BALKAN PRIMER (VII) - The Perils of Decentralization in
the Balkans Hornet's Nest

June 16, 1999

Comment: #286

Discussion Thread:  #s - 253, 254, 258, 262, 267, 268


Dan Morgan, "One Nation Under Tito," Washington Post, June 16, 1999, Page A37.

It is an article of faith in the Western democracies that decentralization of political and economic power acts like an invisible hand to improve economic welfare, freedom, and human rights, but in the Balkans, a more accurate metaphor for self-organizing dynamics may be the Black Hand [a secret, patriotic society, the 'Narodna Odbrana' or 'Defence of the People,' founded in Serbia in 1908 in order to strengthen a spirit of nationalism and use violence to bring about the unification of all the Serbian people in the Balkans].

In the referenced article, Dan Morgan describes how the rising nationalistic tensions in Yugoslavia threatened the security of the Serbs when Yugoslavia was being decentralized during last years of Tito regime.

Morgan, a correspondent assigned to Belgrade in the early 1970s, describes how Tito, believing that liberalization and concessions would ease separatist tensions, gave more political and economic power to regional leaders under the new constitution adopted in 1974. However, the decentralization of power increased the insecurity of the widely scattered Serb minorities in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Moreover, he describes how the decentralization of power made Serbia more economically vulnerable to arbitrary actions of its neighboring republics, particularly Croatia. Morgan argues that this diminished sense of security planted [really re-planted] the seeds of the paranoid Serbian nationalism that, when fertilized by the Serb character molded by its bloody history [to which I would add, its culture glorifying its sense of victimization and martyrdom], have destroyed Yugoslavia in four progressively more destructive wars.

The value of Morgan's reflective essay is that it reminds us (1) why simplistic caricatures of good guys versus bad guys make for bad policy in the Balkans and (2) why decentralized self-organizing multi-ethnic societies should not be expected to evolve naturally in all cultures. These reminders raise subtle questions about whether our marriage of Wilsonian principles of self determination with the protection of minority rights can or should be projected onto other cultures.

Chuck Spinney

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