Torn History

In considering the tremendous turmoil that the former Yugoslavia faced in the wake of its transition from communism to democracy, the question as to why Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary averted such disaster arises. Or, to examine the issue from the opposite perspective, why did Bosnia-Herzogovina encounter such a bloodbath in its movement toward independence and democracy? The answer seems to lie in the ardent and conflicting nationalism inherent in all the newly forming ethnic nations of the former Yugoslavia. Specifically, while a country such as Poland rallied behind the motivating force of Solidarity in its quest for freedom from communism, the former Yugoslavia lacked a cohesive impetus because of the divided interests of its ethno-nations. In Poland, Solidarity marked the advent of the first movement that did not seek to reform communism, but to remove it entirely. It also had the added advantage of being a grass-roots movement: it began among the workers and under the unifying solidity of the decalogue. Because of its roots in the Church, and its call for social justice and the dignity of the individual, Solidarity united workers, students, intellectuals, and the clergy behind one goal—the repeal of communism. Walesa’s appearance with the Czarna Madonna, marching under the cross and the Polish flag serves as an image that testifies to the unity under which Solidarity had the luxury of operating. The lands of the former Yugoslavia, however, did not enjoy this luxury. “History returned as vengeance in the 1990s as Yugoslavia disintegrated and the revivified blood-and-soil nationalisms of its more powerful neighboring republics of Serbia and Croatia brought war to Bosnia” (Ali xiii). As this quote indicates, the difficulties inherent in Bosnia’s move toward democracy stem from its neighbors, and, more accurately, from the fact that it had neighbors at all. Now that the possibility of independence had arisen, Serbia and Croatia’s long-latent desires for strong nation-hood rose to a fever pitch, engulfing Bosnia in its wake. The conflict within and surrounding Bosnia raged because of conflicting opinions as the role ethnicity and democracy should play in the participating countries’ new-found futures. Two possibilities for society and democracy in Bosnia existed. The first involved an equal, multi-ethnic citizenry, protected and granted rights under a lawful constitution. “The opposing vision was the one promoted by the nationalist leaders of Serbia and Croatia. Insular, parochial, ethnocentric, this was a vision of a purified nation-state in which there was no room for the ‘Other’” (Ali xiv). Instead of “unified,” the above quote stresses that Serbia and Croatia’s goals revolved around a “purified” nation-state. Once Serbia decided that this ethnocentricity was to be its driving force and its motivating impetus, any neighboring country that decided on ethnic tolerance and equality would inevitably collide with it, both ideologically and physically. While Bosnia may have tolerated other ethnicities, Serbia’s desire to cleanse the population of “Greater Serbia” would eventually run counter to Bosnia’s tolerance and lead to bloodshed. Essentially, the difference between the events in, for example, Poland and those in Bosnia-Herzogovina was the notion and usage of the idea of citizenship. While Poland was beginning to find its identity in a population that considered itself citizens with an involvement and a vested interest in the new democratic future of their country, the former Yugoslavia found its “citizenry” splintering along varied ethnic and historical lines. Bloodshed came in the name of purity and ethnocentrism. There, citizenship became a reason and a motivation to purge the land of those that were not granted such status.