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Rocky Road Ahead for Yugoslavia

By Matthew MestrovicMatthew Mestrovic, a professor of history at Fairleigh Dickinson University, is president of the Croatian National Congress. / February 22, 1989



THE probability is high that the Bush administration will be called on to deal with upheaval in Yugoslavia. And it could happen sooner rather than later. Traditional US policy toward Yugoslavia has relied on a commitment to defend a triad of ``independence, unity, and territorial integrity,'' priorities formulated in the Nixon era. The intent then was to foster the status quo out of concern for a potential Soviet threat. However, with Gorbachev's ``new thinking'' in foreign policy and a Soviet focus on domestic problems, a Soviet grab for territory is no longer a realistic premise. The old triad seems to be increasingly superseded by the rush of events within Yugoslavia itself.

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The threat to the status quo now comes from inside Yugoslavia. Should the United States envision defending its ``independence, unity, and territorial integrity'' from its own people? Or is a new US policy that rests instead on promoting ``democracy, social justice, and self-determination'' overdue?

Perhaps the one thing everyone - including the Yugoslav government - agrees on is that Yugoslavia is already in crisis. Ethnic strife threatens to boil over into violence at any time in the country's multinational milieu. Consensus even within the ruling establishment seems a thing of the past, with top-level Communists threatening to have their respective republics go ``their own way.''

The Kosovo problem, where the majority Albanians have been trying to gain greater control over their own affairs in the face of Serbian reluctance, will perhaps be the next flash point. But numerous other antagonisms are also built into the Yugoslav system.

On the top of this is hyperinflation (running at 250 percent, and predicted to double again by the end of '89). The economy is also plagued by mounting unemployment, an unpayable foreign debt that is higher still than Poland's on a per capita basis, and plummeting living standards that have slid back to the level of two decades ago. Still, the Communist Party in most republics will not hear of relaxing its monopoly over the economy and the political system. That means no competitive elections, no free labor unions, no end to going to prison for ``political crimes.''

Two competitive strategies have emerged in Yugoslavia to deal with this crisis. The first is the ``Milosevic approach.'' It is named after its leader, Slobodan Milosevic, the head of Serbia's Communist Party. He has promoted greater Serbian influence and more centralization to solve Yugoslavia's ills. But the upheaval Mr. Milosevic triggered in Serbia has frightened Yugoslavia's other republics by its stress on Serbian nationalism and marked authoritarian streak. Its cult of a strong leader, violent street marches, mass rallies, racist overtones, and an idealization of violence have evoked anxieties about setting the clock back to an earlier era.

The second trend is that toward systemic change and democratization. It is spearheaded by Slovenia, Yugoslavia's westernmost and wealthiest region, but has supporters in other republics as well. It seeks a peaceful way to a more open society, a freer economy, increasing freedom of expression, and the right for different national groups to determine their own future. Even many members of Slovenia's Communist Party now talk of a multiparty system and elections.

The Milosevic option is part of the problem, not the solution. The federal government sets prices for all raw materials, energy, transportation, fiscal policy, and most consumer prices. The federal budget is far larger than those of the republics and provinces combined. Moreover, other national groups in Yugoslavia look at more centralization as a thin veil for greater Serbian control. What Yugoslavia needs, rather, is more decentralization and the end of control by the Communist Party. In the US, it is individual companies which plan, invest, and market their own goods, and it works. Likewise, Milosevic's strategy to end ethnic tensions with hardline methods will only lead to greater violence.

The US need not take sides among Yugoslavia's nations in strife. The US can, however, talk to representatives of various viewpoints.

The US ought to encourage the trend toward democratization and peaceful change in Yugoslavia. Support for the status quo at all costs will send the wrong signals to Belgrade. It will encourage those who oppose reform to stand fast. In the end, it will increase the likelihood that change will take a violent, unpredictable, and tragic form.

Instead, what is needed is to revise US priorities to reflect the changing situation. Promoting democracy should go to the top of the list. That may well result in a basic change of the status quo, including a decision by Yugoslavia's republics to live apart as independent states. The US should not recoil automatically at this possibility. It may be, indeed, the only way to bring about genuine stability and democracy to the entire region.