In a 2016 article, Croatian journalist Marinko Čulić begged politicians from the ex-Yugoslav countries to stop “reviving Yugoslavia just so they can kill it again” in their anti-Yugoslav hysteria. A similar request appears to be in order in October 2017. Whenever there is talk of redrawing borders (Georgia in 2008, Crimea in 2014, and now Catalonia) and whenever federations get smaller (Brexit), we don’t hesitate for a second to take Yugoslavia out of the history shelf and pour fresh salt on the wounds of the hundreds of thousands who lost someone in the horrors of the 1990s. Of course, any historical event, no matter how painful, should be “revived” if it can provide meaningful counsel for an analogous situation in the present. Yet, this is hardly the case with Yugoslavia and Catalonia.
In June 1991, Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from a Yugoslav state that no longer anything to do with Tito’s Yugoslavia, which was set up as the product of the shared anti-fascist struggle of the Yugoslav people during World War II. Starting in 1988, Serb leader Slobodan Milošević first hijacked the posts belonging to Montenegro, Kosovo and Vojvodina in the collective presidency (thus assuming direct control over half of the votes in the eight-member body), and then appropriated over 2.6 billion Deutschmark from the federal emissary. Ripped off and disenfranchised, 83.6% of Croats and 90.8% of Slovenes turned out to vote in their respective independence referenda, and over 90% in both cases voted for independence. Is the average Croat or the average Slovene today better off than their parents were in the “golden age” of Yugoslavia in the 1960s and 1970s? Probably not. Are they better off than they would have been in the Serb-dominated dictatorship so clearly previewed by Milošević prior to 1991? Definitely.
In June 2017, the president of the autonomous Catalan region, Carles Puigdemont, called for an independence referendum to be held in October after a simple-majority vote in the Generalitat (the Catalan parliament). The vote came short of the required two-third majority as per Catalonia’s own Statutes of Autonomy (note how the key word “autonomy”, which Catalonia enjoys in no small amount, has already come up twice). While Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy may rightly be criticized for failing to assuage Catalan concerns by rejecting even the slightest move towards greater autonomy, this is hardly comparable to Milošević’s actions against the non-Serb republics of Yugoslavia prior to 1991. Moreover, turnout in the Sunday referendum in Catalonia was 42.3%, meaning that the “yes” vote (of 92%) amounted to less than 40% of the total population, as opposed to 88.5% of the total population in Slovenia in 1991. Finally, the Statutes of Autonomy that Mr Puigdemont by calling the referendum are part of the 1978 Spanish constitution, which was passed by the Catalan people in 1978 with a 95.2% majority (at a turnout of 67.9%); the 1974 Yugoslav constitution defining the status of Croatia and Slovenia had never been put forward to a vote.
Even less convincingly, the often-made analogy between Yugoslavia and Catalonia does not stop in 1991. Rather, it is extended to the independence of Kosovo. In 2008, Kosovo declared independence based on its 1991 referendum, with a turnout of 87%, and with 99% support for independence. By 1991, Kosovars had experienced the same injustices as their Croat and Slovene counterparts, and these injustices pale in comparison to what followed, with the Kosovo War of the 1990s leaving over 8,000 Kosovar Albanians dead, or missing to this date. Comparing their grim fate with the autonomy and prosperity of Spain’s wealthiest region is unconvincing at best and offensive towards the Kosovar people at worst. Hopefully, the Catalonia case will shed more light on the absurdity of the already established comparisons of Kosovo with Georgia and Crimea, which are habitually made by Kremlin-sympathetic media.
And yet, Kosovo aside, the developments in Catalonia over this past weekend (unlike the broader debate over Catalan independence) do bear one important similarity with the course of events surrounding Yugoslavia’s break-up. Mr. Rajoy has a major lesson to take not from Milošević, but from Yugoslavia’s last prime minister, Ante Marković: the use of force can turn the biggest victim into an equally gigantic villain. Despite Milošević’s despicable shenanigans in the late 1980s, the vast majority of the international community was vigorously opposed to unilateral independence for Croatia and Slovenia all the way until June 1991. No one had put this more bluntly than Italian Foreign Minister Gianni De Michelis: “[Croatia and Slovenia] will not survive without the establishment of political relations with Europe and until then, they will risk being crushed because of their wrong decisions”.
While international recognition of unilateral independence was thus clearly off the table in early 1991, it took Western European countries no more than six months after Marković’s deployment of Yugoslav troops to stop the Slovenes from seizing their border posts in June 1991 to recognize Croatia and Slovenia in December 1991. While the EU’s initial reaction to the events of the past weekend was to reaffirm its support for Spanish unity, this position won’t necessarily stick if Rajoy continues to walk down the path of violence. After all, Spanish police, despite their otherwise despicable brutality, were careful enough to avoid fatalities. By contrast, Marković’s intervention in Slovenia caused the first 63 deaths in the internecine barbarism that was to engulf Yugoslavia for the next decade. Should blood be shed in Spain, victims and villains may change places in no time.
In hindsight, however, there is yet another lesson from the Yugoslav experience that matters for Spain the most. The break-up of Tito’s formidable federation has hardly left anyone better off, with four of the ex-Yugoslav republics still outside of the EU, and with record levels of unemployment and brain drain. Once the dust from last weekend settles, Catalonia and Spain will find themselves free of both the economic abyss and ethnic animosity of post-Tito Yugoslavia. Luckily, while nationalism had doomed Yugoslavia long before 1991, Spain can still put up one hell of a fight.