Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Yugoslav Quagmire

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

The Yugoslav Quagmire

Article excerpt

The origins of the Yugoslav state help to explain its eventual break-up

THERE are no minorities in multinational states such as the Switzerland and Belgium of today, the Soviet Union of yesterday, and the Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia of earlier times. In such cases state and nation do not necessarily coincide. The existence of several nations within the state is taken for granted. No distinction is made between majority and minorities.

Nor do minorities exist in the state-based nation-state, in which the state is formed before the emergence of the nation, which takes shape within that pre-established mould. The two entities thus automatically coincide. This is true of the oldest states of Western Europe, such as France, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal, and also of the United States. The various ethnic minorities which live in states of this kind--Bretons or Scots for example--feel that they belong not only to the state but also to the nation--French or British as the case may be.

A national minority can only exist in a nation-based nation-state, in which the state is formed after the nation becomes conscious of its existence and with the avowed aim of modelling itself a posteriori on an already existing nation. Since the frontiers of the two entities never entirely coincide, there are bound to be national minorities. This is the situation throughout central Europe, from Italy to Estonia, from Germany to Greece.

The creation of states of this type was one of the great ambitions of the victors of the First World War, and this is why the peace treaties of 1919 and the League of Nations drew up a body of legislation on national minorities. The members of these minorities were to have the same individual rights as other citizens and thus be protected against any discriminatory measures. They could also demand the recognition of collective rights concerning the use of their language, education and the protection of their culture. But the instruments adopted between the wars did not provide for them to be granted a third possible type of freedom: that of territorial autonomy.

These rights were poorly implemented in the 1920s and were later systematically flouted by fascist regimes. They were ignored altogether under communism. Today they are back on the agenda.


In this respect the example of the Yugoslav or southern Slav territory has been unique in this century. What were the key stages in the formation of this area?

Before 1914, the kingdom of Serbia was the quintessence of the nation-based nation-state. It was homogeneous until 1912 because the non-Serbian (Turkish and Albanian) elements had been expelled during the previous century. It took in Albanian, Macedonian, Turkish and other minorities during the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) but without recognizing that they had any rights.

Between 1914 and 1941, having in the meantime become Yugoslavia, the kingdom doubled in area. Its subjects now included Croats, Slovenes, Muslim Bosnians, Germans and Hungarians, among others. And yet officially it remained a nation-state thanks to the fiction of the "Yugoslav nation" subdivided into three "tribes" (pleme): Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (the other Yugoslav nations did not count). Thus the state, in which the Serbs were numerically preponderant (comprising some 40 per cent of the population), was supposed to consist of a "Yugoslav" majority (some 85 per cent) and non-Slav minorities.

Between 1945 and 1991, Tito's Yugoslavia abandoned the fiction of the "Yugoslav nation", which the horrors of the Second World War had brought to a bloody end, and officially became a multinational state, recognizing six southern Slav peoples as distinct nations: the Serbs, the Croats, the Slovenes, the Macedonians, the Montenegrins and somewhat later the "Muslims" (Bosnians). The unitary kingdom became a federal republic. …

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