The Seeds of Yugoslavia's Downfall

Historian outlines how she believes Milosevic engineered the break-up of the Balkan federation.

The Seeds of Yugoslavia's Downfall

Historian outlines how she believes Milosevic engineered the break-up of the Balkan federation.

Slobodan Milosevic set the stage for the break-up of Yugoslavia’s in the late 1980s by undermining the federal structure upon which the country was built, a historian acting as an expert witness told the court last week.

Dr Audrey Budding of Harvard University’s Academy for International and Area Studies, testifying in the Milosevic trial, said the Yugoslav government had been built on the notion of consensus in which no important decision could be taken on the federal level without the agreement of the country’s various republics.

But as Milosevic began his rise to power, he jettisoned this understanding and began to take decisions that served only the Serbs’ interests, flagrantly disregarding the protests of Yugoslavia’s other nationalities.

By early 1991, as the political crisis evolved into a war, Milosevic would accept only territorial solution to Yugoslavia's complex problems, Budding said.

The prosecution initially called on Budding to be an expert witness in the hope that she would provide the historical context and help the trial chamber understand the circumstances in which Milosevic initiated his deadly reign over Yugoslavia.

It subsequently tried to strike Budding from the list of appearances because it is working under severe time constraints and has had to limit the number of witnesses it would like to question.

The trial chamber, however, apparently wanted more historical context and specifically asked the prosecution to question Budding.

In her testimony, she said that one of the crucial moments in the Yugoslav crisis was June 1990 when the then Serbian president first mentioned the possibility of changes to internal Yugoslav borders in case the country fell apart.

"Reaction outside Serbia was consternation, because people were aware to what the extent the population was mixed," she said.

Milosevic’s ideas, however, struck a chord with Serbian nationalists who believed that Yugoslavia was only a logical extension of the pre-First World War Serbian state.

Budding explained that in stirring up his nationalist fervor, he was in fact drawing on Serbian opposition to constitutional changes in the early Seventies which made Yugoslav republics sovereign states in all but name.

Those changes, which took place in 1974, gave a great degree of autonomy to Vojvodina and Kosovo - regions that had large non-Serb populations but that many Serbs perceived as their land.

Essential to his rise, Budding said, was Milosevic’s ability to tap into popular sentiment about the plight of Kosovo Serbs who were seen as victims of Alabanian persecution. At the time, some Serbian intellectuals were claiming that the Albanians were committing genocide against the Serb population in Kosovo.

In 1989, Milosevic orchestrated a string of "Meetings of Truth" which helped oust the provincial and republican leaderships in Vojvodina and Montenegro.

"Popular support was used in order to overthrow leaderships of other republics," Budding said.

With virtually all opposition out of the way, Milosevic then returned to Kosovo and, in early 1990, the Serbian constitution was amended to markedly reduce Kosovo’s autonomy.

Milosevic differed sharply from previous Serb leaders who prized multi-ethnic Yugoslavia. His ideas were very much in keeping with the thinking of Serbian elite at the time. In 1986, the witness said, the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences issued an infamous memorandum stating that Yugoslavia was untenable and that Serbia needed to look after its own interests. And there’s no question that the memorandum enabled him to continue his political ascent.

Budding said that Milosevic subsequently showed that he was willing to push for the "conception of a Yugoslavia that would suit Serbian interests even at the cost of alienating others".

When Milosevic reasserted Serbian control over Kosovo and Vojvodina, and helped install a friendly government in Montenegro, he never took into account that it would change balance of power in the complex federal structure of Yugoslavia and prompt other republics into action.

"Kosovo and Vojvodina had their representatives in federal institutions and the change in their status was impossible without change in the balance on the federal level," Budding said.

From that point on, she said, Serbia and Montenegro in effect controlled four votes in the Yugoslav presidency.

With the provinces under firm control, Milosevic turned his attention towards the position of Serbs in other Yugoslav republics, pledging that it "would maintain connections" with them "to guard their national and cultural-historical identity".

In the face of the looming disintegration of the federation, and the possibility of an independent Serbia, this translated into changing borders within what was Yugoslavia.

Movements for independence in Croatia and Slovenia already existed at the beginning of Nineties, but Milosevic's rhetoric and actions, which changed the dynamics of Yugoslav crisis, helped bring them to the fore.

By August 1990, the insensitivity of the new Croatian government to its Serb minority and the latter’s fear of a repetition of the mass murder of members of their community by the Nazi-backed Ustasha fascist movement 50 years earlier helped Milosevic win over the Knin Serbs.

The presidents of six Yugoslav republics tried to solve the political impasse through a series of meetings, as war in Croatia was flaring up. At one of those gatherings, held in late March 1991 in Croatia, Milosevic suggested that "Yugoslavia's dissolution was possible only on the basis of self-determination" and that it had to be carried out through national referenda.

"The basic characteristic of this proposition was that it was not feasible in the Yugoslav context and it was impossible to imagine how it would be done," Budding said.

Milosevic, however, continued to refuse "minority" status for the Serbs outside Serbia and the guarantees that other presidents offered.

Milosevic did not challenge Budding’s assertions. He chose instead to tell the court about the historical injustices against the Serbs, apparently believing that they justified his actions.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia
Support our journalists