Yugoslavia: Into the Post-Tito Era

Under Tito’s leadership it has enjoyed thirty-five years of stability and has become the most advanced of communist nationsbut now Yugoslavia finds itself without a program for managing its future.

The woman, who lives in a one-room stone house in the mountain village of Canfanaro on the Istrian Peninsula, is ninety-three years old. She has, in the course of her lifetime, and through no choosing of her own, resided in five different countries—Austria-Hungary, Italy, Germany, the Free Territory of Trieste (very briefly), and Yugoslavia— and has never left her native village. She is a lesson in the forces of history that have washed through this southeastern corner of Europe for centuries. But for the past thirty-five years she has lived in one country, with one leader—the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia under Marshal Josip Broz Tito.

For her, and for 22 million Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Slovenes, and various smaller minorities who constitute the modern state of Yugoslavia, these thirty-five years have been the single most tranquil and most unified period of a long, often chaotic, and frequently bloody history. But Tito’s sudden illness, a severe “circulatory problem” that led to the amputation of his leg, sent shudders throughout a nation that realized how truly unprepared it was for a period of transition. It was an anxiety felt by the rest of the world as well, at a time of Soviet expansion, when a Yugoslavia in disarray could prove a particularly tempting target.

Yugoslavia is changing rapidly and profoundly. In thirty-five years it has jumped from a near-feudal state into a twentieth-century country that is more advanced than any other communist state. Last fall it was the first communist nation to play host to the annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It has been the first to receive Most Favored Nation trading status from the United States, the first to buy a fleet of DC-10 aircraft for its modern airline, and the first to allow its citizens to emigrate freely and to enjoy at least a semblance of free expression and free enterprise.

The latest layered look of Paris and Milan is what’s “in” along Knez Mihajlova Street in Belgrade or Trg Republike in Zagreb. At the Cultural Workers’ or the Writers’ Club of Belgrade, elegantly coiffed women and their immaculately groomed escorts talk openly of Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov (although their own dissident, Milovan Djilas, is still very much a non-person). Along Terazije or parked by the Metropole’s nightclub, Mercedes 280s or BMWs are as common as the homebuilt Zastavas which clog the highways despite the cost of gas at $2.80 a gallon. Several young top technocrats of the Foreign Ministry, the Central Bank, even the secret police, have had their University of Belgrade training polished at Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard Law School.

With all this apparent freedom and prosperity, most of it imported from the West, have come problems of the West as well. Inflation last year exceeded 30 percent and many fear it could hit 40 percent this year. The country is accumulating a staggering hard currency debt of more than $13 billion, an amount that some American bankers fear it may have serious difficulty in repaying. The 2 million or so gastarbeiters, or “guest workers,” who flocked to Western Europe in the boom times of the early seventies have been forced out since the recession began there, returning home with their pockets filled with deutschmarks but with no jobs when the deutschmarks are gone. In the village of Grock, forty miles south of Belgrade, scores of twoand three-story red-brick houses, without windows or roofs, stand partly finished, skeletons that testify to the sudden bankruptcy of their once prosperous gastarbeiter owners, whose funds expired halfway through construction. Growing numbers of young people are encouraged to stay on in college into their late twenties because no jobs are available; scores of other, less-skilled jobless hang out around the cafés of Trg Republike until late every evening.

So there is growing pressure in some quarters to pull back from this Western orientation, to turn inward, even eastward, to the strong Slavic past that many, including some within the top leadership of the government and the Communist party, believe is still Yugoslavia’s greatest strength.

But there is great danger in such pandering to Slavic leanings. For concealed are a host of bitter feelings and emotions that Tito managed to suppress, though clearly not eradicate, over the past three and a half decades. Ancestral hatreds between Serb and Croat have been expressed in the centuries-old conflicts between the Orthodox Church of Serbia and the Roman Catholic Church of Croatia, between the Serbian alphabet of St. Cyril and the Croatian alphabet of Rome, between the advanced economy that Croatia inherited from its role in the AustroHungarian Empire and the backward Balkan peasantism of Serbia and the Ottoman Empire.

The dichotomy here of East versus West, Serb versus Croat, even Russia versus the United States, is not new. It is part of the endless game of compromise and mediation that President Tito has played with much success since World War II. But now, with no clear successor to Tito on the horizon, with constant intrigue behind the scenes, jockeying for the most favorable position, Yugoslavia has begun to drift. Cracks are appearing in the façade of unity, the ancient divisions returning in new and potentially more dangerous forms. Sensing this lack of a single clear purpose and direction, those who would control Yugoslavia in the future have begun their maneuvering.

Russia, China, and the United States all have a clear and immediate stake in Yugoslavia in the looming post-Tito era. Its geographic position, commanding the eastern end of the Mediterranean, dividing the eastern and western flanks of NATO, astride the most direct air routes between the Soviet Union and the Middle East and North Africa, makes its friendship or at least its neutrality crucial to the strategic balance in Europe and along the Mediterranean littoral. Moreover, its example of political independence and economic prosperity are a perpetual reminder to the people of Eastern Europe that there is an alternative to Soviet repression.

At home, each of the component nationalities of Yugoslavia has its own economic, social, and political priorities. Each would prefer to dominate the central government, obtain the industrial and development projects that mean more jobs for its people, import more from the West. But this rivalry, especially between Serbia and Croatia, which together comprise 62 percent of the population and 56 percent of the land area of Yugoslavia, goes far beyond any economic or political imperative. It is a deeply emotional question that is fully understandable only in terms of the blood feuds that still darken some mountainous corners of Yugoslavia.

On the back side of Topcider Hill, on the outskirts of Belgrade, lives a ninety-eight-year-old general of the Serbian army. He was and is one of the most brilliant and most revered war heroes of Yugoslavia. And he remains a quintessential Serb. As a handsome young major before World War I, he danced at gala balls at the palace of his beloved King Peter of Serbia. Now, long retired, he spends his days poring over the memoirs he is trying to complete. But some stories, he says, will never be written in the interest of national unity, in which he believes very strongly. Still, he remembers these stories vividly. And so do his children and his grandchildren.

One of these tales took place in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in the months preceding the outbreak of World War II. Assigned there in an effort to bring some order out of the chaos that had engulfed the republic, he was a lone Serb in command of squadrons of Croats. “The hatred was a slimy thing that enters your entrails,” he recalls. “Often, too often, I would give an order and it would never be obeyed.” The day before Nazi troops crossed the border, he climbed into his staff car with four of his senior (Croatian) officers. They drove through the streets of Zagreb, the populace jeering and spitting at him. Finally, his officers pulled their revolvers and seized him in the name of the Ustashi (pro-Nazi) Croatian state. He spent the rest of the war in a German POW camp. Emotions drawn from incidents such as this run even deeper than some leftover passions from World War II.

On a recent trip to Zagreb, I visited the Cathedral of St. Stephen, the seat of the archbishop of Zagreb, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church of Yugoslavia. I was accompanied by a Serbian woman, devoted to her Orthodox Church, who gasped when she walked behind the towering main altar. There, surrounded by votive candles and plaques attesting to miracles of healing, was a shrine to Aloysius Cardinal Stepinac, the Archbishop of Zagreb during World War II, who was accused by the Yugoslav Communist government of collaborating with the Nazis. There is, we learned, a quiet movement afoot to beatify the Cardinal, who died in 1960. “It may not be possible for many years, until after this generation and the next have passed,” one Croatian Catholic editor conceded to the two of us with a significant nod to my companion. “But after all, our church is forever.”

Such emotions are potentially the greatest danger to the future tranquillity of Yugoslavia. In December 1971, more than fifty years after the creation of a unified Yugoslav state and nearly thirty years after the arrival of Tito’s Communist government, Zagreb was the scene of riots by students demanding greater autonomy, even independence, for the republic of Croatia. The rioting was quickly, some say brutally, repressed, and a purge was begun against wide elements of the Croatian leadership.

The purge and the riots are history now, but other battles continue. Last year, the ruling party, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), was divided over where new oil refineries should be placed; which republics should receive more or less than the national average of hard currency allocations for Western imports; where national development funds should be spent. Two years ago, when planning began for the IMF/World Bank meeting, there were long delays in securing permission from Croatia to hold it in Belgrade, which doubles as the capital of Serbia and the capital of Yugoslavia.

Both liberal and conservative wings are buried deep within the LCY. Then, too, some Bosnian Communists are clearly sympathetic to the tough centralism of the Soviet system if not to alliance with the Soviet Union itself. And there are Slovenian liberals anxious to join the European Economic Community for all the economic, if not political, benefits such an action might hold. Liberals and conservatives constantly struggle on practical as well as philosophical issues. When Djilas, the Yugoslav writer who served as a member of the ruling triumvirate until his “disgrace” in 1954, was warned last year about his dissident activities, charged with violations of the country’s press laws, then let off with a small fine and a sharp reprimand, the moderating hand of a conciliator was apparent.

In each case, from the placement of oil refineries to freedom for a noted dissident, the mediator and conciliator appears to have been Marshal Tito himself. “There is Tito and there is Tito; beyond him there is no one else,” one senior member of the Central Committee of the LCY, who has known and worked with Tito for years, told me last fall. But many others, including senior members of the Central Committee, privately conceded considerable concern about the way he was running the country.

Yugoslavia is, of course, no longer the simple country Tito and his Partisans took over at the end of World War II. It is a complex nation on the verge of entering the developed world. In downtown Belgrade, a new building reserved for foreign companies opening representative offices is nearly fully rented a year before its scheduled completion, despite a rental of some $8000 a month for a small suite. General Motors and Dow Chemical already have large operations in Belgrade, manufacturing automobile components and petrochemicals respectively, and Bankers Trust recently opened the first American banking office.

Difficult decisions have to be made frequently. “Yet by and large these decisions are not being made at the level they should be made,” said one Western ambassador familiar with operations of the top leadership. “With Tito still around, the tendency is to let things slide until they become critical, then buck them up to Tito. It’s really the only safe thing to do, with the Marshal still holding all the reins. No one wants his head on the chopping block.”

Clearly many heads are on this block, particularly for the one truly unpardonable sin—coveting the leadership role in the never officially discussed post-Tito era. Last spring, Stane Dolanc, a Slovene who had been secretary general of the ruling presidium of the Communist party, often mentioned as a potential Tito heir, was stripped of his title and ordered to downgrade his profile. On lower levels, there are constant reports of shifting of offices and responsibilities, annual rotations of positions, uncertainty and division within the leadership as first one wing, then another, of the Communist party and the government gain momentary sway. The constitution and rules of procedure of the Central Committee, approved two years ago at the Congress of the League of Communists, provide for regular annual rotations of the “collective presidency,” a group of nine men representing each republic, autonomous region, and the military, which is designed to function as a collective head of state after Tito’s passing. But clearly this is an impossibility. Such collective leaderships have been proclaimed in many countries, including the Soviet Union, but even in such simple states as Ethiopia, where the shadowy “Dergue” is said to run the government, one man inevitably emerges after a time as first among equals.

This year, the president of the collective presidency, which in the Soviet Union would be the ruling politburo, is Stefan Doronjski, a politically innocuous figure from the autonomous region of Vojvodina, who is likely to be eclipsed quickly by any of several Communist party officials, particularly Dolanc. The nominal heir apparent as head of state this year is Lazar Kolisevsky, head of the comparable collective presidency of the government, which carries even less political muscle than the party leadership. Ultimately, it would appear, one figure must emerge with definitive clarity.

If Tito has had anyone in mind for this, he did not give a clue. He has, however, turned increasingly to the military for what he describes as “a force of unity and stability in the future.” Conventional wisdom has the military as the principal “all-Yugoslav” organization in Yugoslavia today. There are no Serbs or Croats, Bosnians or Macedonians in the military, so the myth goes, only Yugoslavs. But many outside experts, including specialists at the Rand Corporation who have studied the Yugoslav military, believe that may be an optimistic attitude. In January 1978, A. Ross Johnson of Rand observed “continued Serb-Montenegrin over-representation among field grade officers. The percentage of Croats and Slovenes, in particular, among the officer corps as a whole declined over the postwar period.”

Even more troubling is evidence of Soviet penetration of the Yugoslav military. One former Belgrade station chief of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded that this phenomenon was a potentially “serious cause for concern.” Four years ago, the United States stopped accepting Yugoslav officers for advanced training in the United States. But, despite official Yugoslav denials, a number of Yugoslav military officers and technical specialists do travel to the Soviet Union for study and training in military installations. One such officer who studied in the Soviet Union for several months told me more than a year ago that half his time was spent in political indoctrination, although he had been sent ostensibly to learn how to use certain military field communications systems. Other officers spend much longer periods in the Soviet Union.

The Soviet Union is also the principal outside supplier of military hardware to Yugoslavia, although the present United States ambassador in Belgrade, Lawrence S. Eagleburger, who served as executive assistant to Henry Kissinger on the National Security Council, is making a major effort to persuade the Carter Administration and Congress to resume a large military sales program to Yugoslavia.

What effect such a program might have is by no means clear. But no diplomat in Belgrade, from the East or the West, disputes that such a battle for influence in the post-Tito period is under way between the United States and the Soviet Union.

Just as the United States has installed a “first team” of representatives in Belgrade, so the Soviet Union has sent in its first stringers. Last year, Nikolai Nikolaevich Rodionov, a deputy foreign minister and member of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist party, was assigned to Belgrade as its new ambassador, bringing with him several senior operatives, including a new KGB station chief, who would not antagonize the delicate Yugoslav sensibilities.

Still, the Soviet Union continues to walk here with very heavy feet. In 1978, when Veljko Micunovic, who had been Yugoslav ambassador to Moscow in the days of Nikita Khrushchev, published his frank memoirs, Moskovske Godine 1956-1958, the Soviet apparat came down on Yugoslavia with all its fury. As one Belgrade editor, who felt this personally, told me, the Soviet ambassador arrived with his protest at the door of the secretary of the Central Committee of the LCY in charge of relations with foreign Communist parties, the deputy chief of mission arrived at the door of the deputy foreign minister, the press counselor of the Soviet Embassy arrived at the door of the director of the Federal Secretariat for Information of Yugoslavia, and the bureau chief of Tass arrived at the door of the editor of Borba, the LCY daily. The book disappeared from the bookstores for three days (just long enough, one of its publishers later explained, to give the impression that it had been sold out and a second printing ordered) and then reappeared in every bookshop window in Yugoslavia.

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan intensified Yugoslavia’s feelings of distrust. Although the Belgrade government was at pains to express its confidence and determination, the generally restrained nation was in a frenzy within hours of the news that Soviet tanks had crossed the Afghan border. “The Afghanistan affair is yet another lesson to show that military intervention and competition between the [Eastern and Western] blocs consolidates nobody’s security, not even that of the great powers, but only threatens it,” said Milika Sundic, a leading Zagreb commentator, speaking on Radio Zagreb on January 2. “Of course the small countries always pay the greatest price.” The small country Yugoslavs had most clearly in mind, of course, was their own. Yugoslav diplomats and senior officials were also concerned over the question of “invitation” of Soviet troops by the new Afghan government—a ploy that was used in Hungary in 1956 to justify Soviet intervention and which Yugoslavs felt could conceivably be used against them at some future time. “The Russians can always find some sympathizers, perhaps some opportunist, to issue such an invitation,” one Yugoslav diplomat observed privately.

For all the Soviets’ heavy-handed and generally counterproductive treatment of the Yugoslavs, and their apparent insensitivity to Yugoslav attitudes, there is still a deep well of pro-Russian, if not pro-Soviet, sentiment in wide areas of Yugoslavia, and particularly in the eastern half of the nation—Serbia, Montenegro, and Macedonia. The Yugoslavs, whose national name means “country of the South Slavs,” and the Russians share a range of abiding affinities—cultural, linguistic, and religious, a common alphabet and a common means of expression—that have come to be known as “pan-Slavism.” For centuries, Russia has been seen as the guarantor of the Eastern Orthodox faith against the encroachment of the Moslem infidels. The primitive past is still very much a part of this country.

Last year, as an added security measure, the United States Embassy in Belgrade installed a metal detector at the entrance to its consular section, where Yugoslavs must appear for tourist visas to visit relatives, of which there are tens of thousands, in the United States. During the first two weeks of its use, nearly three dozen knives and pistols were removed, mostly from tough Balkan peasants who appear in the streets and offices of Belgrade with quaint, turned-up shoes, baggy knickers, and enormous handlebar moustaches and muttonchop whiskers. Particularly in Montenegro, blood feuds, some dating back to the Middle Ages, their causes lost in the mists of the enormous mountains, still pit family against family. At the Titograd Airport in Montenegro last year, just after the earthquake that devastated the Yugoslav coast, a companion and I were told it would be impossible to board an aircraft to Belgrade. We were fortunate, however, to discover a young airport worker with a tribal connection to the pilot of the next plane leaving that day. immediately, two seats materialized, the two cousins exchanged kisses on each cheek, and the young man explained, in impeccable English he had learned in Chicago, that “even in modern Yugoslavia, families must stick together.”

“Sure I guess we are all Slavs, and in the final analysis we prefer to think of ourselves as Slavs,” a leading Yugoslav foreign affairs commentator once confessed to me in a moment of candor. Then he paused. “But when we go to London, many come back saying, ‘I just want to be European.’ ”

This is the other side—powerful social and economic forces that are pushing the country away from the backwardness represented by the Soviet Union and pulling it toward the modern world represented by the United States. John Updike’s Couples was at the top of the Belgrade best-seller list for twentyfive weeks, even at $19.50 a copy, along with Gore Vidal’s Burr, both translated into Serbo-Croatian. Long lines form at such American films as Serpico, Marathon Man, and Star Wars. The Soviet Union will never be able to provide any of this, as the young generation, and most of their parents, realize.

It is by no means clear, of course, that any leader, even Tito, could do much to direct Yugoslavia one way or the other right now. Over the years, Tito has encouraged this unfocused structure. In terms of foreign affairs, he, together with Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, and Nehru of India, formed the “non-aligned movement" more than twenty years ago. Now it is the cornerstone of Yugoslav foreign policy and is designed specifically to prevent any turn toward Russia or the United States or, for that matter, China, which has also begun to woo Yugoslavia.

But the nation’s very competent technocrats would prefer a carefully planned economic structure. Tito, however, never interested himself much in economics, which he does not even pretend to understand. He always delegated economic management to subordinates except when such planning involved the complex relations between the different republics and nationalities. Now, as worldwide economic problems begin to infect Yugoslavia, the nation is beginning to pay the price for such benign neglect: economic stagnation.

What is clear is that Yugoslavs have no real program for the future. The five-year economic development plans that are such a rigid fixture of other socialist countries are pro forma exercises in Yugoslavia, routinely drafted and quickly forgotten. There are no periodic electoral campaigns to focus the mind, define issues, or develop new talent. Instead, most energies are devoted to political manipulations within the apparat of the Central Committee or the party organizations of each of the republics.

“Whither Yugoslavia after Tito?” is the favorite cocktail party subject in the diplomatic salons of Belgrade, Washington, and, no doubt, Moscow. But there will be no answers until that time arrives. Then, as they have in crises over the past thirty-five years— when they were expelled from the Cominform in 1948 by a vindictive Joseph Stalin, for instance—the people are most likely to clutch together, aware that their continued safety hinges on their unity. Most Yugoslavs believe the Soviet Union will attempt in some way to meddle in their affairs, to press more actively to swing Yugoslavia toward the Soviet bloc, to incite discord among the already tense nationalities. These forecasters point to the uncovering of a Soviet spy ring operating among Croatian dissidents in Zagreb which resulted in the expulsion in 1976 of the local Aeroflot manager and the Soviet consul general. Military officers still believe in and are planning for a Soviet invasion. But many realistic Yugoslav foreign policy analysts discount this possibility. What they fear most is the longer future—when Yugoslavs realize that Armageddon did not materialize with the passing of Tito. It’s then that the Croats may begin their squabbling with the Serbs over industrial development or a new oil refinery, when demonstrations may erupt in Zagreb, when a Serbian gendarme may fire on a Croatian student.