The Collapse of SFRY – Part I

The collapse of the SFRY is an oft-discussed and oft-misunderstood topic, especially in leftist spaces. Often imperialism and nationalism are cited as the reasons for the collapse. But this doesn’t give the full picture. Where did they come from? How were they allowed to have had any effect? The answer can be found in liberalism.

Stating that nationalism was the sole cause, as many Westerners do, is extremely false, misleading, and in the end, chauvinistic. Western chauvinists will spout such stances that “ancient ethnic hatred” tore apart the workers’ state. This stance not only infantilizes the Yugoslav people, but also clears the West and their domestic collaborators of any complicity in the collapse.

On the other hand, stating that imperialism was the sole cause, as many Western leftists do, is also misleading, because it not only forgives nationalist tendencies, but is also used as an excuse for the blind support of reactionaries like Milosevic and fascist paramilitaries in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo.

Still, most Yugoslav leftists don’t get it right either. The stance that imperialism and nationalism interplayed to create the collapse just doesn’t make sense. Tito, as great as he was at times, was not powerful enough to keep a country together if imperialist and nationalist tendencies were inevitable. If we really wish to find the cause of the collapse, we need to look at what ideology created the necessary conditions for imperialism and nationalism to take root in Yugoslavia. And that ideology is liberalism.

In this paper, we’ll discuss the role that liberalism, as well as imperialism, nationalism, and economic mismanagement, played in the collapse of Yugoslavia. This isn’t an omniscient paper, meaning, the collapse, and its factors, are much more detailed and complex than we’ll discuss. But we hope to impart enough knowledge, to give the necessary amount of understanding needed for any learning and discussion to take place.

The roots of liberalism in Yugoslavia can be traced back to the 1800’s, when Slovenia, Croatia, and Vojvodina were under the occupation of Austria-Hungary. Similarly, an independent Serbia, under a rising Serbian bourgeoisie, had a tradition of liberalism. The tradition was heightened and strengthened during the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, when a liberal bourgeois representative democracy took hold. These areas had a stronger upper class, unlike the less developed regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia, which either didn’t see a liberal tendency in SFRY, or the tendency wasn’t that strong.

World War Two left the liberals completely destroyed. The People’s Liberation Front was led by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, and liberals are staunchly anti-communist. Nevertheless, liberals did participate in the war. In Slovenia, “the most important part of the liberal parties joined the Slovene Covenant at the start of the war.” (2) After the cutting of ties between the Partisans and Chetniks, the part of the Slovene liberals who were anti-communists, “stood on the side of the occupiers or stayed neutral waiting for a solution from the West.” (2) At the end of the war, most liberal parties were banned and many liberals fled to the West. The question is then, why did it resurface in the sixties?

After the 1948 split between Tito and Stalin, Yugoslavia basically lost most of its economic ties to the East, and in order to survive, had to gradually open up to the Western markets. But this paper isn’t about market socialism. This younger generation, who were growing up without having ever been in contact with other communist leaders and parties, like Tito and Kardelj had, were typically more liberal, which caused problems for them in the Marxist education system. They would therefore go to the West and study at their universities, where their liberal ideologies matured, especially with the influence of the reactionary diaspora.

The younger generation in the LCY was increasingly liberal and sought to enforce “liberalization of the economy, decentralization, process of building confederate relations between the republics in Yugoslavia, pluralism.” (2) The upcoming liberals were able to pass the market reforms of 1964 and 1965. These market reforms “led to unemployment, increased inflation, growing foreign debt, social and class inequality, and exacerbated the divide between regional republics.” (3) The main proponent and author of these reforms was liberal Kiro Gligorov, who, not surprisingly, was chosen by the liberal Macedonian leadership to “represent Macedonia in the LCY Presidium.” (4)

The era between 1965 and 1972 was when liberals were at their strongest. This meant that liberal reforms were being carried out, and most frighteningly, nationalism was not being opposed, and at times, was being supported by the liberal leaderships. It is in this era that imperialism and nationalism really were able to start to take root, which is why we’ll back track a bit and look at economic issues, imperialism, and nationalism up until about 1970.

The biggest issue in Yugoslavia was probably the economic inequality between the republics. This generally caused the most animosity. After the creation of the self-managing system in 1950, the federal government opened up the Central Investment Fund. Funds were taken from workers’ enterprises and sent to the areas deemed worthy. In practice, it acted as a task, and since Slovenia, Croatia, and Vojvodina were the most developed and the richest, they gave up the most surplus proportionately, which was sent to poorer areas such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Macedonia. But the market reforms of 1965 abolished the fund. Republics were now concerned with their own survival and economic well-being, even if that meant hurting other republics. Obviously, the richer republics were better off and economic conditions worsened in Kosovo and Macedonia, without the economic backing of the federal government. This is where economic imperialism started occurring. “Being integrated into the Western international market provided access to capital for development.” (3) Enterprises and republics didn’t have to go through the federal government to get credit, and in need of credit, they negotiated “directly with international banks and financial organizations. And Western banks offered them easy credit.” (3) Easy access to western credit led to financial irresponsibility, that would prove to be disastrous later on.

When discussing nationalism prior to 1965-1972, we look at the main reactionary forces and institutions in the country. And the only organizations to discuss here would be religious institutions, the Catholic Church and Serbian Orthodox Church to be exact.

SFRY housed many religions. But three main ones were Islam, Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Islamic Community of Bosnia and Herzegovina was not nearly powerful enough to be reactionary and have any huge effect on the fall of Yugoslavia. The Serbian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, though, were immensely powerful and aggressive enough to contribute to such a collapse.

The Serbian Orthodox Church has historically been anti-communist. The magazine “Christian Thought” repeatedly reported on the “communist threat” before World War 2. In one editorial, in 1939, it read, “a concise memorandum on spiritual-political situation of the country,” “No enemy is as dangerous to the Church today as communism. There is every reason for the Church – and mostly the spirit and sense of its existence – to start a resolute struggle against communism. The struggle must begin immediately and at all costs. The entire nation can and must be mobilized.”(7)

World War 2 greatly diminished the Serbian Orthodox Church as many of its clergy was murdered, in particular by the Ustashe. After the war, the Communist Party of Yugoslavia took a more aggressive approach towards all religious institutions, removing their political role, and separating them from public life as much as possible.

The Yugoslav government supported the creation of a grassroots, bottom-up, religious organization called the UPSJ or the Association of Orthodox Priests of Yugoslavia. This association was not tied to the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) and did not include the word “Serbian” in its title. The heads of the SOC did not like the creation of this association, whose goals were “harmony, patriotism, enlightenment of the population, cooperation with authorities, and the advancement of literacy and culture in general.”(5) The associations did not follow diocese borders, and instead coincided with republic boundaries. There was a separate association for Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia. By 1952, 80% of the 1700 Serbian Orthodox priests were members of such associations. Of them, “527 were active in the Popular Front, 452 in the Red Cross, 201 worked in state agricultural enterprises, and 122 were engaged on various cooperative farms.”(5)  The Holy Synod of the SOC did not recognize the associations as legitimate, but instead of “Trojan horses” by the Yugoslav government.

In 1967, the four Orthodox dioceses that were located in Macedonia declared independence from the SOC. The Holy Synod of the SOC did not recognize the existence of the Macedonian Orthodox Church. But the UPSJ did recognize it.

The Catholic Church did not have friendly relations with SFRY, and rightfully so. The Catholic Church had an ambiguous role during WW2. It failed to openly protest the Holocaust and genocide committed by the Ustashe. Instead, many clergymen helped and participated in the Ustashe government, as well as in the concentration camps.

The official Croatian Catholic newspaper, during WW2, published, “God, who directs the destiny of nations and controls the hearts of kings, has given us Ante Pavelić and moved the leader of friendly and allied people, Adolf Hitler, to use his victorious troops to disperse our oppressors and enable us to create an Independent State of Croatia. Glory be to God, our gratitude to Adolf Hitler, and infinite loyalty to our Poglavnik, Ante Pavelić.” (8)

After the war, the Catholic Church was not supportive of the workers’ revolution or socialism. Many clergymen refused to accept that the Ustashe committed genocide and horrific atrocities. This includes Cardinal Franjo Kuharić, who said “only a handful of Serbs” were murdered by the Ustashe.(5)

The Ustashe had propagated a belief that Bosniaks were not actually an ethnic group, but simply Croats who were Muslims. The Catholic Church often maintained this position after the war. Franjo Kuharić, in 1981, stated, “my Croat brothers, both Catholic and Muslim.”(1) Catholic historian Dominik Mandić argued in 1963 that Bosniaks were “95-97 percent Croatian and thus are ‘the purest Croats’.”(5)

The Catholic Church opposed the socialist government from the beginning. The church was convinced “that the Communist régime would not last and that the best way of hastening its fall was to press it as hard as possible.”(5) Pope Pius XII, in July, 1949, “prohibited Catholics from joining Communist parties or advocating communism.”(5) He openly collaborated with fascist dictators.

Similar to how the Orthodox priests created the UPSJ, Catholic clergymen created associations, that were in effect labour unions for the lower clergy. In Slovenia, Istria, and Dalmatia, these associations started popping up in the late 40’s. By the mid-50’s, similar associations started popping up in the rest of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia. In 1950, one such association, the Good Shepherd, was created in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and was extremely popular among Franciscans. These type of associations did not take root in most of Croatia. “The associations had large followings elsewhere, however, recruiting virtually all the clergymen in Istria, four-fifths of the clergymen in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and three-fifths in Slovenia.”(5) The associations worked under the Socialist Alliance of the Working People of Yugoslavia. Their main functions were protection of the lower clergy and to maintain interfaith dialogue, especially with the Orthodox priests.

In 1950, the conference of bishops “labeled the clerical associations ‘inappropriate’.” The Vatican prohibited clergymen from joining these associations in 1952 and punished many priests. Many priests lost their status and were suspended as soon as they joined the associations. “Catholic priests and monks in Bosnia-Herzegovina, however, were under no such pressure or sanctions. Similar associations were allowed to operate freely, without ecclesiastic interdiction, in other countries.” (5)

Now we’ve come to one of the most important eras of Yugoslav history, from the passing of the market reforms in 1965 to the purge of liberals in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia in 1972. This period is marked by an increase in nationalism and reactionary behavior, accompanied with an ever decentralizing government. We’ll analyze how the period unfolded in Slovenia, Croatia, and Serbia separately.

The events in Prague in 1968 scared many Yugoslav politicians. The liberal factions called for an expansion on republic rights, including the creation of territorial defenses i.e. republic armies. In Slovenia, the new liberal leadership called for greater political pluralism, which would mean allowing openly non-communists in the SSRNJ and LCY. “Slovene partisan ‘liberalism’ insisted on greater autonomy for Slovenia in the federation, which would include the right to create direct international relations, and economically, the ability to directly take out foreign loans.” (1) Liberals also wanted to create new policies for the JNA. In the JNA, people served their compulsory service in another republic, never their own, in ethnically mixed units. Liberals wanted people to serve in their own republics, and if not that, then in ethnically homogenous units.

Liberalism in Slovenia is directly tied in orientalism. Slovene liberals wished to mimic the West as much as possible. Even to this day, the Balkans are looked down upon by many Slovenes, who try so hard to fit in the West. “Under the liberal concept, Slovenia would become the bridge between eastern and western countries, while it would economically mimic, before anything, the West.” (1) Slovene liberalism began to basically propose Nordic socialism or social democracy. “The economy would act according to market rules, while socialism would be secured socially.”(1) But that’s not how socialism works. Nordic socialism isn’t socialism at all, it’s just capitalism with a few social programmes like free healthcare.

The leading liberal in Slovenia was Stane Kavcic. Under Kavcic, liberal reforms created and exacerbated social differences, creating a petit-bourgeois middle class that was quickly outgrowing both the working and agricultural classes. “The reforms were also characterised by a rise in individualism.” (1) Television also became popular then. It was extremely politically influential and Kavcic made sure that the director was chosen by the Slovene government and not by the SSRN, where the director would’ve been chosen by the workers.

Kavcic’s policies were also popular among the Slovene political diaspora. He was supported by Ciril Zebot, a lecturer at Georgetown University and adviser to many American congressmen of Slovenian descent. “In Kavcic’s policies, he saw the possibility of creating as much autonomy for Slovenia as possible […] and the gradual introduction of a multi-party system along with the revival of the Slovene People’s Party [a conservative Slovene party in the 19th and 20th centuries].” (1) Zebot and Kavcic weren’t in direct contact but in 1968, Kavcic, directly or indirectly, allowed him to visit Slovenia.

During the liberal period, Slovenia began to become economically closer to its Western neighbours such as Austria and Italy. Kavcic saw Yugoslavia, just like other liberals, as restrictive of Slovene liberalism. He also saw Yugoslavia as simply a community to be used for its benefits. He sought to “exploit the privileges that she [Yugoslavia] offers and minimize what Slovenia would give to the Federation.” (1)

In 1968, SR Serbia gained a liberal leadership under Marko Nikezic and Latinka Perovic. While they adopted a policy of non-interference in the other republics, which is great, they approved the use of deadly force by local police to suppress Albanian riots at the time. These riots were happening since the Albanian population wanted to become a republic, instead of a province in Serbia. The liberal Serbian party rejected the notion. “The Serbian liberals wanted to see the development of a market economy.”(4) This is despite all of the negative effects the market reforms had.

The inability of the liberal leadership to combat nationalism led to a sharp rise in Serbian nationalism, particularly in Croatia, Kosovo, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, often instigated by the Serbian Orthodox Church.

One such case was when Patriarch German stated in 1970 that Montenegrins were simply “Serbs of a different name.” (5) Prosvjeta, the Serbian cultural society in Croatia, around 1969, became a stronghold for Serbian nationalists and a forum for former Chetniks. They demanded an autonomous province for Serbs in Croatia and the establishment of a separate network of special Serbian schools. Those further to the right even propagated the idea of secession from SR Croatia and integration into SR Serbia.

Inter-ethnic tensions between Serbs and other ethnic groups were being created and the Serbian liberals allowed it to happen, in the name of political pluralism. Now, Nikezic and Perovic were staunchly anti-nationalist, but liberal ideals such as supposed freedom of speech only translates into creating breeding grounds for nationalism. Which it did.

The liberal period in Croatia, known as the Croatian Spring, was marked by an increase in nationalism and calls for independence as well as economic decentralization. After liberals, including those from Croatia, passed the market reforms, they found it to be disappointing. Croats in particular noticed that the economic liberalization backfired and allowed Belgrade banks to monopolize foreign credit. As Croats started criticising the new developments, cultural societies and newspapers in Croatia, notable breeding grounds for liberals and nationalists, took the chance to fear-monger and in some cases be outright fascist.

In 1954, Matica hrvatska and Matica srpska signed the Novi Sad agreement, creating a Serbo-Croatian standard. Nevertheless, Matica hrvatska and other Croatians signed the “Declaration concerning the Characterization and Status of the Croatian Literary Language” in 1967. The entire declaration “had an overtly anti-Serbian tone.” (4)

In the Croatian party, conflict was ensuing between the conservative and liberal factions. In 1969, the liberal faction under Miko Tripalo and Savka Dabcevic-Kucar won the upper hand and from then on the leadership “drew steadily closer to the ideology of Matica hrvatska and the nationalists.” (4)

Croats began reviving heroes from the past. Stjepan Radic, founder of the Croatian Peasant Party, became popular overnight. Monuments and statues to him began being put up all across Croatia. “Šibenik, swept along by the euphoria, cancelled plans to erect a monument to the victims of fascism and decided to construct instead a statue of the Croatian king, Petar Krešimir IV.” (4) The Croatian liberals, namely Miko Tripalo, did nothing about this and instead he said, “I think nationalism is our for only when it develops into chauvinism.” (4)

Croatian nationalism kept growing, characterised by the membership in Matica hrvatska increasing to almost 18 times its level in November 1970 just a year later. Petar Šegedin, in an article for Matica hrvatska, said that “Croatian policy must be predicated on self-interest and not on the interests of Yugoslavia as a whole.” (4)

Hrvatski tjednik released a report, accusing the LC BiH of discriminating against Croats, something Hamdija Pozderac rejected. The under-representation of Croats in Bosnian politics was exploited by Croatian nationalists. By the summer of 1971, Matica hrvatska began calling for the enlargement of Croatian territory at the expense of Herzegovina and Montenegro. It also began to mobilize ethnic Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Vojvodina. Matica hrvatska began to expand into Bosnia and Herzegovina and Vojvodina. As Croatian liberals called for more economic liberalization, Matica hrvatska pushed the government further to the right. Miko Tripalo openly identified with this nationalist movement. The Catholic Church, in all this mess, actively sought to create a connection between Croat ethnicity and Catholicism. The Croatian Spring, which the Catholic Church supported, transformed the Church “into an important national Croat institution and the symbol of the ‘suffering’ Croatian people.”(5) Ultimately, Matica hrvatska and its supporters started calling for Croatian independence.

By 1972, Tripalo and the rest of the Croatian liberals were removed from office. Tito initiated some reforms as to appease the majority of the base of the liberals and nationalists, to not cause another outbreak, bringing us to the period between 1972 and 1987.

Sources (most of these sources are liberal, but offer a good overview):


2)   file:///C:/Users/User/Downloads/di57_05luksic.pdf




6)   The 1982 Appeal:


8)   Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia – Richard, West