Friday book #8: Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia

This week’s book shouldn’t actually be shelved among my Russian stuff as it is about the former Yugoslavia. Nevertheless it is worth discussing as it fits quite well into the debate we had in the comment section of this blog recently on the subject of federalism in multi-national states.


I bought this book when doing a course on eastern European politics as part of my MA in Russian and East European Studies at the University of Toronto in the mid-1990s. The main thing I took from the book was the following:

As a communist country, Yugoslavia didn’t tolerate what we might consider ‘normal’ interest group politics. Nor did it like the idea of civil society existing independently from the state and the communist party. But it did permit, even encourage, national institutions and national interest politics (by ‘national’ I refer not to the Yugoslav level but to the level of the national republics which Yugoslavia was composed of). As time went on, in order to keep the squabbling nations together, Yugoslav leader Josip Tito devolved more and more authority to the country’s constituent republics. Eventually, there was no longer even a Communist Party of Yugoslavia, just a League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), made up of the separate communist parties of each republic. Almost until the final collapse, there wasn’t even a central Yugoslav TV station – only national, republican ones. Given the lack of institutions crossing national boundaries, when the LCY surrendered power the country inevitably fell apart along national lines.

I think one can see a somewhat similar pattern in some other countries. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, for instance, did not look too kindly on civil society, but it did tolerate some degree of independence for religious and tribal institutions. Thus, when Saddam was driven out of office, the country split on religious and tribal lines. I would expect something similar to happen whenever an autocratic regime collapses – authority shifts to whatever institutions still exist and have retained some legitimacy. If those institutions are ones which serve to unite, then the country may hold together; if not, civil war is very possible.


3 thoughts on “Friday book #8: Nationalism and Federalism in Yugoslavia”

  1. “If those institutions are ones which serve to unite, then the country may hold together; if not, civil war is very possible.”

    Not quite.
    The more overlapping and contradicting claims exist, the likelier civil war happens.

    Bosnia was the most Yugoslavian republic.
    That is why the civil war there was particularly bad.

    The Syrian Civil War would not last five years if the Arab Syrians did not care so much for the unity of their country.


  2. Yeah, ethnic nationalism, the destroyer of worlds. So very true.

    Anyhow, I must say, Yugoslavia was a large-scale, decades-long successful socialist experiment. The PoC of syndicalist socialism, positive proof-of-concept. An amazing thing, more important than the French Revolution.

    I know, you can’t imagine that a plurality of the people of the former Soviet bloc would prefer the Soviet system, but with Yugoslavia that’s not even counter-intuitive. Everyone knows that was a great place.


  3. Good book, good review. I often feel all kinds of Yugonostalgia, including for its federalism. Ramet is right on re devolution: as soon as the then autonomous province of Kosovo was given equal vote in the federal presidency of Yugoslavia, on top of own republican structures, all hell started to break loose.


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