Croatian nationalism

This year a young Croatian boy was shot by a security guard during a demonstration outside the Yugoslav consulate in Sydney. Eighteen years ago a series of bombs were planted in the same city during a state visit by a Yugoslav dignitary, almost certainly by members of the fascist Croatian group, the Ustasha.

Both then and now the reaction of many Australians has been extreme hostility not just to the Ustasha but to the Croatian population in general. A mythology has been accepted that unites both the racist anti – immigrant right and most of the left in Australia. The argument from the right, most clearly expressed after the shooting of the young boy in Sydney, is that immigrants should leave the problems of their home country and assimilate into the “Australian way of life”.

The argument from the left is that all Croatian nationalists are fascist and that for this reason we should support the “socialist” government in Belgrade against their “Ustasha” opponents. The assumption at the basis of this conclusion, which places most of the organisations of the Australian left in an uncomfortable alliance with Bruce Ruxton, is Stalinist. If you accept that the Yugoslav state is socialist, then it is easy to dismiss its opponents as fascist, like the entire Hungarian working class who rose up in revolt in 1956, or the ten million Polish workers who joined Solidarity in Poland in 1981.

It is true that amongst the Croatian community in Australia there are many former sympathisers and followers of Ante Pavelich and the Ustasha.

Yet it is also true that whereas most Croatians both here and in Yugoslavia (including the leadership of the Croatian section of the Yugoslav Communist Party) are Croatian nationalists of some sort, that doesn’t make them Ustashi.

The question for socialists to resolve is the basis of Croatian nationalism. Why is it such a potent force? Why did it produce the Ustasha? And what attitude should we take towards it? To simply dismiss Croatian nationalism as a variant of fascism is merely an excuse to refuse to analyse the national question in Yugoslavia. For Marxists however there is no excuse for this.

Yugoslavia today is in deep crisis. After nearly thirty years of experimentation with the “market socialism” now in vogue throughout the Eastern Bloc, its economy is near collapse and it has been the scene of a bitter, profound and ongoing class struggle. In an attempt to divert this struggle, the various national components of the Yugoslav bureaucracy have played upon the complicated and unresolved national feelings of the various nationalities in Yugoslavia. It is not beyond question that in the next few years Yugoslavia could be the scene of a workers’ revolution. If that were to happen the significant section of the Australian working class which is of Yugoslav origin would not be unaffected.

The origins of Yugoslavia

The Balkans have always been the most economically backward area of Europe. One of the consequences of this backwardness was the late development of nationalist sentiment among the peoples of the region.

With the exception of the Albanian population of the province of Kosovo and a Hungarian minority in the province of Vojvodina, the nations of Yugoslavia are all descended from Slavic tribes who immigrated into the region in the sixth century. In the centuries that followed, the mountainous region was fought over by invaders from the Russian steppes, the feudal aristocracy of Hungary and Austria, the Venetians and the Ottoman Turks.

As a result not only was no single nation ever created, but the patchwork of tribal groups that originally settled in Yugoslavia were transformed into a group of nations with distinct cultural and religious differences.

In the north the Croats and Slovenes were incorporated into the Austrian and Hungarian kingdoms. They were feudal states after the model of western Europe and were Catholic in their religion. In the south the Macedonians and the Serbs were conquered by the Turks and were heavily influenced by the Greek Orthodox Church (which was the version of Christianity most common in the Ottoman empire). In both these countries the aristocracy was exterminated at the time of the Turkish conquest.

In Bosnia, in the centre of Yugoslavia, both the peasantry and the local aristocrats had subscribed at the time of Turkish conquest to a persecuted form of Christianity, the Bogomil heresy. So they welcomed Turkish rule, and many converted to Islam, remaining so today. In the tiny mountain nation of Montenegro, a primitive tribal society successfully resisted invasion by the Turks, or anyone else. As late as 1830 an English visitor to the court of the Prince of Montenegro described the Prince’s pride – his newly installed billiard table – contrasting with the heads of his enemies arranged on poles outside his palace.

It isn’t surprising that as the Ottoman empire went into decline in the nineteenth century, both the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Russian tsar looked ravenously at the confusion of tiny Balkan states that arose in their wake. Here was an opportunity to make easy conquests. In the confusion of nationalities that was left in the Balkans by the retreating Turks, the easiest way for the different imperial powers to further their interests was to back one or other of the various nationalities.

So for instance the Russians gave support to their orthodox brethren, the Serbs, in their successful struggle against the Turks at the end of the Napoleonic wars. The Russians promoted the new Serbian state, as they did also the newly independent Bulgaria, to block the Austro-Hungarian empire from spreading southwards. In 1908 the Austrians annexed Bosnia. There followed a series of Balkan wars which strengthened the position of Serbia, and when in 1914 a young Serbian nationalist assassinated an Austrian Archduke in the Bosnian town of Sarajevo, the Balkan powder keg ignited, dragging all the imperialist powers of Europe into conflict. The victorious allies moved at the end of the war to install their ally among the Balkan nations, Serbia, as the dominant nation in the region.

A new state was created, the “Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes”, to be ruled over by the Serbian Karageorgevic dynasty. In effect it was a present to the Serbian monarchy for backing the right side during the war. The new kingdom was backed by the French who had replaced the Russian tsar (now eliminated by Bolshevik bullets) as Serbia’s imperial sponsor.

Initially, among the other Slavic nations in the new kingdom (though not in Albanian Kosovo) there was some enthusiasm for a union of southern Slavs. Pan Slavic nationalism had historically had a significant following throughout the region, especially in Croatia. But it soon became apparent that the new supposedly “democratic” state was a front for Serbian monarchist chauvinism.

In the new parliament the reactionary Serbian “Centralist” Party, whose platform can be guessed from its name, was ensured a majority. The other parties, the populist Croatian Peasant Party, and the Slovene Populists, the Social Democrats, and the Communist Party (which with 58 deputies was the third-largest party in the country), all boycotted the parliament in protest. The Communist Party was banned in the early twenties.

But the Croatian Peasant Party was too strong a force to be dealt with so easily. Formed before the First World War to fight for political and democratic rights for the Croatian peasantry, the Croatian Peasant Party held the loyalty of the overwhelming majority of Croatians (over 80 percent of whom were at this stage still peasants). It was a populist party with a left wing given to radical rhetoric. At one stage it even affiliated to the Red International of Peasant Parties in Russia.

Like most peasant-based parties, its leadership was drawn, not from the peasantry, but from the petit bourgeois intelligentsia. Parties drawn from such a social layer are notoriously fickle in their politics – at times pushed rapidly to the left by the demands of their peasant base, at other times open for the highest bidder. So the Croatian Peasant Party oscillated between periods where it refused to participate in the Belgrade parliament (throughout the whole period between the wars it maintained an armed militia) and other periods where it was willing to co-operate, even to the extent of having ministers in the cabinet.

But the contradictions of such an explicitly Serbian chauvinist state co-existing with a powerful opposition party based on an oppressed nationality were bound to shatter the veneer of bourgeois democracy before long.

In 1928, after a decade of growing repression, the leader of the Croatian Peasant Party was shot on the floor of the National Assembly by a Montenegrin deputy who was a member of the most intimate of royal circles. King Alexander used this as an excuse for a coup d’état, banning all political parties and changing the name of the country to Yugoslavia. The assassin escaped prosecution.

The Communist Party

The Communist Party had begun as a major force – the third largest party in the country in 1921 and the only party to gain support across the boundaries of the different nations. It drew its support not only from the working class in cities such as Zagreb and Belgrade, but also from the peasantry in Montenegro and Macedonia.

In these two nations there was resentment at Serbian domination, but no bourgeois nationalist parties such as the Croatian Peasant Party or the Slovenian Populists to take advantage of the resentment. The imbalance of a proletarian party gaining its greatest electoral support from two of the least proletarian areas of a country was a problem for the early Yugoslav Communist Party. Many of its parliamentary delegation were out and out opportunists, attracted by the success of the party rather than a commitment to communism, but the party’s working class base was too small to effectively discipline them.

From almost the beginning the party faced severe repression. It would have been a testing time for any party. Unfortunately the test was made all the more severe by the Stalinised Communist International. The Comintern was at this period embarking on what it called the “Bolshevisation” of the Communist Parties throughout the world. This was supposed to be a process of weeding out all opportunist and petit bourgeois elements – a necessary task especially in the Yugoslav party. But in reality it meant the removal of all but the most loyal and unquestioning supporters of Stalin. As a result of the internal bleeding caused by faction fights associated with Bolshevisation, combined with an atmosphere of extreme state repression, the party had shrunk to 3,000 by 1929.

The Communist International then embarked on a lunatic ultra-left phase known as the “Third Period” as a left cover for Stalin’s Five Year Plan and liquidation of the peasantry in Russia. So while it opposed Alexander’s coup d’état, the Yugoslav party dismissed it as an insignificant event – a squabbling between one set of bourgeois nationalists and another and a diversion from the struggle of class against class.

Later on in the ’30s, the line from Moscow swung sharply back to the right, to the idea of the Popular Front – an alliance between working class parties and the liberal bourgeoisie.

As a consequence, what was left of the party in Croatia (one of its strongest remaining sections) effectively liquidated itself into the left wing of the Peasant Party. It was only on the eve of World War II that a small but stable party was established under the leadership of a hardened Stalinist, Tito.

At its inception in the early twenties, the Yugoslav Communist Party had eclipsed and effectively destroyed the Social Democrats, becoming the main party of the Yugoslav proletariat. Its virtual self-destruction in the period between the wars left the petit-bourgeois nationalist parties such as the Croatian Peasant Party free to pose as the sole opponents of Serbian chauvinism.

The Ustasha

The Ustasha emerged in the twenties from a small far right nationalist grouping in Croatia, the Frankovci. The Frankovci were not a group that either sought or achieved a mass following. They were in fact basically an organisation financed first by Austrian and later by Italian money.

The Ustasha were the terrorist wing of the organisation (they were actually called the “ustase” or insurrectionists). They never numbered more than a few hundred during the thirties. Their leader, Ante Pavelich spent the period in exile in Italy maintained by Mussolini. Their one achievement was the assassination of King Alexander in Marseilles in 1934. The actual assassination was carried out by a member of the Hungarian secret police with whom the Ustasha had a close working relationship. For the Ustasha were in fact not a genuine nationalist force. They were backed by Mussolini who wished to incorporate the Dalmatian coast (part of Croatia) into Italy and Admiral Horthy, the proto-fascist ruler of Hungary who wished to return Croatia to its post-1848 status as part of Hungary.

The Second World War

The Serbian ruling class had effectively ruled the region on behalf of French capitalism between the wars. The collapse of France before the invading German armies knocked the bottom out of Yugoslavia’s reason for existence. Within a year a pro-German coup had occurred followed by a lightning occupation of the country by German troops. The Italians were given the Dalmatian coast to administer, and Mussolini’s old crony Ante Pavelich was given his ultimate dream – a puppet state in Croatia. The collaboration of the Yugoslav ruling class with the Germans was not confined however to Pavelich and Croatia.

The existence of a nominally “independent” puppet state in Croatia under Pavelich was possible simply because there the collaborators had a long association with Mussolini and could be trusted. And Pavelich proved himself a loyal lieutenant of the occupying forces, adding to their atrocities with his own pogroms and massacres against Jews, Gypsies and Serbs.

In Serbia a small group of army officers under an extreme Serbian chauvinist, Mihailovic, did set up a monarchist resistance called the Chetniks. But the Chetnik’s Serbian chauvinism made it impossible for them to gain popular support outside of Serbia, and their hatred of Tito’s Partisans and of the non-Serbian inhabitants of Serbia (whom they spent most of their time massacring) proved in the end greater than their hatred of the Germans.

They began to collaborate with the Germans, and starved of Allied funds, they collapsed. The Partisans, set up in the early months of the German occupation, grew rapidly in the political vacuum that now existed. The Communist Party was transformed from a small, Stalinist sect, based in the working class areas of Zagreb, Belgrade and Ljublanja, into the political core of a vast, mainly peasant army, fighting a war of national liberation against the Germans. The Partisan army drew both its support and its leadership from all of the nationalities that make up Yugoslavia.

The myth of a Croatian nation full of fascist collaborators is belied by evidence such as the fact that the representation of Croatians among the Partisan army was higher than the percentage of Croatians among the Yugoslav population.

The “independent” Croatian state of Pavelich began with some popular enthusiasm, hardly surprising given the strength of national sentiment in Croatia before the war. But even that was limited. Many leading members of the Peasant Party joined the Ustasha, but not all. And in the countryside, the peasant militia refused from the beginning to collaborate with Pavelich and had to be forcibly disarmed in 1941. Today it is still possible to find Croatians, especially amongst the immigrants who left shortly after the end of the war, who look to Pavelich.

This phenomenon is matched by the Ukrainian peasants who, fresh from the experience of mass starvation imposed by Stalin in the early thirties, welcomed the German army as liberators. But the reality of life under German occupation proved to be anything but liberation. And the Partisans began to rapidly erode the already limited popular base of Pavelich’s regime.

The new Yugoslavia

The Partisan army effectively liberated Yugoslavia before the Russian forces had arrived. As a result, Tito was able to operate with some degree of independence from Russian control. There was some popular enthusiasm for Tito’s regime, and part of it was based on what seemed to be a genuine desire to resolve the national question in Yugoslavia.

Certainly the post-1945 state was nothing like the reactionary carnival of Serbian chauvinism that existed between the wars. It was a federal nation, divided into a set of republics with a considerable degree of formal autonomy.

There were however major problems with the new Yugoslavia. The first was the treatment of the Albanian population of Kosovo. The Albanians have if anything the greatest cultural justification for autonomy of any of the nations in Yugoslavia. They are largely Muslim, and ethnically are not even Slavs. Yet all they warranted in the new federal state was the status of a semi-autonomous province within the republic of Serbia. There were two major reasons for this apparent anomaly. The first was a concession to the dominant myth of Serbian nationalism. For it was on the field of Kosovo in 1389 that the Turks inflicted a decisive defeat on Tsar Dusan of Serbia – a defeat whose anniversary today marks Serbia’s national day.

It is partly for this reason that Serbian chauvinists today are so concerned to claim Kosovo as the “heartland of Serbia”. That Serbian chauvinism hadn’t been eliminated by Tito’s “revolution” was demonstrated by the attitude of one of his leading supporters, Mosa Pijade, to the national question. This is fairly important, as Pijade was the man who wrote Yugoslavia’s constitution. The constitution contains the phrase “Serbs in the People’s Republic of Croatia have equal rights as Croats” (Serbs form 18 percent of the population of Croatia). Explaining why there were no similar phrases referring to the rights of Croats in Serbia, Pijade argued that the Serbs played a special role in Yugoslavia.

This meant that wherever they were present in a republic, in whatever small numbers, they played a disproportionate role – explicitly that they were “not a national minority, because the Serbs are a ‘ruling’ and ‘state-making’ nation, they can be nowhere in Yugoslavia a ‘national minority’, everywhere they are the ruling nation”. Probably, however, a more important consideration was the logic of recognising Kosovo as an ethnically Albanian region, as opposed to a region of Serbia with a large Albanian population. For if it is ethnically Albanian (which of course it is) it should be logically part of neighbouring Albania rather than Yugoslavia.

The new Yugoslav ruling class, headed by Tito, may not have all been particularly Serbian chauvinists – Tito after all was himself Croatian. Nevertheless they were a ruling class. The Partisan army, however much popular support it may have had, was run on the lines of a regular army, with an authoritarian, top down structure. The war against the Germans was just that – a war. It was not a worker’s revolution, but effectively a national struggle led by a petit-bourgeois leadership. As a result, it did not establish a socialist country with institutions of popular democracy – of workers’ power. Instead, post-war Yugoslavia was a state capitalist country after the model of Russia, with nationalised industry controlled by a privileged and centralised bureaucracy.

This centralisation was important. For Tito to maintain control, especially after he broke with his former Russian masters in 1948, he needed to maintain a ruthless grip on the ruling bureaucracy. And he was hardly going to make a concession to the Albanian population of Kosovo, the logic of which was to concede that the territory should not be a part of Yugoslavia at all.

The capital Belgrade was made the centre of the bureaucracy. There Tito’s right-hand man and acknowledged heir, Rankovic, built up a powerful personal machine based on his control of the secret police and the party’s personnel policies. Rankovic was both an authoritarian centralist and a Serbian chauvinist. As Tito began to open Yugoslavia up to the West, Rankovic became the leader of the conservative, Stalinist opposition (like Ligachev today in Russia). Under his direction the party and the police came to be dominated by Serbs. So that for instance, it was revealed after Rankovic was removed from power in 1966 that there was only one member of the secret police in Kosovo of Albanian origin and none in Vojvodina of Hungarian origin!

In the end Rankovic’s opposition to Tito’s economic reforms led to his downfall and to a greater decentralisation and liberalisation after 1966. But this was limited. For the inhabitants of Kosovo and Vojvodina, the chauvinist outrages of the secret police were ended but the Serbian domination of these provinces remained. For instance; as late as the 1970s around 75 percent of the Vojvodina League of Communists (the Yugoslav CP) were Serbs although Serbs remained only a bare majority of the province’s population. And as one academic supporter of Tito was forced to remark, after the removal of Rankovic “the leadership carefully avoided reducing the relative participation of Serbs in the central organs of the party”.·

One important consequence of the Serbian domination of the central bureaucracy was economic. Croatia and Slovenia are much more economically advanced than the rest of Yugoslavia. It has been a continual source of grievance that the central bureaucracy redistributes the profits earned in Slovenia and Croatia away from those republics.

The introduction of “market socialism”, which accelerated after the dismissal of Rankovic, was welcomed by both the bureaucracy and the workers of these two republics. They welcomed it, not so much through enthusiasm for the free market, but because they thought this would allow them greater freedom from the Belgrade bureaucracy. Unfortunately, this was not the case. It is true that the party bureaucracy reduced its role in directing investment. In 1963 42.5 percent of investment was controlled by the central and republican governments. By 1971 the figure had declined to 8.8 percent. But this actually led to a reduction of the economic autonomy of the republics. For the slack was not taken up by the local party bureaucracy or the managers of the individual enterprises that had created the capital. Instead the role formerly played by the central bureaucracy was now taken up by the banks, all of which were based in Belgrade! In 1971 this led to a major political crisis. After the fall of Rankovic, the Croatian party had fallen into the hands of liberals who encouraged the growth of nationalist sentiment.

The success of the tourist industry on the Dalmatian coast (part of Croatia) brought an influx of foreign capital into Croatia. But only 7 percent of that capital was allowed to be held by the enterprises which had earned it. The rest had to be deposited in the central bank in Belgrade. The two republics of Croatia and Slovenia earned between them more than 60 percent of Yugoslavia’s foreign earnings. It is hardly surprising that they resented having these earnings redirected out of their local economy.

The justification for this central control was the need to redirect investment towards the less advanced areas such as Kosovo and Montenegro. However this claim is dubious. Montenegro, the inhabitants of which claim the greatest ethnic kinship with the Serbs, did receive substantial investment from the central government during this period. Kosovo significantly, the poorest part of Yugoslavia, received very little.

In the late ’60s the Croatian party leadership, defied the central authorities and began a limited popular agitation around nationalist and liberal slogans and demands. This provoked a massive public response – a surge from below that was nicknamed “the Croat spring” after the Prague spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Mass student demonstrations demanded greater democracy and national autonomy. There was a groundswell of enthusiasm for Croatian culture. In 1971, Matica Hrvaska, a Croatian cultural organisation, issued a set of proposals. They proposed that Croatia be defined as a “sovereign national state” with the right to secession, full control of revenues with only voluntary contributions to the central authorities and a separate UN delegation. For Tito this was the last straw.

Tito was not willing to allow any defiance of his central authority. He had built his own central base in the bureaucracy in Belgrade. And so in late 1971 the army intervened to force the resignation of the Croatian party leaders.

Tito then followed a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand he made major concessions to the economic concerns of the ousted Croatian leadership. Only two weeks after the resignations of the Croatian leadership, the Federal Executive Council announced a reform of the foreign currency system that raised retention quotas from 7 to 20 percent (45 percent for tourist enterprises). It also announced the establishment of an internal foreign currency market within Yugoslavia and the establishment of national banks in the various republics.

But to balance this dramatic easing of the economic oppression of the northern republics, Tito strengthened the political dominance of the central Serbian bureaucracy. In early 1972 he began a campaign to restore “the principles of democratic centralism” within the LCY. This heralded the beginning of a purge throughout the party which replaced any elements guilty of either an excess of liberalism or of nationalism (that is non-Serbian nationalism).

He also further limited the cultural autonomy of the various republics, especially in Croatia where cultural institutions had played such a significant part in the nationalist upsurge. Courses in Croatian literature were severely discouraged, and the level of repression against the Catholic church was increased.

The religious question has been one the most important causes of national tension in post-war Yugoslavia. The Serbian orthodox church has been a close collaborator with the regime and has been rewarded for this. In 1952 the Macedonian orthodox church was made subordinate to the Serbian church. From 1956 to 1971 a program of systematic renovation of Orthodox monasteries was carried out. But the Catholic and Muslim churches received no such official favour. On the contrary they were severely restricted, and the use of Arabic grammar in Bosnia has been banned for decades.

The reality of post-war Yugoslavia has been a state capitalist regime where an uneasy balance is maintained between a central bureaucracy prone to Serbian chauvinism, and local party leaderships (especially in Slovenia and Croatia) with limited but real power to resist the central authorities.

The limited nature of the Yugoslav “revolution” meant that chauvinism and other forms of nationalism were bound to rise again from time to time. It is hardly surprising then that as the Yugoslav economy has slipped into crisis in the late ’70s and ’80s, nationalist tensions have risen to the surface and threatened to split the country apart.

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