You will not be beaten again.
Nationalism has a bad reputation. Almost all major conflicts of the 20th Century, including two world wars, are blamed on nationalism. The violent breakup of Yugoslavia is no exception. This strategy however does not do justice to reality. Through a critique of two classical approaches to Balkan nationalism, primordialism and instrumentalism, I will develop a constructivist account of the breakup. The fall of the Yugoslav Federation was not the result of innate xenophobia (primordialism) or Milosevic’ demagoguery (instrumentalism), but had multiple causes. Tito’s federalization of the country created a class of nationalist intellectuals and ethnic divides in the economy. When the economy went into crisis political elites translated socio-economic grievances in the only discourse still available, namely nationalism.
- Primordialism: the pressure cooker approach
There are three ways of understanding nationalism. Primordialism claims that a nation is unity with a fixed, common essence. For constructivists nations are manufactured ‘imagined communities’, while instrumentalists add that this manufacturing is performed by political elites reacting to threats and opportunities.
Primordialism has had a great influence on theories concerning Yugoslavia. Primordialists argue that the Balkans have always been and will be a melting pot of aggressive, chauvinistic ethnicities. Throughout history Serbs, Croats, Muslims and others have created a “tradition of violent interethnic struggle” with only short intervals of peace. Tito unified the region, but conflict was their destiny. Schierup has called this account the ‘pressure cooker approach’. Nationalistic longings build up and when the ‘lid’ is lifted, for instance by the death of Tito, the pot explodes. This theory is wrong for three reasons.
a) As Michael Ignatieff rightly claims:” One still has to account for the nearly fifty years of ethnic peace.” If nationalism really were so vicious and innate, why would Tito’s attempt at unification have succeeded and why would it have lasted for another 10 years after his death? Moreover, there is no evidence to support the claim that the Balkan peoples are more violently nationalistic than any other group in the world. Why then did the Balkan pressure cooker explode and not, for instance, Belgium?
b) Empirical evidence does not support the claim of an innate longing for self-determination or mistrust of other ethnicities. Klanjsek and Flere have compared surveys from 1986 and 1990 concerning the desire for secession and self-determination and conclude that their “findings do not yield empirical support for the assumption that the establishment of mono-national states was clearly and longitudinally supported by the respective national populations, with the probable exception of Kosovo Albanians.” Glenny’s interviews with the people of Knin, one of the main sites for the war between Serbs and Croats, confirm this thesis.
c) Primordialism implies that nationalism causes polarization and war. Again, this causal order lacks scientific support. Mostly wars enhance internal homogenization and external polarization from other groups. This observation is corroborated in the Yugoslav case. Lampe, for instance, shows how Tudjman’s nationalist HDZ party could count on a broad electorate as long as the war lasted. After hostilities he lost elections. So there must have been some kind of polarization already for nationalist social cohesion to form.
d) Identities are much less uniform. There were major differences between the Serbs, for instance, of different regions. The Croat Serbs wrote in the Latin alphabet and were mostly even unable to write Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet. Parts of the peasant population in Macedonia do not even know whether they are Serbs, Macedonians or Bulgarians. Primordialism therefore assumes the existence of fixed, essential national identities, but there is much more diversity in real life.
Studies focusing on the main actors of the conflict tend to support instrumentalism and give a lot of credit to the protagonists. Leaders like Milosevic, Tudjman or Izetbegovic purportedly created and used nationalism to acquire power. Milosevic, for instance, is portrayed as a ‘chamber politician’ who organized his rise to power through the use of nationalist rhetoric for the public and elaborate schemes behind the scenes to undermine his rivals.
The instrumentalist account gives too much credit to the political leaders. Milosevic, Tudjman or Izetbegovic were as much products of the political system as they shaped the Yugoslav predicament. Without, for instance, the economic crisis their fear-inspiring rhetoric would not have found much acclaim. Instrumentalism rests on a circular argument if we say that the violent outbursts of the war are the product of leaders inspiring hate, while at the same time acknowledging that they could only have risen to power because there already was fear and hate. Milosevic’ rhetoric is pulling itself out of a swamp by its own hair by inspiring the aggression it presupposes. Milosevic could not have created the problem of the Serbs in Kosovo or anywhere else. 
The only viable option left is constructivism. Aggressive nationalism was constructed, but on a lower level than the political elites. I will first argue that nationalism resulted from the federalizing policies during the Tito years. Afterwards I will claim that economic grievances enhanced the ethnic framing of politics.
3.1 Federalization and the creation of organic intellectuals
At the end of the 1960’s and the beginning of the 70’s nationalist and liberal opposition against Tito’s rule reached a momentum. Serbian liberals like Nikezic wanted to install a market economy and also Croats demanded certain freedoms. Tito eventually removed all liberal reformers from office.
Afterwards he devised a new constitution in 1974, which gave more autonomy to the regions. Military, foreign and external trade affairs were kept on the federal level, while the rest was handed down to the republics. The constitution created a federative structure where leaders of the different republics and provinces competed for power at the federal level, while being largely autonomous in their respective regions. Many federal decisions required unanimity and consequently gave veto rights to all participants. Yugoslavia had de facto become a confederation of states with limited need to engage with each other. Tito did not regard this as a problem, since there was still one communist vanguard party controlling all regions and the party was directly subservient to him. Tito’s personal rule counterbalanced centrifugal forces between the republics.
The antiliberal purge and the federalization of the country had their consequences in ordinary life. To understand their magnitude it is helpful to introduce some terminology from Antonio Gramsci. According to Gramsci the state uses certain ideological devices to create consensus among the population about the public order. The goal is to install a hegemonic order, which means that one ideology, in casu Titoist socialism, sets the standards for political discourse. Resistance then takes the form of counter-hegemonic practices, or discourses that try to replace the reigning ideology. This can be done through the work of ‘organic intellectuals’. They are artists, teachers, journalists, etc. who develop the ideology of a certain group and try to popularize it. When these organic intellectuals perform a good job, their ideology becomes hegemonic.
Because of the purge of liberals the only counter-hegemonic force against Titoist socialism was nationalism. If there was then some opposition, it mostly took the form of nationalism. Moreover the federalization of the country had narrowed the people’s horizons to their own republics. The media were regionalized and educational reforms in all republics promoted the study of each their own national history and literature. The fundamental divisions within society would hence develop around national borders. Organic intellectuals then arrived to construct a narrative of mutually opposed nations. Writers like Cosic and Draskovic promoted Serbian nationalism, and religious authorities, especially the Croat Catholic Church, reframed their discourse in nationalist terms.
The federalization of Yugoslavia was thus followed by the federalization of the Yugoslav mind. Organic intellectuals educated the people into thinking in nationalist categories. Intellectuals alone however cannot topple a regime. Hardly anyone would have started fighting because of the novels of Cosic or the poems of Njegos. The latter however provided the resources for political elites to translate ethnic difficulties into a discourse of aggressive nationalism when the state eventually plunged into crisis.
3.2 Economics and the politics of fear
The Yugoslav economy was riddled with structural complications. After the promising developments until the 60’s, the rates of growth plummeted, just like agricultural and industrial production and the growth of labour productivity. Unemployment and inflation were on the rise. Real income had fallen between 1979 and 1988 by one-third and unemployment had risen in 1986 to 16.6%. These numbers however conceal the regional economical disparities. Due to demographic changes and migration the Albanians in Kosovo, for instance, started to massively outnumber the Serbs in Kosovo. Combined with diminishing chances of employment for university graduates, fierce competition arose between the two groups, “whatever the political context.” This competition was therefore not the result of ethnic outbidding by political elites, but it provided the underlying conflict to stir up the masses. It is consequently no coincidence that Milosevic’ nationalist rhetoric was first picked up by the Kosovar Serbs.
The federal structure of the country added fuel to the fire. A redistributive system had been set up to ameliorate the divergences in economic growth between the regions. Well-performing republics like Slovenia and Croatia believed that the southern republics blocked their economic development, while the poorer regions complained that they were receiving compensations too late or insufficiently. In the end, “everyone felt ‘exploited’ by the system.” These economic grievances along ethnic lines were later translated into ethnic grievances.
The translation would not have occurred when political elites were incentivized to compromise on the federal level, but this was not the case. As long as Tito ruled, the party functioned as a central governing organ. This fell apart after his death. The federal structure incentivized regional elites to build “autarkic little empires” that excluded competition from other regions. A politician could gain more from developing his own region than from reaching consensus on the federal level. “[There were] the growing centrifugal pressures generated by the autarkic policies of Yugoslavia’s regionally entrenched political elites. […] The regime was now characterized by six republican and two provincial elites that skilfully utilized decentralized authority for their respective parochial interests”. So once the economic crisis severely aggravated in the 80’s, confrontation between the republics and provinces escalated and political leaders turned to ethnic outbidding instead of consensus.
Economic failure, particularly in the 1980’s, created an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. Economic divergences ran along ethnic lines and political elites benefitted from exploiting these ethnic divergences. This was fertile soil for Milosevic or Tudjman. They translated economic uncertainties and ‘ontological insecurity’ into an aggressive nationalist discourse. Their discourse was not essentially a narrative of hate, but a politics of fear. It is no coincidence that Milosevic’ slogan in the 1990 elections was “With us there is no insecurity”. Economic and political instability made the future of Yugoslavia highly unpredictable and these moments of ‘fear of the unknown’ made people vulnerable for authoritarian leaders promising utopian futures.
When we combine our findings from this chapter with the earlier chapter on federalization and organic intellectuals, we gain a better understanding of the causal connections. When economic grievances needed to be articulated in political language, nationalism was the only discourse in town. The communist party had fallen apart on the federal level and had split up between the republics and provinces. Communist discourse was also under heavy attack after the fall of the Soviet-Union and the failures of the Yugoslav economic system. The counterhegemonic practices of nationalist organic intellectuals consequently became hegemonic.
There are three major narratives concerning the role of nationalism in the breakup of the Yugoslav Federation. Primordialism describes a history of atrocities in the Balkans and claims the breakup lays in the destiny of the essentially different all too different nations. These claims are not supported by survey research, cannot explain periods of peace, confuse cause and effect concerning the civil war and falsely presuppose the unity of the nationalist identities. Instrumentalism, secondly, claims that nationalism was produced by political elites. They blame Milosevic and his colleagues for the violence. The problem with this account is that it puts the cart before the horse. It does not explain the preconditions on which Milosevic, Tudjman and others could inspire to so much hate. My account is constructivist too, but in another sense. The federalization of Yugoslavia created a class of organic intellectuals for all the separate nations and narrowed people’s horizons to their own region. When economic conflicts ran along ethnic lines and the communist party fell apart, nationalism was the only discourse available to translate these economic grievances in. Nationalism became hegemonic. Fear for the unknown made the people especially vulnerable for the aggressive varieties of nationalism in Yugoslavia.
Anderson, B. (2006). Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism. London: Verso Books.
Bojicic, V. (1996). The disintegration of Yugoslavia: causes and consequences of dynamic inefficiency in semi-command economies. In I. Vejvoda, & D. A. Dyker, Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth (pp. 28-47). London: Longman.
Burg, S. (1986). Elite conflicts in post-Tito Yugoslavia. Soviet studies , 38 (2), 170-193.
Cohen, L. (1993). Broken bonds: the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Oxford: Westview Press.
Djilas, A. (1993). A profile of Slobodan Milosevic. Foreign Affairs , 72 (3), 81-96.
Dyker, D. A. (1996). The degeneration of the Yugoslav communist party as a managing elite: a familiar East European story? In I. Vejvoda, & D. A. Dyker, Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth (pp. 48-64). London: Longman.
Fearon, J., & Laitin, D. (2000). Violence and the social construction of ethnic identity. International organization , 54 (4), 845-877.
Glenny, M. (1996). The fall of Yugoslavia. London: Penguin Books.
Gramsci, A. (1996). The prison notebooks (vol. I-III). New York: Columbia University Press.
Gurr, T. (2011). Why men rebel. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.
Hudson, K. (2003). Breaking the South Slav dream: the rise and fall of Yugoslavia. London: Pluto Press.
Ignatieff, M. (1993, May 13). The Balkan Tragedy. New York Review of Books , p. Unknown.
Klansjek, R., & Flere, S. (2011). Exit Yugoslavia: longing for mononational states or entrepreneurial manipulation? Nationalities papers: the journal of nationalism and ethnicity , 39 (5), 791-810.
Laclau, E. (2007). On populist reason. London: Verso Books.
Lampe, J. (2000). Yugoslavia as history: twice there was a country. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Malesevic, S. (2013). Obliterating heterogeneity through peace: nationalism, states and wars, in the Balkans. In S. Malesevic, & J. A. Hall, Nationalism and war (pp. 255-275). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Radosevic, S. (1996). The collapse of Yugoslavia: between chance and necessity. In I. Vejvoda, & D. A. Dyker, Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth (pp. 65-83). London: Longman.
Ramet, S. (2005). Thinking about Yugoslavia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Vejvoda, I. (1996). Yugoslavia 1945-91: from decentralisation without democracy to dissolution. In I. Vejvoda, & D. A. Dyker, Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth (pp. 9-27). London: Longman.
 A factor that will not be discussed, but still was of crucial importance is foreign influence. After the end of the Cold War, the West no longer needed Yugoslavia as a buffer against the Eastern Bloc. Moreover Western countries regularly sent mixed signals to the different parties involved in the conflict, which may have prolonged and aggravated the civil war (K. Hudson, Breaking the South Slav dream: the rise and fall of Yugoslavia, London, Pluto Press, 2003)
 J. Fearon & D. Laitin, ‘Violence and the social construction of ethnic identity’, International organization, vol. 54, No. 4, 2000, pp. 845-877.
 The term ‘imagined communities’ has been popularized by B. Anderson, Imagined communities: reflections on the origins and spread of nationalism, London, Verso Books, 2006.
 L. Cohen, Broken bonds: the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Oxford, Westview Press, 1993, p. 268.
 M. Ignatieff, ‘The Balkan tragedy’, New York Review of books, 1993.
 S. Radosevic, ‘The collapse of Yugoslavia: between chance and necessity’ in D.A. Dyker & I. Vejvoda (eds.), Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth, London, Logman, 1996, p. 65.
 Ignatieff, The Balkan tragedy.
 R. Klanjšek & S. Flere,’ Exit Yugoslavia: longing for mononational states or entrepreneurial manipulation?’, Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, vol. 39, no. 5, 2011, p. 805. One has to note that the Kosovar Albanians were already in a struggle against the Serbs in 1986, in contrast to the other ethnicities.
 M. Glenny, The fall of Yugoslavia, London, Penguin Books, 1996, p. 19.
 S. Malesevic, ‘Obliterating heterogeneity through peace: nationalisms, states and wars, in the Balkans’ in J.A. Hall & S. Malesevic (eds.), Nationalism and war, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013, p. 259. Malesevic himself however does not agree that this theory fits the Yugoslav case. For my account however it suffices that the primordialist account does not correspond to the general consensus concerning war and nationalism.
 J.R. Lampe, Yugoslavia as history: twice there was a country, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 384.
 Glenny, The fall of Yugoslavia, p. 12.
 Ibid., p. 72.
 Mischa Glenny, for instance, likens nationalism to an “alien virus” of the elites infecting the people (Glenny, The fall of Yugoslavia, p. 20).
 A. Djilas, ‘A profile of Slobodan Milosevic’, Foreign affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, 1993, p. 86-92.
 It is also interesting to note the idea of an elite conspiracy to undermine Yugoslavia originated from Milosevic’ own speeches (see: Cohen, Broken bonds, p. 202).
 For reasons of exhaustiveness we should note that another possible option is arguing that nationalism is unimportant to understand the Yugoslav breakup. I will here however keep this option aside, since hardly any of the relevant literature entertains this thesis.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia as history, pp. 305-311.
 Ibid., pp. 313-314.
 Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Kosovo and Vojvodina were provinces with certain autonomous competences within Serbia.
 Cohen, Broken bonds, p. 33.
 I. Vejvoda, ‘Yugoslavia 1945-91: from decentralisation without democracy to dissolution’ in D.A. Dyker & I. Vejvoda (eds.), Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth, New York, Longman, 1996, p. 15.
 D.A. Dyker, ‘The degeneration of the Yugoslav Communist Party as a managing elite: a familiar East European story?’ in D.A. Dyker & I. Vejvoda (eds.), Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth, New York, Longman, p. 55. It should however be noted that also the Yugoslav People’s Army, better known as the JNA, was also very instrumental as a centralizing force. When the party broke apart, the army kept defending the Yugoslav interest against particularist resistances until it eventually came under Milosevic’ control (Djilas, A profile of Slobodan Milosevic, pp. 90-92; Cohen, Broken bonds, pp. 204-205).
 Steven L. Burg, ‘Elite conflict in post-Tito Yugoslavia’, Soviet Studies, Vol. 38, No 2, 1986, p. 182.
 A. Gramsci, The prison notebooks (Vol. I-III), New York, Columbia University Press, 1996.
 Gramsci was a Marxist theorist, so he developed these concepts in the context of class struggle. The bourgeois state acquires power over the working class through the hegemony of bourgeois ideology. With this terminology he wanted to explain why capitalism had survived the economic crises of the 1920’s in Western Europe. Even when economic divides were greater than ever, the bourgeoisie could count on its hegemonic discourse to keep the working classes from rebelling. The proletariat had consented to the capitalist order, even when the latter had failed. I abstract here from the notion of class struggle, since the main struggle of Yugoslavia involved ethnic groups, not socio-economic classes. This is in accordance with the post-Marxist reception of Gramsci by Ernesto Laclau, who explained the Yugoslav civil wars in a similar way (see: E. Laclau, On populist reason, London, Verso Books, 2007, pp. 197-198).
 S. Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia: scholarly debates about the Yugoslav breakup and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005, p. 152
 Vejvoda, Yugoslavia 1945-91, p. 17; Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 63.
 Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 61; Lampe, Yugoslavia as history, pp. 343-344.
 V. Bojicic, ‘The disintegration of Yugoslavia: causes and consequences of dynamic inefficiency in semi-command economies’ in D.A. Dyker & I. Vejvoda (eds.), Yugoslavia and after: a study in fragmentation, despair and rebirth, New York, Longman,1996, p. 30.
 Lampe, Yugoslavia as history, p. 333.
 Ibid., 339.
 Djilas, A profile of Slobodan Milosevic, p. 87; Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 56.
 Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, pp. 55-56.
 Cohen, Broken bonds, p. 34.
 Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 56.
 As will be clear now, I presuppose the relative deprivation theory concerning political violence. Groups start to rebel when their value expectations no longer match their value capabilities (T. Gurr, Why men rebel, Boulder, Paradigm Publishers, 2011). When people feel they can no longer achieve their hopes they become frustrated. If there is no legitimate outlet for these grievances, they lead to violence when manipulated by political elites.
 Dyker, The degeneration of the Yugoslav communist party as managing elite, p. 55.
 Burg, Elite conflict in post-Tito Yugoslavia, p. 178.
 Cohen, Broken bonds, p. 33.
 Burg, Elite conflict in post-Tito Yugoslavia, p. 188; Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 67.
 The term ‘ontological insecurity’ derives from Radosevic, The collapse of Yugoslavia, p. 66.
 Glenny, The fall of Yugoslavia, p. 107:” But the villagers who did much of the fighting were motivated not by a desire to enlarge Serbian territory, but by a phobia concerning the Croatian state and the HDZ.” (My italics)
 Glenny, The fall of Yugoslavia, p. 41.
 Ramet, Thinking about Yugoslavia, p. 148.