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Slavenko Terzić

The Right to self-determination and the Serbian Question

Source: The Serbian Questions in The Balkans, University of Belgrade, publisher - Faculty of Geography, Belgrade 1995.

In the twentieth century, South-eastern Europe saw the rise and demise of the Yugoslav idea which resulted in the creation and destruction of the common Yugoslav state. The fate of the Serbian people, the most numerous people in the central part of this region, which gave the greatest contribution to the creation of the common state, but which also became the tragic hostage of its forcible break-up, is closely linked to the fate of this idea and this state.

At the end of the twentieth century, the world's leading political centres of power displayed incomprehensible double criteria: on the one hand, they talked about global European and world integration - "a new world order", while on the other - they accepted and supported the disintegration of a state created according to the model of the 19th century European integrations (the unification of the Germans and Italians), and they artificially split up a people that was the state's pillar. And all this is taking place after the fall of the Berlin wall and the reunification of Germany: new "Berlin walls" today threaten to split the Serbian people among five and perhaps even more states.

The Serbian question, as the key problem of the Yugoslav crisis, appeared with the destruction of the Yugoslav state, when the Serbs started their struggle for preventing the total break-up of the Serbian people and, at the same time, for being united in one state community like the other Yugoslav peoples. Serbia is just a part of the entire Serbian entity, which is often not understood in the world, because for centimes one third of the Serbian people has been living on its ethnic territories which, until recently, were the parts of several former Yugoslav republics, primarily Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia. The question of self-determination of the Serbs can be understood in the best way from the historical point of view, because the past cannot be disregarded when speaking of the face of peoples and states.

In order to understand and explain more deeply and extensively the Yugoslav crisis and the Serbian question the following facts must be borne in mind:

1) The Serbs are among old nations because they had acquired their national identity before the modern doctrine of nationalism was formulated. They undoubtedly possessed awareness about their long-lasting history and tradition, about their great empire, gland medieval civilisation and cultural unity, regardless of the fact that they lived in different states after the Turkish conquests of their lands. National awareness and a feeling for cultural identity of the Serbian nation were common to most Serbs, regardless of the fact that, being divided, they also cherished their local traditions. The Serbs are proud of their history and tradition and for this reason, just like the Poles once, they cannot accept the imposed contemporary divisions which cut up the Serbian ethnic, geographical, and historical entity.

2) The Serbian Uprising in 1804 marked the beginning of the national and social renaissance of the peoples of South-eastern Europe, in which the Serbs undoubtedly played a significant and even a leading role in certain periods. After the Serbian came the Greek Revolution in 1821, and then the national movements of the Croats (the Illyrian movement), Bulgarians, Romanians, and Albanians. In that lengthy and difficult struggle for liberation from the rule of the Habsburg monarchy and the Ottoman empire, which lasted over a century, the Serbs suffered enormous human and material losses. During that struggle of all the Yugoslav peoples only the Serbs managed to create two independent state centres - Serbia and Montenegro - during the 19th century, which became internationally recognised states in 1878 (Berlin Congress). And it was only these two Serbian states that built their independence and sovereignty into the foundations of the common Yugoslav state in 1918.

3) The international professional and broader public often, especially now, overlooks an extremely important fact without which it is impossible to understand the essence of the Serbian liberation struggle in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century and the reason for accepting the Yugoslav idea and creating a common state with other South Slav peoples. Despite the fact that the Serbs managed to form two state centres, until 1912 and until 1918 respectively, more than half of the Serbs lived under the rule of two empires - Austria-Hungary and Turkey, in the then historical provinces of Croatia, Slavonija, Dalmatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, southern Hungary (Vojvodina), Old Serbia, and Macedonia. Can one describe as "greater Serbian" aspirations their national desire to live in one state community in their ethnic area, along with Serbia and Montenegro, like other European nations? Why doesn't anyone then, according to this logic, speak of a "greater German", "greater English" or "greater French" Idea?

The formation of a common state in 1918 was a part of Europe's democratic transformation at the beginning of the 20th century, the victory of the democratic spirit cherished by liberal and democratic Europe during the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century. That was a victory of the national over the imperial idea. The Yugoslav state was a multi-cultural community in the full sense of the word, for only as such it could be the state of the peoples of the same or similar ethnic origin, but of three religions - Christian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Islam. That is why these peoples inherited several cultural and civilisation models.

Aware of the great losses they had suffered for their liberation and also because of the dispersion of the Serbian ethnic region, from the very beginning the Serbs insisted on the preservation of the Yugoslav state community. I would like to mention here a dreadful fact about the human losses that the Kingdom of Serbia alone suffered in World War I (1914-1918). Before the war, 2,900,000 people lived within Serbia's old borders. Defending its bare existence from the aggression by the Central Powers (Austria-Hungary, Germany) and their Balkan allies, in World War I Serbia lost 1,247,000 people, of whom 845,000 were civilians and 402,000 solders. In other words, fighting for its liberation and the liberation of the unliberated Serbs, and of other Yugoslavs, in that catastrophic war Serbia lost 43% of its population. Such a demographic downfall took place only in German and western Slav provinces at the time of the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).[1]

4) When one today discusses the right to self-determination and the question of the self-determination of the Serbs on the territory of the former Yugoslav state, especially in its western part, it is particularly important to note the fact that the Serbs, together with Croats and Slovenes, were an equal constituent factor also when a state union of the South Slav provinces of the Austro-Hungarian empire was formed, in November 1918. The Serbian name existed in the name of both the government and the state of that short-lived union which appeared after the break-up of the Habsburg monarchy. The National Council of the Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs was formed in Zagreb on October 6, 1918, with a programme for "...the unification of all Slovenes, Croats and Serbs into the people's free and independent state of the Slovenes, Croats and Serbs based on democratic principles."[2] Therefore, on the basis of the principle of the right to self-determination, the Serbs, along with Slovenes and Croats, separated from Austria-Hungary and formed a state union which soon decided to unite with the then Kingdom of Serbia, previously joined by Montenegro and Vojvodina, and most counties in the then Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The question is now: If the Croats and Slovenes no longer want to live in a common Yugoslav state which they formed together with the Serbs, on the basis of what principles must the Serbs now live in their republics - states and not with the other parts of the Serbian people as they themselves had already opted for at their referendums in the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina? How can the Serbs, from a constituent people in the short-lived State of Slovenes, Croats, and Serbs, and in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, and understandably in Yugoslavia as well, now become a national minority in the same republics that were formed on the territory of the two state alliances? There is no need to even mention that it is precisely in the Yugoslav state formed in 1918 that most Yugoslav nations experienced their full national promotion and, for the first time in history, they formed their own states - republics, except the Croats, whose state lost its independence in 1102.

5) It is unnatural that the west European and American public opinions are largely indifferent towards the Serbs' struggle for self-determination. In the same way, it is deeply unjust that the European Community and the United States keep refusing to acknowledge the Serbs their right to self-determination and to their own national aspirations. The light to self-determination, which was so strongly promoted in the 20th century both in theory and practice of international relations, has been seriously violated in the case of the Yugoslav crisis by European arbitration (the European Community and its bodies). contrary to its original meaning, this right was carried out as the right to secession of the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Macedonia, mostly by forcible means, and not as the right to self-determination of the Yugoslav peoples. Thus, Europe favoured the unilateral secession of republics, to the detriment of the right to self-determination of peoples. Apart from that, Germany, as the leading state in the European Community, urged, in the way without a precedent, the disintegration of the Yugoslav state, the member founder of the League of Nations and the United Nations, the state that was cleared twice after the two German aggressions and defeats in the two World Wars. Germany did this right after having achieved its own unification.

6) The biggest fundamental mistake, which the European Community and the United States do not want to understand and which is, among other things, the main cause of the tragic conflicts, lies in the fact that, with the disintegration of the common Yugoslav state, the Serbian people became the hostage of the exclusively administrative borders of the former Yugoslav republics.

Namely, the borders among the former Yugoslav republics are not based on any of the three principles: geographical, historical, ethnic, nor were they defined through the democratic will of the peoples. They were defined at the end of World War II by a few members of the Yugoslav Communist Party's Central Committee Politburo, led by Josip Broz Tito. They are the result of the Yugoslav communists' concept for resolving the national question which was based on two crucial elements: a) the heritage of the Austro-Hungarian imperial ideology in the Balkans, especially in regard to the Serbian question (to fight against alleged "greater Serbian aspirations" by establishing an artificial "balance of forces among the Balkan nationalism's"); b) the Stalinist practice and theory of the Third Communist International in the period after 1924, when the socialist and communist ideology of internationalism was replaced by the most retrogressive forms of nationalism and nationalist awareness in Yugoslavia. In cooperation with clerical and pro-Fascist political groups and with the help of the Comintern (the Third International), the Communist Party of Yugoslavia worked on breaking up the Yugoslav state which was considered a "Versailles creation" and "the prison of peoples". The strategy of directly breaking up Yugoslavia was abandoned after 1935, but this spirit continued to live in the organisational structure of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which during the World War II became the model for defining the borders of the Yugoslav federal units.

7) The Communist Party of Yugoslavia (the Yugoslav League of Communists), that is, its leadership with Tito at its helm, played a crucial role in determining Yugoslavia's fate after World War II, since that party ruled constantly for almost five decades. Titoism, as a special version of Stalinism, and his national policy were, apart from a series of external factors that accompanied them, the main cause of the Yugoslav state's disintegration and the tragic conflicts which this break-up led to. Everything that has been happening since 1991/1992 represents only the finale of a long-lasting process of Yugoslavia's political, economic and cultural disintegration which was carried our by the Yugoslav League of Communists. For instance, trade between Yugoslav republics was of lower intensity over the past decades than that between the European Community countries. Nevertheless, the Serbs, as a people scattered among five federal units whose borders were solely administrative, were most interested in the preservation of even such a Yugoslav state which practically functioned as a confederation under the 1974 Federal Constitution.

The Yugoslav communist leadership, in which Croats and Slovenes (Josip Broz, Edvard Kardelj, Vladimir Bakarić) had the main say, manipulated with the national question, dissolved the ethnic unity of the Serbian people, obstructed Yugoslav political and cultural integration. Thus, instead of finding ways to overcome the political and religious disputes, it kept causing their deterioration, stimulating all forms of old historical divisions and creating new nations on a regional or religious basis. In order to preserve their power and privileges, the leading Serbian communists carried out Titoist ideas, possible critical views ended in removals from the political scene with mass political campaigns.

8) In the period between 1945 and 1991 Yugoslavia represented the realisation of the Croatian-Slovenian concept of the Yugoslav state which was not based oil the equality of peoples, but rather on the alleged equality of federal units - states, or more precisely on an artificially established balance of power between national-communist oligarchies; Tito's ideology and technology for preserving power in such a state were based on the belief that a coalition of federal national-communist oligarchies (of the Croats, Slovenes, Muslims, Montenegrins, Albanians and Macedonians) against the Serbs would eliminate the "danger of an alleged Serbian hegemony". Even though the Serbs accounted or over 40% of the population in the Yugoslav state, with such an organisation of power and such a national policy they were in an unequal position in relation to other nations, because their participation in power, compared to other nations was way below their number and real strength. This conception was expressed in the notion - "weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia." Out of all the six federal units only Serbia had two autonomous provinces (Vojvodina and Kosovo and Metohia), which, under the 1974 Constitution, were almost independent from their republic, while Dalmatia, for instance, did not get autonomy although it had been a separate province with its own assembly even when it was part of the Habsburg monarchy, but, nevertheless, it became part of the federal unit of Croatia.

9) The only fair and permanent resolution of the Yugoslav crisis would be if the peoples of Yugoslavia had the right to self-determination, instead of the self-determination of republics (territories) whose borders were arbitrarily defined by the communist leadership, but which the European Community and the United States took as a "holy" principle in their arbitration in the crisis. The Serbs have an incontestable right to self-determination within the Serbian ethnic area, on the territories where they have been living for centuries and where they have constituted an ethnic majority for centuries. This primarily refers to the territories of the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The former Yugoslav republic of Croatia encompassed three historical provinces - Croatia, Slavonija and Dalmatia, but it was, nevertheless, organised on a unitary principle. Dubrovnik, for instance, was never part of the Croatian lands - it was the independent Republic of Dubrovnik for centuries, and at the beginning of the 19th century it became an integral part of the Austrian province of Dalmatia. During that period it was as much a Serbian as it was a Croatian town. The Serbian Military Border was a separate political unit within the Habsburg monarchy for centuries and only at the beginning of the eighties of the 19th century it was annexed to the civilian Croatia[3]. The Serbian border's defended the Habsburg provinces from the Turks. On the territory of the Military Border the Serbs constituted an ethnic majority for centuries, as they do today; that is why this region represents the largest part of the Serb Krajina which is a Serbian state unit on the territory of the former Yugoslav republic of Croatia.

According to the population census carried out at the time of the Austro-Hungarian rule on December 31, 1910, the Orthodox, that is "Greco-Eastern" Serbs accounted for 24% of the population of the provinces of Croatia and Slavonija.[4] Slavonija later on became part of the Yugoslav republic of Croatia. (Dalmatia as well as the Roman Catholic Serbs who lived primarily in southern Dalmatia were not included here). Out of this percentage in most counties the Serbs constituted an absolute majority: Donji Lapac (91.79%), Gračac (72.33%), Korenica (73.48%), Udbina (73.13%), Slunj (53.19%), Vojnić (72.18%), Dvor (87.49%), Glina (65.19%), Kostajnica (64.16%), Topusko (85.41%), Pakrac (50.96%). A high percentage of the Serbs also lived in the following counties: Gospić (47.54%), Otočac (48.65%), Ogulin (47.54%), Petrinja (49.06%), Grubišno polje (46.87%), Daruvar (32.36%), Slatina (40.79%), Ilok (43.12%), Vukovar (36.19%).[5] During World War II, at the rime of the Nazi creation "The Independent State of Croatia", the Serbs were exposed to a monstrous genocide: around 800,000 people were killed. The Serbs' fear that the genocide could be repeated, due to the return of the symbols under which the previous genocide was carried out, is a first rate historical and psychological fact without which the Serbian question in these regions cannot be understood. According to the last regular population census in the former Yugoslavia in 1981, the Serbs accounted for 17% to 18% of the population in the Republic of Croatia, if one takes into account that a part of the Serbs declared themselves as Yugoslavs (officially 11.6% were Serbs and 8.2% Yugoslavs).[6]

The case of Bosnia-Herzegovina is even more convincing. Since they came to the Balkan peninsula, the Serbs have been inhabiting these lands: from the 8th to the 10th century Bosnia was an integral pair of the first Serbian state. At the beginning of the 11th century, Bosnia became one of the several Serbian states, as well as Hum (Herzegovina), then Zeta (later on Montenegro) and Raška (later on Serbia). In the ethnic sense, today s Bosnian Muslims are mostly Serbs who accepted Islam after the Turkish conquests, during more than four centuries of the Ottoman rule. It is understandable that over the centuries they formed their own cultural identity based on the values of the Islamic civilisation circle, because of which the leadership of Tito's Yugoslavia proclaimed them a separate nation - Muslims. For centimes, all the way up until the 1960s, the Orthodox Serbs constituted the majority population in Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to the Austro-Hungarian population census in 1910, 43.5% of the population declared themselves as Orthodox Serbs (officially as Greco-Eastern Serbs), 32.3% as Muslims and 22.9% as Roman Catholics (the Roman Catholics included all people belonging to this confession who lived in the Habsburg monarchy - apart from the Croats there were also Germans, Poles, Hungarians, and others).[7] According to the first population census after World War II in 1948, there were 44.3% of Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, 30.7% of Muslims (officially "undecided Muslims"), and 23.9% of Croats. According to the 1981 census, we find 32.0% of Serbs (but their number is certainly larger due to the 7.9% of Yugoslavs, the way the Serbs, especially in mixed regions, mostly declared themselves), 39.5% of Muslims, and 18.3% of Croats.[8] It is interesting that with this percentage the Croats have already formed their state unit within Bosnia-Herzegovina ("Herzeg-Bosnia"), on the other hand, they energetically deny the right of the Serbs who account for approximately the same percentage to have then own state unit the Serb Krajina, on the territory which used to fall within the administrative borders of the Republic of Croatia.

10) The acknowledgement of the light to self-determination of the Serbian people on the territory of the former Yugoslav state could be the factor of stability in South eastern Europe and the Balkans. Otherwise, this region will constantly be explosive, it will threaten with new clashes and keep endangering peace in this region and perhaps even further. The constitution of state alliances on the principle of the right to self-determination could also be the basis for a possible new integration on this territory.

The Yugoslav example displays the strategy of a complete revision of the European older established after the two world wars. The establishment of a new balance of power in Europe, and the world at large, is undermining all the principles which the contemporary world has been based on, imposing double standards and placing in the forefront an argument of force and forcible destruction. We are witnessing a serious crisis of the principles of international law and international relations. Unlike the time of a bipolar bloc structure when a precise codification of all principles was insisted on, now these principles are being completely relativized and are changing in the same direction in which interventionism is strengthening. This drastically endangers independence and sovereignty of small peoples and their states, especially if they are not ready to follow the concepts of the creator of the "new world order".


1 Milorad Ekmečić, Stvaranje Jugoslavije 1790-1918, 2 The Formation of Yugoslavia 1790-1918/ (Belgrade: Prosveta, 1989), p. 810.

2 Ibid.

3 Hugh Seton -Watson, Nations and States, An Enquiry into the Origins of Nations and the Politics or Nationalism, trans, Nada Šoljan (Zagreb: Globus, 1980), p. 138.

4 "Popis žitelja od -31. prosinca 1910. u Kraljevinama Hrvatskoj i Slavoniji," /Census of December 31, 1910 in the Kingdoms of Croatia and Slavonija/ in Publikacije Kr. zemaljskog statističkog ureda u Zagrebu, LXIII (Zagreb, 19)4), p.50-51.

5 Ibid.

6 "Nacionalni sastav stanovništva po opštinama - konačni rezultati," /Population by Nationalities/ in Popis stanovnistva, domacinstava i stanova u 1981 .(Belgrade: SZS, 1991), p. 11.

7 "Popis žitelja...", op. cit., p.48. See also: M. Spasovski, D. Živković, and M. Stepić, Etnički sastav stanovništva Bosne i Hercegovine, /The Ethnic Structure of the Population in B&H/, Edition: Etnički prostor Srba, 2 (Belgrade: Geografski fakultet, 1992), p.19.

8 Spasovski, et al, Etnički sastav... p.47.

Dr Slavenko Terzić, Historian and Balkanologist, is Director of the Historical Institute, Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Belgrade. His major areas of interest are History of Serbia and the Serbian People in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th, and History of the Balkans. In addition to numerous studies and articles (over fifty) on various aspects of this field, he has also published Srbjja i Grčka (1856-1903) -Borba za Balkan- /Serbia and Greece [1856-1903] -The Struggle for the Balkans -/ (1992); Srbija i Balkansko pitanje krajem 19 veka: povratak starim središtima /Serbia and the Balkan Question at the End of the 19th century: Return to the Old Roots/ (1992); Benjamin Kalay i srpsko pitanje /Benjamin Kalay and the Serbian Question/ (1992); Srpsko pitanje izmedju Rusije i Zapadnih Sila /The Serbian Question between Russia and the Western Powers/ (1993); Old Rashka (1993), and Ethnic and religious in the Serbian history problems of the national Integration's in the 19th and 20th centuries (1994). At present, Dr Terzić is working on the book Russia, Slavophilism and the Serbian Question.

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