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An Examination of Tito and Yugoslavia

"Achievement makes the man, not man the achievement" says Milovan Djilas in his biography of Tito written shortly after the latter's death in May 1980. At the time of his death over 122 representatives from all over the world gathered to pay homage. This contrasts with the present day where there was hardly any commemoration of his death anniversary. It shows that his image has not withstood the ravages of time and only proves the adage of the poem on King Ozymandias that the" paths of glory lead but to the grave."

Having said that it might appear strange to talk of Tito now. After all neither he nor his creation Yugoslavia exist. So why talk of them at this juncture? True I'm only considering the topic from the perspective of the biography I read of Tito. Apart from the Balkans has been traditionally a tinderbox. Twice there was mayhem in the region in the twentieth century. In 1914 it precipitated the First World War and in the 1990s a devastating civil war erupted there that marked the end of Yugoslavia as a nation.

Tito is considered Yugoslavia's founding father and it's believed it was the force of his personality that held it together. While the Comintern appointed him head of the Yugoslav Communist Party, or 'League of Communists' in 1937, subsequent to the Communists victory in 1944-45, he assumed total control. A control that lasted till his death in 1980 at the age of 88 years. Milovan Djilas however notes that it was a personality with limitations for example as a military strategist. Similarly while he was systematic he was not supported by party functionaries who were likewise. Where I don't agree with M.Djilas is in describing the Communists as a monolithic entity presiding over a plural entity. Let's not forget that in the Yugoslav context he was a 'Hu Yaobong' figure. Also as early as the 1920s and 1930s the communists were split between moderates and radicals. Similarly while Tito according to Djilas envisaged collective leadership after his demise, this wasn't in sync he believes with the party bigwigs and probably led to the rise of men like Milosevic. However I would attribute that far more to the strength of ethnic sentiment in Yugoslavia. It would be appropriate I think in this context to quote Aleksa Djilas writing in a recent issue of the magazine 'Foreign Affairs' in this context:"As time went on, the official concept of Yugoslavia became more and more emptied of the ethnic, linguistic and historical tradition common to all Yugoslavia's national groups. By the 1960s it was almost completely vacuous with Titoist ideology being substituted as a substitute."

Democratization and the 1970 Constitution

Similarly it's been held that Tito was no democrat but let's not forget that the 1970 Constitution marked a significant step towards devolution turning the country into a virtual confederation. At the same time to go the maximum way down this road would have meant ending the monopoly of the Communist party over power which couldn't have been countenanced at that time. That was to come later with the revolutions in East Europe in 1989 and the disbanding of the Soviet Union in that form. Despite this, significant economic reforms towards decentralization were initiated in the 1960s. Whether those were real or cosmetic and resulted only in autarchy and duplication of efforts as Aleksa Djilas would like us to believe is a moot point. However as far as duplication is concerned there is much of that in free market economies as well.

Is there a legacy?

A more complex issue is just what is Tito's legacy? Unfortunately in concrete terms there is nothing except that he unified the Balkans under a single leadership as Ataturk did in Turkey. The difference of course is that Turkey lasted while Yugoslavia didn't.

In evaluating Tito's role we have to bear in mind that one man alone cannot make a country. Everybody has to unite for that purpose. From what events in the 1990s showed considerable elements of the population and their leaders were imbued with ethnic feeling and there seems to be substance in the belief that this was reflected earlier both in the party as well as the intelligentsia. Moreover Tito himself had the weight of history against him, having been born in 1892 in Croatia which was then a part of Austria-Hungary and having served in that country's armed forces against Serbia in the 1914 conflict. The Comintern also played its role in the ideological deconstruction of Yugoslavia by considering it initially a 'prison of nations' and changing its approach only in the 1930s when it was deemed to be convenient as a barrier to Nazism and fascism. That as subsequent events showed wasn't the whole picture and it probably changed yet again with Tito's falling out with Stalin.

Be all this as it may there's no denying Tito was a remarkable leader. He ensured Yugoslavia was one of the architects of the non-aligned movement and enabled a relatively modest country to play much above its weight in world affairs. Therefore Robert West's perspective in his book 'Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia', that Tito's role is exaggerated and that it was held together only by the Communists and secret police is a simplistic assessment as Yugoslavia lasted a full decade after Tito's death. This brings us to the salient point that the process didn't end with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and that now a calculated effort is being made to deconstruct the image of its founder. This is important because we can't ignore the West's hostility towards Yugoslavia as having contributed to its disintegration. This is amply borne out by N.A.T.O. intervention against Serbia in the 1990s civil war and the bombing of Belgrade as well as the selective arraignment of Serb politicians as "war criminals". We have to bear in mind that in war there are no heroes, only the dead and the injured and also that crimes are bound to be committed by one and all. This is particularly so in a region that has traditionally been on a "short fuse" (Achin Vinayak on South Asia). We can only hope it doesn't blow up again and cause a major international conflagration.

Finally this is a subjective account of Tito as it's littered with value judgments, perhaps not surprising as Djilas eventually fell out with the Yugoslav communists and Tito and was imprisoned in successive periods for his ideological tendencies. For those of you interested in a more factual understanding of the period can refer to Duncan Wilson's excellent account in his book 'Tito' Yugoslavia'. As a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia Wilson has brought a wide ranging perspective to the subject even if we may not agree with all of his observations, some of which he hasn't really explained deeply such as that Tito was always a 'soul partner' of the Soviet Union or that the Brionne meeting between Tito, Nasser and Nehru was more important to Nasser than Nehru. Nevertheless Tito is a wide ranging subject and there's no limit to the degree we can go into the subject and these books are a good beginning to understand him and Yugoslavia.



Source by Siddhartha S. Bhadrakumar