The fruits of the Yugoslavia’s relationship with socialism once yielded 91% literacy rates, free health care, and for 8 years, the fastest rate of economic growth in the world. However, like many romances, external meddlers fostered internal conflict and eventual break-up.
What followed tore the region apart. From 1992-93 the Bosnian war raged between rival nationalist forces, with civilians (mainly Bosnian Muslims) enduring mass rape and ethnic cleansing. So how did the once prosperous Yugoslavia fall into chaos?
Some would point to one man, Slobodan Milošević. Yugoslavia was made up of 6 socialist republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia (and Herzegovina), Montenegro, and Serbia. In 1974, long-time leader Josip Tito gave the Serbian provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina self-governance. Due to the fact that Kosovo was populated predominately by ethnic Albanians (as opposed to ethnic Serbs), their votes could prevent Serbian dominance in Yugoslavian politics.
In 1987, Milošević (then second in command to the Serbian President) was sent to Kosovo amid claims of Albanians oppressing the minority Serbs. As Serbian nationalists provoked police by throwing stones, Milošević listened to the cries of one man claiming that he had been beaten by the Albanian police and uttered six words that would change Yugoslavia forever: ‘You will not be beaten again.’
These words were relayed across Serbian television that evening, with no mention of Serbian nationalists initiating the conflict, thus creating the Milošević legend. In 1988 Milošević used his newfound popularity to oust the Serbian president and take control of Serbia himself. He reasserted Serbian control of Kosovo and installed his own men in Vojvodina and Montenegro, giving him de facto control over half of Yugoslavia.
One political leader who opposed Milošević’s tirade was the Slovenian president Milan Kučan. In the late 1980’s, Slovenia enjoyed a level of free speech unparalleled in Yugoslavia, embodied by the magazine Mladina. Mladina published documents containing classified acts of martial law to be imposed on Slovenia, resulting in the detention of the journalists involved. Displeased with Milošević’s meddling in Slovenia’s affairs, Kučan moved to change the constitution so that the more liberal Slovenia would be immune to outside interference. Milošević used Kučan’s dissent to fuel a march on Slovenia, as he had done in Vojvodina and Montenegro.
However, this was foiled by the Croatians. Knowing Milošević’s plan, in 1989 the Croatian leader Ivica Račan prevented the Serbs from passing through Croatia and reaching Slovenia; saving Slovenia from the same fate as Vojvodina and Montenegro. There was only one way Milošević could take control of Slovenia; through political domination. In January 1990, Milošević called a congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia in order to use his extensive political power to crush any Slovenian opposition. This was the beginning of the end. As the Serbs continued to outvote the Slovenians, each member of the latter’s delegation got up and left the congress, signalling Slovenia’s departure from Yugoslavia. The fate of Yugoslavia was in the hands of Ivica Račan, who declared that Croatia could not accept a Yugoslavia without Slovenia. And thus, a united Yugoslavia was no more. Following the split, tensions between Croatia and Milošević-controlled Serbia escalated into a battle for Bosnian territory and all out war.
There is no doubt that the Milošević exploited rising ethnic tensions to gain power and seize control of Yugoslavia. Nevertheless, the question of why Yugoslavia’s economy in the 1980’s faltered, precipitating ethnic tension, is a controversial and often forgotten one.
Yugoslavia, although ‘socialist’, practiced worker self-management as apposed to Soviet-style central planning, and exported to eastern and western markets. During the 1960s and 70s Yugoslav citizens enjoyed a quality of life similar to western countries such as Portugal. Yet it was not to last, and a number of factors contributed to the implosion of the Yugoslav economy. The 1973 oil crisis, along with western recession, forced Yugoslavia to borrow extensively from the west and the east. Yet the final nail in the coffin was hammered in by the IMF, which demanded the devaluation of the Yugoslav currency, increasing the rising debt owed to the US. The IMF then imposed austerity measures, hitting areas such as Kosovo hard.
The economic crisis in Kosovo, and impoverishment of Albanians and Serbs alike, ultimately culminated in the Bosnian war that devastated the region, heralding the end of a united Yugoslavia.