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European History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences



Balkan Babel: The Disintegration of Yugoslavia From the Death of Tito to the Fall of Milosevic (Fourth Edition) by Sabrina P. Ramet (Westview Press) (PAPERBACK) Yugoslavia's would-be system-builders failed three times over to build a workable system. The underlying problem was their failure to resolve the problem of legitimacy. In the 1980s, economic deterioration pushed people to despair and, under the pressure of Serbia's ambitious political establishment, the country broke up along ethnic fault lines. This volume, now in its fourth expanded edition, tells the story of socialist Yugoslavia's troubles and the challenges facing its successor states from May 1980 to the end of 2000.
The fourth edition of this critically acclaimed work includes a new chapter, a new epilogue, and revisions throughout the book. Sabrina Ramet, a veteran observer of the Yugoslav scene, traces the steady deterioration of Yugoslavia's political and social fabric in the years since 1980, arguing that, while the federal system and multiethnic fabric laid down fault lines, the final crisis was sown in the failure to resolve the legitimacy question, triggered by economic deterioration, and pushed forward toward war by Serbian politicians bent on power-either within a centralized Yugoslavia or within an "ethnically cleansed" Greater Serbia. With her detailed knowledge of the area and extensive fieldwork, Ramet paints a strikingly original picture of Yugoslavia's demise and the emergence of the Yugoslav successor states

Author summary: This new edition of Balkan Babel like the previous editions, takes its point of depar­ture from the premise that the troubles which have plagued the Yugoslav area recently (most obviously during the years 1991‑2000) arose, in the first place, because of ille­gitimate government or, to put it more exactly, an array of policies and other factors associated with system illegitimacy, with economic deterioration, the escalating polemics of the 1980s (especially after 1986), and the ambitions of certain unscrupu­lous politicians‑all playing crucial roles in the dynamic. To be sure, the resentments stirred up by illegitimate governments in the interwar kingdom (1918‑1941) and the wounds inflicted by all parties to the local conflict during World War II played a role in the dynamic, both by poisoning the political atmosphere and by providing a reser­voir of memories which could be mobilized by demagogues in the 1980s and 1990s, but these problems were ultimately associated with illegitimate politics as well. A corollary of the Kantian approach (spelled out, inter alia, in Chapter 12) is that good government (that is to say, legitimate government) has the capacity to raise the moral standards of a society, whereas bad government (and here I mean illegitimate govern­ment) has a tendency to corrupt the largest portion of society (which is why the in­tegrity of brave dissidents in authoritarian systems is so striking). This does not excul­pate a society for the sins committed in its name by the given nationalist regime, for any people is always implicated in the transgressions of a regime to which it gives its active or even tacit support. But it does suggest, as I stressed in my 1997 work, Whore Democracy I that the route to the realization of the liberal project entails of necessity the establishment and securing of legitimate government‑a point that I had consid­ered, until recently, too obvious to bear emphasis.

Various books and articles have presented preposterous notions about supposedly ancient ethnic or tribal hatreds or, in a more moderated version of the same fallacy, of the supposedly more primitive or violent disposition of the peoples of old Yugoslavia (more primitive and violent than whom, one wonders). Other writers forget that there was no Yugoslavia before 1918, projecting the political battles of the 1990s back to an era before there were even any Slavs living in southeastern Europe. If this book can make a small contribution to combating these silly misconceptions, I shall be happy.

I have been studying Yugoslavia‑and now, the Yugoslav successor states‑for more than twenty years, and in the old socialist days, I was always struck by the perennial sense of crisis in that country. That perennial crisis was a symptom of system illegitimacy (in the sense that the system operated in accordance with neither classical liberal standards of programmatic framework nor democratic principles).

In the years since taking up the study of the South Slavs, I have spent time in Belgrade, Zagreb, Ljubljana, Skopje, and Sarajevo, as well as in smaller towns and villages. My impressions of the Socialist Federated Republic of Yugoslavia and of its successor states have been formed by the people I have met and interviewed in that part of the world and through their writings. I have tried, in my writings, to convey something of the "spirit" of Yugoslavia‑what makes its people tick, what issues concern them, and how they think. That spirit is, for me, the lifeblood of political history.

I have undertaken significant revisions to the text in each edition. Already for the second edition, published in 1996, four new chapters were added to the volume, with the Epilogue being overhauled. For the third edition, published in 1999, I removed two earlier chapters (on gender relations and on the press) and added two new chapters (Chapters 12 and 13), making significant additions to Chapters 1‑3 and 9‑11, based on interviews conducted since the publication of the second edition as well as on literature which had become available in the interim, and overhauling the Epilogue once again. For this edition, I have completely overhauled Chapter 12, bringing it up to date, and have added an entirely new chapter on the final years of Milosevic's rule, the collapse of his regime, and the transfer of power in Serbia to Kostunica and Djindjic (Chapter 14). I have also once more overhauled the Epilogue and have made some small changes elsewhere in the text, including to the "anti‑bibliography". Although many new books and book reviews have been published since the writing of the anti‑bibliography for the third edition, I have resisted the temptation to expand this section and left it more or less intact except for certain small corrections.

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