Democracy and Nationalism in Yugoslavia

THE trouble with democracy is that people vote the way they want rather than the way they ``should.'' Consequently, election results can be not only wildly unexpected, but downright inconvenient. Such is the case in Yugoslavia, where last month the first free multiparty elections since World War II were held in two of the country's eight federal units. The results in both Slovenia and Croatia, Yugoslavia's wealthiest and most developed republics, were an impressive 55 percent popular vote for Slovenia's DEMOS Coalition and an astounding 70 percent for the Croatian Democratic Union.

The ``inconvenience'' of these election results is that they show both the Slovenes and the Croats to be first and foremost nationalists and, if need be, separatists. Why is this so? What does it portend for the future of Yugoslavia? Could it have repercussions on the stability of the Balkans and beyond? And is there a role for the United States?

First, this is an anticommunist vote. With unemployment 20 percent nationwide and doubling as insolvent factories fold, some 60 percent of the workers are living at or below the poverty line. A decade-long decline in living standards has turned people against those associated with a regime that has led the country to the brink of economic disaster.

Second, this vote reflects the fear of Serbian expansionism, reawakened by the charismatic demagogue Slobodan Milosevic, who over a 21/2-year period has purged liberal elements within Serbia and has gone beyond his republic's borders to topple the leaderships of Vojvodina, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Moreover, there is the perception that Milosevic has tried unsuccessfully to do the same in other republics, including Slovenia and Croatia.

Third, this is an anticentralization vote. In the current dispute over reapportionment of power between Yugoslavia's federal government and its republics, Slovenia and Croatia are determined to keep or enhance their powers.

Fourth, political sovereignty has specific economic repercussions. With only 25 percent of the Yugoslavia population, Slovenia and Croatia contribute more than half the federal budget. The money thus siphoned off, they point out, has led to their stagnation while yielding neither political nor economic results. Thus, they perceive the federal government as unsympathetic and often hostile to their problems.

These accumulated frustrations resulted in electoral victories for political parties based on defense of their republics' economic interests, ethnic-national integrity, and political sovereignty.

What is next for Yugoslavia? An optimistic scenario sees nationalistic election rhetoric giving way to more responsible and pragmatic politics. Consensus-making among an oligarchic elite could then be replaced by dialogue between genuine representatives of the people. Decisions thus arrived at would have the requisite support for implementation - something absent from Yugoslav politics for more than 20 years.

Such an outcome will depend on the foresight and ability of the new leaders and their parties in Slovenia and Croatia, as well as that of their counterparts in the other republics and regions and in the federal government, all of which are scheduled to hold their own multiparty elections within the coming year.

In the pessimistic scenario, the intransigence of newly elected representatives in Slovenia and Croatia, or in other republics, could make dialogue illusory and consensus impossible. A crisis could then come in several ways, ranging from the undermining of Prime Minister Ante Markovic's economic program to the more direct threat of redrawing regional boundaries. Repercussions would reach well outside the Balkans.

Direct violence against local minorities and indirect violence through forced migrations would almost certainly occur. Violence could spill beyond Yugoslavia's borders. Neighboring states have multiple ethnic and territorial interests in the country. Finally, as beleaguered groups sought to vent grievances and press for solutions, acts of international terrorism would likely follow. Pressure would mount on the great powers to become involved.

While the election results in Slovenia and Croatia suggest the chauvinism that led to a devastating civil war only a generation ago, they have a hopeful side. Both republics, after all, held multiparty elections with free media access to all; the Communist parties of both republics have stepped down; in both, new governments are being reconstituted. Not least, the April 1990 elections in Slovenia and Croatia have been the most democratic and peaceful in Yugoslavia since its first unification in 1918.

Finally, we must remember that democracy can function only in a climate of political stability; political stability is, in turn, predicated on economic solvency.

With Yugoslavia at a critical juncture, economic, political, and moral support would yield positive benefits. For the US, providing such support would cement the friendship with its first and most constant postwar ally in the region. And most important, it would provide a modicum of stability in this region which has spawned the 20th-century's two world wars.

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