Yugoslavia 1989: A Story of Unfated Events

September 13, 2019
Paul Hockenos
6 min read
Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events

Editor's Note: This piece is part of a full report, "Reassessing 1989," which looks at the major events of that year, including the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the breakup of Yugoslavia

It is tempting to look back into the history of socialist Yugoslavia and see the bloodshed of the 1990s as the culmination of an inexorable march of history. But in 1989 very few Yugoslavs saw the wars coming – and, indeed, options presented themselves that could have led the multinational state of 23 million people in other directions.

For many of the peoples of Yugoslavia, 1989 was a year of change and hope. Socialist Yugoslavia was a soft version of “democratic centralism,” so far from that of its Central European cousins that the ruling ideology even earned its own label, namely “Titoism,” after its leader from 1945 to 1980, Josip Broz Tito. Since the 1970s, the peoples of Yugoslavia’s six constituent republics had enjoyed ever more significant but not absolute freedoms, such as the ability to travel abroad, a high degree of artistic liberty, and a lively but still-censored press.

The situation for Yugoslavs in 1989 did not change dramatically from one day to the next as it did for the Central Europeans, even though the nightly news programs were dropping one bombshell after another: power plays in the party, historians violating postwar orthodoxy, trade wars between republics, demonstrations in faraway Kosovo, an outspoken Serb politician named Slobodan Milosevic on the move.

Social and political reforms had been stopping and starting for nearly two decades, and they quickened pace with Tito’s death in 1980. By 1989, independent-minded reformers inside the communist party were pushing up against old-school traditionalists – and nationalists of a variety of stripes in the republics were cranking up the rhetoric against centralists as well as the other republics. Throughout 1989, and even well into 1990, critics and discontents challenged much in the system but, critically, not the legitimacy of the idea of Yugoslavia itself, a patchwork state of peoples and ethnicities that had somehow, despite all of its shortcomings, managed to provide its peoples – though more so in the north than the south – with a standard of living higher than ever before and a relaxing stretch of peaceful coexistence. (Central to what happened in 1989, this living standard was by then plummeting while foreign debt had skyrocketed, unemployment rose to 17.5 percent, and inflation topped 120 percent.)

Most Yugoslavs welcomed the new spaces and ideas that sprouted from the cracking façade of socialism, including the liberty to identify more openly with one’s ethnicity.

Most Yugoslavs welcomed the new spaces and ideas that sprouted from the cracking façade of socialism, including the liberty to identify more openly with one’s ethnicity, be it as a Serb, Croat, Muslim, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, or Kosovo Albanian. In Slovenia and Croatia, associations that looked a lot like proto-parties popped up in the course of the year. Long before the Central Europeans imagined that they would overthrow Soviet-style communism, in Yugoslavia the possibility of multiparty pluralism and even elections flickered on the horizon.

There were prominent, popular figures in the country, such as the forward-thinking Prime Minister Ante Markovic, who saw the fluid moment as right to reform Yugoslavia for the better: to modernize its stalled economy and institute liberal political reforms that would democratize the state without destroying it. The force of Titoism had perished along with its progenitor leaving a vacuum that begged to be filled. While socialist Yugoslavia’s day was over, a different, more democratic, loosely organized Yugoslavia may well have stood a chance, had more prominent persons in the country, as well as international powers such as the EU and the United States, more resolutely backed it instead of waiting until it shattered. In 1989 there was no popular consensus that the country be divided into ethnically homogenous nation states. I can remember friends in Belgrade showing me a map of one of the six republics, the triangle-shaped Bosnia Herzegovina, and explaining to me how impossible it would be to separate its ethnic hodgepodge of peoples. In some form, Yugoslavia had to survive, they told me. But there was not time or peace of mind to openly discuss the alternatives.

Markovic’s idea of reworked Yugoslavia as a democratic federation was one option – and a popular one, particularly in urban centers, in 1989. The economist Bogdan Denitch argued that Yugoslavia had the best prospects of any Eastern European country to transition smoothly to democratic socialism or social democracy.

What Might Have Been

But in a region with weak democratic traditions, the odds were long, especially with the northern republics of Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia furiously agitating against one another on issues of trade, tax revenues, and control of the federal presidency, the country’s foremost governing body. The nationalist shouting match grew ever more raucous as some prominent intellectuals endorsed a fierce ethnic nationalism that echoed wartimes past and precluded reasonable cooperation to redesign the multinational country. In February 1989, for example, the nationally minded historian and former Yugoslav general Franjo Tudjman made a public appearance at the Writer’s Association of Croatia in Zagreb, where he spoke of a new nationalist party that looked out for the interests of Croats alone.

In the largest republic, Serbia, Milosevic – a former banker and communist party loyalist – became president in May. Two years prior, he had tasted the power of nationalism firsthand in Kosovo, where he spoke with the minority Serbs in the ethnic-Albanian-populated province and promised to protect them. As Serbian president, Milosevic stripped Kosovo and the northern province of Vojvodina of their autonomy and set about procuring Serb domination of the country. His machinations served to ramp up nationalist passions across the country and greatly diminish the possibilities for a collectively negotiated, all-Yugoslav way out of the crisis.

Looking back at the year 1989 in Yugoslavia, it is understandably taxing to imagine how events could have taken an entirely different course than they did, which was ending in the terrible wars, millions of refugees, and over 100,000 casualties. Perhaps Markovic’s democratic federation was a chimera, but there was nothing inevitable

about the descent into such violence. The lateness of Western Europe’s response, which was never unified, and the irresponsibility of the region’s national populist politicians, literati, and returned exiles ensured that Yugoslavia’s disintegration would be a bloody one.

The region is still paying for those choices today. Fragmented and stuck in transition, former Yugoslavia is now comprised of two EU states, two international protectorates, two EU accession countries, and one still struggling to become an accession country. The scars of the war and ethnic hatred inform everything and hold all of these countries back, and together with the persistent corruption they chase the smartest of the younger generations to more promising futures elsewhere in the world. To its detriment, Western Europe and the United States failed to pay sufficient attention to Yugoslavia’s fragility in 1989; at the very least they should not repeat that mistake today.

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