, the rise of nationalism to dominate political discourse by the late 1980s was not only the result of ethnic entrepreneurs who exploited the rise of nationalism for political ends. When we see a motley group like the Serbian Orthodox Church, popular magazines such as the weekly Duga, and Marxist philosopher Mihailo Markovic taking up the issue of Kosovo in the early 1980s, this indicates a more rooted presence of nationalism. While the mass mobilization in Serbia in 1988 was certainly well organized, as Gagnon points out, it also indicated general dissatisfaction, both of economic nature and frustration with the continued tensions in Kosovo.

While Gagnon's argument that the regimes never won absolute majorities certainly holds true, it does not always dovetail with his case that the regimes' moderation indicates less support for nationalism than has often been suggested. Satellite parties and opposition parties in both Serbia and Croatia often advocated a more radical and exclusivist nationalist agenda than the dominant parties. Although the fringe parties, such as the Party of Serbian Unity led by the paramilitary warlord Arkan or the Croat Party of Pure Right, never gained many votes, elections were often contested either on the basis of more extreme policies or on the basis of a "national consensus." This suggests that while the wars were certainly widely unpopular, there was much shared in the basic assumptions on the war and the national "question" in both countries.


These points of criticism do not suggest that the mechanism of "demobilization" was not at work. Indeed, the book is overall more convincing than those studies that assume the existence of extreme nationalism or suggest that nationalist regimes shored themselves up by exploiting some kind of mass hysteria. Taking into account the considerable degree of variation within Yugoslavia, the case is probably merely not as clear-cut as the author suggests. As a result, this book is an excellent addition to the literature on former Yugoslavia and stands out for its coherent argument, the comparative perspective, and the inclusion of social science literature from the region itself.

In a thoughtful conclusion, Gagnon raises the question whether “ethnic solutions,” such as increased minority rights protection, as for example in the Ohrid Agreement after the short conflict between Macedonian forces and Albanian-minority fighters in 2001, are appropriate if we agree that the conflicts were not “ethnic wars.” This observation is certainly worth more thorough contemplation than the book (or this review) has space for. It also raises a question: If the wars do not start as “ethnic,” do they end up being “ethnic”? The authoritarian regimes and the wars in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have transformed societies, which is one reason why clear hindsight of the 1980s is so difficult to achieve today. Stereotypes and nationalist world views have often become more socially acceptable in the post-conflict regions of former Yugoslavia than some 15 years ago and a new generation has grown up in the isolated countries of the region, suggesting that the postwar systems have to engage with a fundamentally different reality.
Florian Bieber is senior non-resident research associate at the European Center for Minority Issues, Belgrade, and author of Nationalismus in Serbien vom Tode Titos bis zum Ende der Ära Milosevic (Nationalism in Serbia from the Death of Tito to the End of the Milosevic Era), Münster/Vienna: Lit Verlag, 2005.
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