The Death of Tito’s Yugoslavia?

Against the Current No. 18, January/February 1989

Michele Lee

1988 HAS BEEN one of the most dramatic years in Yugoslavia’s post-war history. Indeed, in the month of October it seemed that the country might actually be falling apart. The foreign ministers of West Germany and France expressed their anxiety publicly, as Yugoslavia for a time became front-page news.

What this article will argue, however, is that 1988 was nothing but the consummation of a protracted process of decomposition of the ruling League of Communists (LCY).

Given the symbiotic relationship between this mass party of the working class and the Yugoslav state, its fragmentation inevitably manifests itself as a generalized political crisis. The unprecedented resignation of the government under trade-union pressure in the last days of 1988 is just one sign of the strength of current turbulence.

The problems faced by Yugoslavia and the LCY are not unique, but form part of a more general pattern of change in Eastern Europe. If anything, the difference is to be found in the extraordinary resilience of Yugoslavia’s class and national compact, born out of an indigenous revolution. Demonstrations for national rights, strikes of industrial, transport and public-sector workers, working-class forays into party-state politics — all this testifies to its continued vitality. Tito’s Yugoslavia is coming to an end, and the struggle has been joined for its inheritance.

The whole society is in fact living in a state of acute schizophrenia. For example, in November 1988 the Federal Assembly voted to adopt a nineteenth century pan-Slavist song entitled Hej, Slaveni! (Hail to the Slavs!) as the country’s official anthem — a symbolic rebuff at once to the revolutionary founding of the state and to its sizable non-Slav population. Three days later, there were solemn (albeit this year very muted) celebrations to mark the forty-fifth anniversary of the wartime birth of that revolutionary state — one of whose main pillars, of course, has been its commitment to national equality, for Slavs and non-Slavs alike.

To cap the whole thing, a few days later the country commemorated-for the first time-the seventieth anniversary of the creation of the first Yugoslav state, against which precisely the 1941-45 revolution was directed in the first place. By a bitter irony, the individual chosen to officiate over this occasion is notorious for having advised first the pre-war Royal regime and later the Socialist one on the desirability of expelling most of the non-Slav population as” unreliable.”(1) The LCY is evidently in serious disarray. The fateful implications of this for the country’s future are analyzed below.

Nationalism and Populism

When did the current crisis begin? Some would argue that it started in 1979, when shortages of such essential commodities as coffee and detergent appeared for the first time in twenty years. It would be more accurate, however, to date its specifically political manifestations from the demonstrations in Kosovo in the spring of 1981.(2) This majority Albanian and poorest region of Yugoslavia, at the center of an unresolved national problem, registered the coming earthquake like a seismograph.

By 1985, the leadership itself acknowledged that the country was facing an economic crisis. A $20 billion foreign debt was disclosed, inflation soared (by 1988 it reached over 250 percent), industrial growth plummeted (dipping at times below zero). In 1987, the three southernmost Federal units — Kosovo, Macedonia and Montenegro – announced that they were bankrupt. Other republics also reported declining production and living standards.

In this situation, the political consensus within the LCY — and the intricate system of checks and balances which it had hitherto underpinned — collapsed. The economic crisis was expressed increasingly as a political crisis, indeed as a crisis of the whole socialist project.

The crisis hit the working class with special severity, as industrial growth stopped or went into reverse, large-scale unemployment emerged, and living standards returned to mid-’60s levels. Simultaneously, the self-confidence of “the vanguard party of the vanguard class,” already badly dented, now finally evaporated, destroying m the process what remained of the authority of the Federal party center. With workers resorting to mass strike action, the whole party-class alliance started to come apart.

A sense of malaise meanwhile engulfed the intelligentsia, favoring right-wing and nationalist currents.(3) This in turn encouraged the army to take upon itself the role of guardian of the state: in March 1988, for example, it announced-without seeking prior clearance from the party leadership — that a “counter-revolution” was developing in Slovenia, which necessitated the arrest of a number of prominent intellectuals.(4)

The crisis above all strengthened the ever-present tendency of the republican and provincial parties to entrench themselves in their local national constituencies. The outcome, however, varied considerably, given the economic disparities and differing national traditions.

Slovenia, by far the most prosperous republic with practically no unemployment, experienced a far-reaching democratization: since the early 1980s, “alternative movements” have been active there, and the Socialist Youth Alliance has provided an imaginative link be­ tween these and official politics.(5) The Committee for Defense of Human Rights, established to defend four intellectuals arrested in May 1988 and sentenced for allegedly handling a secret military document, is today fast acquiring the character of a Slovene peoples’ front. The Committee has remained in a dialogue with the party, maintaining a political consensus on all the main issues affecting democracy and Slovene national sovereignty.

Yet the Slovene democratization has by no means been a simple progress. At recent elections to a post in the republican (state) Presidency, Igor Bavcar, a leading member of the Committee, was firmly “filtered out” of the electoral procedure despite the fact that he had won majority support at the base. The result was an exodus of about fifty of the best young party intellectuals.

In Macedonia, on the other hand, the economic collapse led the local party to limit the national rights of the twenty percent Albanian minority and to foment anti-Albanian feelings among Macedonian workers. First, bilingual street signs went, then pure Albanian names started to be banned, then welfare rights were cut for families with more than two children, and finally secondary education in the Albanian language was severely restricted. When teachers, parents and students began to protest against these unconstitutional measures, they were sacked, thrown out of school, fined or imprisoned. Today,

“the Macedonians tell anecdotes from their joyless lives, exchange information about new [emigration] forms for New Zealand, enquire from one another about new Australian [immigration] conditions, complain about inflation, low wages and high prices, and gossip systematically about their leadership — for they are evidently furious about the inefficient economy and the poverty into which they have fallen; on the other hand, they are impressed by the hard, unflinching line of their political bosses towards the Albanians.”(6)

It was in Serbia, however, that the turn to nationalism took the sharpest form: the primacy of class politics was formally abandoned in favor of national consolidation with the accession of Slobodan Milosevic to unchallenged power in the League of Communists of Serbia at the end of 1987.

The 1974 Federal constitution had given considerably enhanced autonomy to Kosovo and Vojvodina, the two provinces within the republic of Serbia making them constituent parts of the Yugoslav Federation The Serbian leadership co-responsible for this arrangement had favored it on the grounds that the policing of Kosovo exacted a heavy toll on Serbia’s own internal democracy, while no economic progress in Kosovo could be envisaged without Albanization of the province’s party and state cadre.(7)

This was a leadership that saw the well-being of Serbia as an integral part of an all-Yugoslav progress, and was in favor of seeking Federal consensus on all major issues. However, it was purged in 1972 as part of a country-wide assault on “liberalism.” Its removal opened a power struggle within the Serbian party, which remained largely unresolved until the arrival of Milosevic, although a working consensus was established to seek the republic’s recentralization.

Crisis Erupts in Serbia

The Serbian party, however, was faced with a seemingly insuperable barrier. Constitutional changes (in this case, reversing the autonomy of Kosovo and Vojvodina) must be sanctioned by all three assemblies — those of the two provinces as well as that of the republic as a whole — but approval from Vojvodina and Kosovo was not forthcoming.

The provinces’ stand was supported by the Federal party leadership, which was concerned about the implied reduction in the rights of the Albanian population. More importantly, it did not wish to see any alteration of the national balance within the Federation, since the consequences of this could be incalculable.

The Serbian leadership now split on the issue of how to proceed. Two currents emerged by 1987: the first, associated with then Serbian state president Ivan Stambolic, preferred to solve this problem through an all-Yugoslav consensus. The second, gathered around party leader Milosevic, opted for independent action by Serbia, which meant a Serb national mobilization.

The chosen instrument for this mobilization, of course, was Kosovo, where six hundred years ago a short-lived Serbian Empire had existed. The legend of this empire had played an important role in nineteenth century Serb nationalism. However, by the mid-nineteenth century Kosovo had acquired an overwhelming Albanian population (today, it is about ninety percent Albanian). Since the 1981 demonstrations Serb nationalists had been complaining that Kosovo was becoming a purely Albanian province, the “cradle of the Serb nation” was being alienated from it. The Kosovo party was duly accused of encouraging Serb and Montenegrin emigration from the province, and the Albanian nation held to be guilty of ethnic “genocide.”

There is no doubt that Slavs have been emigrating, but equally clearly the reasons have been mainly economic — already by 1970 Kosovo’s unemployment reached fifty percent of the working population — and Albanians have been leaving as well. However, the Slavs had also been affected by cultural-political factors. The rapid Albanization of the provincial administration that followed the enhancement of the province’s autonomy was achieved by the use of national quotas, which reduced job opportunities for Slavs in the state sector where they had hitherto been privileged. In addition, thanks to the high birth rate of the Albanians, their ethnic preponderance was increasing, transforming linguistic, educational and cultural conditions in the new democratic period and pushing the ethnic frontier further to the north.

Back in 1966, the fall of Rankovic(8) had led to an exodus of ten thousand Serb administrative cadres and their families from Kosovo to Serbia proper, creating a potential “irredentist” constituency in Belgrade and elsewhere. At the end of 1986, a Kosovo committee of Serbs and Montenegrins was established, and began to send delegations to Belgrade and organize mass protest meetings in the province itself to complain of “genocide” and to demand a wholesale purge of Albanian leaders and the introduction of military rule in the province.

A powerful coalition comprising Serbian Kosovo emigrants, the Kosovo committee, a growing number of right-wing nationalists among the traditional intelligentsia (some of them members of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences), “disillusioned” leftists, the Orthodox Church and a section of party and state bureaucracy emerged in Serbia in the late 1980s. The coalition entered public life with a now notorious petition — in which the then party-state leadership was accused of high treason.(9) This was followed by a “Memorandum” drafted by the Academy, which accused the CPY and the Comintern of an historic “anti-Serb” conspiracy. This document subsequently became the ideological platform for the Serbian party’s “new course.”

The Serbian leadership now argued that changes to the republic’s constitution were necessary, if only to give it direct control over the province’s police and judiciary in order to put an end to “genocide” and “counterrevolution.” In the spring of 1987, Slobodan Milosevic appeared in Kosovo Polje — the organizing center of Serb and Montenegrin nationalists – to deliver a fiery speech in which he offered Serbian party support for the nationalists’ committee.

By arriving in the province without first informing the Kosovo party, Milosevic not only broke party protocol but also signaled his bid for uncontested power in the Serbian party. At the eighth session of the latter’s CC in December 1987, Ivan Stambolic and Belgrade party chief Dragisa Pavlovic were purged.(10)

Milosevic’s sudden purge, the brutal manner in which it was conducted, and the nationalist overtones of the debate (which was televised) shocked the country. That the victory did not come easily, however, was proved by the viciousness of the subsequent campaign conducted against the defeated party faction, and the scale of the purge of key party and state organs. Particular attention was paid to the media. In a typically Stalinist manner, all real and potential critics were characterized as “anti-people” and “anti-Serb.” At the same time, a prompt expression of total loyalty to the new leadership — including the obligatory attack on its opponents — was made a condition of political survival and/or continued employment.

Milosevic was elevated to the position of an infallible party leader. After the “normalization” in Serbia, Milosevic’s critics inevitably came from the other republics, and this was used as further proof of the existence of an anti-Serb coalition.

Serbia, which only a few years earlier had been a lively center of activity and debate, suddenly succumbed to a numbing “unity.” The capital of Yugoslavia became the headquarters of an embattled Serb nation. The media was used, as in wartime, to attack the enemy, punish traitors, report on the situation at the front (drawn against practically all other republics(11) and the two provinces), raise the national spirit, recall past victories, commemorate the wounded and dead in past battles going back to the fourteenth century. The message was that of a heroic Serbian nation, surrounded by perfidious enemies. The defunct bourgeoisie was honored by erecting statues of its generals.

Serbian peasant dress, especially hats, became a sudden fashion. This orgy of national self-pity and exhilaration was — and is — at times interrupted only by reports of marching workers, coming from inside Serbia and outside to Belgrade to protest against low wages or the real or threatened bankruptcy of their enterprises and to demand the resignation of managers and functionaries.

An extremely important role in this orchestrated 1-\process of national homogenization has been played by mass rallies in solidarity with Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo. Ostensibly spontaneous, they were carefully organized and financed by the party­ state machine. Over the past six months, such rallies — tens of thousands strong — have taken place in practically every major city or village in Serbia.

At these rallies — as well as at party plenums, republican assembly sessions, trade-union conferences and meetings of the party base; in universities, factories and schools; at suitable state occasions– one message was constantly hammered home: that the Serb nation is fragmented because its state is divided into three pieces. Milosevic spoke of the historic hour: “Serbia will be united or it will not exist.” The Belgrade press wrote about “the third Serbian uprising.”

The disinclination of the Serbian party to submit itself to the Federal party’s authority simultaneously grew. National mobilization in Serbia and the aggressive tone of its press resulted in rising tensions throughout the country, and in the summer of 1988 the Federal party Presidency demanded of Belgrade that nationalist demonstrations be stopped.

The Serbian leadership refused. Its representatives simply declined to attend meetings of the presidency until its demands were met. The frequency of the rallies if anything increased throughout the autumn, their mood growing more militant. Slogans demanding arms, criminal prosecution of other Yugoslav leaders — and in the case of Albanian leaders also their execution — became frequent. No party or state leader — be they from another republic or province or from the Federation, and irrespective of his or her status — who appeared not to harbor one hundred percent support for the “new course” in Serbia was exempt from the hate campaign.(12)

These rallies were by now seriously destabilizing the country, opening the possibility that the army might have to take over. In October, Yugoslavia’s State President Raif Dizdarevic warned — without mentioning the culprit by name — which the country might have to be placed under a state of emergency.

The readiness of the Serbian party to use the threat of civil war to settle inner-party differences (what the Bolshevik party’s left wing described as “Bonapartism” during its struggle with Stalin) startled the country in early October, when the party leadership of the province of Vojvodina was overthrown by a carefully planned and orchestrated mass action.

Two aspects of this momentous event were worth recalling here. Firstly, well before the Vojvodina putsch the Federal party had already agreed to accept Serbia’s constitutional demands, presumably feeling that it had little choice. In doing so, it had opened the door to a constitutional resolution of the problem. Yet this option was rejected by the Serbian party in favor of a show of force, thereby informing the Federation that internal affairs of the republic of Serbia were its exclusive prerogative.

The Federal party must in fact have known what was going to happen, for-breaking with normal practice — it failed to send any representative to the meeting of the Vojvodina party committee scheduled for the day of the provincial leadership’s forced resignation, thus leaving it to face the demonstrators’ wrath alone.(13) It thereby gave its tacit blessing to an undemocratic and illegal method of changing the country’s constitution.

The second fact follows from the first: this was the first time that an unconstitutional procedure had openly been used to change a local party leadership.(14) The concrete action was organized by local power groups, not all of whom were party members. By sanctioning their act, the Federal party allowed alien bodies to intervene in its internal life, to the point of removing topmost party leaders.

This in turn has opened the door to a practice whereby unofficial and unelected groups can decide on issues crucial to the life of the country. Where this could lead was illustrated dramatically only a day after the Vojvodina events, when a demonstration of angry Montenegrin workers in Titograd was exploited as the back-drop to a determined attempt to replace the local republican leadership with Milosevic’s men.

The possibility that Yugoslavia’s whole Federal structure might collapse now prompted the Solvenian, Croatian and Bosnian leaders to act. Under their pressure, the Federal party leadership (unanimously!) condemned the Titograd demonstration, and gave the local party the green light for a show of force. In another sorry precedent, Yugoslav police attacked demonstrating workers.

But if the staged overthrow of the party leadership in Vojvodina could be covered by the fig-leaf of the Federal party’s prior approval, the televised Seventeenth Central Committee Plenum of the LCY-held on 17-19 October — opened the split in the ruling party to the gaze of the whole country. In an unprecedented move, the Federal party presidency — having itself become the butt of Belgrade attacks –asked the assembled CC for a vote of confidence: when the vote was counted, Dusan Ckrebic, a close collaborator of Milosevic, alone had been voted down.(15)

In conformity with Belgrade’s secessionist mood, Milosevic refused to accept the vote, publicly rejecting the all-Yugoslav Central Committee as an “unprincipled alliance” directed against Serbia! A month later, the Serbian leadership organized a 350,000-strong public meeting in Belgrade, at which the “fighting” spirit of the Serb nation was once again hailed, other Yugoslav leaders were attacked and a “united” (as opposed to federal) Yugoslavia proclaimed. “No force can now stop Serbia’s unification” screamed the headlines.(16)

It is in this context that one should judge the demonstrations which were simultaneously taking place in Kosovo.

Wedding without Meat: Kosovo Awakes

On 17 November 1988, the day before the Belgrade rally, a meeting of the Provincial Committee of the League of Communists of Kosovo was to be convened in the provincial capital Pristina, to discuss the planned resignations of Kaqusha Jashari and Adem Vllasi, respectively the current party President and her immediate predecessor.

Their resignations had been arranged as part of the deal on the constitution reached earlier between the Federal and Serbian leaderships. After years of wrangling, the Federal party leaders had under duress finally given their agreement to Serbia’s recentralization, and thereby also to a significant reduction in the hard-won rights of the two-million-strong Albanian nation, thus turning the Yugoslav clock back by two decades. The Pristina meeting was supposed to legitimize this.

The resignations were part of the pledge that the provincial party, which had not condoned the deal, would nevertheless not resist the constitutional changes to increase Serbia’s control over Kosovo.

That morning, miners from the “Stari Trg” mine near Titova Mitrovica, the industrial center of Kosovo, after completing the night shift, emerged from the thirty-eight degrees Celsius (over one hundred degrees Fahrenheit) of their pit into the freezing dawn (the first snows of winter had just fallen on Kosovo), joined forces with the day shift and began the seventy-kilometer march to Pristina. They were the vanguard of what turned out to be the largest Albanian demonstration since the war: half a million participants over the next five days.

Journalists met them half-way:

“They were wearing their shabby miners’ outfits and looked quite exhausted. The front row carried a picture of Tito, two miners’ flags, the party flag, Yugoslav, Albanian and Turkish flags. Their slogans: “Tito-Party!” “Jashari-Vllasi!”; “Tito-Kardelj!”(17) “We will not surrender our cadres!”

Unemployment in Kosovo is over fifty percent. Social product per employed person is thirty percent of the Yugoslav average. The average wage in the mining-industrial complex of “Trepca” (of which “Stari Trg” is a part) — based on one of the largest, though now practically exhausted, lead and zinc mines in Europe-is about $55 per month. This can barely keep a miner’s family from starvation.

A correspondent from the daily Borba (Struggle), one of the rare journalists able to speak the Albanian language (only three out of thirty Yugoslav journalists accredited to Pristina are in possession of this essential element of their trade!) asked one of them if they were going to Pristina to complain about their wages.

“Everybody gathered around to listen. The miner answered that this was a day for politics, not for tears. The journalist said that politics was a dangerous business — the ‘specials’ were ahead and there might be trouble. The grim-faced man responded angrily: ‘Journalist, have you ever seen a wedding without meat?’”(18)

Once in Pristina, the miners were joined by other workers, then by students and youth, followed by secondary and primary school children-eighty percent of the participants were below the age of twenty — and soon also by the older generation, coming from all parts of Kosovo (as well as western Macedonia) in five-day-long demonstration of national determination.

During the bitterly-cold nights, they camped outside the Provincial Committee headquarters, lopping the branches from the young trees planted in its forest to warm themselves up. Their protest had two aims: to express their rejection of the proposed changes in the constitution of the Republic of Serbia; to prevent, in that context, the enforced resignation of the two provincial leaders.

Although the Provincial Committee acknowledged the resignations (no vote was taken, the outcome having been determined elsewhere) and the miners thus failed to achieve their formal aims, the fact that the police did not charge — at the express order of the Kosovo provincial government — suggests that they had won the battle honors, and perhaps a more lasting victory.

The Kosovo working class and the local party and state leadership still have many differences to be settled. But a display of unity was inevitable in the face of the anti-Albanian hysteria flowing from Belgrade. Only a week earlier, a member of the Serbian Trade Union Alliance had argued publicly that “counterrevolution” was deeply embedded in the Kosovo party and state organs and at Pristina University, but above all in the Albanian working class — angering the Trepca miners and providing a stimulus for their march.

After the demonstration, the Serbian party described the Pristina events as the latest example of an escalating “counter-revolution.” The Federal party came very close to agreeing with them.(19) The Kosovo leadership, however, argued that they were “in line with the seventeenth party plenum.”(20)

This cacophony, of course, only illustrates how deeply the League of Communists of Yugoslavia is split, and how unprincipled is the politics that tries to pretend otherwise. What is clear, however, is that the dialectic of class and national liberation has in Kosovo once again proved its potent force. Even the most normally hostile Belgrade reporters were impressed by the demonstrators’ firmness and self-discipline. The Albanian miners had celebrated the revolution’s anniversary in the best possible manner: by defending one of its fundamental achievements.(21)

The force behind the Kosovo demonstration may have been a defense of national rights, but this defense was phrased in terms not of nationalism but of democracy. In interviews freely given, the miners made it dear that if the province’s status was to be changed, if its Albanian leadership was to be purged, then this must be done in an open, democratic debate and not imposed by force. The workers said what the Federal party should have said-but did not In those freezing November days and nights, the marching workers, students and children acted as a true socialist vanguard, heirs to the best revolutionary traditions of the Balkan working class.

Contemporaneously-though acting in complete dissociation with the Belgrade rally or the Kosovo demonstrations — the Slovene Committee for Defense of Human Rights held a mass public meeting in Ljubljana, in support of democracy and Slovene national sovereignty. Last November it indeed seemed that the whole of Yugoslavia was on the march. Are we in fact witnessing a “strange death” of Tito’s Yugoslavia? To answer this question, it is necessary briefly to survey its nature and evolution.

Party and State

The Communist Party (since 1952, League of Communists) of Yugoslavia has ruled the country since the war, largely by popular consent. Its historic legitimacy has derived from its leadership of the 1941-45 revolution and national liberation struggle against foreign occupation. To be sure, the old bourgeois state in Yugoslavia was “technically speaking” destroyed not by a mass workers’ uprising led by the CPY, but by the invading forces of Fascism. Yet the Communist-led resistance could not have been successful without simultaneously creating an alternative state power.(22)

What made the revolution possible, in other words, was not a temporary discomfiture of the local bourgeoisie brought about by war, but intense opposition of the masses to restoring of bourgeois rule. Revolution grew out of anti-Fascist resistance and was simultaneously its precondition. The CPY provided “only” the necessary ideological and organizational leadership.(23)

Measured by the European clock, Yugoslavia is a young country. It emerged out of the First World War as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and acquired its present name in 1929. The bourgeoisie ruled it for twenty-three years, most of the time by outright dictatorship.(24) These were years of almost permanent economic and political (national) crisis, to which the ruling class could find no lasting solution.

After an inner-party struggle that took place in the CPY in the early 1920s, which its left wing won decisively,(25) the party accepted the premise that the Yugoslav bourgeoisie would be unable to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, central to which was the solution of the national question. This was therefore to be accomplished by a socialist revolution.

As a result, the CPY — though condemned to clandestinely after 1921 — emerged in 1941 as the only all-Yugoslav party. The party entered the war with a program that invested the working class with a mission transcending “pure class” issues. It emerged from it as the hegemonic party, the central pole of reference for the vast majority of the Yugoslav population.

It was a party of national independence — a Yugoslav party. Yet, despite this national character and its subsequent transformation into a mass party, it continued to define itself as “the vanguard party of the vanguard class,” organized on the principle of democratic centralism (in its authoritarian interpretation). In this important sense, the CPY has remained a product of October. Indeed, post-revolutionary Yugoslavia was never called a “people’s republic” — within years the initial “Democratic Federative Republic” became “Socialist.”

However, the class war had been conducted simultaneously with one of national liberation — not just for Yugoslavia, but for its constituent nations — and their fusion gave a specific twist to the postwar rule of the CPY. In particular, it opened the door to the ideology of “Narodna Volja” through which nationalism – of both Yugoslav and ethnic varieties — could and did seep into the country’s body politic at different times in postwar history. The objective tendency toward the “nationalization” of this working-class party was only strengthened by the absence of a revolutionary international.(26)

It was also a party which had a political monopoly, hence control of the state. The Yugoslav party came to power with the firm belief that a centralized state was the privileged form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. It adopted, however, a federal model of state organization, in order to accommodate the multi-national character of the population. The party’s strict centralism would, it was assumed, counter any disintegrative tendencies inherent in a polycentric state.

For the first twenty years, nonetheless, the Federal aspect of the country remained subject to absolute rule from the center. The Federal party retained supreme authority over the republican/provisional parties. Though the republics were designated as sovereign states, their parties initially played the role of mere regional branches: they were not allowed on their own to determine their state-national priorities.

The Yugoslav party was also a monolithic party, with the Politburo appointing, by way of its own cadre commission, the Central Committee, and constructing the inner-party regime on a “top down” principle. It had the final say in the appointment of republican leaderships and the composition of the CCs.

The absence of internal democracy substituted unity of the leadership for unity of the party. Such a unity — however strong it might be initially in the wartime generation — could not but be of limited duration. Given the symbiosis between party and state, a differentiation was inevitable in any case. In Yugoslavia, it took the form of growing republican/provincial power. There was, of course, the alternative model provided by Stalin’s state, with its emphasis on a strong central state bureaucracy. In the case of the Soviet Union, however, bureaucratic centralism had relied on the numerical preponderance of the Russian nation and the pre-revolutionary traditions of Russian Absolutism. In Yugoslavia, the heritage of central state rule was weak, while no nation formed anything approaching half of the total population.

The prewar, Serbian-dominated, ruling class had spent most of the inter-war years trying to run the country in a unitarist fashion. But although it had never shrunk from using mass terror in prosecuting this aim, the reaction it had provoked among the country’s subject nations had in the end been strong enough to ensure its downfall. The CPY, by contrast, endorsed their right to self-determination, including secession, as a condition of the revolution. After the war, this commitment was to prevent any lasting consolidation of bureaucratic power at the center.

The initial centralization, justified by the needs of post-war reconstruction and Yugoslavia’s international isolation, did not prevent a ferocious struggle being waged over the country’s meager economic resources; it simply ensured that it would be carried out within the top party leadership.

Yugoslavia is formed out of highly heterogeneous elements, which means that its different parts reached different stages of development at different times.(27) The republican parties, responsible for developing the individual Federal units, inevitably became active advocates of regional interest. They were constantly attempting to inflect the central authorities to adopt economic policies more in harmony with their own needs. And they increasingly articulated those demands in terms of a coincidence within the individual republics of national and working-class interests. As the differentiated interests of Yugoslavia’s nation-states started to assert themselves within the institutions of the party-state, the unity of the all-Yugoslav top party leadership itself became endangered.

Market Reforms: What Happened?

The CPY was, in fact, caught between two opposing forces. For the twenty years of centralism had also led to the emergence of a powerful Federal bureaucracy, embedded in its control of the central investment fund and the state security service. For historic and other reasons, its priorities were experienced as Serbian domination and a renewed menace to national equality.

The early 1960s introduction of market principles, decentralization of the economy and formal separation of party from state, were intended both to ease the pressure of conflicting interests on the party leadership and to limit the powers of the Federal bureaucracy (associated with Alexander Rankovic, Federal Secretary for internal affairs).

The reform was conducted under the triple slogan of “de-statization, de-bureaucratization and de-centralization.” How the party leadership understood this triple-headed program and why the reform failed cannot be discussed here. What is relevant is that the reform opened up the sphere of politics-hitherto strictly the province of the party-to broad social layers outside party control; their political engagement was necessarily channeled through the republics and provinces. The reform had both enlarged the freedom of the republican parties and strengthened their obligations.

Individual national politics, in other words, acquired a new and irresistible autonomy. The local parties tried simultaneously to respond to — and control — the political effervescence caused by the democratic pressure from below and to use it to strengthen their hand in negotiating the terms of the reform. This process of interaction among party, state and nation inevitably took different forms in the different republics; the absence of an all-Yugoslav synthesis proved fatal.

Such a synthesis would have required a thorough democratization of the party itself, but this was no part of the reform. Eventually, the reform itself was abandoned.

The other factor militating against the reform was the reaction of the working class. The economic aspects of the reform had attacked its living standards, while demanding greater work discipline. Social differentiation accelerated. As the influx of peasants into the towns grew in tempo, unemployment appeared for the first time as a serious threat. Workers responded by going on strike. For the first time in postwar Yugoslav history, workers appeared as an autonomous agent, weakening the party’s traditional base. A student movement also emerged, willing to give the workers a hand.

The dialectic of national and class interests spawned by the reform could not be handled by the Federal center. In the early 1970s, in a desperate attempt to assert its authority, the party leadership conducted a wide purge of the republican parties. Thousands of intellectuals, managers, party and state cadres were removed from political life and sometimes also imprisoned, changing drastically both party and state (especially in Croatia and Serbia).

The campaign for “de-statization, de-centralization and de-bureaucratization” was replaced by a drive against “nationalists,” “technocrats” and “anarcho-liberals.” The purge was carried out in the name of the working-class and, insofar as it ended the reform, had its support. The party-class alliance, buttressed by Tito’s enormous authority in the party and the army,(28) was sufficient to break local republican power. But this was also the last occasion when these two acted in unison.(29)

It was a Pyrrhic victory. The purge removed a whole generation — the “organic” successors to the aged revolutionary leadership — from political life. The party purges also followed closely the suppression of a post-1968 radical student movement, galvanized by the idea of a revolutionary renewal of Yugoslav politics. The simultaneous removal of these two alternatives — broadly speaking, social-democratic and revolutionary — led to the emergency of a lasting ideological vacuum within the LCY.(30)

The immediate outcome of the purge was a tightening of party control over all areas of the country’s life. This led to an unprecedented growth of bureaucratic power-no longer centralized, but in its own way equally devastating. Far from preventing fissures with­ in the party, the bureaucratic resurgence only accentuated them: the process of inner-party differentiation now followed even more perversely the federal contours of the state. After Tito’s death in1980 had removed the last source of unqualified central authority, the disarray of the LCY came into the open.

By this time, a complex system of checks and balances — written into the new Constitution promulgated in 1974 — had replaced centralism. One of its aims was to preclude any one nation from acquiring political dominance. The formalities of the constitutional arrangement were sustained by the enhanced presence within the country’s political life of the Macedonian, Moslem, Montenegrin and Albanian nations — inhabiting the less developed southern regions — as a counterbalance to the better-off Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

Parallel to the formal recognition of the Bosnian Moslems as a separate nation (which strengthened the position of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina as an autonomous actor), the national minorities were given equal rights with the South Slav nations, reflected in the increased autonomy of the two areas where they predominate: Vojvodina and Kosovo. This represented an enormous advance, not least because it weakened the Slavic definition of the state.

The constitution seemed at the same time to sidetrack the urgent need for a democratization of state and party politics. In fact, for the first time in the country’s postwar history it specified the LCY as the leading party, an innovation that registered the precise moment at which the party ceased to be capable of playing such a role.

The suppression of all democratic initiatives from within the party and from society at large resulted in “the vanguard party of the vanguard class” being forced to internalize the differentiated and conflicting interests operating in Yugoslav society, until it could not but succumb to their destructive potential. The party, to be sure, was not a passive victim of this process. On the contrary, by associating itself more closely than ever before with the privileged social layers-party and state functionaries, labor aristocracy, managers of stronger industrial branches, better-off regions-it contributed to its own class and ideological incoherence.

Social differentiation was by now quite dramatic:

“In Yugoslavia, the lowest, poorest 20 percent of households command only 6.6 percent of total household income. In Britain it is 7 percent, in Belgium 7.9 percent, in Japan 8 percent, in Sweden 7.4 percent, and in the U.S. 5.3 percent. The upper 20 percent of households disposes of 39 percent of national income, while in the countries mentioned the range is 36 to 40 percent. Finally, the richest 10 percent of households in Yugoslavia dispose of 23 percent of national income; in Britain the figure is 23.4percent, injapan22.4 percent, in Sweden 28 per­ cent, in the U.S. 20 percent But in contrast to the capitalist countries, we have no taxation adequate to the character of our system, not even the social­ democratic tax policy practiced in some countries.”(31)

Yet the central core of the LCY’s national constituency remained the working class, from which many party-state officials as well as economic managers continued to be recruited What we see today operating within the party is a crisis of its historic identity, which defines it as a Marxist party of the working class and insists that the transition to socialism requires a dictatorship of the proletariat The LCY would like to shed this inheritance, put aside (if not explicitly reject) the whole business of dictatorship. But it fears that this would mean losing its political primacy within the country.

The working class also feels confused, tom between its loyalty to the party-state and the experience of being abandoned by it Workers are leaving the party in droves. They are busy organizing strikes, demonstrating in front of government and party buildings, invading the parliament, demanding leaders’ resignations.(32) They are, in fact, in open conflict with the LCY. The party-state, for its part, has been avoiding an open confrontation. With the recent — and telling — exception of Montenegro, it has not used force against demonstrating workers. But the clash is coming: in October the country was gripped by an extraordinary and frightening feeling that the state had suddenly lost its solidity and was “melting into the air.”

The substantiality of the post-war Yugoslav state has been built on its class character and the critical support given to the ruling party by the working class. The political system established after the revolution, despite its real achievements, is fast becoming incapable of even safeguarding these revolutionary gains, let alone of ensuring socialist progress.

The gulf between the working class and the party-state is growing by the day. Their historic relationship has changed, and neither side has fully grasped what it means and where it is all leading. While the workers still invariably demonstrate carrying Tito’s portrait, the LCY is busy seeking a firmer anchorage in the nation-state — be it Slav, Serb or whatever.

The party has simultaneously committed itself to a radical liberalization of the economy-which will have devastating consequences for the vast majority of the workers-without any idea how to deal with its consequences. The Federal government, which has had no trouble in recruiting 160 of the country’s most eminent economists into its commission for economic reform, has at the same time utterly failed in its attempt to establish a parallel commission for social welfare. Federation, republics and local communes are instead trying to outwit each other in the game of who should pay for this. Nobody is willing to take the responsibility for the coming storm, least of all the leading party.

Who will win the struggle to inherit Tito’s Yugoslavia? As things stand at present, there is no reason to believe that it will not be won by its rightful heirs. But –as has always been the case with Yugoslavia — the outcome will also be determined by what happens in the Soviet Union.


  1. Mladina, Ljubljana, 17.11.1988 has published some of the documentation.
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  2. For an account of these events and their implications, see M. Lee, “The Two Albanias,” New Left Review no. 140 (July/August 1983).
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  3. Graphic testimony to this can be found in the White Book, produced in 1984 for internal use by the CC of the Croatian party (then headed by Stipe Suvar, current president of the Federal party), which quoted freely from the works and interviews of many leading “cultural workers.” As usual, the party ideologues lumped together the very real differences found among creative intellectuals under a common denominator. The book nevertheless provides a panoramic and telling survey of the ideological climate at the time.
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  4. A comprehensive report of this incident is to be found in Labour Focus an Eastern Europe, London, March 1988. See also the interview with Miha Kovac in New Left Review 171 (September/October 1988).
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  5. For an authoritative account of recent Slovene developments, see Kovac, ibid.
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  6. Darko Hudelist, “Macedonian Dossier,” Start, Zagreb 1988.
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  7. Latinka Perovic, then head of the Serbian party, after her expulsion from the party earned a doctoral degree with a thesis entitled “From Centralism to Federalism,” in which she traces the rationale of Yugoslavia’s decentralization to Lenin’s policy on the national question. A fine piece of analysis, it has been treated with deafening silence thanks to the author’s political “disgrace.”
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  8. Alexander Rankovic was Yugoslavia’s Interior Minister continuously from 1945 until his fall from power in 1966. He was subsequently held responsible for police abuses during this period, especially in Kosovo. In addition, he became a symbol of Serb dominance in the immediate post-war period, though little conclusive evidence has been produced to show that he was in fact a chauvinist. He did, however, resist both decentralization and liberalization in the 1960s, and this stance (as well as his control of the security apparatus) ultimately caused his downfall.
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  9. See debate between M. Lee and Mihailo Markovic in Labour Focus on Eastern Europe, vol. 9, no. 2 (October 1987), where the text of the petition is reproduced.
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  10. The Belgrade party organization is naturally the country’s largest and most important. Pavlovic has since then published an account of his downfall in Olako obecana brzina (The Speed Too Easily Promised), Zagreb 1988. The title refers to his complaint, just prior to the purge, that Slobodan Milosevic was promising an impossibly speedy resolution to the Kosovo problem.
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  11. With the exception of Macedonia: the Macedonian party’s anti-Albanian policy has made them the Serbian leadership’s natural ally, despite the fact that Serb nationalism also has an anti-Macedonian edge (Macedonia was once included in the medieval Serbian empire and Macedonians were classified as “South Serbs” in pre-war Yugoslavia).
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  12. In a recent interview Dusan Dragosavac, a former partisan and member of political leadership in Croatia, who had been targeted in this way, summed up the situation as follows: “This is nothing but an anti-communist strategy, the creation of hatred among the nationalities, the creation of discord in the League of Communists. It is a permanent witch hunt, anti-statutory and lawless.” Danas, 13.12.1988. Dragosavac’s “crime” lies in his open hostility to nationalism — compounded by the fact that he is ethnically Serb.
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  13. In a letter to the new Vojvodina party control commission explaining his decision not to appear before it, Djordje Stojsic, the former head of the provincial party, wrote in reference to the official positions of the Federal and Serbian parties: “If one bears in mind that they were announced before the meeting of the Provincial party presidency, then it is clear that … this was an attempt to prejudice and prevent a democratic and principled discussion at the forthcoming meeting of our presidency, in order to force us to offer our resignations unconditionally.” Danas, Zagreb, 20.121988.
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  14. The impression was given that it was not worth defending an unpopular leadership. Why then did the party not argue in favor of new elections, in accordance with its statutes?
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  15. This was for many a surprising result, indicating that a considerable number of Serbian members must have voted against him in the secret ballot.
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  16. Front-page headline in Politika, Belgrade, 20.11.1988. It must be stressed that the Serbian meetings and demonstrations, despite their openly aggressive tone, never resulted in violent action.
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  17. The late Edvard Kardelj, one of Tito’s closest collaborators, was the chief architect of the 1974 constitution that gave wide autonomy to the provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, in recognition of the equality of Yugoslavia’s non-Slav national minorities with the Slav nations.
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  18. NIN, Belgrade, 10.11.1988.
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  19. The Presidency in fact took this position without consultation with the CC, breaking the party statutes in an unprecedented manner.
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  20. Renzi Kolgeci, current joint head of both the party and state organ, said in a recent interview: “As long as I live I shall have before my eyes the picture of those wet and frozen children — what made them march? — and the determination of those who walked to Pristina in such hostile weather.”– Danas, 2agreb, 20.12.1988.
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  21. It is universally known that the Albanian population of Yugoslavia would like to see Kosovo given republican status. Yet this slogan (deemed “counter-revolutionary” by the officialdom) was not raised: the demonstration contained no nationalist charge. In the New Review article cited above, I argued that unless the Federation satisfied Albanian national aspirations, irredentism would grow. This has turned out to be false. Yugoslavia still commands the loyalty of its Albanian citizens-a measure of continued popular belief in the state’s liberating promise.
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  22. When Great Britain, in 1945 still the regional arbiter, tried at the end of the war to reconstitute the older order-under the formula of “national reconciliation” — it discovered that the bourgeoisie’s cause was hopeless.
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  23. During the war, the Yugoslav Communists managed to combine total ideological loyalty to the CPSU with practical disregard for its formula of Anti-Fascist Front. It did attempt, between June and November 1941, to join forces with the main bourgeois parties, but without much success, thanks to its revolutionary outlook. The Chetniks, in particular, decided quite early on that the Communists were a far greater threat than the Fascists, and the short-lived collaboration between them broke off in a bloody denouement.
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  24. The brief parliamentary period was barely more democratic. Miroslav Krleza described it accurately in his biting “Diary of a Parliamentary Comedy,” published in Zagreb in 1925.
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  25. The CPY joined the Third International at its founding Congress, in April 1919. Its first secretary, Sima Markovic, led the “right”: he believed that the national question was a purely bourgeois concern, and that the solution to it should be sought in constitutional reform. He was expelled from the party in 1929, emigrated to the Soviet Union in 1935 {where he rejoined the party after due “self-criticism”), and in 1937 was sentenced as an “agent of imperialism” to ten years in the camps, where he disappeared, sharing the fate of practically all Yugoslav Communists then in the Soviet Union.
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  26. The Soviet Union has always played an important role in Yugoslavia’s own evolution. After the war, having conducted a successful revolution, the CPY firmly believed that revolution was on the immediate agenda, as much in Europe as in the Third World. Its expulsion from the Cominform was a severe blow, since it meant the severing of relations with all other communist parties. The Yugoslavs consequently turned towards the colonial revolution and a policy of non-alignment.
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  27. For example, political trends in Croatia in 1966-71 can be compared to those operating in Czechoslovakia at that time, where the transition from an extensive to an intensive economic development demanded relaxation of economic centralization, increased exchange with the capitalist economies and, of course, greater national independence.
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  28. The loyalty of the army’s top brass to the party, and especially to Tito, was unquestionable. The army’s own intelligence service was placed at the disposal of the party leadership in 1966, the year of Rankovic’s fall. Its role in the events of the late 1960s and 1970s further enhanced its presence within party and state. Yugoslavia is the non-capitalist country where the party’s organization in the army is separation from the rest of the party, having its own representative on the Federal party executive.
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  29. Yugoslav internal politics should always be set in the context of Yugoslavia’s relations with the Soviet Union. Tito, for all his real independence from Moscow, was always careful not to march too far ahead of the rest of Eastern Europe. At this time, Brezhnev’s doctrine of limited sovereignty had just triumphed in Czechoslovakia.
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  30. The sense of ideological impasse encouraged sections of the party, especially in Slovenia, to open a dialogue with new social movements. See NLR interview with Miha Kovac cited above.
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  31. Interview with Pero Jurkovic, professor of economics, University of Zagreb. Start, Zagreb, 10.12.1988.
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  32. There have been even more drastic forms of protest: three workers, in separate incidents, have committed suicide by public self-immolation in the course of 1988; there have also been reports of women textile workers attempting suicide in the workplace.
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  33. January-February 1989, ATC 18