National Liberations in Former Yugoslavia: When Will They End?

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Contested National Liberations

National liberations on the territory of former Yugoslavia have a long and--not surprisingly--bloody history. This process of national liberations has now lasted two centuries. The first round of national liberations in the nineteenth century began in 1804 with the first Serbian uprising against Ottoman rule and continued with the second Serbian uprising in 1815, ending only with the Ottoman granting of autonomy to Serbia in 1830. The most recent series of national liberations, which started in 1991 with the liberation of Slovenia and Croatia, was the fourth round of national liberations to take place in former Yugoslavia in the twentieth century. (1) As this fourth round appears to be still underway, it remains an open question whether this round will be the final one, after which there will be no national groups still in need of liberation from foreign rule.

The question might also be phrased another way. The fourth round of national liberations was aimed at creating nation-states out of the multinational federation of Yugoslavia. Has that goal now been achieved? Have the successive wars from 1991 to 1999 in effect created all the nation-states that could be created out of former Yugoslavia, or are there any potential nation-states still to be created or expanded, if necessary by war?

The most recent round of fighting in the Republic of Macedonia which started in March 2001 suggests that the process of nation-state formation in former Yugoslavia has yet to be completed. The creation of a larger Albanian nation-state, comprising the territory of Kosovo and western Macedonia as well as of Albania, is still a goal of many determined Albanian fighters. A few months earlier, the then Bosnian Croat political leaders virtually ceded the Croat-majority cantons of the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina (the Croat-Muslim entity) from that federation and thus from Bosnia-Hercegovina itself, hoping to unite them eventually with the Republic of Croatia. This suggests that the present multinational Bosnia-Hercegovina is likely to split into nation-states if and when the NATO-led military forces stationed in the country are withdrawn. These are only two among several similar indications that the present number of sovereign states and their borders--largely the result of decisions reached by the EU and NATO governments from 1991 to 1999--are, unlike the states and borders in the rest of Europe, subject to change.

The twentieth-century history of the national liberations also suggests that this may not be the final round: at least two previous rounds in that century were, erroneously, thought to be final. The first round in the twentieth century started in 1912 with the first Balkan war and led to the liberation by the Serbian and Montenegrin armies of Kosovo and the `old Serbia' (present-day Macedonia) from Ottoman rule. In this case, no one thought of this round of liberations as `final'. For the Serbian political and military leaders who planned and executed the liberation in alliance with the governments of Greece, Bulgaria, Montenegro and Rumania, there were, after 1912, other Serbs as well as Serb `brethren' (the Croats and Slovenes) who were still awaiting liberation from Habsburg rule by the Serbian army.

The first round of liberation was bitterly contested: first by the Albanians in Kosovo, who resisted, together with the Ottoman troops, the Serbian army, and then by the Bulgarian government who claimed a part of the territory of present-day Macedonia on the ground that its inhabitants were in fact Bulgarians. Thus the first twentieth-century round set a pattern of contested liberations, which was then repeated in the next three rounds, including the most recent one: the liberation of one national group was regarded by another national group (or, rather, by its putative or actual political leaders) living on the same territory as occupation and the imposition of foreign rule. …