From Your Ex-Yugo: The Doomsday Clock is Still Ticking

By Vladimir Petrović

RevDem recently republished two articles, by Veronica Anghel and Volodymyr Yermolenko, respectively, from the Eurozine Focal Point “Lessons of War: The Rebirth of Europe Revisited.” Eurozine is a network of magazines to which RevDem proudly belongs. Today, RevDem contributes an original article to the discussion.

It is said that generals are always well prepared to fight the last war. They look back at their formative times as young officers and draw analogies which are occasionally helpful but often prove disastrous. When it comes to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, those who experienced the Yugoslav collapse are exhibiting a similar trait. Ever since the Euromaidan, the appearance of “little green men” throughout Crimea and the insurgency in the Donbas in 2014, many of my former compatriots developed a gut feeling which, if verbalized, would boil down to a simple statement: it’s happening again.

Some were saddened, some were dismayed, some were even enthusiastic. There was no shortage of volunteers who went from the Balkans to join the hostilities.  As a rule, Croats signed up with Ukrainians forces, aiming for the Azov battalion if possible, whereas Serbs went to Crimea or to the Donbas People’s Republic and the Luhansk People’s Republic. However, they did not stay for long.

Aged Balkan warriors quickly concluded that the nature of warfare has significantly changed during the past quarter of a century: there are fewer drunken afternoons around the artillery outposts and more infrared equipment.

Unsupported by their states, most of them returned having concluded that the ongoing war is not a rerun of the Yugoslav 1990s. In this case, history indeed repeated itself, as Marx once quipped – first as tragedy, then as farce.

Those who did not gather such direct experiences in Ukraine were slower to reach the same conclusion. As if they were exhibiting symptoms of untreated wartime PTSD, they also tended to be quick to divide the roles – Russians are the new Serbs, Ukrainians the new Croats, etc. There was some ground for such parallels, not least because of the bizarre popularity of Putin in Serbia or the Ukrainian adoration for Operation Storm which greatly diminished the Serbian presence in Croatia. Even those who were deeply against the war, both then and now, shared the above-mentioned gut feeling.  When they articulated their opinions and explanations in public, most come across as a form of “Yugosplaining”. This curious phenomenon rests in a firm belief that post-Yugoslavs have a mystical ability to understand what is happening anywhere in the world, but especially between Ukraine and Russia – even when they have no idea about the relevant history, geography, culture, and politics, let alone about the facts and facets of the current war. Interestingly, people who would express such strong views were likely shrugging their shoulders during the wars in former Yugoslavia when someone from Lebanon, Cyprus, or Northern Ireland tried to share their experiences and suggested that they might be relatable to Yugoslavia’s violent dissolution. It is also worth noting that Yugosplaining was largely absent during the violent collapse of Syria, despite a huge refugee wave passing through the Balkans.

That is not to say that there are no resemblances between these two conflicts. Linguistic proximity, deceptive as it may be at times, certain superficial similarities in the ethnic and religious landscapes, and the geopolitical stretch along the West-East axis do provide some grounds for looking at these conflicts comparatively.

However, after a few brief visits to Ukraine and even more so through extensive contacts with students of the Central European University’s Invisible University for Ukraine, where I am proud to teach, I am  less convinced that profound conclusion can be reached when pursuing such a comparison.

Furthermore, I am aware that Ukrainians are often exasperated by the attempts of outsiders to explain what is happening to them. People who have dodged bullets and missiles themselves know very well why that is the case. War is an all-encompassing experience, and it often redefines one’s identity, so people are understandably irate if somebody arrogantly tries to explain to them what they are going through.

In order to responsibly add something relevant regarding the ongoing horror, one needs to step out for a moment, both from Ukraine and from the Balkans, to rethink those problems in a wider perspective. The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine may have come as a surprise but was not completely unexpected either. War had been going on for years already. When I visited the frontline for the first time, in 2019 at Avdiivka, one could just occasionally hear the gunshots, but war’s devastating traces were more than visible. Alisa Sopova and Anastasia Taylor-Lind’s excellent work opened my eyes to some less visible consequences. People were suffering from lack of access to medical care, from lack of food and, most importantly, from lack of hope.

Still, it never crossed my mind that the places I was visiting might be practically obliterated soon. The fact that we did not expect that the situation would escalate to this level speaks of our naivety.

After Syria, after Georgia, it should have been abundantly clear that Putin considers war a perfectly acceptable means to try and impose his will. Furthermore, after September 11 and the subsequent American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, it should have been clear that a new world was emerging and a very ugly one at that. Gone were the illusions about the “end of history” – even Francis Fukuyama felt forced to postpone it, apparently indefinitely. My liberal, cosmopolitan surrounding, which was not necessarily mesmerized by Fukuyama’s ideas, but was certainly skeptical about Samuel Huntington’s concept of a “clash of civilizations,” was very slow to realize what was happening. It was difficult for us to come to terms with the fact that the period between 1989 and 2001 could be seen not as the beginning of a new era and a clear break with Eric Hobsbawm’s “age of extremes”, but rather as a short, deceptive fin de siècle which raised hopes only for them to crumble in the dust.

In retrospect, former Yugoslavs might thus have something to offer. One can say this or that about the Yugos, but the just mentioned illusions never took hold there. Back in the early 1990s, Yugos appeared completely out of time and space. The Soviet Union was just withdrawing from Eastern Europe and disintegrating more or less bloodlessly, the end of history thesis was on everybody’s lips, and the European Community was transformed into a Union with great fanfare. The war which was consuming Europe’s “southeastern backyard” seemed like some anachronistic remnant of the olden days, an inter-ethnic struggle of some primitive brutes still stuck in the 20th century mindset. An entire area was put under surveillance, a trade embargo was put in place, and the United Nations sent troops to maintain peace even though there was no peace to maintain. An international tribunal was established for Yugoslavia and another one for Rwanda. By the end of the century, the International Criminal Court was set up on their backs, giving rise to new hopes that wars will finally be things of the past.

In a teleological reading which stretched from Nuremberg to The Hague, the defeat over Hitler opened the door to a just world, a liberal order of countries which uphold democratic values and human rights. The Cold War may have postponed the universalization of these values, but with its end the sky seemed to be the limit. I am not writing this to ridicule this belief at all: I not only shared it but did my best to partake, almost irresponsibly jumping from my academic role into strategizing war crimes prosecutions. Numerous setbacks – denialism in Serbia, the unwillingness of Great Powers to join the International Criminal Court, Abu Graib and Guantanamo, terrorist attacks across Europe, the failure to ratify the EU constitution, etc. – were duly and calmly noted.

Now we know that they were the alarm bells that we should have taken very seriously indeed, particularly considering the unprecedented global environmental challenge – before we end up destroying our world.

As of the late 2000s, such “hiccups” became just too systemic. The economic crisis of 2008 sent shock waves through the world while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq turned into a daily routine. Arab repressive regimes may have fallen like dominoes, but gave way to chaos, which culminated in the implosion of Syria. The tiny dead body of Alan Kurdi broke my heart. Meanwhile, chaos in Libya made drownings in the Mediterranean a weekly occurrence and Europe was transforming into a fortress. Despite its generous asylum laws, the EU started supporting stabilocracy, turning a blind eye to democratic backsliding, both in the Balkans and across the eastern half of the EU. And so, while the Greeks and Germans were arguing about who was responsible for the economic predicament, differences between the western and eastern parts of EU were becoming more and more striking and those between South and North were emerging, I also developed that haunting gut feeling.

Namely, in the late 1980s, Serbia and Slovenia were deeply engaged in a corrosive, futile debate. Slovenia, and the Yugoslav northwest in general, was complaining that it was being exploited and kept back by the southeast of the country. Indeed, by several economic parameters, Kosovo was six times worse off than Slovenia. The plight of the Slovenes was that they were forced to subsidize the growth of the poorer parts of the country through bailouts. The southeast of Yugoslavia was in turn claiming that the northwest was the one profiting from the semi-open market which secured them cheap raw materials. In their own way, both sides were right, but that was beside the point. The point was that any feeling of solidarity disappeared, which at some point even led to an internal trade embargo imposed on Slovenia by Serbia and a customs war between Slovenia and Yugoslavia which then turned into a real one in the summer of 1991. The rest is history. A fratricidal war which was once unthinkable quickly became possible, then likely, and eventually inevitable

History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes, said Mark Twain. This is fortunate, because the EU resisted the temptation to escalate a German dispute with Greece into a wider confrontation between the wealthy Northwest and its poorer southern neighbors, which would have turned into a fight with no winners. Outside the EU there was less luck. On its outskirts, Ukraine was torn between the East and the West.

Parastates emerged in Donetsk and Luhansk, following a pattern eerily resembling the Yugoslav playbook, which once gave birth to the Republic of Srpska Krajina in Croatia and the Republic of Sprska in Bosnia. Behind the veil of local parastates, the support given by Russia was just as obvious as the support once given by Serbia.

A set of colorful characters, wacky Cossacks and warlords coming straight from the criminal milieu, like Givi and Motorola, vividly resemble Arkan and other forgotten specimens from the Yugoslav menagerie. Some participants were even the same, such as Igor Girkin. He was an active combatant in Bosnia and an important player in 2014 who was convicted in the Netherlands for downing the MH17 airplane.

Ethnicization of the conflict was gradual, but obvious, and it hurt many of my Ukrainian friends. I could not help but recall how Yugoslav identity was thrown out the window by the newly emerging hegemonic narratives in Serbia and Croatia, which put people who felt Yugoslav, or Serbo-Croatian, or were of both origins, in a very precarious situation.

Once the dust settles, if it ever settles and if we are not in that very dust, it will probably be worth looking into this entire period between 1989 and 2020s as a protracted, slow-motion collapse of the USSR.

As I write these lines, the events in Karabakh are just reinforcing that argument.

However, even with all these parallels, it should be clear that the USSR was not Yugoslavia, the Baltic countries are not Slovenia, and Russia is not Serbia. Neither were the 1990s the late 2010s or early 2020s.

The international community was still able to play some sort of role in Yugoslavia, imposing dissolution along its internal borders. It could mandate a tribunal to judge, no matter how imperfectly, war crimes committed during the atrocious warfare which took over 130,000 lives, over half of them civilians. None of that has happened in the case of Ukraine.

Putin has correctly understood that times have changed. He has incorrectly presumed that he should be able to steer the wheel. The gloves were off after the annexation of Crimea and the fist was out. That fist stroke in February 2022 and had disastrous consequences for Ukraine, ultimately for Russia too. Possibly for the entire world, currently beset with another chain of man-made disasters in the Middle East. As of this morning, mutual accusations of who hit the Gaza hospital are circulating like vultures. It is impossible for me not to recall similar waves of disinformation during the siege of Sarajevo. More importantly, it needs to be understood that the destruction is not about some distant places. We could not believe it could happen here is not just the title of a recent book on the Yugoslav wars, but also an important warning: it can happen wherever you may be, dear reader.
As it becomes abundantly clear these matters of life and death concern us all, a question which preoccupied Herzen, Chernyshevsky, and Lenin still awaits an answer – what is to be done? I will not even pretend that I have one. The current crisis is too deep, and it thickens every day. It makes little sense to engage in the kind of exercise which tends to be implicitly present in historical accounts (“if I were the Secretary General of the UN, I would have…”) or to work with counterfactuals (if only Gorbachev was offered an equivalent of the Marshall Plan, if Gore got the presidency instead of Bush, and so on and so on). I fear that no words can persuade the most relevant actors to behave more responsibly. Nowadays, ChatGPT can rewrite this essay to emulate Bertrand Russell, or to sound like a Biblical cry from the desert. Algorithms could even force it on to people’s screens, but nobody can make us comprehend the situation but ourselves.

The question is no longer what should have been done, nor what somebody else should do. The question now is what each and every individual can do to buy some more time for our children, as they might rightfully wonder how we have managed to leave them such a poisonous legacy.

And if you do not believe me and think that I am being too alarmist, just take a look at the Doomsday clock. It is dangerously close to midnight, but at least it is still ticking.

In collaboration with Oliver Garner and Ferenc Laczó.

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