Comrade for a day in the former Yugoslavia

by Edward B. Rackley

Once departed, many dictators are reviled and forgotten. Others are respected, even loved, long after their demise. Strange perhaps, and all the more so as their degree of popular endearment isn't always linked to their political deeds while alive, good or bad. A regular surprise in formerly autocratic states that I visit, the public estimation of departed dictators is more often arrived at through comparison with whatever political dispensation fills the void left in their wake. Few seem concerned by the human costs of a demagogue's quixotic quests or the excesses of his unreconstructed id. However Orwellian their experience, people tend to remember the good, not the bad.

In today's multi-polar world a full-blown autocrat is a rarity, although during the Cold War they multiplied like so many mushrooms. In Serbia, the jewel in the Yugoslav crown, Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980) is today neither despised nor idolized. Far greater concerns preoccupy the Serbian political imagination. With two former leaders in The Hague (Milosevic never left), a virulent nationalist movement and its stubborn denial of Kosovo independence, Serbia's ghosts are never quiet. Despite progress towards EU membership and greater economic integration of its ethnic minorities, a stable and prosperous Serbia is still very much a work in progress. While Tito cannot be blamed for Serb aggression and its ethnic cleansing campaigns in the 1990s, the breakup of the Balkans is directly related to the how and why of Tito's pursuit of a unified communist Yugoslav state. Tito-life

And yet on Tito's birthday last week in Belgrade, I witnessed the malleability of national memory as public spectacle. Tito fans converged to celebrate the achievements of their former leader and to indulge their fondness for the cultish kitsch that accompanied his reign (1943-1980). In a large garden on the grounds of the former headquarters of the National Youth League, we were led to benches in the sun, and limitless beer. Trumpets blared and the Yugoslav flag was raised. No one stood as the former national anthem was sung, but all were smiling and singing along. A Tito impersonator bounded onto the stage, launching into a series of tongue-in-cheek speeches. “Everything is changing, except we who remain the same,” he declared to shouts, laughter and applause.

I too could be comrade for a day at this annual reminiscence, an indulgence my Serbian colleagues called “Yugo-nostalgia.” For revelers, the commemoration was more an expression of disappointment with Serbia's inability to meet popular expectations than a wish to resurrect the former Yugoslavia. For everyone there, some of whom were too young to have known Yugoslavia at all, it was a chance to toast the idealization of a warm, fuzzy, and less complicated era. But if life in contemporary Serbia was 'the morning after', life under Tito had been a prolonged honeymoon of state excess and exalted cult of personality–a powerful opiate of the masses in its own right. Given the bloody ordeal of Serbia's recent turbulence under Milosevic, the rosy afterglow of Tito's stewardship was an analgesic for a nation's wounded psyche.

Tito is best remembered for a number of progressive positions that flew in the face of the Cold War's frozen ideologies. Primarily, it was his wish not to be a part of the Cold War at all. After breaking with Stalin in 1952, he adopted a neutral stance in the Cold War, refusing to sign the Warsaw Pact. Along with India, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia, Yugoslavia was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in 1961. Membership was then limited to countries without affiliation to any of the Cold War blocs. Primarily a foreign policy alliance, NAM endorsed the ideals of the United Nations, where it constitutes two-thirds of member nations, including non-aggression, non-interference and cooperation between nations. Its opposition to colonialism meant support for liberation movements in Zimbabwe and South Africa. The Non-Aligned Movement has had to redefine itself since the end of colonialism and the Cold War, focusing on social injustice and underdevelopment in member states, opposition to 'US hegemony', and the inequalities of globalization. Today none of the former Yugoslav states are NAM members; Serbia is an observer. TitoStamp-002

Every May 25th, Tito's birthday, a baton was passed between thousands of runners from the National Youth League, crisscrossing the country to eventually arrive at a grand reception where it would be presented to the former leader in person, before a full stadium in Belgrade, televised nationally. Today Tito lies in state at the “House of Flowers” where hundreds of these batons are on display, each individually hand-crafted and inscribed, many offered by foreign admirers and heads of state.

On what could have been a day of unbridled narcissism and self-congratulation, Tito chose to celebrate the generation that matters most in any nation, its youth. Parents of today's Serbian youth lived under Tito and experienced Yugoslavia's decline, culminating in the region's descent into chaos. A fascinating but turbulent era, during which today's youth were born and came of age. They know nothing of Tito or his brand of market socialism; they were never conscripts of anyone's personality cult. They are Serbian nationals, and will raise their children to be citizens of Europe.

Contemporary Serbia is run by so-called 'partocracy', a denigrated version of parliamentary democracy where ministries are controlled by different parties making up the ruling coalition. The result is a nepotistic allocation of senior posts within each ministry and a predictably uneven performance across government. Key ministries are held by reactionary, old guard parties–Milosevic's former party, for instance, a “symbol of non-reform,” controls the Ministry of Education.

Not all is rosy for Serbian youth today–unemployment is high, the education system is outmoded and ill-adapted to current demands. As a result, emigration and brain drain are common among all ages, but particularly the young. Readily manipulated by political power brokers, they have become the face of Serbian xenophobia and extreme nationalism, burning down the US Embassy in 2008 in protest of Western support for Kosovo independence.

Few in the Serbian political firmament share Tito's unifying vision or his talent for leveraging Yugoslavia's comparative advantages in a bipolar world. Nor do any seem to grasp his insightful cultivation of youth, both to extend his own political shelf-life and to ensure a transmission of national commitment across generations. Yugo nostalgia is fueled in part by difficult circumstances in Serbia today, yes, but Tito's heroism in WWII and his independence of vision during the Cold War set him apart from other autocrats. Extreme Serb nationalism and obsessive denial of Kosovo's independence will, at best, ensure the nation's continued mediocrity. At worst, it will rally idle malcontents into more destructive fury, isolating the country once again as a pariah state. Nothing could be further from how Tito would handle Serbia's predicament and promise today.