Denise Youngblood is professor of history and chair of the History
Department at UVM. A past director of UVMs Russian and East European
Studies Program, she teaches the history of the region from Vienna
to Vladivostock, including courses on Eastern Europe and the Balkans
that focus on the politics and culture of nationalism. She has
The media has tended to portray the situation in the Balkans as
being fundamentally motivated by centuries old tensions. Is
this an accurate way to look at it?
The second important issue which makes understanding this problem
extremely difficult is that although there were conflicts over
the centuries between the Christian and the Muslim populations
of the region, they were sporadic, and usually had to do with
economic issues and power issues. There were not centuries of
religious oppression and centuries of religious tension. In fact,
there was a tremendous amount of intermarriage for centuries among
the various groups. If you take the cultural situation in the
region through the end of the nineteenth century, what youll
see is that although there was a tremendous amount of resentment
against Ottoman authority and a drive for national independence
there was in fact not a history of religious wars or religious
persecution in the region. In general, we see that people got
along fairly well.
When did things begin to change?
The next important stage in this process is the formation of the
state of Yugoslavia in 1918. As an historian, I do want to stress
thats pretty recent. Its not centuries old. As a result of the
treaties that ended the First World War, a large south Slavic
state called Yugoslavia (which means south Slavs) was created
and it consisted of Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Croatia.
Initially, all of these South Slavic peoples thought creating
a multi-ethnic state was probably a pretty good idea, with the
exception of Serbia. Only the Serbs had experience in independence
prior to this point, and so here we get to the point of the Serb
notion that theyre the leaders in the region, that theyre the
dominant ethnic group. Now were getting pretty close to the issues
that lead us to the problems in the region.
Theres absolutely no question that the Serbs attempted and largely
succeeded in putting their imprint on the new state. The State
of Yugoslavia was established as a kingdom; the King of Serbia
was named the King of Yugoslavia. Right away we see that in that
time, the Serbs were positioned at the top of the ethnic hierarchy.
Very quickly the Croats, the other dominant nationality in the
region, resisted. If theres any history of hatred, its the Croat-Serb
history. There was a significant amount of Croat revolutionary
activity in the 1920s and 1930s as the Croatians were attempting
to break away from the Yugoslav state.
By the 1930s the Croatian independence movement got mixed up with
the fascist. They were getting money from Mussolini; they were
also getting money from the Nazis; so that when the German and
Italian invasion of Yugoslavia began in 1941, the Croats were
on the side of the fascists. This is a really critical point that
the Serbs like to talk about a lot.
So, things were relatively quiet in the region during Titos reign?
Some have argued that it was the way that he clamped down on ethnic dissent that created a sort of Pandoras box. Following his death in 1980, we see a powerful struggle in the region. Unfortunately all of the men (and they are all men because its a very patriarchal society in the Balkans) jostling for power, tended to be rather extreme ethnic nationalists. We know all about Slobodan Milosevic, because hes been demonized in the Western press, and rightly so. He is, I think, a very bad man.
His message is one of ethnic hatred. At this point no ones quite
sure how he became such a staunch Serb nationalist because he
comes from an impeccable communist family. We dont know what
happened to him to cause this blip in his views. Some cynics say
that its because he figured that this was the best way to grab
power in the region, which has turned out to be true.
In the last ten years, Milosevic has been masterful in whipping
up ethnic hatred. And so have a number of other leaders in the
region, most notably Franjo Tudjman, who is the president of Croatia.
These men have orchestrated a campaign which has turned the Muslims
of the former Yugoslavia into the scapegoats for all of the economic
and political problems of the region. This simply wasnt the case
before. This is a media campaign.