Yugoslavia's Political Structures and Ethnic Groups

The judges of the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague called on Professor Paul Garde to give an historic overview of the Balkans region and Garde then fielded questions from the judges. Garde's testimony was given June 27-28, 1996. He is a professor of Slav literature and languages and has written many lingustics books. Since 1991 Garde's research and writing have focused on the break-up of Yugoslavia.

Q: What were the basic political structures of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia? (the name of the country after World War II) and how did they correspond to ethnic groups?

A. This Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia was composed of six republics: in the north-west there was Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia and Serbia. The Republic of Serbia, which is the largest and has the largest population, within it had two autonomous provinces, that is, in the north it was Vojvodina and in the south was Kosovo.

... Ultimately there were six peoples for which six republics corresponded: the Croats, the Slovenes, the Muslim Bosnians, the Montenegrins, the Macedonians and the Serbs.

However, we are talking about historic borders which did not correspond to the ethnic borders. In fact, there really were no ethnic borders because it was impossible to draw the lines according to ethnic lines; they were such a mixture of peoples, in some of the republics one noted that there was a presence not of one but several people making it up. Therefore,....Serbia was supposed to have only one nation making it up, one people making it up, Croatia had two, that is, the Croats and the Serbs, since there were 12 per cent Serb population. According to the 1991 population of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there were three peoples, that is, the Muslim Bosnians, the Serbs and the Croats who in 1991 were 44 per cent, 31 per cent and 18 per cent.

In addition, outside those people who made up the southern Slavs, there were other populations as well that were called either the minorities or nationalities. The two major minorities were the Albanians, represented by 2 million and the Hungarians either 300,000 or 400,000. This is why, as far as Serbia was concerned, there were two autonomous provinces created; in the southern part, Kosovo, because the population there was a majority Albanian, and then in Vojvodina because next to the Serbian population, which in 1991 represented 54 per cent, I believe, there were a large number of minorities, mostly Hungarians, but there were Rumanians, there were Slovaks. These are two regions where significant minority populations existed.

One of the peculiarities of the constitution under Tito, of the various constitutions which followed one during the regime, was the fact that while they proclaimed that there was equality among the various nationalities, it maintained the distinction between the peoples, on the one hand, and the nationalities and minorities on the other..

... There was a constitutional contradiction in the 1974 constitution. At the same time it was stated that Kosovo and Vojvodina were part of the Republic of Serbia, but simultaneously it is said, well, that Kosovo and Vojvodina had the same (status) as other republics.

So this ... corresponds to the difficulty and conflict between the Serbs, on the one hand, and the minorities who were living in Serbian territory on the other. And then between the Serbs and the Albanians.

As the regime evolved, the republics became more and more autonomous, but the autonomous provinces also became increasingly autonomous. From '74, they were on the same footing as the republics, which was a source of a great deal of dissatisfaction among the Serbs.

I would like to add as well that when I said that the republics corresponded to this or that, people, does that mean that any of these republics were really homogeneous, because all of the provinces, all of the republics, had a mixed population of different proportions. I will not give you the details here, but the ethnic composition of each of the regions was extremely complex.

Q: What was/is the significance of this 'national status' for the citizens of Yugoslavia and how did they view it?

A. "Nation" is considered to be a group of people sharing a common culture, a number of cultural characteristics, and these cultural characteristics are something that remain with them regardless of the state they belong to. This is why in this part of Europe it is impossible really for the limits or borders between states to coincide with the limits or borders between nations; whereas in western Europe they are one and the same thing, as it were.

So in the eastern parts of Europe, belonging to a nation, to one nation or another, is something which an individual feels as being something that belongs to him, just as does the language he speaks or the religion he belongs to, and that is something that is over and beyond politics.

So Yugoslavia from the outset was a multinational state, that is, the state in which there were several nations, in which people considered themselves to be, for instance, Serbian or Croatian or Slovenian, or Muslim Bosnians or Albanian, irrespective of the fact that they belonged to Yugoslavia. Legally even, the nationality and the citizenship were distinct concepts under Yugoslav law, and they were distinct concept under Soviet law. They have remained distinct concepts in the legislation of the republics that now make up the former Yugoslavia. For example, a citizen of Croatia still today can have Croat citizenship and at the same time have Serbian or Italian or Hungarian nationality, and the same goes for Serbia.

"Citizenship" means belonging to the state but "nationality" is a characteristic; it is an intrinsic part of the individual. The citizens of the former Yugoslavia (and this still holds true today for the republics) had (and still have) this particular awareness that they regard themselves as belonging to such and such a nation.

Now, this feeling may be or not be significant in their hearts, but it is something that does exist. By the same token, it is the people around them who regard them as belonging to such and such a nation as well. When you are talking about multi-ethnic areas where you have different nationalities living together, for example, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the people themselves were aware of being this or that and that their neighbors were this or that, which for quite sometime, so long as the political senses were favorable, did not in any way hinder them from getting along fine and living side by side, marrying one another,etc. But the awareness of belonging to one group or another was something that was there. Once the political circumstances changed and they became unfavorable, once these differences were consciously exploited to give rise to conflict, well, that conflict was one that could be easily stirred.

Q. After World War II, didn't Yugoslavia's five "nations" correspond generally to its republics?

A. Yes. There was an overall correspondence. Once the Muslim Bosnians were recognized as a nation, there were as many nations as republics -- six republics, six nations -- but that is not to say that all the inhabitants of the Republic belonged to the nation in question.

As I already said earlier, in all of the Republics, with the exception perhaps of Slovenia, the population was very mixed indeed. With the exception of Slovenia, there was no Republic in which the dominating nation accounted for more than, let me see, 72 per cent of the population, I think. So in no case did the dominating population account for three-quarters of the population in Bosnia. It amounted solely to two-fifths, that is say, the Muslims accounted for only two-fifths of the population there.

So there was no case where there was a full correspondence between the nation and the Republic, just as in the Balkans as a whole there is not any place where there is a full coincidence between states and nationalities. There are minorities everywhere. What does that mean? A minority is a group of people in respect of which citizenship and nationality are two different things. So when you have Greeks from Albania, Turks from Bulgaria, Hungarians from Rumania, etc., you are talking about minorities; that is to say, that people, their definition of themselves as a nation is different from what they regarded as the state they belonged to.

So this "coincidence" of one-nation, one-republic in Western Europe is one that goes without saying for historical reasons. In the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general, it is one that you simply cannot bring about except via violence. Now, that violence can be deportation, it can be massacres, it can be ethnic cleansing. The "Utopia" if you will, whereby there would be coincidence between state and ethnic borders, was the Utopia of the Treaty of Versailles, that was the very principal behind it in 1918. That treaty, of course, was one that could not be implemented. So there were minorities everywhere subsequently, and that was also what underlay Hitler's position of Europe in 1941. It was the same idea of carving up along ethnic lines, and it was done under Hitler in the southern Balkans, but there again at the price of massacres.

That is also the Utopia that is taking place before us, that is to say, to want the political, i.e., state borders to coincide with the ethnic borders of the nationalities. For all of the people of a given nation to be in the same state and that there be no minorities, that is a Utopia and the only way you can work towards that is with violence, with dreadful violence.

Q. Were there some nations, peoples, that viewed a particular republic as their primary political entity?

A. Yes, that was the case everywhere, because there were as many republics as there were nations. So, in each of the republics there was a main people which considered themselves to be at home, that it was their Republic. But, as I said, in Croatia officially there were two constituent nations, in Bosnia there were officially three peoples making up the state.


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