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Introduction: Internationalism in Times of Nationalism: Yugoslavia, Nonalignment, and the Cold War

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  05 May 2021

Ljubica Spaskovska
University of Exeter, UK
James Mark
University of Exeter, UK
Florian Bieber
University of Graz, Austria
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© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Association for the Study of Nationalities

Nonalignment is often reduced to a few pictures of iconic leaders, such as Jawaharlal Nehru, Gamal Abdel Nasser, and Josip Broz Tito. Its fading significance in the waning days of the Cold War has long meant a neglect of the ties, be they economic, political, social, or cultural, that underpinned the Non-Aligned Movement. Furthermore, a Western-centric view of globalization has often ignored the linkages that bound countries within the Global South with one another and the ties of non–Western European countries, like Yugoslavia, with former colonies. These global blind spots have also been reflected in the case of Yugoslavia, as nonalignment and Yugoslavia’s global role tended to be reduced to the encounters and agency of a small elite circle of politicians and diplomats, along with a tendency to approach the entire spectrum of global engagements through the lens of “Titoism.” This approach led to a simplified view of the complex Yugoslav institutional setup, the downplaying of the multitier nature of the federation’s foreign policy and ignoring the fabric of these connections in multiple spaces of Yugoslav life. This special issue, by contrast, seeks to broaden our understanding in a number of ways. First, this issue takes nonalignment beyond Tito’s inner circle, and it charts the way nonaligned values and practices were forged through a wide range of political, economic, social, and cultural activities, both at home and abroad. Second, the issue contributes to a growing field of research into alternative forms of noncapitalist globalization and the ties of former socialist countries with the Global South, questioning the presumed hegemony of the so-called West in the emergence of global networks.Footnote 1 In this sense, it seeks to further decenter the bipolar Cold War framework and engage with neglected theories and practices of interdependence, multipolarity, and in-betweenness.Footnote 2 Third, this issue challenges the idea that this is a “lost world” of the Cold War: nonalignment needs to be read as part of a longer-term 20th-century history of progressive internationalism’s rise and decline. Contributions here explore both its roots in the interwar period and see in the story of its decline important lessons for our understanding of the rise of a western neoliberal globalization, and ongoing resistance to it.

Nonalignment was not solely a series of summits and high-profile visits between anti-colonial leaders in Southern Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia, but it was also a living practice, refined through involvement in peace-keeping missions, in business practices, education, film, art, cultural exchange, and activism. Here the contributors explore how nonalignment and Yugoslavia’s geopolitical positioning was understood by a range of different actors. What was a nonaligned worldview and to what extent and in what ways was it shared—both within and beyond Yugoslavia—among different groups, institutions, partners, and countries? The contributors reflect on the ethos of nonaligned internationalism and on the products of that ideological hybridity, or cross-fertilization, between capitalism and socialism, nationalism and internationalism; and they address the tensions and dilemmas that arose from those difficult balancing acts.

Although framed by a state ideology, most suggest there was plenty of room for maneuver, and non-elite initiatives were an important part of how the idea of nonalignment was renegotiated over time. This was partly due to the fact that nonalignment itself grew out of longer-term historical traditions and pre-existing internationalist dimensions of leftist movements, including the participation in the Spanish Civil War, the opposition to the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, and later the communication of the knowledge of the partisan struggle from Yugoslavia during World War Two to anticolonial movements, in particular in Africa. In this collection, Lazić, for example, demonstrates how the experience and memory of the liberation war was used to make sense of a commitment to nonaligned solidarity by the Yugoslav state and society—and towards new partners in Africa and Asia. Bonfiglioli underlines the strong parallels between Yugoslav women’s participation in the liberation struggle in World War Two and Asian and African women’s role in anti-colonial movements.

The articles in this special issue also suggest the importance of connecting the national to the global, and vice versa. On one hand, they demonstrate how the values of the Yugoslav postwar project—in terms of gender, the liberation struggle, economic development, education, and culture—contributed to broader debates about sovereignty, rights, development, North-South asymmetries, South-South cooperation, and the role of the United Nations’ system. On the other, the themes that have often dominated Yugoslav history—namely, the national question, ethnoreligious mobilization, and violence—also benefit from dialogue with these histories of internationalism. Questions of the use of political violence at home were also connected to struggles of global liberation; the rise in anti-colonial nationalism globally can be connected to ethnonationalism domestically.Footnote 3

The ties that nonalignment built were neither monolithic nor monodirectional. At a state level, Yugoslav elites may well have emphasized that they were those Europeans who had never had imperial holdings or sought great power status as they positioned themselves as natural partners for national liberation movements and former colonies, as well as the fact that they, unlike the world’s superpowers and their allies and clients among former colonies, sought to engage with partners in the Global South in nonhierarchical relationships.Footnote 4 Observed from below, however, it is clear that different actors negotiated in the framework of nonalignment their own spaces and priorities. Feminist activists, among others, used this framework to develop networks distinct from state-centered gender politics. Self-managed companies, arms manufacturers, filmmakers and studios, artists, feminists, and universities all negotiated these ties from specific positions within the Yugoslav system—but in most cases they were motivated by transnational solidarity. This does not mean, however, that the ties were not without tensions and inequalities. After all, Yugoslavia often claimed itself to be a “more developed developing country”; and there were often tensions in assistance to partners in the Global South where commercial considerations and financial gain by republics or companies were at play.

Moreover, the fabric of these relationships changed over time, especially as the economic position of Yugoslavia worsened after the world recession and the oil crises of the 1970s, the allure of nonalignment faded, and the Global South appeared more civilizationally distant.Footnote 5 A generational shift marked a turn away from partisan romanticism and more radical forms of transnational solidarity. These articles, thus, help us understand how nonalignment and its values came to be challenged and renegotiated from below in the late socialist period. Wright shows how the economic pressures at the republican level led to the marketization of the provision of higher education for students from beyond Europe; Lazić demonstrates how by the end of the 1970s, with the departure of the World War Two generation from the Yugoslav political scene and the looming economic crisis, Yugoslav military involvement in the Global South became increasingly driven by economic concerns. Nevertheless, Yugoslavia remains an outlier in Europe for the longevity of a type of an internationalism from below that was originally genuinely understood as the reinvention of national traditions of liberation and struggles for equality. Spaskovska and Calori demonstrate how even a late Cold War technocratic engagement, shorn of the more immediate appeal of earlier cultures of political solidarity, still had the capacity to embody nonaligned values.

The articles by Calori and Spaskovska, Bonfiglioli, and Wright all provide important contributions to the growing scholarship on the history of development. Anna Calori and Ljubica Spaskovska explore how the globally oriented, self-managed enterprise formed a vital part of Yugoslavia’s development strategies both at home and abroad, by focussing on two Yugoslav industrial giants from the lesser-developed regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. These companies were guided by an imperative of becoming and remaining competitive at the international level while preserving the specific features of self-management. They thus combined Western models of management, pricing, and production with a domestic model of industrial democracy, and workers’ self-management was seen as a viable and desirable long-term strategy. In line with the developmentalist paradigms that defined debates within the Group of 77 Developing countries (G77) and the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), Yugoslav strategies were underpinned by a vision of a long-term integration of the Yugoslav economy in the international division of labor on the basis of equality and mutual interest. These enterprises became Yugoslavia’s principal exporters by the 1980s. Such examples lead us to question not only the narratives of the inevitable economic decline of Yugoslavia but also to complicate simplistic histories of transfer of Western “neoliberal” ideas. Yugoslav multinationals significantly expanded in this decade—energy, construction, and medical multinationals in general successfully built new markets in the Soviet Union, the Middle East, and Africa—and their businesses were renegotiating ideas of equality in divisions of labor in an emerging world of increasingly financialized globalization.

Chiara Bonfiglioli’s article explores the significance of the transnational connections for women and development in the nonaligned world. It analyses the forgotten history of women’s cross-border internationalism within the Non-Aligned Movement, focusing on the exchanges between Vida Tomšič, a former partisan and Yugoslav politician, and Vina Mazumdar, an Indian scholar and feminist activist, as well as their joint contributions to the UN Decade for Women (1975–1985). Tomšič’s formulation of the interconnection between women’s rights and wider development issues, which stemmed from her Marxist background and her experience as a policy maker and leader of women’s organizations in Yugoslavia, had an important resonance among Global South activists; indeed, she argues for the importance of nonaligned networks in foregrounding gender politics at the United Nations in the 1970s.

The commercialization of development aid and international higher education is the focus of Peter Wright’s contribution. He analyzes the domestic and international changes in development aid that facilitated the evolution of Yugoslavia’s scholarship program for the Global South from a largely soft-power program to one based increasingly on commercial interests. The decline of Yugoslavia’s scholarship program was in part due to political decentralization after 1974, which enabled individual republics to put their immediate financial needs before the wider political goals. Coupled with changes in global development aid policy and higher education, this created conditions that rendered such nonaligned solidarity projects increasingly politically expendable over the last two decades of socialist Yugoslavia’s existence.

Milorad Lazić’s, Bojana Videkanić’s, and Mila Turajlić’s articles address different dimensions of the decolonization revolution. Lazić’s study of military internationalism and assistance is situated within the context of a pursuit of greater independence from the two big powers and a perceived extension of the Yugoslav revolution abroad. The policy of nonalignment was perceived as the expression of the historical continuity of the Yugoslav revolution. Military aid, thus, was an expression of a personal identification of Yugoslavia’s “greatest generation” with the decolonization struggle. As Rubinstein observed, “Through the FLN [the Algerian National Liberation Front], the Yugoslav leaders vicariously recaptured their finest hours.”Footnote 6 Lazić further explores how Yugoslavia enlarged its moral and political capital in Africa and Asia by participating in the UN peacekeeping missions in the Sinai Peninsula (1956–1967) and Yemen (1963–1964). Yugoslav participation in the missions underscored Yugoslavia’s dedication to the United Nations and also increased Yugoslavia’s credibility in the Global South.

Videkanić rather explores the powerful cultural dimension of Yugoslavia’s nonalignment. Its institutions were used to create transcultural networks that would both counter Western cultural hegemony and signal Yugoslavia’s distance from Soviet Communism. The article analyses how Yugoslav art had much more in common with countries that had to mitigate Western cultural hegemony through their own versions of modernist cultures, and it focuses on the largest and longest-running cultural event to promote Non-Alignment Movement art – the Ljubljana Biennale. The Biennale’s curatorial, organizational, and diplomatic operations were meant to challenge and decenter still dominant artistic narratives, which continued to qualify modernism as a largely Western phenomenon, restricting its other manifestations to the margins. As in the other articles that highlight the significance of various United Nations fora, bodies, and agencies that were used to channel or inform Non-Alignment Movement policies and practices, Videkanić posits UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as a key partner of nonaligned culture.

Finally, Mila Turajlic’s article sheds light on the Filmske Novosti film agency that saw its mission expand to assisting and training liberation movements in Algeria, Mozambique, and Palestine, in producing documentary and propaganda films. No less important was their role in supporting the establishment of national film centers in newly independent countries in Africa, such as Mali and Tanzania. Over a period of 25 years, as Turajlic demonstrates, the role of Filmske Novosti evolved from transnational collaborations of shooting films to the training of cadres and establishing national film infrastructures.


The authors wish to thank The Leverhulme Trust, whose generous support for the project “1989 after 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective (RL-2012-053)” helped fund this initiative.



Financial Support

This work was supported by The Leverhulme Trust (grant number RL-2012-053).


1 Byrne, Jeffrey James, Mecca of Revolution: Algeria, Decolonization, and the Third World Order (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ghodsee, Kristen, Second World, Second Sex: Socialist Women’s Activism and Global Solidarity during the Cold War (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mišković, Natasa, Fischer-Tiné, Harald, and Boskovska, Nada, eds., The Non-Aligned Movement and the Cold War: Delhi - Bandung - Belgrade (Abingdon: Routledge, 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Trecker, Max, Red Money for the Global South: East–South Economic Relations in the Cold War (Abingdon: Routledge, 2020)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Stanek, Łukasz, Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020)Google Scholar; Mark, James, Kalinovsky, Artemy M., and Marung, Steffi, eds., Alternative Globalizations. Eastern Europe and the Postcolonial World (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2020)Google Scholar.

2 The special issue grew out of the workshop “(Re)Thinking Yugoslav Internationalism – Cold War Global Entanglements and Their Legacies,” organized by the University of Exeter and the Centre for Southeast European Studies, University of Graz, held in Graz in September/October 2016. “Spaskovska and Mark wish to thank the Leverhulme Trust,” whose generous support for the project ‘1989 after 1989: Rethinking the Fall of State Socialism in Global Perspective (RL-2012-053)’.

3 On decolonization and political violence at home, see Tokić, Mate Nikola, Croatian Radical Separatism and Diaspora Terrorism During the Cold War (West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press, 2020), 89 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Mark, James, Apor, Peter, Vučetić, Radina, and Oseka, Piotr, “‘We Are with You, Vietnam’: Transnational Solidarities in Socialist Hungary, Poland and Yugoslavia,” Journal of Contemporary History 50, no. 3 (2015): 439464 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

4 On Yugoslavia and Algeria, see Byrne, Mecca of Revolution, 165–166.

5 On Afropessimism in the 1980s Yugoslavia, see Radonjić, Nemanja, “From Kragujevac to Kilimanjaro’: Imagining and Re-Imagining Africa and the Self-Perception of Yugoslavia in the Travelogues from Socialist Yugoslavia,” Godišnjak za Društvenu Istoriju 2 (2016): 8182 Google Scholar.

6 Rubinstein, Alvin Z., Yugoslavia and the Nonaligned World (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1970), 87 Google Scholar.

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