Forty years on, Tito’s legacy still a hot topic

Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito [L] with former UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill [C] and former foreign secretary Anthony Eden [L] in London, 1953. Tito was the first communist leader to officially visit the UK. [Wikimedia]

A benevolent unifier or power-hungry dictator? On the 40th anniversary of his death, the legacy of the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito remains a subject of debate in the Balkan lands once united by his grip.

There will be no official state ceremonies on Monday (4 May) to honour the 40th anniversary of Tito’s passing in the countries that emerged from the bloody unravelling of his socialist Yugoslavia.

But faithful devotees are expected to pay their dues — though in small numbers due to coronavirus restrictions — at his marble grave in Belgrade and his native village of Kumrovec in Croatia.

With a mix of charisma and coercion, Tito held Yugoslavia’s diverse patchwork of peoples together for almost four decades until his death at age 87 on May 4, 1980.

Without him, the federation lasted only a decade longer before fracturing along ethnic lines in a series of wars that claimed more than 130,000 lives.

Decades later, the Marshal’s shadow falls unevenly across the countries that still bear the scars of those conflicts.

His popularity has waned in places such as Croatia and Serbia, where nationalistic sentiments still hold strong sway.

But strains of Yugo-nostalgia, as it is known, can still be found across the region among those who pine for the open borders and prosperity that elude the poor countries today.

Aleksandra, a 48-year-old in Montenegro, remembers an “organised, respected and large country, and I associate this with Tito”.

“I felt a sense of belonging in Yugoslavia,” she added. “The last three decades have been a regression in every sense: economic, social, cultural.”

Freedom within limits

Tito has always defied easy categorisation.

Born to a Slovene mother, Croat father and married to a Serb, he seemed to embody his vision for a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.

The leader of a socialist state also had a taste for glamour and hosted a range of glitterati, from Hollywood stars to British royalty, at his many villas.

And unlike other communist countries, Yugoslavs enjoyed broad cultural freedoms and opportunities to travel to the West under Tito, who broke ties with the Soviet Union.

“He was not a democratic leader but for an average citizen he provided a far more liberal life compared to any other European communist country,” said Vedran, a 57-year-old economist in Zagreb.

But Tito drew a line when it came to criticising his state.

Thousands of his political opponents were purged and thrown in jail under his watch, while hundreds are estimated to have died.

The total number of the regime’s victims has never been officially established.

Gordana, a 77-year-old pensioner in Belgrade who declined to give her last name, told AFP she “never liked” Tito or “his communists”.

“His regime confiscated our private property and imprisoned those who thought differently,” she said.

Accused of encouraging a personality cult by some, Tito’s image was once ubiquitous and his name graced a town or city in each of Yugoslavia’s six republics and two provinces.

In the years since, his name has been scrubbed out while many photographs and monuments have also been removed from the public eye.

But Stanko Vasic, a 57-year-old mechanic, still hangs a photo of Tito in his garage in Sarajevo.

As the most multi-ethnic part of former Yugoslavia, Bosnia also had the most to lose from the nationalism that fuelled the 1990s bloodshed.

“Morally and ideologically, there is nothing left of Tito today,” laments Vasic.

“I am thinking of equality, justice, education, health for all, labour rights… Those in power today are not capable of remaking everything he had built.”

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