The Yugoslav Response to ‘limited sovereignty’
Helena Stolnik Trenkić is a PhD Candidate in history at Jesus College, Cambridge, researching claims to self-determination in socialist Yugoslavia (1960-1990). Her academic and practical interest in human rights has led to internships and advocacy work with the UN, AIRE Centre, OHR in Bosnia, and other groups.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine attempted to mask itself behind legalistic language. It castigated Western interventions against the sovereignty of Serbia, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, and justified the ‘special operation’ in Ukraine as self-defence of Russia and Russians. I was, at the time, about a month into starting my doctoral dissertation on a history of self-determination, listening as Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine as a fulfilment of that very right.
I was, at the time, about a month into starting my doctoral dissertation on a history of self-determination, listening as Putin justified the invasion of Ukraine as a fulfilment of that very right.
My research tells the story of claims to self-determination through the case study of socialist Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists. Its peoples went through multiple border changes in the twentieth century: the Ottoman and Habsburg empires; their collapse; the interwar Kingdom of Yugoslavia; the 1941 Axis invasion and wartime puppet states; the socialist Yugoslavia constituted in 1945; and its collapse into nation-states in the 1990s, some of whose territorial boundaries remain a point of negotiation to this day. My paternal grandfather never moved out of one region of Serbia, but he lived in five countries and one occupied territory.
This experience of state creation and collapse, regime change and political upheaval, is common to much of Central and Eastern Europe. People muddled through life as borderlines were redrawn and city names changed, primarily from above. What did the self-determination of peoples mean in this context? What did ‘peoples’, or ‘nation’ (the Serbo-Croatian word, narod, is the same for both), even mean in this context? What is the impact of uncertain borders on the sense of national belonging? In the 2000s, historians such as Tara Zahra proposed that we respond to these overlaying attempts to mobilise national feeling by deploying ‘national indifference’ as a category of analysis; emphasising that, amid this turbulence, local or regional modes of collective identification were far more pertinent than national ones. In 2020, John Connelly’s From Peoples into Nations responded to the debate by arguing that, by contrast, the history of shifting borders led to a heightened sense of nation: in particular, of national precariousness.  Both can be true in different contexts; but this brief article looks at an example of the latter, where it was precisely the acute feeling of existential threat that prompted a zealous defence to stabilise the contemporary national iteration. In today’s world, Putin has inadvertently strengthened the sense of a Ukrainian nation by threatening it ; in 1968, the USSR posed a threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yugoslavia, and its citizens rallied to reaffirm their support.
In today’s world, Putin has inadvertently strengthened the sense of a Ukrainian nation by threatening it; in 1968, the USSR posed a threat to the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Yugoslavia, and its citizens rallied to reaffirm their support.
The day that my maternal grandparents moved into their house, in a town close to the river demarcating Croatia from Hungary, they watched from the window as tanks moved from the local garrison towards the Yugoslav border. Five Warsaw Pact countries, led by the USSR, had intervened in Czechoslovakia to put an end to the democratising reform to socialism known as the Prague Spring. The pseudo-legal basis for the invasion of Czechoslovakia was that of ‘limited sovereignty’, outlined in Pravda by Sergei Kovalev and remembered as the Brezhnev Doctrine. Socialist states could pursue their own reforms and their own policies – so long as those reforms and policies were not deemed incompatible with socialism. And if they were, then, according to the Doctrine, neighbouring states would be forced to intervene and correct their path.
Socialist Yugoslavia had not been part of the Eastern Bloc since the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, when, after being expelled from the Soviet-dominated group of European communist states, it began to pursue its own distinctive path of worker-management socialism. Yugoslav self-managing socialism had already been condemned as a perversion of socialism by Stalin, and the truces with Khrushchev and subsequent leaders were always rocky. Milorad Lazić writes that the Brezhnev Doctrine ‘hung like the sword of Damocles over the Yugoslavs’ heads.’ If the Soviets were prepared to launch a military operation in Czechoslovakia, what sort of pressure might they put on Yugoslavia?
At the level of high politics, Yugoslav diplomats responded energetically. Given that Yugoslavia had connections with, but was not a member of, either the Warsaw Pact or NATO, high-level politicians repeatedly asked the US to provide assurances of support in the case of an unwanted intervention. At the United Nations, the Yugoslav delegation circulated a statement reaffirming Czechoslovakia’s right to sovereignty and requested to address the Security Council. Anton Vratuša, Yugoslavia’s ambassador to the UN, pointed out that the Yugoslav people had already fought against ‘intervention and interference’ and the ‘policy of force.’ He reaffirmed the rights of self-determination: ‘sovereign equality, political and national independence, territorial integrity, and the right of every nation to decide its own fate.’ The Warsaw Five had violated this principle through 'intervention and occupation.’ Vratuša criticised the US in the same breath – ‘the reactions of Europe and the world to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as well as resistance to the armed intervention of the US in Vietnam, clearly show that the protagonists of the policy of force must realise there can be no peace in the world as long as there are instances of arbitrary recuse to force in international relations.’ Before he was ousted, Jiří Hájek, Czechoslovakia’s representative to the UN, used one of his final protest speeches to thank Yugoslavia for its support: ‘We consider this to be the real manifestation of a genuine socialist internationalism.’
'The reactions of Europe and the world to the invasion of Czechoslovakia, as well as resistance to the armed intervention of the US in Vietnam, clearly show that the protagonists of the policy of force must realise there can be no peace in the world as long as there are instances of arbitrary recuse to force in international relations.'
Vratuša’s language closely mirrored the emphasis on self-determination seen in the Non-Aligned Movement, a group of mostly Global South states founded in Yugoslavia’s capital, Belgrade, in 1961 at the initiative of Yugoslav President Tito and Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Its primary guiding principle was the self-determination of peoples, to be achieved through the end of colonialism and a wider institution of respect and equality in international relations. This necessitated the end of the Cold War, of big power tutelage, unequal trading relations, and illegal interventions, and a fulfilment of human rights through the United Nations as the most likely field of fair discussion and implementation. Yugoslav ‘interference’ would be limited to acts of solidarity and cooperation: sending blood to the Viet Cong, tanks to the MPLA in Angola, donations to Palestine, or signing economic contracts with Algeria.
It would be a mistake to think that the lofty ideals of Vratuša and the Non-Aligned Movement remained confined to the sphere of high politics. The Yugoslav response to limited sovereignty was broad, and engaged ordinary workers, students, and even children. It might be tempting to dismiss this as toeing the party line, but the support of the youth and student press was not guaranteed by default. In the late 1960s, youth organisations had moved into a position of ‘open conflict’ with the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, culminating in student protests in June 1968 with calls to properly implement socialism. Just a couple of months later, in light of this external, existential threat, young people had set these grievances aside. Student intellectuals immediately began to criticise theoretical foundations of limited sovereignty. Writers for the youth weekly Omladinski tjednik and student newspaper Studentski list declared it a ‘dubious theory’ reeking of ‘neo-Stalinism’: ‘no one can agree with aggression, even when cloaked in quasi-socialist phrases.’ They predicted the ‘real reason for the intervention in Czechoslovakia’: maintaining Soviet political and economic dominance. ‘Exploitation,’ argued one writer, the law student Stjenko Vranjican, ‘is not the monopoly only of capitalist countries.’
Writers emphasised the specific threat this pseudo-legal theory posed to Yugoslav sovereignty: if ‘loving our country, wanting its freedom, fighting for it, believing in humane and democratic socialism means declaring for the counter-revolution,’ then ‘according to the logic of those who sent armies to Czechoslovakia, they should do the same to us.’ Reports of diplomatic attacks on Tito and the Yugoslav system of ‘socialist democracy’ had already begun, mirroring the pressures applied after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. Supplementary material for the seventh congress of the League of Youth of Croatia in November 1968 warned that Yugoslavia’s ‘principled position’ condemning the intervention in Czechoslovakia had led to ‘the serious danger of political, economic, or even military forms of external pressure.’ Yugoslav awareness of the events in Czechoslovakia was so total that when the youth cultural journal Polet asked five- and six-year-olds their thoughts on the meaning of the word ‘war’, six-year-old Mirjana Nestorović answered: ‘war is a fight for freedom, like now in Czechoslovakia.’ 
The invasion saw an immediate increase in support for the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. In the first six months of 1968, around 20,000 new members were accepted into the party. In the second half of the year, this increased to nearly 150,000, of whom one third were young adults. One new member, 27-year-old Stjepan Vranković, told Omladinski tjednik that he was motivated by ‘this period of strained international relations’. Furthermore, young people began voluntarily forming youth brigades for the defence of the country.  In Croatia alone (total population 4 million) around 125,000 young people had organised themselves into youth or student units by November 1968.  Colonel Žrko Miličević, Chief of Staff at the Zagreb Military District, was interviewed for Omladinski tjednik. He called for mass civil training so that any occupier would be ‘shot at from behind every bush, from every house.’ Inspired by guerrilla tactics in Vietnam and Yugoslav partisan forces during the Second World War, he proposed that young people be taught ambushes, raids, diversions, and handling of explosives and other more sophisticated weapons. Young people were allegedly motivated by a ‘patriotism’ that did not ‘fetishize national values,’ but directed itself ‘against hegemony’ and operated on the basis of ‘respect for other nations.’  This initial burst of youth activity did run into issues (one student representative complained that there were not enough dedicated meetings spaces for youth brigades), but support for the idea of a general people’s defence retained support into the subsequent years. 
Limited sovereignty was thus rejected in its entirety, in both high- and grassroots-level politics. It was a threat to Yugoslavia’s very existence, its right to sovereignty, territorial integrity – and self-determination.
Limited sovereignty was thus rejected in its entirety, in both high- and grassroots-level politics. It was a threat to Yugoslavia’s very existence, its right to sovereignty, territorial integrity – and self-determination. This, however, forms just one iteration of self-determination in socialist Yugoslavia - one iteration of numerous formulations of emancipation whose threads I am following in my doctoral research. In the aftermath of the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the emphasis was on Yugoslav territorial integrity. At other points, it was on individual or class-based self-determination through democratisation (as in the student protests in 1968) or rebalancing inter-state federal relations for economic sovereignty along national lines (in the 1971 Croatian Spring). As the students of the time acknowledged, technical words, even ‘socialism’ or ‘democracy’, ‘represent categories whose meaning is not precisely crystallised, because there exist numerous definitions even within our country.’ 
Even today, ideas of sovereignty, independence, or liberation can be agreed upon as rights or goals – but the path to them remains contested, invented, edited, and claimed by different groups and in different ways. There is a difference between rights as proclaimed, and rights as practiced. Self-determination is a particularly gnarly triple- or even quadruple-edged sword. Developed in opposition to great power impositions and colonialism, and seeking human liberation, it has since been used in countless ways: by independence movements to justify rights to secession; by authoritarian leaders to reject humanitarian oversight or urgent intervention; and by powerful states to try and mask illegal wars. Sovereignty remains a live issue for the human rights system, which by design seeks to protect the right of individuals to live in a sovereign nation-state, but which also limits sovereignty when severe human rights violations occur. Sifting through the uses and abuses of human rights in praxis and hammering out an agreed path forwards remains a process of negotiation. This article offers my reflection on the fact that it is not a new phenomenon for rights-talk to be utilised as a masquerade for a unilateral invasion by a powerful state. Neither is it new for such claims, whether in Yugoslavia in 1968 or Ukraine in 2023, to be resoundingly rejected by nations under threat, turning to international fora and their own citizens in resistance. Indeed, that plight for security can be a strong mobilising force in generating a sense of national belonging to the very nation facing an existential threat.
Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Emilė Petravičiūtė and Luke Hallam for their helpful comments in preparing this piece, and to my family for allowing me to share our stories.
John Connelly, From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton University Press, 2020).
As also suggested by Francis Fukuyama in a recent interview. The Rest is Politics: Leading (17 July 2023), timestamp 00h41m45s.
Sergei Kovalev, ‘Suverenitet i internatsional'nye obyazannosti sotsialisticheskikh stran’, Pravda, 26 September 1968.
See, for example, Stephen Clissold (ed.), Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union, 1939-1973: A Documentary Survey (London: Oxford University Press, 1975); Petar Žarković, ‘Yugoslavia and the USSR, 1945-1980: The History of a Cold War Relationship’, Yu-Historija (2002), https://yuhistorija.com/int_relations_txt01c1.html.
Milorad Lazić, Unmaking Détente: Yugoslavia, the United States, and the Global Cold War, 1968-1980 (Lexington Books, 2022), p. xvii.
Ibid p. 14, 19.
United Nations document S/8765, 22 August 1968; S/PV.1444, 23 August 1968.
United Nations document S/PV.1444, 23 August 1968.
United Nations document S/PV.1445, 24 August 1968.
The original leaders of Non-Alignment are often said to include Sukarno and Nehru, but recent scholarship comprehensively suggests Nasser and Tito were the two primary leaders. See Jeffrey James Byrne, ‘Beyond Continents, Colours, and the Cold War: Yugoslavia, Algeria, and the Struggle for Non-Alignment’, The International History Review (2015); and Peter Willetts, ‘The Foundations of the Non-Aligned Movement: The Trouble with History Is That It Is All in the Past’, in Paul Stubbs (ed.), Socialist Yugoslavia and the Non-Aligned Movement: Social, Cultural, Political, and Economic Imaginaries (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2023), pp. 66-68.
For those interested, conclusions of the Non-Aligned Movement are available online. The UN is repeatedly identified as the main tool for action, despite criticisms on the permanent Security Council members and their veto powers.
Marko Zubak, The Yugoslav Youth Press: Student movements, youth subcultures and alternative communist media, 1968-1980 (Srednja Europa: Zagreb, 2018), Ljubica Spaskovska, The Last Yugoslav Generation: the rethinking of youth politics and cultures in late socialism (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017), p. 41, citing April Carter, Democratic Reform in Yugoslavia: The Changing Role of the Party (London: Frances Pinter, 1982), p. 172
Žarko Puhovski, ‘Praška jesen’, Omladinski tjednik 23, p. 4; ‘Borba za principe nemiješanja, nezavisnosti, intergriteta i suvereniteta’, Studentski List 17 (1968), p. 1.
Stjenko Vranjican, ‘Pravi razlog intervencije u Čehoslovačkoj’, Studentski List 19 (1968) p. 1, 3.
‘Nakon vojne intervencija u ČSSR: za titov program’, Polet 21 (September 1968), p. 6.
‘U ime čega sve to?’, Omladinski tjednik 25 (September 1968), p. 1; ‘Kada govori kao da zvezda padaju’, Polet 22 (October 1968), pp. 1-4.
Polet 23, supplementary guide to the 7th Congress SOH, p. 7.
Sunčanica Komadina, ‘Velike misli mladih’, Polet 21 (September 1968), p. 45.
Burg, Republican and Provincial Constitution Making in Yugoslav Politics, 1983, p. 85, cited in Ante Batović, The Croatian Spring: Nationalism, Repression and Foreign Policy under Tito (London: I.B. Tauris/Bloomsbury, 2020 ), p. 127.
Omladinski tjednik 26, p. 3.
‘Patriotizam i omladinske čete’, Polet 21 (September 1968), p. 4.
Darko Stuparić, ‘Mlada generazija izražava najhumanije društvene odnose – samoupravljački socijalizam – razgovor s vladimirom pezom, predjednikom centralnog komiteta SOH, pred sedmi kongres Saveza omladine Hrvatske’, Polet 23 (November 1968), pp. 7-13.
Omladinski tjednik 25, p. 1, pp. 6-7.
‘Patriotizam i omladinske čete’, Polet 21 (September 1968), p. 4.
Nikša Fabrio, ‘Omladinske jedinice – želje i dileme’, Omladinski tjednik 44, p. 9; Neven Mates, ‘Snaga naoružanog naorda’, Omladinski tjednik 140-141, p. 2.
D. Sabolović, ‘Što je samoupravljački socijalizam’, Studentski list 23 (1968), p. 2. The same argument appears in Žarko Puhovski, ‘Za mir u slobodnom svijetu’, Omladinski tjednik 58-59, p. 12.