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August 1990

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YUGOSLAVIA:
A House Much Divided,
continued

Yugoslavia, under President Tito, embarked on perestroika and glasnost long before anyone outside the U.S.S.R. had heard of Mikhail Gorbachev. Breaking free from Stalin’s Eastern bloc in 1948, Yugoslavia became the most progressive communist country. Now it is struggling.

For decades the West supported Yugoslavia as a bulwark against Soviet expansion. Easy credit fueled the economy. Yugoslavs had plenty of money for holidays. Their country was a model for nonaligned nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Today Yugoslavs spend 80 percent of their wages—which average $212 a month—on food and household expenses. Their standard of living has sunk to the level of the mid-1960s. Unemployment nears 20 percent. The government is saddled with a foreign debt of 16 billion dollars. Leaders fret over low productivity while offices slam shut at 2 p.m. You learn to recognize the sound, the drowsy hum of a whole country shutting down.

Students say they have no future.

Each ethnic group blames Yugoslavia’s problems on another group, and they coddle their right to hate as if it were the primordial gift of fire. The Yugoslav ideal—that historically contentious peoples, including non-Slavs, could band together peaceably after centuries of bloodshed—has become lost in a blinding sandstorm of nationalism.

After more than 40 years in which Yugoslavs managed to subordinate their tribal passions, a former bank president stepped forward to tap those passions and put them to his own use. Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, has gone from obscurity to dictatorship, purging party and press along the way, on the strength of one issue—persecution of Serbs in Kosovo.

Belgrade shopwindows feature portraits of Milosevic. His jowly visage glares from displays of television sets and women’s shoes. Milosevic professes to disdain his personality cult—popularity based not on improved living standards, health care, or education but on hammering Albanians and threatening to colonize Kosovo with hundreds of thousands of Serbian settlers.

In Yugoslavia, with its powerful oral tradition, it isn’t the truth that’s operative, it’s what people think is the truth. In Belgrade, with its rigidly controlled press and no one to tell them that Albanians are not raping Serbian women every week, people believe the most gruesome accounts. Consequently, the Serbian-controlled militia wreaks vengeance in Kosovo, as if acting out a time-honored Balkan vendetta.

Kenneth Anderson is an investigator with the Helsinki Watch Committee, a human-rights organization that monitors compliance with the 1975 Helsinki accords. His recent report describes the situation in Kosovo as “a frightening example of the power of a one-party dictatorship, the full weight of a police state controlled by one ethnic minority unleashed against another....”

As the tragedy of Kosovo unfolds, other republics watch uneasily; the Slovenes and Croats say that Serbia’s mailed fist in Kosovo may be parting the curtain on a scheme for the rest of the country. The Serbs respond angrily that they have special historical rights in Kosovo, where the Albanians are a majority only because they have frightened the Serbs away, and that Serbs just want equality.

In this country even “equality” is a loaded word. The federation is based on equality among the republics. What Serbian nationalists want is “one man, one vote,” which is fair enough for most countries. But, since ethnic Serbs are 40 percent of the Yugoslav population and Slovenes, for example, are only 8 percent, equality of individual voters means that Serbia takes over.

* * *

When the Turks grudgingly drew back to Constantinople after severe losses in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, their 500-year reign in southeastern Europe left a cultural and economic rift across what is now Yugoslavia.

The Serbs, nearly doubling their territory, also wanted Bosnia and Hercegovina. But Austria-Hungary had annexed the province in 1908, and kept it. When Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Habsburg heir, visited his subjects in the provincial capital of Sarajevo in 1914, he was shot dead by a young Bosnian Serb nationalist. The Austrians invaded Serbia; World War I was under way.

As the war was fought, plans were made for a Slavic union, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes. Formed in 1918, it included Montenegro (ethnic Serbs) as well as Bosnia and Hercegovina (ethnic Serbs and Croats).

Unity hardly led to comity, as the new country was ruled by Serbia’s King Alexander, whose despotism soon alienated the Croats and Slovenes. Perhaps his only lasting decree was to change the country’s name in 1929 to Yugoslavia, “Land of the South Slavs.” A Croatian separatist assassinated him in Marseille in 1934. The kingdom started a disintegration that didn’t end until a Croatian guerrilla leader, Josip Broz, emerged from the ashes of World War II as Marshal Tito, the only man who has ever been able to make these hostile peoples be civil to each other.

The sufferings and triumphs of Tito’s communist Partisans provided one of the most heroic chapters of the war and made him an epic figure who could get what he wanted at home and abroad. Tito silenced dissent by sending at least 7,000 critics to living hell on Goli Otok, a barren island in the Adriatic.

To prevent Serbian domination of the entire country, Tito gave greater autonomy to Vojvodina (with its large Hungarian population) and Kosovo (with its Albanian majority). That is why Serbs burn Tito’s picture in mass demonstrations today and shout for the removal of his remains (he died in 1980) from Belgrade.

* * *

To taste life in the Kosovo countryside, one day I took off my shoes at the top of a stone staircase and entered the parlor of a large Muslim Albanian family farm. I smelled wood burning in an iron stove and surveyed the array of woolen cushions and blankets around all four walls.

With its 170-year-old water mill, cattle and poultry, and good crops of wheat, corn, peppers, and cabbage, the clan, about 250 strong, is virtually self-sufficient.

One of the boys spread a tablecloth on the floor, then helped two others bring in a huge ten-inch-high wooden table to set upon it. We sat cross-legged around it and pulled the cloth over our knees. The younger men brought in platters and bowls of grilled beef chunks, yogurt with onions, salami, boiled eggs, cabbage, thick cornmeal polenta, and a pudding-like cheese. Each of us had a tablespoon and fork but no plate.

There were 18 men and boys at that meal—but no women. I had met the women in other rooms and on a tour of the farm, but they had been excluded from that chamber since time immemorial. I asked how old a boy had to be to sit with the men.

“Tradition says a boy can join us when he’s ten,” I was told. “But now that’s changing in some houses.” A child of three burst through the door and rushed over to nestle beside his father, an engineering student playing a two-stringed çifteli. Heeding a whisper, he thrust two small fingers toward me in a V.

“Before, we never talked politics in this room,” said one of the younger men. “So far we have not fought back. But now we Albanians are like cats pushed into a corner. We have nothing else to lose.”

“We will get democracy or get killed,” said another. “They accuse us of wanting to join Albania. That is stupid. We want to stay in Yugoslavia. But in Serboslavia? Never!”

Many Kosovars are turning to Ibrahim Rugova, a 44-year-old Albanian professor, to lead them out of the pit. His Democratic League claims 350,000 members, while communist ranks have fallen to 80,000. “We’re growing by hundreds every day,” he told me. “Not only Albanians. Turks and even some Serbs too. The only end to this foreign occupation can be if we start a dialogue. But they say they will deal only with ‘progressives.’ That is the Stalinist line: Everybody who doesn’t agree with you is not progressive.”

To the south, in Macedonia, I found more ethnic turmoil. This seemed out of tune with the polyglot mélange—Macedonians, Albanians, Turks, Gypsies, Bulgarians, Greeks—I saw mingling and bartering on the winding streets of old Skopje. In this lively bazaar, razor blades and panties from Turkey sell as fast as a smuggler can open his valise, and men in fezzes buy tea to smuggle back to Turkey. In the thick of it all, Macedonians, who form the Slavic majority, and Albanians outwardly get along.

Yet as the birthrate pushes Albanian numbers toward a fourth of Macedonia’s population, clashes are increasing.

Bogomil Gjuzel, a poet and repertory director who helped organize the League for Democracy, the first of ten alternative movements in Macedonia, told me, “The Serbs want to colonize not only Kosovo but also Macedonia. Milosevic says the Serbs must reclaim land taken from them after World War I and given to Macedonian peasants. But these people have been tilling the land ever since, and nobody’s going to take it away.”

Saso Ordanoski, 26, deputy editor of Mlad Borec, or Young Fighter, a liberal biweekly Macedonian magazine, was optimistic. “If the official newspapers print lies, they know we’ll expose them,” he said. “We are heading toward free elections. If we can develop a good economy and a good life, we won’t need to look around for enemies.”

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