Yugoslavia, 30 years on: 'The break-up of Yugoslavia was not inevitable at all.'

14 June 2021

Vladimir Gligorov looks back at the 1990s and outlines an EU strategy to get the Western Balkans on board.

Interview by Veronika Janyrova

Vladimir, you and your family were at the very centre of political developments and turmoil in the former Yugoslavia. How did you perceive the year 1990?

In fact, 1990 was a year of hope. At the end of 1989, a new economic programme had been introduced to stabilise the country. It went from hyperinflation in 1989 to complete stability in 1990. Incomes increased when prices stabilised as a result of the fixed exchange rate regime, and the country prospered. People felt quite happy – at least until September or October.

Politically, the story was rather different. One might say that ‘the train left the station ahead of schedule’ and you could see the imminent train crash somewhere down the road. By the end of that year, the economic miracle had collapsed. Serbia basically went bankrupt, and everybody started to prepare for the looming dissolution. When Slovenia and Croatia held their independence referendums in June 1991, everything just fell apart.

What role did ethnicity generally play among ordinary people in the former Yugoslavia? Was it really such an issue, or was it mainly triggered by the political elites who were pursuing different objectives?

Yugoslavia was constructed as a multi-ethnic state. It was not primarily the individual – the citizen – who was represented in the federal, or even the provincial institutions: it was the ethnic group. People were very much aware of their ethnic group. And ethnicity was extremely important if you wanted to build a career – even in academia. You could not solve any political problem without some kind of ‘ethnic justice’. There was a general feeling that your ethnic group would always be in a worse position than other ethnic groups. The people were all – and always – unhappy on account of this perceived ethnic injustice. This is not necessarily a Yugoslav or a socialist phenomenon: it happens everywhere.

In 1989, 1990 and 1991, strange historical theories about the Yugoslav ethnic groups started to circulate. These basically invalidated the other ethnicities. There were theories that the Croats were not really Slavs, but an Iranian tribe; that, in fact, everybody in Yugoslavia was Serbian; that the Slovenes were not Slavs, but Venetians, and so on. Ethnic groups were redefined, basically for political reasons. This was not the main reason behind the dissolution of Yugoslavia, but it was one of the ways in which that dissolution was justified.

Was the break-up of Yugoslavia inevitable? Or could Yugoslavia have stayed together, had certain reforms been implemented? Or could it have disintegrated peacefully?

I have always believed and stated that the main problem was a lack of democracy: democratisation would have solved more or less all the problems. Back in the 1980s, there was huge international support for the democratisation of the socialist countries. That would have been the way to save Yugoslavia. If Yugoslavia had decided at that time to hold democratic elections and have a new constitution, I am sure it would have been accepted as a member of the EU. The other problems would not all simply have vanished, but there would have been mechanisms in place to resolve them in an orderly fashion.

Of course, the huge communist oligarchy would have lost power and influence – or at least it assumed it would lose power. And so, it resisted any pro-democracy movements and outcomes. To save itself, it turned to separatism. Interestingly, most of the communist leadership survived: Slovene communists shared power for a long time; Croat communists accommodated the nationalists; the Serb communists survived throughout the war – also the case in Montenegro.

So, I do not believe the break-up of Yugoslavia was at all inevitable.

Do you think that Slovenia and Croatia anticipated the Serbian response when they declared independence?

I think there was a general understanding between Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević, though Tuđman probably did not anticipate Milošević’s reaction. He was a historian – I knew him personally – and he had a very poor understanding of the Serbs in Croatia. He thought they would happily ally with the Croatian nationalists (as had happened previously in history, during the Second World War, for instance) and he badly miscalculated the Serbian response. Afterwards, he was confident that he could come to an agreement with Milošević over the division of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But there, too, he misjudged the Bosnian Muslims. And so on. Milošević, I think – and I also knew him – had no idea what he was doing. He had no exit strategy when he went into the whole thing. He counted on the support of the Soviet Union and the United States, within the framework of the Cold War; but then the Soviet Union disappeared.

At that time, you were politically very active. Together with Vojislav Koštunica, you founded the Democratic Party of Serbia in 1989. What were your main aims and what obstacles did you face?

Yes, there were initially four of us, and then Zoran Đinđić and others came on board. At that time, there were many opposition groupings in Belgrade, but most of them were supportive of Milošević. So, we wanted to set up a proper opposition, and in autumn 1989 we founded the Democratic Party. Formally, it came into being in February 1990. Until it was banned in 1946, the old Democratic Party was pro-Yugoslav and had had a fine tradition in Serbia, which we were keen to continue. The party was an attempt to save the Yugoslav project, at least in the beginning. When we announced its formation, people flocked to join. Most members were well-meaning people, but there were also many who primarily joined to steer the party in another direction. It soon became a nationalist grouping; I left the party in late 1990, but supported it for as long as I could. Zoran Đinđić edited the party’s weekly newspaper and I contributed regularly. My wife and I also contributed to, and helped publish, the independent monthly Demokratija danas with some leading Belgrade intellectuals. Then we went to the United States. In fact, I wasn’t very political at that time, or indeed at any time. I just thought in 1989 that it was my civic duty to try, and so I tried. As I had done previously in 1968, during the student protests.

The problem was that it proved impossible to stand aloof from nationalism during nationalist euphoria. History has shown repeatedly that you simply cannot run a democratic party in a fascist, nationalist system. In Serbia, we had two nationalist movements – one in power and one in opposition – and the Democratic Party was simply squeezed out until the regime collapsed.

What was your personal role in the democratic movement?

At the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, democratic parties were springing up all over the country. My idea was to jointly push for something similar to the round tables that were being organised in Poland and elsewhere. However, the reformist federal government did not support that idea. I think that was a big mistake. I was also very supportive of the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia party; I wrote parts of the manifesto of the social liberals in Croatia; and I campaigned for the Montenegrin Democratic Party. I also wanted to do something in Macedonia, but my father was active there, and so there was no need. I knew most of the initiators of these new democratic parties, and so I thought we could talk to each other and see how to move forward. The United States and the EU also showed interest in supporting this kind of effort. I also thought it was vital to talk to Kosovo’s democrats, but that did not go down well within the Democratic Party.

During the wars, the EU failed to find a common position and strategy to avert the worst outcome. It was too preoccupied with itself, with German unification, with the Maastricht Treaty. Today, 30 years later, it again risks losing its credibility, security interests and geopolitical role in the region. Do you think the EU is currently committing another historic mistake by failing to deliver on its enlargement promises?

I think there are two main flaws in Brussels’ current strategy towards the Western Balkans. One involves the generally held misconception that the Balkan countries are keen to join the EU and that that goal is very popular with the people. This is simply not true. There has never been overwhelming interest in Serbia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina or in Croatia in joining the EU. Those countries’ EU ambitions are entirely dependent on their nationalist interests being satisfied. For instance, the idea that Serbia would be ready to compromise on Kosovo in order to join the EU is clearly a misconception. That is not the way the issue is viewed in Belgrade – and certainly not how it is seen by the Serbian population.

The other big mistake is that the EU is trying to have a geopolitical role in the Balkans, without having any geopolitical instruments. In other words, the EU simply cannot play the geopolitical role it wants to, and so it keeps focusing on problems that it cannot resolve.

Fundamentally, the EU’s current approach is to somehow persuade Serbia to accept the independence of Kosovo and hope everything else works out. It keeps talking to Belgrade, while Belgrade is not really interested in resolving any of these problems. It will never sacrifice any of its nationalistic interests for EU membership. To think otherwise is a complete fallacy.

A year ago, the start of EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania appeared quite near and real. Then the process stalled because of a Dutch veto against Albania and a Bulgarian veto against North Macedonia. Are the objections raised – such as the need to accept the Bulgarian roots in Macedonia’s history and language – to be taken seriously? Or are these just pseudo-arguments, used to conceal other, political motivations?

There are, in fact, two different issues here. On the subject of Albania, the Netherlands – and possibly other countries in the north – objects to its accession to the EU for a variety of reasons. Albania is perceived as having a host of problems, with drugs and crime also playing a part. A similar attitude emerged around 2000, when a number of EU countries made it clear that they would object to Turkey joining the EU, predominantly because it is a Muslim country. All in all, I do not think it is going to be easy for Kosovo and Albania to gain admittance to the EU for similar reasons. You can see how difficult even visa liberalisation with Kosovo is.

As for North Macedonia, there was simply no interest in exerting pressure on Greece: Athens finally came to realise of its own accord that it was going to have very limited influence in the EU if it did not behave reasonably.

Bulgaria’s attitude to North Macedonia is a different matter. It now finds itself in a situation similar to that facing Serbia between 1989 and 1991. There is national resentment, a feeling that it is not doing very well as a nation and that its history is not valued appropriately. Bulgaria is the least developed country in the EU, and its government is not terribly popular. There is no sense that the last 20 years or so have brought much success. Bulgaria is exploiting the accession process to foster nationalist dissatisfaction. It is very strange – and indeed troubling – to hear people talking of how Bulgaria was united during the Second World War, when it was run by a fascist government.

But there are also many supporters of accession in the EU, not least Germany. During its EU Council Presidency in 2020, it worked hard to kickstart the accession talks. Or is that a false impression?

Well, on the one hand it is correct. But on the other, one might ask: ‘Did Germany try hard enough?’ I simply don’t understand why it was not possible for Angela Merkel to say to Bulgaria: ‘Look, this idea of rewriting the history and identity of another country is not the way we want to work in the EU.’ Everybody is in favour of opening negotiations with North Macedonia – it is not at all in the same boat as Albania, whose EU accession is opposed by several countries.

What is your main recommendation, to avoid having the EU lose its credibility, security interests and geopolitical role in the Western Balkans?

The first thing is to speed up the accession negotiations with Montenegro and North Macedonia. The Montenegrin situation is very, very shaky, and that would significantly help its stabilisation and future direction. It would also be in line with NATO interests.

The same holds for North Macedonia. Apart from stabilising the country, the opening of accession negotiations would help to scotch any lingering ideas of the western parts of the country, where ethnic Albanians are a majority, separating and joining Greater Albania. Both Montenegro and North Macedonia are very small, peaceful, uncontroversial countries, and so it should be feasible.

There are, in fact, many good reasons for such a move: it would be very helpful to Greece and Montenegro, would secure the Adriatic and would assist Italy. Moreover, it would have a very supportive effect on Pristina and Tirana.

Negotiations with Albania should also continue, I think. More or less for the same reasons.

Then, the EU should address the issue of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I believe the United States would be ready to help, and a US-EU initiative would enjoy a significant chance of success. The country is otherwise in economic and political deadlock.

Finally, the EU should address Serbia and Kosovo. Their problems cannot be solved in the current context. But once the other countries are on the proper path, it will be much easier to come to an agreement with Serbia. It will also be easier for Serbia to understand that it needs to accommodate Kosovo – and vice versa. An agreement along the lines of Eastern and Western Germany could be an option – at least until they get used to living with each other.

So, one could expect the other countries of the Western Balkans to benefit from the powerful spill-over effects once North Macedonia and Montenegro commence – or even complete – accession talks?

Indeed, such a thing would have positive effects for Serbia, as well as for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Montenegro is tightly connected with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia. Similarly, North Macedonia would have a strong positive influence on Albania and Kosovo, since they are neighbours. You would see the difference relatively quickly, in terms of resources and political stability. And there is very little risk to the approach. The burden on the EU budget would also be negligible. These are easy things to do and would send a powerful signal to the region – one not only of promise, but also of democratisation.

This article first appeared in the wiiw Monthly Report, a regular wiiw publication containing brief articles on topical issues related to the economies in Central, East and Southeast Europe and CIS countries. It is regularly available only for wiiw members during an embargo period of six months. The June Special Issue on the 30th Anniversary of the Break-up of Yugoslavia is available for free.