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Socialist Yugoslavia - 1980 - Post Tito

Tito was aware that without him the Yugoslav political system would be a fragile entity. Therefore, in his last years of power he attempted to restructure the system. His preparations for the regime that would follow him emphasized decentralization of power to accommodate the unique structure of the Yugoslav federation: six republics and two provinces of widely varying political and ethnic backgrounds, as well as contrasting economic levels. To prevent yet another occurrence of the hostile fragmentation for which the Balkans had become a symbol, Tito tried to equalize the political power of the republics, minimizing the potential for domination by one republic that might stimulate others to secede from the federation.

The institutionalized political balance that followed Tito's thirty-five years in office had several effects. Regional power meant that federal decision making required unanimous consensus among the republics. The veto power of each republic promoted pressure politics and negotiations outside statutory institutions in the process of reaching consensus; public accountability for decisions was thus obscured. At the same time, the unanimity requirement and equal rotation of top government positions among the republics and provinces fostered regional participation, provided an image of national unity, and prevented the emergence of a new dictator. In fact, no strong national leader emerged in Yugoslavia throughout the 1980s. The system gave the six republics free exercise of formal and informal political leverage on behalf of their own agendas, which often clashed.

Historical regional animosities and ambitions resurfaced in the first post-Tito decade. Serbia, with the strongest leadership of any republic, revived the concept of a strong centralized state under Serbian domination; but other republics, defending their sovereignty in a decentralized Yugoslavia, used Tito's consensual policy making apparatus to block Serbian ambitions. In the process, the LCY, sole legal all-Yugoslav party for fortyfive years, split in 1990 over the question of how much political diversity should be tolerated at the national level. At that point, the viability of the federation (whose demise was widely predicted as early as 1980) came under even more serious scrutiny.

At Tito's death in 1980, the promising Yugoslav economy was in decline because of international oil crises, heavy foreign borrowing, and inefficient investment policies. Economic reform, recognized throughout the 1980s as an imperative step, was consistently blocked during that decade by ever more diametrically opposed regional interests that found little incentive to compromise in the decentralized post-Tito federal structure. Thus, Slovenia and Croatia, already long separate culturally from the rest of the federation, came to resist the central government policy of redistributing their relatively great wealth to impoverished regions to the south. By 1990 this resistance was both economic (withholding revenue from the federal treasury) and political (threatening secession unless granted substantial economic and political autonomy within the federation).

The decade that followed the death of Tito was a time of gradual deterioration and a period that saw ethnic hostility boiling just below the surface of the Yugoslav political culture. The 1980s in Yugoslavia was also a decade singularly lacking strong political leadership in the Tito tradition, even at the regional level. When the wave of anticommunist political and economic reform swept Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, a variety of noncommunist parties challenged the monolithic Yugoslav communist system in place since 1945.

The 1980s brought persistent challenges to the concept of federating the South Slavs. Although the unlikelihood of a union between "Catholic, westward-looking Croatia and Slovenia" and "Orthodox, eastward-looking Serbia" had been viewed as highly unlikely long before secession occurred and civil crisis escalated in 1991, arguments for preserving at least a loose Yugoslav confederation retained much of the logic of earlier decades. All regions of Yugoslavia were substantially interdependent economically throughout the postwar period. Although regions differed greatly in economic level, in 1991 many of the most profitable markets for all republics remained inside Yugoslavia. More important, in modern history only Montenegro and Serbia had existed as independent states, and no republic had been self-sufficient since 1918.

The fall of East European communism at the end of the 1980s intensified the forces of fragmentation in Yugoslavia by finally replacing the decrepit League of Communists of Yugoslavia ( LCY), which had checked political expression of ethnic differences, with an open system that fostered such expression. But separation proved to be no less complex than continued federation. The first obstacle to dividing the federation was disagreement on the identity of its constituent parts -- a result of centuries of ethnic intermixture and jurisdictional shifts. The second obstacle was the fact that the parts were not only diverse but also of unequal political and economic stature.

Beginning in 1990, the Republic of Serbia, still run by a conventional communist regime, attempted to restrain fragmentation by reviving its historical tradition of geopolitical dominance in the Balkans. At the same time, the republics of Slovenia and Croatia used their economic superiority to seek independence on their own terms. The less endowed regions, caught between these contradictory aims, took sides or became pawns. The military and political events of 1991 then intensified the struggle of the diverse parts to achieve diverse aims. In the struggle, each of the political units had a different stake in, and a different perspective on, the theory that a post-Tito Yugoslav federation could work. Ominously, the intractable fighting of 1991 between Croats and Serbs was in many ways a continuation of their last bitter confrontation in World War II--supporting doubts that the Croats and Serbs could remain together in a single political structure.

In 1990 the LCY gave up its stranglehold on national political power. Long-overdue economic reforms began promisingly in 1990 but then slowed abruptly as regions defended their vested interests in the status quo. Already in the late 1980s, a large variety of small parties and factions had sprouted throughout the country. These groups advocated radical, nationalist, environmentalist, regional, and religious agendas. By the first republic elections in 1990, some of the new parties had formed coalitions. The largest of these in Croatia, the right-of-center Croatian Democratic Union, gained a solid parliamentary majority in that republic under Franjo Tudjman, who became president. In Slovenia, former communist Milan Kucan reached the presidency as leader of the diverse anticommunist Demos coalition. In general, although parties with very similar philosophies existed in two or more republics, issues of nationality largely prevented the union of such parties across republic borders.

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Page last modified: 21-09-2013 15:09:04 ZULU