164. Nationalism, The Kosovo Crisis, and Political Change In Serbia

By
Lenard J. Cohen

The mass-based, extreme brand of nationalism, connected with the rise of Slobodan MiloŠevic and with the most cataclysmic years of Yugoslavia's meltdown and disintegration (1990-93), has to a large extent dissipated. However, political forces advancing extreme nationalist sentiments, as well as popular support for those views, remain strong in Serbia and among Serbs in other areas such as Kosovo and the Republika Srpska (as we have just seen from the electoral results in Bosnia). Although intellectual ideologists of Serbian nationalism and ultra-nationalism have been dispirited by MiloŠevic's failures, fundamental views about Serbia's national and territorial interests persist, related to feelings of "wounded national pride." Talk of pursuing a "Greater Serbia" and open revanchism are now rather less visible, as soul-searching occurs about recent Serb experiences in the Balkans. There is still, however, a strong commitment in various circles to the pursuit of Serbian national interests, as well as resentment about what has occurred over the last decade.

Several factors help explain why strong nationalistic and ultra-nationalistic views continue to enjoy such weight in the Serbian body politic. One is the residual strength of such sentiments in Serbian political culture, in collective national goals that are rooted in myth and feelings of collective trauma or victimization. These beliefs in Serbia have historically enjoyed more support than those emphasizing individual civic liberties. Moreover, throughout the 1990s, collective ethnic sentiments have been reinforced by the state media.

Another factor reinforcing Serbian nationalism is the current socio-political situation. It has developed from the outside world's "Satanization" of Serbia, the sanctions against Yugoslavia, the economic impoverishment, and the relative isolation of Serbia over the last decade.

This political culture and situational context have helped perpetuate or exacerbate xenophobia in Serbian society as well as authoritarian attitudes (also rooted in Serbian political culture). They are important elements in today's brand of Serbian nationalism and ultra-nationalism.

The Kosovo crisis, or the Serb-Albanian war in Kosovo, has also significantly intensified ultra-nationalism and xenophobic attitudes. Anti-Albanian sentiments have long been strong among Serbs, but the latest crisis has hardened those feelings. How this war is ultimately resolved will be crucial to determining the future intensity of Serbian nationalism and ultra-nationalism. If Kosovo is forcibly detached from Yugoslavia through international military intervention and the formation of an international protectorate, or through a military victory by the Kosovo Liberation Army, one may see a noticeable surge in Serb support for hard-line nationalism. In contrast, a Chechen-type postponement solution, where Kosovo is associated within a reconfigured Yugoslav federation, would diminish ultra-nationalism's appeal.

One of the leading proponents of nationalism is Vojislav šeŠelj, head of the Serbian Radical Party and Deputy Premier in the Serbian government. In the Serbian elections of September and October 1997, šeŠelj and his Radicals enjoyed a dramatic surge in support. Only low voter turnout (less than 50 percent) prevented šeŠelj's election as president of Serbia.

What was, and is, responsible for the šeŠelj phenomenon? Briefly, many Serbs turned to the Radicals because of their feelings of wounded national pride and humiliation from Serbia's indirect defeat in Croatia and in Bosnia. šeŠelj also benefited from popular disillusionment with MiloŠevic and his cronies, who are perceived as not only the architects of Serbia's humiliation and defeat but responsible for Serbia's economic collapse and impoverishment, caused in large part by the international sanctions.

Although Serbia did not technically participate in the recent Balkan wars, many of šeŠelj's Radical activists wear their experience as a badge of honor and are viewed as patriots. Serbia's failures in those wars may have weakened somewhat the appeal of hard-line nationalism generated by MiloŠevic and the media, but it also stimulated a popular desire to punishing the regime for its failures. Many voters saw šeŠelj as a less-tainted nationalist, who promised revenge and who would not compromise on international dictates. The Radicals promised economic improvement from neo-liberal policies and privatization, a new radical package à la Jean Le Pen, different from the program of inter-war, twentieth-century fascism.

To some extent, šeŠelj's success at the ballot box was an anti-MiloŠevic protest vote, a plebiscite on the regime that went against the regime. It was enhanced by popular disillusionment with the failure of the democratic opposition parties; their failure to cooperate effectively; and particularly the spectacle of infighting that destroyed the Zajedno alliance.

In addition, šeŠelj, although personally abhorrent to most moderate Yugoslavs and most observers in the West, has appeal as a political figure in Serbia. For many, he is regarded as a courageous, consistent, and uncorrupted anti-communist and Serb patriot. Indeed, šeŠelj's longevity and recent success in Serbian politics is a result of more than superficial enthusiasm for his public antics, demagogic style, or the fascist-like facets of his program. šeŠelj has sought to portray himself as an honest nationalist, the law and order candidate, who could bring an end to the corruption, violence, and moral collapse that have been endemic in Serbian society. He portrays his party as sympathetic to those who desperately need social welfare and have been skidding down the social scale.

Over the years, MiloŠevic has used and abused šeŠelj, treating him as an ally, jettisoning him, imprisoning him, freeing him, co-opting him. In early 1998, MiloŠevic, perceiving clearly šeŠelj's growing strength and his regime's diminishing legitimacy, decided to co-opt šeŠelj into the nationalist left-wing alliance running the Serbian government. MiloŠevic was undoubtedly preparing for his current round of Kosovo initiatives and wanted šeŠelj under the tent. This has changed šeŠelj's position and role, both strengthening him and weakening him. For example, the Radicals now have real access to power and real formal authority. They have been placing their supporters in the administration and taking policy initiatives, such as the move to re-politicize the universities. Some insiders say the Radicals have also been quietly gathering evidence of corruption and abuse of power by their allies in the ruling coalition, in order to use such material at the right moment. But many Radicals were upset by their party's direct involvement with the regime, and preferred that šeŠelj remain anti-leftist, anti-communist, and anti-establishment.

šeŠelj's recent alliance with MiloŠevic has been a win-win situation for the Radical leader. If he stays in the government, he shares power; if MiloŠevic throws him out and brings in Vuk Draskovic and the Serbian Democratic Party as a replacement, šeŠelj can attack the regime. Or šeŠelj can quit before he is pushed out, and then attack the regime, screaming sell-out over Kosovo. Or if MiloŠevic falls, šeŠelj, whether in or out of government, can inherit the mantle of Serbian nationalism and power.

MiloŠevic is a brilliant tactician with a finely-tuned capacity for shuffling and disposing of loyal allies and former personnel. But today, šeŠelj cannot be manipulated quite as easily as earlier. The Radicals have a solid and sizeable constituency and, depending on how the Kosovo crisis unfolds, a potentially crucial constituency in Serbian public opinion. Of course, MiloŠevic has good reason to get rid of šeŠelj, not the least of which is the opposition to šeŠelj within the moderate ranks of the Socialist Party or among many of the real anti-nationalist leftists in Mira Markovic's United Yugoslav Left. Expelling šeŠelj would be in line with MiloŠevic's standard tactics of destroying and immobilizing rivals and opponents. But šeŠelj has survived quite a long time, and cannot easily be counted out (any more than MiloŠevic can), even if the Radicals are temporarily marginalized again and forced onto the opposition benches. In view of the boiling Kosovo issue and the dire economic situation in the country, the fuel for ethno-nationalist populism remains considerable.

But although the sources and forces of Serbian extreme nationalism still have considerable strength, this in no way implies that a full-blown, extreme, classical fascist-like takeover of Serbia is inevitable. For one thing, there are many moderate and liberal forces operating in Yugoslavia, in particular the promising Djukanovic phenomenon in Montenegro. Indeed, Milo Djukanovic's refusal to cooperate with his arch-enemy, federal prime minister Momir Bulatovic, has already immobilized the federal government. MiloŠevic has been very careful not to let the Djukanovic opposition spread to Serbia, to his ruling elite (although political reformist elements in the Serbian Socialist Party are certainly present). However, should šeŠelj gain power in Belgrade, Montenegro would certainly leave the federation.

The growth of various other pluralist building blocks in Yugoslavia has not been inconsequential. New and potentially significant organizations have arisen outside the direct control of the regime: an association linking independent media outlets; a cooperative league of those municipalities controlled by the democratic opposition parties; an NGO coordinating council; independent student organizations; and more student activism in political parties. These newer components of Serbian civil society joined existing organizations for anti-war activity, the protection of human rights, the women's movement, etc., established in the decade prior to the 1996-97 civic protests. All of these are obstacles to the political success of ultra-nationalism and fascism.

But the moderate forces are still not a determinative factor in Serbian political development. Regrettably, the self-guided boycott by the Albanians of Yugoslav political life and the failure of Serb democrats and Serb democratic nationalists to link up with similar forces in the Kosovo Albanian community, have helped MiloŠevic to maintain his rule. Even among Serbs there has been a failure of the few non-nationalist democrats to find common ground with democratic nationalists in a coherent opposition movement.

The most vexing problem in Serbian political life is the inability of the moderate and liberal opposition parties to forge a stable coalition, or for one party or one leader to break out of the pack with an attractive, reformist, non-nationalistic program (or an appealing counter-ideology). The new Alliance for Change-- six-party coalition--has an ambitious program hoping to reunite the democratic opposition forces, but the alliance is still untested. Any election in the near future would certainly be won by the regime parties. Indeed, the majority of Serb voters on both side of the Drina remain loyal to nationalist forces, whether of the soft or hard variety.

Dr. Cohen spoke at an EES noon discussion on October 1, 1998.

Experts & Staff

  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
  • Emily R. Buss // Program Assistant