So, a couple questions remain. Was Yugoslavia’s violent collapse inevitable? Are all multiethnic / multicultural / diverse countries doomed to fail?
In regards to having more than one ‘founding’ ethnic group, I'd point out the obvious cases of, say, Switzerland and Canada which are still there and seem to be doing just fine.
I could also talk about prosperous countries with lots of immigrants, but the OP would probably just insist they’re actually hellholes anyway.
Let’s stick to Yugoslavia.
Take it from someone who grew up in the Balkans — diversity is not a strength.
When the wars in the Balkans finally ended, my family decided to head back. As Serbs, my family went to the new nation of Serbia. That was the whole point of the wars, after all: segregation — Croats got Croatia, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) got Bosnia, Serbs got Serbia, and so on. Ironically, twenty years later the Balkans are a peaceful place — thanks to the collapse of an artificial and diverse country, and the rise of several homogeneous nations in its place. Meanwhile, Western countries seem to want to remake themselves in the image of the former Yugoslavia — illogical polities composed of several different antagonistic and wildly different peoples. Or perhaps their long-term plan is to create new Venezuelas: genetically diverse countries where centuries of miscegenation have created something approaching homogeneity. I’m not sure which is worse.
Firstly, Yugoslavia as an ‘artificial’ country.
Yes, it was indeed artificial, as are all countries — even all nations. They’re hardly a natural given; rather, they are social constructs formed by groups of humans on the basis of perceived similarities, on the ‘right’ of conquest, on the ‘divine right’ of monarchs to rule over the lands they acquired, etc. All of these are human actions and perceptions.
Your assertion that nations are somehow ‘natural’ doesn’t hold water: after all, the very concept of modern nations is only about 200 years old. Of course, ethnic groups existed before then, but many of them never formed their own country — and yet they managed to survive and live in close proximity or together with other ethnic groups.
Your concept of racism is also quite new, only a couple centuries older than the nation.
Yugoslavia was a product of the 19th century ideology of Yugoslavism, which at the least intended to foster cooperation between the various South Slavic peoples, and later grew to a desire to unite them in a single country. As is typical for national ideologies, this one too started out as an idea of a narrow group of intellectuals, who slowly spread it and made it more popular. Ironically, Yugoslavism began in Croatia, as an evolution of the 1830s Illyrian Movement; today, of course, Croatia is the South Slavic country that is most phobic of anything related to Yugoslavia or South Slavic unity.
I’d also like to note that the name Yugoslavia, or Jugoslavija in its native form, comes from the term južni Slaveni, which means Southern Slavs.
So, we’ve established that Yugoslavia had a founding ideology that had similarities with what national ideologies tend to be like.
The problem was that this movement had limited support, and that there were other, explicitly national ideologies in play - for instance, the emerging Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian nationalisms, and later others as well. These ideologies had their overlaps and their exclusionary differences, which aren’t easy to succintly describe, so I won’t try that here.
A key moment came in late 1918, when the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which we might describe as a hodge-podge of lands acquired over the centuries by the Habsburg dynasty, collapsed and was divided. One of the results was the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which would later be known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
I already talked about that country’s weaknesses and failings in other posts on this site. Suffice to say that it was an authoritarian monarchy that went from a quasi-parliamentary system to being a royal dictatorship, and that it did not truly live up to being a homeland of equal ethnic groups. It had a degree of Serbian domination, with lesser or greater repression of competing national movements. ‘Integral Yugoslavism’ was the closest thing to an official ideology, but it had limited support, was at times implemented by force, and state attempts to subdue ethnic nationalisms consequently failed and only made things worse.
I should note, however, that the formation of nations still hadn’t entirely been completed by 1918. The modern Croat, Serb and Slovene nations were only fully defined during the course of this short-lived state, not long before its occupation during World War 2. Meanwhile, the formation of the Macedonian, Montenegrin and ethnic Muslim (now known as Bosniak) nations had begun, and would more or less come to a finish in the post-war period, during the second, socialist Yugoslavia.
This state also had large non-Slavic minorities, such as the Germans, Hungarians and Albanians.
With the Axis invasion of 1941, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was overwhelmed and rapidly defeated. The country was quartered by its neighbors, and a couple of satellite states were established on its former territory:
A bloody war ensued, that was both aimed against the Axis invaders, as well as being a civil war.
So, why was Yugoslavia re-established after WW2, given its previous iteration’s failure and the amount of bloodshed that ensued between its constituent ethnic groups?
Well, it didn’t have much to do with the will of the Western Allies and the Soviets, unlike in many other cases in Europe.
Yugoslavia’s uniqueness lay in that not only did a large home-grown armed resistance form (the pro-communist Partisans), but said resistance actually survived and did the bulk of the work in liberating the country; the Soviets and the West had more of an auxiliary role. Furthermore, the resistance was truly multiethnic, comprised of a significant number of members of every South Slavic nation in Yugoslavia.
In other words, there was a large group of people that fought to resurrect the country, and which could act as a cohesive factor of sorts. The nationalist collaborators that fought on the side of the Axis occupiers had been defeated, and many of their remnants went into exile.
The new country promised true equality for its constituent nations, establishing six socialist republics within Yugoslavia, each the national home of at least one of the South Slavic nations. The republics’ autonomy was at first merely formal, but later became actually substantial. Furthermore, the republic of Serbia was later sub-divided by creating two socialist autonomous provinces on parts of its territory - the highly multiethnic Vojvodina in the north (with Serbs and Hungarians being the largest groups), and the Albanian-majority Kosovo in the south. Here’s how that looked like on the map:
So, why did it all fall apart?
There is no single reason.
Part of the problem lied in the authoritarianism that characterized the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. While the Communist Party’s control over society generally declined over time so that non-right wing historians and commentators usually don’t consider the system to have remained totalitarian after the year 1950 or so, it’s undoubtable that the country was a one-party dictatorship with partial control over the media. This somewhat limited freedom of thought and political expression.
Another issue was the legacy of World War 2, including its massive bloodshed and inter-ethnic violence. There was a sort of politically-enforced taboo on the proper investigation and discussion of the dark aspects of the period, especially when it comes to the discussion of Partisan war crimes. As it turns out, enforcing silence on problematic aspects of the past didn’t really work out, and ended up backfiring.
Thus, the country never properly dealt with its past, and when that came to task in the 1980s, it wasn’t ready to deal with that painful topic. The increasing freedom of expression came at the same time as a systematic and long-term economic crisis; arguments between the republic-level branches of the ruling League of Communists over economic and financial redistribution became increasingly nationalistically-intoned, and the commies’ relaxation of control unfortunately had the result of enabling nationalists and their media to throw around arguments which weren’t necessarily truthful, and do so without facing consequences — especially in Serbia.
So at the same time, Yugoslavia found itself dealing with many things:
- an economic crisis it failed to find solutions for;
- a crisis of leadership after the death of president-for-life Josip Broz Tito;
- the lack of a constructive solution to the Kosovo crisis which escalated in 1981, and which worsened the already poor ethnic relations between Kosovo Serbs and Albanians (note that this is a simplification of that situation, though);
- a relaxation of media constraints and of political interference, especially in Slovenia and Serbia, which resulted both in increasing democratization and the opening of certain necessary conversations, but also in the liberation of latent nationalism and its abuse by ambitious politicians such as Slobodan Milošević, the new leader of Serbia’s League of Communists;
- the lack of a will to find productive ways to deal with the painful aspects of history, which resulted in the abuse of history for nationalist purposes;
- the creation of a media frenzy, most notably in Serbia, which fueled regular people’s paranoia regarding their neighbors of other ethnicities;
- the misunderstandings that resulted from all of the above between common people of different ethnicities, and which increased over time;
- there no longer was a cohesive factor in the form of a large and connected group of people who were interested in cross-ethnic cooperation as there used to be in the aftermath of World War 2;
All in all, Yugoslavia’s problems were manifold, and not reducible to a single cause for the breakup and wars. One thing that just about all non-nationalist historians I’ve read agree on, though, is that “ancient ethnic hatreds” were not even close to being a main reason for what happened in the 90s. Southern Slavic ethnic relations in Yugoslavia were often much better even back in the 1980s than they are today, let alone in the 1990s. A lot of the present ‘hatred’ was either created by politics and the media, or by the devastation of the wars.
I should also note that other European ex-commie multiethnic states had different outcomes. Czechoslovakia broke apart entirely peacefully, while the USSR experienced some violence, but not as much as Yugoslavia.
And now I realize I need to write one more, though likely shorter post, which will say a bit on the topic of the ‘average/common people’ in ex-Yugoslavia and how their views changed with the 1990s wars.