On June 23, 2016 the UK decided to leave the European Union. The Brexit referendum, like any other, was supposed to let the people speak. The trouble is, that they did not speak in unison and now the raison d’être of this multinational state has disappeared. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavs also went to their referendums to determine their willingness to stay in another federation. The result was bloodshed and the fragmentation of Yugoslavia into squabbling, dysfunctional mini nation-states. What can a dead country teach the (barely) alive one?
The UK has a lot in common with Yugoslavia. Like Yugoslavia, the UK is a complicated multinational state born out of a contentious historical project that often overlapped with the imperial project of the country that would form the core of the multinational federation. For Yugoslavia, this was Serbia, and for the UK, this was England. Like the English in Scotland and Ireland, the Serbs in Croatia, Kosovo and Bosnia were sometimes perceived as brute conquerors.
Like the English, the Serbs felt misunderstood by the populations they were trying to integrate, accusing them of ungratefulness at all the sacrifices they are making for the common cause. Like the non-English in the UK, the non-Serbs in Yugoslavia felt patronised, bullied, and colonised by their more powerful big brother. The creations of both unions were preceded by periods of terrible interethnic and inter-religious violence.
And yet, despite the pull of history, the elites managed over time to assemble messy, but durable, multinational experiments. Complicated compromises were hammered out and historical animosities became more predictable and controllable, if not entirely extinguished. Local self-rule and autonomy to ethnically distinct regions was the modus operandi in both the UK and Yugoslavia.
For the minorities stuck in areas where their political desires were not shared, there were also special provisions. For the Protestants in Northern Ireland maintaining cultural and political links to their brethren in England was as important as the free flow of cultural capital between the Serbs of Bosnia and the Serbs of their motherland, Serbia.
Aware of the unprecedented nature of multinational federations in an era of nation-states, the elites in both federations were reluctant to push any notion of a multinational identity that would supersede the deeply entrenched national identities of the constitutive units. Put more concretely, ‘Britishness’ was never really an official policy of the UK, just as ‘Yugoslavness’ was never really an official policy of post-World War II Yugoslavia. Instead, the elites must have hoped that out of years, decades, and centuries of interethnic interactions, the English, Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish would come to see themselves as Brits, just as the Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins would come to see themselves as Yugoslavs.
For the UK, membership of the EU distracted the internal destructive forces — of English nationalism for example — redirecting their ire towards Brussels. For Yugoslavia, the Cold War and the consequent special relationship the country had with both blocs tamed internal nationalisms — at least for a while — by buttressing a sense of national pride at such a small country occupying such a large world stage. Then, the Berlin Wall fell down and so too did Yugoslavia: the Yugoslavs lost their special place, internal nationalisms roared back and democratic populism took the centre stage.
The Yugoslav case defies the notion that democracy is an essential good in itself, that it brings stability and that it liberates people. In Yugoslavia, the 1990s began with a genuine mobilisation of grassroots engagement with the political process. New political parties sprang up overnight. People demonstrated, asking for all sorts of things. Referendums were announced. New futures were promised. The decade ended in a bloodbath, the country tearing itself apart into dysfunctional or nonfunctional nation-states. The end tally: over 100,000 dead, more than 2 million displaced, new borders erected and a future poisoned by hate, division and nationalist-coloured corruption.
If there is one lesson the UK should take from Yugoslavia it is this: referendums are terrible. These brief exercises in direct democracy not only fail to solve existential societal questions, but they bring to the fore societal divisions that had previously been channeled into civil political discourse (like in the UK) or, yes, been politically repressed (like in the case of Yugoslavia).
Because they are almost always organised around issues that seem existential, their disruptiveness is also due to the fact that they are, mostly, irreversible. Unlike in elections, the losing side cannot redirect its anger into winning the next round because the matter had supposedly been settled forever.
Take the example of the Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia. In 1992, the newly, democratically elected, Muslim-Croat government organised a referendum on whether or not Bosnia-Herzegovina should leave the Yugoslav federation after two of its richest republics, Slovenia and Croatia, had already opted out. The Bosnian Serbs, overwhelmingly in favour of staying in Yugoslavia where they could maintain their links to Serbia, boycotted the referendum knowing that the fact that they composed slightly over 30 percent of the population. Their participation would see them outvoted, but still legitimise the referendum. Predictably, the referendum returned an overwhelming ‘yes’ for independence. Equally predictably, the referendum led to war, as Bosnian Serbs carved out their piece of Bosnia which they wanted to remain in Yugoslavia.
Following the Brexit referendum, the UK is facing a startlingly similar situation. To a large extent, the vote fell across the national lines and made the lack of national consensus a matter of life and death for the country. The end of the UK outside of the EU seems as predictable as the end of the unified Bosnia-Herzegovina outside of Yugoslavia: the Scots secede, the Northern Irish ask for their own self-determination and eventual reunification with Ireland, while the Protestants retreat from politics, and resort to who knows what, fully aware that the political process had already turned them into a minority.
What the Brexit debacle should teach us is that referendums are more often than not populist tools that allow demagogues to use the politics of resentment in a democratic way. Sure, referendums are democratic. But, they can also be deadly.
Fedja Buric is an Assistant Professor of History at Bellarmine University. His research interests include twentieth-century Bosnia and former Yugoslavia. His writing has also appeared in Salon. You can find him on twitter @.
Image: Sarajevo siege, winter of 1992-1993. Steel screens shield an intersection from snipers, Christian Maréchal [via Wikicommons].