Yet Another Round of Quarrelsome Balkan Behavior : Yugoslavia: Civil disorder is continuation of a constitutional debate that began in 1919. By force of example, we can give “democrats” the edge.

<i> Susan L. Woodward is a visiting fellow in foreign-policy studies at the Brookings Institution. </i>

The fear of civil war in Yugoslavia as a result of the rising violence on the streets of Belgrade, Knin and Pakrac and of the escalating political rhetoric in Croatia, Serbia and Slovenia seems far away and reminiscent of an earlier age. Many Europeans and Americans would like to wash their hands of these troubles, exasperated with yet another round of quarrelsome Balkan behavior that they do not understand and that threatens peaceful, more “modern” nations. Whether we see the recent turmoil in Yugoslavia as ethnic and religious wars, or as one more example of the death throes of communism, democracy in the raw makes us nervous.

But we are far more involved in these troubles than we might want to admit, for our actions have shaped and continue to shape Yugoslav affairs.

There is the way we interpret the unfolding events in Yugoslavia. Reports tell us that it is a struggle between West and East, democracy and communism. The “Western” democratic republics of Slovenia and Croatia are fighting for their right to national self-determination; the “other” republics want to deny them their aspiration and keep them imprisoned in a centralized, Communist state dominated by Serbs and their army.

Actually, this is a constitutional conflict between central authority and states’ rights that goes back to 1919. The current dispute began as a tax revolt. Slovenia and Croatia, the wealthier of Yugoslavia’s six republics but hard-pressed by economic recession, refused to pay ever more of their federal taxes and claimed their national rights over incomes and territory.

Although news reports focus on the nationalist Serb reaction, the fragile egg called Yugoslavia--originally a Croat idea--was already cracked by Slovenia’s acts of “dissociation” from all federal institutions during 1990. Step-by-step, Slovenes nullified the authority of federal party, army, laws and (soon) currency. Last June, they voted for independence.


The Yugoslavia that has lost all legitimacy in the country’s north was already the most decentralized government in the world. Neither Slovenes, Croats nor Serbs have a concrete program to replace it.

The reports out of Yugoslavia are misleading in other ways. The presidents of Slovenia and Serbia are former-Communists-turned-nationalists, the president of Croatia is a former general in the Yugoslav army and the federal prime minister a Croat. Press freedom and minority rights have been endangered in many republics, as each government uses national claims to bargain over the shape of a future Yugoslavia. Moreover, the constitutional conflict between Slovenia and Croatia, on the one hand, and Serbia and Montenegro, on the other, has handed the remaining two republics, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, a Hobson’s choice. Negotiations over reform of the constitution in the weekly meetings of the state presidency--whether in Belgrade, “neutral” Sarajevo or now in Zagreb--are thus deadlocked at 2:2:2.

Should the principle of national self-determination win out, Bosnia would be dismembered, losing at least Herzegovina to Croatia; Serbs would have to cede Kosovo--where a decade of martial law and smoldering violence resembles that in Northern Ireland--to Albanians and perhaps Albania, and Macedonia would be torn apart village by village.

There is also the way we have influenced Yugoslavia’s internal conflicts since 1919. It was President Woodrow Wilson who championed the right of national self-determination in Eastern Europe as a means to create a new balance of power in Europe and safeguard the peace by preventing the rise of new empires.

Liberal democratic constitutions were thought to be all that was needed to give birth to democracy. When the king of Yugoslavia declared a dictatorship in 1929, however, the United States, Britain and France were too buried in their own financial problems to object. They used the king’s move as the excuse to withdraw credits to save their banks, leaving the field to Germany and Adolf Hitler.

The solution of the Communist Party and Marshal Josip Broz Tito to the failure of democracy before World War II consisted of three parts: a federal government of nationally sovereign units (as ambiguous a constitution as the Soviet document) whose individual leaders Tito could play off against each other; a strong army to preserve national independence, and internationalism to distract from domestic quarrels. This attempted solution was secured by U.S. military aid and could not have been maintained had it not been a linchpin in President Harry S. Truman’s Cold War order and in the anti-Soviet policies and aid programs of successive U.S. administrations.

Now, the drive to join Europe and shifting allegiances set in motion by the end of the Cold War, coupled with the new U.S. and European “policy of differentiation"--redividing Eastern Europe into north and south by favoring the countries of Central Europe as more “developed” and “democratic"--give Slovenia and Croatia the vehicle for leaving the “Balkans” behind. What were hopes in 1990, however, have turned into fears of neglect in 1991 if they remain in abandoned Yugoslavia.

Just as in the past, the terms of legitimate debate and action that major powers establish shape the options within Yugoslavia. A new world order that begins with armed force to resolve national conflicts in the Persian Gulf, uses nationalist fervor to stifle debate over federal spending and economic problems at home and renews arms exports to protect the defense industry and reduce trade deficits sends the wrong message.

How, then, can we warn the Yugoslav army not to intervene in the country’s civil disorder, or the trade-strangled Eastern European countries not to follow the Hungarian example in selling rifles to Croatia? The nerves of unemployed youth, unpaid workers and struggling housewives in Yugoslavia are frayed after a decade of economic crises that began with the mid-'70s world recession, European rearmament and international debt. This emotional fatigue makes street demonstrations, flashes of violence and nationalist trampling of minority rights ever more likely as their leaders choose extreme positions to improve their bargaining position over the constitution.

Neither the status quo nor the break-up of Yugoslavia promises stability. Liberalizing and privatizing the economy without regard for the unemployed, the poor regions and towns, the aged and farmers will not reduce tensions that hinder the growth of democracy. Nationalism, competing armies and military spending undermine those organizing new trade unions in Bosnia, registering voters regardless of nationality in southern republics and building an independent press and television in Serbia and Croatia to pressure governments for better economic policies.

The leaders of the Yugoslav republics have a long way to go before they find a mutually beneficial solution that is their own. Accepting the labels they use in their internal fights as truth makes that task much more difficult. Defining the U.S. choice as support for a single Yugoslavia or for nationally independent states is not a vote for democratic debate about the country’s real problems. A world in recession, where new political barriers discriminate in trade and finance, does not help that democracy to grow.

The real support for democracy and political stability in Yugoslavia must come through a world environment that assists its democratic forces in the long run. As physicist Ivo Slaus says, “We are neighbors, and we always will be. We will have to find some way to live in peace.”