My review article ‘Slobodan Milosevic’s place in Serbian History’ was published in a special edition of European History Quarterly guest edited by Dejan Djokic, vol. 36, no. 3, July 2006, pp. 445-462. What follows is an extract from it.
The widespread portrayal of Milošević as promoter of Great Serb nationalism and instigator of the break-up of Yugoslavia has not gone unchallenged. In Yugoslavia – the state that withered away: The rise, crisis and fall of Kardelj’s Yugoslavia (1974-1990) [Jugoslavija – država koja je odumrla: Uspon, kriza i pad Kardeljeve Jugoslavije (1974-1990)], Dejan Jović attempts perhaps the most ambitious revisionist treatment of Milošević, arguing: “In his first phase, Milošević was probably a Yugoslav nationalist, but he never became a Serb nationalist, as many label him today” (p. 65n, emphasis in original). For Jović, the real villain who destroyed Yugoslavia was Edvard Kardelj (1910-1974), Tito’s right-hand man who successfully pushed for an increasingly decentralised Yugoslav state from the late 1960s on; Jović argues that from1966 and particularly from 1974, Yugoslavia was ‘the fourth (Kardelj’s) Yugoslavia’ (p. 16), which ‘withered away’ as the result of the deliberate intention of its creator, inspired by the socialist principle that the state should do just that. By contrast, Milošević sought to restore Yugoslavia to its former strength and unity, and therefore comes across as an initially relatively benign figure in Jović’s account, only turning to Serb nationalism reluctantly, under the pressure of events outside his control.
Taken simply as a study of the Serbian Communist elite in Titoist Yugoslavia, Jović’s study is illuminating and provides valuable new insights into key events up until 1990. But in attempting to reinterpret the history of the break-up of Yugoslavia, Jović ties himself in knots. By virtually ignoring the Yugoslav republics other than Serbia, except for Slovenia in the 1980s, and by abruptly ending his story in mid-1990 – a full year before the final collapse of Yugoslavia – Jović has adopted too narrow a focus for such an ambitious undertaking. Since, as Jović himself notes (pp. 145-146), Kardelj promoted the withering away of the republican as well as the Federal states, and since it was only the Federal state that eventually disappeared, it is difficult to see how this can be blamed on Kardelj’s constitutional model. Yet elsewhere, Kardelj is portrayed as promoting the statehood of the republics (p. 179), in which case Kardelj’s constitutional model cannot be ascribed to a socialist belief in the ‘withering away’ of the state.
Since Jović describes Kardelj as supporting the Serbian Communist aim of reducing the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina, and Tito as preventing this (pp. 177, 261-262), it is difficult to accept Jović’s claim that the ‘fourth’ Yugoslavia was indeed Kardelj’s and not Tito’s; or that “in destroying the fourth Yugoslavia, Milošević rejected Kardelj but not Tito” (p. 156). Jović appears to want it both ways, arguing that Yugoslavia had ‘withered away’ by 1990, but also that Yugoslavia was destroyed by politicians in the late 1980s. But Milošević could not be guilty of “destroying the fourth Yugoslavia” if it had, according to Jović, already destroyed itself. Nor can Jović fairly accuse Tudjman’s Croatia of “separatism” (p. 63), since he also argues that, by the time Tudjman was elected in the spring of 1990, there was no Yugoslavia left to practise separatism from.
In portraying Serb and other nationalisms as the consequence, not the cause, of Yugoslavia’s break-up (pp. 57-58), Jović gets into further difficulties. For if Milošević was indeed a “Yugoslav nationalist”, and if, as Jović argues, the Yugoslav population was more supportive of the Yugoslav idea than were the Yugoslav elites (p. 42), it is unclear what the impetus was that shifted Milošević toward Serbian nationalism, as Jović describes (pp. 471-473). Jović’s theoretical model appears to be in constant rebellion against his facts: he quotes Borisav Jović’s diary to show that Milošević planned the expulsion of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia (pp. 482-483), saying that this decision “formally destroyed Yugoslavia” (pp. 482-483), yet subsequently concludes that “[t]he sources which were at the disposal of the author of this book do not give sufficient reason to support the conclusion that the members of the Yugoslav political elite in this period (including, thus, Slobodan Milošević and Milan Kučan), intended to destroy Yugoslavia” (p. 491). He goes on to say that many of these figures were “genuinely surprised by the collapse, and still more by the war that occurred after it” – he does not except Milošević (pp. 491-492).
This comes dangerously close to whitewashing the warmongers. Jović describes the JNA’s intervention in Croatia as motivated by the goal, “perhaps in good faith, of preventing direct ethnic conflict in Croatia” (p. 485), and the war as “the expression of a weak, ineffective state that was not in a condition to restrain the private armies, private revenge, private ‘laws’ and private force” (pp. 492-493). Yet it was not “private armies” but the JNA, under the direct and formal leadership of Milošević’s Serbia (and Montenegro), that destroyed the Croatian city of Vukovar and assaulted Bosnia in 1991-92. Jović’s thesis shows that attempting to shift the blame for the destruction of Yugoslavia away from Milošević and Serb nationalism creates far more theoretical problems than it solves.
Appendix: Key passages from Jovic’s book
Comparing Slobodan Milosevic and Vaclav Havel:
p. 56: ‘The direction of the protests against the regime, for example in Czechoslovakia and in Serbia, was totally different, so Havel and Milošević became antipodes in everything. While one led a liberal-democratic revolution against the state, the other led an anti-bureaucratic revolution against an anti-state ideology and anarchy, for the establishment of a state. ‘
Lamenting the JNA’s inability to halt Croatia’s rearmament:
p. 64: ‘The British reaction to separatism in Northern Ireland is a typical example of a liberal (minimal) state, which did not refrain from introducing a state of war and employing tanks in order to halt a civil war before it had begun. In contrast to this, in the state that was withering away, Socialist Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army turned itself into a filmmaker recording the illegal import of weapons at the border (with Hungary) whose duty it was to protect from that sort of illegal activity.’
On Milosevic as a ‘Yugoslav nationalist’:
p. 65n: ‘In his first phase, Milosevic was probably a Yugoslav nationalist, but he never became a Serb nationalist, as many call him today. Never, indeed, did he want to form a Serb national state. His attachment to Yugoslavia, even to the point when Yugoslavia had become just a name and nothing more, was the main reason why he in the end lost popularity and the elections (2000).’
On the Chetniks as a ‘strong-pro-Yugoslav resistance movement’:
p. 141: ‘He who claims that Yugoslavia had to collapse in 1941 because of ethnic tension, should have to explain how it was possible that there arose, immediately following the occupation, two strong pro-Yugoslav resistance movements (Mihailovic’s and Tito’s).’
On Milosevic’s loyalty to Tito’s legacy
p. 156: ‘In destroying the fourth Yugoslavia, Milosevic rejected Kardelj but not Tito.’
On Milosevic’s desire to bring about the ‘unity of Yugoslavia’:
p. 400: ‘His program now [in 1987], for the first time, seemed clear even to those at the lowest level of the social hierarchy, and he carried it out decisively: first the unity of the Serb Party, then unity of Serbia, then of the Yugoslav Party, then of Yugoslavia. That programme had four phases – Milosevic had now accomplished the first; at the third he would be halted, and at the fourth defeated.’
On Milosevic’s desire to restrain Serb nationalism:
p. 471: ‘Treating Milosevic and Kucan with a bit of benevolence, one could say that at least part of their motive could be explained by an attempt to retain power in order to prevent the “real nationalists” (those gathered around the New Review or people such as Vuk Draskovic was at the time) from coming to power in Slovenia and Serbia. As David Owen later said of Milosevic, they had to “ride the tiger of nationalism if they did not want the tiger to swallow them” (1995: 129). They appeared powerful, omnipotent, but in reality they were both afraid that the exit of the League of Communists from the political scene could bring about only worse nationalism. They accepted nationalism in order to prevent it.’
On the JNA’s ‘good intention’ to prevent ethnic conflict in Croatia:
p. 485: ‘When the Croatian government attempted to prevent the [Serb rebel] takeover, the Yugoslav People’s Army imposed itself between it and the Serbs, perhaps with the good intention of preventing direct ethnic conflict in Croatia.’
On Milosevic as ‘genuinely surprised’ by break up of Yugoslavia and war:
pp. 491-492: ‘The sources that were at the disposal of the author of this book do not give sufficient reason to support the conclusion that the members of the Yugoslav political elite in this period (including, thus, Slobodan Milosevic and Milan Kucan as well) intended to destroy Yugoslavia. Many of them, like most Yugoslavs, most analysts at home and abroad and the international political community as a whole, were genuinely surprised by the break-up, and still more by the war that broke out after that.’
On the war in Yugoslavia as the expression of a ‘weak, ineffective state’ and ‘private violence’:
pp. 492-493: ‘‘The violence that, in the ruins of Yugoslavia, in a stateless terrain, erupted in the ‘90s of last century had, indeed, the same cause as the collapse itself: it was the expression of a weak, ineffective state that was not in a position to suppress the private armies, private revenge, private “laws” and private violence. The wars that were waged in those ruins were to a large extent private revenge in which neighbours repaid some imaginary quid pro quo to their neighbours.’
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