Saturday, September 15, 2007

There is no country to hold together, really

Out of the ashes of World War I, the victorious Allies threw together an entirely new country, composed of disparate ethnic and national groups, perhaps somewhat linked by language or religion, but lacking any long-standing historical ties to one another. This "country," as it were, had never existed before, nor had these people been expected to live together under a single flag. A strongman dictator held it all together, often through violence and repression and often through sheer force of personality. Eventually, however, the strongman fell, and all the pieces came apart in an explosion of violence that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives while the world looked on.

I'm talking, of course, about the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, which later came to be known simply as Yugoslavia. The "country" was cobbled together out of pieces of defeated Austria-Hungary and added to Serbia and Montenegro. The strongman I refer to is Josip Broz Tito, who led a partisan rebellion against the Nazis during World War II and then unified the "country" under a communist regime. The only thing "Yugoslavs" had in common was that they all belonged to "Slavic" ethnic groups and occupied a southern area of Europe ("yug" is a common Slavic root meaning "south").

Tito was Yugoslavia's president from 1953 until his death in 1980. He probably was the only force holding the country together, but his belief in a unified Yugoslavia seemed unflappable. Among his famous quotes is the following: "None of our republics would be anything if we weren't all together; but we have to create our own history - history of United Yugoslavia, also in the future."

It would be another 11 years before everything really hit the fan, but a lot happened in preparation for the breakdown. In my humble opinion, blame lies almost exclusively with Slobodan Milošević, who exploited Serb nationalism in his rise to power. Beginning in 1987, when he first played on the fears of the Serb minority in Kosovo, he set the stage for much of the chaos that followed.

The rest of the story is pretty well-known. Beginning in 1991, the pieces began to break off: within a year, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia and Herzgovina declared independence. Serbia and Montenegro stuck together for a while, keeping the name Yugoslavia until 2003, and then finally separating in 2006. The process was painful and nasty, to say the least, and it added new phrases to the global lexicon like "ethnic cleansing." In the end, the world sees that "Yugoslavia" was an artificial construct of Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Macedonians, Albanians (in Kosovo and Macedonia), Montenegrins, Slovenians, and Hungarians (in Vojvodina, northern Serbia).

Why do I bring all of this up? Well, after World War I, there was another defeated empire to dissect: the Ottoman Empire. Although it once extended to the outskirts of Vienna and deep into Africa, the Ottoman Empire was pretty much used up by 1918. France and Britain carved up the remnants--one of Britain's spoils was the Mandate of Iraq, which combined three Ottoman provinces (Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul) into a single state. "Iraq" became independent of Britain in 1932 under a British-installed monarchy that lasted until 1958. Then there was a military coup, followed by Saddam Hussein's rise to power and assumption of the presidency in 1979.

I have commented before on the vast array of ethnic identities present in Iraq: Sunni Arab, Shia Arab, predominately Sunni Kurd, Turkomen, Assyrian, Yazidi, and so forth. We have seen what can happen when a haphazard pastiche of ethnic groups are thrown together in a single state, held together by a dictator, and then that dictator leaves the scene one way or another (usually by death, let's face it). Anyone with a shred of intellectual honesty and integrity will agree that Iraq is now in a civil war, one in which "ethnic cleansing" is once again an appropriate term to use. Iraq may still be a state appearing on a map, but it is not a nation.

There may be hope (although I feel like I am only including this final paragraph in order to not be totally depressed): another entirely new country was created after World War I, whose history and ultimate divorce was much less of a blot on history. That country was Czechoslovakia, which peacefully split into its two constituent parts in 1993, in what was called the "Velvet Divorce," named after the country's comparatively peaceful "Velvet Revolution" of 1989.

Iraq already looks a hell of a lot like Yugoslavia. Is there a chance for it to become more like Czechoslovakia? One can hope, but I doubt it. The ultimate breakup of Yugoslavia threatened wider conflagrations, as does the possible breakup of Iraq. Since neither country really existed as a nation to begin with, perhaps there is some sort of inevitability to it. The question then becomes whether we want or need to be in the middle of the mess.

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