Yugoslavia was a federation of several South Slavic nations. In the period of state socialism, a period of almost fifty years (1943–92), the federation was comprised of five republics ethnically defined as Slavic: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia. The predominantly non-Slavic constitutive parts of the federation were the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvo- dina, which made part of the Republic of Serbia. The population of Kosovo was mostly ethnically Albanian, whereas Vojvodina was the home of a considerable number of representatives of the Hungarian minority in Yugoslavia. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which in the 1945–63 period was named the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia, was constituted as a one-party political system ruled by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (in 1952 renamed the Communist League of Yugoslavia). The official languages of the socialist federal state were Serbo-Croatian, Slovene and Macedonian, whereas the Albanian and Hungarian languages were used as second official languages in Kosovo and Vojvodina respectively. The political doctrine of the ruling party was distinctly marked by the so-called “Titoist version” of communism, at the heart of which were: (a) the political-economic system of self-management; (b) the construction of a “Yugoslav national self”, aimed at transcending ethnic differences in the federation in line with its philosophy of pronounced internationalism as one of the main pillars of the communist revolution as a process; and (c) the international politics of non-alignment. The latter was the product of the elaboration of Yugoslavia’s decision to stay out of the Warsaw Pact and of the evolution of this position into a philosophy of its international politics and a long-term foreign policy general stance of the federal state. The goal was to maintain economic and political connections with both the east and the west of Europe and the US, while developing and propagating a communist political vision in its international politics.
In spite of its shortcomings (primarily in the sense of decision-making and production efficiency), the system of self-management – theoretically developed by Edvard Kardelj – enabled stable economic growth for the country and ever- improving life standards for its citizens, ensuring universal healthcare, housing, minimal unemployment and access to free education on all levels. Yugoslavia’s non-aligned international positioning enabled free movement of its citizens to countries of both the Eastern as well as the Western politico-economic bloc. In spite of this relative flexibility of the system, constant ideological disciplining and surveillance of its general population was carried out by the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, accompanied by political persecution and imprisonment. Generally speaking, the system of political persecution in Yugoslavia was not nearly as harsh as that of Stalin’s USSR. Nonetheless, in the period of Tito’s split with Stalin (1948) and immediately after it, not only imprisonments but also executions of political opponents were massive.
Slavoj Žižek was born in Ljubljana, the capital of the Yugoslav Republic of Slovenia, in the dramatic year of 1949, the year of relentless imprisonments and executions of Stalinists. However, his formation took place in an era of virtually unrestrained intellectual and academic liberty which began in the 1960s. The liberty at issue was one of consumption. Intellectual production, on the other hand, entailed interpretation of the “bourgeois” and “reactionary aspects” of a “deviant writing” in ways that offered simultaneously a critical perspective onto and an ideological compromise with the official state doctrine. In other words, the Titoist communist interpretation had to grant an excuse or justification for the publication of a “problematic author”. For example, Heidegger, Foucault or Lacan would receive a filter of reception aiming to reconcile the ideological doc- trine of the state and the main theses of their publication, which might seem to compromise the fundamental political and moral values of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
In the 1980s and after Tito’s death, Serbian national hegemony grew within the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, which caused an ever-growing frustration among prominent members of the Party from other republics. The first serious blow to the unity and the very existence of the federation was the clash that occurred on the third day of the Fourteenth Congress of the Party between the Slovenian and Croatian delegation (joined by the Macedonian delegation the next day) and the Serbian delegation, led by Slobodan Milosevic. The authoritarian and repressive style of the functioning of the Milosevic-led Serbian branch imposed itself during the Congress and therefore on the functioning of the Party itself, and was the spark that ignited respective nationalisms in all of the Yugoslav republics and in the province of Kosovo. Amidst the declarations of independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia and the emerging wars in Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic and Serbia conducted a relentless hegemonization of the idea of Yugoslavia and of the Yugoslav Communist Party, which made it practically impossible to argue for the preservation of the federation even for those who were in favour of it. Therefore, Yugoslavia dissolved as a result of a nationalist hegemonism within its Communist party, which was reflected on all levels of society, the economy and culture.
As a reaction to this process, counter-nationalisms in the republics of Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Kosovo rose up, culminating in two short con- flicts in Slovenia (1991) and Macedonia (2001), and more lasting wars in Croatia (1991–95) and Bosnia (1992–5). In 1999 NATO forces engaged in a military oper- ation in Kosovo and Serbia, aimed at preventing Milosevic-led administration, police forces and army from entering into a more serious conflict with the KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army), which would have caused another bloodbath in the territories of former Yugoslavia. This intervention of NATO was never approved by the UN Council and is the first of its military interventions to be termed a “humanitarian war”. It was a precedent that has served as the pseudo-legal model for legitimizing subsequent military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many anti-interventionist intellectuals in the West have condemned it, whereas others have favoured it (e.g. the right-leaning nouveau philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in France). As a Slovene, occupying simultaneously the position of an ex-Yugoslav and an aspiring EU citizen, Žižek hailed the intervention and deplored the fact that it had not happened sooner, namely already during the Bosnian war. This gaze towards the West as the saviour from the clutches of Milosevic’s army has been characteristic of virtually all the intellectuals of ex-Yugoslavia, for public discourse was highly critical of Milosevic’s Serbia and its nationalist pretensions. In other words, the political critique of interventionism did not exist in the public discourse of former Yugoslavia outside of Serbia and Montenegro.
The asymmetry of national hegemony in favour of Serbia was the foundational element of the Yugoslav federation for the period that preceded the Second World War. The federation of three nations (Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia) was estab- lished in 1917 upon the initiative of the greater European states, and had initially been formulated in the so-called “London Agreement” offered to Serbia in 1915. It was basically a proposal for establishing a state of Greater Serbia, which would include all the territories populated by the South Slavs, but was rejected by Serbia because it deprived it of Macedonia, which would have belonged to Bulgaria instead. The logic of establishing Greater Serbia under the name of Yugoslavia was insidiously present in the “Corfu Agreement” signed in 1917 between the Kingdom of Serbia and the Yugoslav Council, a committee consisting of prominent South Slavs from the territories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was an agreement between an established state and an informal initiative of representa- tives of a population consisting of subjects of another state, that is, an empire. The army of the Kingdom of Serbia was deployed to defend “the Yugoslav population” from the territorial pretensions of Italy, after which, on 1 December 1918, the founding of a federal state called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was declared. With minor changes of the federal borders, the same territory was transformed into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, while its national composition was reconfigured by adding two more Slavic nations as constitutive: the Macedonian and the Montenegrin.
Western interventionism was at the heart of the constitution of the Federation. It was present at the finale of its dissolution as well, through the NATO intervention in 1999. Thus, no ethnic tribalism was the source of the Yugoslav wars and its dissolution, as the balkanizing gaze of the West would have it. Instead, to quote Žižek:
Threatened by Serbian nationalism, even Slovenian and Croatian nationalism preserved a respect for Tito’s Yugoslavia, in any case for its fundamental principle, that of the federation of equal constituent states with full sovereignty, including the right to secede. Whoever overlooks that, whoever reduces the war in Bosnia to a civil war between various “ethnic groups”, is already on the side of the Serbs. Because in no way was the difference between Milosevic and other national leaders only quantitative. No, Yugoslavia was not hovering on the edge, betrayed equally by all national “secessionists”. Its dissolution was much more a dialectical process. Those that “deserted” Yugoslavia were reacting to Serbian nationalism – that is, to those power groups that were endeavoring to liquidate Tito’s legacy. Thus the worst anti-Serbian nationalist stands closer to Tito’s legacy than the present Belgrade regime, which maintains itself, in the face of all “secessionists”, as the legitimate and legal successor of the former Yugoslavia. (“Ethnic Dance Macabre”)