The collapse of Yugoslavia was not rooted in nationalism. Instead the eruption of nationalism was the consequence of the collapse of Yugoslavia, says Horvat. The self-management project in the Balkan country in the era of Tito was step by step integrated into the global market which led to its implosion. A series of neoliberal policies were imposed like the financialization of the economy and commercialization of state services. The results of different waves of privatization and buy-outs were deindustrialization, mass unemployment and the rise of right-wing chauvinism in the Balkans. While Yugoslavia was one of the leading auto makers in Europe, today there are no factories any more between Vienna and Athens. “The Yugoslav system functioned like the European Union with a center, Serbia-Croatia and a periphery with Kosovo and other regions. And the center also imposed austerity measures similar to what is happening today in the EU. The possible future collapse of the European Union might resemble the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.”
Srećko Horvat: co-founder of DiEM25, philosopher, activist und author from Croatia
David Goessmann: Last year, the Balkans got a lot of media attention, there was a lot of coverage about the so-called Balkan route, on which a lot of refugees tried to reach the Northern parts of Europe, but else we rarely hear about what is going on in the Balkans economically, socially, politically. So what is the situation right now in Croatia, in Bosnia, or in Serbia? Many years after the Yugoslav wars and the 1990s ended?
Srećko Horvat: The situation is very depressing. The situation is similar to the situation of other peripheral countries of the European Union, except that what you have in Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, mainly, is the worst kind of historical revisionism, where even the anti-fascist struggle which liberated this region – It was the first liberated region/territory during the Nazi regime, which had already taken most of Europe, that even anti-fascism is being reinterpreted in a bad manner, that it’s impossible to speak publicly about the victory of anti-fascism. You have right-wing governments all over, which are at the same time neoliberal governments. You have mass unemployment. I think Croatia today is the third, just after Greece and Spain when it comes to the unemployment of the youth. Every second Croatian between 20 and 30 is unemployed. So you have brain drain, emigration, which is not only economic emigration, but also political emigration in a way. And you have a situation that a territory which was once a territory with the current numbers of the rise of GDP which China has – 7 or 8 percent – now is in economic recession already for years –
David Goessmann: That was in the Yugoslav period?
Srećko Horvat: During the Yugoslav period we had factories, we had a free public healthcare system, we had free public education, which meant that if you go to the university you don’t have to take a loan, which you have to take out today, for instance, like in the American system, in order to study; we had natural resources, which belonged to Yugoslavia, which means water resources, wood, forests, and so on. There are no factories from Vienna to Athens today. If you go by car you will find almost no factories anymore. Before the 1990s Yugoslavia was one of the biggest producers of cars in Europe, of different sorts of products. Yugo, of course, Zastava, Concha, I could name the companies. Most of these companies do not exist anymore. And it goes even so far that once these companies were privatized, and it already started in the eighties - we could talk about that as well - already during Yugoslavia, but once the industry was privatized, once the factories were privatized, then came a new period at the end of the 90s, at the beginning of 2000, when the banks started to be privatized. So now today in Croatia 90 percent of the banks are not Croatian anymore but Italian, French and so on, which then again with the Italian referendum, you will see that that has consequences on Croatia as well. It’s not only Yugoslavia, I was recently in Romania, for instance, at a mountain in Transylvania, 2000 meters high, where you have the biggest number of clear cuts in Europe. Why? Because an Austrian company called Schweighofer is exporting the wood to Western Europe, so again you have something which you already had in this territory during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Because during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy it was Bosnia, Croatia, parts of Serbia, Romania, which served as the periphery to the center, and you have a parallel again here, it is the same today here in the current architecture of the European Union, where these countries, the peripheral countries, again serve as a territory for the extraction of value, as a territory for the extraction of cheap labor, as a territory for the extraction of natural resources. So all over the Balkans now, for us it was really normal that you switch off the pipe and you drink water. I mean, that’s the most normal thing. Some people still do it today, which is a surprise to me. Today, you have bottled water all over Yugoslavia. And I remember when I was a child in the 90s with my friends in the park we are all talking about this dystopian future where people will drink bottled water. Well you have it today and it is Coca Cola and Western companies from Germany or France who own water resources. It is companies who own forests and the worst thing is that now so-called immaterial stuff, like education or healthcare, is also being privatized. So in a way I think the situation in ex-Yugoslavia, in the Balkans, is even worse than in other countries because we had the experience of decades of real-existing socialism, let’s call it that, which is a better variant of Soviet socialism, where we had free healthcare, where we had free education, where we didn’t have to buy water, where we had industries, where we had factories. If you come to the Balkans today, it’s a wasteland. It’s a wasteland where you don’t have anything – you don’t have factories, people are unemployed, people have to pay for education, people have to pay for healthcare. People of my generation, they will never have pensions, because it won’t exist. And at the same time you have the rise of historical revisionism and the extreme right. So, well, I wouldn’t say this is much different than the rest of Europe, but the difference is that at least we had an experience of a system which was functioning better, at least for the majority of the population, which at least had the basic services, which were state-owned and which served them in the terms of education, healthcare, and other things which people don’t have anymore in the Balkans.
David Goessmann: You call the image of the Balkans as a violent place, of savages not capable of living together, a myth. You rather see a great pool of solidarity and a great tradition of solidarity in the Balkans. Please explain what you mean by that.
Srećko Horvat: The collapse of Yugoslavia has a lesson for not only Yugoslavia but for Europe and for the world, because what I think we should do today is to turn around is the classical thesis that the collapse of Yugoslavia happened because of nationalism. That is always what you will find. Serbs fighting Croats, Croats fighting Serbs, someone raping someone, someone killing neighbors and so on, because the Balkans are the unconscious of Europe and all what we do is rape kill and so on. And you can see it in Emir Kusturica's movies, this kind of romanticization of the Balkans as a place of savages, which was deconstructed by Maria Todorov in her perfect book Imagining the Balkans. So this perception of the Balkans still exists and this interpretation of the collapse of Yugoslavia as a consequence of nationalism still goes all around. But what is the lesson which we can learn from the collapse of Yugoslavia? And it think it is very important. I think this thesis has to be turned around on the head, because what I would say is that the collapse of Yugoslavia was not the consequence of nationalism, but nationalism was the consequence of the collapse of Yugoslavia. What does it mean? If you look back and here we have to go into the political economy, Yugoslavia was not destroyed because of nationalism, but Yugoslavia collapsed because of the internal contradictions the self-management project of socialism in Yugoslavia already had from the 60s and 70s. You will see that Yugoslavia, already in the 1970s, became integrated into the global market and that it could not resolve some of the contradictions. For instance one of the contractions in a socialist regime, which is of course not a contradiction in a capitalist regime, is that the surplus value, already in the 70s during Tito's rule, was going to an autonomous financial sector. So the banks, already in the 1970s which is the period of financialization all over the world, became the leader of that economic system. And then, which is not really known in the West, because not so many books are published in English, is that already in 1979 Yugoslavia took the first loan from the International Monetary Fund during Tito's rule. And when Tito died, one month later, Yugoslavia made history receiving the biggest loan the IMF gave to that date. Why is that important? Because already in the eighties then, we had something that we can see today in the periphery Europe, austerity measures, privatization, what you can see today in Portugal, in Greece, in Spain, we already had in Yugoslavia in the 1980s. So the first period of deindustrialization starts during the communist rule in the eighties. Workers go to the streets. You have a great Ph.D. dissertation by someone called Jake Lovinger, who is a student of Giovanni Arrighi and who shows how in the eighties the number of worker strikes all around Yugoslavia was rising to a degree that in 1987 you have an annual number of more than 1000 worker strikes or something like that. So image that today in the European Union you had more than 1000 worker strikes in one year. What would happen? It would probably collapse and this is precisely what happened with Yugoslavia. But why is it important? To come back to your question about the rise of right-wing movements: What you can see here is that the first movement against austerity was a leftist movement and all these workers were protesting together. It is important in the Yugoslav context. You had Bosnian people, you had Muslims you had orthodox people and you had Christians. So you had Serbs, Bosnians and Croatians protesting together against austerity measures, in order to preserve the self-management socialist system. And then what happened? To cut a long story short, a guy who was a banker, who was a director of a Serbian bank and who was also in the US as a broker, called Slobodan Milosevic, comes back to Yugoslavia and uses the workers strikes to turn it into a nationalist movement. So what you have is that precisely the austerity measures created deindustrialization, mass unemployment, the workers are unsatisfied, they still have a progressive agenda, but then the leaders, in Croatia it was Franjo Tuđman, in Serbia Slobodan Milosevic, and there were others in Bosnia and others in other parts of ex-Yugoslavia as well, turned it into nationalism and it was precisely this nationalism which then lead to the to the collapse of Yugoslavia. And why is it an important lesson today? Because what we can see today all around Europe but also with Brexit and with Trump on the other hand, over the Atlantic, is precisely the same model. So you have a failed neoliberal economic policy - it is also a question whether it is neoliberalism at all or not, that is also a good question - which leads to mass unemployment, to privatizations, deindustrialization, where Europe is then also losing its geopolitical role and what you have is a reaction which we have seen with Brexit and Trump. And I think, this is something which during 2017 will even increase with the French elections, with the Dutch elections and with the German election, with the rise of Front National, Afd and Geert Wilders. And I think, if there is one lesson of the collapse of Yugoslavia, it is that precisely the economic situation, if the left is not advanced enough or organized, will be used by the extreme forces, by the right. And I think we should be really worried about 2017, because I think the European union - we could also go in detail, how Yugoslav system functioned with the center, Serbia-Croatia and, and the periphery, Kosovo and so on, and now also with regards to austerity measures and so on - the future collapse of the European union resembles the collapse of Yugoslavia which happened in the 1990s.