This article will feature in Issue 35: Fractured Nations (March 2020)

Josip Broz Tito’s efforts to unify Yugoslavia were instrumental in prolonging the life of the state. After his death, Yugoslavia changed dramatically. His personality and policies were vital in creating uniting and generating a sense of community between the nations that made up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In public, the leader was celebrated and glorified, and seen as a fatherly figure in a time of crisis and political confusion. During Tito’s lifetime, his regime and policies enjoyed high levels of support. However the system he left behind was unstable and ineffective at preserving unity in the long term. His time in power demonstrates how economic factors and individual leadership can be vital in preserving or eroding the social fabric of a population. 

Following World War II, the start of Tito’s time in power was marked by the introduction of a new socialist program and complex federal government system designed  to ensure unity between different ethnicities. This proved effective: ethnic groups lived in peaceful coexistence throughout Tito’s lifetime. Titoism, Yugoslavia’s unique development model, was arguably what held the country together. His reputation rests upon the ‘golden years’ of 1956-1964 during which the bulk of his program was implemented and rates of economic growth and development rivalled the rapidly industrialising Japan. This rapid development promoted feelings of success and progression which generated ties of unity between nations and reduced ethnic tensions through economic integration. Tito’s public reputation and image was nationally and internationally reinforced by the state media.

The personality cult surrounding Tito, or ‘comrade Tito’ as exercise books referred to him, presented him as a folk-law hero of the Yugoslav cause. His personality cult permitted him to respond to socialist expectations of being ‘one of the people’ whilst maintaining a lavish lifestyle of riches, women, and cars. He represented the idea that hard work can pay off, given his seemingly normal Croatian farm upbringing. His popularity throughout the various republics can be seen in his election figures, winning 568 seats to 1 in the 1945 parliamentary elections.  

His personality cult is also present in present-day nostalgia. In 2008, a 33-year-old Slovene told New York Times that: ‘neighbours baked each other cakes, we had a leader we trusted. I remember my mother crying when Tito died. Tito was a romanticised character for youth of all Yugoslavia’s ethnic groups, a point of unity between them. With a Croat father and Slovenian mother, he had a relatable and intriguing public profile, driving rolls Royce’s, smoking cigars and having various love affairs. 

Tito championed himself on improving ethnic relations with his ‘Brotherhood and Unity Act 1963’; national and ethnic symbols were quickly replaced with this slogan. The efficacy of this can be seen in the rise of inter-ethnic marriages as well dramatic increases in the number of people who identified as Yugoslavian between 1970 and 1980. But Tito’s attempts to hold the country together were undermined by widening regional inequalities. The ‘Federal Development Fund’ and ‘Blood Transfusion’ economic policies attempted to address this. But redistribution of wealth across Yugoslavia’s federation generated resentment among the more developed nations like Serbia and Croatia. In Tito’s Yugoslavia these ethnic tensions were kept below the surface manifesting themselves in contradictory ways, progressively intensifying after his death.

Tito’s significance in unifying Yugoslavia is illustrated in the rapid disintegration of the nation after his death. All the work and reforms put in place fell apart with the disappearance of the federation. His heroic public image started to unravel as the inefficiencies of his reforms became more apparent. Titoism’s hybrid market socialist approach, and the use of ‘workers self management plans’, created an economic system that was fragile and precarious, and tricky to balance the needs of the different republics. After his death constituent republics replaced communist ideology with extreme nationalism. The 1974 constitution raised troubling questions about the future of federal Yugoslavia. Serbia in particular viewed it as the root of many problems. In particular, they rejected the limits placed on Serbian control over Kosovo. The dissolution of Yugoslavia was due to Tito’s policies lacking sustainability in the long term: there was no leader capable of continuing them. 

Tito was praised for pursuing good relations with the West, particularly with individuals like Margaret Thatcher. He was the founder of the non-aligned club and was globally applauded for his rejection of Stalin. But this brought heavy reliance on western trade and aid. The abrupt decline of Western aid that came with the economic crisis facing the west in the 1970s had a crippling impact on Yugoslavia’s economy. The scale of the ‘addict economy’ is illustrated in Yugoslavia’s trade figures: 45% of its exports went to Western Europe and 50% of its imports came from western Europe. The American share to the republic totalled $2.5 billion annually by the time of the collapse, stunting long-term growth and development. In the short term, aid and high interest loans allowed the maintenance of artificially high wages and prices and improving social conditions, but in the long term Tito’s Yugoslavia was an economic illusion based on shaky foundations and sustained by his image, charisma and ‘quick fix’ policies. 

Most of the former republics and provinces have acceded to the European Union or are in the process of joining. Ironically, here they will all be reunited in a loose federation with a single market, common currency, and freedom of movement. Perhaps this federation will prove more unifying than Tito’s.