Concept of Greater Serbia,
after Stevan Moljević, 1941
The "Greater Serbian" concept was an offshoot of the Pan-Slavist movement of the mid-19th century. It was initially conveived 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.
Language, culture and religion have all been used to support the concept of a Greater Serbia. The most notable Serbian linguist of the 19th century, Vuk Karadžić, declared that all south Slavs that speak the štokavian dialect (in the central south Slavic language group) are Serbs who speak the Serbian language. It has often been suggested that the Muslims of Bosnia are the descendents 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 historic, "unredeemed" lands inhabited by other peoples (sometimes subsequently, sometimes not) - much to the dismay of those inhabitants.
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. It certainly aroused considerable nationalist resistance in Croatia; 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." Although the Ustaše were a tiny and unrepresentative minority, such sentiments were commonplace in Croatia at the time. There was also an ominous echo of these policies by President Franjo Tudjman during the wars that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. During the Second World War, the largely Serbian royalist Chetnik movement headed by Dra?a Mihailović attempted to define its vision of a postwar future. One of its relatively few intellectuals was the Bosnian Serb nationalist Stevan Moljević. In 1941, he 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 said 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.
During the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s, the concept of a Greater Serbia was widely seen as the motivating force for the military campaigns undertaken to carve out Serbian statelets on the territories of the breakaway Yugoslav republics of Croatia (the Republic of Serbian Krajina) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Republika Srpska). This strategy was closely associated with the former Serbian president Slobodan Milošević and his Socialist Party of Serbia, although the ostensible goal was "all Serbs in one state" rather than an explicit Greater Serbia. 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). Unifying Yugoslavia's Serbs was a very widely supported objective within Serbia during the wars; however, only the Serbian Radical Party has explicitly promoted a Greater Serbian ideal.
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 an historically Serbian territory-claims which were opposed by Croatian nationalists.
- The coercive nature of creating a Greater Serbian state against the will of other nationalities; 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.
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.
Some proponents of the goal of Greater Serbia do not insist on an ethnically clean Serbia. Indeed, 35% of the population of wider Serbia (including the two provinces) was non-Serb. Rather, they assert that Greater Serbia could have minorities, as well as that there still might remain Serb minorities in surrounding countries. In practice, though, the treatment of national minorities in Kosovo and Vojvodina during the 1980s and 1990s convinced many non-Serbs that the Greater Serbian goal equated 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. The atrocities of the Yugoslav Wars have also prompted Western countries 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.