Briefing Paper : Yugoslavia: A Center That Isn’t Holding


The News:

Yugoslavian President Borislav Jovic has called for a new federal constitution and negotiations among the six member republics to prevent a breakup of the multinational state. Its future is threatened by an epidemic of nationalism, a power struggle between Communists and pro-democracy forces, secession movements in Slovenia and Croatia and looming economic threats including a rise in unemployment already at 17%. For many, the question is no longer whether the fragile federation will collapse, but when.

The Background:

National rivalries among the Balkan nations have never been resolved. Eight fractious kingdoms and provinces were merged in 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian and Turkish Ottoman empires after World War I. Political and ethnic conflicts escalated into civil war by the 1940s.


Communist partisan Josip Broz Tito emerged to lead the federation after World War II and managed through personal influence and political repression to keep nationalist outbreaks in check. The constitution drafted six years before his death in 1980 bequeathed a rotating system of leadership designed to prevent any of the six republics or two autonomous provinces from dominating. But Serbian-orchestrated changes to the constitution in March, 1989, stripped the province of Kosovo of its autonomy, triggering riots by majority Albanians and a crackdown by Serbs who are less than 10% of Kosovo’s 2 million population.

Adding to the nationalist tensions is the uneven development of democracy in Yugoslavia. Slovenia and Croatia, the two most prosperous and westernized republics, held multi-party elections this spring that brought in anti-Communist governments. Three of the other four republics--Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro and Macedonia--have scheduled free elections later this year. Serbia, however, remains a hard-line Communist state and has resisted calls for pluralism. A democratic vote would unquestionably restore Kosovo to ethnic Albanian control.

At Issue:

While most of the republics have shifted toward Western-style democracy, the federal government retains a Communist monopoly on political power even though it has undertaken market-oriented economic reforms. Prime Minister Ante Markovic has called for nationwide free elections by the end of the year and has said he may form a new party to challenge his fellow Communists. But federal elections cannot be held before all republics have legalized opposition parties and begun the transition to multi-party democracies. The Markovic appeal has put new pressure on Serbia to relax its one-party rule.



Serbian Communist Party chief Slobodan Milosevic rose to power by engineering the constitutional changes last year that imposed Serbian authority on Kosovo, the historic heartland of the medieval kingdom of Serbia. The move bolstered national pride among Serbs, who account for 9 million of Yugoslavia’s 23 million citizens, but touched off recurring ethnic clashes with Albanians who want their own republic in Kosovo.

Federal President Jovic is a hard-line Communist Serb allied with Milosevic and likewise opposed to multi-party democracy. He has warned that rising nationalism threatens to escalate into civil war.

Prime Minister Markovic, a Croat, is the first strong federal figure to emerge in Yugoslavia since Tito. He is popular for taming hyper-inflation and introducing market-oriented reforms that have eased Yugoslavia’s economic crisis.


While Markovic struggles to keep the federation together, strong nationalist figures have emerged in the largest republics. Franjo Tudjman, a Croatian nationalist and former dissident, was elected republic president last month. Vuk Draskovic of the unsanctioned and strongly nationalist Serbian Renewal Party is providing a magnet for Serbs disillusioned with communism.


Serbia clears the federal reform roadblock by scheduling multi-party elections, but only after rewriting the republic’s constitution to prevent Kosovo’s ever gaining republic status; the most likely move, but one expected to trigger a bloody uprising by ethnic Albanians.

* Serbia legalizes opposition parties but outlaws the Democratic League supported by Kosovo Albanians; also likely to set off rioting.


* Serbia is forced in negotiations with the other republics to agree to free elections without restricting Kosovo’s status; considered unlikely due to the Serbs’ strong national identification with Kosovo.

* No elections are set in Serbia, delaying federal pluralism and further fueling the secessionist movements in Croatia and Slovenia and leading to the breakup of Yugoslavia.

* One of the newly democratized republics declares independence from the federation, and the army under the control of the Serbian-dominated presidency is brought in to prevent secession, unleashing civil war.