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* 12

The Tito Thesis: A Principle of National Equality and Its Application

Matthew Mestrovic

The Communist Party of Yugoslavia, formed at the Belgrade Congress in 1919, accepted Lenin's thesis on the national question.1 In line with the Leninist ideology of the Third International, the party declared the principle of all peoples' equal right to self-determination and independent statehood, while at the same time stressing the international solidarity of the proletariat, transcending the division of mankind into separate national entities.

The Communist Party of Yugoslavia, formed from several small pre-World War I socialist parties and groups, was initially given a strong antinationalist bias by its predominantly Serbian leadership (Sima Markovic, Filip Filipovic, Kosta Novakovic, Trisa Kaclerovic). Proclaiming as its aim the establishment of a "Soviet Yugoslav Republic," the Communist party accepted the concept of "Yugoslavism," the ideological rationale for the formation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, "three tribes of a single nation" formed after World War I. But from the start the party also drew strong support from disgruntled non-Serbs under Serb hegemony, who believed that communism would not only bring social justice but also national freedom and equality.

Thus, clashing perceptions of the national question were present in the Yugoslav Communist movement from the beginning. The Yugoslav

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unitarist view uneasily coexisted with federalist and confederalist visions of the Yugoslav state.

In the 1920 elections for the Constituent Assembly, the Communist party showed strength in Macedonia, the Albanian-inhabited Kosovo, the Sandzak (predominantly Muslim), and Montenegro, regions where national dissatisfaction was pronounced but autochthonous national parties were now allowed to function. In Croatia-Slavonia, the independence-minded Croatian Republican Peasant Party of Stjepan Radic drew most of the Croat vote. The Communist party was not allowed to function and develop as a legal political movement. In 1921, the party was banned by the Law for the Defense of the State, and was forced into the political underground. During King Alexander's dictatorship (1929-34), the Communist party was almost completely destroyed by successful police infiltration and brutal repression. The number of party members dwindled to a mere thousand or so, most of them in prison.

Lack of clarity and consistency in Yugoslav Communist attitudes toward the national question reflected shifting Soviet views on Yugoslavia, dictated by Moscow's interests. As Yugoslavia became an important link in France's anti-Soviet cordon sanitaire policy, Moscow supported some of the centrifugal nationalisms, particularly that of the Croats. But though Moscow endorsed a breakup of Yugoslavia, it also maintained a modicum of ambivalence on this issue, which offered greater room for maneuver. The Yugoslav party, its line dictated by Moscow, thus had the tactical advantage of appealing both to integral Yugoslavism by advocating Leninist democratic centralism and proletarian internationalism, and at the same time to Croat, Macedonian, and other separatist nationalisms by stressing Communist commitment to national self-determination to the point of secession.

After 1935, the Comintern shift to popular front alliance with bourgeois and democratic parties against fascism, facilitated Communist infiltration of bourgeois parties. Antifascist respectability helped the Communists particularly in exerting growing influence over the youth. In 1941, when Yugoslavia was invaded by Nazi Germany and thus drawn into World War II, SKOJ (the Communist youth organization) had substantially more members than the party itself, which still numbered only about 8,000. All these advances (together with training of Yugoslav Communist military cadres in the Spanish Civil War) were preparatory steps which made the Communist party capable of


launching a successful partisan uprising after Yugoslavia's German invasion and dismemberment in April 1941, and Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941.

It was at their fifth land conference, in October 1940, that the Yugoslav Communists, under Tito's leadership, adopted a comprehensive platform regarding the national question under which they fought their national liberation struggle during World War II. Though the party did not propose the formation of a Yugoslav federation of seven national republics, its organizational structure was clearly inspired by the Soviet federal-national model, the party's provincial committees roughly corresponding to historical territorial entities: Slovenia, Croatia-Slavonia with Dalmatia, Bosnia-Hercegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Vojvodina, and Macedonia.2 As for the latter, the view had matured in the Comintern, headed by the Bulgarian Georgi Dimitrov, that the way to resolve Serbo-Bulgarian disputes over Macedonia was to recognize the Macedonian Slavs as a separate nation entitled to their own "state." The Albanians of Kosovo and the Hungarians and Germans of Vojvodina were promised "freedom and equality," and possibly vague and unclearly defined "autonomy." This was the federal plan generally adopted by the two wartime AVNOJ (Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation) conferences in Bihac (November 1942) and in Jajce (November 1943) and formally imple mented at the end of the war.

Yet, friction in the Yugoslav Communist movement regarding the national question persisted. Following the collapse and dismember ment of Yugoslavia in April 1941, while the Soviet-German pact was still in effect, there were some attempts, tolerated or perhaps even encouraged by Moscow, to establish an independent Communist party in the Axis-sponsored independent state of Croatia. Moscow also expelled Yugoslavia's ambassador representing the exiled royal government in London. But time was far too short to form a separate Croat party. In June 1941, the German attack on the Soviet Union was launched, Soviet diplomatic relations with the royal government in exile were resumed, and the Teheran Conference (December 1943) endorsed an Allied commitment to restore the prewar Yugoslav state. Yet, wartime Soviet diplomacy did not completely exclude the possibility of dividing and thus destroying Yugoslavia. At the 1944 Moscow conference between Churchill and Stalin, the day after the notorious percentages agreement to divide Southeastern Europe into

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spheres of influence, Foreign Ministers Eden and Molotov met to work out the details. Molotov wanted to increase Soviet influence in Yugoslavia from 50-50 to 60-40. At some point in the ensuing haggling, "Molotov hinted at the partition of Yugoslavia,"4 but the British were not interested, insisting on Yugoslavia's territorial integrity and on equal influence for both the Western and Soviet sides.

In 1945, Belgrade having been taken by the advancing Soviet forces, Tito and his partisans gained the upper hand over the royalist Serbian Chetniks and implemented the Communist party plan for a federated Yugoslavia. According to Milovan Djilas, the actual borders of the six republics and two autonomous regions were drawn in a rather casual way during informal meetings of the top Communist leaders, Tito, Edvard Kardelj, Milovan Djilas, and Aleksandar Rankovic.5 It is also apparent from accounts by Djilas, Vladimir Dedijer, and others who were privy to discussions in top party councils, that there were sharp conceptual disagreements regarding both the effective power Yugoslavia's republics were to be granted and their borders. Andrija Hebrang, Croatia's wartime Communist party secretary, favored a broadly autonomous Communist Croatia in Yugoslavia as well as seemingly genuine collaboration with followers of the Croatian Peasant Party and even the Catholic Church. But, in 1944, Hebrang was removed from his central political position in Croatia and at the war's end was placed in charge of Yugoslavia's industrial development. In 1948, he was arrested and soon liquidated, on the dual - and bogus - charge of supporting Moscow in its dispute with the Yugoslav leadership and of having been a secret Ustasha mole in the top party leadership during the war.6

During the war Communist propaganda promised freedom and equality to all of Yugoslavia's "nations', and "nationalities" in order to win their support. But, after they seized power in restored Yugoslavia, it became apparent that Tito and his associates were subor dinating the Yugoslav national question to party interests, as the Bolsheviks had done in the USSR. Yugoslavia was nominally a federal state of equal national republics and autonomous regions. The Yu goslav constitution of 1946 proclaimed the right of the republics to self-determination to the point of secession and equal rights for all, including the national minorities (see Annex I). But, in effect, Yugoslavia was a centralized state, ruled by a monolithic Communist


party on the basis of the Leninist principle of democratic centralism that reduced the republics and autonomous provinces to mere admin istrative divisions. The conflict with Moscow that came into the open in 1948 further strengthened the centralist and unitary character of the new Yugoslavia.7 The Yugoslav Communist leadership convinc ingly argued that maximum cohesion and unity was an imperative to withstand Soviet political and economic pressure, and possibly military intervention. Massive roundups of real and alleged "Cominfor mists" (among whom were Croat nationalists and other dissidents) helped mute all internal opposition.8

And yet, the federalist tendency in the party, with a confederalist and even separatist drift, was not permanently repressed and eliminated. In Croatia it reemerged with great force in the late 1960s following the fall of Aleksandar Rankovic, the vice president and the effective head of the security apparatus, whose downfall signaled the temporary weakening and disarray of the secret police. Under younger leaders, such as Miko Tripalo, Dr. Savka Dabcevic-Kucar, Pero Pirker, Srecko Bijelic, and others, the then dominant faction in the Croat Communist Central Committee fought for greater autonomy for the Socialist Republic of Croatia and the transformation of Yugoslavia into a genuine federation. On the fringe of the party, and outside its ranks, were nationalist elements grouped around the Matica Hrvtska and its various publications, notably the Hrvatski tjednik that wanted to go further to a real confederation. Eventually, in December 1971, Tito with the support of the military leaders and the old party cadres cracked down on the Croat ferment. Some 32,000 Croats inside and outside the party were purged.9 Thousands were detained by the police or were sentenced to varying prison terms. Tito insisted on "strengthening democratic centralism and unity of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia."10. But at the same time he permitted the enactment of the 1974 constitutional amendments which gave the republics broader autonomy, particularly in the economic domain, with the long-term unintended effect of fragmenting the Yugoslav economy into increasingly autarkic entities. More recently, the Albanians became the principal threat to Yugoslavia's territorial integrity.11 There were disturbances in 1968, and again in 1979, Tito's terminal year. Tito's policy of improvised repression and concessions did not stop growing Albanian dissatisfaction and nationalism. The Kosovo riots in 1981 were the worst disturbances Yugoslavia had experienced since the war. The demand of the

The Tito Thesis 249

Kosovo demonstrators was a Kosovo republic, that is, that Kosovo be separated from Serbia and become Yugoslavia's seventh republic. The demand was rejected by Tito's successors in Belgrade out of fear of Serbian anger and longer-term implications. The Albanian aspirations threatened to reopen all the other national questions of Yugoslavia. This includes the dangerous problem of Macedonia. The recognition of the Macedonian Slavs as a separate nation did not satisfy the Bulgarians, who continue to lay historic and linguistic claims to the region. The intensity of Bulgarian demands seems to be related, at least in part, to fluctuations in Soviet-Yugoslav relations.

The Tito thesis of national equality was a Leninist principle that actually never prevailed as such in practice. Its application has been subject to whatever served the interests of the party. Tito and his associates made varying and often clashing promises required to en sure a Communist-led victory in the national liberation struggle.12 After the war, the formal and theoretical right of "nations" and "nationalities" to freedom and equality, even independence through self determination and secession, was recognized in the constitution. The various "nations" were granted their own republics, flags, governments, and other trappings of statehood, while the "nationalities" were better treated than national minorities (Hungarians, in particular) in other multinational states of the Danube region.13 But the monolithic character of the ruling Communist party, the principle of Leninist democratic centralism, and the overriding power of the centrally controlled security apparatus, in practice negated much of the substance of "national" and "nationality" rights in federal and socialist Yugoslavia. In the late 1960s, the Croats pressed for broader autonomy which, in time, might have led to the transformation of Yugoslavia into a confederation of essentially sovereign republics. But this process was stopped in 1971 by Tito's "Karadjordjevo" coup.

It may be illusory to expect any permanent solution which would eliminate recurring tensions and clashes. The national contradictions in fact are so substantial and intractable that multinational Yugoslavia's historical viability itself remains an unanswered question.


1. The declaration issued by the Belgrade Congress virtually ignored the Yugoslav national problem, stressing instead the importance of the class struggle


in the newly established state. See Ferdo Culinovic, Jugoslavija izmedju dva rata (Zagreb, 1961), 197-99.

2. Dusan Lukac, Radnicki pokret u Jugoslaviji i nacionalno pitanje 1918-1941 (Belgrade, 1972); Pero Damjanovic, Milovan Bosic, Dragica Lazarevic, eds., Peta zemaljska konferencija KPJ (1W23. oktobar 1940) (Belgrade, 1980).

3. Franjo Tudman, Nationalism in Contemporary Europe (Boulder, Colo., 1981). See particularly Part III dealing with the national question in Yugoslavia.

4. Albert Resis, "The Churchill-Stalin Secret 'Percentages' Agreement on the Balkans, Moscow, October, 1944," The American Hzstorical Review 83/2 (1978): 36S87.

5. Milovan Djilas, Wartime (New York, 1980).

6. Cf. Ivan Supek, Crown Witness against Hebrang (Chicago, 1983).

7. Cf. Krste Crvenkovski, SKJ u samoupravnom drustvu, Medjunacionalni odnosi u samoupravnom drustvu (Belgrade, 1967).

8. According to Radovan Radonjic official Yugoslav data indicates that those who "supported Stalin's views" (and were presumably imprisoned for them) numbered 55,663. Zagreb weekly Danas, August 16, 1983, 11-15.

9. Marko Veselica, T)le Croatian National Question - Yugoslavia's Achilles' Heel (London, 1981), 12.

10. Tito's remarks at the meeting of the Executive Committee of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Croatia, July 4, 1971.

11. Cf. Elez Biberaj, "Kosove: The Struggle for Recognition," The Albanian Problem in Yugoslavia: Two Views, The Institute for the Study of Conflict, No. 137-38 (London, 1982).

12. Tito's article in wartime Proleter, December 1942, outlined the basic wartime stands on the national question of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia. There are separate mentions of the Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrins, Macedonians, Muslims, Albanians, Hungarians, and others, implying their recognition as separate nations entitled to distinct territorial states. The article stressed repeatedly that the national liberation struggle guarantees the "freedom, equality and brotherhood of all the nations of Yugoslavia." In the conclusion Tito repeated the Communist commitment to the principles proclaimed by the "great teachers and leaders Lenin and Stalin," that is, "the right of every nation to self-determination to the point of secession." The victory of the partisans was to a considerable extent due to the stand of the Communists regarding the national question, their commitment to the freedom, equality, brotherhood, and even right to total national independence of all the nations of Yugoslavia.

13. See Chapter 9, above, on Hungarians under Yugoslav rule


The Tito Thesis 251

Annex I

The Yugoslav Federal Constitution of 1946*

(* English text from James Kerr Pollock, ed. , Change and Crisis in European Government (New York, 1947), 215, 218.)

Article 1

The Federal Peoples' Republic of Yugoslavia is a federal peoples' state, republican in form, a community of peoples equal in rights who, on the basis of the right of self-determination, including the right of separation, have expressed their will to live together in a federative state. [The right of "nationalities" to "separation" "secession," that is - was abolished by the 1974 Constitution. See for details Chapter 9.1

Article 13

National minorities in the Federal Peoples' Republic of Yugoslavia enjoy the right to and protection of their own cultural development and the free use of their own language.

Annex II

Statute of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina**

Article 1

The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina is a socio-political community within the Constituent Republic of Serbia.

The Autonomous Province of Vojvodina was set up as an autonomous unit in 1945 by a Decision of the People's Assembly of the People's Republic of Serbia, in accordance with the special features of its histoncal and cultural-educational development and the specific

(**English text from "Supplement 5,, of a paper by Ernest Petrida of the Institute for National Minority Questions in Ljubljana prepared for the Seminar on the Multi-National Sodety, organized by the United Nations in cooperation with the Government of Yugoslavia, Ljubljana, 8 to 22 June 1965. United Nations, SO 235/3 (2) EUR 1965. Working Paper 12.)


national structure of the population, in conformity with the will of the population of Vojvodina.

Article 32

The Hungarians, Slovaks, Rumanians, Ruthenians and other national minorities living on the territory of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina are in all respects equal with other citizens, enjoy the same rights and duties provided for by the Constitution and the Law, and enjoy the full rights to use their native language, and to express and develop their culture and establish institutions ensuring these rights.

The national minorities are guaranteed, in accordance with the law, the rights to express themselves in their native language, using all modern media of information.

Annex III

International Relevance of the Yugoslav Experience Excerpts from a Marxist Analysis by Laszlo Rehak *

( *Excerpts from Laszlo Rehak, Kisebbsegtol a nemzetisegig (Belgrade, 1978), 100 4. On the Rehak analysis, see also Annex I in Chapter 9, above)

The Yugoslav experience regarding minorities has considerable international relevance. The experience of Tito's Yugoslavia can be considered in the vanguard in this field . . . [and] transcends the region of which it is a part. . . .

After World War II the problem of national minorities was for all practical purposes excluded from international context. It was considered to be within the domestic jurisdiction of each country. Tito's Yugoslavia, while it considered the national minority question a domestic issue, to be handled in a socialist and humane way, always kept in view the long-range aspects and never opposed international agreements involving reciprocal commitments and obligations concerning nationality rights.

At the United Nations the minority question received at times little, at other times more attention. So far, the results are meager. . . . However, the time has passed when, as in 1946 at the Paris Peace

The Tito Thesis 253

Conference, the American delegate Bedel-Smith could actually state in reference to the national minorities that: "A citizen of the United States of America has a hard time understanding why racial minorities want to maintain their distinctiveness when they have the option of assimilation." And the English delegate Lord Hood joined him on this question, stating: "I agree, our goal should be that the racial minorities should be assimilated by the countries in which they reside, and not that they should be able to maintain their distinctiveness."

[Also at the Paris Peace Conference, speaking on behalf of the Czechoslovak delegation,] Vlado Clementis said: "The national minorities are constant sources of friction between peoples and states. For this reason, Czechoslovakia hopes that with the expulsion of the German and Hungarian minorities it can become a purely national state. . . . In Czechoslovakia there is no politician, there is nobody, who believes that it is possible to return to the minority policies of the past, the impossibility of which has been demonstrated by experience."

At the Third Session of the Human Rights Commission, May-June 1948, on the motion of India, Great Britain, and bourgeois China, and supported by the United States of America, it was decided to leave out of the proposed Declaration on Human Rights the paragraph dealing with minorities. On this occasion, however, the delegate of Yugoslavia, Joze Vilfan, said: "The Commission must recognize that the melting pot conception is not applicable to Eastern Europe or Asia. . . . Yugoslavia's own experience is convincing testimony that the recognition of the rights of linguistic and cultural groups is important. . . . The rights of ethnic groups do not in every instance coincide with the rights of individuals, [therefore] cannot be protected solely by general declarations of individual rights."

While the Declaration on Human Rights does not contain a specific statement about the minority question, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution on minorities the same day it adopted the Declaration (December 10, 1948). The resolution directs the Economic and Social Council and its organs, the Human Rights Commission and the Subcommittee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities to study minority problems systematically so that the United Nations would be capable of taking effective action for the protection of racial, national, religious, or linguistic minorities. Based on the above resolution and at the behest of the subcommittee,


the Commission on Human Rights adopted Article 27 in its International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [to protect both individual and group rights of ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities]. Article 27 was proposed by the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Denmark and received the active support of many other states. . . . [For the text and a discussion of Article 27, see p. 109 in Chapter 6.]

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