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Milovan Djilas's (left) relationship with Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito was complex. Asked about Tito toward the end of his life, Djilas simply replied, "I cannot say that we are friends, but neither can I say that we are enemies."

Waiting by the prison gate on a visit to see his father, Aleksa Djilas passed the time chatting with a Romany boy, who was waiting to see his own father. The boy could not believe that Aleksa's father was in prison because of a book. "Did he steal a book?" the boy asked in disbelief. He could not understand that one could be in prison for writing a book.

That was Milovan Djilas's crime. His book, The New Class, was considered a masterpiece of dissident literature during the Cold War, but it more than spelled trouble for its author.

When Aleksa Djilas was born in 1953, the trouble was about to start. His father Milovan was about to lose his position as a close associate of Yugoslav President Josip Broz Tito. Djilas would become the communist regime's first and most prominent dissident.

Aleksa was only 9 years old when Djilas was handed his second term in prison. In his own newly published book, Milovan Djilas: Letters From Prison, he relives his childhood through his father's letters, his mother's letters to his father, and some of his own letters from that time. The first letter was sent to him from prison by his father when he was almost 4 years old. He received the last one when he was 14.

In a recent interview with the Belgrade-based NIN weekly, Aleksa said: "I believed that he [Milovan Djilas] was innocent and that he was right. I saw him more as a hero than a victim. So, I did understand what was going on quite well. Kids can think clearly if they are not confounded by adults."

Milovan Djilas had been one of the leading figures in the Partisan resistance against Nazi occupation during World War II and -- despite their differences -- was a close friend and ally of Tito, the leader of the resistance. After the war, he was regarded by many as second only to Tito in the ruling hierarchy.

His star was at its zenith when he published a series of articles in Borba, the Communist Party's official mouthpiece, describing corruption within the Yugoslav elite and criticizing communist leaders for their lavish lifestyles. After speaking out, however, Djilas was relieved of his official duties and then voluntarily gave up his party membership. In 1955, he was charged with engaging in "hostile propaganda" because of an interview he had given to The New York Times. It was around that time that he began working on his book, The New Class, the first critical account of a communist state written by an insider.

Milovan Djilas
Milovan Djilas

My family lived in Belgrade in the early 1950s, and my mother had vivid memories of Djilas. She did not know him personally, but she remembered him as the only high-ranking party official that one could run into strolling around the city streets, his hands always tucked into the pockets of his signature leather coat. She was among the many readers who admired his articles in Borba.

In December 1956, Djilas was imprisoned for the first time on the "hostile propaganda" charge. He was sent to Sremska Mitrovica, a city in northern Serbia, and ironically the same prison where he had been incarcerated before the Yugoslav revolution, serving three years for having organized demonstrations against the monarchy. (Yugoslavia was a kingdom prior to World War II.) In prison, he used his time to learn Russian -- when he was interned for a second time, he took up English instead. Djilas managed to smuggle the manuscript of The New Class out of prison, and it was published abroad in 1957, becoming an instant hit. It was not published in Yugoslavia until 1988.

The New Class placed Djilas in the dock once again. This time he was charged with being "hostile to the people and the state of Yugoslavia," for which he received a seven-year sentence. Following the appearance of another book, Conversations With Stalin, in which he described the Soviet leader as "the greatest criminal in history," five years were added to his sentence.

He was able to provide a firsthand account of Stalin's rule, having served as Tito's special envoy to Moscow on several occasions since 1943. In January 1948, it was Djilas who was sent to Moscow to inform Stalin that Yugoslavia intended to pursue its own separate path, independent of Moscow. The split was made public in June 1948 and Yugoslavia became the first communist state to break with the Kremlin -- a move that saw the country's stock rise in the West.

While he endured persecution at the hands of Tito, Djilas's relationship with the Yugoslav leader was complex. It seems that friendships forged in war are not easily broken. Asked about Tito toward the end of his life, Djilas simply replied, "I cannot say that we are friends, but neither can I say that we are enemies." It was a very generous assessment from someone who had spent nearly 10 years in a Yugoslav prison.

Djilas was finally released from prison in 1966. He left the country, first for Britain, then for the United States and Australia. Many years later he said in an interview: "Prison transformed me. It transformed me from an ideologist into a humanist." Djilas spent the final decades of his life in Belgrade, writing commentaries, history books, and novels.

Before he died in 1995, he asked his son not to write about his life once he was gone. It was a promise Aleksa Djilas chose to break. "There was nobody else who had knowledge of the events and the people mentioned in his letters -- only I was able to explain many things, in the footnotes. I did not change a word in any of the letters," Djilas said.

Upon reading, the letters reveal the emotional and political journey of a man who believed that he could repair socialism from within -- and make it more democratic. Djilas became an unrelenting opponent of the one-party state, of totalitarian government, and a defender of basic human rights. His life and struggles encapsulate the 20th-century history of the Balkans and beyond -- and like all who lived through it, he bore the scars of both the victories and the defeats.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic (left) and Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic gave the impression of performing a mildly unpleasant but unavoidable duty, doing their best to project an image of harmony and friendship.

Relations between Serbia and Croatia are at their lowest ebb in years. Belgrade is upset with Croatia for blocking its path to EU membership. Croatia would like Serbia to change its laws and renounce what it sees as Belgrade's tendency to act as the "regional policeman."

There are other issues, too. Serbia lodged an official protest with the EU over a recent exhibition at the European Parliament celebrating the life of Croatian Cardinal Alojz Stepinac, a hugely controversial figure. Stepinac was sentenced as a Nazi collaborator after World War II, yet he was in the process of being beatified by Pope John Paul II before he died. There are some indications that he may have opposed the racist and murderous policies of the wartime Nazi puppet regime in Croatia. His beatification is currently on hold.

But all this was hastily swept under the carpet on June 20, when Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic met Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Both gave the impression of performing a mildly unpleasant but unavoidable duty, doing their best to project an image of harmony and friendship. Trying to act like responsible adults, they repeated platitudes about the importance of regional stability and peace.

Yet for both parties, the summit was a welcome respite from growing troubles at home.

Vucic was no doubt happy to be away from Belgrade, where he would have to face continued questions from journalists over the delay in forming a government. He could also temporarily ignore the pressure being put on him by Moscow to include ministers that would meet with Putin's approval. By comparison, it was much easier to spend time with Grabar-Kitarovic, exchanging views on minority rights, missing people, and fixing the border between the two neighboring states, than having to report to Putin or run the domestic media gauntlet.

Meanwhile, the denouement of an unprecedented political crisis was unfolding in Zagreb. An overwhelming majority of parliamentary deputies voted for a motion of no confidence in the government on June 15, leading to the dissolution of the Croatian parliament and paving the way to fresh elections. Apart from Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic, the biggest casualty of the crisis has been Tomislav Karamarko, the deposed leader of Grabar-Kitarovic's party, the opposition Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), which is now looking for a replacement. All of this puts Grabar-Kitarovic in a bind, as the shape of any new government is likely to be less to her liking.

WATCH: Serbian and Croatian leaders have taken part in a series of symbolic gestures in a renewed effort to repair strained relations.

Serbian And Croatian Leaders Meet Aiming To Mend Relations
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Yet as if the country's deepening political crisis was not enough, the president waded headlong into the fallout from the actions of Croatian fans at the ongoing Euro 2016 soccer championship. A group of Croatian fans threw flares during the match against the Czech Republic and fought with fellow supporters in Saint-Etienne on June 17. The troublemakers were promptly branded "sports terrorists" by the Croatian team's coach, and Grabar-Kitarovic poured oil on the fire by referring to them as "enemies of the state, and haters of their homeland," calling for an emergency meeting of the government to deal with the issue. (There were fears that the Croatian team might be ejected from the competition, but in the end the Croatian Football Federation escaped with a 100,000-euro [$113,395] fine and the threat of a ticket-sale ban.)

After meeting with representatives of the Serbian minority in Croatia, Vucic and Grabar-Kitarovic took a short helicopter ride to the Serbian town Donji Tavankut. It is a village near Subotica, in northern Serbia, with a majority ethnic Croatian population. Welcomed with applause by the locals, they visited an art gallery and attended performances organized by local cultural associations. It was a rather unlikely choice of location for Grabar-Kitarovic's first visit to Serbia.

Agreeing To Disagree

Despite the cordial atmosphere, the most divisive issues between the two countries remain. Talking to Croatian TV before the meeting, Vucic claimed that he was ready to open any question. Yet some questions are clearly more difficult to broach.

"I am aware that if we invoke certain emotional topics, we will not find common ground. If we were to talk about the Croatian 'Storm' [the military operation that led to Croatia's liberation in 1995] 99 percent of Croats would see it as a heroic event worthy of celebration. At the same time, 99 percent of Serbs would consider it as the darkest day of their life because Serbs were expelled from their homes."

Neither Vucic nor Grabar-Kitarovic are ready to deal with the issue of Operation Storm. Serbia is still not ready to accept its responsibility for starting the war, while Croatia is not prepared to start a serious discussion about the crimes committed during its liberation. Their solution is to respectfully agree to disagree.

It seems that both Vucic and Grabar-Kitarovic imagine relations between the two countries in which Serbs recognize the Croats' right to celebrate Operation Storm, while Croats respect the Serbs' laments over its outcome. Conflicting truths about the most painful period in recent shared history are somehow meant to coexist, without affecting mutual relations. Repressing collective emotions and refusing to face the facts -- by both sides -- is surely not the basis for any meaningful progress and regional cooperation.

Perhaps in spite of the sound bites about meaningful talks, the leaders' summit will not achieve anything apart from its symbolic importance -- but in relations between Serbia and Croatia, neighbors and erstwhile foes, symbols count for something.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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