Return to the Fold

“Danke Deutschland,” a singer crooned on Croatian state television in January 1992, after the freshly reunified Germany pressured the other 11 members of the nascent EU to recognize the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia. An EU-appointed commission of lawyers had already declared Yugoslavia “in dissolution”, perhaps figuring it wasn’t really murder if the victim had been pronounced dead in advance.

Arguments put forth for independence were calculated platitudes, and often contradictory. No mention was made how Yugoslavia had been ruled by a Croat-Slovene for nearly four decades, or how he gave Slovenia and Croatia a form of statehood for the first time since the Dark Ages. The Serbs allegedly oppressing them were somehow both Communists and nationalists, and the drive to secession supposedly had everything to do with freedom, and nothing at all with seizing the lands and money the two acquired through Yugoslavia. The claims sounded so persuasive, especially in the euphoria surrounding the fall of Communism, even Murray Rothbard was snookered.

Slovenians massacred the Yugoslav Army recruits sent to secure the border, then declared it a victory over “Serb aggression.” Croatia’s government disenfranchised the Serb population of the republic, besieged and attacked the Yugoslav Army garrisons, then too claimed “Serbian aggression” when the Army fired back. Yet the Serbian leadership gave up trying to keep Yugoslavia together back in 1991, and at no time tried to deny Croatia the right to secede. At issue was only the land inhabited by Serbs, which Zagreb wanted – but without the Serbs. That wish was eventually granted by the Fairy Godmother Washington.

Desperate Times

Twenty years later, the song being played is “Hello, Europe,” as Croatians vote to become the Brussels Leviathan’s latest conquest. Less than half the registered voters bothered showing up, and a third of them actually dared vote “No.” Yet all knew it was a pointless exercise: the EU could make them vote again till they got it right, just as it did to the Irish.

It is reasonable to ask who would want to join the EU at a time like this. British Euroskeptic Daniel Hannan certainly does. “Do they know something we don’t?” wondered the Daily Mail back in December, when Croatia was officially accepted by the EU (the referendum, you see, was just window dressing). With Greece and Italy practically in default, Spain and Portugal close to it, France’s bonds downgraded and Germany printing its old currency just in case, the EU hardly looks like a life raft, much less like a safe haven.

Croatia, however, is just that desperate. Even though what it took from Yugoslavia included almost the entire Adriatic coast, the fertile Slavonian plain, and the only real highway, that turned out not to be enough. Government debt went from $3 billion in 1992 to a staggering $60 billion today. Private debt exploded as well, as the populace wallowed in imported consumer goods without actually being able to afford them. That was partly the fault of European investors – mostly German, Austrian and Hungarian – who would acquire local industries only to shut them down, while keeping subsidies and tax privileges.

Worse Off Alone

Lost in the clamor about “Serbian oppression” and “freedom from Communism” was the fact that under the economic system developed by Edvard Kardelj, top henchman of president-for-life Tito, both Slovenia and Croatia enjoyed a privileged position compared to the rest of Yugoslavia. While Bosnia, Serbia and Macedonia provided the raw materials, Slovenian industries made consumer goods to sell abroad, making a tidy profit in foreign currency. Croatia also got the lion’s share of foreign tourist income from the Dalmatian coast, which Tito had most generously awarded Croatia after WW2.

Once they became independent, however, the flow of both raw materials and tourists ran dry. Both countries eventually turned to Serbia again – even as they continued to harp on about “Serbian aggression” of the 1990s. That helped neither tourism nor trade. It ought to be noted that Serbia’s economy was laid low not just by the UN sanctions (as punishment for “aggression”) and the NATO bombing of its infrastructure in 1999, but also by the succession of quisling regimes since October 2000 that have devastated what managed to survive the ’90s.

Slovenia had fared somewhat better after Yugoslavia’s murder, preserving its capital by refusing the “shock therapy transition” the likes of which befell Poland, Russia or Hungary. But after it joined the EU in 2004, there was only so much Ljubljana could do.

Resurrecting the Hapsburgs

Croatia’s journey to the EU also highlighted the core hypocrisy of the Leviathan’s relationship with the shards of Yugoslavia. On one hand, the EU has forced Serbia – under the supposedly democratic (but in fact entirely quisling) governments no less – to meet an escalating series of conditions for over a decade: from turning over all ethnic Serb political and military leaders for war crimes trials, to recognizing the illegal “independence” of its occupied province of Kosovo.

On the other hand, though the issue of Slovenia’s “erased” – thousands of Yugoslavs who were denied citizenship and civil rights – ended up in European courts, the flagrant disregard of the country’s authorities for these people, or the cruel bigotry towards the Roma, never threatened its EU membership.

Likewise in Croatia, nothing has been made of the systematic denial of civil and property rights of Serbs expelled during the 1990s wars, spurious war crimes prosecutions of those who attempted to return, or open displays of Nazism. Once the token generals were sacrificed to the ICTY, Croatia got a free pass.

While some Serbian Europhiles complain about double standards (though quietly, so as not to offend the EU), that isn’t really the case here. Rather, it is obvious that Germany, the dominant power in the EU today, wants Slovenia and Croatia as part of the Union as much as it doesn’t want Serbia. Though no one has mentioned any particular reasons, Niall Ferguson’s theory of the EU as a restored Hapsburg Monarchy offers one possible explanation.

Clicking Into Place

Of course, the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians have every right to feel nostalgia for the time a century ago when their empires ruled central Europe. For that matter, Slovenes and Croats have every right to desire a return to what they regard as benevolent paternalism, especially since going off on their own hasn’t worked out so well. The problem here is that the Hapsburg/Hohenzollern revivalists blame Serbia for the demise of their original empires, unwilling to accept that their own belligerence and aggression might have been at fault, just a bit.

Thus we come full circle, back to the summer of 1914. Bosnia is still a flashpoint, with its Muslim and Croat communities wanting to join the EU even as they fight each other, while the Serbs want their own freedom first and foremost. Croatia’s EU entry will further disturb the already intractable Bosnian situation, as most Croats in Bosnia have Croatian passports.

It will also eliminate what leverage Brussels or Berlin still have on Belgrade. Between the now overt Austro-German hostility towards Serbia, and Croatia’s unrepentant belligerence, it is painfully obvious to the average Serb that government promises of joining the EU any day now are about as likely to come true as a snowstorm in August.

The two Yugoslav experiments in the 20th century revealed, among other things, that Slovenes and Croats never particularly appreciated being “liberated” from the Hapsburgs – to put it mildly. Perhaps it is fitting that they have now returned to the fold.

For all the efforts to impose a virtual narrative in the Balkans, it does appear that certain things are clicking back into their proper place. Reality is triumphing over wishful thinking. There’s a lesson therein, for those who want to learn.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.