Is there any sense, in the twenty-first century, to be nostalgic for an empire, even if it was constitutional, like the Austro-Hungarian empire? Is it possible to mourn the collapse of a multi-ethnic state, Yugoslavia, which certainly wasn’t democratic? And, more generally, is it possible to positively evaluate state groupings which for decades have been considered “population prisons”, in which national specificities and rights were trampled?
Questions like these, up until recently, would have been considered rather pointless, if not especially provocative. But recent events – for example the Polish independence march which became a celebration for fascists and racists, or the sentencing of Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić at the Hague, and above all the alarming tendency to consider ethno-liguistic or religious identity as the basis for a nation’s social harmony – have made these questions relevant and worthy of reflection.
The EU as Austria-Hungary
Yugo-nostalgia and kitsch fantasies about the beauty of princess Sisi are not the issue here. Instead, the question is what would be the best system to guarantee, beyond the economic development of a territory, the liberty and protection of minority rights in an open and pluralistic society.
Since the mid-1980s, as British historian Steven Beller writes, a certain reading (initially considered revisionist) of imperial history has spread and gradually gained acceptance, whereby the Habsburg Empire brought peace and prosperity to all the nations of Central Europe, and facilitated the political and cultural development of small national groups. “It seems odd, in this democratic, anti-imperialist age, to praise an empire”. Beller writes, “But then the Habsburg Empire, in its final version at least, was something other than the colonial empire that we usually think of when talking of nineteenth-century imperialism”.
The most appropriate parallel, however, is a different one, and much more useful for today’s considerations: that of the European Union. From the compromise of 1867 and the rift between Hungary and Cisleithania, continues Beller, there “emerged a quasi-imperial polity that consisted of two states with constitutional, representative government, and the rule of law, and with both states part of a united, free trade zone across the expanse of central Europe, with a joint currency, the economic and fiscal rules of which were to be negotiated every decade”.
Socially, in the areas under the control of Vienna, this structure made possible the existence of “‘hybrid’, hyphenated identities” and created a public space in which “the narrowness of national categories could be overcome and sidelined”. The cultural wealth of central Europe in the early twentieth century is also a result of this situation.
In their strengths (widespread prosperity, free travel areas for people and goods, the ability to resolve problems through negotiation and compromise) and in their weaknesses (accusations of limited democracy, tendency to blame problems on the centre, Vienna or Brussels) the European Union and the Habsburg Empire seem to have a few things in common. And it’s no accident that the reaffirmation of the empire coincides with the accession of ex-communist, central European nations to the EU. Today, however, with the advance of nationalism, consensus around the European project is faltering, putting at risk the very existence of a supranational entity which, however imperfect, is a fundamental space for protecting rights and freedoms beyond singular national borders.
Slavs of the south
For Yugoslavia the situation is obviously different, all the more so since the first unified state of southern slavs (the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes) was born precisely from the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, thanks to the efforts of those who wanted to be free of Habsburg domination.
And yet, if we think back to the atrocities committed during the wars of the nineties, recently topical again due to the life sentence given to Mladić, it is hard to deny that the dissolution of multi-ethnic and multi-faith Yugoslavia produced more tragedies than benefits. This, obviously, does not mean that that country didn’t have its problems, even very serious and complex ones.
But try for a moment to imagine what would have happened in 1991 if the European Community had offered Yugoslavia the prospect of rapid accession at the first sign of tension. There would have been no wars, no bloodshed, the country would have remained united, would have had a process of economic and institutional modernisation, and would have become a protagonist of central importance to the new Europe. And what’s more, it would have become a competitive superpower.
This is just an exercise in counterfactual history – and somewhat against the current, given today’s fashion for considering the EU enlargements from 2004 to 2007 premature. But at least one political scientist has put some work into the idea. To imagine how much different things would look if Europe had made different choices can, if nothing else, teach us something about the decisions that should be made in the future.
A few years ago in Zagreb a former editor of the Feral Tribune, one of the few critical journals in post-independence Croatia, told me that Croatian and Serbian nationalism were like the two drunks in a well-known joke who prevent mutual collapse by leaning against each other. This is still a relevant image. Beyond the more or less chauvinistic attachments to parties, governments and leaders, the brutality of events in the nineties didn’t put an end to the profound ties – economic, cultural, familial – between the people and populations of the Balkans.
Tim Judah, journalist with The Economist, coined the term Yugosphere. Others merely speak of inevitable economic connections. It is clear, in any case, that the countries of ex-Yugoslavia are still linked by ties that have survived those borders drawn up twenty years ago.
Nations and globalisation
The inevitable question arises as to whether the nation-state still has any meaning today. It’s not likely that we’ll be seeing a proliferation of micro-states and countries in the coming months, as some had speculated at the start of the Catalan crisis. Nevertheless, it is clear that the nation-state, while invoked by many, from right to left, has been emptied of significance by globalisation, and at the same time threatened by secessionist and regionalist outbreaks.
One response to these crises may be the birth of a federal Europe, a Europe of regions, with decisions taken increasingly by organisations close to local populations. The road is long and the project has yet to be properly outlined. But the multinational and multi-ethnic examples from Europe’s past – the disputed histories of countries and states that no longer exist – provide useful and relevant models.