07/01/2013 09:09 am ET Updated Aug 31, 2013

Yugoslavia Could Have Been a Leader


In the early 1980s, the citizens of Yugoslavia enjoyed a distinct comparative advantage over their counterparts in East-Central Europe. Yugoslavia's per capita GDP was the best in the region. True, $3,230 might not sound like a lot of money, but the closest competition in 1982 was Czechoslovakia at $2,980. By comparison, Poland's was only $1,540 and even Portugal topped out at only $2,500.

Money was only one factor, and perhaps not the most important one. Yugoslavs could easily travel. Many worked in Western Europe, sending money back home to their families and returning periodically to build new houses in the countryside. There was relative freedom of expression -- emphasis on relative -- and Yugoslavia's music, literature, films, and philosophy were the envy of its neighbors.

It's not surprising, given its relative material wealth and relative freedom, that Yugoslavia was first in line of all the Communist states for consideration as a member of the European Community.

"Yugoslavia profited from the Cold War as a bridge between the East and West and with the Non-Aligned Movement," Mijat Damjanovic explained to me in an interview last October in Belgrade. "The interests were not only political but economic as well." As an independent Communist country, for instance, Yugoslavia benefited from an early influx of U.S. economic assistance.

A lawyer who went to school with Slobodan Milosevic, Damjanovic is a specialist in public administration and has also been a key person in the democratization of Serbia. He had high hopes for Yugoslavia when the Berlin Wall fell, even though the country would lose its crucial position as a bridge.

"I expected that the Yugoslavia would be a more prosperous country," he continued. "And I predicted that our country, because we were far ahead of Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, would have a meaningful role in the dissolution of the Cold War during this period. Yugoslavia could have been a leader and done something good for itself and for its neighbors."

Instead, of course, Yugoslavia became the region's foremost negative example, something to be avoided at all costs.

The problems began much earlier than 1989. In the early 1980s, Damjanovic explained, "We were oriented toward the past, always talking about our historical glory, our heritage: the victory in World War II, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, our prestigious position with respect to surrounding countries. This focus on the past helped to create the wrong image of the future. After that came all the tragic brutalities of the war."

In our conversation, we spoke of these missed opportunities for both Yugoslavia and for Serbia, the rise of nationalism, the changes in public administration, and how Slobodan Milosevic went from an unassuming law student to a power-hungry politician.

The Interview

It's an interesting idea to think of Yugoslavia playing a pivotal role in the transition in the region as a whole. Before 1989, it was often held up as the best candidate from East-Central Europe to join the European Community. What was the moment when you realized that Yugoslavia was not going to play that role?

Several facts convinced me that Yugoslavia would fall apart. But I did not predict such a severe dissolution, such a brutal war. I was a member of the Alliance of Reform Forces, the reformist party of Ante Markovic, and I was the leader of that party in Serbia for nine months. After that it was Ivan Djuric and after that Vesna Pesic when it became the Civic Alliance. The League of Communists of Yugoslavia failed completely in keeping the country together, and it too fell apart.

The second attempt to save Yugoslavia was through the army. I didn't think that would work either. There was no one in the army with a vision of how this country could develop. They were just soldiers. It wasn't like those situations when the military has a coup d'etat and then returns politics to the civic sector. The headquarters of the army was very closely connected to the Serbian government, with Slobodan Milosevic.

I was surprised when Milosevic became the head of the Serbian Communist Party. Ivan Stambolic was the more able man for this peaceful transition. Milosevic very easily developed an authoritarian personality. He was my colleague, you know, from our student days at the school of law. I knew him for many years. He completely changed. He didn't start out as such a closed man, a man who pushed aside colleagues and friends to advance his career. The unification of the League of Communists, the Army, and the structures connected to Milosevic -- all of them more oriented toward the Soviet Union -- was not a good sign for Yugoslavia.

I was also surprised that the international community couldn't predict or prepare for the very brutal dissolution of Yugoslavia. We were for many years a stable society. I spent 10 years in the Institute for Social Science where I worked for the Center for Research in Public Opinion. We conducted several surveys of attitudes of Yugoslav people about, for example, national identity. We conducted surveys of opinion makers. All the results demonstrated that people felt that Yugoslavia was a united country. Of course, there were problems. We learned later, for instance, that some of the export companies here in Belgrade were under the control of the Serbian government and the secret service. Slovenia and Croatia complained that they didn't have any part of this profitable business. But I didn't know this at the time.

I had a lot of contacts with colleagues all over Yugoslavia through the International Political Science Association. We started discussing such topics as civil society and NGOs, even though these were forbidden ideas. Although Belgrade University was bigger and intellectually stronger than the universities in Ljubljana and Zagreb, the first initiatives appeared in those countries before they appeared in Serbia. On practical issues, they were ahead of us.

Whenever there were these nationalist eruptions, our state became weaker and weaker: in 1971, in 1981, and finally in 1991. Every ten years there was a pressure on the system, and the system didn't have a defense mechanism to prevent or slow down these tensions. Ante Markovic was my very good friend, but he made a mistake. He knew economics. But he didn't understand how dangerous those people were who wanted to transform Yugoslavia along the lines of the Soviet Union.

I didn't believe that our army should intervene, and I was so shocked when it did in Slovenia. This wasn't such a dramatic event, I suppose, since only two people were killed. It was not such a strong reaction by the army. It wasn't sure how to tackle the problem with Slovenia. Milosevic clarified the situation by saying that there were no Serbs in Slovenia. But where are the Serbs? And so he created another policy toward Croatia where a number of Serbs have traditionally lived along the boundary established centuries ago to protect Europe from the Turks. These Serbs were very involved in the army. And then there was Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Serbs formed the largest population up until the late 1960s. Milosevic didn't think that Bosnia or Croatia could be allowed to leave Yugoslavia. He took political advantage of all these tensions.

The peaceful proposals to save Yugoslavia failed. You probably know about these ideas, like the one from Macedonian leader Kiro Gligorov for a looser federation. I was very close with Gligorov. I cooperated with him for many years and visited him twice when he was president of Macedonia.

When I was at the Institute for Political Science in the 1960s, I was the head of a survey to research the chances for economic development in Yugoslavia. This was the first attempt to convert to the market economy. But we failed under the pressure of the student riots in Europe. Tito backed away from the reforms. He didn't want the radicalism to spread to the universities. Our command economy remained in place. We maintained full employment, but it was inefficient from an economic point of view, just as it was in the Soviet Union. I visited Russia several times. At the Hotel Rossiya on Red Square, on practically every floor there were administrators, old ladies whose job it was to check everything. It was definitely false employment. We realized back in the 1960s that this could be a problem, that we had to modernize the society, rationalize and professionalize all the institutions. But we definitely overestimated our human resources. Especially in the 1980s, a lot of young people quietly left Yugoslavia.

Our drama started after Tito's death in 1980. For several years there was relative peace, and people still believed in Yugoslavia. But we did not have the economic resources to develop our society. And we didn't have complete economic integration. Every republic tried to create its own economic base. According to our research, only one-tenth of the economic enterprises were typical Yugoslav companies. Everything became too politicized. We were oriented toward the past, always talking about our historical glory, our heritage: the victory in World War II, our leadership of the Non-Aligned Movement, our prestigious position with respect to surrounding countries. This focus on the past helped to create the wrong image of the future. After that came all the tragic brutalities of the war, and this exposed everything.

How do you view the emergence of the nationalist movements at the end of the 1960s -- Tudjman in Croatia, Izetbegovic in Bosnia, a similar movement here in Serbia? Tito suppressed these first organized assertions of republic autonomy. Could there have been a different path at that point?

To read the rest of the interviews, click here.