Background: Tito's Yugoslavia

This module provides a brief historical analysis of Yugoslavia, the key role it played as a buffer zone between the West and East during the Cold War and the consequences of this for domestic politics in Yugoslavia. Under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito, who ruled from 1945 until his death in 1980, Yugoslavia's unique geopolitical situation allowed the socialist country to maintain internal cohesion while suppressing nationalistic movements within its constituting six republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, and Serbia) and two autonomous provinces (Kosovo and Vojvodina).

The end of the Cold War changed the international system and its balance of powers rather drastically. Although the Cold War brought about many crises within the Western and the Communist bloc and in the third-world, it created a very stable division of power in Europe. Both the USSR and the U.S. had formed competing blocs, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, to balance each other and exert control over their half of Europe. Crises erupted sporadically within the Warsaw Pact. NATO, however, did not interfere in the internal affairs of the Soviet satellites, since the U.S. was committed to containing the USSR rather than confronting it.
In this well-balanced geopolitical environment, Yugoslavia played an essential role. Its geographic position enabled it to serve as a buffer between the two opposing blocks. Yugoslavia was a socialist state, but it did not side with either of the superpowers. Instead, it maintained its role as an independent socialist state following the uncompromised Marxist-Leninist principles. Because of its highly popular leader, Marshall Bros Tito, and his political acumen, Yugoslavia was able to maintain its independence and, at the same time, reap the benefits of the fierce competition between the two blocks.
Credit: Byron E. Schumaker, White House Photo Office.

Josip Broz Tito in 1971 during a visit to the Nixon White House. | Credit: Byron E. Schumaker, White House Photo Office.

Yugoslavia’s contribution to the Cold War stability is well known. The role that the geopolitical environment played for the cohesion of this multiethnic country however is less well understood. This can be partly explained by Tito’s ability to convince outsiders that he had effectively resolved the interethnic tensions in his country (Stojanovic, 1997). The rhetoric of this highly respected leader about the creation of a supranational Yugoslav identity through “Brotherhood and Unity” was all too readily accepted by the eager western scholars who saw socialist Yugoslavia as a prosperous state and as an antidote to the “evil” Soviet empire. It is precisely because of this tendency that so many Westerners were caught off guard by the violent breakdown of this country. To understand the symbiotic relationship between the Cold War stability and the internal stability of Yugoslavia, this module analyzes the opportunities that this regional stability provided for Yugoslavia.

Specifically, it discusses how Yugoslavia’s position in the Cold War establishment provided it the indispensable balance to maintain its internal cohesion and suppress nationalistic, and, at times, separatist attempts by the constituting nationalities. It also discusses how the prestige Tito’s Yugoslavia enjoyed enabled its leader to borrow extensively from the West and keep the economic problems of the country under check for decades. Yet, it was precisely this privilege that doomed the country once Yugoslavia lost its geopolitical significance, and the West stopped financing its deficits. The discussion then shifts to the rapidly changing international environment of late 80s and the early 90s when Yugoslavia lost its geostrategic importance. The deep economic crisis, greatly exacerbated by the insurmountable foreign debt, accelerated the long-silenced centrifugal forces in the country, and put an end to the Yugoslav state.

That Yugoslavia had an enormous importance for the balance of the Cold War world in Europe is unquestionable. As Pribicevic (1995) puts it, “It was certainly almost without precedent that a country of the size and with such modest economic potential could play such an active and salient role in international politics (P. 331).” Several reasons explain the unique role that Yugoslavia played in international politics. Having defied Stalin in 1948, Tito became the first communist leader to openly stand against the dictator and the fearful empire he had created. Tito rejected Stalin’s desire of controlling Yugoslavia, and made it clear that he wanted to create a neutral and independent country, which, despite its ideological closeness to the Soviets, would retain its sovereignty (Rothschild, 2000).

Although very skeptical in the beginning, the West grew accustomed to the fact that Tito was not merely a Trojan horse of the Soviet Union in Europe and started to believe that Yugoslavia could become a strategic partner in southeastern Europe (Pribicevic, 1995; Bert, 1997). Tito’s courageous defiance of Stalin and the creation of the consequent Yugoslav type of socialism yielded him significant credibility in the eyes of the Westerners. With the death of Stalin and Khrushchev’s repudiation of Stalinism, Tito officially won his moral battle against the USSR.


Tito’s meeting with Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, 1955

This became even more dramatic as Khrushchev came to visit Yugoslavia on May 13, 1955 and approached the Yugoslav leadership with conciliatory rhetoric. While this move led to some easing of the bilateral tensions between Yugoslavia and the USSR, the Soviets were told clearly that Yugoslavia and its people had no intention of joining the Warsaw Pact. This in turn, further convinced the West that Tito’s legitimacy among his people was enormous and that Yugoslavia could play an indispensable role in Europe.

Yugoslavia’s geographic location was another reason for this conviction. This country was located in the strategic Balkan Peninsula and prevented USSR from reaching the Mediterranean. Having played an important role in the past, Yugoslavia’s location now grew to play an even more important role as it was effectively serving as a buffer zone between the two blocks (Pribicevic, 1995). Yugoslavia was not under Moscow’s direct control, and its foreign policies actually contradicted Moscow’s interests. Tito realized the importance of his country and was able to maintain a balanced, although at times fluctuating, position between the two blocks. Officially independent and neutral, Tito’s Yugoslavia had the political space to maneuver and play both competing sides. More importantly, Yugoslavia’s identity was constructed against the background of this fierce competition and Tito was able quell domestic ferment by referring to the external threat coming mostly from the Soviets.

It is certainly true that an independent Yugoslavia located in the strategic Balkans Peninsula was important for the regional balance of power. However, these geopolitical realities played an even more important role in this country’s domestic politics. The fierce competition between the U.S. and the USSR, with Tito keeping a distance from both, allowed the leader of Yugoslavia to draw from virtually unlimited “amounts” of external threat, and use it to put a check on ethnic struggles.

Yugoslavia's geographic location served as a physical and political buffer between the East and the West during the Cold War.

Yugoslavia's geographic location served as a physical and political buffer between the East and the West during the Cold War.

The early strategy that Tito employed in assuaging the ethnic struggles was to mythologize the fact that every ethnic group had contributed to the liberation war against the fascists during the World War II, while hiding other historical facts that pointed to the involvement of certain groups, especially the Croats with the Axis’ side. Nonetheless, the new enthusiasm that followed the end of World War II faded as time passed, and Tito’s myth of a unified Yugoslavia became less appealing. Although important, the epic struggle of the partisans was already seen as history, and the new generation together with the disillusioned communists became increasingly more demanding of reforms. These reforms were most often advocated along ethnic lines. By 1960s, for example, many intellectual groups operating within Croatia were voicing their opposition to the federal government in the media (Lane, 2004).

Tito's domestic policies were crucial in maintaining unity while subduing nationalist interests in this ethnically diverse country.

Tito's domestic policies were crucial in maintaining unity while subduing nationalist interests in this ethnically diverse country.


The fall of Rankovic, the head of the secret service, in the summer of 1966 eased the terror that the Yugoslav secret security (UDBA) had created in peoples’ minds. Consequently, opposition voices were becoming increasingly loud. Student organizations such as Croatia’s Praxis, intellectuals and members of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia started working more diligently towards criticizing the centralization of the country and the federal economic and cultural policies (Lane, 2004). Encouraged by the events of the Prague Spring, 130 Croat intellectuals prepared a declaration and presented it to the local communist authorities. They requested the official recognition of a separate Croatian language in places where Croats lived (Lane, 2004). The movement, however, was not only confined to linguistic and cultural reforms, it also targeted the federalist and centralized nature of the country. Croats were unhappy to see that 80 percent of the country’s trade was conducted through its major ports and that large amounts of hard currency earned from tourism opportunities in this region was spread out mainly across the poorer regions of the country (Lane, 2004; Woodward, 1995). They saw the centralist nature of the state, as the main impediment to Croatia’s further development and achievement of higher living standard, comparable to those in Western Europe.

Photo credit:

Photo credit:

As Lane (2004) argues, the opposition led by both the communists and the intellectuals “took on nationalistic undertones that surfaced periodically to threaten the unity of the Yugoslav state and ultimately overwhelm it” (P. 136). All this amounted to what is often referred as the Croatian Spring, a period of student protests, inflammatory nationalistic rhetoric and general political crisis in the country. For the first time Tito and his closest collaborators realized the real danger the renewed Croatian nationalism posed for the stability and unity of Yugoslavia. It was then that Tito decided to purge the deviating communists in Croatia and put an end to the flourishing public debate, which for some time had been left unchecked (Lane, 2004).

The international arena played an indispensable role in keeping the ethnic discontent limited, as it did in many other occasions when there was social unrest and inter-ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia. The tumultuous times of the late 1960s, culminating with the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, enabled Tito to use one of his strongest tools in maintaining internal cohesion: the external threat. Tito effectively mobilized the entire eligible population, both men and women, and made small army units ready for an armed invasion from the Soviets. The threat was credible and further helped Tito demobilize the nationalist leaders in both Croatia and Serbia proper (Lane, 2004). In Lane’s (2004) words, “[u]sing the old bogey of the security threat to Yugoslavia’s independence posed by Soviet aggression, Tito manipulated the occasion in such a way as to assist in the task of quelling domestic unease” (P. 139).

This last point is essential to understanding the internal stability of Yugoslavia during the Cold War period. The Yugoslav people were prone to believe that, despite the many problems that existed in the country, a potential weakening of the state, which might invite a Soviet invasion, could have far more debilitating effects on their particular regions. The intimidating Soviet army, and the exaggerated threat it posed, allowed Tito to dissuade regional leaders from pushing for major reforms along nationalistic lines. The sense of a common destiny reinforced by a sense of a common peril deterred the nationalistic leaders from pushing too far. Recently declassified CIA documents from the Cold War era confirm this conclusion as they emphasize the effectiveness of Tito’s strategy of using external threat, mainly that of the Soviets, as a strong political tool for keeping domestic affairs in order.

It is important to note that, after the alarming crisis of the 1960s had been partially resolved, Tito and his cabinet produced a new constitution for Yugoslavia in order to satisfy some of the reformists’ demands. Being the fourth constitution produced in less than thirty years, this one made extensive provisions for local self-management to the six republics. It also granted Kosovo the status of a province (Woodward, 1995). Many saw the new constitution as Tito’s last attempt to satisfy all the nationalities (Stojanovic, 1997). The content of this constitution made Yugoslavia a defunct confederation of six republics and two provinces unified by the effect of the external threat posed by the Soviet Union and its satellite protégés in Europe (Woodward, 1995; Lane, 2004, Gagnon, 2004).

Yugoslavia’s strategic importance for the U.S. is well documented. As the former U.S. ambassador in Yugoslavia, Warren Zimmerman (1996), notes “US support for Yugoslavia has been founded on a bedrock of US national interests: (a) to encourage socialist countries to assert and maintain their independence; (b) to encourage the development of alternative non-Soviet models of socialist development; and (c) to promote stability in this historically turbulent area” (P.156). The key role that Yugoslavia played during the Cold War enabled both its federal and its republican leaders to borrow extensively from foreign banks and international monetary organizations (Woodward, 1995; Tepavac, 2000, Bennet 1995; Crnobrnja, 1996).

Tito with Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Carter.

Tito with Presidents Kennedy, Nixon and Carter.

For example, the U.S. controlled International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were more than happy to assist Yugoslavia with extremely favorable loans, in its modernization. With the help of these funds, for a few decades Yugoslavia was able to invest in the newest technologies coming from Western Europe and to improve its competitive advantage in certain sectors of the economy (Lane, 2004). The borrowing had the desired effect in the short run, as it ameliorated the internal economic crisis, which was deepening by the time the oil shock occurred in 1973 due to wrong economic policies, ineffective bureaucracy, and decreasing firm productivity (Woodward, 1995). However, the borrowing had devastating long-term economic effects and their political consequences are discussed in the next section.

It should be noted that the Soviets agreed with the balance of power Yugoslavia provided, and were very reluctant to provoke a military clash with the U.S. by trying to forcefully control the former. The US had made it clear in few occasions after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 that it would not tolerate further Soveit aggression against any neutral country in Europe (Woodward, 1995; Ullman, 1996; Pribicevic, 1995). Granting that the reasons for the Western support were multidimensional and played many functions, the West tried to discourage Yugoslavia with its generous financial and other forms of aid, from aligning to closely with the ideologically similar superpower: the Soviet Union. The Soviets, on the other hand, unwilling to risk a potential world-war, were satisfied to keep Yugoslavia from deviating too much from its “socialist” course and join NATO, which would have significantly tipped the Cold war balance of power (Ullman, 1996).

As indicated earlier, Yugoslavia’s ability to borrow from the West because of the important role it played during the early decades of the Cold War was very productive for the country, but only in the short-term. In the long run, it proved to be Yugoslavia’s weakness. After Tito’s death in 1980, Yugoslavia not only lost its respected leader but also the brand name that had provided the country with so much credibility.

The crisis was further deepened because the republics, after gaining significant control over their regions from the 1974 constitution, had borrowed individually and uncontrollably from abroad (Woodward, 1995). From the total amount borrowed, only 35 percent was borrowed by the central government, whereas the six republics and the two autonomous provinces had borrowed the remaining 65 percent. Oftentimes, the central government was not aware of the borrowing spree happening at lower levels of government (Bennett, 1995).

When the central authorities made serious efforts to tackle this problem, they noticed that the debt had increased to unprecedented amounts. One of the effects of this crisis was that the richer republics of Slovenia and Croatia, due to the disproportionate contributions they were obliged to make for servicing the debt, became increasingly nationalistic and refused to continue doing so. As the gap between the richer and poorer regions increased, richer ones also refused to make transfers to the poorer republics and provinces (Kovac, 1995). By the end of the 1980s, the economic crisis had become so serious that living standards had fallen by over 40 percent and, at one point in 1989, inflation reached 2000 percent (Bennet, 1995). This further fueled ethnic divisions and finger pointing.

In a nutshell, the cheap loans that Tito provided for Yugoslavia, because of his politics of neutrality, helped ameliorate the domestic interethnic tensions, but the failure of repaying them assumed dramatic dimensions during the 1980s. Powerful nationalist and chauvinist forces were released during this crisis, and Yugoslavia was facing its worst political ordeal in the post-war history.

As the political and economic crises of the 1980s worsened, other major changes occurred concurrently in Europe. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 marked the beginning of great social and political change in Central and Eastern Europe. Regimes were falling one after the other, and the region as a whole was swept by nonviolent revolutions. Communism was receiving its final verdict in Europe and by the end of 1992 most communist regimes had fallen. This changing international background had an enormous impact on Yugoslavia and its peoples. When Gorbachev made it clear that he was not going to intervene in any of the Warsaw Pact members’ internal affairs, the external threat and the uniting role it played during the previous decades disappeared quickly for Yugoslavia. The leadership of Slovenia and Croatia, which had grown extremely nationalist during the 1980s, were convinced that their dreams for independent republics had more than a real chance in post-Cold War Europe. As the times were changing, the importance of Yugoslavia was diminishing rapidly (Bennet, 1995). There was no strong Soviet Union for Yugoslavia to play a balancing role.

During these changes in Europe, Yugoslavia could not count on the two greatest contributors to its internal stability: the external threat and the financial support of the U.S. “As a result of these developments” Bennet (1995) argues, “Yugoslavia lost one of the most important credentials it had to justify its specific international position, as a buffer zone between the two blocks” (P. 341). The U.S. clearly shifted its interest away from the region, and it was happy to pass its watchdog role to the European Union. The EU’s unpreparedness seems to have made things worse (Stojanovic, 1997). The EU’s strategy was non-existent or at best confused, and particular EU member states, most notably Germany, were giving signals to Yugoslavia that were actually encouraging a break-up (Woodward, 1995). During the summer of 1991, both Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence. Macedonia followed few months later, and finally Bosnia did the same. This put an end to Yugoslavia and marked the beginning of the worst bloodshed in post-World War II Europe.



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