interview by Darko HUDELIST
Between 1986 and 1990 she directed the Institute for History of the Workers' Movement of Croatia (renamed during her tenure to Institute for Modern History), the same institute that had been directed in the sixties by Franjo Tudman. For two years she was the head of the NIN jury awarding prizes for best non-fiction books. She was a member of the central committee of the Croatian League of Communists in the 1980s, and as such lobbied strongly for multi-party elections in 1989.
Zorica Stipetic currently participates in a very ambitious project, named "Croatia in the new century". Its part, "Croatia in the twentieth century", is her specialty, so to speak. In this interview for NIN she discussed causes for the violent break up of Yugoslavia and prospects of certain nations, Croats and Serbs, in the twenty first century.
NIN: How did you as a left-wing historian experience the collapse of Yugoslavia and of socialism?
STIPETIC: I was never a so-called "Yugonostalgic", an ironic and often threatening label in Croatia. Nevertheless, I found it a very painful experience. The process leading to it was of long duration so it was not unexpected, but the violence and the betrayal of all values were so brutal and frightening that it could not but cause pain. We historians who worked on the history of Yugoslavia never got far, since in our different ways we were all aware of its destructive contradiction. In 1989 when the 70th anniversary of Yugoslavia was marked in Belgrade I did not attend that conference, although I was the director of the Institute for Modern History, as the dissolution of everything that made up the essence of Yugoslavia was already at an advanced stage. I could not believe that the war would cause so much cruelty and violence. I was floored by all that; it paralyzed me, destroyed my friendships, destroyed everything.
What was for you the most dramatic moment of the break-up of Yugoslavia?
The agony of Vukovar, and then of Srebrenica. I simply could not bear it, physically and psychologically. It was also terrible when Serb bodies turned up on rubbish dumps in Croatia, when friends told me about the disappearance of Serbs from Gospic and Karlovac... I do not want to separate one from the other, it was a set of horrible events and at times it seemed to me I would not be able to survive. I also took badly the merciless 1999 bombardment of Belgrade and Serbia.
Why did Yugoslavia actually fall apart? How would you separate external from internal causes?
Yugoslavia's essence was the protection of the existence of small nations. Croatia needed Yugoslavia to safeguard its existence and development, once World War I had destroyed Austria-Hungary. Although Yugoslavia has been called a prison of nationalities, none of them was assimilated into an imaginary Yugoslav nation. In fact, Yugoslavia permitted them to complete their political formation, and this indeed was its historical meaning. Within Yugoslavia nations preserved their biological existence, kept their territory, strengthened culturally and economically, and when the historical need for defense from external forces disappeared with the end of the Cold War and a turn towards the creation of a united Europe, Yugoslavia lost its historical meaning and was no longer needed.
Certain historians like to emphasize the fateful role of the alliance established in the early eighties by the American president Ronald Reagan and pope John Paul II - the alliance whose goal was the destruction of Communism and the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe...
Numerous arguments favor that theory. That seems plausible to me. On the other hand, conspiracy theories are usually rejected by historians, but in this case an element of conspiracy is involved and in my opinion cannot be totally rejected.
However, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia broke up peacefully. Why did only the break-up of Yugoslavia end in a war?
Because the concept of independence of states that until that moment made up Yugoslavia was such that national integration could not be carried out without annexation of somebody else's territory. If Yugoslav republics were ethnically homogeneous - starting with Serbia without ethnic Albanians and its diaspora in Bosnia and Croatia - perhaps war would not have happened. This way...
Dobrica Cosic in his writings speaks of "diaspora nations", meaning in particular the Croats and the Serbs.
Yes, Serbs and Croats are "diaspora nations" and there is no doubt that this aspect supplied the main motive for the war and its bloody nature. One must not forget, however, that World War II began with the quest for an all-German national unification, i.e. with the slogan of "all Germans in the same state". This idea of a total and violent integration of "diaspora nations" is characteristic of Fascism and Nazism. What happened here was thus nothing new in Europe. On the contrary they were actually belated processes, but that only made them that much more frightening. No one believed that such a horrible historical experience could be repeated in an even more bloody manner.
We cannot avoid here the question of the 1986 Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) Memorandum. General opinion in Croatia is that the Memorandum was Serbia's declaration of war against the rest of Yugoslavia, above all Croatia and Slovenia. The key authors of the Memorandum, Kosta Mihajlovic, Vasilije Krestic and Mihailo Markovic, have tried to convince me that their aim was to save, not to destroy Yugoslavia, but that Croatia and Slovenia wished to leave.
I share the general opinion in Croatia that the Memorandum was a platform for a Greater Serbia. Given that the Memorandum asserted that the status of Serbia in Yugoslavia was unfavorable, that document called de facto for a redefinition of the status of republics and actually nations and territories within Yugoslavia. I found that absolutely unacceptable. What was that supposed to mean, to save Yugoslavia? Yugoslavia, let me repeat, had a positive historical role inasmuch as it allowed survival and development of nations, while gradually it became obvious that that role was about to end. No one would accept the survival of Yugoslavia if the price was redefinition of its own essence, including, as became obvious later, even Macedonians. But what happened in the memorandum? The Memorandum turned the description of the old Yugoslav kingdom as the prison of nations (referring to non-Serbs of course) on its head. It asserted that actually Serbia was a victim of Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia as a "prison of nations". A similar turnaround happened in Croatia in the 1990s too, when the Communist movement was denounced as totalitarian and anti-Croat, while the Ustasha movement was identified as a movement for national liberation.
The authors of the Memorandum, as well as many Serbian historians and politicians, insist that two years were fateful for Serbia and the Serbs: 1966, the year when Rankovic was purged; and 1974, when the new "confederal" constitution was adopted. Did Tito make a mistake in removing Rankovic so brutally? Rankovic was the most direct link between Serbia and Serbs with WWII and the partisan movement. Tito removed the only great Serb partisan who was at the time highest-ranking Serb in the Yugoslav Communist hierarchy.
Given the Communist practice, Rankovic's political execution could not have been done more elegantly.
Tito accused him of eavesdropping, hid the real reason for the purge...
The real reason was fight for power. I myself believe that Rankovic was loyal to Tito. His centralist concept, however, at that moment clashed directly with the ideology of self-management. It was a life or death issue. Rankovic, who I would think was not a nationalist, did in the end predictably defer to his own nation, and to UDBA [the state security service], whose cadre, as is well known, mostly consisted of Serbs. Nevertheless, he was smoothly replaced. The consequences of this for Serbia must have been considerable, given that in a way he brought together Serb nationalists and part of the older Serb Partisan generation, on the one hand, and the police on the other; and given also that for over twenty years he had been in charge of recruiting for the Yugoslav League of Communists. However, in the sixties his concepts became the key obstacle for reform of the party or the system.
You are saying that Tito was right to remove Rankovic?
Why was Kardelj right and Rankovic wrong? Why was Kardelj a positive person and Rankovic a negative one?
You know that historical truth is sometimes questionable because it provides a retrospective and narrow view of the world. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Tito was right, and that Kardelj played a positive role in these developments.
Yet Dobrica Cosic has argued that it was Kardelj who destroyed Yugoslavia, whereas Rankovic wanted to protect it.
But why should one accept unquestioningly what Cosic says? He himself has been the bearer of a destructive conception of Yugoslavia. Kardelj was responsible for Yugoslavia's break-up in the sense that he was fostering democracy from below, through self-management. He recognized the progressive side of national emancipation, and believed that a good Yugoslavia was one that served all its nations and citizens equally. That was the only Yugoslavia that made sense, from the historical point of view. On this I agree with Kardelj.
What do you think of the argument popular among Serbian historians and politicians that the 1974 constitution, which was mainly Kardelj's work, contained many anti-Serb elements, that it aimed to weaken Serbia within Yugoslavia?
I would agree with your second description, and the problem of Serbia still remains unresolved. Serbia failed to resolve it, but it was resolved by other republics by their departure from Yugoslavia. Serbia's predominance in Yugoslavia - I am referring here to Rankovic's role in party appointments, to the powerful army in which most officers were Serbs, to the disproportionate Serb presence in state and party bodies - was so great that the others simply failed to see that Serbia too had a national problem and that that problem was the only one left without a solution in Yugoslavia. It is true that in Yugoslavia there was no strength or will to acknowledge that problem. The legacy of Serb hegemonism from the inter-war period was so strong that it simply blanketed all other interpretations.
Could one say then that the creators of the 1974 constitution underestimated the likely reaction of the advocates of Serb national integration, who emerged in force ten years later?
Yes, that is possible. I've been telling you that the label of greater Serbian hegemonism, which is a historical fact, not a fabrication, simply suppressed all other dimensions and problems. And one of those problems was how to provide Serbia with the same status as the remaining republics.
Therefore, you agree that the 1974 Constitution resulted in weakening of Serbia?
Yes, it resulted in a weaker Serbia.
Are you criticizing Tito and Kardelj?
No, I don't think so. If I were to criticize Tito and Kardelj, I would blame them for removing the so-called Serbian liberals from power in 1972. That was absolutely wrong.
But the purge of Serbian liberals was a reaction to the suppression of the Croatian national movement in 1971...
I agree that the second purge was primarily motivated by the infamous ethnic balance, as the two movements were not exactly similar, in my opinion. However, I believe that given the composition of Yugoslavia in the long term its problems could not have been resolved without a conflict. As was proven by our recent history.
Talking of national integration in the area of former Yugoslavia, ever since 1968 Dobrica Cosic has been advocating a "re-composition of the Yugoslav space" and "creation of new nation states in the Balkans". He wrote about that in his diaries. And then in 1971 Tudman came up with the formula of "cultural and territorial integration of the Croat national being". What do they have in common and where do they differ?
They clearly upheld similar concepts of national unification. I wonder if they realized that something like that was impossible within Yugoslavia, precisely because of internal conditions, as well as the actual Serb and Croat ethnic distribution. Such projects were also unrealistic at the time, since Yugoslavia's continued existence was supported by both East and West. Such a re-composition of Yugoslavia could not be achieved without war. And war at the time had no chance. So their views were utopian at the time. But as you know, political utopias are very often realized in a more limited - or even in the worst possible - form. As I have said, such types of extreme nationalism are of the same nature as fascism and Nazism.
Are you saying that Cosic and Tudman were ideologically fascists?
No, I am talking about the sort of ideas. Seeking to unite by force parts of a nation scattered over other territories is characteristic of fascism.
In that case, what do Cosic and Tudman lack in order to become fascists?
I'd say numerous other social ideas. Fascism is a complex and developed ideological system that includes other aspects and not only extreme nationalism. Cosic and Tudman in my view did not have a developed world view but only this national idea: one-sided and ruthless.
Dobrica Cosic made an interesting assertion in his diaries. In the seventies, he said that Yugoslavia could be destroyed by Ustashe only.
When did he write that?
After the adoption of the 1974 constitution. A year later, in 1975. He writes: "Besides Ustashe, no one else has dared to seriously resist him (Tito, author's remark). If anyone destroys Titoism, Croatian Ustashe will".
You see, among socialist countries Yugoslavia was an extremely open country and a lot is known. But the events in the communist party leadership remain a secret. I really could not imagine that such an assertion could ever become reality. I really thought that that dark period of history was behind us.
Ustashe and the break-up of Yugoslavia. In that sense we must give credit to Cosic - he was prescient in a way. But these were not good, but bad visions. At the time that seemed unrealistic to me. However, it is true that only such type of ideology could have destroyed Yugoslavia, because it was one sided. As one-sided ideology it had no scruples, did not ask for price, and only cared for one dimension - independent and preferably ethnically clean country. At that time that concept was unrealistic, actually a pure fantasy. But the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw pact and the Soviet Union created conditions for something like that. Consequently, Cosic's vision seems terrifying to me. In the seventies no one dreamed that the Warsaw pact would collapse. Until the end of the Cold War Yugoslavia, the way it was, was needed by both sides. And it was protected and defended.
Who needed Yugoslavia?
International policy... Great powers... Above all great powers.
How do you explain the fact that when the break-up of Yugoslavia appeared imminent, hardly anyone in Serbia advocated the independence of Serbia within its republican borders? In Croatia, by contrast, the idea of independence within republican borders had significant support.
One must bear in mind the nature of modern Serbia's formation, the fact that it acquired an ever larger territory through wars. This is why the Communist republican borders were treated as provisional. Actually, it seems to me that those borders were never desirable in Serbian tradition, starting with WWI. Actually, it all goes back to Ilija Garasanin, but it was not his paradigm, while in WWI it officially became a war goal. In the negotiations regarding the establishment of the first joint state, The Yugoslav Committee had to work hard to persuade Serbia to give up Greater Serbia in favor of Yugoslavia as a victorious force. Yugoslavia was not a Serbian invention. It was conceived by the South Slav nations living within Austria-Hungary. Now, it does not make sense to discuss something that never happened, but without doubt at the end of WWI Serbia had an opportunity to establish itself as Greater Serbia.
Why do you think the international community opted for the independence of states rather than of peoples, as Serbian leaders (Slobodan Milosevic, Borisav Jovic,...) were demanding?
Because the constitution was clear on this question. The 1974 constitution gave the member states the right to secede. Badinter's Commission respected the 1974 constitution.
Which fateful sentence from that constitution?
The constitution guaranteed both the internal borders and the right of nations to self-determination.
Milosevic and Jovic insisted that that meant that Serbs as a nation had the right to leave Yugoslavia, and everyone knew where Serbs lived.
Given that the Serbs lived in several republics, this meant war. I do not recall, however, any war that ended by uniting all members of a nation. When the Slovene nation joined Yugoslavia, it left one third of itself in Austria and Italy. Croatia too left a good number of its nationals in Italy, as Hungary did in Yugoslavia, and so on. A nation cannot be collected like so much grain. States have their internal logic which makes things easier for the international community. What could be concluded based on the literal interpretation of the right of nations to self-determination of Croats, for example? Croats live in Bosnia-Hercegovina, they are a constituent nation there as well, and nevertheless a united Bosnia-Hercegovina had to be preserved. In any case the issue of nations, peoples, and states was not always consistently solved from the start of Yugoslavia, or in the international politics, nor would that be possible.
What, in your view, is the perspective for Croatia and Serbia in the twenty first century?
Right now I believe I have reason to be somewhat optimistic regarding Croatia. It seems to me that Croatia has thrown off, at least as far its main policies and most of its political parties are concerned, the desire to unite all ethnic Croats, for which it fought it the nineties in Bosnia-Hercegovina. It now appears concentrated on building a civic society within its given borders. It is also ready to share its sovereignty with other states within the EU. More or less a national consensus has been achieved regarding that issue.
What about Serbia?
I believe that Serbia still does not have a concept that could take her into modern European integration. Serbia has not resolved its integration problem. With respect to Croatia, it has, but that was resolved very brutally. There are no Serbs left in Croatia, they were forced to leave, and they function in Croatia as a tiny minority on the verge of disappearance, but with chances to become equal citizens of Croatia. Everything that led to the war with Croatia has been lost by Serbs, while Serbia hasn't resolved its Kosovo problem and until that problem is resolved, as well as that of Serbs and the Republic of Srpska in Bosnia-Hercegovina, I do not see how and with which project it can join the modern European integration, where historical burden is unacceptable deadweight. Serbia still lives with problems of the 19th and 20th centuries; in my opinion Serbia still hasn't defined what it is and what it wants to be in the future. It seems to me that Serbia is still in the 20th century and has not been able to create a new identity for itself appropriate for the 21st century, which is likely to be the century of strong and friendly cooperation.