Category Archives: Balkans

Albania’s Competing Alphabets, 1908

From High Albania, by M. Edith Durham (Enhanced Media, 2017; originally published 1909), Kindle Loc. 243-264:

One must live in Scutari to realise the amount of spying and wire-pulling carried on by the Powers under pretence of spreading sweetness and light.

The Alphabet question will suffice as a sample. In early days an alphabet was made by Bishop Bogdan, and used by the Jesuits for all Albanian printed matter required by the church. Briefly, it is the Latin alphabet with four additional fancy letters. The spelling used is otherwise as in Italian. Help from without had enabled Greek, Serb, and Bulgar under Turkish rule to have schools in their own tongues. The natural result has been that each in turn has revolted, and, so far as possible, won freedom from Turkish rule. And those that have not yet done so look forward, in spite of the Young Turk, to ultimate union with their kin.

Albania awoke late to the value of education as a means of obtaining national freedom, and demanded national schools. But the Turks, too, had then learnt by experience. They replied, “We have had quite enough of schools in national languages. No, you don’t!” and prohibited, under heavy penalty, not only schools, but the printing of the language.

The only possible schools were those founded by Austria and Italy, ostensibly to give religious instruction. These used the Jesuits’ alphabet. Ten years ago some patriotic Albanians, headed by the Abbot of the Mirdites, decided that the simple Latin alphabet was far more practical. They reconstructed the orthography of the language, using only Latin letters, and offered their simple and practical system to the Austrian schools, volunteering to translate and prepare the necessary books if Austria would print them – neither side to be paid. A whole set of books was made ready and put in use. Education was at last firmly started; it remained only to go forward. But a united and educated Albania was the last thing Austria wished to see. Faced with a patriotic native clergy and a committee striving for national development, Austria recoiled. Three years ago the simple Latin alphabet was thrown out of the Austrian schools and a brand new system adopted, swarming with accents, with several fancy letters, and with innumerable mute “ee’s” printed upside down – a startling effect, as of pages of uncorrected proofs!

It was invented by an influential priest. Its adoption enabled Austria to split the native priesthood into two rival camps, and – as it was not adopted by the Italian schools – to emphasise the difference between the pro-Italian and pro-Austrian parties; and that it was expressly introduced for these purposes no one who has heard all sides can doubt.

Nor can Albanian education make any progress till it has schools in which no foreign Power is allowed to intrigue. Such are now being started.

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Habsburg Austria Like the European Union?

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 188-190:

Habsburg Austria was the last remnant of feudalism that had survived into the early modern and modern ages. Indeed, according to one of the leading historians of the Habsburgs, the late Robert A. Kann, the Austrian Empire was “more diversified … in regard to ethnic, linguistic, and historic traditions” than any other imperium in modern times. “It was closer to the European Community of the twenty-first century” than to other empires of the nineteenth, writes the Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris. The empire sprawled “clean across Central Europe,” observes the late Oxford scholar C. A. Macartney, from the Vorarlberg Alps and Lake Constance in the west to the edge of Moldavia in the east; and from the Polish Carpathians in the north to the Adriatic Sea in the south, uniting Germans, Slavs, and Latins. And yet “in no single case,” Macartney goes on, “was one of its political frontiers also an ethnic frontier.” Germans lay inside and outside the empire; so, too, did the Poles, Ukraines, Croats, Romanians, and so on. Thus, as Kissinger states, the Habsburg Empire “could never be part of a structure legitimized by nationalism,” for as nationalism in Europe had an ethnic and religious basis, this polyglot empire would have been torn apart by such a force. Making the Habsburg Empire doubly insecure and so dependent on the status quo was its easily invadable and conquerable geography, compared to that of Great Britain, Russia, and even France.

Habsburg Austria, whose history spans the late thirteenth century to the early twentieth, by simple necessity elevated conservative order to the highest moral principle. Liberalism was held in deep suspicion because freedom could mean not only the liberation of the individual, but the liberation of ethnic groups, which could then come into conflict with one another. Thus toleration, rather than freedom, was encouraged. And because (especially following the Napoleonic Wars) the status quo was sacrosanct in Vienna, so too was the balance of power.

For decades and centuries even, Austria’s sprawling imperium defined European geopolitics. Austria was the highly imperfect solution to Turkish military advances into Central Europe in the sixteenth century and the perennial Panslav stirrings that emanated from Russia, absorbing as Austria did the blows from both forces, even as the Counter-Reformation helped bind the heavily Catholic Habsburg lands together. Austria’s role as a geopolitical balancer was further fortified by its fear of vast, Panslavic, police-state Russia on the one hand and the liberal, democratic, and revolutionary traditions of France and the West on the other. Indeed, Austria’s position as a great power was threatened by Russian imperialsm from the east, while, as Kann puts it, “western liberalism threatened the durability of her domestic structure.” And yet Austria was so often weak, something inherent “in the far-flung nature” of her monarchical possessions and her attendant “extraordinarily cumbersome administrative and decision-making arrangements,” writes Cambridge history professor Brendan Simms. It was Romania’s geographical and historical fate to be caught between and among empires, with its position at the southeastern extremity of Habsburg Austria, the southwestern extremity of Russia’s imperialist ambitions, and the northwestern extremity of those of Ottoman Turkey.

According to other interpretations, Austria itself might have constituted a bourgeoisie civilizing force from the West, altogether benevolent in its influence. For Habsburg culture was reassuring, burgerlich, and sumptuous, at least compared to what those other, bleaker imperiums from the East had to offer—partially defined, as Austria and the Catholic Church were, by the inspirational miracle of Gothic and baroque art. But what Romanians too often received from Habsburg Austria was not inspiring aesthetics but simply the appalling hardship of war, so that the northern Transylvanian Gothic style was to remain an aspirational curiosity amid copious bloodshed as empires clashed.

But the EU lacks a Metternich.

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Michael the Brave Macchiavellian

From In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond, by Robert D. Kaplan (Random House, 2016), pp. 71-72:

Born in 1558, Michael rose to become a leading boyar, or feudal personage, buying up villages and acquiring the throne of Wallachia in 1593 by providing the Ottoman sultanate with the requisite bribes. The next year he initiated a campaign against the same sultanate by inviting Ottoman creditors to a litigation, then locking the doors and burning the building down. This was followed by a general massacre of Turks in Wallachia. In response to Michael’s raids as far south as Adrianople in Thracian Turkey, the sultan’s troops invaded Wallachia in 1595. Michael’s overreach forced him into an alliance with the Hungarian ruler of Transylvania that allowed the Hungarian to subjugate neighboring Moldavia. Nevertheless, the alliance helped Michael defeat a Turkish army at Călugăreni, between Bucharest and the Danube in Muntenia. Yet the tactical victory was not enough to stop Michael’s retreat north toward the Carpathians, in the face of an advance by the Ottomans that saw them take Bucharest. But with reinforcements from Hungarian-controlled Moldavia and Transylvania, Michael was able to force the Turks southward. The Ottomans, now preoccupied with a war against the Austrian Habsburgs, made a temporary truce with Michael in 1598. The Poles meanwhile had invaded Moldavia, toppling the Hungarians there and removing Moldavia from the anti-Ottoman alliance. The alliance completely collapsed when the Hungarians made a deal with the Austrians over Transylvania. So Michael, rather than continue to fight the Turks, began to negotiate with both them and the Austrians for recognition of his right to retain the throne of Wallachia. But the Turks wanted too much tribute and so Michael made an alliance with the Austrians instead. Then the Poles, who held sway in Moldavia, forced the Hungarian rulers in Transylvania to break their alliance with the Austrians. This led, through more convolutions, to a deal between Christian Transylvania, Christian Moldavia, and Muslim Turkey. Michael then entered negotiations with the Turks, even as he plotted with the Austrians to topple the Hungarians in Transylvania. Michael’s successful invasion of Transylvania was secured at the Battle of Selimbar, near Sibiu, in 1599. In 1600, now in charge of both Wallachia and Transylvania, Michael invaded pro-Polish Moldavia. The victory there allowed Michael to claim the unity of all three core-Romanian principalities. But later the same year, the Austrians defeated Michael in Transylvania and the Poles defeated him in Moldavia. Michael responded by entering into negotiations with the Austrians. The Hungarians in Transylvania, fearing a deal between Michael and the Habsburgs, assassinated him near Cluj in 1601.

Romania, in this reading, emerges from the travails of history as an even more intense version of early modern Europe itself: nothing is ever secure and more bloodshed always lies in wait. If European history is a nightmare, then that of Romania is doubly so. The very unswerving energy of Michael the Brave—operating for years on end at levels of stress that would immobilize the average Western politician in the twenty-first century—was a mere requirement of any warlord of the age. And if Michael as a late Renaissance man could not conceive of a unitary Romanian state, his accomplishment, nevertheless—and however short-lived—gave Romanian speakers of later eras a vision of what was politically possible.

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Earliest Romanian Historiography

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 680-700, 728-740:

The attachment of the Romanians to the East is perhaps most visible in the persistence of Slavic or, more precisely, Middle Bulgarian as the language they mainly used for serious writing and other purposes well into the first half of the seventeenth century. The adoption by the Romanians of Slavic as their liturgical language and the language of the princely chancelleries in the fourteenth century was an event of singular importance in their development. Slavic reinforced their ties to the Byzantine cultural and religious world and served as the primary instrument for the transmission of its sacred and secular heritage. The Romanians could accept Slavic as the language of the church because it ranked with Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, and they used it in the affairs of state precisely because of its prestige as a sacred language. But Slavic could not become their religious language in the full sense of the term. Spoken by a part of the clergy, the great boiers, and scholars, it was never the language of the mass of the population, who said their prayers and created a rich folk literature in Romanian.

Monasteries were the major centers of cultural activity in the principalities. Besides spiritual and educational functions, monks were preoccupied between the fifteenth and the first half of the seventeenth century with the copying of Slavic manuscripts, of which some 1,000 have survived. These copyists were thus responsible for preserving the Middle Bulgarian and, to some extent, the Slavo-Serbian versions of the greater part of the Byzantine–Slav religious literary patrimony. Princes were among the most ardent patrons of manuscript copying and embellishment. Ştefan cel Mare was always keenly aware as an Orthodox sovereign of his religious responsibilities to his own people and to the peoples of the Balkans under Ottoman rule and of his role as God’s representative on earth, and thus he was a prodigious builder of churches and monasteries and richly endowed them in Moldavia and throughout the Orthodox East with beautiful manuscripts for church services. Although the value of these manuscripts today is scholarly rather than as pieces of original literature, they reveal much about the intellectual and spiritual needs of the upper strata of Romanian society. The manuscripts were mainly religious in content, but their readers were not limited to monks and priests. It is evident from notations on the manuscripts that boiers, chancellery clerks, and the middle class also looked to them for spiritual guidance. The ascetic, mystical view of life was thus not confined to the monastery, but encompassed significant elements of the literate secular society.

Among the relatively few original compositions in Slavic or Slavo-Romanian, as it is often called because of influences of Romanian, were the earliest works of Romanian historiography.

The Protestant Reformation, though it gained few religious converts, deeply affected cultural life and the sense of identity in the principalities and among the Romanians of Transylvania. It offered further evidence that the Romanian medieval worldview was far from being impervious to influences from the West.

The absence of texts in Romanian before the sixteenth century may be attributed to the belief among the literate classes that the spoken language was not as suitable for sacred writings, legal documents, and history as Slavic. It is significant that the oldest text in Romanian that has survived is a private letter about practical matters written by a merchant in Câmpulung, in Wallachia, to the magistrate of Braşov, in Transylvania, warning of the movement of Ottoman troops. It is dated 1521, the same year that Neagoe Basarab completed his “Advice” in Slavic. The differences in the Romanian of the letter from modern Romanian are slight, and the style is polished, evidence that the language had been used in writing for some time in correspondence and even in rough drafts of official documents before their translation into Slavic.

Romanian was introduced as the written language in secular affairs in the second half of the sixteenth century, as the princely chancelleries ceased using Slavic exclusively, Moldavia in 1574 and Wallachia in 1593. The first chronicle in Romanian, an original work, not a translation, dealt with the reign of Mihai Viteazul and was composed in Wallachia about 1597. This and the so-called “Moldavian Chronicle,” now lost, composed several decades later, laid the foundations for the flowering of historiography in Romanian beginning in the middle decades of the seventeenth century.

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Ottoman Romania: dar al-dhimma

From A Concise History of Romania (Cambridge Concise Histories), by Keith Hitchins (Cambridge, 2014), Kindle Loc. 581-601:

The juridical relationship that evolved between the principalities and the Ottoman state in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries owed as much to Ottoman pragmatism and legal theory as to the political and social conditions prevailing in Moldavia and Wallachia and the international circumstances of the time. From the perspective of the Islamic law of nations, which the Ottomans observed, the principalities lay in an intermediate zone between dar al-harb (the domain of war), that is, territories contested between the Muslim state and its enemies, and dar al-Islam (the domain of Islam), territories where their inhabitants were subject to a Muslim ruler and Islamic law. The principalities by the sixteenth century clearly no longer belonged to the former, but they had not entered the latter. Some historians have placed them in dar al-sulh (the domain of peace) or dar al-‘ahd, territory acquired by the Muslim ruler by treaty; still others, in accordance with the Hanafite school of law, which predominated in the Ottoman Empire, have assigned them to dar al-muvâda’a (the domain of armistice) or dar al-dhimma (the domain of protection and tribute). The latter two terms may represent most accurately the two main phases through which Ottoman–Romanian relations passed, the years 1538–41 marking the dividing line. At the beginning of their encounter, the principalities were vassal states obliged to pay the tribute and render military service, and, then, as the relationship grew tighter, the sultan, for his part, assumed certain responsibilities toward the principalities, notably to give them protection.

The arrangement that thus emerged enabled Moldavia and Wallachia to escape incorporation into the Ottoman political system, as had happened to the Christian states south of the Danube. Various ‘ahd-names and berāts (writs of appointment) granted by the sultans allowed the principalities almost full internal autonomy. Thus, the sultan acknowledged the right of the prince and the boiers to rule “in accordance with custom” and forbade Turkish civil and military officials or the Muslim clergy to involve themselves in the internal affairs of the principalities. He allowed the boiers to elect the prince, but reserved to himself the right to approve their choice and to invest the new prince with the insignia of his office. As a consequence of autonomy, the laws and legal system, the social structure, landholding and agrarian relations, cultural and intellectual life, and the status of the Orthodox Church were left unchanged. But the sultan took charge of foreign affairs, prohibiting the princes from maintaining diplomatic contacts with foreign states or conclude treaties with them, and he undertook to defend the principalities against foreign attack.

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Russian Grievances vs. Europe, 1853

From The Crimean War: A History, by Orlando Figes (Metropolitan, 2011), Kindle Loc. 2418-2459:

The Tsar’s notes in the margins of a memorandum by Pogodin reveal much about his thinking in December 1853, when he came closest to embracing the pan-Slav cause. Pogodin had been asked by Nicholas to give his thoughts on Russia’s policy towards the Slavs in the war against Turkey. His answer was a detailed survey of Russia’s relations with the European powers which was filled with grievances against the West. The memorandum clearly struck a chord with Nicholas, who shared Pogodin’s sense that Russia’s role as the protector of the Orthodox had not been recognized or understood and that Russia was unfairly treated by the West. Nicholas especially approved of the following passage, in which Pogodin railed against the double standards of the Western powers, which allowed them to conquer foreign lands but forbade Russia to do the same:

France takes Algeria from Turkey, and almost every year England annexes another Indian principality: none of this disturbs the balance of power; but when Russia occupies Moldavia and Wallachia, albeit only temporarily, that disturbs the balance of power. France occupies Rome and stays there several years in peacetime: that is nothing; but Russia only thinks of occupying Constantinople, and the peace of Europe is threatened. The English declare war on the Chinese, who have, it seems, offended them: no one has a right to intervene; but Russia is obliged to ask Europe for permission if it quarrels with its neighbour. England threatens Greece to support the false claims of a miserable Jew and burns its fleet: that is a lawful action; but Russia demands a treaty to protect millions of Christians, and that is deemed to strengthen its position in the East at the expense of the balance of power. We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice, which does not understand and does not want to understand (comment in the margin by Nicholas I: ‘This is the whole point’).

Having stirred the Tsar’s own grievances against the West, Pogodin encouraged him to act alone, according to his conscience before God, to defend the Orthodox and promote Russia’s interests in the Balkans. Nicholas expressed his approval:

Who are our allies in Europe (comment by Nicholas: ‘No one, and we don’t need them, if we put our trust in God, unconditionally and willingly’). Our only true allies in Europe are the Slavs, our brothers in blood, language, history and faith, and there are ten million of them in Turkey and millions in Austria … The Turkish Slavs could provide us with over 200,000 troops – and what troops! And that is not counting the Croatians, Dalmatians and Slovenians, etc. (comment by Nicholas: ‘An exaggeration: reduce to one-tenth and it is true’) …

By declaring war on us, the Turks have destroyed all the old treaties defining our relations, so we can now demand the liberation of the Slavs, and bring this about by war, as they themselves have chosen war (comment by Nicholas: ‘That is right’).

If we do not liberate the Slavs and bring them under our protection, then our enemies, the English and the French … will do so instead. In Serbia, Bulgaria and Bosnia, they are active everywhere among the Slavs, with their Western parties, and if they succeed, where will we be then? (comment by Nicholas: ‘Absolutely right’).

Yes! If we fail to use this favourable opportunity, if we sacrifice the Slavs and betray their hopes, or leave their fate to be decided by other powers, then we will have ranged against us not one lunatic Poland but ten of them (which our enemies desire and are working to arrange) … (comment by Nicholas: ‘That is right’).

With the Slavs as enemies, Russia would become a ‘second-rate power’, argued Pogodin, whose final sentences were three times underlined by Nicholas:

The greatest moment in Russia’s history has arrived – greater perhaps even than the days of Poltava and Borodino. If Russia does not advance it will fall back – that is the law of history. But can Russia really fall? Would God allow that? No! He is guiding the great Russian soul, and we see that in the glorious pages we have dedicated to Him in the History of our Fatherland. Surely He would not allow it to be said: Peter founded the dominion of Russia in the East, Catherine consolidated it, Alexander expanded it, and Nicholas betrayed it to the Latins.

No, that cannot be, and will not be. With God on our side, we cannot go back.

To get him to embrace his pan-Slav ideology Pogodin had cleverly appealed to the Tsar’s belief in his divine mission to defend the Orthodox as well as to his growing alienation from the West. In his November memorandum to his ministers, Nicholas had declared that Russia had no option but to turn towards the Slavs, because the Western powers, and Britain in particular, had sided with the Turks against Russia’s ‘holy cause’.

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Post-WWII Yugoslavia as Harbinger

From Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II, by Keith Lowe (St. Martin’s, 2012), Kindle Loc. 4976-5024:

It is true that the statistics associated with postwar Yugoslavia are worse than in any other country. Some 70,000 collaborationist troops and civilians were killed by the Partisans in the aftermath of the war: when compared to the population as a whole, this is more than ten times as bad as in Italy and twenty times as bad as in France.33 At first sight, the anecdotes that emerge from the postwar period also appear to support the stereotype of Yugoslavian cruelty. Dusan Vukovic, who joined the Partisans at the tender age of eleven, claims that he saw a Ustasha skinned alive and then hung on a tree branch with his own skin. ‘With my own eyes I saw the Partisans cut off noses and ears and gouge out eyes. They cut symbols of various kinds into the flesh of the captives, too, especially when they thought they had Gestapo personnel in their hands.’ Other eyewitnesses speak of routine sadism, such as guards killing their victims slowly with knives, riding prisoners like horses, or binding men and women together and throwing them into rivers to watch them drown.

Numbers aside, however, the violence that occurred in Yugoslavia at the end of the war was no more cruel than that which occurred in other countries. On the contrary, the same themes that pervaded here were present throughout the continent. There is no difference between the anecdotes above and the stories of French miliciens who are supposed to have arrested Resistance fighters during the German occupation, ‘ripped out their eyes, put bugs in the holes and sewn up their sockets’. Czech mobs were just as likely to carve Nazi symbols into the flesh of SS men they caught hold of, and Belgian maquisards thought nothing of burning collaborators alive. Despite the stereotypes, therefore, the cruelty that took place in this unfortunate part of the Balkans should not be considered unique – rather it was symbolic of a dehumanization that had taken place across the continent.

Neither does the ethnic dimension to the violence set Yugoslavia apart. Such ethnic tension might have been missing in most of western Europe but, as I have shown, it was an integral part of the war and its aftermath in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Ukraine. There were also numerous smaller, more regional conflicts involving minorities across the continent, some of which were every bit as violent on a local scale.

In fact, the only unique thing about Yugoslavia is how well it simultaneously encapsulates all of the themes I have discussed so far in this book. As in the rest of Europe, much of the violence in Yugoslavia was motivated by a simple desire for vengeance. As in the rest of Europe, the rifts caused by the war were deliberately concealed beneath a layer of cosy mythology once the war was over. The postwar breakdown of law and order was no different there than in other badly damaged areas of the continent. Lack of trust in the new police force, whom the people feared ‘as they would a plunderous mob’, was no different from the fear that Poles, Romanians, Hungarians, Austrians and East Germans felt towards their own militias (or indeed towards Soviet soldiers). Lack of trust in the courts was the same as it was in France and Italy and, as in those countries, often led to people taking the law into their own hands. Clandestine, unofficial prisons were set up for collaborators, just as they were in France and Czechoslovakia; gulags were created for prisoners of war, just as they had been in the Soviet Union. Populations of Germans and Hungarians were expelled, just as they were from other countries across the continent.

It is only the involvement of the Yugoslav state that points the way to a new theme that I have not yet discussed in depth – the idea that much of the violence was politically motivated. Almost all of the events described up to now were brought about by individuals or groups acting outside state control, and who were eventually brought back into line by a combination of the Allied armies and traditional politicians. In Yugoslavia it was the state itself that conducted the violence, the Allies were absent, and traditional politicians had been replaced by revolutionaries. It is perhaps unsurprising that these fighting men took a distinctly unsubtle approach to returning the country to law and order.

Tito’s right-hand man, Milovan Djilas, put their methods succinctly in an interview published in a British magazine in 1979: ‘Yugoslavia was in a state of chaos and destruction. There was hardly any civil administration. There were no properly constituted courts. There was no way in which the cases of 20–30,000 people could have been reliably investigated. So the easy way out was to have them all shot, and have done with the problem.’ While the French and the Italians tried to rid themselves of collaborators through the courts, and bemoaned the inadequacy of their purge ever afterwards, Tito recognized the shortcomings of his legal system and dispensed with it altogether. ‘We put an end to it,’ he reminisced later, ‘once and for all.’

There is no doubt that the massacres that occurred in Yugoslavia after the war were, at least in part, politically motivated. Since the Communists were intent on forcing Croatia and Slovenia to rejoin a Yugoslavian federation, it made no sense to allow tens of thousands of staunch Croatian and Slovenian nationalists to put that reunion in jeopardy. Neither could Tito allow the continued existence of Mihailović’s royalist Chetniks to jeopardize his vision of a Communist Yugoslavia. Both groups therefore had to be dealt with one way or another. Those who were not shot were imprisoned for years or sometimes decades.

Politically motivated violence by the state was not unique to Yugoslavia. Other Communist groups across Europe were perhaps more subtle in their pursuit of power, but equally ruthless, and just as willing to resort to violence when they believed it necessary. For countless millions of people throughout the eastern half of the continent, therefore, the end of the war did not signal ‘liberation’ at all, it merely heralded a new era of state repression. The Nazi terror was over: the Communist terror was about to begin.

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