Socialism didn't collapse. It just fell apart: Narratives from the road

Andrew Dawson

University of Melbourne


In popular conceptualisations the end of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in the late 1990s is often presented as a spontaneous event. In many ways this reflects the way that the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe, which came to an end slightly earlier, had been commonly presented. The fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany and the very public failed escape, capture, incarceration and assassinations of the Ceaușescus in Romania were commonly presented as spontaneous and unexpected moments. SFRY's moment in this respect was the very violent wars of succession in the former-Yugoslav space. However, whilst former-Yugoslavs often express the idea that 'the end' took them by surprise, most are keenly aware that it was an event with historical roots.

In the course of fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1998-2002 I identified three archetypal and polarised narratives of the end. Each prioritises different causes. Each provides different interpretations of the historical depth of those causes. And, each identifies different key 'moments' when the SFRY could be said to have effectively ended. They are echoed in extra-local accounts of the end of the SFRY, those articulated in media, formal politics and in the academy - in what is often thought of as a divide between 'primordialist' (see, for example, Smith 1991), 'memories' (my term) and 'constructivist' (see, for example, Gellner 1964) perspectives. In the first part of this article I outline these narratives of the end. Despite noting their differences I point also to an essential similarity between them – that the end entailed, despite the aforementioned differences, 'collapse', in the senseof therehaving been a distinctive and sudden end moment. In the second part I demonstrate that through the everyday engagements with the ex-Yugoslavia's enduring, decaying and always in repair infrastructures an alternate conceptualisation of the end of the SFRY emerges. It presents SFRY as a state that was simultaneously and always in a condition of dissolution, indeed a state whose construction produced the conditions of its own dissolution. I explore this through ethnographic study of the key infrastructure of the road network.

Collapse of the SFRY

As stated, in the course of fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1998-2002 I identified three archetypal and polarised narratives of the collapse. I outline these below.

Primordialism (or the 'ancient ethnic hatreds' thesis)

A much-cited example of the primordialist thesis is that articulated by John Major, UK Prime Minister from 1990-97. Famously, he stated:

"The biggest singleelement behind what has happened in Bosnia is the collapse ofthe Soviet Union and of the discipline that that exerted over theancient hatreds in the old Yugoslavia. Once that discipline haddisappeared, those ancient hatreds reappeared, and we beganto see their consequences when the fighting occurred. (Hansard, 23 June 1993, col. 324)."

At a time when they were facing both scrutiny and depleted budgets by having recently participated in the Gulf War the lure for Western governments of arguments that might justify military non-intervention must have been considerable. And, what could be better in this regard than an argument presenting the conflict as 'ancient' and, thereby natural, rendering intervention a more or less a fruitless exercise.

Likewise, the ancient ethnic hatreds thesis held appeal for local nationalist actors, and was deployed both rhetorically and in concrete tactics. For example, the Yugoslav wars were characterised by the common use of especially barbarous methods in the pursuit of 'ethnic cleansing', including rape and beheading. No doubt this was done, in part to invoke fear, thereby ensuring that people would leave voluntarily and would be unwilling to return. However, a common explanation offered by informants was that the barbarism was also a kind of performance, designed to confirm the perspectives of international actors such as John Major that this was, indeed not an instance of modern conflict, but one of ancient hatreds in which it was, indeed, fruitless to intervene.

In primordialist accounts, the key moment when the SFRY could be said to have collapsed is, invariably the end of Communism. To re-quote John Major, once the discipline of Communism "haddisappeared, those ancient hatreds reappeared". Of course, Major's words reveal his extraordinary naivety. Since its' split from the Soviet Union Yugoslavia had not been subject to the former's discipline. However, locally the idea of ancient and, indeed, natural ethnic sentiments exploding to the fore once they became unrestrained by the final collapse of the SFRY state sometime shortly after the collapse of Communist regimes in Eastern Europe is commonplace.


Memories accounts share, with that of primordialism, the idea that the collapse of SFRY was rooted in historic ethnic enmities. However, rather than 'natural' those enmities are seen as an outcome of previous instances of inter-ethnic conflicts. These conflicts may have been manifestations of insipient tensions between the ethnic groups themselves, but also are just as likely to have been engendered by 'Great Powers' – from the Ottomans through to the Nazis, for example – constructing and incorporating ethnic groups in order to assist in the pursuit of their geopolitical ambitions.An example of this would be the Ottoman conversion of formerly Orthodox Christians to the Muslim faith. Furthermore, less historically deep-rooted than primordialist accounts, constructivism emphasises especially the inter-ethnic enmities experienced in WWII, precisely because they were in living memory of many Yugoslavs or, at least in living memory of recent ancestors.

The significance of memory, and its effective management in ameliorating ethnic tensions was recognised by the SFRY state. Its official memory policy aimed at both forgetting and mis-remembering ethnic tensions. Central material manifestations of this were, for example allowing sites of WWII inter-ethnic violence to either fall into disrepair or rebranding them as, instead, sites of class conflict. This would prevent them becoming sites of martyrdom for potential ethnic-nationalist political movements. However, through time, such movements re-emerged, and the celebration of repressed memories of inter-ethnic violence was a central part of their modus operandi. Probably the most infamous example of this was the 1986 Memoradum of the Serbia Academy of Arts and Sciences, whose rememberings of discriminations against the Serbian people became the bulwark of a resurgent Serb ethnic nationalism.

In popular memories accounts, arguably the key moment presaging the eventual collapse of the SFRY was the death of Tito. Marshall Josip Broz 'Tito' presided over the SFRY from the end of WWII until his death in 1980. His capacity to do this resulted not only from the quasi-dictatorial powers that were granted to him, but because of the combination of his skill as a leader, his history and the sense in which he embodied the Yugoslav ideal. A person of mixed ethnicity, he led the multi-ethnic Partisans who came to be attributed widely with both the defeat of Nazism and the Yugoslav space's internal ethnic-nationalisms. A common sentiment expressed in Bosnia is that, as one informant put it to me, "had Tito lived another generation there would not have been a war." The basic idea is that Tito was the only person capable of holding the inter-ethnic enmities in check. However, in time, these would have become irrelevant through time as the last generation of people to experience them in WWII would have died out, and the memory of them would have died out too.


Constructivist accounts hone in especially on the structural deficiencies of the post-WWII SFRY state, which sewed the seeds of its own downfall (see, for example, Ramet 1986). Key elements of this are as follows.

Constructivist accounts tend to emphasise the collision of these factors in explaining the collapse of the SFRY. Roughly, the 1974 constitution led to a rise in ethnic tensions, especially surrounding resource competition. These were exacerbated by an economic squeeze. Following the second 'Oil Crisis' in 1979 lenders began to call in the debts. Yugoslavia was badly placed to make-up the shortfall because of its low potential for the generation of export income. The concatenation of these events, added to the death of Tito set in motion the eventual collapse of the SFRY.

Dissolution in construction

Though each of the aforementioned popular conceptualizations of SFRY's end prioritize different causes, historical roots and moments of collapse, they do, however, share something significant in common – that SFRY did actually 'collapse', in the sense of there having been a distinctive and sudden end moment.

Contrastingly, in the remainder of this article I want to argue that, especially through participant observation rather than the ethnographic interview, an alternate view of SFRY's end often emerges. Rather than emphasizing collapse, it offers a view of SFRY as systemically faulty and always, from its formation, in a state of constant dissolution. SFRY was, in its very construction in dissolution.

This is a theme rarely explored in academic texts, but occasionally (and often insightfully) in other intellectual realms such as popular culture. A typical case might be the work of Slovenian art-house pop group The Laibach. They take Western pop songs, especially those which were popular in 1970-80's Yugoslavia, when the first truly 'Yugoslav' generation who had not experienced WWII were in young adulthood, and then rework them. In particular, the music is rearranged with a militaristic flavour. The effect is to bring to consciousness the implicitly militaristic and nationalist content of previously, apparently benign lyrics. The message appears to be that Yugoslavia possessed, indeed cultivated the seeds of its own downfall and that, ultimately, the Yugoslav dream was just that – a dream.

The particular participant observation experience that I want to focus on here is that of passengering in cars with Bosnian informants and friends. By way of explanation I point out that this was an especially commonplace experience for me. This is so because of the country's hyper-automobility, a post-war condition wrought by a number of factors, especially contradictions in the peace agreement that encouraged displaced persons to 'return' without enabling the conditions in which they could do so 'sustainably' (Dawson 2015).In short, I found, to properly do fieldwork is to passenger. In suggesting that driving engenders an alternate conceptualisation of the end of SFRY coming about because it was systemically faulty, in a state of constant dissolution and, ultimately a dream I take inspiration from three key sources.

The first of these is Lynne Pearce's feminist geography of the road (2000). Summarizing Pearce's observations of driving, Mimi Sheller states, 'suspended in the motorway's spatio-temporal continuum of in-between, the imaginative empowerment of the chronotopes of the road promote an exploration of various fantasies of home, which are at once psychological and material, personal and national' (2004: 234).

Secondly, I draw on AmahlBishara's ethnography of the road (2015). Bishara considers the political knowledge that Palestinians living in the West Bank accrue through the practice of driving. Through driving they experience and come to understand how occupation works. They encounter how Israeli settlement expansion works to preclude their own statehood through its disruption of the contiguity of territory. And, moreover, by witnessing traffic policing they encounter first-hand the Israeli state's control of the Palestinians. Through her attention to driving, Bishara develops an analysis of the everyday politics of the state that challenges commonplace liberal traditions in which political knowledge is idealized as disembodied and abstract.

Finally, I draw on NikilAnand's ethnography of the everyday life of a crumbling infrastructure. As I argue elsewhere in this special issue, for Anand the leaks in Mumbai's water infrastructure are but a metaphor for another kind of leakage, of the state's very own power.

In the early post-war years when much of my research was conducted (2000-02) the matter of the end of SFRY was, inevitably still at the forefront of the thoughts of many Bosnian people.Driving afforded them an opportunity to reflect on the 'home' that had once been Yugoslavia and was now ex-Yugoslavia. And, importantly, driving the roads – almost certainly the key infrastructural achievement of the SFRY (Pozharliev 2016) – provided a bodily, rather than abstract experience of the SFRY project in general, and of its dissolution in construction. XXXX.


In this article I have challenged archetypal and polarised narratives of the end of SFRY as 'collapse'. Ethnographic observation of everyday bodily engagements with infrastructures give on to conceptualisation of the 'end' being a matter of dissolution. These contrasting conceptualisations may, simultaneously challenge and sit alongside one another. In this respect, I am inspired by Anand's study of decaying infrastructure and its depiction as a metaphor for state decay.The challenge moving forward is to develop this insight as a way, more broadly of rethinking dominant narratives of infrastructures, states and histories.


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