Brief Review: Yugoslavia’s Ruin by Cvijeto Job

On Monday, I read Yugoslavia’s Ruin by Cvijeto Job. Job was a fighter in Tito’s Partisans and a former Yugoslav diplomat.

The book tells the story of the rise and demise of Yugoslavia through the eyes of a man who experienced it first-hand. Interspersing historical narrative and personal accounts, Job makes a serious attempt to be even-handed. Although he was clearly a committed member of Tito’s regime, he does offer some criticism of the excesses of the Partisans. He is also quite critical of the social and institutional engineering which characterized Tito’s attempts to bury competing nationalisms in the Balkans.

In this respect, he provides a very useful and detailed account of constitutional reform in Yugoslavia and the shifting legal status of “peoples,” “nationalities,” and “minorities.” Job contends that the nationalist conflict which tore the country apart in the 1990s was not a product of the institutionalization of these particular identities. Rather, it was galvanized by post-Tito initiatives by Croatia to strip Serbs of their status as a constituent people and by Serbia to strip Kosovo and Vojvodina of the broad political and cultural autonomy they enjoyed previously.

However, Job’s impartiality is severely impinged by an undisguised and disproportional abhorrence of Serbian nationalism. He expresses discomfort with Croatian nationalism and Tudjman and his compatriots are characterized as reckless and arrogant. However Croatia’s ethnic cleansing of Krajina of Serbs is largely ignored, choosing instead to repeat a Croatian narrative of the War of National Liberation in which Serbs fled but were not necessarily forced out. Kosovo Albanians are also characterized entirely as victims of Serb oppression with the only notable criticism that Albanians should not treat Serbs in Kosovo as a fifth column but instead pursue reconciliation.

When taking on the question of Bosnia and Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniacs), his approach is even more imbalanced and possibly hypocritical. Bosniacs and their political leadership are characterized as entirely guiltless in the bloodletting of the early 1990s with those crimes which were committed describes as entirely unsystematic, done without license from higher authorities, and perpetrated by only a tiny minority of Bosniac forces. While it is true that these crimes were of a much smaller magnitude than those perpetrated by Serb and Croat forces, it is also true that as the weakest party militarily in the conflict, they had less capacity to carry them out. 

It is also certainly true that Bosnian Muslims pushed hard to preserve Federal Yugoslavia and only opted for independence when the rest of the state was disintegrating around them. Yet this was a rational response when, unlike Serbs and Croats in Bosnia, they had no other allied republic to turn to for help or patronage. Indeed, it was much for this reason that Bosnian Muslims turned ironically both to the Western Powers and foreign mujahideen to fight on their behalf. In this regard, Job also dismisses any notion that Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war, had any meaningful sympathies for Islamic fundamentalism. While he was certainly not a fundamentalist in his own right, he did evince a preference for government under Shari’a and did hold several meetings during the war with Osama bin Laden.

These criticisms are not to deny that Bosniacs were the disproportionately victims of the brutal violence and ethnic cleansing of the wars which tore Yugoslavia apart. It is to highlight, however, that if reconciliation requires a disavowing of what Job calls “nationalist self-love” and a taking of responsibility, personally and institutionally, for the crimes of the past, this must be shared by all parties in conflict.

That Serbia must atone for its role in the conflict is obvious. But as Serbia becomes more open, more liberal, and more willing to publically recognize the mistakes and crimes of the past (as with Tadic’s public apologies for the massacre at Srebenica in 1995), so too must the other peoples of the Former Yugoslavia step up and say their piece. Although Job’s meticulous study offers all the right words of advice, it falls obviously short in terms of encouraging their implementation.

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