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Will Federalism Preserve Yugoslavia?

Daniel J. Elazar

Yugoslavia's crisis is a test case for the efficacy of federal solutions to bridge the kind of severe ethnic hostilities that the peoples of Yugoslavia have shown toward one another for centuries. If Yugoslavia can work out a successful federal solution, it will be a shining example for other intense inter-ethnic conflicts, perhaps even including our own.

Let us understand what federalism is. It is a combination of self-rule and shared rule, a set of cooperative arrangements allowing the preservation of the autonomy of the partners within a constitutional framework that protects both. To succeed, federal solutions require a will to federate -- a spirit of comity, of give and take, on the part of the parties to them -- for whatever reason, not necessarily out of love for one another but perhaps out of necessity.

The South Slavic peoples have never had any love lost between them. Theirs indeed is a rather dismal history of tyrannical rulers, often extremely cruel, combined with sustained internecine warfare. Their unification as Yugoslavia after World War I was maintained only through dictatorship under a formal monarchy. After World War II it took Tito to forge a new unity on a federal basis, but the will to remain united derived from the agreement of all concerned that they wanted to remain independent of the Soviet Union at a time when the Soviet threat was a powerful one.

As a Communist, Tito was an unlikely federalist. In a discussion with Professor Jovan Djordevic, Tito's great federalist advisor and constitution-maker, I was assured by Djordevic that he and others managed to sell the idea of federalism to Tito because Lenin had accepted it as a means to rebuild the Soviet empire under Communist rule. (Djordevic himself claimed to have been influenced by James Madison, father of the U.S. Constitution, and the great sixteenth century German Calvinist political scientist Johannes Althusius.) As we subsequently saw, it was not Tito's death a decade ago that brought about the crisis of Yugoslav federalism, but the end of the Soviet threat.

The situation in Yugoslavia is like that in a number of other countries where regions inhabited by different ethnic groups have attempted to secede. Both Slovenia and Croatia belong to Yugoslavia's more prosperous north. Slovenia especially feels that its greater resources are paying to support the rest of the country. Spain had a similar situation in the late 1970s when the Basques and the Catalonians, again, the country's richest regions, were able to capitalize on the same convergence of economic and political interests. The Spanish introduced a kind of federalism and successfully resolved the problem through a judicious combination of self-rule and shared rule. Now we are seeing the same arguments being advanced by groups such as the Lombard League of northern Italy against Rome and the south.

Spain and Italy can cope because both countries are on an economic upswing, while Yugoslavia has severe economic problems. The irony is that the lands and peoples of Yugoslavia have not had it so good in terms of peace and prosperity (yes -- prosperity) for 2,000 years, if ever. Significantly, even the Slovenians and Croatians are not talking about a total abandonment of federalism but about a formal shift from federation, with the overarching federal government as the major player, to confederation, where the constituent polities are the major players. In many respects, what they are asking for is a recognition of the reality of the post-Tito years when power flowed de facto from the federal government to the republics. Now they want appropriate constitutionalization of that new relationship. The main problem in Yugoslavia is that historic ethnic passions easily overwhelm rational efforts at resolution of the crisis and things get out of hand, as they have in the last few weeks.

Still, in all the history of federalism, no federal system that has survived for at least fifteen years has abandoned federalism of its own volition. Federal systems have been destroyed by outside conquest or transformed by the decision of their own citizenry to shift to some other form of federal arrangement as was the case with the Americans in 1787, the Swiss Confederation in 1848, or the Germans who transformed a loose federation into a centralized federation in 1871 and underwent subsequent transformations after World Wars I and II in response to military defeat. While federal arrangements may look fragile, once rooted they become "habits of the heart," as well as constitutional devices and very difficult to uproot.

In the case of Yugoslavia the eruption of nationalist passions seems at this moment to have been contained by the intervention of another federal polity, the European Community, which has emerged in the last 40 years as a new-style confederation among whose common purposes is the preservation of the peace of Europe. The message from the EC seems to be clear. National self-determination for European nationalities is okay as long as it is secured through federal arrangements of one kind or another. What kind is up to the peoples involved but they must stay within certain boundaries.

The EC initiative has been reinforced by a growing feeling among Serbs that they do not want to see their sons die to keep Slovenia and Croatia within the federation. This feeling has grown now that there is a cooling-off period. Had the incipient civil war gotten out of hand immediately, perhaps patriotic passions would have overcome such filial feelings, but once there was a pause, Serbian parents could ask themselves the question: "What for?"

If the combination of EC intervention and the self-interests of the people involved do lead to the working out of a new confederal arrangement for Yugoslavia it would be a milestone in the history of Europe and of the world. Moreover, it will augur well for the use of federal principles in the resolution of other ethnic conflicts. The world is moving toward federal arrangements as means for peoples and states to live together in an increasingly interdependent environment. Up to now, it has been relatively easy. This is a test case for dealing with a new stage of difficult situations.

One of the major transformations of the postwar world has been the emergence of federalism in once highly statist Europe. The Federal Republic of Germany, Belgium and Spain have resolved many of their problems of democracy and autonomy with federal solutions within the framework of an even grander confederation, the European Community. Now that confederation is extending its protection and its conditions over Eastern Europe to shift demands for national self-determination into federalist modes. We are now witnessing the first test as to whether or not this will lead to a new, more peaceful, democratic Europe.

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