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The Road to Disintegration

There is no question that Josip Broz Tito was integral in keeping Yugoslavia together and keeping various nationalist sentiments in check and under control. But with Tito's death, it was unclear whether the new leadership would be able to do the same. Immediately after Tito's death an awkward 9-member rotating presidency took power and while reforms were attempted, they were often blunted by the bureaucratic process. Politically, the government now based its position on the Leninist vanguard party; the idea that the country would collapse without strong central leadership. As in past debates, Serbia advocated a strong central government while Croatia and Slovenia advocated federalism, if not outright autonomy.

The federalism debate was unfortunately typical of the problems that had been created during Tito's regime and pointed out the inherent flaws with Tito's rule and how he structured the Yugoslav state. One problem was in the federal system itself. The extreme form of federalism that had been practiced focused much of Yugoslavia's political energy on the republics themselves rather than on the central government in Belgrade. Considering that the local governments were staffed by local people, it is easy to see how this system simply reinforced the importance of local ties and loyalties. A side effect of this issue is that while the republics maintained their own industry, the central government controlled fiscal and monetary policy. This meant that poorer republics like Serbia and Macedonia required more capital investments at the expense of wealthier republics like Croatia and Slovenia. This caused considerable resentment between the republics as Croatia and Slovenia did not like to see their money going to support the poorer and perhaps more "backward" republics. Also of note was the structure of the presidency. While Tito was alive, he was president-for-life and most power rested with him. Although he was able to maintain control through his charisma and political skill, he left no successor to the presidency. The rotating 9-member presidency was supposed to provide leadership, but internal squabbles and corruption scandals seriously undermined its legitimacy. For a state like Yugoslavia, there was only so much of this that could be tolerated. By the late 1980s, it was obvious that the situation could not hold. Economically, Yugoslavia was experiencing hyperinflation as Croatia and Slovenia could not tolerate the central government's continued printing of money. The ensuing unemployment that came with the hyperinflation simply made worse the existing social problems in Yugoslavia and increased resentment between the republics.

Into this volatile situation stepped individuals who would become household names across the world. In Croatia, Franjo Tudjman won the 1990 elections in that republic. Tudjman fought with the Partisans against the Nazis during World War II and shot through the ranks after the war, becoming a major general at the age of 40. However, he became disillusioned with what he thought was the Serb-dominated Yugoslav system and he left the army to teach at the University at Zagreb until he was fired in 1967 for his ultra-nationalism. He was later expelled from the communist party and imprisoned twice for anti-communist and anti-Yugoslav activities. Now convinced that Croatia should secede from Yugoslavia, he and his ultra-nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) Party swept to power in the 1990 elections. Once in power he restored Croatia's old flags and symbols, including the fascist Ustase symbols which caused more than a little discomfort among Yugoslavia's Serbs, especially those living in the Croat republic.

In Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic won the 1990 elections in the Serb republic. He had already made a name for himself in Yugoslavia as a Serbian nationalist. In one of his most famous speeches given in Kosovo in 1989 on the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, he called on Serbs to fight for what is theirs and pointed in the direction of Kosovo Polje, saying "Never let anyone do this to you again." Obviously there was no mistaking Milosevic's agenda. Trained as a banker and an economist, he started his career in politics as president of Belgrade city communist party. He rose in the ranks of the party under the mentoring of Ivan Stambolic who was then party leader in Serbia. Stambolic supported Milosevic in the elections for leader of the Serbian Communist Party, much to the dismay of other members. As Milosevic gained power he began to turn against his opponents, forcing some to resign on charges of being "too soft" on Albanian radicals and other similar charges. Embarrassed by the conduct of his protg, Stambolic resigned from the presidency under pressure from Milosevic's supporters. Stambolic would later be murdered in 2000, with Milosevic as the prime suspect in the death of his former mentor. As party leader, Milosevic instantly turned his attention to Kosovo, namely by eliminating Kosovo's status as an autonomous republic in May 1989, leading to protests among the Kosovar Albanians. Two months later Milosevic became president of the Yugoslav Republic of Serbia.

The situation had finally reached a boiling point in 1991 when a new president could not be selected to assume the presidency in the rotation. One candidate, a Serb, resigned claiming that he did not have the necessary power to deal with the situation. The next candidate, Ante Markovic who was a reform-minded Croat, saw his candidacy blocked by one of the other Serb members. While the presidency was debating an end to the leadership crisis Croatia and Slovenia were taking their own approaches to the crisis. Both countries feared Milosevic's possible designs for Yugoslavia. They were worried that he would simply extend his policies in Kosovo to the rest of Yugoslavia and reduce the two republics' autonomy even further. Slovenia and Croatia each declared their independence in June 1991. It was now obvious to all that Yugoslavia was falling apart at the seams.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:30:30 ZULU