Reflections on the Violent Death
of a Multi-Ethnic State:
A Slovene Perspective
by Robert Gary Minnich
others I agonize over the fate of family and friends in Yugoslavia,
despair over the demise of a once commendable experiment in
multi-ethnic statehood, and grieve the destruction and loss
of life. I think especially of inter-ethnic marriages and their
issue, of ethnically mixed communities and regions, and of that
generation of people which identified itself as "Yugoslav."
Still, on reflection, we must recognize that a great deal was
done in socialist Yugoslavia to constrain the virulent outbreak
of what Clifford Geertz (1963) succinctly called "primordial
sentiments." Civil society attained a firm footing in this
short-lived federation of many peoples. These several considerations
challenge us as anthropologists to lay bare the malicious stereotype
of "the Balkans" used by nationalist demagogues (and
mimicked by journalists) to substantiate the bloody reality
of ethnically inspired terror and war.
This challenge is approached
here by outlining the ways in which multi-ethnicity has served,
during the Slovene quest for self-determination, as a positive
principle for state-making, regardless of whether Slovenes have
represented a majority or minority in a given state polity.
And by presenting the integration of marginal agrarian communities
into modern state societies as a process underlying the formation
of Slovene national ideology, I argue that it is from the vantage
point of local social formations that we can contribute to a
more nuanced view of what is occurring today in the politically
unsettled multi-ethnic landscape of central and east Europe.
First, however, I relate a popular Slovene view of events leading
to recognition of their country as a sovereign republic and
then proceed to consider processes leading to the creation and
demise of Yugoslavia as a multi-ethnic state and as a theater
of ethnic confrontation within a global context.
A Popular Slovene View
of the Road to Statehood:
Independence and War-June/July, 1991
By the time fighter pilots
(serving in what once was an "army of the Yugoslav peoples") began
randomly killing foreign lorry drivers and journalists in their pursuit of Slovene
targets, the inhabitants of what at the time was called an Operettenstaat (operetta
country) were adamant to defend themselves. Slovenes were indignant over the
failure of European and U.S. governments to anticipate the violent demise of
Yugoslavia for which, it turned out, their own government had fortuitously made
contingency plans. The Western media's depiction of Slovene self-defense as
the action of "breakaway rebels" and "peasant guerrillas shooting
from behind trees" was incomprehensible to a well informed public aware
that their elected representatives had followed for more than a year constitutionally
and internationally prescribed rules for peacefully attaining their country's
sovereignty and recognition. The newly elected coalition government's good fortune
in rapidly concluding the above hostilities rendered the new leadership with
a legitimacy and credibility difficult to imagine in a more peaceful transition
to independence. Slovenia's baptism in fire contributed immeasurably to the
resolve of citizens and government alike to make good their entrance into the
global community of states.
As soon as Kosovo's duly elected
government was forcefully ousted by the Serbian leadership, the government of
the Socialist Republic of Slovenia sought to bring this violation of the 1974
Yugoslav Constitution (as well as the subsequent infringements of the rights
of the Albanian majority of this province) to the attention of the international
community. For Slovenes the events in Kosovo were an omen of what could happen
to them and the other small republics and provinces of the federation. Once
the Yugoslav League of Communists was dissolved into republican factions and
the federal presidency was effectively in the hands of protagonists for a "Greater
Serbia" there remained for the socialist government of Slovenia no other
recourse than to request that the federal constitution be re-negotiated to guarantee
the sovereignty of the federation's constituent republics and autonomous provinces.
By the time the Berlin wall fell it was apparent to any informed reader of the
European press that the federation was in a constitutional crisis, that the
federal government was falling under the hegemony of overtly nationalist politicians.
While still pursuing a constitutional solution in Belgrade which called for
a confederation of sovereign Yugoslav states, the newly elected Slovene government
(a broad coalition ranging from Socialists to Christian Democrats) began preparing
in the summer of 1990 for secession from the federation. A referendum was held
on Dec. 23 whereby the Slovene government was mandated by an overwhelming majority
of country's inhabitants to implement secession six months later. Slovenia's
Independence was formally declared on June 26, 1991.
Slovene governments, both
before and following free elections in April 1990, pursued a well conceived
and consistent policy for retaining the country's sovereignty in the face of
Serbian attempts to control the federation. As the Slovene program for "dissolution"
proceeded, the Federal Government remained unresponsive to the initiative for
renegotiating the constitution and the Milosevic regime in Belgrade retaliated
by blocking the import of Slovene products to Serbia and eventually by expropriating
Slovene assets there. The Slovene government's defense of its right to self-determination
concluded with the systematic implementation of legislation formulated according
to norms established by the International Convention on Human Rights and standards
for protecting minority rights established by the Parliament of Europe. In an
orderly fashion legislation was passed and a nominal territorial defense force
was established in advance of Slovenia's declaration of independence. Throughout
the first turbulent years of this decade the Slovene government consistently
took the initiative among its Yugoslav counterparts, first, for guaranteeing
political autonomy within a Yugoslav confederation, and later, for securing
its sovereignty exclusive of Yugoslavia. Slovenia's elected leaders were determined
to attain these ends exclusively through participation in established political
forums at home and abroad. While they pursued this non-military course, local
media relentlessly reported on irredentist and chauvinistic campaigns gaining
momentum in neighboring republics.
Following the attack on Slovenia
and during the subsequent devastation of the frontier region between Croatia
and Serbia, Slovenes were dismayed by the failure of the EC to recognize their
country in advance of Croatia. During the fall of 1991 they asked themselves
why these governments were unable to distinguish between the orderly and democratic
implementation of secession and independence in Slovenia and the heavy-handed
rule of Croatia's regal president during an absurdly abbreviated re-organization
of that republic as a sovereign state where independence was declared before
statehood legislation was enacted in its elected parliament! While Croatia was
still in the throes of armed conflict, the Serbian army agreed to withdraw from
Slovenia. In contrast to the Baltic states (recognized earlier the same year)
where it was agreed that Soviet armed forces would remain for several years,
the Slovene government secured complete control over its territory (Oct. 19,
1991) three months before any European country offered recognition. By the time
Slovenia was eventually recognized by EC states, January 15, 1992, the issues
of the day had returned to the much more mundane matters of coalition politics
and overhauling the economy ~ a political agenda sadly supplemented by the problem
of caring for 70,000 war refugees representing approximately 4% of Slovenia's
At the end of the fateful
summer of 1991 I was invited to teach at Addis Ababa University. This time away
from Europe enabled more detached reflection over my experience with Yugoslavia
and Slovenia. The crisis of government in war-ravaged Ethiopia was propitious
for elucidating the demise of Yugoslavia, though little promising for that country's
Viewed from Ethiopia
in Addis Ababa approached me with keen interest to discuss alternatives
for the reintegration of their country. They gently provoked
my participation in a staff seminar on Constructive Regionalism
with the following comments:
representatives of European governments and international institutions
continuously accuse us of engaging in tribal warfare and are
applying more and more pressure upon African leaders to adopt
over night democratic institutions which have taken centuries
to develop in their vastly more prosperous home countries. But
now that Balkan tribes are slaughtering one another, these same
spokesmen for the "civilized world" just stand by
and allow the carnage to proceed! If European leaders and the
international organizations which they dominate cannot intervene
and preserve the rule of law in a fellow European state, what
hope can we have for attaining peace and promoting civil society
in impoverished Ethiopia? Ever since Tito and Hailie Selassie
embraced one another we have looked to Yugoslavia as a progressive
model for organizing a multi-ethnic society. Where shall we
look now? Tell us what went wrong!"
I sympathized with this indignation
over European passivity toward the carnage on its own doorstep and agreed that
current hostilities along the historic divides between the former Habsburg,
Ottoman and Venetian dominions are essentially tribal.
By definition, however, such
wars should be fought hand to hand among designated groups of warriors armed
with appropriate weapons. Today's tribal hostilities, whether in the Balkans,
Mogadishu or Afghanistan, are conducted in the absence of mechanisms of social
control and mediation manifest in a conflict between honorable men. Rather,
these confrontations are perpetrated by mercenaries and demagogues who engage
in indiscriminate killing and material devastation propelled by a seemingly
limitless supply of modern conventional instruments of mass destruction. These
arsenals avowedly created to inhibit confrontation, defend the sovereignty of
independent states, and hold the balance of power during the Cold War today
flood the markets where these unscrupulous men trade.
How should I explain Yugoslavia's
demise? What could it tell us about constructive regionalism? My remarks were
understandably pessimistic. I began by emphasizing the fragile construction
of the Yugoslav state in a multi-ethnic region not unlike that of Ethiopia where
Christians, Jews, and Muslims have co-resided for centuries under the subjugation
of kings, emperors and dictators. I stressed that the initial consolidation
of Yugoslavia into a modern European state was essentially a shot-gun wedding
in the disarray brought on by the demise of the Habsburg and Ottoman empires.
I also noted the failure of inter-war regimes in Yugoslavia to establish within
a democratic framework an equitable division of power among its constituent
Recalling the inter-tribal
carnage which Serbs and Croats wrought on one another during World War II, I
attributed Yugoslavia's incredible survival as a sovereign state to the unifying
effect of the partisan movement and, not least, to the extraordinary political
acumen of a gifted leader who understood the destructive potential of the ethnic
tinderbox upon which he consolidated his authority. Like his Ethiopian counterparts-Hailie
Selassie and Mengistu Hailie Mariam-Josip Broz Tito craftily exploited Cold
War protagonists to consolidate his power and advance the living standard of
I then supplemented this simple
sketch of a complex history of state-making, with an equally terse suggestion
of how the historical inhabitants of the region came to view themselves as peoples
and nations. Here I emphasized the importance of myths of historical greatness,
myths which evoke epochs when the acknowledged predecessors of each group were
mobilized by chiefs or kings, in some cases for no more than a few decades,
into some kind of "great kingdom," inevitably a strategic regional
military response to some external threat. I portrayed these myths of greatness-paradoxically
viewed as epochs of self-determination in a tribal or feudal world where political
frontiers are innately diffuse and the consolidation of power is ephemeral!-as
the ideological charters for much more recent popular movements.
I suggested that these 19th
century national awakenings were the ideological motor of regionalism in the
recent history of Balkan state-making, whereas the wars and interests of great
powers within the region (Realpolitik) created the chaotic circumstances in
which Balkan states were arbitrarily constructed~states with political frontiers
that never "satisfy" their respective peoples' modern aspirations
for national self-determination.
The implications of these
observations are clear. Parochial ethnic considerations should be kept out of
the constitutions of democratic states incorporating several self-aware ethnic
groups. Indeed, the administrative sub-division of such states should avoid
any strict consideration of ethnic territory. Such a polity should rather concern
itself exclusively with the implementation of the rule of law within a political
administrative framework assuring the equitable distribution of power within
it. Self-determination can be a positive principle for state-making only if
founded on the rule of law and on the creation of a trans-ethnic political administration
and judicial system.
But the distance between these
ideals and the nitty-gritty reality of state-making is overwhelming. The multi-ethnic
states of both Yugoslavia and Ethiopia were consolidated via military campaigns
and maintained largely under the heavy handed rule of totalitarian leaders who
often pragmatically acknowledged the sorts of principles outlined above but
who only conditionally empowered their subjects. These personal regimes were
fragile; they fell apart when confronted by succession crises, economic depression
or perturbations in the great power relations influencing them. In spite of
devastating economic conditions calling for the creation of larger markets and
free trade, ethnically inspired state-making in multi-ethnic regions is reduced
to petty and ultimately futile experiments in self-determination such as the
"Serbian Republic of Krajina" which seek to establish defensible frontiers
around ever smaller territories. Ironically this subdivision of the world's
political map occurs at a time when self-determination is increasingly subject
to the intervention and control of inter- and transnational institutions.
Although Balkan self-determination
was always confounded by the intervention of external factors, the international
and transnational reality confronting the aspiring states of former Yugoslavia
is fundamentally different from that at the end of World War I. The freedom
of action invested at that time in Europe's sovereign states-a moment when the
nation-state was at its apogee for structuring both domestic and international
political order-has been markedly constrained since World War II. For example,
the presence of an expanding European Community, the European Parliament and
the CSCE all represent new contingencies for conducting the affairs of state
in the community of European countries. Likewise, the economy of all modern
states is regulated more these days by transnational commercial institutions
and global production systems than by contingencies enforced by parochial state
Policies furthering a state's
economic self-sufficiency and the U.N. Charter's guarantee of non-intervention
in the affairs of states are now being stricken from the political agendas of
European governments. The quest for self-determination in Europe today is contingent
upon conformity with internationally established standards for conducting political
and commercial affairs. The conditions for international recognition which were
recently imposed on Europe's new states and the precondition that third world
countries uphold international conventions on human rights to obtain loans and
aid confirm this new world order. The diatribe of the Cold War has been replaced
by the rhetoric of human rights as the medium for conducting affairs in the
international arena. However, the inaction of the international community in
the face of the atrocities committed in Bosnia and Hercegovina reminds us daily
of the very tenuous credibility of this new paradigm for conducting inter-state
Multi-Ethnicity As a
Positive Principle for State-Making:
The Slovene Case
For the Slovenes, numbering
less than two million and representing a mere 8.5% of Yugoslavia's 1981 population,
irredentist campaigns have never been a viable alternative in the quest for
self-determination as an ethnic nation. Their only recourse has been via the
formal instruments of domestic politics and international diplomacy. It was
fashionable in the media to attribute the brevity of Slovenia's recent "mini-war"
to its ethnic homogeneity and to the absence of a sizable autochthonous non-Slovene
population. This is at best a partial truth. While the segment of Slovenia's
population which could potentially become the object of irredentist claims of
neighboring states is small, less than 1%, more than 10% of the country's population
identified themselves in the 1981 census as not Slovene. And this larger group
includes tens of thousands of second and third generation immigrants from the
greater territory of former Yugoslavia. Most of these post-World War II immigrants
remained in Slovenia (with the understandable exception of numerous federal
army officers and their families), are now Slovene citizens and a large majority
of them supported the referendum for Slovenia's secession. It is, however, especially
with regard to the rights of its autochthonous minorities that Slovene governments
have self-consciously promoted multi-ethnic statehood.
Ethnically inspired self-determination
is of course the guiding theme in the political consolidation of the Yugoslav
successor states. But the strategy for attaining this differs markedly from
one republic to the other. It is self-evident that the belligerence in the territory
of former Yugoslavia can be attributed to the failure of leadership in the country's
two most populous republics to pursue self-determination via the rule of law.
In the following I emphasize the pragmatic orientation of Slovene politics of
self-determination arguing that the road to independence adopted by Slovene
leaders is not merely a reflection of the country's small population and military
impotence but also a consequence of its location on the historical political
map of Europe.
Since the so-called Slovene
national awakening of the 19th century self-determination of the Slovenes as
a "people" has been on the political agenda in the various polities
where they have attained formal parliamentary representation or otherwise influenced
the affairs of state. The creation of Slovene national ideology was tantamount
to the delineation of Slovene ethnic territory. And, as is the case for the
vast majority of Europe's historical "peoples" (Völker/narodi),
this so-called ethnic territory was arbitrarily divided among diverse polities.*Under
Habsburg dominion those people who called themselves Slovenes were relegated
to three provinces: Carinthia, Carniola and Styria. With the creation of Yugoslavia
they were included in four European states, a situation which persists today
with the succession of Slovenia after Yugoslavia.
Depending upon whether or
not an ethnic group represents a majority or minority within a given polity,
the pursuit of national self-determination follows different strategies. This
raises the question of how the protagonists of Slovene self-determination have
dealt with the political frontiers dividing Slovene ethnic territory? I suggest
that the strategy for promoting both formal (inter-state) and informal relations
between the so-called mother country, especially during its consolidation as
the Socialist Republic of Slovenia, and the Slovene minorities of Austria, Italy
and Hungary has been fundamentally different than that between the political
elite and intelligentsia in Zagreb and the Croatian minorities of Bosnia-Hercegovina
and Serbia, and that between their Belgrade counterparts and Serbian minorities
in Croatia and Bosnia. The current Croatian and Serbian irredentist campaigns
in Bosnia-Hercegovina do not have their Slovene counterparts in Austria, Italy
and Hungary. And this state of affairs alludes to the quality of the political
borders separating the ethnic majority of a so-called "mother country"
from its minorities located in adjacent polities.
In order for the protagonists
of Slovene national self-determination to maintain contact with one another
and support the rights of the Slovene minorities of Austria, Italy and Hungary,
they had to acknowledge the international borders separating them since World
War One and find ways for communicating and cooperating across these imposed
frontiers. The protagonists of national self-determination in Zagreb and Belgrade
have not been similarly preoccupied. Political and intellectual elite with nationalist
agendas at these centers have more or less refused to acknowledge the boundaries
between their respective polities (i.e. socialist republics and especially the
autonomous provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina) as anything more than arbitrary
administrative subdivisions of historically contested territory.
In order for Slovenes of the
mother country and neighboring states to even retain contact with one another
at the height of the Cold War, they had to acknowledge the state frontiers separating
the Slovene nation and engage in diplomacy via their respective central governments
in Belgrade, Budapest, Rome and Vienna. Once federal authorities in Belgrade
adopted an open frontier policy toward Western Europe in the mid-1960s in an
effort to alleviate unemployment through labor migration (Minnich 1976), the
way was opened for closer contact between Slovenia and its ethnic regions in
Austria, Hungary and Italy. Under constant pressure from socialist politicians
and communist party leaders in Slovenia the Federal Government acquiesced in
the transformation of these international borders (between Slovenia and its
European neighbors) into some of the most open frontiers in Europe (Jersic and
Klemencic 1973, Klemencic 1987). Furthermore numerous crossing points were opened
for local residents residing within 10 kilometers of state frontiers. This border
population was provided with green transit documents enabling free movement
across these frontiers. As a result trade, commerce, and tourism were facilitated
throughout the historical ethnic territory of the Slovenes and especially within
the immediate border regions. A very different situation was thus created in
the frontier zone which intersects Slovene ethnic territory than that which
persisted elsewhere along the relatively impenetrable and depopulated "iron
curtain" (as well as border regions separating socialist states) previous
to the summer of 1989.
In order to improve the political
position of the Slovene minorities in Austria, Hungary and Italy, the socialist
government of Slovenia codified in the late 1950s (Kercmar 1986) the ethnic
rights of its indigenous Italian and Hungarian populations. Multi-ethnicity
was supported through creation of local bilingual administrations, media and
public schools employing multi-cultural curriculums. During recent decades these
programs were acknowledged as exemplary by various international bodies promoting
codification of minority rights within Europe and were also emulated in Kosovo
and Vojvodina. On more than one occasion Slovene initiatives in these matters
have exposed the reticence of Austrian and Italian authorities under pressure
from local national majorities to implement equally progressive programs for
their own Slovene minorities (cf. Flaschberger and Reiterer 1980, Moritsch 1986,
Moser 1982, Pleterski 1980). Schooling and language were central political issues
throughout the course of the Slovene national awakening and remain so today
wherever Slovenes remain a minority (Fischer 1980, Gstettner 1988, Gstettner
and Larcher 1985, Minnich 1992). Past and present governments of Slovenia have
contributed substantial sums to research on minority issues both at home and
among Slovenes abroad. These investments have not only contributed to the formulation
of government policy, but also facilitated a campaign to make multi-ethnicity
a high profile issue in European politics.
The protagonists of Slovene
nationalism learned under subjugation by Austrian and Serbian monarchies that
self-determination is possible only through responsible participation in existing
political structures. As norms were established for the treatment of ethnic
minorities in Europe, Slovene politicians systematically paved the way within
Yugoslavia for the implementation of these standards at home. The foregoing
history of international participation in minority and regional politics gave
the new government of Slovenia a strong base to accommodate conditions imposed
upon it for international recognition and significantly reduced the importance
of nationalism in the initial platforms of those political parties participating
in Slovenia's first free elections. The prospect that administrative borders
established under the old Yugoslav regime will now attain the status of inter-state
frontiers creates a political reality for which the new states are ill prepared.
Ethnic minorities will have to be taken seriously and treated according to established
norms. No matter how great the loss of property and life through war, the ultimate
political frontiers of Yugoslavia's successor states will never correspond with
the perceived ethnic territories of its self-acknowledged nations. Sooner or
later a program for assuring minority rights will have to be implemented by
these Balkan states.
The preceding emphasized the
vernacular of political scientists, politicians and the media. I uncritically
categorized people as Albanians, Croats, Ethiopians, Serbs and Slovenes, and
even alluded to distinct peoples or nations. But as anthropologists we must
understand the misplaced concreteness of such categories, especially as used
by nationalist demagogues, but also in own writing. Many of us with Balkan field
experience know well the utter conditionality which informs ethnic and national
collective self-identification. For example, fieldwork among Slovene-speaking
Alpine villagers in Val Canale, Italy, demonstrated to me the fallacy of assuming
that their dialect impels them to adopt Slovene identity (1988a, 1992). For
three generations as the people of Ukve village were subjugated by the Dual
Monarchy, Mussolini and Hitler their socialization as citizens of modern centralized
states was profoundly disrupted and confused (Minnich 1992). They were conscripted
into armies and died for causes they did not understand, they were coerced to
change their names and resettle in foreign lands, and they were told they were
Austrians, Italians and Germans. Living out their lives along a geo-political
and linguistic frontier of Europe (Minnich 1990), this minority community learned
to distrust most everything outside the familiar confines of the homestead and
village. Understandably even ethno-political initiatives promoted in Ukve by
Slovene minority politicians were met with skepticism. Most Ukve villagers consistently
reject the proposition that their dialect qualifies them as Slovenes or Slovene-Italians
as this implies allegiance to supra-local polities which history has taught
them to mistrust. The most comprehensive collective identity for which Ukve
people find consensus is that of their village. While the circumstances that
generate their ambivalence toward the "imagined community" of a nation
are complex (Minnich 1992), this case alerts us to the need to consider locally
founded processes of social and cultural reproduction in order to account for
the consolidation of such collective identities.
A critical evaluation of the
role of peasants as the protagonists of Slovene history points to the sorts
of processes which account for identity formation within marginal European agrarian
communities. It is especially in such communities that we can substantiate the
ultimately alien quality of the nation as a manifestation of group identity
and as a parameter for conducting meaningful social discourse.
in Slovene History?
For the sake of the argument
advanced here I arbitrarily suggest that "Slovene history" is an epiphenomenon
of the "Slovene national awakening." The assertion that peasants are
the protagonists of this history thus presupposes widespread public consensus
about the general validity of a national identity as well as the integration
of society via a strong central state authority. In order to understand the
various roles of peasants in the consolidation of national identity, it is essential
to consider the relationship between the peasantry and other social strata.
Field work in three marginal
regions where both Slovene vernacular and family-based agrarian production have
been practiced for countless generations suggests that the historical and contemporary
peasantry of what today is Slovene ethnic territory has long participated both
passively and actively in the propagation of a pan-Slovene identity. During
these field studies of Western Haloze, Val Canale (cf. Rupel 1987, Steinicke
1984, Venosi and Komac 1987) and Gailtal (cf. Barker 1984, Janschitz 1982, Moritsch
and Baumgartner 1992) I investigated those institutions and relationships which
integrate agrarian villagers of these regions into their respective state societies,
i.e. the republics of Slovenia, Italy and Austria.
The pervasive encroachment
of state institutions into rural society by the introduction of universal suffrage
and widespread literacy during the final decades of the Dual Monarchy greatly
accelerated the Slovene national awakening (Minnich 1992). The proponents of
Slovene national ideology sought to mobilize this newly enfranchised and largely
agrarian rural population by drawing heavily on the peasant heritage of what
was understood as the Slovene people (Minnich 1990). Popular understanding of
the Slovenes as a people consequently revolved around a standardized written
Slovene language, the continuous settlement of a largely agrarian population
over contiguous geographic territory, and the use of linguistic vernaculars
perpetuated in the context of local society. These "mother tongues"
were all seen as dialects of a Slovene language family linguistically distinct
from its European counterparts.
Thus, on the basis of an a
priori linguistic and territorial delimitation of a specific population ethnographers,
folklorists, writers, jurists, historians, and linguists created what they deemed
to be an authentic and legitimate image of "the Slovene people." This
was especially done by documenting and comparing the myths, artifacts, rituals
and legal, and diverse institutions of local society which supposedly distinguished
this ethnic territory from its neighbors (cf. Kuret 1965-70, Vilfan 1961). This
then standardized a heterogeneous conglomeration of local agrarian communities
within a pan-Slovene heritage (Minnich 1990). Such an endeavor, spearheaded
by individuals and groups from non-peasant social strata and assimilated disinherited
peasants, necessarily reduced the unique social and cultural reality of the
local peasant community to passive objects in the ideological consolidation
of the Slovene nation. It further enabled nationalist scholars to wield power
and influence over their agrarian compatriots and to subsist at least in part
on the agrarian surplus created by the latter.
The standardization of a Slovene
peasant heritage tended to equate peasant society with a homogeneous social
order characterized as self-contained and resistant to change. As such, peasant
society was often portrayed as the antithesis of modern society (Minnich 1989).
In order to view peasants as protagonists in this process it is therefore necessary
to reconsider our terms of reference which can only be done by considering as
problematic the assumed static nature of peasant society, its place as a distinct
historical phase in the development of society and its cultural and social homogeneity.
A cultural ecological perspective
does not require such a priori conclusions about change, structural diversity,
and historical uniqueness among a given peasantry. Attention is drawn, rather,
to productive activities and the full spectrum of subsistence-related behavior
and to meaning without reducing investigation to the study of economy or technology.
In studying the give and take between people and environment, cultural ecology
emphasizes the dynamics of adaptation where the practitioners of a specific
adaptation or combination of adaptations who manifest social and economic integration
as neighborhood, village, region, etc. are considered actors making strategic
decisions in the pursuit of individual and collective interests. Such an approach
sees the peasantry as the protagonist of Slovene history because it accounts
for both their actions and their understanding of those actions. In contrast,
the conception of the peasantry used for the image of a pan-Slovene heritage
emphasizes normative aspects of peasant society (e.g. constituent traits, customs,
etc.) which are in fact abstractions or artifacts of behavior itself (Silverman
Furthermore, a dynamic concept
of adaptation assumes the historical continuity of subsistence and thus accounts
for the transition from largely self-sufficient peasant farms to those where
wage work and cash cropping are also utilized. In other words, the incremental
integration of a rural agrarian society into a modern urban-industrial one is
not, from the perspective of cultural ecology, necessarily tantamount to a structural
transformation of peasant society into its urban-industrial opposite where social
organization and culture fundamentally differ (Minnich 1989).
national awakening was paralleled by a marked increase in the
interdependence of agrarian settlements with large-scale commercial,
political, cultural and administrative institutions. However,
though these new forms perpetuated the historical subjugation
of society's rural "underdogs" (Shanin 1971:15), peasant
strategies for coping with these institutions and maintaining
the viability of their family farms remained quite effective.
Considerable heterogeneity in the social organization and culture
of the Slovene countryside persisted along side the synthetic
and uniform national tradition conceived to encompass all Slovenes.
Thus, the "history of
the Slovenes" begins as Slovene agrarian society and its local family farms
and villages were integrated into the large-scale institutions of modern bureaucratic
society. Once peasants expressly acknowledge their interdependence with these
institutions the matter of their identification with a collective as large as
a nation becomes an existentially important issue and substantiates the peasantry's
role as a potential protagonist in the formation of the Slovene nation.
Thus, in the village of Zetale
in Western Haloze though dialect is preferred for local communication, standard
Slovene is used in almost all situations and institutions mediating local relationships
with society at-large (e.g. schools, public administration and services and
the church). Since in their relations with greater society Zetalcani do not
have an alternative to standard Slovene, they need not make public linguistic
choices nor implicitly reject their loyalty to the state. Thus, they are passive
participants in the maintenance of a Slovene national identity. Though they
use local dialect to perpetuate myths, anecdotes and songs, they nonetheless
aspire to literacy in standard Slovene, considered a resource for life in the
state. Although they perceive themselves as marginal citizens, Zetalcani's access
to an official republican language gives them a greater degree of latitude in
actions related to the society controlled by that state.
The situation differs for
Slovene dialect speaking communities outside Slovenia like Ugovizza/Ukve in
Val Canale, Italy and Feistritz/Bistrica in Gailtal, Austria where Slovenian
vernacular is distinct from the language of the state and its institutions.
In order to function within society people in Ukve and Bistrica must command
at least rudimentary Italian and German while standard or literary Slovene is
necessary in neither. Use of Slovene vernacular by these villagers may qualify
them in terms of linguistic categories as Slovenes. But to assume solely on
this basis that they self-consciously play a significant role in the Slovene
ethnic-nation is, as suggested, misleading. Localized processes of language
socialization perpetuate only a constituent dialect of the Slovene language
family. Furthermore, the use of Slavic vernacular in public settings of Gailtal
is stigmatized or discouraged because of its latent value as a symbol of a national
identity or social inferiority (Fischer 1980, Moser 1982).
Still some few individuals
in both Ukve and Bistrica command standard written Slovene and positively identify
with the Slovene nation. In order to understand their integration within the
Slovene nation our attention is drawn to their biographies and their access
to the institutions which facilitated their Slovene literacy and identity. It
is equally important to consider how provincial and state elite have accommodated
ethnic difference within formal political institutions and how state policy
manifests itself in local settings like Ukve and Bistrica.
These thoughts lead to a more
general conclusion. Hope for those persons in former Yugoslavia who are victims
of miscreant politicians lies in their local communities where the meaning which
life holds for them is most profoundly integrated. It is here that the trauma
of the current Balkan conflagration will be resolved, that the material devastation
of war will again be surmounted through local initiative and inventiveness.
Virulent ethnic nationalism is the product of elite defending their privileged
position at the centers of power; it is fundamentally alien to the social and
cultural reality reproduced in the agrarian margins of the Balkans.
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Abstracted from 'Anthropology of East Europe Review'
Nos. 1-2 Autumn, 1993