Intra-Ethnic Conflict in Croatia and Serbia: Flanking and the Consequences for Democracy

By Hislope, Robert | East European Quarterly, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Intra-Ethnic Conflict in Croatia and Serbia: Flanking and the Consequences for Democracy


Hislope, Robert, East European Quarterly


Since the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, most of the world's attention has focused on the horrific inter-ethnic conflict that has ravaged the lands of the South Slavs. Inter-ethnic strife, in fact, has been the primary factor that accounts for the failed transition from communism to democracy. At the same time, another phenomenon that is often associated with ethnic politics is evident in Croatia and Serbia and has contributed to the shortcomings of democracy and the violence of the post-communist transition. The politics of intra-ethnic competition, or flanking, has generated significant conflict within Croatia and Serbia. The dominant nationalist parties in each republic, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) led by Franjo Tudjman and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) led by Slobodan Milosevic, have faced pressure from parties on the extreme right who have challenged the leading parties' claims to represent their respective nations. In Croatia, the Tudjman regime felt threatened in 1991 and 1992 by the activities of Dobroslav Paraga's Croatian Party of [State] Right (HSP). And in 1993 the Milosevic regime attempted to discredit and marginalize its erstwhile coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS), which is led by Vojislav Seselj. In each case, intense intra-ethnic competition erupted into fratricidal violence and jeopardized the democratic rights of the political opposition. The purpose of this essay is to analyze the patterns of flanking in Croatia and Serbia and to assess the relative impact each has had for the failure to build democratic regimes.

I. Flanking Patterns in Ethnically-Divided Societies and

the Repercussions for Democracy

In Donald Horowitz's study of ethnic politics in Asia and Africa, Ethnic Groups in Conflict (1985), a major effort is made to identify the central patterns and forms of ethnic politics. Flanking is one of those patterns. Flanking may be defined as the attempt of an insurgent party representing one ethnic group to challenge the dominant party of the same ethnic group by staking out a more extreme (they might say more "patriotic" or "loyal") position. Ethnic party systems are prone to a politics of centrifugal "outbidding" because party competition tends to occur not between ethnic groups but within them. In an ethnic party system (i.e., a party system in which most politically significant groups are organized on an ethnic basis), party identification is ascriptively defined. Since an ethnic party's pool of support is found within the ethnic group and not outside it, ethnic parties behave more like interest groups who myopically seek to promote their own ethnic interests regardless of their impact on the whole. In this way, an ethnic party system tends to reinforce social cleavages rather than bridge them.(1)

This contrasts sharply with the voluntary-associational parties found in most Western liberal-democracies. Non-ethnic parties tend to be inclusive in their membership and seek to represent the interests of a number of different segments of society; hence, the interest aggregation function normally attributed to such parties. Moreover, inter-party competition tends to focus on the mass of undecided voters located in the ideological center. This gravitation towards the middle gives parties an electoral incentive to moderate their positions.

In an ethnic party system, ascriptively-defined party membership effectively precludes vote transferability by "floating voters." In Horowitz's succinct formulation, "[t]here are many working-class Tories, but very few Hindu Akalis...."(2) As a result, what intra-group competition occurs is located on the "flanks" of each party as insurgent and more radical ethnic parties push the dominant parties to extreme positions. The existence of flanking parties puts pressure on dominant parties to shun moderation and inter-ethnic negotiations lest they be branded with the stigma of selling out or betraying one's nation. …

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