World

The Old Man’s toughest war

Peter Lewis,Michael Dobbs January 28 1980
World

The Old Man’s toughest war

Peter Lewis,Michael Dobbs January 28 1980

The Old Man’s toughest war

World

Yugoslavia

Peter Lewis

Michael Dobbs

Rarely had a sickbed been watched so attentively. As doctors in Yugoslavia prepared ailing Marshal Josip Broz Tito for his second operation, last weekend, the world fretted that the 87-year-old Yugoslav president’s severe illness, so soon after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan—“it could hardly come at a worse moment for everyone,” groaned an aide to West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt—might trigger a crisis far more dangerous to world peace than the rumble of Soviet arms in Asia.

Anxiety was particularly strong in Western Europe. Officials in London, Bonn and Brussels, scanning the daily bulletins on the health of the man who had defied first Hitler, then the Soviet Union, expressed undisguised alarm that Tito’s demise could tempt Moscow to try in one way or another to bring his country back into the fold. At the least, it was feared, the fragile patchwork of peoples that constituted Yugoslavia would be severely strained, igniting tension in the Balkans, the historical powder keg of Europe.

The panic was most visible at NATO headquarters in Brussels, where intelligence officers in midweek leaked reports to newsmen of troop buildups in neighboring Hungary and Bulgaria, only to backtrack when Washington denied that any unusual military movements had taken place on Yugoslavia’s borders. (The intelligence men later talked of “ordinary manoeuvres by the Hungarian army in the region of Pecs.”)

As Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher announced in London that Britain would back Yugoslavia’s independence, and dispatched five warships to the Mediterranean—ostensibly to relieve American warships heading for the Persian Gulf—NATO planners revealed to Maclean's that the West’s first contingency move in the event of a Soviet or East Bloc incursion would be to “seal off” the Adriatic from Trieste to Albania.

Another Atlantic Alliance military expert took a longer-term view, however. “We do not expect the Soviets to march on Belgrade for the present, if only because of the world outcry over Afghanistan and the divisive effect an invasion would have on their Warsaw Pact partners,” he said. “The crunch could come six months or a year after Tito’s death, if Yugoslavia starts to fall apart or gets drawn into quarrels with its Communist neighbors in the Balkans.” (Yugoslavia and Bulgaria have long had an axe to grind over Macedonia, while Hungary has complained often to Belgrade about treatment of a Hungarian minority living in northern Yugoslavia.)

Other military circles, too, admitted that the immediate threat might have been exaggerated because of a gut reaction to Afghanistan. In fact, NATO’s tendency to link the Afghan emergency to European security alarmed political leaders. Schmidt last week let it be known he was angry with NATO Commander General Bernard Rogers for creating “unnecessary nervousness” by lumping Afghanistan and Europe together at a press conference. (Rogers said that Afghanistan had driven home the message that the Atlantic Alliance needed to be prepared to act outside its members’ borders, a theme which President Jimmy Carter was playing with in preparing for his State of the Union message. See page 28.)

Fears for Yugoslavia also prompted the European Community to announce moves to build stronger economic ties with Belgrade. Yugoslavia has a $3-billion annual trade deficit with the EC, an enormous figure for an economy of its size but peanuts compared to the political price of watching the country lose its independence.

Meanwhile in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, only a few miles from his old country hideaway on Lake Bled, the man known universally to Yugoslavs as “Stari” (The Old Man) was fighting the toughest war of his life. Yugoslav sources spread the word that the president had resisted medical advice from his doctors for the amputation of his left leg. He wanted to be remembered, it was said, as a man of action and vitality—not as a chronic invalid.*

While Tito battled on, machinery prepared by him for his succession slipped swiftly into gear. A collective leadership made up of representatives of Yugoslavia’s many different nationalities met in emergency session and issued a call for national unity. The army was placed on a state of alert, mainly as a symbolic warning to the Kremlin.

As in the West, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan—a founding member, like Yugoslavia, of the Non-Aligned Movement—was interpreted as an ominous sign of an aggressive new Soviet mood. Yugoslavs remain convinced that Moscow has never entirely given up hopes of regaining control over their country. In recently published memoirs,

*Ironically Tito’s brother, Slavko Broz, survived for several years after having both legs amputated. He died, aged 75, in 1973.

a former ambassador to Moscow cited three reasons why the Kremlin should wish to do so: it would make the Soviet Union a Mediterranean power; it would create a monolithic socialist bloc in Europe; and it would put an end to talk of “independence and equality between Communist countries, an idea first raised by the Yugoslavs.”

The Soviet threat, however, was not the only one. There was a broad consensus on the need to continue Tito’s policy of nonalignment abroad and his idiosyncratic, free-market brand of socialism at home. The problem was that Tito himself had been the linchpin of the system: without him, might not everything fall apart?

With that in mind many Yugoslavs recalled that Tito had spoken of the army’s role in keeping the country together in the event of another major crisis—defending not just Yugoslavia’s borders but its constitutional order as well. Also, during extensive tours around the country last year, he returned to one theme above all others. Speaking off the cuff and with obvious feeling, he urged Yugoslavs to maintain “brotherhood and unity” between their different nations. It was as though he sensed that the real threat in the future would come not from without—but from within.