A Call For Complexity
Ethnic Conflict and the Yugoslav Wars
“As a child, I was not aware of why the war was happening,” college freshman Rrap Kryeziu explains. “I remember the war sirens frequently interrupting outdoor games and having to run inside quickly….soon, friends from the neighborhood began to vanish without warning or explanation and soon thereafter we too abandoned our home.” Kryeziu lived in Prishtina, Kosovo, one of the flashpoints of the Yugoslav Wars. His memories are hazy from the sheen of childhood, but punctuated with sudden sharpness from the sheer horror of what he witnessed. He remembers leaving his town on a train and he remembers Serb soldiers taunting the passengers on the train with butterfly knives. But, as he tells it, “I will never forget the smell of that day….my mother often covered my eyes during the ride, but she forgot to cover my nose. It was the smell of burning human flesh. Kosovo was on fire. The ethnic cleansing had begun.”1
The Yugoslav Wars remain one of the most poignant examples of ethnic violence. Across the media these wars were represented as the very crux of savagery and of human cruelty. The case of Yugoslavia is often presented as a perfect example of how ethnic conflict is inevitable and is based on ancient hatreds.2 However, if that is the case, how is it possible that some multi-ethnic countries, such as Czechoslovakia, break up non-violently? What causes violence in the break up of multi-ethnic countries? This paper attempts to move beyond boiling pot explanations of ethnic violence. Instead, this paper argues that violence occurs in the breakup of multi-ethnic countries when institutions weaken in such a way as to increase inequality and when a nationalist zeitgeist it present. A review of the literature and an examination of the break up of Yugoslavia as a case study support this explanation.
Review of the Literature
There are three main schools of thought, revealed through the literature, on ethnic identity and ethnic conflict. The first is the primordialist viewpoint. Primordialists hold that ethnic identity is a set and fixed part of identity. All conflicts that result from emphasis on that aspect of identity are also set and fixed.1 A primordialist would believe that, for example, the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict exists because Jews and Arabs have never gotten along and the identity and conflict is now so entrenched on both sides it can never be undone. Because of these assumptions, primordialists tend to favor policies around ethnic conflict that focus on containment, such as Lebanon’s electoral policy 2, over those focused on change, such as the United States teach-ins in Afghanistan.3 Primordialist theories of ethnic conflict are often referred to as “boiling pot” theories.
In addition to the primordialist view on ethnic identity, there are the instrumentalist and constructivist schools. Instrumentalists believe that ethnic identity is constructed, but that it must be constructed by someone else.4 Elites manipulate the masses into caring about ethnicity as a form of identity. Community leaders use “their cultural groups as sites of mass mobilization and as constituencies in their competition for power and resources, because they found them more effective than social classes”.5 However, it is important to note that elite manipulation does not require a sense of purpose. Elites can as easily manipulate through incompetence as through agency. The final school of thought on ethnic conflict is the constructivist viewpoint. Constructivists hold that ethnic identity is most like an article of clothing. Ethnicity can be identified with and abandoned at will—in the same way one can take on and off a coat. In addition, overlapping identities can occur—in the same way one can wear both a coat and a scarf.6 Because of this supposition, constructivists tend to believe that ethnic conflict occurs when it is convenient for people, as is the case with competition over scarce resources.
A final point on inequality needs to be added to these three main schools of thought. Research on new means of ethnic conflict management in Africa, specifically through comparative studies, has come to the conclusion that “conflict in Africa is synonymous with inequality. Wherever such inequality manifests itself among groups, conflict is inevitable.”7 This research is not the equivalent of another school of thought on ethnic identity and ethnic conflict because it focuses solely on what causes ethnic conflict. This emphasis is different than the three schools of thought because researchers do not provide an explanation of why ethnic identity occurs and then draw conflict causation from that definition. Instead research on inequality centered conflicts simply holds ethnicity to be “a community of people who share cultural and linguistic characteristics including history, tradition, myth, and origin”8 and then provides that conflict occurs when inequality is present.
Although Yugoslavia is considered a prime example of boiling pot ethnic conflict, theories that account for the violence fall into all three schools of thought. George Kennan and Samuel Huntington advanced the primary primordialist theories concerning the Yugoslavian conflicts. George Kennan was an American diplomat, historian, and political scientist, best known as the “father of containment”. He believed that the violence of the Yugoslav wars “drew on deeper traits of character inherited, presumably, from a distant tribal past: a tendency to view the outsider, generally, with dark suspicion, and to see the political-military opponent, in particular, as a fearful and implacable enemy to be rendered harmless only by total and unpitying destruction.”9 This view of the Yugoslavian conflicts as tribal, primordial, and inevitable was echoed across the media and remains the most common explanation for the conflict.10
Samuel Huntington’s book The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Orderis considered a seminal work on post-Cold War politics and offers a more nuanced example of a boiling pot theory. Huntington defines civilization as a concept of culture and ethnicity. In the post Cold War world these civilizations are destined to clash. Yugoslavia was a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural country. According to Huntington, because of this makeup, Yugoslavia’s horrific and bloody breakup is an example of a “fault line conflict”. A fault line conflict is any conflict, usually violent, which occurs within a state that is home to populations from different civilizations.11 Both of these styles of primordialist theories have been criticized as ahistorical and Orientalist.12
These criticisms led to theories developed within the instrumentalist school. Denison Rusinow is a primary proponent of these elite manipulation theories, saying that Yugoslavia’s disintegration and violence became inevitable “because the calculations and/or ineptitude of post-Tito politicians from several regions and nations…transformed endemic tensions and conflicts among its diverse nationalities into collective existential fears for their communal survival that progressively infected them all.”13 Yugoslavia would have been able to peacefully transform, as other eastern European states did after the fall of communism, if it were not for the “industry of hate” developed by leaders.14 The main problem with elite manipulation theories is that they ignore the grassroots aspects of the conflict. As Rogers Brubaker points out, stories about the “murderous wartime independent state of Croatia….were not imports. They were locally rooted, sustained within family and village circles and transmitted to postwar generations especially in ethnically mixed regions”.15 The stories were passed down, some part of the hate was home grown. Active participants committed the atrocities rendered and, as Brubaker argues, simply putting the blame on elite manipulation leads to less culpability for those truly responsible.
In terms of the Yugoslavian conflict, constructivist theories blame the violence on institutional weakness. When institutions do not provide a strong enough system so as to guarantee basic necessities, people begin to identify ethnically. In the 1980’s, Yugoslavia’s constitutional system and economic system began to break down. The constitutional system broke down, in large part, because of constitutional reforms enacted after Tito’s death. Tito’s former position of President-for-life was broken into a six part Presidency where executive decisions were made via representatives from all six republics.16 In addition, constitutional reforms added increasingly complex systems of representation through local labor and political organizations17 to address growing concerns about Yugoslavia’s lack of democracy. However, overall these federalist reforms, designed to ensure greater representation, did the exact opposite. The system created was confusing, ineffective, and broken.18
In addition to institutional breakdowns centered around constitutional reforms, Yugoslavia also suffered economic breakdowns. As a socialist country, Yugoslavia experienced the same poor economic fate of many socialist countries—low efficiency, lack of technological dynamism, and low adaptability.19 The constitutional changes enacted after Tito’s death did not allow for these basic problems to be effectively dealt with.20 There was no co-ordination of economic policy, which further entrenched any and all economic problems Yugoslavia experienced. Because of these systemic failures, Yugoslavia experienced severe GDP drop and a recession in the 1990s. Constructivist theorists hold that Yugoslavian institutional breakdowns created a world where it was convenient for former Yugoslavians to allow nationalism to take hold and begin identifying ethnically.
The problem with these institutional breakdown theories is the failure to address the role inequality plays in ethnic conflict. Institutions break down—without institutional breakdown, institutions would simply never be able to change. The difference between violent breakups of multi-ethnic countries and non-violent breakups of multi-ethnic countries is not that institutions stopped functioning in one and continued to function in the other. Examples like the Velvet Revolution, the break up of the Soviet Union, and the 17th century breakup of the Bolivar Republic show this dichotomy is not so. Instead, the difference between violent and non-violent breakups lies in what happens when institutions break down.
Inequality is permanently and irrevocably linked with violence. Ted Robert Gurr found several positive correlations between political and economic deprivation in cities and instances of high-magnitude political violence involving small groups of individuals—ie political assassinations and terrorism. In addition, these same correlations existed between large scale revolts, such as riots and large-scale revolts.21 Ekkert Zimmerman concluded that overall studies, such as Gurr’s, on the relationship between socioeconomic inequality and violent protest “suggest a linear positive relationship between socioeconomic inequality and political violence.”22 In addition, findings from the 1994 CIA enacted “State Failure Taskforce” showed both discrimination, defined as ruling elite represents only some ethnics, and exclusionary ideology, understood as elites committed to an exclusionary ideology, as indicators of genocide and politicide.23
Socioeconomic inequality, discrimination, and exclusionary ideology all increased in Yugoslavia as a result of institutional breakdown. Significant social inequalities, measured by “analysis of coefficients of variation for the aggregate measure and individual elements of social well-being” existed in Central and Eastern European countries and were, in fact, reduced during the socialist period.24 However, research specifically on health inequalities in Yugoslavia suggest that when Yugoslav society passes through severe economic crisis, as it did after Tito’s death, health inequalities increase. In addition, “the marked inequalities exist regionally, among republics and provinces, in spite of the reallocation of resource.”25 Socioeconomic inequality existed on a regional fault line which, in Yugoslavia, was the near equivalent of existing on an ethnic fault line. Economic crisis caused the disparities to increase further and constitutional reforms to increase regional representation exacerbated the problem.
Discrimination and exclusionary ideology also increased due to institutional failure. The strongest evidence of this increase is the Memorandum. Some scholars see the Memorandum as a “blueprint for war” and the intellectual foundation of a “Greater Serbia” policy.26 However, others argue that the Memorandum simply called for a Serbian independent state.27 The point, however, is simply that either interpretation of the evidence points to the existence of discrimination and exclusionary ideology. Primordialist theories move no further than this step—discrimination exists, therefore conflict is inevitable. However, it is incredibly important to note that as governmental paralysis increased with constitutional reforms, so did this ideology. The Memorandum was released after Tito’s death, when Serbians no longer felt represented in the Republic. Nationalism increased only as the feeling of actual representation decreased.28 What had been a smoothly functioning, if repressive, autocratic machine turned into a messy, unstable system where power was consistently fought over on ethnic lines because ethnic lines corresponded with regional lines.
The case of the modern United States, however, adds an interesting layer to this discussion. In the United States, institutions have weakened and in doing so have increased inequality in the US exponentially. The top 10% of households in the US controlled 68.2 percent of the total wealth in 1983 and 73.1% of the total wealth in 2007.29 In addition, racial inequality persists in the housing and job sectors and is increasing in rates of incarceration and the achievement gap.30 However, this inequality has not resulted in increased ethnic conflict on a scale such as that of Yugoslavia. The best explanation for this difference is that no nationalist zeitgeist exists at present. From the 1950’s to Yugoslavia’s disintegration nationalist zeitgeist was increasing across Europe.31 Nationalist zeitgeist is necessary for violent break-ups of multi-ethnic countries because it functions as a call to action. Inequality will continue to permeate across countries with institutional failure unless this call to action is present.
Academic papers do not usually begin with poignant stories from those involved in whatever the paper is discussing. But, when it came to a case study on the Yugoslav wars—I simply could not resist. This paper set out to complicate boiling pot theories of ethnic conflict. Yugoslavia was an exemplary case for doing so because, as stories like Rrap Kryeziu’s remind us, the people involved in the Yugoslav wars are real people. They are 21st century students, teachers, plumbers, mothers, and fathers. Explanations like Samuel Huntington’s and George Kennan’s, which focus on ancient tribes, clashing civilizations and the inevitability of conflicts, do these people a disservice. These theories presuppose that people will be cruel without truly looking into the causes behind the cruelty. Yugoslavia is traditionally pointed to as a prime example of boiling pot ethnic conflict—this paper shows that the case, and the people, are much more complicated than that.
1. Rrap Kryeziu, “Kosowar,” in The Crest (Oak Park: Oak Park and River Forest High School, 2012), 48.
2. Jasna Dragovic-Soso, “Why did Yugoslavia Disintegrate?” in State collapse in South-Eastern Europe: new perspectives on Yugoslavia’s disintegration, (West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 2008), 3.
Scholarly Debate and Case Study
1. Sandra Fullerton, Joireman, “Primordialism”, in Nationalism and Political Identity, (Cornwall: MPG Books Ltd, 2003), 20.
2.Aldrich, John H., et al,”Foreign Policy And The Electoral Connection,” Annual Review of Political Science 9, no. 1 (2006): 477-502.
3.Easterly, William Russell, Can institutions resolve ethnic conflict?. Washington, D.C.: World Bank, Development Research Group, Macroeconomics and Growth, 2000.
4. Cornell, Stephen E., and Douglas Hartmann, Ethnicity and race: making identities in a changing world, (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Pine Forge Press, 1998), 59.
5. Smith, Anthony D.. Nationalism: theory, ideology, history. (Malden, Mass.: Polity Press, 2001)
6. Toft, Monica Duffy. The geography of ethnic violence: identity, interests, and the indivisibility of territory. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003.
7. Irobi, Emily. “Ethnic Conflict Management in Africa: A Comparative Case Study of Nigeria and South Africa.” Beyond Intractability. http://www.beyondintractability.org/casestudy/irobi-ethnic (accessed April 29, 2013).
8. “Ethnic Conflict Management in Africa: A Comparative Case Study of Nigeria and South Africa.”
9. Kennan, George F.. The other Balkan wars: a 1913 Carnegie Endowment inquiry in retrospect. (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace :, 1993), 11.
10. Dragovic-Soso, 13.
11. Huntington, Samuel P.. The clash of civilizations and the remaking of world order. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 20.
12. Dragovic-Soso, 22.
13. Ramet, Sabrina P., and Ljubiša S. Adamović. “The Avoidable Catastrophe.” In Beyond Yugoslavia: politics, economics, and culture in a shattered community. Boulder: Westview Press, 1995. 57-68.
14. Dragovic –Soso, 30.
15. Brubaker, Rogers. Nationalism reframed: nationhood and the national question in the New Europem (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 72
16. Graham, James. “The Violent Breakup of Yugoslavia.” History Orb. www.historyorb.com/europe/yugoslavia (accessed April 29, 2013).
18. Freund, Paul A.. “Umpiring the Federal System.” Columbia Law Review 54, no. 4 (1954): 561-578.
21. Gurr, Ted Robert. “Model building and a test of Theory,” in When Men Revolt and Why: A Reader in Political Violence and Revolution, ed. James Chowning Davies. New York: The Free Press, 1971, pp. 293-313.
22. Zimmermann, Ekkert. “Macro-Comparative Research on Political Protest,” in Handbook of Political Conflict: Theory and Research. Ted Robert Gurr, ed. New York: The Free Press, 1980, pp. 167-237.
23. Harff, Barbara. “Could Humanitarian Crises Have Been Anticipated?” in Journey through Conflict: Narratives and Lessons. Howard R. Alker, Ted Robert Gurr, and Kumar Rupesinghe, eds. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001, pp. 81-102.
25. Miroslav Mastilica Department of Medical Sociology, Andrija ⌣Stampar School of Public Health, Medical School, University of Zagreb, 41000 Zagreb, Yugoslavia
26. Philip J Cohen “the complicity of Serbian intellectuals in the genocide of the 1990s”
27. Dragovic-Soso, 32.
28. Bogdan Denitch