On February 4, the Federal Assembly in Belgrade formally dissolved the state known as Yugoslavia and replaced it with a loose union of its remaining two republics, Serbia and Montenegro.  On February 25, the separate parliaments of Serbia and Montenegro voted to nominate deputies for the new joint legislature that was then slated to elect a new president of the union, abolishing Vojislav Kostunica’s post of Yugoslav president.

The agreement is a curious mix of federal and confederal elements, providing for near-complete sovereignty for the two republics.  They will be linked only by a small joint administration running defense and foreign affairs.  It remains to be seen whether the agreement also marked the final demise of the troubled Balkan federation.  The status of Kosovo remains moot.  It is formally part of the new state, just as it had theoretically belonged to the old one, but it is an international protectorate under de facto rule by Albanian gangsters who want nothing less than full independence.  Albanians now form an overwhelming majority in Kosovo, as most Serbs and other non-Albanians—ethnically cleansed following the NATO occupation in 1999—have not been able to return.

In Montenegro, the separatist-minded recycled communists led by Milo Djukanovic are in power, and their willingness to make the arrangement work is uncertain.  They were reluctantly dragged into the new state by the European Union, and their heart is not in the project.  They already claim that, at the end of the three-year trial period, Serbia and Montenegro will inevitably go their separate ways.

From the very moment of her creation on the ruins of Old Europe at the end of World War I, until her bloody disintegration seven decades later, Yugoslavia was an unstable entity beset by national problems.  Those problems were dealt with in different ways and with different intentions, and they all failed: from the Serb-Croat-Slovene centralism of 1919 to the Royalist “one-nation” integralism of 1929; from the quasifederalism of the Serb-Croat Agreement of 1939 to the Stalinist dictatorship of 1945; and, finally, from the postmodernist chaos of Tito’s last period—embodied in the Constitution of 1974—to the doomed attempt of his successors to keep the show on the road amidst the collapse of communism and the emergence of “benevolent global hegemony.”

From the outset, the issue of Serb-Croat relations was at the core of the Yugoslav problem.  The act of unification in 1918, and the decades that followed, drove the final wedge between the two nations “separated by the same language.”  Serb-Croat relations would have remained ambivalent but tractable had the two peoples not been forced to live under the same roof; they would not have been any worse than they are today.

On December 1, 1918, the deputies from Croatia’s and Slovenia’s assemblies in Zagreb and Ljubljana came to Belgrade with the offer of unification to Serbia’s Regent Alexander Karadjordjevic.  The proclamation of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes caught the Allies by surprise.  They were prepared to see Serbia expanded into Habsburg areas with large Serb populations, but, until the very end, they were reluctant to dismember Austria-Hungary.  Even President Wilson’s Fourteen Points originally envisaged “autonomous development” for the dual monarchy’s nationalities rather than sovereignty outside its framework.  His espousal of the principle of self-determination, however, unleashed competing aspirations among the smaller nations of Central Europe and the Balkans, which gave rise to a host of intractable ethnic conflicts and territorial disputes that remain unresolved.

The legacy of different cultural, political, and religious traditions—most obvious in the case of Serbia and Croatia—was underestimated by Yugoslavia’s architects.  This legacy, coupled with uneven economic development and the different aspirations of her constituent nations, could not be overcome by a centralist constitution and unitarist slogans.  The Yugoslav dilemma was, in essence, a clash between the Jacobin étatisme, represented by the predominantly French-educated Serbian political establishment, and the old Habsburg constitutional complexity of historic units, embodied in Croatia’s lawyer-politicians.  Separatist tendencies produced unabashedly violent brands of Balkan chauvinism.  Their most radical expression was the Croatian Ustasa (“insurgent”) movement.  During the Nazi occupation, its leader, Ante Pavelic, and his followers embarked on an orgy of genocidal violence against the Serbs—a third of the population of the “Independent State of Croatia”—as well as Jews and Gypsies.

In 1945, the victorious communist regime attempted to sweep the bloody legacy of World War II under the rug in the name of (Croat) Marshal Tito’s policy of obligatory “brotherhood and unity.”  Tito’s “federalism” was but a misnomer for a grand game of divide et impera, in which the salient objective was to carve up the Serbs, over 40 percent of the population, into as many different units as possible.  The Montenegrin and Macedonian nations were hastily invented in 1945, and the Muslims of Bosnia were proclaimed a “nation” 15 years later.

Tito’s raving voluntarism created a chaotic cauldron that depended on Tito himself to watch over it.  The communist Yugoslav federation existed as a permanent mechanism for keeping old passions and animosities on the slow burner, thus providing the ruling clique with legitimacy.  When that clique disintegrated after Tito’s death in 1980, the pot boiled over.

The most pernicious and—as it turned out—the most permanent legacy of Tito’s system concerned the boundaries among the federal units.  By recognizing the secessionist republics within those boundaries, the “international community” became a de facto combatant in the war of Yugoslav secession.  It “mediators” accepted a role that was not only subordinate but squalid.  Lord David Owen conceded that Tito’s boundaries were arbitrary and should have been redrawn at the time of Yugoslavia’s disintegration: “[T]o have stuck unyieldingly to the internal boundaries of the six republics within the former Yugoslavia as being the boundaries for independent states, was a folly far greater than that of premature recognition itself.”  By intervening in Yugoslavia, Europe turned a dispute into a catastrophe.

The real European catastrophe occurred well before the nightmare of 1939-45, and even before the fatal year of 1914.  It took place in the decades when science and progress and the loss of faith left a gaping hole that the nice, civilized bourgeois society could not fill.  The birth of Yugoslavia was indicative of a similar malaise.  The unification of the South Slavs occurred 50 years too late: The differences had developed too highly for an exercise in Gleichschaltung from above to be successful.  Nineteenth-century notions of South Slav unity simply did not fit into the realities of 20th-century Europe.