Foreign Affairs

Slobodan Milošević’s Balkan Legacy

The Balkans have historically been regarded as a fiercely divided battleground for proxy wars carried out by other nations. Today, while the Balkan states have significantly greater sovereignty than they did during the Cold War, the effects of the 20th century’s legacy of violent ethnic divisions can still be seen today. These tensions, coupled with irresponsible policy from the European Union, have led the Balkans to once again become a region of contention between Western Europe and Russia. To understand the current ethnic tensions in the Balkans, the reasons for the aforementioned outbreak of violence must be examined. More specifically, the Yugoslav wars stemmed from the concentration of power in Serbian president Slobodan Milošević following the Serbian anti-bureaucratic revolution.

The Serbian “anti-bureaucratic revolution” was a series of nationalist protests against the governments of Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro from 1986 to 1989 that resulted in the mass resignations of the members of these governments. This left Slobodan Milošević with a majority voting bloc within Yugoslavia as well as a popular mandate for his presidency. Although it worked out conveniently for Milošević, there is significant debate among historians as to the exact balance between Milošević’s contributions, grassroots nationalism, and intellectual discontent that resulted in the anti-bureaucratic revolution.

One of the main sources of nationalist discontent in Serbia was the critical intelligentsia, whose distaste towards the Stambolic administration’s Kosovo policies and the 1974 Yugoslav constitution culminated in the publication of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts (SANU) Memorandum in 1986, which served as an official declaration of ideology from the intellectual elite. The memorandum denounced “aggressive Albanian chauvinism” and heightened the popular perception of a “genocide” of the Kosovo Serbs. Upon its publication, Serbian president Ivan Stambolic stood with the Yugoslav political elite and vehemently disavowed the memorandum and nationalism of any form. Due to the popularity of the memorandum with the Serbian population, Stambolic’s refusal to acknowledge its ideas was detrimental to the public’s already poor perception of his administration.

Milošević, on the other hand, made no such repudiations of the SANU memorandum, and actually formed close political relationships with several of its authors. This established Milošević as a nationalist foil to Stambolic. Just as Stambolic was the head of the political elite, Milošević became the political champion of the nationalists. Capitalizing on Stambolic’s lack of initiative, Milošević further exacerbated Serbian nationalism by directly connecting with the critical intelligentsia, which bolstered his nationalistic legitimacy. Although the SANU memorandum can be considered a testament to the strength of the critical intellectuals in influencing public opinion, it was Milošević’s response to its publication that made its ideas more acceptable to a wider audience.

Another main source of nationalist discontent in Serbia was the Kosovo Serbs, whose first significant contact with Milošević occurred in April 1987 at the Kosovo Polje protests. Milošević visited Kosovo Polje on April 24, 1987, most likely to meet with local communist officials and negotiate the calming down of demonstrations. However, because the crowds construed his visit as a sign of the Serbian government’s concern for their grievances, Milošević was forced to give a speech on the spot, in which he praised the Kosovo Serbs for their bravery in the face of Albanian persecution. Never before had the Kosovo Serbs been granted explicit validation of their resentment by a senior member of the Serbian government.

This acknowledgment, coupled with the numerous references to the failings of the Kosovo government, fueled further anger among Kosovo Serbs toward the Albanian majority and, more importantly, toward their own provincial government. Without the subtle direction by Milošević through his Kosovo Polje address, the Kosovo Serbs would have continued to aimlessly protest against the Kosovo Albanians, but not against the provincial government of Kosovo. By assigning a more concrete enemy to the protesters, Milošević made their demands more focused. Therefore, the Serbian political elite could not plead the irrationality of the protesters as an excuse for not taking action without weakening their position and granting Milošević more popularity. Additionally, as he did with the critical intellectuals and the SANU memorandum, Milošević’s address served to legitimize the perceived plight of the Kosovo Serbs in the eyes of the rest of Serbia.

Milošević’s nationalist influence was not limited to a Serbian audience. Montenegro’s government was blamed by Montenegrin Milošević supporters for its insufficient support for Milošević’s Kosovo policy. When faced with imminent protests, the government declared a state of emergency. Milošević seized this opportunity to blast the decision on Serbian and Montenegrin media outlets as an official act of hostility towards the Serbian government. Without the media firestorm perpetuated by Milošević, there would not have been a general perception of the state of emergency as an aggressive measure against Serbia. In doing so, Milošević shifted his violent diatribes from the Kosovo Albanians to the Montenegrin government as a means of providing yet another “other” for his growing base of supporters to rally against. Milošević also had a political incentive for doing so, because the ousted government was replaced with his political allies.

Serbian nationalist sentiment reached a fever pitch at Milošević’s Gazimestan Rally on June 28th, 1989, which was also the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. This was an event of extreme cultural significance to Serbia and one that Milošević referenced frequently in his speeches. In this address, Milošević spoke to his largest audience ever and used more overtly nationalistic rhetoric than he ever had before. He referred to the perceived “genocide” of the Kosovo Serbs by the Albanians and stressed the cultural importance of Kosovo to the Serbian identity, echoing the messages of the SANU memorandum. However, he simultaneously emphasized the importance of equal relations between groups in Yugoslavia. By doing this, Milošević played to both the nationalist elements of the population and the Yugoslav political elite, establishing a mandate for his presidency on both sides.

As shown by the growing attendance and increasingly nationalist rhetoric of his rallies, Milošević gradually introduced Serbian nationalism to new sectors of the population, all the while maintaining himself as the champion of a modern Serbia. He established a cult of personality that drew similarities between himself and the original leaders of Serbia in the Battle of Kosovo. Therefore, he made himself into a symbol of Serbian glory and exceptionalism and was irremovable from the very concept of Serbian nationalism.

Milošević’s primary tool besides his speeches was the state media, which he utilized at every stage of the revolution. The media allowed his nationalist messages to reach across all of Yugoslavia. A significant example of the Milošević administration’s blatant astroturfing is the newspaper Politika, which had a highly publicized “Letters to The Editor” column that was just a platform for the dissent of critical intellectuals sponsored by the state. The Serbian people were led to believe that the nationalist propaganda published by this column were unfiltered opinions of respectable and educated members of Serbian academia.

In addition to instilling ideological nationalism in the Serbian population, Milošević used the media to exaggerate the faults of provincial governments in an attempt to directly incite mass protests. The primary example of this occurred in Montenegro, but it also led to the ousting of the Kosovo and Vojvodina governments. Although some historians argue that this is evidence of the critical intelligentsia’s pivotal role in the revolution rather than Milošević’s, the protests of the intellectuals would not have been as influential without the far-reaching platform provided by him.

Without Milošević’s actions, it is doubtful that the anti-bureaucratic revolution would have reached the heights that it did. While the Kosovo Serbs did break out in grassroots protests, it was Milošević who gave concrete direction to these protests and extended their militant nationalism to other sections of the population through the gradual use of the state media and his addresses. He legitimized the nationalist discontent of the critical intellectuals after the SANU memorandum and the Kosovo Serbs through his early speeches. Most importantly, he used the media and his addresses to declare a tangible “other” for the Serbians to resent, from the Kosovo Albanians to the provincial governments of Kosovo, Vojvodina, and Montenegro. Therefore, Milošević played a pivotal role in the anti-bureaucratic revolution, and without his direction, it would not have been near as organized or effective.

By pitting these ethnic and social groups against each other, Milošević was able to rise to power and carry out his genocidal agenda against Bosnian Muslims, Kosovars, and Croats, which culminated in the violent Yugoslav wars, from 1991 to 2001. The legacy of hatred and distrust among these groups and Serbia still exist and is increasingly relevant in the face of the growing Russian influence and the waning EU presence in the region.

Categories: Foreign Affairs

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