Bücher | Books - Part 24

posted by PP on 2005/07/18 00:00

[ Bücher | Books ]

Andrew Gilbert (University of Chicago) hat das Buch
V.P. Gagnon Jr., The Myth of Ethnic War. Serbia and Croatia in the 1990s. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2004. 217 pp.
rezensiert - und Balkan Academic News dankenswerterweise für die rasche Distribution der Besprechung gesorgt:
The book constitutes a sustained argument against the notion that the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s were “ethnic” conflicts, that is, that the conflicts were caused by or rooted in the relationships between groups, ethnically defined. Rather, Gagnon argues that the wars were the product of a deliberate policy designed by conservative regimes (the HDZ in Croatia and the SPS in Serbia) that served three interrelated goals: First, to change the meaning of ethnic identities and create a new sense of groupness among Yugoslavia’s people; this necessitated discrediting notions of community other than that of homogenous, ethnic nation. Second, in arousing fear and provoking conflict to create this sense of groupness, these regimes also shifted political discourse away from liberal democratic reforms that threatened conservative elites. This served their most important aim, to demobilize potential anti-regime forces.

Gagnon is careful not to argue that “ethnicity” or “ethnic identification” does not exist. Rather, he argues that the meaning of such identification is contextual, mutable, and processual, not homogenous and unchanging. Thus he seeks to put the changing nature of ethnic identification in the 1990s in the political context of that time, and argues that “[it] is the very inability of elites to “play the ethnic card” as a means of mobilizing the population that leads them to resort to other options, most notably the creation of violent conflict as a strategy of political demobilization” (xvi). Indeed, “[the] goal of this strategy was to silence, marginalize, and demobilize challengers and their supporters in order to create political homogeneity at home. This in turn enabled conservatives to maintain control of existing structures of power, as well as to reposition themselves by converting state-owned property into privately held wealth, the basis of power in a new system of liberal economy” (xv).

The first two chapters aim to problematize the notion that ethnicity or ethnic identity was causal in the wars of the 1990s, and ask why Western academics and policymakers were so quick to interpret the conflict through an ethnic lens. Chapter One begins by undermining some of the assumptions of the “ethnic conflict” thesis by providing evidence to the contrary. Gagnon then goes on to critically discuss the concept of ethnic groups by looking into the social construction of groupness and the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of the modern state system that posits a homogenous, self-determining polity as the basis of legitimate political authority. He also examines the role that violence has nearly always played in the destruction of bonds of shared community and the creation of “homogenous” polities. Chapter Two seeks to show how wrong Western perceptions were regarding the causes of the Yugoslav wars (namely, that they were about ethnicity and the ability of political elites to manipulate or appeal to national sentiments to provoke conflict). Gagnon makes this argument using Yugoslav sociological and political science surveys carried out in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He locates an interesting pattern in the data, namely that people who lived in “mixed” areas nearly always had a positive assessment of inter-ethnic relations in their own communities, as well as a striking lack of perception that the rights of their own group were threatened (even as they may have believed that relations elsewhere in Yugoslavia were not as good). He observes that “[t]his marked disparity in perceptions about interethnic relations is a vivid illustration of the fact that while political elites can attempt to construct peoples’ views about ethnicity from above, such attempts have their effect mostly in perceptions about such relations outside of their own lived experiences” (37). Gagnon notes that this explains “why these elites had to resort to violence; it was the only way to directly impinge on the everyday lived experiences of these communities in a way that had the potential to change such perceptions” (Ibid.).

The next three chapters form the substantive analysis and argument of the book. In Chapter Three he sets out to contextualize the politics of the early 1990s as related to forms of political struggle within the Yugoslav League of Communists in the 1960s and 1980s, particularly between those he terms conservatives and reformers. He argues that during both the 1960s and 1980s, the reformers were in the ascendancy within the Party, promoting policies that threatened a number of entrenched old-guard elites. In response, conservative forces in the League of Communists in Serbia tried to shift the focus of Party debates towards alleged threats directed at Serbia and Serbs in Yugoslavia. Thus conservatives provoked, created, and fueled conflict along ethnic lines in order to demobilize and marginalize those pushing for change; while successful in Serbia and Montenegro, eventually such tactics produced a backlash, particularly in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia, and the Party disintegrated.

In Chapters Four and Five, focusing on Serbia and Croatia respectively between 1990-2000, he elaborates his central argument. The first part of this argument concerns the degree to which the wars were popular because they reflected the interests and desires of the population; Gagnon shows that they did not. Rather, and this is the second part of his argument, the wars were part of a strategy to demobilize any anti-regime forces by making the regime’s political and ideological positions the only legitimate ones. When Milosevic and Tudjman needed to actively mobilize support in competitive elections, they presented themselves to their voting publics in ways that corresponded to what Gagnon argues were the overwhelming interests of the populations: not as obsessed with territory and ethnic difference, but as moderate forces, concentrating on economic issues and declaring their desire for peace and stability in relations with other Yugoslav republics and peoples. However, when faced with popular anti-regime mobilization, they consistently pursued a strategy of conflict. Regarding Serbia, Gagnon demonstrates clearly how unpopular the war in Croatia was, even as the regime used images to create the impression that Serbs were threatened and victimized, making it difficult to discuss anything else. After Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, the strategy of demobilization began to reach its limits. By 2000, Milosevic was increasingly relying on overtly oppressive measures, and at the same time, new private elites who had shifted over to formal ownership and private non-state activities were less dependent for their success on the existing structures of state power. He argues, “a crucial factor in the final outcome [of the 2000 election]­a transfer of political power from the SPS and its allies to the opposition­was the defection from the SPS of critical parts of the post-war power structure in Serbia: the mafias, the so-called “tycoons,” and the special services unit of the State Security police” (129). When Milosevic tried to manipulate or directly disqualify election results favoring the opposition, he was faced again with popular anti-regime mobilization. This time, however, the strategy of demobilization was not available for the regime to save itself.

The chapter on Croatia reads very similarly, in that the HDZ pursued strategies to make sure no other political party or coalition would gain a critical edge against it in competitive elections. Again, he argues that when it came to actively mobilizing the population at the time of elections, the HDZ put on its most moderate face. He also shows that in the most multi-ethnic areas of Croatia, both the HDZ and SDS were not popular parties and did not get even close to a majority of the vote. This particularly threatened the HDZ, who saw that the significant Serb population of Croatia would likely never vote for them. Moreover, in the first few years of its government, the HDZ faced growing unpopularity and consistently worked to rewrite election laws, take over state media and security services, provoked war in the parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina where Croats lived, and carried out the military campaign to retake the Krajina. Again, Gagnon emphasizes that the war in Bosnia “was not meant to increase the HDZ’s support; nor was it meant to mobilize the population behind the HDZ; indeed, the official media lied about the nature of the war and denied reports about its true origins. In addition, the war was not a popular one, and the HDZ right’s goal of joining “Herceg Bosna” with Croatia was opposed by a large majority. The HDZ’s polling numbers plummeted during the course of the war…[its] main effect was the way in which it silenced and marginalized forces” (160). In the end, the HDZ vastly over-estimated its popularity and base of support, and were ousted.

Overall, the book largely accomplishes what it sets out to do, namely to undermine the “ethnic conflict” thesis and provide a convincing counter-narrative to explain the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. Gagnon has also brought together a significant amount of data produced in the former Yugoslavia, which will be a valuable resource to readers interested in the politics and society of late Yugoslavia and its successor states.

Some readers may find the absence of a chapter on Bosnia-Herzegovina a significant one. Others may find that the concentration on polling, election results, and public discussions in the media succeeds in showing THAT demobilization and the narrowing of political discourse happened, but they may find it less successful in explaining HOW it happened. The same could be said for the argument about ethnic identity: despite the sophisticated critique of common approaches to ethnicity in the social sciences, and the clearly correct claim that one major goal of the wars was to change what ethnic identity meant, HOW this change came about drops out of the narrative for the most part (with the exception of a footnote or two referencing the work of others). There is clearly plenty of room for more fine-grained and detailed sociological and ethnographic work to be done on these subjects. This reviewer also felt that the book’s argument was a little repetitive, and the concept of “political space” that Gagnon employs in his analysis could use a much more detailed theoretical grounding and elaboration.

Still, none of this detracts from the clear importance and contribution of this book. It stands as a clear example of a warning given by Brubaker, among others, not to take the “categories of ethnopolitical practice as our categories of social analysis.” [Brubaker, Rogers. “Ethnicity without groups,” Archives Europeennes de Sociologie, Vol. 43, No. 2, 2002, p.166] The danger is that we may unwittingly reinforce the efficacy of political strategies, like demobilization, with which we disagree. Gagnon’s book should be required reading for anyone interested in understanding the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, or anyone seeking to analyze conflicts in which a discourse of ethnicity or other group categories dominates.

© 2005 Balkan Academic News. This review may be distributed and reproduced electronically, if credit is given to Balkan Academic News and the author. For permission for re-printing, contact Balkan Academic News.


Senior Editor

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