Greater Serbia

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Greater Serbia is a name for a Serbian nationalist ideology.

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Greater Serbia outline in late 1980s

It has two forms. The first is the aim of uniting all Serbs in one state and this in it's radical form is interpreted as including areas where Serbs are merely a significant minority. Though "greater" implies expansion, the term has often been applied, since 1918, to movements or individuals who wish to create a rump Yugoslavia in which Serbs would dominate. The second form is a plan to unite South Slavs by simple expansion of Serbia so that other nominally equal partners are in fact forced to adapt to a Serbian law and practices. By extension, after the establishment of Yugoslavia, Greater Serbianism has been applied to attempts to impose Serbian domination of Yugoslavia.

It can be seen as having originated in the 19th century with the Serbian government official Ilija Garašanin in his work "Načertanije" (1844) and aimed at uniting the Serbian people which at the time was separated among foreign Austria-Hungary and Ottoman empires. The work describes the lands on the Balkans, then inhabited mostly or partially by Serbs but ruled by the empires, and included Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Vojvodina, as well as parts of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. Garašanin's plan proposes methods of spreading Serbian influence in these countries, mainly by propaganda efforts and by network of pro-Serbian agitators- in order to achieve optimal situation for Serbian national interests when the Ottoman empire finally collapses. Essentially, this plan (not made public until 1897.) can be interpreted as a blueprint for Serbian national unification, with primary concern of strengthening Serbia's position by inculcating Serbian and pro-Serbian national ideology in all surrounding peoples that are considered to be devoid of national consciousness. Garašanin’s work does not mention violent or terrorist activities as the means of expanding the boundaries of Serbdom.

Later developments have altered Garašanin's "Načertanije" in two significant matters: the originally propagandist blueprint which was concerned principally with the crumbling Turkish empire became a geopolitical instruction for Serbian expansion into the lands that had, generally, never been a part of Serbia. The imagined borders of such Serbia were including most of today's Croatia (everything eastwards of the Virovitica-Karlovac-Karlobag line), all of today's Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, today's Kosovo, north of today's Albania and the present-day Republic of Macedonia as Velika Srbija, which could be translated from Serbian language as "Big Serbia", "Large Serbia" or "Great Serbia". Other significant alteration was a change of methods: initially a propaganda plan, it was transformed into a military strategy and, sometimes, as is the case with Black hand, terrorist activity.


Origin of the term

In English language, however, the concept is referred to as "Greater Serbia", suggesting that it is an expansionistic goal.The term appears, in a derogatory manner, in a pamphlet authored by Serbian socialist Svetozar Marković in 1872. The title «Velika Srbija»/Greater Serbia was meant to express the author's dismay at the prospect of expansion of the Serbian state without social and cultural reforms as well as possible ethnic confrontation with neighboring nations, from Croats to Bulgars.

However, the situation has changed in time, as can be seen in writings of Serbian intellectual from Bosnia and Herzegovina Jefto Dedijer at the end of the 19th century. He envisaged Serbia and Montenegro, the two neighboring Slavic states with ethnic kin in Austro-Hungarian territories, as a sort of nucleus for creating a great Serbian state (more spacious than Yugoslavia), that would, in his opinion, unite all Serbs- although the majority of the populace in the preyed-upon areas were not Serbs at all.

Up to this point, the situation remained within the realms of academic discussion. More sinister was the terrorist program that lied in the heart of the Serbian secret society «Black hand», headed by Serbian colonel Dragutin Dimitrijević Apis. This organization was responsible for numerous atrocities following the Balkans wars (1913.) and, in all probability, the assassination of Habsburg Arch-duke Franz Ferdinand, the event that sparked WW1.

The Greater Serbia concept, this time under the guise of Yugoslav ideology, was expressed in the Niš declaration by Serbian premier Nikola Pašić 1914., as well as in Serbia's regent Aleksandar's statement in 1916. Both documents envisage unification of Serbs –but with the clear intention of incorporating Croatian, Slovene and Bosnian lands as a sort of military booty. This approach, which in practice meant interchangeability of the terms "Serbian" and "Yugoslav", was rooted in the Serbian perception of their relation to neighboring nations, nourished by pre-eminent Serbian intellectuals at the turn of the century, among them Jovan Cvijić, Aleksandar Belić and Ljubomir Stojanović.

This term was later adopted following the creation of Yugoslavia by the Comintern and Russian Communist Party. Although the new Yugoslav kingdom was formed in 1918, the Communist Party only began to oppose its legitimacy by 1924 when the official stance changed from support to opposition. The rhetoric of the Communist Party in Yugoslavia, under directions from Moscow, began to include mentions of ethno-class warfare, the bourgeois oppressors became the Serb-bourgeois oppressors of the working class.


The "Greater Serbian" concept was an offshoot of the Pan-Slavist movement of the mid-19th century. It was initially conceived as a federation of South Slavic peoples by the influential Polish emigré Adam Czartoryski. In Garašanin's version, it became focused specifically on Serbs rather than Slavs in general. For instance, the draft submitted to Garšanin by another idealistic Slavic ideologue, the Czech Franjo Zach, was altered in a significant way: the words "Slavs" or "South Slavs" had been deleted and replaced by "Serbs".

From 1850s on, this concept has had a significant influence on Serbian politics — with a few significant exceptions. For instance, Serbian writers and politicians in Austria-Hungary Svetozar Miletić and Mihailo Polit-Desančić fiercely opposed the Greater Serbia ideology, as well as the premier Serbian socialist from Serbia proper, Svetozar Marković. They all envisioned some sort of "Balkan confederation" that would include Serbia, Bulgaria and sometimes Romania, plus Vojvodina, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia, should the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolve.

The most notable Serbian linguist of the 19th century, Vuk Karadžić;, was a follower of the view that all south Slavs that speak the štokavian dialect (in the central south Slavic language group) are Serbs who speak the Serbian language. As this definition implied that large areas of continental Croatia and Dalmatia, as well as Bosnia and Herzegovina, including areas inhabited by Catholics who had not possessed traces of Serbian national consciousness, were ethically Serbian- Vuk Karadžić is considered by some to be the progenitor of the Greater Serbia program. More precisely, Karadžić was the shaper of modern secular Sebian national consciousness, with the goal of incorporating all indigenous štokavian speakers (Eastern Othodox, Catholic, Muslim) into one, modern Serbian nation. It should be noted that this linguistic definition of nation would have excluded not only Kosovo but also southern Serbia where the torlak dialect is spoken.

However, this project was both ill-conceived and doomed from the outset:

  • a major part of štokavian Catholic Croatian intellectuals and writers had expressed their Croatian national affiliation as far as mid 1500s and 1600s, some three hundred years before Karadžić has been heard of. Their loyalty was first and foremost to the Catholic Christendom, but when they professed ethnic identity, they called it "Slovin" and "Illyrian" (a sort of forerunner of Catholic baroque pan-Slavism) and Croat- they themselves (some 30 writers in the span of ca. 350 years) never mentioned Serb ethnic affiliation anytime.
  • Karadžić's projection of Serbian name and nationality was a continuation of fallacies characteristic of early Slavic studies- a discipline that has begun its existence as a political project initiated by Austrian Empire bureaucracy, counting among the prominent protagonists Josef Dobrovsky, Pavel Šafařik and Jernej Kopitar. Therefore, Greater Serbian ideology in linguistic disguise is rooted in early 19th century Slavic studies.
  • Karadžić had, in the ensuing polemic after publication of the treatise "Serbs all and everywhere" (wherein he vastly expanded imagined Serbian ethnic territories, compared to any map that had appeared before), chosen to ignore Croatian-Slovak philologist Bogoslav Šulek's arguments. Karadžić's concept played a part in recent Serbian aggression on Croatia in 1991.

This negative view is not shared by Andrew Baruch Wachtel (Making a Nation, Breaking a Nation) who sees him as a partisan of South Slav unity, albeit in a limited sense, in that his linguistic definition emphasized what united south slavs rather than the religious differences that had earlier divided them. However, one might argue that such a definition is very partisan: Karadžić himself eloquently and explicitly professed that his aim was to unite all native štokavian speakers whom he identified as Serbs. Therefore, Vuk Karadžić's central linguistic-political aim was the growth of the realm of Serbdom according to his ethnic-linguistic ideas- and not a unity of any sort between Serbian, Croatian or other nations.

It has often been suggested that the Muslims of Bosnia are the descendants of Serbs who converted from Orthodox Christianity to Islam under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Note that Croatian nationalists claim something very similar, except involving Catholicism rather than Orthodoxy. Such views have been used to claim ownership of lands inhabited by other peoples (sometimes subsequently, sometimes not) - much to the dismay of those inhabitants.

The Habsburg Empire, which included large numbers of Slavic people, supported certain unification efforts among the Slavs (cf. the Vienna literary agreement), but soon came to oppose pan-Slavism as a detrimental factor to its own unity. The Serbs formed Matica srpska ("National Matrix") as far back as 1826, had their own clergy in the Serb Orthodox Church, and their own states as the kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro emerged. Although these institutions were supported and paid for by Austrian government,the government in Vienna became suspicious when these institutions turned into political propaganda machinery aiming at secession and Serbian expansion into their territory.

The idea of reclaiming historic Serbian territory has been put into action several times during the 19th and 20th centuries, notably in Serbia's southward expansion in the Balkan Wars and an attempted westward expansion during the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

In addition, the Serbian domination of the pre-World War II Kingdom of Yugoslavia is seen by some as having resulted from a de facto Greater Serbian policy. Both the parties from the left and from the right had issue with the Yugoslav kingdom: the Communist Party of Yugoslavia expanded its notion of class struggle to include ethno-class conflicts: the bourgeois oppressors of the working class became the Serb-bourgeois oppressors.

Regarding the opposition from the right, the Kingdom aroused considerable nationalist resistance in Croatia, and the wartime Ustaše movement attempted to justify its virulently anti-Serbian stance with the claim that it aimed to "liberate Croatia from alien [i.e. Serbian] rule and establish a completely free and independent state over the whole of its national and historic territory." Such sentiments were commonplace in Croatia at the time, which the Ustaše who were a tiny and unrepresentative minority successfully took advantage of.

During the Second World War, the largely Serbian royalist Chetnik movement headed by Draža Mihailović attempted to define its vision of a postwar future. One of its relatively few intellectuals was the Bosnian Serb nationalist Stevan Moljević who, in 1941, proposed in a paper entitled "Homogeneous Serbia" that an even larger Greater Serbia should be created, incorporating not only Bosnia and much of Croatia but also chunks of Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary. It is alleged to have been a significant point of discussion at a Chetnik congress held in Serbia in January 1944. However, Moljević's ideas were never put into practice due to the Chetniks' defeat by Tito's Partisans and it is difficult to assess how influential they were, due to the lack of records from the 1944 congress. Nonetheless, Moljević's core idea - that Serbia is defined by the pattern of Serbian settlement, irrespective of existing national borders - was to remain an underlying theme of the Greater Serbian ideal. Also: Moljević's excursus into cartography has become a standard reference tool in modern Serbian nationalist repertory, ranging from a familiar image of Greater Serbia map frequently appearing in the mass media to the program of the Serbian radical party- the single most powerful party in contemporary Serbia and Montenegro.

The role of the Greater Serbia concept during the final disolution of Yugoslavia

Modern elaboration of Serbs' grievances and allegation of inequality in Socialist Yugoslavia was Memorandum of Serbian Arts and Sciences, a paper not officially publicized at the time of its appearance, 1986., but it was the single most important document that set into motion pan-Serbian movement of the late 1980s which lead to Slobodan Milošević's rise to power and subsequent Yugoslav wars. The authors of the Memorandum included the most influential Serbian intellectuals- among them:Pavle Ivić, Antonije Isaković, Dušan Kanazir, Mihailo Marković, Miloš Macura, Dejan Medaković, Miroslav Pantić, Nikola Pantić, Ljubiša Rakić, Radovan Samardžić, Miomir Vukobratović, Vasilije Krestić, Ivan Maksimović, Kosta Mihailović, Stojan Čelić and Nikola Čobelić. Christopher Bennett (Yugoslavia's Bloody Collapse) characterized the memorandum as "an elaborate, if crude, conspiracy theory." The memorandum alleged systematic discrimination against Serbs and Serbia culminating with the allegation that the Serbs of Kosovo were being subjected to genocide. According to Bennett, despite most of these claims being obviously absurd, the memorandum was merely one of several similar polemics published at the time.

"Memorandum"'s central theses are:

  • Yugoslavia is a Croatian-Slovene hegemony
  • Serbs are, in Yugoslavia, oppressed as a nation. This oppression is especially brutal in Serbian province Kosovo and in Croatia, where their status is "the worst ever as far as recorded history goes"
  • Serbia is economically exploited, being subjected to the political-economical mechanisms that drain much of her wealth and redistribute it to Slovenia, Croatia and Kosovo
  • borders between Yugoslav republics are arbitrary, drawn by dominant Croatian and Slovene communists (motivated, supposedly, by anti-Serbian animus) and their Serbian political lapdogs

All "Memorandum"'s verifiable claims have been refuted (for instance, economical part by Croatian economist, academician Jakov Sirotković; ideological-cultural by Croatian historian and polymath Miroslav Brandt). But- to no avail, since main theses embedded in "Memorandum" texture were not intended to convince, but to inflame. This is especially visible since the authors have issued the "official" version after the collapse in wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, 1995. They claimed that the course of events "had corroborated" their contentions and did not question a single assumption they had made. The situation remained the same in the 21st century: Serbian Academy organized a symposium on "Memorandum".

The Memorandum's defenders claims go as follows: far from calling for a breakup of Yugoslavia on Greater Serbian lines claimed to be in favor of Yugoslavia. It's support for Yugoslavia was however conditional on fundamental changes to end what the Memorandum argued was the discrimination against Serbia which they alleged was inbuilt into Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav constitution as it existed. The chief of these changes was abolition of the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina two provinces which were almost equal to other republics yet were nominally part of the republic of Serbia. According to Norman Cigar (Genocide in Bosnia p24), because the changes were unlikely to be accepted passively, the implementation of the Memorandum's program would only be possible by force.

With the rise to power of Slobodan Milošević the Memorandum's discourse became mainstream in Serbia. According to Bennett, Milošević used a rigid control of the media to organize a propaganda campaign in which the thesis that Serbs were the victims and the need for reajust Yugoslavia to redress the alleged bias against Serbia. This then was then followed by Milošević's anti-bureaucratic revolution in which the Regional governments of Vojvodina and Kosovo along with the Republican government of Montenegro, were overthrown which gave Milošević the dominating position of 4 votes out of 8 in Yugoslavia's collective presidency.

Milošević had achieved such a dominant position for Serbia because, according to Bennett the old communist authorities had failed to stand up to him. This changed first when the Slovenian communist leadership felt it had to respond to the concerns of the civil society opposition. Then in 1990 free elections brought opposition parties to power in Croatia and Slovenia.

By this point several opposition parties in Serbia were openly calling for a Greater Serbia, rejecting the then existing boundaries of the Republics as the artificial creation of Tito's partisans. These included both Vuk Draškovićes SNO (Cigar p35) and Šešelj's Serbian Radical Party. Slobodan Milošević and his Socialist Party of Serbia now however posed as defenders of Yugoslavia claiming that the recent changes had rectified most of the anti-Serb bias that the Memorandum had alleged. However, they together with the groups calling for a Greater Serbia insisted on the demand for "all Serbs in one state". For Milošević Yugoslavia could be that one state but the threat was that should Yugoslavia break up then Serbia under Milošević would carve out a greater Serbia. (James Gow: Triumph of the Lack of Will p19).

By now, in 1990, power had seeped away from the federal government to the republics and the republics were deadlocked over the future of Yugoslavia with the Slovene and Croatian republics seeking a confederacy and Serbia a stronger federation. Gow states, it was the behavior of Serbia that added to the Croatian and Slovene Republic's belief that no accommodation was possible with the Serbian Republic's leadership. The last straw was on 15th of May 1991 when the outgoing Serb president of the collective presidency along with the Serb satellites on the presidency blocked the succession of the Croatian representative as president. According to Gow (p20), from this point Yugoslavia de facto ceased to function.

During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the concept of a Greater Serbia was widely seen outside of Serbia as the motivating force for the military campaigns undertaken to form and sustain Serbian states on the teritorries of the breakaway Yugoslav republics of Croatia (the Republic of Serbian Krajina) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Republika Srpska). From the Serb point of view, the objective of this policy was to assure Serbs' rights by ensuring that they could never be subjected to potentially hostile rule, particularly by their historic Croatian enemies (cf. Ustase).

The concept of a Greater Serbia has been widely criticised by other nationalities in the former Yugoslavia as well as by foreign observers. The two principal objections have been:

  • Questionable historical justifications for claims to territory; for instance, during the Croatian war, Dubrovnik and other parts of Dalmatia were claimed as a historically Serbian territory — claims which were opposed by Croatian authorities and international community.
  • The coercive nature of creating a Greater Serbian state against the will of other nations; before the wars, the peoples of Yugoslavia were highly intermingled and it was physically impossible to create ethnic states without taking in large numbers of other ethnic groups against their will. An answer to this was the widespread use of ethnic cleansing to ensure that mono-ethnic territories could be established without opposition from potentially disloyal minority groups. A converse argument is used against the upgrading the status of Croatia and of Bosnia and Herzegovina from republics to independent states -- taking in large numbers of other ethnic groups against their will in the process.

The fundamental problem of the policy has been that its definition of a Serbian national space - i.e. all lands where Serbs live - conflicts with other nationalities' conceptions of their national spaces. Many Serbs point out, however, that a converse argument can also apply: the independence movements in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo all took little regard of Serbs' desire to live in a unified state. Along these lines one could argue that the borders of current Serbia are questionable, too: since probably the vast majority of Albanians, Bosniaks or Hungarians (citizens of Serbia) want, naturally, to live in their respective national states, the dissolution of Serbia is the necessary logical consequence of following the argument to the conclusion.

Proponents of the goal of Greater Serbia do not insist on an ethnically clean Serbia. Indeed, 35% of the population of Serbia is non-Serb. Rather, they assert that Greater Serbia could have minorities, as well as that there still might remain Serb minorities in surrounding countries. Opponents of the goal claim that, in practice, the treatment of national minorities in the province of Serbia called Kosovo and Vojvodina during the 1980s and 1990s shows that the Greater Serbian goal equates to ethnic supremacism.

Serbia's military defeats in the Yugoslav wars, the exodus of Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia, and the indictment of Serbian leaders for war crimes have greatly discredited the Greater Serbian ideal in Serbia as well as abroad. Western countries claim that atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars have prompted them to take a much stronger stance against the Greater Serbian goal, most notably in Kosovo. However, the idea of a Greater Serbia remains influential in Serbian politics and is still seen by many Croatians, Bosnians and Albanians as a barrier to good relations between Serbs and other neighbouring peoples.

Arguments for and against

Some arguments for are:

  • International law has the priniciple of self-determination for all people embedded it.
  • The Yugoslav constitution of 1974 said that each republic (Serbia, slovenia, Bosnia & Hercegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Macedonia) has the right to self-determination. But it also said that each nation (Serbs, Montenegrins, Muslims (Bosniaks), Croats, Slovenians, Macedonians) had the same right.
  • Also, it is evident that in practice these two rights cannot be "synthesized" so that ethnic minorities in "other" countries possess the right to self-determination: fresh example is the disintegration of the Soviet Union, where ca. 20 million Russians had remained outside of Russia proper borders, not having the right of self-determination in Ukraine, Moldova or Estonia. The same concept applies also to peoples constituting majorities in some republics within Russia (Chechens for instance). The case is not dissimilar to the status of Germans in northern Italy or Basques in southern France.

See also


Branimir Anzulovic: Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide, NYU Press, 1999.

Philip J. Cohen: Serbia's Secret War: Propaganda and the Deceit of History (Eastern European Studies, No 2), Texas A & M University Press, Reprint Edition, February 1997.

Ivo Banac: The National Question in Yugoslavia: Origins, History, Politics, Cornell University Press, Reprint edition, 1988.

External links

bs:Velika Srbija hr:Velika Srbija de:Großserbien


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