Scholar Interviews

Gale Stokes: Why did things go so badly in Yugoslavia?


Why was the end of socialism or communism in Yugoslavia so much more violent than elsewhere?

The simple answer is, of course, obviously nationalism. As long as the socialists—the socialists—or the communists in Yugoslavia under Tito believed it was okay to have ethnic feeling. That was fine. And, there were six republics in which you could express your national feeling, and that was all right, as long as, you were at the same time, socialist. As socialism fell in other parts of Eastern Europe, Communism fell in other parts of Eastern Europe, it also weakened in Yugoslavia. When it disappeared, there was not a more or less homogeneous people remaining, as in Romania, as in Poland and Hungary, and even to a certain extent, in Czech and Slovak parts of Czechoslovakia. There were the six major peoples of the six republics and several major ethnic groups in Yugoslavia who had been competing with each other under socialism for economic benefits and for other benefits, so that they were left to come to their own conclusions.

Well, what kind of conclusions could they come to? Under socialism, there was no possibility of nationally coherent parties. You had to be just a single—you had just the single party. Competition among the national groups ensued in there, but there was no experience with civil society, no experience with compromise, no experience with elections, real elections. So, when real elections occurred, the first kind of emotional appeal to, and the successful appeal, was to national ideas, and national kinds of parties, especially in Croatia and Serbia, came to dominate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that there had to be conflict. There could be negotiation. In fact, there were some people, the Macedonians, the Bosnians, who tried to work out accommodations among the various peoples. But, you had two leaders in Milosevic in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia, and finally Tudjman in Croatia, who were exactly the opposite. Very focused, in Milosevic’s case on its own power and willing to bring old hatreds back up to the surface, that had been sort of slipping slowly beneath the surface. And Tudjman, in his kind of old fashioned way, very similar in Croatia. These politicians, explicitly for their own purposes, brought back to the surface these emotions and used them for their own power, to increase their own power, to mobilize their people. Milosevic could get hundreds of thousands of people out on the street in favor of his ideas about Serbian nationalism.

So, I think, leadership—leadership is very important here. There’s a lot of elements, the fact that it’s a multi-national country, that leaders emerged who explicitly used that nationalism for their own purposes, the fact that the regions of the country are in fact quite different—Slovenia and Macedonia or Kosovo, the biggest difference economically. So, and that a lot of the problems that they might have looked at after World War II were pushed beneath the surface by the socialist regime, who considered all thought of those former nationalist ideas as being bourgeois, out of date, potentially harmful and therefore repressed. It was, in a sense, the return of the repressed when they came back.

How to Cite

Gale Stokes, interview, "Why did things go so badly in Yugoslavia?." Making the History of 1989, Item #712 (accessed May 28 2021, 3:26 pm)