Before leaving for the widely lauded (at least by me) “beachweekend” with my friends and cohorts, I realized that my ‘out’ bin was filled with three books by Milovan Djilas that were long overdue to the public library.

While I didn’t end up returning them on time before I left town, it got me to thinking about the former Yugoslav states and their precarious and often violent emergence in the periphery of the European sphere.

Croatia’s recently accepted bid into the European Union in 2013 raises hopes for other Balkan states, but as has been thoroughly documented already, the amount of time people in the Balkans have spent murdering each other instead of building a lasting civil society makes it hard to not be skeptical that Croatia will not become another Greece.

Let’s be clear: the tragedy was that the Yugoslav Civil War, which involved the internal genocide and displacement of a variety of groups, (though predominantly the Bosnian Muslims), are all events that came from brokering a country together with unresolved cultural and political problems.

Djilas in the 1980's

The failure of the West to adequately address these issues in 1918, 1945 and finally in 1991 will remain a blight on the supposedly “high civilization” of Northern Europe.

As Robert Kaplan noted in Balkan Ghosts, one of Marshal Tito’s famous lieutenants turned dissident Milovan Djilas commented that with the death of Tito would soon be the death of Yugoslavia as a state and an idea:

Our system was built only for Tito to manage. Now that Tito is gone and our economic situation becomes critical, there will be a natural tendency for greater centralization of power. But this centralization will not succeed because it will run up against the ethnic-political power bases in the republics. This is not classical nationalism but a more dangerous, bureaucratic nationalism built on economic self-interest. This is how the Yugoslav system will begin to collapse.

Indeed, Djilas was one of the best critics of the government in which he lived. He reiterated that the failure of Yugoslavia to abide would this time be placed upon an alter to the people:

Milosevic’s authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914…. Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union.

Tito (centre) flanked by his lieutenants Leka (left) and Djilas (right)

That a man who spent the better part of his adulthood battling first the fascism that destroyed his home nation (Djilas was born in Montenegro) and later the oppressive one-party status that crippled the freedoms the partisans had ostensibly sought to preserve.

Djilas’ evolution from a hardliner to a pluralist is a conversion that reflects the better nature of the Socialist left in Yugoslavia. Many either turned from ostensible and functional communists into the ethnic nationalists that they had likely always been or into a free market European. Djilas teaches the Left it doesn’t have to be a Kierkegaardian Either/Or; guarantees of freedom at the expense of social egalitarianism is no choice at all.

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