Florian Bieber, Armina Galijaš, Rory Archer, eds. Debating the End of Yugoslavia. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Ltd, 2014. 276 pp. $119.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4094-6711-3.
Reviewed by Marko Attila Hoare (Kingston University London)
Published on H-Nationalism (February, 2016)
Commissioned by Cristian Cercel
Debating the End of Yugoslavia is a collection of essays arising from a conference held at the University of Graz in November 2011, devoted to the topic of the dissolution of Yugoslavia on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. The first part of the book, entitled "The State of the Debate," comprises general analytical overviews of different aspects of it, while the second part, entitled "New Directions in Research," comprises more empirical case studies of particular episodes.
Florian Bieber’s introduction laments what he suggests is the overemphasis, in scholarly research during the last two decades, on attempting to explain the dissolution, and the consequent overshadowing of "the road not taken" and of "other equally relevant subject areas." As examples of the latter, he gives "the rise of Yugoslav identity," "self-management," and "the non-aligned movement"--topics for research that were popular before the dissolution when they appeared to represent the future (pp. 2-3). This is a paradoxical argument to make in the circumstances; Bieber seems to be arguing that his book’s subject matter is wrongly treated as more important than it really is, and that it would be better if researchers on the former Yugoslavia would go back to studying the things they were, before the pesky dissolution occurred and got in the way.
The impression that Bieber is irritated by his subject matter is reinforced when, already on his second page, he stresses the supposed significance of the emergence of the concept of Yugonostalgia. But Yugonostalgia is intellectually interesting primarily to sufferers from it, and frequently represents a form of escapism for those who would rather not get their hands dirty examining the ugly business of the dissolution and war. And that is the problem with this volume: the contributors generally shy away from putting forward strong opinions or concrete empirical evidence concerning how and why the dissolution happened. Eric Gordy makes a similar point to Bieber’s in chapter 1: after lauding "an emerging literature that examines civic, anti-war and antinationalist initiatives" (p. 14)--politically safe and attractive but objectively not all that important in the scheme of things--he concludes: "In general the research agenda suggested here offers an opportunity to ask a more specific question than an agenda that concentrates on the dissolution of a state and the emergence of new ones" (p. 19). Which is a rather roundabout way of saying we should be focusing on something other than the topic of the volume.
This is, in short, an excessively cautious book that deals with its highly controversial subject matter in a way that will offend few of its readers, whatever their views might be, but that tells us little about it that we did not already know. Reflective of the spirit of Dayton, one might say. Central questions such as, for example, the extent to which the dissolution was planned or unplanned; the origins and nature of the Milošević and Tuđman regimes and their roles in the dissolution; of the Yugoslav army and security services, are occasionally brushed against but hardly tackled directly. It is unfortunate that, for example, no attempt is made in this volume to assess precisely what new information about the dissolution has emerged from the copious proceedings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
In part 1 (chapters 1-9), the emphasis is much less on the facts of the dissolution and much more on disciplinary and methodological categorization. Thus, V. P. Gagnon discusses political science’s approaches to the dissolution, Sergej Flere discusses sociology’s approach and Reana Senjković deals with cultural anthropology, while Nebojša Vladisavljević suggests comparative perspectives as a way forward. This is much more about boxes and wrappers than about contents. A particular low point is Flere’s summarizing of some of the conspiracy theories attributing the dissolution to the machinations of Western imperialism, which he treats as intellectually noteworthy and makes no attempt to challenge (pp. 85-86). When critical scrutiny is abandoned in favor of mere bibliographic listing, considerations of quality go out the window. Rory Archer’s chapter 9, on the role of social inequalities in the dissolution of Yugoslavia, deals with a very relevant topic, but is frustratingly reluctant to draw any strong overall conclusions as to what their contribution might have been.
The essays in part 2--more specifically chapters 10-14 by Armina Galijaš, Christian Costamagna, Vladimir Petrović, Nikica Barić, and Gezim Krasniqi--deal respectively with Banja Luka and the Serbian Democratic Party; Milošević and the Communist regime; Serbian political elites and the Vance-Owen Peace Plan; Croatia and the Republic of Serb Krajina from 1992; and the nationalist movement in Kosovo (chapter 15 by Ljubica Spaskovska, on histories, memories, and the future of Yugoslav studies, should more properly have been included in part 1). These five essay are all valuable contributions in their own right, and positive examples of the sort of empirical research on the former Yugoslavia of which there should be more. Collectively, though, they represent a thematically puzzling selection: four of the five deal wholly or primarily with the post-dissolution war and conflict rather than the dissolution as such. It is only Costamagna’s essay on Milošević that exemplifies the type of research that could help better to explain and describe how and why Yugoslavia did collapse. As Costamagna notes in chapter 11, "the Communist regime in its final years, as explicit object of study, is still under-researched" (p. 174). This is a rather more centrally relevant point than Bieber’s point about Yugonostalgia; it would have made more sense if the former had been made in the introduction and the latter in chapter 11.
There are other good chapters that deserve a mention. Hilde Katrine Haug, in chapter 8, has written a valuable account of the debate over the dissolution in post-Milosevic Serbia. Sabrina Ramet’s chapter 3 represents a lively addendum to her 2005 book Thinking about Yugoslavia: Scholarly Debates about the Yugoslav Breakup and the Wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, and engages in the sort of scholarly criticism that is mostly absent from the rest of the volume under discussion. Above all, Josip Glaurdic’s chapter 2, "Between the Scylla of Facts and the Charybdis of Interpretation," makes the key point, that attempts at explaining and theorizing about the dissolution have far outpaced the actual production of empirical research upon which proper explanation depends: "Although some--like Odysseus--have lost crewmembers while sailing too close to Scylla by constructing dry accounts heavily laden with facts, many more have drowned in the whirlpool of Charybdis for attempting to 'fit the facts' to their preconceived interpretations of various aspects of Yugoslavia’s dissolution, or simply for treating the facts with cavalier disregard" (p. 23). He makes the very apposite plea that what this subject of study needs is more solid, primary research and less under-informed theorizing (pp. 34-35). That is the best lesson that anyone could take from reading this volume.
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Marko Attila Hoare. Review of Bieber, Florian; Galijaš, Armina; Archer, Rory, eds., Debating the End of Yugoslavia.
H-Nationalism, H-Net Reviews.
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