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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 @BuricFedja.

Image: Sarajevo siege, winter of 1992-1993. Steel screens shield an intersection from snipers, Christian Maréchal [via Wikicommons].

Tags : BrexitCold WarEU Referendumhistory of the Balkanshistory of the UKWar in YugoslasviaYugoslavia
Fedja Buric

The author Fedja Buric

100 Comments

      1. stefane,did you ever think about all the people that opposed tito,all people that were sent to prison for not supporting tito?all the people who were forbidden to practice their own religion.and i wont even start on how many loans tito took for yugoslavia to make it what it was.and finally people built yugoslavia-not tito.

        1. Not only did our parents live better life than most of modern world at the time, but the great majority of the nation did as well. People were sent to prison, that’s for sure, but what percentage of people was that? Just compare that with ever growing prison population in the western countries and be honest about what you find out. Then you can also honestly answer this question: which regime, democratic or not, is forgiving to those who threaten it?
          As long as religion didn’t meld in the secular matters it was left alone.
          As for “many loans Tito took for Yugoslavia” – compare the foreign debt of Yugoslavia when it fell apart (14.6 billion EUR) with a current foreign debt of its constituents (combined 94.8 billion EUR – http://www.poslovni.hr/img/ArticleImages/71923.jpg ), and you should suddenly get an urge to shut your mouth.

          1. yeah, but he’s right. Even though the last phrase could have been skipped in my opinion…

          2. You should maybe define modern world.
            Yugoslavia had worse standard of living than western europe.

            Standards aside Yugoslavia was a country where you could neither think or say what you wanted.

            Critisicing the wrong thing would make you end up in jail.

          3. Toni, did you ever live in Yugoslavia. I did and what horvath said is truth. Standard of living during 60s and 70s was not much different than in so called western Europe. Use your internet access to find some resources.

          4. Well said Horvath. My opinion as well. I live in Sweden now and I can tell you that the life an average Swede lives is comparable to the life we had in 70s and 80s, though it is 21st century now, so differences are obvious regarding that. And what dictatorship? Maybe after the WW2. My grandfather ended in Goli Otok because he supported Stalin … I am not saying that it was democracy, but what is democracy? We had free schools, health care, we could travel freely… What we have now? Democracy? We can say freely what we want? However if you have no money, you cannot do much more than that…

          5. Reply related to statement free schools, health, …
            Nothing was free in Yugoslavia, like in any country leaving from budget.
            I order to obtain one Yu dinar net salary, 0.57 to 0.67 dinars (depending on the level of the salary) were in addition payed to government. In order words, for a gross salary of 1.67 dinar, the tax was about 40%.
            What I termed tax, that was a cumulative percentage used for supporting education, health care, social welfare, retirement pension, …., contribution to development of transportation systems, other systems and contributions, up to the membership in federal, republic, city and municipal chamber of commerce.
            We, Yugoslavian, never obtained gross salary, only the net one, from which we payed exactly nothing on the above. Comparing to western employees, that had to cover personally all the taxes by themselves from the gross salary they obtained, for us looked that everything is free for us, irrespectively of the fact that it was already taken by the government. Moreover, no money for the tax (payed in advance obligatory), no distribution of the net salary.
            The unawareness of Yu population on the above, stating more than often that everything is free in Yu, was quite misused by western block propaganda 30 to 40 years ago, unfortunately I still face exactly the same interpretations.
            What in one reply was called free (education, health care, ….) in fact was equal chance system established on tax payments that were used on solidarity basis. The clever pupil from remote areas with no penny in the pocket, had the same chances in education system, that the son/daughter of a general or politician with a pocket full of money. Health care was about the same. No penniless was left to die, no student was left out of school, University education included (if interest shown).
            Is summary, no tax, no state. Nothing is free, it is either payed in advance (Yu, people unaware that they are paying), or from the gross salary (people aware that they are paying-usually arrogantly insisting on their tax payer rights). The rest is western propaganda and marketing on Western systems, so called democracy.

        2. I was born in YU in 1973. We had all the religion we wanted. Easter egg colors were sold in stores and not in black market. Xmas trees (called NY trees, true) were freely sold on the city’s market. Like many people, I was christened. There were churches, they were allowed all the noise pollution churches do.

          No prohibition at all. My colleagues went to church school in the afternoons a few times a week. No repercussions. Having said all that, the notion of lack of religious freedom in YU is completely wrong. It is however true that openly religious people were not exactly welcome in the Party (being Communist party) and hence denied being part of political process (and many times also economic). But there WAS religious freedom.

          One could argue that in terms of religious freedom YU was a perfect secular state. Unless of course if you didn’t consider communism a form of religion as well. I didn’t. 🙂

          1. yes, religious freedom is not a good example. Freedom of assembly, of expression, to politically oppose, these were of course more highly restricted. It was a criminal offence to insult the dictator – satire was impossible. The country was under a personality cult – people seem to forget the enormous portraits of Tito in Belgrade’s Trg Republika and other prominent spots. Some argue that’w what held it together, of course.

            While private business was tolerated, it was made very difficult and, of course, private property was extensively nationalised. People talk about their freedom to travel while forgetting that they could not even legally bring back a bottle of shampoo – all those capitalistic goods had to be smuggled or bribed through the border.

        3. Nothing that you said is true. Do you think people live better today? Is there more freedom and happiness today?
          Freedom of religion? Nobody was suppressed of any religion. The only thing was that clero-fashist ideology wasn’t ruling.

        4. WE are talking about Yugoslavia not Tito. Even in that way, Tito was a great man, defending Yugoslavia, not for money. He died, his family stay without money. Tell me one president or prime minister today in Ex Yugoslavia republics that is not compromited into money stealing afairs and has less than 10 milions of euroos on his accounts. Secondly, How every modern state defends their security? Why USa opens prisons in all their allied countries? What about prison opened in CUBA? Tito didnt do anything that todays modern democraties dont do, to protect Yugoslavian security.

    1. Britain is not under dictatorship? hm… isn’t Britain a kingdom?

      Lifetime president of Yugoslavia, Tito died in 1981.

      1. Me too 🙂
        to hear that from someone who lives in a “kingdom” with history that UK has, really made me laugh!

    2. Ha ha…In 1990 the Eu offered 5.billion $ to Yugoslavia to join the eu…who was the dictator?!Tito?!On his funeral over 210 statesmen came from all over tne world.

    3. Yugoslavia was never an Eastern Block country, but the leader in the Alignment movement…, so hence – not under a dictatorship… No comparison whatsoever… Brit’s colonised half of the world and now suddenly, you’re against immigrants… WTF? Half of all who voted 4Brexit, don’t even know what the EU is… Reminds me of all the rednecks who will vote for Trump in the US…

      1. why does not being an “Eastern Block country” mean it was not a dictatorship? the two are not connected.

      2. Sam – Tito was an authoritarian ruler. And obviously when it comes to Brexit, you don’t know what you’re talking about.

    4. its spot on if you know a bot about uk, its history and how it works. its really spot on, even more so because sadly a lot of brits will remain in denial, i trust they are right.

      1. Yeah, right. The secret police came to take me away because I don’t like the Queen. No-one ever got taken away for disagreeing with Tito.

        Get real.

        1. you are absolutely totally wrong. My friend’s mother was imprisoned and then killed by Tito for her political views. really, this is very ill informed.

  1. Thanks for writing this. Britain has deluded itself for a long time about becoming multi-culturally integrated. There is a bedrock of racism,intolerance and xenophobia that has been legitimised by BREXIT. I have shared your piece on it on Facebook. Sean Creighton, History graduate 1969.

  2. Socialist Yugoslavia and present EU can NOT be compared! Serbian nationalism destroyed Yugoslavia from inside, forcing others to leave. Slovenia and Croatia were brutally kicked out from the rest, were forced to fight. Slovenia and Croatia suggested lose federation, an “asymmetric” federation, everything to stay avoid war, it was Milosevic who started much before Slovenia and Croatia asked for the independence.

      1. Dobrila, what is your argument? Really? Please, do not come with myths, lies, folk stories and historical megalomania as an argumentation for defending one failed politics of nationalistic expansionism. Before the war, in 1987, 89, Milosevic redesigned the country, Serbian new constitution of 1990 gave precedence of Serbian laws over federal Yugoslavia’s. By 1990, Tito’s Yugoslavia ceased to exist, and you know that very well but you are not able to admit it. The wars? They were not the cause of the crisis but the consequence, the result of the nationalistic policy of Slobodan Milosevic who destroyed the reforms of PM A. Markovic. What is your real argumentation for all this and for 4 bloody wars Milosevic started and lost them all? Do you have any valid and comprehensive arguments at all?
        The article is superficial and can’t be compared with present situation at all. It is like mixing apples and peaches.

        1. Only difference between UK and Yugoslavia is interference of foreign forces. When Tito died, Croats and Slovenians starts to get money and support from western forces to leave Yugoslavia, because Western forces like Germany and France who have big export doesnt need strong Yugoslavia who was at time big exporter to Russia and rest countries of Europe and Africa. Yugoslavia had a best of both worlds because Serbia was supported of Russia and Slovenia and Croats was supported by Nato alliance. When Tito died Yugoslavia was without proper leadership and NATO used that to destroy it. On a paper Slovenia and Croatia asked for separation. Slodan Milosevic, president of Serbia at that time gave Slovenia freedom because in that country Serbians for in little numbers but in Croatia in that time was half milion Serbs and over a million in Bosnia.

          During history Croatia is founded by Serbs that take Catholic faith because Austrian kingdom forced them on that act. After liberation of Austrian Kingdom, France was on Serbian side and they offer Serbia to expand borders on Croatian land or to give Croatia their land and Serbs give them land. Lots of Catholic Serbs returns to orthodox christianity and stays to live in current Croatia.

          Tito knew that only thing that can break Yugoslavia is faith because clash between Orthodox, Catholic Christianity and Islam so he forbid all faith institusions and take socialism goverment.

          When he died everythings starts to fell a part because Nato gave guns to Croatia and gave them money to leave Yugoslavia, S. Milosevic didnt accepted that because of Serbs in Croatia and bloodshed was started mostly in Bosnia. Milosevic wanted big Serbia, exactly to take land where Serbs for majority of population. Everything was a mess like in every war.

          Main goal was to destroy Yugoslavia because it was a strong country.

          That happened with Lybia and Iraq because of oil.

          That happening with Ukraine because Nato wants Ukraine to build their bases in it because constant fear of Russia for no reason.

          Im sorry for my bad english but thats a history of Yugoslavia in short story

        2. John, the humongous elephant in this debate is the role of the USA (and it’s faithful servant UK) in sabotaging Yugoslavia so it could neo-colonise the region. It is staggering that none of you, including Fedja, mention the role of the fascist elephant.
          The equivalent would be if, say BRICS started sponsoring Britain First and promoting Nigel Farage to the office (by stating they would only deal with him and noone else in UK), training the retrograde elements in the UK, in one word sabotage the living daylights out of the UK.
          When you calculate this in, then you can compare the situation, as you so desperately are trying to do.
          So, Yugoslavia was less of a dictatorship than USA (try saying you’re a Communist in USA in 1960s – you’d lose job, life even), and certainly the more humane place to live than UK is presently.

          John – a must see for you before you ‘bless’ us with more of your wisdom:

          1. Whats more staggering is that you think that Western foreign policy is directly responsible for the carrnage that followed. Although economic factors may have had some influence, it was the unresolved issues of nationalism that were ultimately to blame – something for which all groups in the region share responsibility.

            Then again, considering you list ‘weight of chains’ as a ‘reference’ – an unashamadly pro-Serb ‘documentary’ which attempts to alliviate them of their actions during the wars, while intentionally leaving out several key events and incidents which Jon mentioned earlier – its no surprise you by into the conspiracy theories. Ah well, whatever makes you sleep at night

    1. John, you should read much more FACTS about the chronology of events leading up to the ‘independence’ of Slovenia and Croatia and, please do not believe for a moment that your ‘knowledge’ about the Balkans from articles in British newspapers and comments from BBC and SKY are sufficiently robust to write a full assessment in two sentences, like you did! Or you have been too naïve…?!

        1. The circumstances of the dissolution of the former Yugoslav Republic are very complex; almost as complex as the Lebanese Civil War. As such it attracts many armchair academics with little or no personal experience of events on the ground.

    2. yes. slovenia and croatia wanted loose federation or confederation, but someone wanted status quo.

      As EKV (popular YU band) sang “Kako da ostanem isti kako da sacuvam sebe od promene samo putem promene”.

      “In order to stay the same as to preserve themselves from change , only through changes”

    3. Please, first read Constitution of ex Yugoslavia. Than think about difference between secession and freedom fight. Than talk about who started war(s). Consider law documents, use your brain and logic, not what mass media impose to you. And do not forget that this war was civil war and there are no innocents in such wars.

  3. Interesting comparison. There is a huge difference though: England did invade Scotland and (Northern) Ireland, whereas Serbs were living in parts of what is today Croatia and Bosnia for centuries. Hence, it is wrong to label Serbs as ‘brute conquerors’.

    1. it is wrong to label serbs as brute conqueros?
      Makes me really angry to read this! KNOW the history before speaking

      1. If Serbs didn’t help Croatia and offer joint Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenians (Kingdom of SHS) in 1918., after WW1, Croatia would have not existed today. – Croat Historian Tvrtko Jakovina

      2. To the author:

        Dear sir, you seam to have missed to mention several historical facts, very important facts…First of all, referendum about independence in BiH and Croatia were illegal since Constitution of those Republics required consensus of three (BiH), or two (Cro) constitutional nations living there to be valid.
        Serbs never “conquered” neither Bosnia and Hercegovina (more than half of population were Serbs in 1918.) nor Croatia, Slovenia…If Serbs did it, please provide facts about that, since there is none. Truth is that Croats calculated that joining Kingdom of SCS, (Yugoslavia) was pragmatic choice, and they initiated process of unification. Slovenians also declared joining to Yugoslavia. Nobody forced Slovenians, Croats into Kingdom of Yugoslavia. Furthermore, SFRY was other story, it could be argued that Serbia was occupied by communists led by Croat Dictator Tito, helped by USA and GB who bombed Serbia, at 1944. more brutally than Hitler Nazis in april of 1941. to force Serbian citizens to accept communist rule. Serbia had their anti-fascist movement consisted of Yugoslav Army Soldiers in Faterland, led by General Mihailovic, who conducted guerrilla actions against Croat and German Nazis.
        Your half-truth and manipulation does not counts as scientific piece, rather propagandistic.

      3. Anita, I’m sorry to hear that you feel angry about this statement, but I would appreciate if you could clarify what part of it is wrong.

    2. Anita, I’m sorry to hear that you feel angry about this statement, but I would appreciate if you could clarify what part of it is wrong.

  4. Disagree completely with the conclusions. I lived through Yugoslavia’s breakup so I had the opportunity to observe directly what was going on at the time.

    It wasn’t the referendums or the will of the people to dissolve the union that was the cause of the war, it was the pigheaded forceful attempts to keep to the union that were the cause of the catastrophe.

    And it wasn’t only the serbs, it was Europe as well with its bumbling attempts to keep the status quo which emboldened and empowered serbian aggression. Were it not for EU’s arms embargo serbian expansionism would have been stopped at Croatia’s borders and there most probably wouldn’t be war in Bosnia.

    There are plenty of examples of political unions ending without bloodshed and even amicably. For example, Czechoslovakia, Austro-Hungarian empire also dissolved with no bad feelings. With a few exceptions, even Soviet Union managed to dissolve peacefully even though the economic situation was almost catastrophic at the time.

    Brexit should be done with as quickly and cleanly as possible. This chapter should be closed so a new one can begin where the interests of all the parties (including UK regions which voted against the exit) can be addressed. This foot-dragging a vacillating is doing no good to anyone and is only increasing the likelihood of things going very wrong for everyone.

    I’d think Britain would be wiser regarding this matter, considering how much unnecessary grief was caused by its pig-headed insistence on denying Ireland any kind of self-rule and later on independence. Ireland still got independent at a cost that could have been entirely avoided if the policy makers actually paid attention to actual political and historical realities instead of insisting on preserving the comfy status quo.

    Learn from history, don’t repeat it.

    1. I would vote Marko! This guys 1st thinks and then writes…
      Nice one Marko..Be more like Marko.

    2. well then why Croat representative in Presidency of SFRY, and President of SFRY Stipe Mesić stated : “SFRY is no more. My job is done.”
      Why Croat Nazi emigration were organizing terrorist attacks in SFRY during 50ties, 60ties and 70ties, from Austria (Filah – camp of Croat Nazis).
      What about “Croat spring” of nationalism in the beginning of 70ties, and why Croat Dictator Tito ruled Constitution of 1974. considered as cause of SFRY brake up by many scholars.
      Interesting fact – in last 20 years of SFRY existance almost all Prime Ministers of SFRY Govt were Croats.
      Aggression? Please, explain.
      Serbian expansionism? Laughable. Serb liberation from communist oppressors! Tell me, who created, and when Federal Yugoslavia, who drew the borders of Republics, and who represented Serbia, if any?

      SFRY was communist occupation and repression of Serbia. “Weak Serbia, Strong Yugoslavia” was the motto of Communists of that era…

      1. You shouldnt read into quotes too much. But read up on the Serb leaderships’ actions following Mesic’s appointment as president and you might understand what he meant by the quote.

        Regarding the diaspora attacks, that was (in their mind) the liberation from communist oppresion that you talk about. Although their methods and motives were nothing to commend.

        The borders of the republics were quite similar (with some minor changes) to those of the various entites prior to the formation of Yugoslavia

        Please explain how the Croatian Spring triggered the fall of Yugoslavia and which ‘scholars’ consider this to be the case? I suppose Serb nationalism in the 1980s had nothing to do with it? Or is Croatian nationalism evil while Serb nationalism is simply defending ones people?

        You do understand that a country is run by more than one person, right? The bulk of the beauracray, police, military, judiciary and civil servants were Serbs – please explain how Croats were dominating the country. The presidency is pure coincidence.

        Serb liberation from communist oppresors? Now thats laughable, considering most of the leadership were oppenly proclaiming a communist affiliation (mixed with Serb nationalism).

    3. Good post. One point of argument: the independence of Ireland was fairly bloodless; it was that civil war that followed that was bloody.

      Without wishing to get too deeply into it, if you’re talking about the later conflict in Northern Ireland, it’s a tricky question – there was a very substantial number of people (around 1/3 of the whole nation of Ireland at the time) who were apparently opposed to independence and formed a large armed militia to prevent it. This was the original Ulster Volunteer Force. It is from this that Northern Ireland arose. The British government at the time absolutely proposed full independence for the whole island of Ireland.

  5. Even though interesting text, it is is pretty much politicaly colourd. Serbia and England are not to compare at all, the historical backround is compleatly different.

  6. Not only that comparation is without any link but also the writer did not bother to check the facts about SFRJ , really bad and false articcle

      1. Neglecting to mention the HUGE destructive role of the West (USA and UK primarily) in the break up of Yugoslavia, almost completely disqualifies this comparative analysis.
        Unless USA now regime-changes UK for US interests (it hardly need to do so anyway 😉 the UK is already obediently in line with USA policies), the comparison with Yugoslavia is only surface-deep.

      2. All about Serbs, WHEN and WHY they settled in regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Croatia, Vojvodina and Kosovo. Also this brings into question how Yugoslavia got Muslims.

      3. who was representing Serbia during formation of federal Yugoslavia (SFRY) and creation of internal borders? nobody.
        Referendums – author failed to mention that consensus of all constitutional nations in Bosnia and Croatia regarding referendum was Requirement of Constitution of BiH and Croatia. Those referendums were invalid by Constituion.
        Serbs did not came to conquer Croatia and Bosnia, they lived there for centuries. Serbs were not minority in Bosnia and Croatia, it was their coutry as much as of Croats or bosnian muslims. Serbs were majority in Slavonia, Bosnia, Dalmatia, but centuries of forced conversion from Orhodox to Roman Catholic Christianity took a tole. Most of Bosnians and Slavonians, Dalmatians are of Serb ethnicity.
        What is now known as Croatia is in fact Greater Croatia, consisted of Croatia, Slavonia, Dalmatia and Istria. A present to Croats from one of them, Communst Dictator Tito. As Khrushchev did with Crimea, took it from Russia and gave it to his Ukrainians..

        1. The borders were quite similar to those previously established before the formaiton of Yugoslavia – with some adjustements here and there.

          Depending what we classify ‘minority’ as, I agree that Serbs werent a minority in Bosnia – Croatia may be apoint of contention. But I agree, it was as much their country also. To be fair, there were/are parts of Slavonia and Dalmatia which had/have Serbian majorities, but not the entire regions. To claim most inhabitants are originally Serbs is also wishful thinking on your part.

          What is now Croatia consists of the regions you listed, however you are aware the country was divided for administrative reasons by Hungary or Austria. Croatia did exist in the early 800-1000s as a state covering roughly the same territory as it has now, minus Bosnia and with the exception of Istria. Might be wise to open a history book and learn that Croatian history didnt begin in 1991, 1941, 1918 or whatever year you find most convinient.

  7. The two can not be compared one to one, some similarities can be observed, but there are many differences too, historical, political, chronological, etc. However, I fully agree with the main point of the article: 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….

  8. “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.” The latter half of this sentence could not be farther from the truth.
    The rest of it, however, is more or less spot on.
    BTW: The lives of ordinary people in Yugoslavia up until the mid 1970s were anything but great. And as someone said, the rapid improvement in the living standard was down to Yugoslavia’s political leadership taking massive loans (which current generations are repaying as will our grandchildren) in the years shortly before Tito’s death, knowing that brewing social discontent would soon erupt if they didn’t throw some money at people to appease them. It wasn’t because of a change in the economic ways of a dilapidated and uncompetitive industry living on government subsidies, the problem that still plagues Serbia’s shattered economy.

  9. Fedja, great piece but you are missing a huge elephant in your argument – the role of Western powers in the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The irony being that UK is one of those ‘actors’ that did their ‘best’ to help along the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. Short of USA turning on UK (and sabotaging by regime-changing like USA did in Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Libya, attempting Syria etc.), the bloody Yugoslav scenario will hardly happen.
    I’d be grateful if you’d let me know why is your analysis so blind to this crucial component.
    BW

  10. I personal believe that what we should take from this article is that a separation is never a good thing. nothing more.
    no need to go down into the roots of what happened with yugoslavia etc. The main point is that Yugoslavia ceased to exist and instead of one country now there are satellites…that’a the main point. and that’s what brexit is doing and UK should have learned from the past history.

  11. There are far more differences between nations in the UK than there was in Yugoslavia. Firstly, Yugoslavians were all South Slavs with the same language (difference between Slovenian and Serbo-Croatian is the same as the difference between Swiss German and German), even 1000 years after they lived in different countries. There are a few reasons why Yugoslavia broke up: different religions, huge difference in the life standard between northern and southern part, big difference between education and living standard in the cities and on the country-side, lack of political elites, bad political system and of course aspiration of the big countries to eliminate a big rich Slavic country with a great geopolitical position. At the end, these countries used previous problems and we got the situation we have today: a lot of small vassal states, the only region in Europe that has borders, with awful economy and with governments that are strongly controlled by the US and other big countries. In these countries you can’t have your own business, and even the old big companies were sold to the foreign companies. Of course, these people don’t have enough money, they can’t travel and meet other Europeans, or even other people from the other former Yugoslav republics. All this made this huge mass easy to be controlled and manipulated, which is why they still vote for corrupted, quisling politicians and why the situation is not better even 25 after the war. Comparing England, which has a long imperial tradition, and which had colonies all over the world, and Serbia, which didn’t have a country over a century ago and which was for 500 years under the Ottoman Empire is a nonsense.

    1. Slovene and Croatian languages are related but nowhere near that similar. A native Slovene born after 1991 and not immersed in Balkan language (TV, radio ect.), Does not understand Croatian. Lot of same wording with totally different meaning. Dressing in Slovene will sound diarrhea to Croat. Early to Slovene means Beautiful to Croat ect.

      1. The same difference exists between German in the north Germany and German in Switzerland. I didn’t say that Slovenian and Croatian is the same language, I just wanted to say that they have the same root, unlike Gaelic and English

  12. Memo to the EU: Read this article to remind you why we must not accept ex-Yugoslav states in our Union, for at least 20 years. They view the world through their early 1990s mess. Until they can remove their heads from this sewage, they must be avoided (and start Croexit).

    1. actually, speaking for Serbia, we do not want to join EU. It is Western powers who installed (payed) their puppet regime during October 5th 2000 “colored coup d etat” forcing us to join..

  13. I’m reading a book called “London for Immigrant suckers” and it’s about Yugoslavia. Drawing parallels from Yugoslavia and applying it to Brexit – there are some similarities.

  14. Not a good comparison. Why comparing UK to Yugoslavia? Better comparison is comparing EU to Yugoslavia. Slovenia voted to leave Yugoslavia first like UK the EU.

  15. Ja sam velški Velšanin(Cymro Cymraeg) iz engleske porekle, moja žena Francuskinja, i od Brexita ne osećamo se dobro ovde. Kuda ide Vels(pays de Galles?). Pokušavam da pišem u srpsko-hrvatski, ne podnosim engleski – i neću Velika Engleska nikada! Englezi nisu svi loši, ali opet ima đubre tamo – to sad znamo.

    Ima još mnogi u Vels koji želi da govoriti velski, i da bude Velšani i u isto vreme, kako da kažem, Europani.

    Cymru am byth!

  16. This is a very unfortunate comparison of two very different situations. If you want to draw comparisons, it would the one of EU denying UK’s right to leave and forcefully, in bloodshed went about defending the union. Or, if Scotland decided to leave, and London rolled the tanks out. You get the point. Yes, political dialogues should take place instead of holding referendums which can be manipulated, but you cannot hold a union by force. I wish the confederation was allowed when brought to the table by Croatia and Slovenia, and I wish UK remained in the Union. Referendums don’t lead to chaos and bloodshed, the denying of free will can and does.

  17. I was born in Yugoslavia 1963. Now I am living in a poor, lawless, country called Croatia. I am Croat and Roman Catholic and I assume that life in Yugoslavia was the BEST and MOST QUALITY life for a common men, in Europe during the 60 es, 70 es and 80 es..! It was a hraven! International masters decided to destroy Yugoslavia because there is no threat of a cold war, Berlin wall was fallen and balance between “forces” became irrelevant. Average Yugoslav people had no credits in a bank and that had to be changed… You know what i mean. Masters of war (Tudjman, Milosevic, Izetbegovic) together torn the country apart!

    1. You want to say that before independent Croatia you lived in luxury in Yugoslavia, there were no lines for gasoline, vegetable oil, coffee, pretty much everything. You want to say that there were no inflation however you had to daily change foreign currency for dinars before they lost half of its value. You want to say that you haven’t driven some Skoda or Wartburg and having other goods that were counterfeits of western products.
      Lets please be honest and say that we all wanted capitalism, we were tired of self-management communist order in which nobody really worked.
      Thanks to Berlin wall and Titos weapons exports to poor, war thorn african countries, we survived for so long “in happiness”.

  18. Lets tell the truth. It’s the communist party who was always packed with nationalists who waited for Tito’s death. Tito knew it and didn’t do anything about it, knewing that war will broke out after he goes.
    I’m glad Bosnia is not in Great Serbia now, thank God we are independent country. It’s better to live in ppverty free than rich in occupation!

  19. The author of this article may know a lot about the previous Yugoslavia and a little about Bosnia (I was in Tuzla pre and post Dayton) but he knows almost nothing about the English.
    Comparing the Yugoslav situation post Tito with the “English” under the current EU Referendum is like comparing oranges with bananas. I suggest his interpretation has been gained by left wing radical university life and the reading of distorted British history prevalent in such institutions.

    1. Thanks for the comment Colin – I won’t comment on your point about the validity of the comparison itself, but I do want to point out that Fedja doesn’t teach in a British institution: he’s based in an American university (though I naturally don’t agree there’s a distorted reading of British history in UK institutions!).

  20. Comparing former SFRY of 1990 with Great Britain is the most stupid thing to do.
    Former SFRY in 1990 has had history of zero days in democracy, whereas UK is Democracy for centuries.

  21. This discussion digresses, what the story tells us is that we cannot be sure what is coming, because Yugoslavia had the people of the different parts living together and not having great qualms until populism and referenda started a degeneration to the bottom. If you said 10 years before the war to a Yugoslav that the Bosnian, Croats and Serbians would be killing each other soon most would tell you that you are mad.

    Take the UK, put Nigel in power or some even more unsavoury nationalistic “great” nation person, start undermining Scotland and Norther Ireland, resuscitating the IRA…. In a few years the modern tolerant UK becomes some kind of banana republic, or at least a chaotic country in decline. It has happened in many countries. It would be deplorable, nearly unthinkable, but nevertheless it is possible.

  22. Comments are more interesting than article.

    I believe that author of article wrote it for UK and EU readers and has mention only things which UK readers could know from news and what is relevant for what he want to say and make point for UK readers.

    All other people who comment this article are all in right from their perspective.

    Here are some of my thoughts:

    1.
    imperialism
    ɪmˈpɪərɪəlɪz(ə)m/
    noun
    noun: imperialism
    a policy of extending a country’s power and influence through colonization, use of military force, or other means.

    democracy
    dɪˈmɒkrəsi/
    noun
    noun: democracy
    a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives.

    kingdom
    ˈkɪŋdəm/
    noun
    noun: kingdom; plural noun: kingdoms
    a country, state, or territory ruled by a king or queen.

    communism
    ˈkɒmjʊnɪz(ə)m/
    noun
    noun: communism
    a theory or system of social organization in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs.

    So, Mr. Besim if you want to say that UK has democracy in centuries, tell us when UK stop to colonize world? Are they?

    2. UK was rich country thanks to colonization and start industrialization in 17 or 18. century. YU start industrialization after WWII. People in YU after WWII where hungry. But in next 50 years YU was build to strong industrial country. The biggest mistake for YU was to start selling military products to africa and meadle east countries. YU take large part of cake from USA, UK, FR…

    3.One man can’t do much bad things or good things. Only army of followers who want to take advantage of situation. That was in YU after WWII and later, and now.

    People in all this countries are manipulated through media which are based on Gebels formula.

    My point is: “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others”.

    Best regards…

  23. Terrible comparison! Compare and contrast the rhetoric of David Cameron versus the rhetoric of Slobodan Milosevic. It is not even close! England is not desperate to start a war of conquest, which Milosevic and the Serbs did in order to create Greater Serbia. The referendums by Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia were merely a pretext for Serbian aggression. The other republics had originally offered a confederate structure, which the Serbs rejected because they wanted to maintain their status of supremacy over the other peoples.

  24. The point that referenda are not the solution to complex problems are well made whatever the differences in historical perspective. Whatever, the merits of the EU it provides a common architecture which the Western Balkans need while the UK should reflect that a descent into nationalism is hardly a recipe for lasting security.

    https://www.veruscript.com/journals/journal-of-intelligence-and-terrorism-studies/the-western-balkans-twenty-years-after-dayton/

  25. its a veryu succinct comparison. i am british, born in london, moved to berlin in 1989. its on the point. thank you for writing this article

  26. As soon as Brexit results were announced, I thought about Yugoslavia. This article is on the point. Yugoslavia was a great country. I must say that in late 80s I didn’t believe that Yugoslavia will survive. I wanted an independent, modern Croatia. It didn’t happen that way. Now, 25 years after the break up of Yugoslavia, I am very nostalgic about what we had then: an amazing education, strong middle class, universal health care, a true multicultural society, and many happy people. Religion was free to practice, and separated from the state, as it should be.

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