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Real-Life Balkans

Yugoslavia, it has been said, is not so much a state as a state of mind. Its 23 million people live in six more or less ethnically distinct republics and two autonomous provinces. They speak a dozen or more languages, three of which are officially recognized; practice three major religions, and are inclined to distrust those who are not of their own kind. For 35 years after World War II this fractious country was held together under the sometimes ruthless leadership of Josip Broz Tito, a communist wartime resistance hero who early declared his independence from Moscow. With Tito’s death in 1980 came a sweeping decentralization of political power and, soon after, the onset of a steadily worsening economic slide. These developments form the background to Yugoslavia’s present crisis.

The expansion of regional autonomy and the system of a one-year rotating national presidency that came into force in the post-Tito years aimed at preventing any single region or ethnic group from becoming dominant. What Tito, a Croatian, and others particularly feared was hegemony by the Serbs, the largest of the nationalities. Constituting more than one-third of the population, the Serbs have long felt that their numbers and historical importance entitle them to greater influence. They have also chafed at what they claim is the mistreatment of Christian Serbs in Kosovo, once part of Serbia but now an autonomous province. About 90% of the people living in Kosovo are ethnic Albanians, who are mostly Muslim. Serbs charge that a plot is afoot either to drive Serbs out of Kosovo or to unite the province with Albania.

These mounting ethnic tensions have helped bring to prominence Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian Communist Party president. Milosevic is a charismatic figure who has built a mass following among Serbs. His demand that Kosovo and another autonomous province, Vojvodina, be put more closely under Serbia’s control will probably be approved when the party’s national Central Committee meets Monday. That could both strengthen Milosevic’s political hand and set the stage for a violent reaction by Kosovo’s Albanians.

Milosevic is clearly bidding to become a national leader. In the last few months he has maneuvered shrewdly to take advantage of the ethnic and economic discontents that have been encouraged by the post-Tito fragmentation of power. Yugoslavia owes Western creditors $21 billion, a per-capita debt higher even than Poland’s. Under a system where everyone is supposed to be guaranteed work, about 1 million Yugoslavs are without jobs. At the same time the inflation rate has climbed above 200%. But under an agreement with the International Monetary Fund, which is trying to find ways to ease the economic crisis, wage increases can’t exceed 140%. The inevitable decline in living standards has only increased tensions.

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Milosevic is one of those who endorses the IMF’s call for such major reforms as a more market-oriented economy, greater development of the private sector and opening the country to more foreign investment. This show of economic liberalism has not, however, quieted the fears of those who regard Milosevic as politically untrustworthy. His undisguised appeals to Serbian nationalism, while they have won him a solid base of support at home, could well provoke nationalistic reactions elsewhere in the federation. Yugoslavia sorely needs economic and political changes. It’s not likely to achieve them if the reassertion of old ethnic rivalries in the federation further undercuts an already weak sense of nationhood.


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