The Heavy Burden of History: The Political Uses of the Past in the Yugoslav Successor States

By Zakosek, Nenad | Romanian Journal of Political Science, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview

The Heavy Burden of History: The Political Uses of the Past in the Yugoslav Successor States


Zakosek, Nenad, Romanian Journal of Political Science


Abstract: The attempts to explain the causes and character of nationalist policies in the post-Yugoslav states. In the region that historically belonged to Yugoslavia and that today entails six Yugoslav successor states, with a seventh one (Kosovo) probably emerging from the remainders of the Yugoslav federation, historical memories and politically interpreted images of the past used to play an extremely important role, and they still do today.

Keywords: Yugoslavia, state building, nation building, nationalism, democracy

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1. Nationalism and history in Eastern Europe

The recent Yugoslav wars--the first large scale armed conflict in Europe since 1945--seemed very much determined by this historical consciousness and political ideologies, which are inspired by it. Today again competing interpretations of the past forwarded by national political and intellectual elites decisively determine, on the one hand, the ways in which responsibility for the wars and the crimes committed in the wars is understood in the region and, on the other hand, the claims by which different national groups justify their state-and institution-building goals. If we look for evidence which supports this thesis, we will find many examples from recent past as well as from present-day politics. One of the best known instances of the political use of the past for mobilizing political support and strengthening national identification is the famous speech of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at Gazimestan (Kosovo) in 1989. On the occasion of the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Kosovo battle against Ottoman Turks, on June 28, 1989, Milosevic gave a political speech in which he, among others, stated:

"Today, six centuries later, we are once again in battles, and facing battles. They are not armed battles, although the possibility of those cannot be excluded. But, regardless of what they are like, battles cannot be won without determination, courage, self-sacrifice, without those good traits that were present on the Kosovo field a long time ago." (1)

Milosevic's rhetoric served two purposes at the same time: it was a mobilizing message to his supporters, an appeal to all ethnic Serbs to follow Serbian leadership and rely on the long and virtuous tradition of solidarity and sacrifice, symbolized by the Kosovo battle (but also avoid disunity which Milosevic portrayed as the main reason for the Serb defeat in 1389); on the other hand, it was a clear warning and a threat to all political adversaries of Milosevic, but also to all non-Serbs, that a war "cannot be excluded" if they do not comply with Milosevic's demands.

There are numerous illustrations of such an instrumental political use of the past from other parts of former Yugoslavia--although perhaps not as rhetorically impressive as Milosevics speech--which served similar purposes.

The first Croatian President, Franjo Tudman, himself a historian, won the first free elections in Croatia on a programme which exploited common places of a nationalist interpretation of Croatian history. He describes Croats as "one of the oldest European nations" and declares the establishment of an independent Croatian state as the necessary outcome of a "millennial struggle" of the Croatian people. At the same time, the ideology of Yugoslavism, originally a Croatian creation, was condemned as a fatal political error of the founding fathers of the Croatian national movement. The reference to history was so important for Tudman that he personally wrote the historical parts in the Preamble of the Croatian Constitution, with a long account of events that led to the establishment of the Republic of Croatia. (1)

Another and more recent example from Croatia demonstrates the continuity of strategies based on political uses of historical memories and their relevance for contemporary Croatian politics. Various political players can pursue different policies of remembering the past.

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