Remarks about Linguistic Espressions in Writings about Ethnicity and Conflict: The Case of Yugoslavia
by Sreca Perunovic
Isn’t Yugoslavia an exhausted subject? Does its 1990s collapse pose any important questions or lessons for today? Why does it still inspire debates and studies? Is there something about it that still haunts us? Despite the extensive literature about it, the 1990s conflict remains for many an unresolved puzzle. Contradictory explanations of the tragic disintegration of a country which was once viewed as a symbol of peace and good interethnic relations contribute to that notion (Hayden 2003; Gagnon 2004). However, present day world problems make the Yugoslav case a matter of urgent interest. In a 2010 New York Times op-ed, Jurgen Habermas, writing about xenophobia and nationalism in Europe (e.g. Germany, France, Switzerland), alerts us that “cool-headed politicians are discovering that they can divert the social anxieties of their voters into ethnic aggression against still weaker social groups.” Various forms of nationalism and the inclinations of political establishments toward channeling citizens’ discontent through ethnocentric and biased interpretations of social problems continue to be a dreadful force on the world’s stage. Efforts are being made to draw a proper lesson from cases such as Yugoslavia in order to help prevent “‘more Bosnias’’ (Zimmerman 1996).
Analysis of the Analyses
A paradox lies at the heart of the discourse about the collapse of Yugoslavia: despite a large literature, the part having to do with explaining its causes remains somewhat opaque, with conflicting interpretations and some major aspects still open to dispute (Gagnon 2004; Nakarada 2008; Soso 2008; Jovic 2009). Indeed, the extensive and confusing body of writings offers an opportunity for reflection on the discourse itself. An exploration of that discourse might help cast light on unsettled, controversial, and seemingly marginal aspects of the evaluations of the Yugoslav crises (Cohen 2008: XIV). Some recent books and studies have already begun to explore new perspectives on the major discrepancies so far, including such titles as: Raspad Jugoslavije: Problemi tumacenja, suocavanja i tranzicije (Disintegration of Yugoslavia- problems of diagnosing, confronting, transcending) (Nakarada 2008); State Collapse in South-Eastern Europe: New Perspectives on Yugoslavia’s Disintegration (L. J. Cohen and Dragović-Soso, 2008);
New Perspectives on Yugoslavia: Key Issues and Controversies (Djokic and Ker-Lindsay, 2010; Confronting the Yugoslav Controversies: A Scholars’ Initiative (Ingrao and Emmert, 2009). This recent literature is an addition to those rare earlier studies that warned about the issues of writings on Yugoslavia (Gow 1997; Hayden 2003; Jovic 2001).
This new wave of academic writing on Yugoslavia might include a more systematic analysis of the analyses. By examining, for example, why some popular lines of investigation and certain theories became more attractive than others, and exploring the social situations and ambitions of particular enquirers, this new literature might disclose the limitations of scholarly writings in times of acute crises, as well as contribute to the sociology of knowledge and deepen our understanding of events.
In that spirit, this paper focuses on certain linguistic expressions used in scholarly and other writings about the demise of Yugoslavia. My investigation started as an exploration of the different approaches to explaining the causes of the Yugoslav crises. Soon it became clear to me that in various writings, the different ways some straightforward categories and/or labels, such as ethnonyms, have been used might have actually influenced the authors’ perceptions and conclusions. Thus, my paper’s focal points are seemingly simple terms–names–such as Yugoslavia, Croatia, Serbia, the Croats, the Serbs, (and indirectly the Muslims, the Slovenes, etc.), and how these terms are used in writings about Croatia and Serbia. When particular works are quoted in this paper, it is more to make an illustration as clearly as possible than to spotlight any particular text.
The questions the paper addresses include the following. Which Yugoslavia is meant when the name is used, and does it matter? When did the name stop being a valid name of the country? If the former Yugoslavia is an odd term, what should we call that territory instead? Can ethnonyms like the Serbs and the Croats, which are used so routinely that specific citations are seldom deemed necessary, be too general and imprecise for productive analysis?
In this paper part of my authority is based on my on-the-ground experience as a citizen of Yugoslavia/Croatia until the end of 1992, when I left the country for the US, with regular annual returns to various parts of the former Yugoslavia. Although this exploration is by no means complete, I hope it may provide a possible opening for further work in critiquing and expanding the discourse.
The former Yugoslavia; Kingdom of Yugoslavia; Balkans, Western Balkans; South-Eastern Europe; Communist Yugoslavia; Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY); Yugoslavia
These are all terms used in writings about the Yugoslav wars and the country’s demise. This mixture of expressions is more than a spirited linguistic richness; it is also a symbol of confusion about the Yugoslav crisis of the 1990s. The choice of term generally corresponds to the different approaches, e.g., historical or sociological, or different geographical territories (e.g. Yugoslavia vs. the Balkans which include several countries besides the territory of Yugoslavia). At times, however, a chosen term represents an elusive blending of historical periods that differ significantly from each other. Can a study of how linguistic terms are used shed any new light on the Yugoslav conflict?
Common sense might suggest that only trivial differences can be detected by differentiating among these terms because all of them refer to the same country. Common sense, however, is not a dependable analytical instrument and “is hardly a neutral body of knowledge” (Bakic-Hayden & Hayden 1992: 2). Indeed, if we put aside geographical terms (Balkans, Western Balkans; South-Eastern Europe, etc.), two main sets of terms emerge. Some of them refer to The Kingdom of Yugoslavia, a state that disappeared on the brink of the World War II, and others refer to the country that broke up and ceased to exist in the war of the 1990s. Clearly, they are different countries. The fact that the same peoples (nations, ethnic groups) populated that territory does not mean that they lived in the same society. Social conditions shape and define a society; social conditions were fundamentally different in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and in post-World War II Yugoslavia. Historical insights are certainly important, but drawing conclusions about one society’s crisis on the basis of characteristics of another could prove deceptive.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia and post-World War II Yugoslavia (Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia [SFRY])
A leap from one to another of these Yugoslavias can occur easily by means of simple terms. Sometimes, when authors make claims about the national (or minority) question, for instance, it is not clear whether they refer to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia or to the entirely different republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). A more deceptive technique is at work when the national and minorities’ oppression in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia is softly, almost unnoticeably, connected with the 1990s period. For instance, it is sometimes said that Yugoslavia was a prison of nations. Whether true or not true depends on which Yugoslavia we are talking about. The statement is accurate if it refers to the old, pre-World War II Yugoslavia but is deceitful when applied, via a leap or a glide, to another Yugoslavia. This might occur by, for instance, saying that the Serbs ruled the Yugoslav state (referring to the old pre-World War II Yugoslavia) and in the same breath claiming the oppression of Croats (Muslims, etc.), as if that were also a characteristic of SFRY–the post-World War II Yugoslavia which led to the crisis and the 1990s war. To build a case about the society at a very specific time (the 1990s) on the basis of claims about another period is simply deceitful. Although the Serbian bourgeoisie dominated the state when Yugoslavia was a Kingdom, at that time the great majority of Serbs were poor and oppressed peasants enduring hardships and subjugation by that same (Serbian) bourgeoisie, so the Serbs is not an appropriate term. To support that claim would require demonstrating the sameness of the conditions in both Yugoslavias. It is interesting to note how much more study has been done on pre-World War II societies than on the later society there, about whose fate the analyses are undertaken (Woodward 1995; Denitch 1994).
Some authors base their leap from one Yugoslavia to another on the primordialist assumption that ethnic groups constitute suitable explanatory concepts. Thus, the Serbs are always the Serbs; the Croats are always the Croats, etc., each group a monolith consisting of individuals of the same essential behavior patterns. According to this view, ethnic groups are timeless and unchanging, so that to state the name of a group provides all that is necessary for an analysis of it, without even needing to define it. No time or social conditions need to be considered, or individual or subgroup differences be taken into account. It is assumed that all members of the group act and think similarly (Dragovic-Soso, 2008:28). The term Serbs is thus assumed to convey everything needed to explain events involving members of the group called Serbs.
It is astounding how widespread is the belief that the Yugoslav crisis can be explained by allegedly incompatible ethnic differences and natural hostility among nations. (Croats, Macedonians, Montenegrins, ethnic Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbs, and Slovenes were considered constituent nations in SFRY; there were still many more national minorities.) Such beliefs are the major theme for some commentators and are unavoidable for some others. No wonder that studies which even indirectly consider the nations as the chief historical players have spread quickly through the field. Consequently, certain extreme positions of the most zealous nationalists have been attributed to an entire nation perceived as a monolith.
Difference Between Serbia and Yugoslavia
Another form of trickery has been associated with the term Yugoslavia. There was a time when confusion about the difference between Serbia and Yugoslavia might have been appropriate. In the early 1990s, when Serbia and Montenegro acted as a state, Milosevic applied the name Yugoslavia to that area as if nothing had happened to the real country. This was not merely a matter of a name. It was a political move, consistent with his unfailingly fraudulent politics, which served to back his claim that he had been defending Yugoslavia, a country with many supporters upon whose emotions he skillfully played in order to capture even more power (Jovic 2009: 261, 273).
Milosevic’s appropriation of the name Yugoslavia served to advance the nationalists’ propaganda claim that Yugoslavia was created for the Serbs, rather than for all the people who lived there. Thus, Milosevic provided an official justification for the nationalists’ claim (in Croatia, for instance) that Yugoslavia served the Serbs and Serbia so well, at the expense of other nations within Yugoslavia, that Yugoslavia could have been easily identified with Serbia. While the Serbian nationalists agreed with Croatian nationalists in rejecting the term Yugoslavia, the Serbian nationalists also wished for the Greater Serbia and the return of the King. Serbian nationalists’ motives, like the motives of nationalists in other former Yugoslav republics, were based on their rejection of Yugoslavia (SFRY), not on a critique of the name falsification. In scholarly work, this terminological hodgepodge (identifying Serbia and Montenegro alone as Yugoslavia) had various forms and motives. Some analysts put more weight on style than precision, and for some there was little difference between the two (Yugoslavia and Serbia). Sometimes Milosevic’s misuse of the name (by officially adopting as a state name the Federative Republic of Yugoslavia [FRY]) was accepted at face value, as reflected in the book title The Three Yugoslavias: State-Building and Legitimation, 1918-2004 (Ramet, 2006). His using the name Yugoslavia for a state that contained only Serbia and Montenegro (other republics having separated off), caused some people, including myself, to feel indignation; some called his empire a “False Yugoslavia” (Ugresic, 1998:69) for its faulty representation of the state and all the other falsifications the term entailed.
Does A Different Name Always Refer To A Different Country?
Not necessarily. As the same name does not automatically identify the same society (as we have seen in the case of SFRY and FRY and the term Yugoslavia), a country’s name in itself does not carry much substance when detached from the society’s concrete traits. From 1945 until its breakdown, post- World War II Yugoslavia had three different names: Democratic Federal Yugoslavia (DFY) (1943-1946); Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia (FPRY) (1946-1963); Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) (1963-1991). The country was renaming itself in accordance with the proclaimed transformations it was going through, retaining its major characteristics in the process. Its names are not to be confused with the name of the false Yugoslavia–FRY.
To stress the difference once more, what was called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) during Milosevic’s reign did not include fundamental parts of Yugoslavia–most of the former Yugoslav republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia)– and differed profoundly in its social arrangements and relationships from the previous Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). Later, the state that used the name Yugoslavia to endorse the power of its ruling establishment, The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), first changed its name on February 4, 2003 to Serbia and Montenegro, and after the separation of Montenegro in 2006 to the Republic of Serbia.
The False Yugoslavia: The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) and the UN
The aspiration of the Milosevic state, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), to present itself as a legal continuation of the SFRY was not acceptable to the international community. In September 1992, the United Nations General Assembly ruled that the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which consisted of only Serbia and Montenegro, could not continue automatically the membership of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and was not allowed to participate in the UN Assembly’s work (Soltau, 2000). FRY was perceived as only one of the parts left after the collapse of Yugoslavia, and in order to become a UN member the state was required to apply in the same way as any other (former) republic of SFRY. FRY did so eight years later and was admitted as a UN member by General Assembly resolution on November 1, 2000. Other former Yugoslav republics, now the new states, had become UN members earlier. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Slovenia were granted UN membership in 1992, Macedonia in 1993– although with some conditions about its provisional name and flag (Lewis 1993)– and Montenegro in 2006, after it declared itself independent from Serbia.
Which Country Disappeared in the 1990s?
The notion that Yugoslavia had always been Yugoslavia, so to speak, that there were no important differences in political, social and economic structures at different historical points, led some commentators to digress from the subject of the collapse of Yugoslavia . Generally, historical studies make clear that there were “two Yugoslav states” (Lampe 200: 9). Sometimes, however, the accounts of Yugoslavia’s crisis are overtaken by focusing on the Kingdom of Yugoslavia or even older historical periods. Some commentators do not fully appreciate the fact that the Kingdom of Yugoslavia disappeared in 1941and that a different country, the post- World War II Yugoslavia, disappeared in 1991.
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia together with its significant characteristics as a state vanished with World War II. Even though it shared part of its name–Yugoslavia– with the name of the Yugoslav society that was established after that war, the new society presented a different world in the same territory. In other words, twice there was a country in that territory (Lampe 2000) but with fundamental differences between the two. Any equation between them should be drawn very carefully, especially about the national question, as it is sometimes called. Many important studies have been made of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but they present little information for understanding the later, post-World War II Yugoslavia (Wachtel and Bennett, 2009: 15). As Susan Woodward argues, the ancient-hatred claim and a return to the pre-1945 period are “ways of dismissing from consideration what collapsed and why” (Woodward, 1995:21).
What to Call Yugoslavia?
The problem surrounding this country’s name does not mean that the term Yugoslavia should be avoided. Its haziness derives from its imprecise use and from the frequently unquestioned assumption that momentous similarities between the Kingdom and the republic of Yugoslavia existed. The term Yugoslavia, used as the country’s generic name, is useful and perhaps indispensable; what is required is an agreement about how to use it. The people who lived in the country whose fate is a focus of writings about the 1990s conflict used to call it Yugoslavia. Many still do and some insist that it was a country they “refuse to call by any other name but Yugoslavia” (Grubacic 2010: 13). That is why perhaps the simple term Yugoslavia would fit for post-World War II Yugoslavia. If that is acceptable, any other historical form of the country should be clearly demarcated by another specific name (e.g. the Kingdom). Then the peculiar term the former Yugoslavia could be discarded, as has sometimes been proposed (Ugresic 1998; Slapsek 2010:169). There is no other territory called Yugoslavia anymore, and therefore there would be no confusion. Besides, tradition supports such a step. It is customary to say ancient Greece, not the former Greece, and the Ottoman Empire, rather than the former Ottoman Empire, etc. Although the term former Yugoslavia will most likely still be necessary from time to time for purposes of precision, it could easily be replaced by Yugoslavia if there were agreement about the content of the term, that is, if the term were to denote only post-World War II Yugoslavia. Numerous studies written about the demise of the country in the 1990s actually use precisely that term–Yugoslavia (Sekelj 1993; Glenny 1992; Silber & Little 1995; Denitch 1994; Judah 1997; Allcock 2000; Hudson 2003; Trbovich 2008).
As we have seen, there are name variations for Yugoslavia, including the expression that allegedly highlights the socio-political character of the post-World War II country: Communist Yugoslavia. Common in writings about Yugoslavia, this term provokes strong resistance among many former citizens. It was not a term we used or were accustomed to; it feels false, strange, and inappropriate. If a term of that nature were to be used then it would probably be socialist Yugoslavia (Jovic 2009: 8; Stokes 2009:83; Djokic D. & Ker-Lindsay 2010). Another term, besides simply Yugoslavia, might be the Yugoslav federation, used, for instance, by Robert Greenberg, a Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures, as opposed to, say, Yugoslav Unitary State which would denote the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But Yugoslavia would suffice.
When exactly did Yugoslavia—post-World War II Yugoslavia (SFRY)—disappear?
Nobody knows. Or rather, most studies do not even touch upon that question. Although it might seem to be an easy task to determine the point when the war began or the country disappeared, it is not. Interpretations among scholars vary, depending on what they consider the conflict to have been about. There are differences in understanding the order of events. Did the country disintegrate first and then the war start or did the war and violence initiate its collapse? Or was it some complex combination of both? A new question emerges: when did the war start? Did it begin with the first violent clashes, or when the armed forces collided in serious military actions? Who were the parties to violence and who were the armed forces? How these questions are answered helps determine whether one considers it a civil or international war, and if it was an ethnic war after all.
Similarly, different events have been viewed as indicating the end of Yugoslavia. Which one was the major turning point?
June 25, 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia proclaimed independence from SFRY;
June 27, 1991, when troops of the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA/JNA) stepped in to secure Yugoslavia’s external borders as a reaction to a Slovenian militia’s move to take over the control of the borders and customs posts in Slovenia. This conflict in Slovenia, sometimes called “an operetta” war, (Culic, 2006) lasted ten days;
September 1991, when heavy fighting began in Eastern Croatia between the HDZ government’s forces and the YPA/JNA. The battle in Vukovar is sometimes called “the most ferocious military battle in Europe since 1945” (Viviano, 1997);
October 8, 1991, the date the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) took as the turning point;
December 5-6, 1991, when the Croatian Stjepan Mesic, the President of the Presidency (the collective head of the state) of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and the supreme commander of the Yugoslav People’s Army (YPA /JNA) resigned and famously declared in the Sabor, the Croatian Parliament, “I think I completed my task: Yugoslavia no longer exists.” (Mesic 1991);
January 15, 1992, when the European Community recognized the republics of Croatia and Slovenia.
Or some other event?
Ethnonyms: the Croats, the Serbs, the Slovenes, etc.
How often does the generic term the Serbs appear in writings about the Yugoslav conflict when it actually refers to the Croatian citizens of Serbian heritage? How often is the term the Croats used when it refers only to the political establishment in Croatia? (A comparable situation occurs with terms like Muslims, Slovenes, and so on.) Sometimes such interchangeable use of an ethnonym to denote both that ethnic group and its government is irrelevant, but not when it comes to understanding what is perceived as an ethnic conflict, (like the Yugoslav crisis and wars). Precisely used terms may reveal something important. For instance, using the generic term the Serbs in a statement about the Serbian minority in Croatia can be confusing and even misleading. The extent of (in)accuracy will depend on which phase of the conflict the commentary refers to. Sometimes, for instance, in comments about the beginning of the violent clashes in Croatia, some commentators are surprised that Serbia did not declare war on Croatia. But at that stage of the war in Croatia, clashes were between Serbian rebels–that is, some members of the Serbian minority in Croatia– and the nationalist HDZ government forces. The HDZ party (Hrvatska Demokratska Zajednica–Croatian Democratic Union) was the leading force in Croatia after the April-May 1990 elections. In such a situation where there was still a federal state on the one hand, and where a minority was in struggle with a local government on the other, one does not expect a declaration of war. Perhaps part of this misunderstanding comes from the antagonists’ differing views of the war. The notion that the conflict was an ethnic war rests on an oversimplification of how groups are labeled, with general terms such as the ethnonyms Serbs, Croats, etc. leading to confusion. The notion of an ethnic war includes an erroneous assumption, namely that an ethnonym designates the entire group no matter how the group differs within itself. Let’s examine what this means in the case of Yugoslavia.
Croatia, Croats, Citizens of Croatia, Croatian Political Establishment, Nationalists in Croatia
When listed, it is clear that these terms refer to different social groups (and the first one to the country). Nevertheless, they are not always treated as distinct, but rather as more or less synonymous with the ethnonym Croats. (A similar situation exists with the terms Serbs, Muslims, Slovenes, etc.) Belief that the conflict in Yugoslavia was an ethnic war led some commentators to use ethnonyms as if they were unambiguous, unproblematic concepts.
When the term Croats is used in writings about the Yugoslav conflict, it may refer to all citizens in Croatia or only to those of Croatian ethnicity. In the latter case (which suggests the idea of “real” Croats), one might ask how pure an individual’s origin should be for him or her to be included among Croats. Is having one parent of Croatian origin enough? How long must one have had a Croatian identity? Does a regional identity, e.g. Zagorac, Dalmatian, Istrianan, etc., count? Is there a language requirement? Alternatively, can the language be a sufficient condition for inclusion in the group? Does the term refer only to those who lived in the country their entire lives or does it include those in the diaspora too?
For the sake of argument, let‘s assume we know what it means to say Croats or Serbs (or real Croats or real Serbs), etc. in every situation where ethnonyms are used. If only “real” Croats are meant under the term Croats (that is, only those of Croatian ethnicity), a question arises over what such statements say about the various ethnic/national minorities residing in Croatia (Hungarians, Italians, Slovaks, Czechs, Jews, etc.)? Do analyses of the Yugoslav crisis include them or not? If yes, how to understand the cultural-differences argument emphasized in some studies? How to understand cultural differences as a major dividing force and a reason for the division and the war? Similarly, what can we make of the interpretations of differing histories? If ethnic/national minorities are not included in the analyses, what does that say about the interpretations based on the notion that the Yugoslav conflict was all about ethnic issues? Are only those differences between the Croats and the Serbs, but not among other nations, important? If so, differences in comparison to which Serbs, the Serbs from Croatia, Serbia, or Bosnia and Herzegovina? The differences among them in language, for instance, are bigger than between the Serbs in Croatia and so-called real Croats. Moreover, language differences are bigger between Croats from Croatia and Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina, than between Croats and Serbs who live in Croatia. This brief reminder of the ethnic differences within the same group and similarities among different ethnic groups is in accord with the increasingly accepted claim that ethnic, cultural and historical, differences were not a conflict maker. Consequently, some analyses of the Yugoslav crisis would profit from focusing less on ethnicity and more on various social factors as to its cause. Studies that question the simplifications of an ethnic approach often address considerable minority issues (Stokes 2009; Klemencic and Zupancic, 2004).
Croatia Before and Croatia After May 1990–that is, Socialist Republic of Croatia (SRH) and Republic of Croatia (RH)
(Similar comparisons can be made for Slovenia, Serbia, etc.)
Croatia is used in a sentence such as “Croatia is a Central-European country,” but also in an expression such as “What Croatia was proposing…,” or “Croatian desire for more autonomy” (Wachtel and Bennett, 2009:24). The term Croatia, in other words, is sometimes used about the country and sometimes about its citizens, and in these writings, frequently about its political establishment. A country, a people, and political leadership are fundamentally different categories. No serious examination can neglect to differentiate among them, given that such differences are essential to an analysis. Country, people, and political leadership are not identical phenomena, no matter how accustomed we are to perceiving them that way. An exploration of relations among them, for instance, can in itself be a source of much insight. The identification of a state and society and political leaders is a sensitive issue, especially when the exploration deals with events where ethnicity is made central.
Croatia is, of course, the name of a country. Just as with any other country, Croatian realities have changed throughout time, so that simply saying Croatia or Croatian without knowing what period in its history we are talking about does not reveal much. Although this is well understood, confusion nevertheless sometimes happens when time sensitive ethnonyms are used. The term Croatian political elite is commonly used in at least two distinct senses. Sometimes it is a general term used to present Croatian politicians of all times, and sometimes it refers only to a particular group in a particular time. The former usage cannot be considered precise. The Croatian leadership before and after nationalists came to power in Croatia in 1990 were, for instance, different elites advancing different ideologies and building different social relations. When terminology is not specific, expressions such as Croatian political elite put the emphasis on the political establishment’s ethnicity at the expense of its political characteristics, suggesting that ethnicity defines behavior and thinking. Let’s take a look at how such an assumption can be misleading.
“Croatia held multiparty elections” is an important statement. Among other things, it conveys something about the democratic process and, indirectly, about the democratic quality of the government itself. The fact is that the multiparty elections were organized and held in April and May 1990, when Croatia (Socialist Republic of Croatia [SRH]) was a part of the federal state, SFRY. Despite popular opinion, the character of the newly-elected government of the Republic of Croatia (as Croatia was renamed after those elections) was not democratic (Pusic 1994). Stewart Kaufman defines it as “a right-wing, nationalist government” (2001:186), and The Economist describes its chief politician at the time, Franjo Tudjman, in the following way: “The president at the time was Franjo Tudjman, the founder of the hardline nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Mr. Tudjman’s authoritarian rule left Croatia shunned by the international community until his death in 1999” (The Economist, “Croatia: Country fact sheet,” 2009). In other words, those who read that “Croatia held multiparty elections” do not know which Croatia and which government the statement refers to, and they may be left with an erroneous impression of the democratic nature of the new political establishment. One wonders how much of that imprecision derives from the name of the country being used as if it were a label for a single social and political entity persisting through various historical periods. Tudjman’s preoccupation with Croatian statehood is a good illustration of that. As Tanner remarks, “Tudjman tackled the subject of the NDH without much apology to its victims. The NDH was ‘not only a quisling organization and a Fascist crime, but also an expression of the Croatian nation’s historic desire for an independent homeland,’ he said. The peculiar phraseology, suggesting that the Ustashe was the malevolent manifestation of a benign impulse…” (Tanner 2001: 223). To Tudjman, at that time the president of Croatia, the fascist NDH (which was the name of Croatia during World War II when it was ruled by a fascist government) was a big part of his Croatian dream of statehood. In his view, Croatia was a sought-after entity even as a fascist state because it carried the name Croatia. The nature of the state, the fact that people lived under a torturous, oppressive regime was insignificant to him compared to that longstanding, imaginary idea of Croatia. This shows how far astray an ethnonym can carry a thought.
The Yugoslav story is not simple (Gagnon, 2004; Nakarada 2008; Blank 1995). What can terminology tell us about it? As in any war, there were many clashes between the warring parties. In this war, even the fighting parties differed depending on the stage and location of the conflict. The terms used to define the parties could therefore make the story more or less understandable and/or accurate. To illustrate, let’s look at how the sides were defined in what was probably the first armed confrontation in Yugoslavia, which occurred in Pakrac, a small, ethnically-mixed town in eastern Croatia, on March 1-2, 1991.
In one source, it is said “Violent clashes broke out between the Croatian authorities and the ethnic Serb majority in Pakrac” (Bethlehem & Weller 1997: XXVI). In another, we read “Serb-Croat clashes occurred at Pakrac and Plitvice in February 1991” (Ramet 2005: 121). One can imagine all the differences implied by defining one side as Croats as opposed to the state authorities (the nationalist HDZ government). Similarly, the meaning of the ethnic Serbs differs from that of the term Serbs. The latter might suggest the Serbs from Serbia, rather than, as in this case, the ethnic minority in Croatia. The early journalists’ reports show a mixed picture when it comes to the precision of terms. In an article about the same event (violent clashes in Pakrac), a Los Angeles Times journalist, for instance, repeats some biased generalizations about Yugoslav nations but she is precise when identifying those who were rebelling against the right-wing government at the time. “Some minority Serbs who account for about 12% of Croatia’s 5 million population fear that an independent Croatia would revert to the fascist policies of the Nazi puppet regime that ruled the republic during World War II, when hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews and Gypsies were systematically executed” (Williams 1991). It is hard to resist feeling that the simple word “some,” as used in this text, could have improved much of the reporting from the field. One can see that here it functions as a helpful piece of information, not just a small word. Readers are reminded that the story is about the ethnic Serbs in Croatia, and that only some of them, not the entire Serbian population in Croatia, have a deep fear–all of which are important elements in the story. (Compare: Glenny 1992, Woodward 1995; Silber 1995). Terms such as Serbs, Croats, etc. are so common that we rarely think about their precise usage even when precision is required. Another illustration of this is the frequent remark about the Serbs supporting the Greater Serbia cause. The remark contains some of these deceptive and confusing overtones: all Serbs? The Serbian nationalists? Some Serbs in Serbia? All or some ethnic Serbs in Croatia? Etc. All-encompassing terms such as the Serbs, the Croats, etc. often do not allow for nuances, but accuracy cannot do without them. Conceivably, ethnic studies in general would gain much by paying more attention to nuances than by relying on ethnonyms as if they were clear-cut concepts.
Some aspects of the Yugoslav crisis have drawn agreement among scholars; nevertheless, such a consensus does not seem to have removed a certain level of confusion and sense of incomprehension—about, for instance, the crises’ causes. This paper suggests that the extensive and frequently controversial literature about the Yugoslav crisis can be viewed as an opportunity for reflection on the discourse itself. The article examines the role of ethnonyms and some related linguistic expressions used in scholarly and other writings about the demise of Yugoslavia. The examination has shown that the linguistic simplifications covering different social groups with umbrella expressions such as the Croats, the Serbs, etc. may result in puzzlement and even inaccuracy. In the hands of some writers, the desire for a lively writing style may partly explain the casual use of ethnonyms. However, unless the imprecision has the purpose of misleading the reader, the appeal of a lively style in academic writing should be weighed against the precision that is possible with careful linguistic expression.
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