The economic roots of independence movements

Ivan Rajic’s interest in the economic roots of independence movements is based on his personal experience of growing up in Belgrade.

"What caused the war in Yugoslavia was the domestic elites manipulating people into hating and fearing each other, combined with a very healthy dose of Western elites engaging in divide-and-conquer imperialism."
Ivan Rajic

In 1999, NATO bombs rained down on Belgrade, hitting various targets including a TV centre just 300 metres from Ivan Rajic’s flat.

His mother lived in fear that a neighbouring newspaper office would be next on the list. His father, meanwhile, was documenting the situation in a daily diary for a Norwegian newspaper. The series of articles was later published as a book, which Ivan has recently translated into Serbo-Croat. The diary details his father’s views on a war which he believed had much more to do with conflicts between elite groups in Kosovo, Serbia and the West, than with ethnic hatred.

Ivan’s father, Ljubisa Rajic, died two years ago, but his ideas and influence helped shape Ivan’s political views and his interest in nominally nationalist struggles in Europe today. For his PhD at Cambridge he is focusing on how different levels of regional development within countries can form the basis for independence movements. He is looking in particular at the recent referendum on Scottish independence.

Ivan [2009], who was born in Belgrade, was brought up in a house full of politics and ideas. His father, who founded the Department of Scandinavian Studies at the University of Belgrade, was always very politically active. He was a leading member of the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative, one of the first democratic parties after the introduction of multi-party democracy in Yugoslavia in the late 1980s.

Although he became disillusioned by party politics by the mid-1990s, he remained an outspoken public intellectual. Ivan’s mother, a retired meteorologist, shared the same views as his father.

Ivan’s father was a leftist and an atheist,  who saw the Yugoslav wars as a conflict between elites, who used nationalism and religion to further their aims. Ivan was taught not to sing nationalist songs and he refused to cross himself on school trips to  monasteries or churches of cultural importance.

The conflict in the former Yugoslavia affected him in other ways too. During primary school a refugee from Sarajevo came to live with the family. She was from an ethnically mixed marriage, and her father, an ex-army officer, had been tortured.

Having a father who was a professor and public intellectual and being surrounded at home by around 7,000 mostly non-fiction books gave Ivan a significant advantage in his education at a time when the country’s education system was suffering from economic and political turbulence. Ivan applied to study economics at the University of Belgrade.

During his studies, he came across How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor by the Norwegian economist Erik Reinert. His father had brought him the Norwegian original on one of his trips to Norway.

The book was to prove very influential in his thinking on economics. "It was critical of two things. One is the flawed notion that economic development comes spontaneously from free markets. The other is the fact that one school of thought is dominant in economics - neoclassical economics - and that it has narrowed down economics to mathematical modelling," says Ivan. He translated the book into Serbo-Croat soon after he got it.

Ivan finished his undergraduate course in 2009 after having already started to work as a junior economist in a think tank in Belgrade. He applied to continue his studies at Cambridge and started his MPhil in Development Studies in 2009, progressing to a PhD. For both he has received the support of a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.

His first idea for his PhD was to explore some of the inefficiencies in the former Yugoslav economic system, the explanations for which he thought had been oversimplified by some as being down to the fact that it was not capitalist enough.

"If you grow up in any of the post-Yugoslav republics, you hear all the time how the economy was inefficient, how workers’ self-management was a stupid idea, how it was wrong to industrialise," he says. "But, all that makes little sense. For starters, why is the IMF austerity programme imposed on Yugoslavia in the 1980s excluded from any analysis of Yugoslavia’s economic problems? You also hear all the time how the Yugoslav wars were about ethnicity and religion. But what caused the war was the domestic elites manipulating people into hating and fearing each other, combined with a very healthy dose of Western elites engaging in divide-and-conquer imperialism. So, you have two areas - politics and economics - that are, of course, connected, but severely misunderstood. I thought that perhaps if they were analysed in a better way, a real connection could be seen."

Ivan’s supervisor suggested he focus on a more current topic. The Scottish referendum was just about to take place. He sees the roots of the latest move towards independence in Scotland as being economic and originating from the neoliberal slant that the UK has taken over the last several decades, which has heavily impacted most areas (Scotland included) outside of the South East.

"There are many parallels between Scotland and the UK, Catalonia and Spain, Quebec and Canada, Singapore and Malaysia, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and a host of other examples," says Ivan. "In all those cases, the trail leads back to certain similarities in the political economy of the countries in question. We need to understand how and why such moves towards independence happen. Because, as a number of examples show, the country where I was born included, things can end up in a very, very bad way."

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Licence. If you use this content on your site please link back to this page. For image rights, please see the credits associated with each individual image.