In Serbia and most former-Yugoslav republics, May, it seems, was, is and will be, at least for another few decades, the month of Tito. Not only does it start with the International Worker’s Day, but Tito was born, celebrated his official birthday, and died in May.
He was born on 7 May 1892 in Kumrovec, Croatia, to a Croat farmer father and a Slovene mother. Whatever one thinks of his achievements and ideology, the path that took this peasant kid, Josip Broz, to becoming Tito, “the greatest son of Yugoslav nations and people” was as winding as it was riveting.
He started off unpromisingly as a locksmith in an imperial backwater, after finishing only four years of school. However, rather than languishing at the bottom of the very stratified society, the tumult of the early 20th Century saw him rise through the ranks, first as a fencing champion of the Austro-Hungarian army, next as a Bolshevik revolutionary in Russia and finally as the leader of victorious Partisans in the very bloody World War II in Yugoslavia.
His extraordinary ability to navigate through turbulence and emerge on top helped him remould Yugoslavia after the horrors of inter-ethnic strife and genocide, and, later, to maintain a precarious balancing act between “the West” and the Warsaw Pact and found the Non-Aligned Movement, built on anti-imperialist principles. This ensured considerable, if not sustainable, prosperity for Yugoslavs, especially given the tragedy the country sustained during the war and the poverty of its constituent nations.
During his 35-year reign over Yugoslavia, he was celebrated by his people through kitschy excesses of baton-passing ceremonies and choreographed performances organised for his official birthday on Youth Day (25 May).
When he passed away, on May 4, 1980, Yugoslavs mourned him en masse. The tears that were shed were probably less for Josip Broz and more for Tito, the demi-god who brought prosperity to our tragically fraught region.
In many ways that mourning for Tito lasts to this day and even affects those, who like me, were only born in the final years of Yugoslavia. Throngs of ex-Yugoslavs, disenchanted with their current leaders, flock to Tito’s tomb, often wearing T-shirts saying “Come back Tito, all is forgiven”. Tito and Yugoslav aesthetics have become a staple of hipster décor across the regio
Tito-nostalgia is present on almost all sides of the political spectrum in Serbia. The current government routinely compares its achievements and popularity to Tito’s, while even the progressive opposition often sees Tito’s era as something to look up to in terms of social and foreign policy. The persistent lack of vision and ability displayed by political leaders across the region for the past three decades, makes many wish for the future to resemble our Titoist past.
This is understandable as it is easy to see Tito’s time as a golden age because in many ways they were the best times this region has ever had. A walk through the museum of Yugoslavia reveals Tito’s impressive international clout which led him to found the Non-Aligned Movement, with Nehru and Nasser, and to be decorated and respected by European royal families, as well as communist leaders in Africa and Asia.
A friend of mine often mentions how his father, the son of rural day-labourers, managed to rise to become an ambassador just though merit in Yugoslavia’s free education system. My father still likes to brag to his foreign friends how workers in Yugoslavia not only had jobs for life, but also company-bought flats and cheap holidays on the most beautiful stretches of the Adriatic coast.
However, as an acerbic foreign friend of my father’s once quipped: “If it was all so good, how come you ended up here?” Unfortunately, it is difficult to separate Tito’s admirable achievements from the shameful way Yugoslavia ended, as well as the darker foundations of his time in power.
The obverse of Tito’s golden age included strong censorship, where even Tarzan comics were burned as a danger to the system. The system was an increasingly sclerotic clientelism, where accountability was second to political affiliation.
Most tragically, there were thousands of political prisoners who were imprisoned occasionally for only hints of affiliation with the royalists or Stalin.
The system that Tito built had few checks and balances or space for dialogue and was easily weaponised by people like Milosevic, a former Yugoslav Communist Party apparatchik, to fuel chauvinism and brutally deal with dissent.
Unfortunately, the toxic parts of Tito’s legacy proved more resilient than the socialist gilding. Control of the media with an iron fist, labelling political opponents as traitors and a lack of substantial political debate has been passed to his successors on all sides.
The view that politics is about imposing certain values, be it liberal or conservative, onto the unenlightened populace is still a common theme in our political discourse, from Vučić’s goal of imposing a “protestant work ethic” onto Serbs to the opposition’s view that simply copy-pasting European practices will make Serbia a functioning democracy.
It is paradoxical that many Serbian liberals are also fond of this approach. Nenad Prokić, a former member of the pro-European Liberal Democratic Party, once infamously quipped: “Serbia will become a modern state, with Serbs or without them”.
Another problem with desiring a Titoist future is that many of Tito’s admirable feats are simply impossible in the current environment.
The end of the Cold War meant that there were no longer two great powers to balance between, which proved to be the undoing of Yugoslavia.
The structure and logic of globalised capitalism does not currently allow a country like Tito’s Yugoslavia to pursue large investments in industrialisation, let alone keep unprofitable companies and expansive social security systems afloat.
Technological advances made many of the jobs Yugoslavia provided obsolete. Scars from the civil wars of the 1990s and the persistently toxic and chauvinist political discourse in all countries since, make any idea of regional rapprochement impossible.
On the flip side and most promisingly, the protests against media control and corrupt political elites that occasionally flare up across the region show that an increasing number of ex-Yugoslavs have learned not to give blind trust to big leaders.
My generation, who have only seen the dusk of Yugoslavia and the flare of its implosion, have to live with the fact that we will not experience the benefits of the Titoist age that our parents enjoyed.
The quicker we shed the illusion that the future of Serbia and the region will be a Titoist heaven of jobs for life and cheap holidays in Hvar, the sooner will we be able to formulate cogent alternatives to our current state.
Although this sounds dispiriting, we should take a leaf out of Tito’s book and make sure we make the most out of the situation we are in. Indeed, 126 years ago, probably no one in Kumrovec dreamt that a humble farmer’s son would become one of the most iconic leaders this region has ever seen.
Srdjan Garcevic is a writer and a founder of The Nutshell Times blog.
This article was published in BIRN’s bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.