A Fool’s Account: Diana Johnstone, Yugoslavia and Her Delusion

by Jasmin Mujanovic

Jasmin Mujanovic responds to Diane Johnstone's interview with New Left Project about politics and conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

First published: 19 April, 2010 | Category: Foreign policy

Originally from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jasmin Mujanovic is an activist currently based out of Vancouver, Canada. A proud Wobbly, his research interests include anarchist theory and practice, radical anthropology and, more recently, the history of anti-nationalism and anti-authoritarianism in the Balkans. He holds a Masters of Political Science from York University.

“If, in 1990, there had been a national referendum on the subject,” begins Diana Johnstone in a recent interview on New Left Project, (“Breaking Yugoslavia”, March 3rd), “I have little doubt that an overwhelming majority of Yugoslavs would have voted to maintain the [Yugoslav] federation. But elections were held only within the various republics, enabling the bureaucracies of Croatia and Slovenia to promote their secessionist projects.” 1

This is how Johnstone’s short history of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia begins. Implicit in this account is a simple narrative: Yugoslavia was a union undone by the nationalist projects of the Slovenes and the Croats, and later the Bosnian Muslim and Kosovar Albanians, who, aided by the West, managed to destroy a unique experiment that, for all its flaws, offered great hope for the possibility of a democratic, worker’s controlled, “actually existing” instance of socialism. Yugoslavia was betrayed by the machinations of Western powers and the quisling support of local nationalist bureaucracies.

Notably absent in this account is any sort of assessment of the role of largest member of the Yugoslav federation, Serbia, and any sort of assessment of its role during the critical period between 1980 and the beginning of the 1990s. This is not an accidental omission; Johnstone’s scholarship has been marked by a consistent policy of obfuscation and misinformation—the high water mark of which came in the form of her 2003 text “Fools’ Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions.”

What follows is as concise as possible an account of the actual process of the Yugoslav dissolution—or perhaps rather, the half of it which Johnstone refuses to acknowledge. 

Let us be clear about the chief contention in Johnstone’s work: namely, that the West played a significant role in the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. This is a readily apparent fact. As early as 1982, the Reagan administration had begun to implement a policy which aimed at “expanded efforts to promote ‘a quiet revolution’ to overthrow Communist governments while reintegrating the countries of Eastern Europe into a market-oriented economy.”2 By the late 80s, with Yugoslavia’s economy in freefall, the country had become a near-wholly owned subsidiary of the IMF. The Fund’s “restructuring” programs meant that it became increasingly difficult for the central government in Belgrade to provide for basic social provisions. By the early 90s it was becoming increasingly obvious that “Yugoslavia” as a functioning economic and political union had all but ceased to exist.3

The aggressive “liberalization” policies of the West, however, were merely half of the equation. The internal fragmentation of the country along nationalist lines, while to a certain key extent sponsored and exacerbated by the West, was a largely independent phenomenon and a function of the internal dynamics of the Yugoslav space that had its roots in the late 19th century. In one sense, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the arrival of the Austro-Hungarians represented the true arrival of ideas of “nationalism” in the region, as Robert Donia and John Fine chronicled in their 1994 text “Bosnia-Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed.”4 Even in gaining popularity, however, such ideas were unable to dislodge the evident reality of Yugoslav unity: that despite the presence of Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Islam and even Judaism alongside the myriad respective “national” cultures and minorities, the peoples of the region had by and large a shared history.

While the 20th century marked a period of “national awakening” amongst the Catholics and Orthodox of Bosnia, who increasingly viewed themselves as Croats and Serbs respectively, the fact did not prevent the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, later renamed Yugoslavia, from emerging in 1918. Though ultimately the first Yugoslavia ceased to exist because of the Nazi invasion and occupation (1941-1945), the union had been steadily coming apart at the seams as early as the 1920s. While ostensibly a union of equal wholes, the country was united under the Serbian monarchy and when in 1929 King Alexander dissolved Parliament and declared a dictatorship, Yugoslavia became an increasingly centralized, Serb-dominated state. When the Nazis invaded, they found a responsive audience particularly amongst nationalist Croats who, feeling wronged by the events of the past decade, took out their frustrations with unbelievable brutality on local populations of Serbs, Roma and Jews. In Serbia, the Nazis established another quisling government—much of it composed of the remnants of the Serbian leadership in the first Yugoslavia.

When Tito came to power, this history was not lost on him as it appears to be lost on Johnstone, even as she celebrates his accomplishments. Tito’s Yugoslavia, in one respect, was a marked effort on the part of the regime to avoid repeating the Serbian-domination of the preceding decades. Vojvodina and Kosovo were established as autonomous regions within the federation, which while remaining “attached” to Serbia proper enjoyed a status nearly wholly equal to that of the other republics. Likewise, the preservation of the borders of Bosnia-Herzegovina (little changed since about the 14th century, despite the claims of certain nationalist chauvinists that Bosnia was a “creation” of the Communist or current Western regime) was a pointed effort at keeping this republic an independent balance to both the nationalist aspirations of certain elements within the Croatian and Serbian establishment respectively. In addition, Tito attempted repeatedly, through a process of “affirmative action”, to rid the Yugoslav National Army’s (YNA) officer corps of its distinctly Serbian character. It was to this end that the Territorial Defense Forces were created—independent military bodies in each of the respective republics that were meant to serve as a balance to the central administration of YNA. 5

All of this it seems is lost on Johnstone. Indeed, while repudiating the nationalist policies of the Tudjman regime in Croatia, for instance, she is all but oblivious to the events in Serbia which predated these policies. Slobodan Milosevic’s rise to power, from 1987 onwards in particular, was a tightly executed effort at rolling back all of the Titoist policies towards creating an equitable, and truly “Yugoslav” union. Having clearly understood the political implications of the 1986 Memorandum of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, which would come to enjoy the status of a Serbian nationalist policy agenda for the next fifteen years, Milosevic set about acting on all the fears and myths promulgated therein. The Serbs were a persecuted people all over Yugoslavia, the Serbian state was being systematically robbed of its revenues by Slovenia and Croatia, the “Serbian Question” within Yugoslavia could only be resolved by the incorporation of all Serbs within the territories of an expanded, greater Serbian state and so on.6 Anyone familiar with Milosevic’s pronouncements and policies during the 90s should readily recognize these talking points.

Milosevic was a shrewd strategist and used the vacuum of power left by Tito’s death, as well the economic crisis of the 80s, to elevate himself to power by playing on the fears of Serbian Yugoslavs. Staged demonstrations and conflicts in Kosovo, Vojvodina and Montenegro resulted in the ousting of the respective governments of those regions and the installation of Milosevic loyalists (under the guise of an “anti-bureaucratic revolution).7 As the events of 1990-92 took their course, Milosevic took his: the YNA was purged of its non-Serbian leadership, Serbian extremists in Croatia and Bosnia were armed, similar movements mobilized in Serbia (i.e. Seselj and his men), the Territorial Defense Forces in Bosnia, in particular, were almost completely demobilized, while his grip on the media increasingly tightened. Vojvodina and Kosovo were incorporated into Serbia proper, and Milosevic moved to eliminate internal dissent with calculated brutality—persecuting national minorities, such as the Albanians in Kosovo, and assassinating political opponents. By the time the war in Bosnia had begun, with the YNA and “volunteers” from Serbia wholly involved, Milosevic openly met and discussed with his Croatian counterpart the partition of Bosnia along Serb-Croat lines. The Bosniaks would be expelled, exterminated or provided with a “rump” Bosnia that would shortly be incorporated by one of the larger wholes anyway.8

It was a wholesale reversal of everything that Tito’s Yugoslav had been predicated upon. Johnstone may be right that even in 1990 most Yugoslavs would have preferred to keep the country intact; what she doesn’t address, however, is whether that Yugoslavia would have had any resemblance whatsoever to its Titoist precedent. When the first democratic elections were held in 1990, they brought to power in Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina parties that were explicitly predicated on, above all, resisting the Milosevic-regime in Serbia. For all their faults, the critics of the Milosevic regime were proved ultimately correct by the Milosevic sponsored wars in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo: the regime had become a Serbian-nationalist enterprise intent on using violence to advance its goals. 

There is no one reason for the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It was not entirely the result of Western intervention nor was it entirely the fault of Milosevic and his followers. After all, neither could have succeeded without the existence of the other and both were predicated upon the historical legacies and contradictions of the broader Yugoslav experience. However, it is also true that the nationalist establishment within Serbia, in particular, followed a path that was qualitatively different from even that pursued by the regime in Zagreb.

Milosevic’s rise to power in the 80s and 90s demonstrated that his policies were no mere reactions. There was a concentrated effort both towards his consolidation of power within Serbia and the subsequent horrors inflicted upon the former Yugoslavia as a whole, and Bosnia in particular. At present, the international community only recognizes the events in Srebrenica as an act of genocide. But Srebrenica did not occur in a vacuum. Genocidal intent and practice was clearly evident in the systemic rape of Bosniak women of all ages, the expulsion and extermination of Bosniaks and Croats from all over the occupied Serbian territories in Eastern Bosnia and the Krajina region in Croatia, the detention camps, and the purposeful targeting of civilian, humanitarian and cultural institutions in besieged cities like Sarajevo, Gorazde and Tuzla. Both the Genocide Studies Program at Yale9 and the internationally funded Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo 10 have made available their exhaustive findings on the genocidal nature of the Serbian campaign in Bosnia.

Political expediency has meant that the international community has “officially limited” the genocide label to Srebrenica, even though every ounce of exhumed and recorded evidence has clearly demonstrated a wider campaign. The nature of the Serbian campaign in Bosnia bears a demonstrable “intent to destroy, in whole or in part” the Bosniak community, in particular. At least four of the five demarcations of genocide under the “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (a, b, c, and d)11 were systematically employed. These facts are readily apparent and require no great research to be established conclusively. 

In assessing this collected body of evidence it is clear the Bosnian genocide was by no means isolated to Srebrenica. Yet Johnstone denies that even Srebrenica was an example of genocide on the part of the Milosevic-sponsored Bosnian Serb forces. Johnstone expresses dread of an “Orwellian future [which] bans free historical inquiry,” while in the same breath denying historical reality by failing to acknowledge the genocidal nature of these events. Any doubt that may have existed as to what Milosevic’s intention had been in the 80s was absolutely dispelled by the 90s, as it became clear that his policies were synonymous with genocide and extermination,much as Johnstone’s scholarship has become synonymous with omission and historical revisionism.

When NATO finally intervened in both Bosnia and later Kosovo and Serbia, it was a tragic end to an even more tragic experience as a whole. NATO did not topple a proud regime defending its people, it merely tipped over a rotting carcass. Milosevic had ambitions of a nationalist Serbian “Yugoslavia”—in the end he left the people of the whole region destitute, violated and vengeful. And, perhaps worst of all, his policies ensured that the whole Yugoslav space was once again under the yoke of foreign occupation. Johnstone may agree that the Balkans are now colonial holdings but she completely misrepresents the reasons for this reality; she celebrates its chief architect as an icon of Greek tragedy and dismisses the suffering of his victims as the inventions of Western propaganda. Her work is no great expose; it is historical revisionism of a particularly vile and misinformed sort. 


1) Johnstone, Diane, “Breaking Yugoslavia”, New Left Project: http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/article_comments/breaking_yugoslavia/
2) “U.S. Policy Toward Eastern Europe”, National Security Decision Directives: http://www.fas.org/irp/offdocs/nsdd/nsdd-054.htm
3) Liotta, P.H., “Paradigm Lost :Yugoslav Self-Management and the Economics of Disaster”, http://balkanologie.revues.org/index681.html
4) Donia, Robert J. & Fine, John V.A., “Bosnia-Hercegovina: A Tradition Betrayed”, pg. 71-136, Columbia University Press: New York, 1994.
Online copy: http://books.google.com/books?id=stOIQ5GXIDgC&pg=PP1&dq=Bosnia-Hercegovina:+A+Tradition+Betrayed%E2%80%9D,&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false
5) Ibid., pg. 157-194.
6) “Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences Memorandum”, 1986: http://www.ess.uwe.ac.uk/Kosovo/Kosovo-Background17.htm
7) Magas, Branka, “The Destruction of Yugoslavia: Tracking the Break-Up, 1980-92”, pg. 166-174, London: Verso, 1993; Vladisavljevi?, Nebojša, “Serbia’s Antibureaucratic Revolution: Miloševi?, the Fall of Communism and Nationalist Mobilization”, Palgrave Macmillan: 2008. 
Online copy: (http://books.google.com/books?id=d5np99Vgc0YC&printsec=frontcover&dq=The+destruction+of+Yugoslavia:+tracking+the+break-up+1980-92&cd=1#v=onepage&q&f=false)
8) Donia & Fine, pg. 220-280.
9) Schimmer, Russell & Kiernan, Russell “Conflict & Genocide in Former Yugoslavia, 1991-1995,” Genocide Studies Program Working Paper no. 30, 2007, Yale University, http://www.yale.edu/gsp/former_yugoslavia/ge_index.html
. 10) “Bosnian Atlas of War Crimes,” Research and Documentation Center Sarajevo, http://www.idc.org.ba/index.php?option=com_content&view=category&layout=blog&id=112&Itemid=144&lang=bs
11) “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide”, Article 2, http://www.hrweb.org/legal/genocide.html

All comments are moderated, and should be respectful of other voices in the discussion. Comments may be edited or deleted at the moderator's discretion.

Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?