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Interview: Tito 'Symbol Of Better Times' For Ex-Yugoslavs, Historian Says

Josip Broz Tito speaks at the first congress of the anti-Nazi union of Serbian youth, Belgrade, June 1, 1944.
Josip Broz Tito speaks at the first congress of the anti-Nazi union of Serbian youth, Belgrade, June 1, 1944.
Thirty years after his death and nearly 20 years after the disintegration of the Yugoslavia he helped create, Yugoslavia's longtime ruler Josip Broz Tito still commands affection and respect, a unifying figure in a now deeply divided region.

RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas spoke with Sabrina Ramet, professor of political science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, a senior research associate with the Center for the Study of Civil War in Oslo, and the author of a dozen books on the former Yugoslavia, about what Tito means to the region.

RFE/RL: Thirty years after his death, is Josip Broz Tito still relevant? How does he compare, for instance, to figures like Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and Poland's Wojcech Jaruzelski, who ruled at about the same time?

Sabrina Ramet:
There's absolutely no comparison. Because if you go to Serbia or Croatia or Bosnia-Herzegovina today -- even, to some extent, Slovenia, though to a much, much lesser extent -- you'll find that there is still a cult of Tito. Tito continues to be ranked as very popular among people; there's a certain nostalgia for the Tito era among the people there.

In some cases it is a sort of blind nostalgia, but in many cases it's a more critical nostalgia, where people do remember that there was a harsh side to the Tito era as well, but nonetheless they value things -- such as the fact that it was a time of peace, a time of unity; it was a time when Yugoslavia was a larger and more important player than any of the successor states which we have now.

And it was a time when -- certainly in the 1960s into the mid-1970s, we can say, roughly speaking from the time of the reform, which went from 1962-65 until about 1974 -- it was a time when you had improving and rising expectations.

So, all of these things make Tito a symbol of a time which was in some ways better. Tito had a charismatic personality -- if we talk about Jaruzelski and Brezhnev as examples, then neither one of them was charismatic. And Jaruzelski in particular is remembered as having introduced martial law in Poland, so he's on balance more negative than positive. But Brezhnev is interesting, because in the Soviet case it was a time when there was a kind of stability and the terror of the Stalin era was certainly well behind them.

RFE/RL: Yugoslavia after World War II was a country whose re-creation was guided by Tito's heavy hand. But as a multiethnic country, much of it a remnant of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Yugoslavia was also a throwback to earlier times. To what degree may Tito be said to be responsible for the course of events in Yugoslavia's re-creation, and to what degree were they shaped by larger historical forces?

The major actors in play during World War II were the Partisan movement led by Tito, which wanted to have a united Yugoslavia; then you had the Chetniks, which wanted to have a very large, ethnically cleansed Serbian state; and then you had, in fact, two more important actors, and that was the [Ante] Pavelic regime in Croatia and the [Milan] Nedic regime in Serbia -- both of which were Axis collaborationist regimes.

Both of these [regimes] were oriented very much toward the Nazi new order, and bought into a lot of the thinking of the Nazis, including the cult of the countryside, the cult of tradition, the rural tradition, manipulation of history, racialism, and so forth. The cult of the village was particularly strong in Nedic's Serbia.

But these two states -- these two collaborationist regimes, let's put it that way -- were oriented toward truncated states. Pavelic didn't have a notion of ruling over all the area that had been Yugoslavia; nor did Nedic, for that matter. So they had different goals. In terms of the dynamics of history and where things were pushing, it was only really in the field, it was only really the Partisans or the Chetniks who would have been pushing toward a reunited Yugoslavia.

And in Tito's case, after VE [Victory in Europe] Day -- which of course was in May [1945] -- he had to continue with the struggle against the Albanians in Kosovo who wanted to have Kosovo joining Albania, and that was put down by force. It took until the second half of July 1945 before that resistance was crushed by the Partisans.

Breaking With Stalin

RFE/RL: When he was in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, Tito apparently worked for the Soviet secret police. Later he memorably broke with Stalin and led what has been called the most independent socialist regime during the Cold War. How much did Tito owe his rise to Stalin?

This is, of course, a very complicated question. Certainly, Tito, as part of the apparatus in Moscow, for a certain time was learning, we could say, the tools of the trade. But when it comes to the actual war and what was liberated by the Partisans versus the Red Army, [then] the Red Army played only a certain role in the northeastern part of the country. The rest of it was liberated by the Partisans and by, we could say, the fortunes of war -- because as the Axis weakened, the Nazis, for example, were withdrawing some of their troops out of the area to put them elsewhere.
Stalin was prepared to go to war against Tito.

So it was the fortunes of war plus the Partisans. The Partisans certainly did do some serious fighting against the Axis forces. And it was because of that that the British, even before the Americans, saw that [as] Tito and his Partisans were fighting, the Chetniks were playing a double game [with the Axis], [and were] increasingly more on the Axis side. So the British terminated their supplies to the Chetniks, and were by the latter part of the war supplying exclusively the Partisans.

RFE/RL: But what brought about the break with Stalin? Tito is said to have been at least twice on the brink of war with the Soviet Union.

I think it's actually the other way around. Stalin was prepared to go to war against Tito. Tito's forces were much smaller than anything that Stalin could have brought to bear, so war would not have been in Tito's interest, quite the contrary.

There were many, many sources of tension, but basically, the roots of it were that Stalin expected Tito to follow his orders, but Tito wanted to be his own man. Tito wanted to be Stalin's ally and Stalin had in mind that Tito would be his puppet, if you like.

At one point, Stalin asked Tito -- well, told Tito -- to come to Moscow and Tito wouldn't go, he said he was a bit ill, and sent [communist politicians Milovan] Djilas and [Edvard] Kardelj instead. Stalin wasn't very pleased about that.

Bela Kiraly, who was in the Hungarian armed forces at the time of this break between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia [and later led the Hungarian forces against the Soviet Union in 1956], wrote memoirs in which he described preparations for an invasion of Yugoslavia by Soviet-bloc states. It would have involved an attack coming from the direction of Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria -- a three-pronged attack.

According to Kiraly, it was called off at the last minute when the United States responded with force in Korea and Stalin thought to himself that if the United States would respond over Korea -- which Stalin considered less important -- then how much more likely would it have been that the United States would respond in Yugoslavia, which, in Stalin's mind, was a more important country. So he backed off and had a very rapid demobilization of forces in the three countries which I mentioned, which were at troop strengths which exceeded the levels which were allowed under peace treaties.

Tito The 'Liberal'

RFE/RL: Tito turned Yugoslavia into a relatively liberal version of a socialist country -- he seemed to have been on a tangent when it came to the rest of the socialist bloc -- patching up relations with the West, opening the borders for travel, etc. Do you think that, given time, Yugoslavia might have converted itself into a Western country, perhaps even joined the European Union?

Well, this is something that would have had to be worked on, at the latest, in the early part of the 1980s, because the longer one got into that decade, the more the economic and political problems were worsening.

And once you have [Slobodan] Milosevic in power -- which, of course, is the latter part of 1987 -- he had his program. His first choice was that he would be centralizing power in Belgrade under his control and he would be the new Tito. And his backup plan was that he would expel out of the country Slovenia and portions of Croatia and possibly also Macedonia, and then take the rest under his control -- either all of Bosnia-Herzegovina or most of it, most of Croatia, etc.

This was his backup plan, and that's of course the plan which led to the war. And he made active preparations in connection with realizing that plan, and these preparations included importing arms from the Soviet Union, moving factories out of Bosnia-Herzegovina to Serbia. It also included the confiscation by the army of the weapons held by the territorial militias in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Slovenia -- although in the Slovenian case, some of the weapons were actually retained by the Slovenes. There was more to his plan than that, but these were certainly key preparations for the war.

Frankly, when I look back at when the crucial turn was, when it was really the last time for Yugoslavia to move in the direction of liberal democracy...well, let's say the best chance for that would have been back in 1971.

I actually had a conversation with Latinka Perovic, who was the secretary of the Serbian [Communist] Party at the time -- I had a conversation with her in 2004 -- and she said to me that this Croatian Spring [of the early 1970s] was not about Croatian separatism; it was about trying to reform the system, make it more liberal, make it more open. And, of course, it was quashed by Tito because Tito felt it was undermining his power.

RFE/RL: Would you say that ultimately it was the unresolved interethnic tensions that caused Yugoslavia's transition to democracy after 1991 to be the most violent and bloodiest in Eastern Europe?

The root cause of the problem was the illegitimate political system. It was not a legitimate system, it was a system based on one-party rule. And even though that one party was fractured into six -- and then, for a while, even eight -- regional party organizations, there was in terms of its ideology and program certainly a single party -- and up to a considerable point.

And you had, of course, control of the media, not as tough as in some of the other communist countries, but you did have control and surveillance of the media. And you had a system in which the churches were very discontent.

There was a lot of feeling that the system was illegitimate, and an illegitimate system fosters resentment, fosters discontent. And within the context of its being a federalized system, in which you did have quite a bit of power devolved to the six republics, the discontent was going to be expressed through these channels.

It was the illegitimacy which produced the tensions, and then you have this framework which conditioned it into ethnic lines. So I would say the ethnic problems were a product of the illegitimacy of the system. That's a shorthand way of putting it, but it gets to the essence of it.

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