Tito’s restive heirs

The Serbs touch off an ethnic turmoil

JOHN BIERMAN October 24 1988

Tito’s restive heirs

The Serbs touch off an ethnic turmoil

JOHN BIERMAN October 24 1988

Tito’s restive heirs



The Serbs touch off an ethnic turmoil

In 1976, at 83, Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito set up an elaborate collective leadership arrangement to take effect af-

ter death or illness removed him from power. “I can leave any day without anything changing,” he declared. Still, when the charismatic Second World War guerrilla leader died in 1980, there were widespread concerns that the patchwork federation he had dominated for 35 years would disintegrate. Now those fears are taking on new urgency as Serbia, the largest of Yugoslavia’s six republics, tries to increase its share of power—to the rising alarm of its federal partners. Said Milan Kucan, president of the northwestern Republic of Slovenia, last week: “It is high time to sober up, to stop this senselessness which is driving us to ruin.”

Behind the reawakened nationalism of Yugoslavia’s nearly nine million Serbs, which for

the past three months has plunged the nation into ethnic turmoil, is a leader as forceful in his way as Tito: Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Serbian Communist League. He is a tough-talking, cigarillo-smoking 47-year-old who claims to favor “the policy of the hard hand.” Close associates say that he sees himself as the new Tito. Yet many non-Serbians appear to believe that, in reality, his policies may upset the delicate balance imposed by Tito and designed to prevent any of Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups from dominating the rest.

Already Milosevic’s attempts to tighten his grip on Serbia’s two autonomous provinces— Vojvodina, where the majority are ethnic Hungarians, and Kosovo, where the majority are ethnic Albanians—have increased tensions throughout the nation of 23 million. And heightening the unrest is the country’s economic crisis—a $26-billion foreign debt, a

217-per-cent rate of inflation and 15-per-cent unemployment. Against that background, the federal Communist leadership will meet this week, and an expected purge of its ranks— likely to be the largest since Tito came to power in 1945—may heighten the crisis. Indeed, some high-ranking officials throughout the country are even warning that the current discontent could lead to civil war.

As party leaders in four of the country’s six republics met late last week to prepare for Monday’s Central Committee session in the national capital, Belgrade, police tightened security across the country. But the atmosphere was especially tense in Kosovo, where the rickety federation’s ethnic, regional and economic grievances seemed to converge. At the request of the Serbian leadership, the federal authorities sent militia forces to the province last week, ostensibly to protect the local Serbs and Montenegrins against attack by the 90-per-cent-Albanian majority there. They apparently feared a repetition of the ethnic riots in Kosovo seven years ago, during which 11 people were killed and scores were injured.

But leaders of the province’s 1.7 million ethnic Albanians claimed that the real reason for the militia’s deployment was to bring Ko-

sovo under tighter Serbian control and to intimidate those who wanted the province to break free and become a federal republic. One activist, a university-educated professional who, like all his comrades, sought ano-

nymity for fear of official reprisal, said, “This pretext [that the militia had come to protect the minority] is a 100-per-cent lie.” But, gesturing toward the mountains of neighboring Albania, he seemed to give credence to Serbian fears that if Kosovo were to win republic status, it would swiftly secede. “We are Albanians first,” he said.

Yugoslavia’s ethnic Albanians clearly have cause for resentment.

The country’s relatively prosperous northern republics of Slovenia and Croatia—and much of Serbia, as well as the Dalmatian coast, with its picturesque cities, spectacular sandy beaches and tourist resorts—present a sharp contrast to the poverty of Kosovo. A Maclean’s correspondent who toured the province last week described Pec (population 112,000) as a city of open sewers,

resembling a Palestinian refugee camp, where the horse and cart are as common as the automobile. Similarly, Pristina, the provincial capital of 216,000, is a huddle of crumbling and half-finished apartment blocks lining potholed streets. The unemployment

rate in Kosovo is 60 per cent—four times the national rate—and those who do have jobs earn an average of $96 a month, about two-thirds of the national average.

Yet the province has natural wealth. Hy-

droelectricity from the mountain rivers of Kosovo flows over giant pylons straddling the arid landscape to feed the cities and factories of the north. Minerals extracted from beneath Kosovo’s mountains are also sent northward. But local activists allege that the

province receives few material benefits in return. Their resentment is directed mainly at the Serbs, the most visible and intrusive of their northern neighbors.

In more prosperous Vojvodina, Serbia’s

other autonomous province, whose leaders are also under pressure from the Milosevic administration, economic resentment is less acute. Still, Vojvodina’s Magyar majority have traditionally considered themselves second-class citizens because their provincial status is inferior to that of a republic. And those feelings were clearly heightened when, two weeks ago, demonstrations by tens of thousands of Serbian militants forced the resignation of all the provincial party leaders who oppose Milosevic’s attempts to bring them under tighter Serbian control.

Following their success in Vojvodina, Serbian militants then turned their attention to the small neighboring republic of Montenegro. Only the vigorous intervention of paramilitary police in Titograd, the Montenegrin capital, broke up demonstrations

aimed at unseating the local party leadership. But last Thursday, the Serbian militants took their revenge on Lazar Djodjic, the Titograd security chief who had sent in the police to subdue them. Apparently under pressure to placate Milosevic and their own important

Serbian minority, Montenegrin party chiefs asked for Djodjic’s resignation—and got it.

Although Yugoslavia’s non-Serbian leaders blame Milosevic’s pan-Serbian ambitions for much of the country’s current turmoil, they acknowledge that the economic crisis is also

a major factor. They say that Milosevic’s nationalist rhetoric would be less spellbinding to the Serbs if, like their fellow Yugoslavs, more and more of them were not being pushed below the poverty line by inflation and unemployment. Living standards in many parts of the country have fallen to the levels of 20 years ago, observers say. And Slovenian party leader Kucan was plainly referring to Milosevic last week when he lashed out at “those who are manipulating the people’s misfortune.”

This week, when the central committee of the federal Communist party meets,

it will probably carry out a massive purge. Stefan Korosec, a member of the federal Politburo, said last week that he and other leaders were drafting a list of high officials to be dismissed. According to Korosec, most prominent among them was Stane Dolanc, the 62-

year-old head of national security, who has been targeted for dismissal by Serbian militants. They hold him responsible for failing to anticipate the 1981 Albanian riots in Kosovo. Meanwhile, party sources said that up to one-third of the 23-member Politburo and

one-third of the 165-member Central Committee might also be dropped. It was not clear whether Milosevic was on the purge list. But many observers considered it unlikely that his fellow party leaders would risk the crisis that his dismissal might cause. Indeed, they said that the federal leaders’ apparent willingness to sacrifice Dolanc—once considered Tito’s heir apparent— indicated that they were anxious to placate Milosevic.

Another major item on the agenda will be changes, proposed by Serbia, to the 1974 federal constitution that would remove some of the autonomy currently en-

joyed by Kosovo and Vojvodina. But those changes would likely only deepen the crisis. Said one Kosovan activist last week: “We want peace, but if we have to fight to keep what little independence we have, we will.” While Tito’s heirs prepared to confront the

turmoil, both Western and Soviet Bloc officials showed concern over events inside Yugoslavia. Under Tito, Yugoslavia had been the first—and only—Eastern Bloc nation to break free from Soviet control. And despite Josef Stalin’s 1948 boast that “I will lift my little finger and there will be no more Tito,” the country has remained nonaligned ever since. Clearly, under Stalin—or any of his successors until the advent of Mikhail Gorbachev—the Kremlin would have been tempted to take advantage of Yugoslavia’s turmoil to draw it back into the Soviet Bloc. Said Aurel Braun, University of Toronto political scientist and Eastern European expert: “It is a good thing that the Soviet Union is now led by a man more concerned with internal problems than foreign adventures.”

Still, nationalism is on the rise across Eastern Europe, and Milosevic’s brand, if unchecked, could have consequences beyond the borders of Yugoslavia. Bulgaria, for one, already has a major problem with its Macedonian and Turkish minorities, while Romania has jeopardized its relations with Hungary by imposing harsh measures against its Magyars. And while turmoil in the Balkans would not likely become the trigger for world war, as it did in 1914, the region could still revert to what it was in the early years of the century—a powder keg.