The Haunting

What would you call a claim that, if A very much resembles B in nature and the problems it faces, what was good for A must be terrible for B, and the best solution for B is one deemed absolutely unacceptable in case of A? Aristotle might have called it a logical fallacy. On the pages of the Washington Post these days, they call it reasonable argument.

Namely, in an editorial penned on May 28, WaPo writer Charles Lane first makes a very cogent comparison of the European Union with Yugoslavia. He concludes, however, by arguing that the "optimistic scenario" would be a more powerful, centralized European superstate. Not only does is this a very good illustration of the political mainstream believing that statism is always the answer, it also serves to underscore the absolute mess of Empire’s – and Europe’s – principles (or lack thereof) when it came to Yugoslavia.

Eerie Similarities

Like the EU, Lane avers, Yugoslavia was a confederation promising an end to wars between its component peoples, had a common currency and free movement of labor and capital, and espoused peace, equality and human rights. Yugoslavia, too, was "constantly trying bureaucratic fixes for deep-rooted rivalries", and "used debt-fueled economic growth to buy peace" – but "when the bills came due, fiscal austerity added yet another political irritant."

That all really does sound a lot like today’s EU, which Lane argues "is no longer solvent, politically or economically." Yet a breakup of the EU, he goes on to say, "would impoverish the continent and leave a toxic residue of nationalist rancor." As the only other alternative, he posits a more centralized Europe, under German domination, far less democratic than it is today.

Thing is, the EU currently isn’t very democratic at all. Consider the EU Constitution, which was rejected in referenda by the French and the Dutch, only to come back as the Lisbon Treaty and run afoul of the Irish. In true "European" fashion, the Irish voted again till they got it "right" – because as one observer noted, "democracy" these days is whatever Brussels says it is.

More importantly, however, imagine if someone had applied Lane’s argument to Yugoslavia in the spring of 1991, explaining that a breakup would result in bloodshed and "toxic residue of nationalist rancor," and championing a stronger central government instead. It shouldn’t be all that hard, especially since it actually happened: the champion of a centralized Yugoslavia was Slobodan Milosevic.

Why Yugoslavia Died

Milosevic’s initial popularity in Serbia wasn’t due to "nationalism" – a charge first hurled at him by Communists from Yugoslavia’s other republics – but because he successfully purged the ineffective, parasitic and duplicative bureaucracies that had plagued both Belgrade and Serbia’s provinces. He also sought to repair what he perceived as an unintended defect in Yugoslavia’s structure, a system that provided certain regions with unfair advantages politically and economically.

What he didn’t realize, however, is that this was no defect, but rather a key structural feature of Yugoslavia. The original Yugoslavia, an unhappy union of erstwhile WW1 enemies, was dismembered by the Nazis in 1941. Having seized power at the end of WW2, the Communists stitched it back together, guided by their dogma that the principal evil was "Serbian hegemony". Manufactured moral equivalence between the Serbian royalist resistance and other groups’ Nazi-allied governments and militias enabled the Communists to claim legitimacy as the only "antifascists". In the end, however, all that did was enable the (former) Nazi allies to whitewash their past, while smearing the Serbs as Nazis reborn.

Milosevic had challenged that sacred cow of Yugoslav Communism – most likely unknowingly – and the leaderships of other republics, raised to fear the bogeyman of "Serbian hegemony," wasted no time in seeking separation. Germany and Austria in particular favored their claims of seeking "democratic freedom from Communist (!) Serbian oppression." In fact, the first unilateral German move after WW2 was to recognize the independence of Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, conditioning its support of the Maastricht treaty (establishing the EU) on its EEC partners following suit.

So, Yugoslavia didn’t "dissolve" – as the EU lawyers decreed – but was murdered. The method was "death by recognition," effectively sabotaging any efforts to negotiate a settlement and encouraging military solutions. That, in turn, created an opportunity for the American Empire to assert itself. And since the shards of Yugoslavia were eventually forced to accept the country’s crushing debt burden (which had only grown during the years of war and blockade), the bankers were happy as well. Sure, the peoples of Yugoslavia ended up living in Hell – but someone had to suffer for the greater good of the West, no?

Murderers’ Legacy

It was bad enough that the extrajudicial execution of Yugoslavia resulted in a string of wars, with the attendant deaths, destruction and suffering. But there were consequences for the West as well. The Empire trapped itself in a delusional frame of mind, seeking to export its Balkans policy globally. Meanwhile, the EU practiced autocracy lording over Bosnia, while using the Kosovo War to expand to the east.

Conflict still simmers in the territories where Yugoslavia once stood, in part because the EU/U.S. criteria for carving out new "independent" states have been entirely arbitrary, requiring painful legal acrobatics to justify.  Then there is the issue of "death by recognition", the diplomatic equivalent of a nuclear strike. It hasn’t been used anywhere else – yet – but its destructive power guarantees that sooner or later, it will be. And it is particularly effective against complex entities, such as Yugoslavia – but also the EU, or the United States.

Of Goose, Gander and Sauce

The trouble here isn’t so much that dissolution may be preferable to centralization, or vice versa, but that there ought to be some semblance of principle in either case. And there isn’t. The very same people arguing for a more centralized Europe today favored Yugoslavia’s destruction 20-odd years ago. This includes Lane, who covered the Yugoslav Wars for Newsweek to the point of being favorably mentioned by interventionist journalists Roy Gutman and David Rieff.

While Milosevic was demonized for allegedly trying to keep the Yugoslav union together by force (a goal he abandoned very early on), there’s a massive Roman temple in Washington, DC to the man who did just that in America. While those who would usurp power and render elections and accountability meaningless are presented as saviors of democracy, critics of centralization – such as former German official Thilo Sarazzin, for example – are dubbed "extremists."

Two years ago, Sarazzin caused a ruckus by criticizing the sacred cow of multiculturalism through immigration. Now he is taking on another taboo topic, arguing that the EU is nothing but a colossal atonement project for Germany’s Nazi past. Others have argued the EU is a Nazi dream reborn. Either way, preserving the EU by force hardly sounds like a liberty-loving idea.

As for the shards of Yugoslavia, both Washington and Brussels demand centralization for Bosnia – a contentious confederacy of conflicted communities – and their client "state" of Kosovo, carved out of Serbia in 2008, while demanding decentralization for Serbia and Macedonia. These aren’t minor inconsistencies, but contortions positively Orwellian in character.

The Price of Statism

Though Tito’s Yugoslavia was declared dead in 1992, a country bearing that name carried on for a decade thereafter. In October 2000, having overthrown Milosevic, the Empire moved to bury Yugoslavia’s name as well. The deed was done in the summer of 2002, when the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was replaced by the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro.

On that occasion, it was noted in this column that, "Yugoslavia should ever serve as a reminder that even the best-intentioned statist dreams come at too high a price." It is a lesson the American Empire and the European Union chose not to learn. And choices have consequences.

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.