Washington Post: peddling garbage on European Union and former Yugoslavia

The Washington Post article “Yugoslavia’s lessons for Europe’s Disunion” written by Charles Lane was recently characterised by the Croatian journalist Denis Kuljis as an article written by someone who had just sculled a bottle of Jack Daniel’s.

Reading the article one can easily conclude that Charles Lane might have collected or invented some garbage regarding the former Yugoslavia, wrapped it up in reputable Washington Post sheets, slipped it into the European Union economic turmoil milieu and conveyed a prediction of doom founded on inaccurate facts about Yugoslavia.

Motives for such an outlook on the prediction of EU demise completely elude my intellect.

Lane writes about a completely different Yugoslavia to the one that fell apart in the early 1990’s. Lane’s Yugoslavia seems to have evolved as an imaginary paradise that thrived with all possible and fabulous opportunities designed to achieve a true union of different cultures and people. Indeed, if Yugoslavia was as Lane claims then one is befuddled by its bloody breakup.

I wonder if Lane leans towards the Yugo-nostalgic clan that still cruises within the new democracies among individual former Yugoslav states, peddling false realities that Yugoslavia never had?

Lane writes that Yugoslavia was a “confederation” that “promised an eternal end to the wars that had historically bedevilled its component peoples. It built goodwill and interdependence through a common currency and free movement of labor and capital. Espousing peace, equality and human rights, the confederation offered a “third way” between the callousness of American-style capitalism and the inefficiency of central planning. It also offered an alternative power center to countries not content to choose their allies from among the United States, China and Russia…

But Yugoslavia collapsed in 1991, after more than a decade of steadily escalating strife. And its downfall was accompanied by renewed ethnic warfare even bloodier than the World War II-era fighting the postwar confederation was supposed to abolish”.

Lane draws an analogy between Yugoslavia and today’s troubled European Union and “predicts” that what happened in former Yugoslavia could happen to European Union. He holds that when it comes to EU troubles it’s not just a financial or economic crisis afoot but also a looming doom that arises when a multitude of individual national interests collide. “The deeper question is how — or whether — any multinational confederation can survive in the land mass between the Urals and the Atlantic, long after the world war that originally justified it and the Cold War that helped perpetuate it. How is the E.U. to escape the fate of every previous empire and confederation in European history,” Lane asks.

His answer seems to lie in his claim that a firm hand is needed to control EU; surrender of more national sovereignty to Brussels would be his trick that might save EU from collapse or disintegration.

There are serious problems with Lane’s article and these lead one to brand it as journalistic garbage and/or a blustering political analysis propped up by illusions.

Firstly, Yugoslavia was never a confederation but a federation. Perhaps Lane does not know the difference between the two? Yugoslavia was a federation with a strong centralised political power wielded from Belgrade (Serbia) on all fronts. Such centralised political power limited the freedoms of individual constituent states to the point of suffocation and oppression. Lane could have easily found evidence of this in many instances, e.g. the Croatian Spring revolt of early 1970’s (when Croatian people attempted to secure more freedom within the centralised federation).

Lane is totally wrong in his claim that there should be more power concentrated into Brussels – if EU is to avoid its own collapse.

Secondly, the creation of Yugoslavia never promised to “end all wars” as Lane claims. Indeed, Yugoslavia was not willingly created by the people of its constituent states but imposed with the aid and pressure of Allied politics. Suffice to say such politics included the undercurrent of Greater Serbia ideals amidst the sea of different nationalities.

Thirdly there was no “free movement of labor and capital” in Yugoslavia in the true sense of the word. Labour movement was as free as the Communist party allowed – meagre. The Communist Party was organised in all companies and most influential employees were likely to be members of the party, so the managers were mostly appointed only with the consent of the party. One needed to be a member of the communist party (or have the protection and reference of a member) if one was going to succeed in securing a “good” job, or a job of note.

Freedom of movement of capital in former Yugoslavia is highly arguable if one looks at such freedom in “dictionary” definition terms. The economy of “workers’ self-government” was a state capitalism of a peculiar kind, controlled by politically suitable managerial cliques and a system of ruthless exploitation of workers under the domineering managerial clique.

In the mid-1960’s economic control by central planners was removed and the system largely followed market forces, stimulating merger waves which resulted in vast regional inequalities. In mid-1970’s a revision of economic management allowed for integrated planning by organisations of associated labour within enterprises (mainly state owned and controlled). Only in 1980’s outright privatisation was allowed but worker-management continued and this stifled true capitalism and true freedom of movement of capital within industrial networks as well as across state borders.

Capital moved between states in relative freedom, yes, but under strict guidelines, rules and notorious five-year plans for the development of certain areas and branches of economy. Each state was allocated a percentage of federal revenue, which in turn was made up of each states earnings. Inequality and discrimination in this area of movement of capital evidences the fact that freedom was indeed controlled and by no means flexible.

Fourthly, Lane is completely wrong in claiming that constituent peoples of Yugoslavia had historically been engaged in wars against each other, leaving the reader with the impression that these peoples have been at each other’s throats for centuries. The truth is that all these nations lived side by side for centuries and apart from conflicts on segregated and smaller scales on grounds of various political scenarios, they had not been at war against each other on national levels prior to 1991. In the context of the breakup of Yugoslavia the truth is that it was an inevitable consequence of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and particularly so since Yugoslav federation stifled self-determination and democratic processes within its constituent states. Hence, while World War II saw the first conflicts between Serbs and Croats (on the one hand many Serbs wanted the return of Serb-dominated kingdom while many Croatians wanted an independent Croatia and, on the other hand many Serbs and Croats wanted a multi-ethnic socialist Yugoslavia) it was the 1990’s conflict that can truly be called Serb against Croat. The Serbs did not want Croatia to break away from Yugoslavia, where Serbs held an upper hand in many important and key positions of power.

Indeed, using Yugoslavia as an example of historical conflicts between peoples that leads to disintegration of a “union” is unconvincing and wicked. There are many historical conflicts between different peoples (other than from Yugoslavia) of EU that Lane could have used in his analysis; one suspects, though, that he didn’t use these because they’re not as “fresh” as the ones from former Yugoslavia. A shallow approach, indeed.

While within Yugoslav federation constituent states did gain substantial powers over certain sectors of life (police, judiciary, media, education …) the centralised power seated in Belgrade for the maintenance of the Yugoslav union remained the non-negotiable and unforgiving force. It is the latter, coupled with the death of communism in Eastern Europe that caused and justified the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The only terms of peace, equality and human rights espoused by Yugoslav federation were actually those that easily dispensed with peace, equality and human rights when the federation was threatened. There is no better piece of evidence of this than the Yugoslav Peoples Army’s aggression against the states wanting to secede from the federation in early 1990’s. Central control (surrender of national sovereignties) did not prevent disintegration of Yugoslavia and neither would it do for European Union as Lane suggests it might. European Union has nothing to learn from the Yugoslav federation Lane fantasises about, but lots to gain from Croatia’s resolve to secede from a centralised, multi-ethnic federation that was riddled with discrimination. Ina Vukic, Prof. (Zgb); B.A.,M.A.Ps. (Syd)

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