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Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia








The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (Socijalisticka Federativna Republika Jugoslavija -- SFRJ) came into existence in 1945 as a state with nominally socialist political institutions, dominated until 1990 by a single communist party. In that forty five year period, the country's political structure evolved in three major stages: as an orthodox member of the monolithic Soviet-led communist bloc (1945-48); as a nonaligned communist dictatorship (1948-80) whose slogan was "brotherhood and unity" among its constituent republics; and as a decentralized federation, with no dominant leader and most aspects of political power centered at regional levels.

The Yugoslav nation-state had begun as the dream of nineteenth-century idealists who envisioned a political union of the major South Slavic groups: the Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, and Bulgars. But by the twentieth century, each of those groups, as well as a number of smaller ethnic communities within their territories, had experienced centuries of very diverse cultural and political influences. Under these limitations, the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later renamed the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) was formed as a constitutional monarchy after World War I.

The interwar period was dominated by the competing claims of Serbian and Croatian politicians -- the former dominating the government and supporting a strong centralized state, the latter agitating for regional autonomy. King Aleksandar, a genuine believer in the Yugoslav ideal, sought to unify his country by a variety of political measures, including dictatorship, but he was assassinated in 1934. Lacking a tradition of political compromise that might forge a national consensus, Yugoslavia remained divided as World War II began. More than three years of Nazi occupation yielded bloody fighting among three Yugoslav factions as well as with the invaders.

Two results of that war had particular impact on the postwar condition of Yugoslavia. The first was a vivid new set of memories to kindle hostility between Serbs and Croats, the majority of whom had fought on opposite sides in the occupation years; the second was the emergence of the unifying war hero Tito, who became dictator of a nonaligned communist federation. After declaring independence from the Soviet alliance in 1948, Tito also modified Yugoslavia's Stalinist command economy by giving local worker groups limited control in a self-management system. Although ultimately dominated by the party, this system brought substantial economic growth between the early 1950s and the 1970s and made Yugoslavia a model for the nonaligned world.

Two economic policies unknown in orthodox communist countries contributed greatly to this growth. Allowing laborers to emigrate to Western Europe as guest workers brought substantial hard currency into Yugoslavia and relieved labor surpluses at home. And opening the country's many scenic beaches and mountains to Western tourists provided a second reliable source of hard currency, which proved especially useful when other parts of the economy declined during the 1980s.

In his later years, Tito began restructuring his government to prepare it for the post-Tito era. The last decade of the Tito regime paved the way for a power-sharing government-by-consensus that he saw as the best hope of binding the federation after his regime ended. The 1974 Constitution gave substantial new power to the republics, which obtained veto power over federal legislation. This tactic also kept Tito's potential rivals within small local fiefdoms, denying them national status. Both the government and the ruling LCY became increasingly stratified between federal and regional organizations; by Tito's later years, the locus of political power was already diffused.

In the meantime, in 1966 the repressive national secret police organization of Aleksandar Rankovic had been dismantled, yielding political liberalization that led to major outbursts of nationalism in Kosovo (1968) and Croatia (1971). Although Tito quelled such movements, they restated existing threats to a strong, Serb-dominated central government, a concept still cherished by the Serbs. The 1974 Constitution further alarmed the Serbs by giving virtual autonomy to Serbia's provinces, Kosovo and Vojvodina.

In spite of ongoing conflict and fragmentation, many aspects of life in the country as a whole underwent significant improvement in the post-World War II period. A fundamentally agrarian society was industrialized and urbanized, and standards of living rose dramatically in most regions between 1945 and 1970. The literacy rate increased steadily, school instruction in the country's several minority languages became widespread, and the university system expanded. A national health care system was developed to protect most Yugoslav citizens, although serious defects remained in rural medical care. The traditional patriarchal family, once the most important social institution in most regions, lost its influence as Yugoslavs became more mobile and as large numbers of women entered the work force. In these same years, Yugoslavia adopted a unique economic planning system (socialist self-management) and an independent foreign policy (nonalignment) to meet its own domestic and security needs. In these ways, by 1980 Yugoslavia had assumed many of the qualities of a modern European state. In the following decade, as Western Europe moved toward unification in the 1980s, acceptance into the new European community became an important national goal for Yugoslavia.

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