In 1937, in the midst of the Great Terror, British diplomat Fitzroy Maclean decided that it was a good time to go on a trip across the Soviet Union and visit Central Asia. Aware that he would not receive permission from the Soviet government, he decided to travel unofficially, and the story of his trip forms the first part of this memoir. Maclean’s adventures in North Africa and Yugoslavia as a member of the Special Air Service during the Second World War are the subject of the second and third parts of this week’s book. From a historical perspective, probably the most important section of the book is Maclean’s description of his time as a liaison officer to Yugoslav partisan leader Josip Tito. Supposedly, Maclean’s admiration for the partisans played an important role in persuading the British government to support them and not the Royalist Chetniks, thus paving the way for the eventual communist takeover of Yugoslavia. All in all, this is a fascinating memoir of a turbulent time in European history.
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.