A Conversation with Ivo Banac

The sun was shining as I sat down with Ivo Banac, one of the world’s foremost Balkan historians, at a café just outside the walls of the Old City in Dubrovnik, Croatia. The city seems like a piece of heaven on earth; a tourist’s paradise — it is sobering to realize that a mere twenty-five years ago, there was little that could be seen as idyllic about this beach-town, save its gorgeous topography. Images of the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991 show storefronts on fire and the ruins of bombed buildings. Pieces of mortar shells can still be found on Srdj, Dubrovnik’s highest point.



Having left Yugoslavia for the United States as a child, Professor Banac eventually taught at Yale, and served for several years as the Master of Pierson College. After his return to Croatia following the disintegration of the Communist regime in Yugoslavia, he became a member of the Liberal Party, even serving briefly as the party’s president. During our interview, I asked him about the history of nationalism in the Balkan region and in Europe, his views on the Balkan Wars of the 1990s and his opinion on foreign intervention and domestic policy as it relates to the region.


Why do you think we saw such a surge in nationalism in the Balkans in the 19th century? Were there any particular causes?


There are of course many aspects to consider, but I prefer not to complicate. In South-eastern Europe, nationalism was the dominant aspect of modernity. One might even argue that it was the only type of modernity available in the marginalized parts of Europe. In other words, thanks to its secular and democratic characteristics, it was the only ideology that could create the modern society. So, though I am aware that nationalism nowadays is generally disparaged, I prefer to see its accomplishments, which are real. Nationalism is such a long-lasting phenomenon precisely because it overcame various challenges throughout the 20th century, these coming either from predatory imperialisms or from phony internationalisms that masked other variants of nationalism.

Some people used to argue that the Communist period had an “icebox effect” on nationalism, which is hardly true, and that as Communism fell apart nationalism was unfrozen and leapt to life. I disagree with this view. Nationalism was present in various ways during the Communist period. Remember the “national Communism” of Tito or Gomulka? Ironically, in the final phases of the Communist rule, after the East European regimes lost their legitimacy, they increasingly used nationalism to legitimate their single party rule. It turned out that Communist and nationalist collectivisms were complementary.


Can we at all apply this to the resurgence of nationalism that we are seeing today in the rest of Europe or has this been caused by something entirely different?

That is a slightly different story. That has more to do with the retreat — I wouldn’t say defeat, but certainly retreat — of the “European Idea.” In the 1990s, we had a very simple-minded view of Europe’s potential. Europe was seen as something that was unstoppable, irreversible; ever more integrating in its nature, all-embracing without exceptions. Then, several things happened. First of all, the economic crisis, which was devastating; then, the question of integrating the immigrant communities, particularly various Muslim groups, within the EU; thirdly, the question of what to do with the new waves of immigrants. Finally, was the EU itself a union that promotes equality? In fact, there are many reasons for the crisis of the “European Idea.” As a result, the natural alternative became the return to the nation-state and the primary national identities that never disappeared but certainly were ignored by various European bureaucracies.


The resurgence of nationalism in the 1990s played a great role in the incitement of the Balkan Wars that took place at that time. Do you believe there was anything that could have been done to stem its effects, and thus the conflict, or was it inevitable?

I think that opportunities were missed that could have shortened the conflict; ones that could have included an anti-Milošević alliance. Outside intervention was ruled out because of exaggerated fears of Milošević’s strength and due to the egoism and lack of strategic vision among many of Milošević’s victims — take the conflict between the Croats and Muslims in Bosnia for example. Well, I am perhaps simplifying things when I say “Milošević.” What I am really talking about is the continuance of Great Serbian ideas, which have not been eliminated — though they are perhaps not as evident.

If you read the Serbian press, you cannot avoid concluding that the current period is seen as a sort of an intermezzo between the past and future efforts in the shaping of a Great Serbia. That was the challenge of the 1990s and remains the challenge today. The surge of Serbian nationalism could not have been stopped in any way except by military force. Of course, had the NATO intervention in 1999 been aimed at regime change, matters would have been different. Unfortunately, that never happened. Hence, the continuing threat of Serbian nationalism nowadays informs the post-Milošević regimes. The Serbs have not yet been confronted with the consequences of Milošević’s wars. It is as if a deal was made with the remnants of the Nazi regime in Germany, affording Hitler’s successors a lease on life with minimal reforms. Imagine what Germany would have been like without denazification, with “reformed” Nazis at the helm. In short, the job was not finished in Serbia and I think this is a very, very serious problem, not just for Serbia’s neighbours but also for the Serbs themselves.


Were these missed opportunities mainly on the part of the international community or should the internal policymakers in Yugoslavia at the time have done something as well?

Within the policy framework of Yugoslavia, the conflict could not have been prevented, simply because the country’s Communist Party was run by people who meant to appease Milošević, although they had the instruments to stop him, had they wished. We can, of course, try and speculate as to why that didn’t happen but at the end of the day, it didn’t and that put an end to everything that could have been done to difuse tensions and the eruption of the internal conflict.

International intervention is always very good, provided that the interventionists have the goal of democracy building and nation-building. However, it is extremely difficult to sell that to the democratic governments, and particularly to the American government. Of course, a restrained intervention finally had to be undertaken, however indirectly. It could have been better executed and more ambitious. I do not underestimate the various costs of such efforts, not least of all in human lives.


What types of policy actions being taken to ensure that conflict does not erupt again in the republics of the former Yugoslavia?

Many of the problems that we faced in the 1990s were not resolved; many of them can never be. It seems to me, however, that some of these problems will be resolved within the framework of the Euro-Atlantic integrations. Though it seems very unlikely at this moment that the remaining Balkan countries will soon be introduced into the EU or NATO, their acceptance would be a tremendous boost for a lasting Balkan peace. This is because the structures of NATO and the EU argue against the incitement to and the repetition of conflict.

It should, however, not be ignored that NATO and EU memberships are not in themselves a definite guarantee against conflict. All the same, with memberships, there would be a far greater likelihood of a lasting peace. For these reasons, I am all in favour of extending the NATO and EU umbrellas over the whole Balkan area. At the same time, we should not forget that both the EU and NATO are weaker than they used to be — though perhaps more so the EU because NATO is receiving a little bit of a boost from the Ukrainian crisis.


So do you think there are people in Serbia or otherwise who would favour the return to a modified “Yugoslav State” or has that type of idea been completely abandoned?

Nobody is explicitly arguing for the restoration of Yugoslavia — in fact, most discussions on the subject are usually prefaced with a preventive denial affirming “of course, that will never happen.” Nevertheless, I think that there are, in fact, some people who promote this possibility. I wish them all bad luck and certainly do not think that they will have any success in our lifetime. Under different circumstances and thanks to unforeseeable challenges all bets are off. Should the future resemble the past, challenges from the dawn of the twentieth century might give rise to plans for a new Yugoslavia.


In terms of this somewhat failed international intervention, we know that UN peacekeeping troops had been stationed around Bosnia-Herzegovina. Why do you think they were so powerless in the face of the atrocities that happened there?

There is no need to stress that aspect of the war. What the Dutch failed to do at Srebrenica is of course damnable, but it gave a great boost to the Clinton administration’s search for proxies. The choice fell to Croatia and resulted in the Serb defeat. But even without that, by the second half of 1995, Bosnia was on the way to win the war. And in some respects, I think that this is one of the reasons why Dayton was fostered — because in another year of the war, I think the Serbs would have been wiped out in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Of course, the Bosnian Muslim army started from an inferior position.

Nevertheless, little by little, from battle to battle, the Bosnians and Croats managed to demonstrate enormous power and I think that ultimately they would have prevailed, given that everything seemed to be going in that direction. I think that it is very unproductive to draw the picture of victimized Bosnian Muslims; an image that is very strong among them and which I think immobilizes them in the creation of solutions that are much needed. With the right policy and the right organizational work, I think that they could still change things in Bosnia. But it’s a lack of leadership, it’s a lack of self-confidence, it’s a lack of international support that keeps things the way they are.


Why did you decide to enter politics upon your return to Croatia?

I was in a sense always in politics. My work mainly concerned twentieth-century Balkan history, which implies a modicum of political engagement. But in Croatia after independence there were additional challenges, examples of serious missteps and unease with the democratic process. So it was natural to get involved.  

The real question is why I decided to enter partisan politics. That was the only way to make a difference. I generated many ideas and many of these had a successful run and good results followed. All of this is part of a germination process that is intrinsic to a transition to liberal democracy.    


If you were to re-enter partisan politics, what do you feel are some of the most pressing issues that you would like to be working on?

We are no longer in the period of — how should I say — “revolutionary change.” So obviously, what one has to concentrate on are those aspects of public life that are practical and urgent. One example concerns the Croatian educational system, which is most unsuccessful. It is a system that is designed to produce only conformists and yes-men. I am not going to go into details, but there are many examples to go around. Having spent most of my academic life at Yale, where bureaucracy hardly exists, I had to get used to a system that wastes talent and time.

The production of a doctoral dissertation includes dozens of unnecessary steps that are designed to foster formalism and bureaucratic interference. Yesterday I got a letter from a committee that approves dissertation subjects, rejecting the title of a very diligent candidate because of a semi-colon that the committee felt to be inappropriate. What we need to do is to humble the bureaucratic establishment that is destroying the very ideal of education.

Additionally, there are many similar issues in culture, in economics, and in local administration. Some of the problem-solving will be addressed by the younger generations. For old timers, such as myself, it is difficult to remain idle when you see matters that must be attended immediately.


Isabelle Savoie is a junior Global Affairs major in Davenport College. She can be reached at isabelle.savoie@yale.edu.
This interview has been edited and abridged with the permission of Professor Banac.