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Yugoslavia: The Society and Its Environment
Country Study > Chapter 2 > The Society and Its Environment


The many facets of the ethnic lens through which Yugoslavs view the universe have magnified the divisions in Yugoslav society and obscured its few unifying elements. The obvious cultural and economic contrasts were only the starting point of differences that existed on many levels. In the alpine north, Baroque Catholic altars reflected Slovenia's cultural affinity with Austria and Italy, but modern glass-and-steel skyscrapers revealed Slovenia's aspirations toward a role in modern Europe. In the Balkan south, the ancient stone churches of Macedonia reflected a rich Byzantine tradition, while acute poverty and a low literacy rate were part of the legacy of Ottoman domination that had insulated Macedonians from the influences of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution. The forces of war and external threat bound Slovenia, Macedonia, and the patchwork of cultures between them into a single country, but they allowed scant opportunity for consideration of how ethnic differences could be overcome.

Despite the ethnic and cultural cleavages that continued to divide Yugoslavia in 1990, the country made great social progress after World War II. On the eve of the war, Yugoslavia was a backward, predominantly peasant land with a few developing basic industries mostly located in its northern regions. Paved roads were rare, schools few, and almost half the people illiterate. Infectious disease was frequent, infant mortality was very high, doctors were few, and hygiene, medical facilities, and child care were poor, especially in rural areas. The strong kinship ties that undergirded society were the only social welfare system available to most people. Meanwhile, rural overpopulation fragmented landholding, and poverty frayed the fabric of the family. While educated citizens in the northern cities might watch ancient Greek drama in theaters, many of their compatriots in the southern mountains actually lived according to Homeric traditions of blood vengeance, the buying, selling, and stealing of brides, practicing rituals of blood brotherhood, and reciting epic poems to the music of a crude single-string instrument.

Before World War II, Yugoslavia's small upper class was composed of a Serb-dominated bureaucracy and military and a few professionals, entrepreneurs, and artisans. Like the Habsburg and Ottoman domination of earlier centuries, the Serbian hegemony established after World War I frustrated the autonomy of the country's other major nationalities. Preoccupation with issues of nationalism prevented effective solutions to the country's grave social problems. Animosities among the Yugoslav peoples exploded in civil war after the Nazis occupied the country in 1941. World War II claimed 1.7 million Yugoslav lives and inflicted deep wounds on all national psyches. Atrocities were committed by all sides, and more than half Yugoslavia's war dead were killed by other Yugoslavs.

After World War II, Yugoslavia's communist government promoted the slogan "Brotherhood and Unity" and moved energetically to smooth over ethnic antagonisms. Josip Broz Tito and his revolutionary regime eradicated wartime collaborators along with many innocents, ousted what remained of the old Serb-dominated elite, nationalized private property, and established a new party-based governing class. Membership in the wartime Partisans, rather than competence or education, became the key to a successful career. The new government, led by a ruling circle steeped in Marxism and Leninism, undertook radical steps to modernize the country: first reconstruction, then rapid industrialization. Modernization continued apace after the Yugoslav communists ended their alliance with the Soviet Union in 1948 and introduced workers' self-management, a unique version of socialism. Thousands of peasants migrated to urban areas in the decade following World War II. Patriarchal extended families broke down at an accelerated rate, and women began to find jobs and a new identity outside the home. New schools and hospitals opened, and universities began training teachers, doctors, and engineers.

Although Yugoslavia's economy expanded rapidly, by the mid-1960s it could not absorb the large number of individuals emerging from the educational system. Tito opened the borders to emigration, and within a decade about a million Yugoslavs had left to take jobs in Western Europe. Massive capital redistribution from relatively rich northerly regions to the less-developed did not mitigate the huge differences in development between them. The economic downturn of the late 1970s and 1980s slowed the entry of qualified individuals into the working and managing classes. In the 1970s, the northern republics began to complain about the contributions to development in the southern regions mandated by the central government. An entrenched bureaucracy sabotaged economic and social reforms in the 1970s and 1980s, and by the late 1980s economic and political stagnation had eroded many of the earlier improvements in Yugoslavia's standard of living. As the concept of the centrally planned economy waned throughout Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia turned to the West, causing further tension between tradition and change. In 1990 political victories by non-Communist parties in Slovenia and Croatia promised a fresh approach to old and new social tensions and regional disparities. Such changes portended a complete restructuring of the Yugoslav federation.

Data as of December 1990

Last Updated: December 1990

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Yugoslavia was first published in 1990. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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