Tito's Uncertain Legacy

Tito's Uncertain Legacy

. 13 min read

Tomislav Dubrovac. Originally published in the HIR April-May 1980 Issue.

For years the world has speculated about the fate of Yugoslavia after President Tito's demise. How will the various nationalities, especially the Croatians and the Serbians, behave? What opportunities will the Soviet Union have to draw Yugoslavia back into the Eastern bloc? What opportunities will the United States and the West have to pre- vent this expansion of Soviet influence? One can answer these questions only by examining the underlying forces of nationalism which lie at the root of the deepen- ing internal crisis within Yugoslavia.

Soviet interest in Yugoslavia stems from a number of considerations. To have a government obliging to the Soviets follow Tito's would mean much more than the elimination of a noisy Communist maverick; it would isolate dissenting Communist Romania and open the door for Soviet dominance of the whole Balkan zone. A Soviet presence on the Adriatic's eastern coast, with its excellent ports shield- ed by numerous islands, would give the USSR a strategic position on the Mediterranean with a grip on the western approaches to the Middle East. It would add new pressures for the neutralization of Turkey and Greece – the two
most exposed outposts in the Atlantic Alliance- and would bring the Soviets near the major central European port of Trieste and the Italian industrial region in the Po Valley.

The Russians have been involved in this area sine the czars assumed the role of protector of the Orthodox Christians in the Balkans during the decline of the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. They helped in the liberation of Bulgaria and in its claim to Macedonia. They also helped the Serbian and Montenegrin liberation struggles. Russian diplomacy during World War I opposed the creation of Yugoslavia and favored the establishment of an independent Croatian state. The Russians believed that the deep differences in culture, religion, and political tradition between the Croatians and the Serbians made such a multi- national state unfeasible.

The Soviet Union succeeded in establishing some right over Yugoslavia during and after World War II. First, in the division of spheres of influence between Churchill and Stalin, the area became a "fifty-fifty" zone, that is, the Soviets and the West were to have equal influence. Then Tito succeeded in moving Yugoslavia completely into the Soviet camp. Even after the break with Stalin in 1948 Yugoslavia remained a Communist-controlled state.

The Soviets could easily construe a case either for a defense of their acquired rights or for the application of the Brezhnev Doctrine which asserts the right of the Soviet Union to protect any Communist country against internal or external threats from anti-Communist forces.

Whether the Soviets will have an opportunity to extend their influence depends in large part on the nationality problems that have been rocking Yugoslavia since its creation in 1918. The overriding issues are the status of Croatia and the reconciliation of the Croatian and Serbian nations. But the nationality problems of Yugoslavia extend even beyond the borders of the federation in the form of conflicting territorial claims with Bulgaria and Albania.

The Origins of the Croatian Problem

The Croatians and the Serbians had lived peacefully side by side for fifteen centuries. Antagonisms began when the Serbians agitated for annexation of some Croatian regions containing settlements with a minority who shared Serbia's Orthodox religion. In the nineteenth century, two concepts of Yugoslavia developed. The Serbian concept was based upon the expansion of their kingdom to cover all provinces with Serbian or Orthodox settlements. The non-Serbian population would be gradually absorbed and assimilated or held under firm control.

The Croatian concept, held only by a few influential intellectuals, was based upon a sort of South Slav confederation. Not a goal in itself, the confederation was considered a means of promoting the Croatian national objectives of unification, liberation from Austro-Hungarian rule, and added security against foreign threats. They did not want to be assimilated into another nation, transformed together with other nations into a new "Yugoslav" nationality, or dominated by another nation within the confederation.

At the creation of the common state in 1918, the views and policies of the stronger Serbian nation prevailed. The Serbians imposed their domination and their centralistic form of government. In addition to the Croatians, the Macedonians and Albanians were persecuted by the police and the armed forces. The national conflicts reached dramatic heights in the massacre in the Belgrade Parliament when a deputy of the leading Serbian party shot from the rostrum five Croatian deputies, mortally wounding Croatian leader Stjepan Radic who fought for national freedom, practicing non-violence. The brutal dictatorship of King Alexander followed, but he was assassinated in 1934 by a Macedonian nationalist working in collusion with Croatian nationalists in exile.

In 1939, Croatian and Serbian leaders signed an agreement by which Serbia recognized the Croatian nation, its right to autonomy, and its territory, which included all the Croatian provinces, the triune Kingdom of Croatia-Slavonia-Dalmatia and major areas of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Nevertheless, when the German and the Italian forces attacked, the Yugoslav army simply disintegrated, and Yugoslavia split into its component pats.

Soon thereafter, a three cornered civil war broke out among the new Croatian authorities defending their independent state, General Mikhailovich representing the old concept of Yugoslavia, and Tito's guerrillas standing for federal reorganization of Yugoslavia. This civil war deepened hatred between Croatians and Serbians to the point of paroxysm. Reading reports about this war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked himself why these two nations - so different and antagonistic - should be forced to live together against their will.

Communism and the National Problem

The Communist approach to the nationality problems of Yugoslavia passed through several phases in the course of six decades - and found no true and satisfactory solution. Confusion of ideological views and concepts and the split between Croatian and Serbian factions prevailed in the interwar period. The first party chief, a Serbian intellectual, underrated the significance of nationalities. He stressed the importance of the state, was pro-Yugoslav and centralist in orientation, and considered the national question simply as a matter to be settled by constitutional provisions. Stalin himself
intervened in 1925 to insist on the rights of nationalities and especially on Croatian self-determination. The Communists were slow in adjusting to the nationality problems and did so only reluctantly and inadequately.

To remedy this situation, the Comintern selected Josip Broz (who later added the name Tito), an outstanding activist with a working-class background and training in Moscow, as the new head of the Yugoslav Communist party in 1936. As a Croatian with a more cosmopolitan upbringing, he was the best suited to handle the party organization in a multinational state known for its fractionalism. Lacking a deep personal attachment to his own nationality, accommodating to the demands of other nationalities, believing in proletarian internationalism, and opposing bourgeois nationalism, he developed a pragmatic and manipulative approach to nationality problems without a firm commitment to a definite and principled solution.

During the war, Tito used national problems with the utmost of skill to assure the victory of his partisan movement and the international recognition of his government. The decisive step in this direction was the adoption of the federative framework of government, into which he brought all the component parts of the disintegrated Yugoslavia. Each unit operated its own parliament, government, and military, but its activities were coordinated by the central government. This scheme made his movement more attractive, for it could accommodate all nationalities. Meanwhile his chief rival in the resistance, Mikhailovich, who operated as representative of the Royal Yugoslav Government in exile, turned to Serbian exclusivism and became completely isolated.

Once Tito assured his superiority on the home front, it was relatively easy for him to persuade Churchill and the Allies to drop Mikhailovich by accusing him of hostility toward other nationalities and of collusion with the enemy. Once recognized as the only legitimate resistance movement, Tito achieved dominance because he had armed forces at his disposal and his enemies were in total disarray and on the losing side of the war.

Tito was convinced, and never changed his mind in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary, that he actually resolved the nationality problems during the war "once and for all." As his solution, he pointed to the adoption of the federative framework of government and to the "brotherhood and unity" forged by the involvement of all the nationalities in the struggle to defeat the enemy in the war and the building of socialism after the war

The federative arrangement certainly represented a significant step toward a resolution of the nationality problems. It was a bold move on Tito's part and required courage to impose it on the Serbians, who are the largest nationality in Yugoslavia, comprising about forty percent of the population. They were the hardest hit because they lost two regions, Macedonia and Kosovo, in which they had a minority of less than eighteen percent. One can say that the federative arrangement created the Serbian national problem without resolving the Croatian national problem.

The most serious factor in defrauding Tito's solution of the national problem and diminishing the value of the federative arrangement has been the pervasive centralism imposed immediately after the war to consolidate the power of the Communist party. The Serbians succeeded in taking control of the new centralized state because of their numbers and because Belgrade is the capital of both Yugoslavia and the Republic of Serbia, which allowed large numbers of qualified Serbians to get government positions. They took over and abused the power of all major institutions- the party, administration, foreign service, armed forces, police, economic planning commissions, banks, and trade agencies. The Croatians in the Republic of Croatia and even more in the Republic of Bosnia and Hercegovina were exposed to revenge, repression, and economic exploitation for a decade, from 1945 to 1954.

Liberalization and its Decline

The nationality problems were gradually rediscover and new, ingenious attempts were made to resolve them during the period of liberalization which began in 1954 and initiated the process of the maturing of the socialist experiment in Yugoslavia.

The first step in the process of liberalism was the suggestion that the party relinquish its commanding control of every sphere of public life. Soon thereafter, the d idea of self-management, from business enterprises to federative units, was brought into focus and became a moving force. The adoption of economic reforms in 1965 established a framework for the decentralization of economic planning and the improvement of efficiency in production, thereby combining economic planning with some elements of the market economy.

The removal in 1966 of the chief of the dreaded police establishment, a proponent of centralism and Serbian domination, encouraged new trends and reforms in all spheres of national life. The liberalization reached its culmination from 1967 to 1971, and nationality problems were brought into the center of public discussion. Croatian leaders were in the forefront of these efforts to transform an uneasy, inconsistent, and failing federation and redirect it toward the development of a viable confederation. For the first time in history, the Communist party received strong support among Croatians.

When Tito and some of his closest associates decided to remove abruptly all the influential Croatian political leaders in 1971, it became evident that the existing federative system was not providing a viable framework for the full development of national life. Thousands of specialists holding positions in all spheres of national life were demoted or lost jobs. Many fled the country; many were imprisoned and tortured; and many were killed.

Tito apparently wanted to crush nationalism before his demise, especially Croatian separatism which has always scared him and which he fought as something fundamentally opposed to his concept of Yugoslavia. The following year, he broadened his purges to cover all republics and autonomous provinces by adding to nationalism two other heresies – liberalism and technocratism.

During the course of these purges, there was a sharp turn toward centralists trends with a reaffirmation of the principle of "democratic centralism" in the party and a reassertion of the role of the party in all sectors of public life. The federative system survived, though weakened, especially so in the two Croatian republics. To prevent further erosion, some influential leaders began to put new stress on self-management and on the preparation of a new constitution (which was adopted in 1974 and included some elements of confederation).

To preserve his legacy, Tito devoted a great deal of time and energy to the development of a system of collective leadership. In his final year in power, he added the device of rotating the leaders among the most powerful positions. Tito has drawn these leaders from all of thee republics and autonomous provinces with the intent oaf balancing regional interests and rights, but has selected only those who would continue his policies. The concept of collective leadership represents the final phase of Tito's efforts to resolve Yugoslavia's national problems.

There are two distinguishable groups within the collective leadership – the party bureaucrats who are in the majority and hold the top positions, and a number of leaders with established national stature and with bases of support in their republics. There are two other forces, primarily of the supportive nature - the military leaders, and the Communist leaders in the republics. For the last two years the party has been coopting the military into the top party and governmental bodies. This was done evidently to prevent the military from developing into an independent force and to lend greater prestige to the party and government in the eyes of the populace.

Since 1978, the trends have been away from any attempts at liberalization and toward a strict adherence to dogmatic views; away from prestigious leaders and toward party bureaucrats; and toward a greater number of military representatives in the top party and governmental bodies. The Slovenes were the greatest losers, and their decline began after almost a full decade of unchallenged primacy in the party when they began to promote more liberal trends.

Tito's International Involvement

Even more difficult for the collective leadership will be the task of carrying on Tito's legacy in the international sphere and using it as a shield against Soviet pressures as he did. Through his direct, cautious, yet audacious dealings with Churchill and Stalin, he not only assured international recognition of his Communist government but outmaneuvered the agreement for a "fifty-fifty" sphere of influence over Yugoslavia. He assured himself favorable boundaries with Italy and became most provocative in handling the Western allies over the Trieste question. Through his dominant role in Communist Albania and his massive support of the Greek guerrillas (even after Stalin withdrew his support), he aimed at a Communist take over of the Balkans which would have assured a favorable position for Yugoslavia and enhanced his prestige as a regional and international leader.

Stalin could not tolerate such an ambitious, independent, and prestigious leader in his camp for long and decided to remove him. Tito's courageous stand propelled him into international orbit. Stalin, counting on his own prestige and influence within the Yugoslav Communist organization, miscalculated, and his efforts to bring Tito down failed. Tito had gotten the upper hand in a tremendous party struggle and was able to face down Stalin, who did not dare attack Yugoslavia militarily for fear of a strong Western response. Stalin hoped to make Tito fold through economic isolation, threats from neighboring countries, and internal infiltration, but failed in every attempt. Tito survived the first and worst blows by resourcefulness and self-reliance and was saved by timely help from the West.

To assure Yugoslav security in the long run, to shield himself against Soviet pressure, and to protect himself against Western demands as conditions of aid, Tito embarked on an ambitious and innovative foreign policy. At the same time, he intended it to be his contribution to the Communist cause: he wanted to devise a new model for relations between Communist states, more dignified and mutually advantageous than Soviet hegemony. He insisted upon the respect of Yugoslavia's right to follow its own road to socialism, the principle of non-interference in another nation's internal affairs, and the equality and respect for the interests of each individual state. He eventually rose to the level of becoming the leading force of the non-aligned movement, behind North-South discussions, and in pleading for coexistence and detente as the best guarantees for the security and independence of his country.

Though the non-aligned movement is still valuable to Yugoslav policy, the new government will find it difficult to use. Tito's own influence was declining during the 1970s, as the movement began to encounter difficulties and Cuba's Fidel Castro vied for a more powerful position. A restoration of stature on Tito's level is beyond the capacity of the new leaders and the resources of the country.

The present situation in Yugoslavia is very tense and is growing worse as an economic crisis deepens and uncertainties hover as to the future course of Tito's successors. The collective leadership, with its cumbersome rotational system, is more a symptom of the nationality problems than their remedy. It could easily degenerate into a stalemate as Serbians trying to reimpose centralism struggle against other nationalities trying to strengthen federalism and self-management.

The Soviets will probably not invade or even interfere in Yugoslavia immediately. The situation in Afghanistan is still not under full control. Internal developments in Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the neighboring Arab states might induce them to keep all their capabilities in reserve so that all possible threats can be met and all possible opportunities exploited. Above all, they might be worried that such an intervention would irreparably damage ties with non-aligned nations and would evoke a very harsh Western response.

A more likely Soviet course of action in the immediate future could be the adoption of a slower process in which they would combine infiltration of the Yugoslav Communist party and armed forces (concentrating on the doctrinaire Communists and disgruntled individuals) with a variety of external economic and military pressures. Yugoslavia, for example, still depends on the Soviets for exporting its manufacturing goods in return for raw materials.

A weak government, like the one now in power, composed of bureaucrats and dependent upon military backing could easily cave in to external pressures and blackmail during an internal crisis. And the first concessions could start a snowballing process. The Soviets could use nationality problems to destabilize Yugoslavia internally at an opportune moment and add external pressures from Bulgaria as a finishing blow.

Granting that the Soviets adopt the slower process, time would remain for the internal transformation of Yugoslavia – a trend toward liberalization as occurred after Stalin, Mao, and Franco. The new collective leadership might get a respite, think things over, and regroup around a few capable leaders of national stature with support in their republics. With courage, vision, and persuasive ability, they could turn some of their fellow bureaucrats into pragmatic supporters, and redirect their effort toward the only saving reform - confederation. The present form of federalism is unworkable as three decades of turmoil have proved. Croatians and some other nationalities simply do not have confidence in it anymore.

Confederation which would assure the dignity, progress, and security of each nation would have to give each nation full control over its economy, police, and armed forces, coupled with international recognition of their national sovereignty. This arrangement would help resolve some of the most pressing issues of the Croatian national problem, the questions of unemployment and exodus, and relieve the concerns and diminish the hostilities of over one million Croatians living and working abroad, in Western Europe and all over the world. It could lead to a reconciliation between the Croatian nation and the Serbian nation - as was the case composed of bureaucrats and dependent upon military when they engaged in serious negotiations in the periods of 1939 to 1941 and 1967 to 1971.

The present worries would dissipate about whether Yugoslav armed forces would be willing to defend the country under attack. Each nation would be willing to defend its own territory because it would have something
to fight for. The nations would readily coordinate their defenses on a broader scale within a framework of neutrality. The possibilities for Soviet infiltration and interference would be reduced greatly.

Failing that, the nations of Yugoslavia and the world should consider the only other constructive alternative – peaceful separation and the establishment of independent states with Serbia and Macedonia in the eastern half, Croatia and Slovenia in the western half.