Mark W Hopkins
Mark Hopkins

Fellowship Title:

Yugoslavia: Days of Disenchantment

Mark Hopkins
March 13, 1970

Fellowship Year

Words … Deeds … Words…Deeds … Words… From Borba

“You know,” a Yugoslav friend said during one of those earnest, late night conversations, “our problem now is that we have no purpose, no cause, nothing that brings us together, nothing that excites us.”

It was one of those honest and unencumbered remarks. No modifications, no “however” to dull the bite. It was the type of comment that professional nation-builders here would decline with a bulwark of statistics constructing a society on the move. Melancholy or despondency are not the best fuels for a developing country.

And yet there is an air of intellectual weariness, of indifference and monotony. Perhaps the gray winter overcast takes a toll on the Belgrade spirit. Or the daily immersion in a city where on mornings the factory and train smoke occupies the low areas like a fog, and where the soot from soft coal fires and the exhaust from too many cars and buses packs the air. Or the steamy crush of people filling their string bags in the self-service grocery stores, elbowing a place on the streetcars or engaging officialdom with its purple ink stamps and printed receipts, applications and authorizations.

Before it was temporarily closed down, the Belgrade University newspaper Student published a bitter word portrait of lethargy, of office clerks, for example: “They have well sharpened pencils, sleeves with leather elbows, hare skins on their chairs and tortuous paragraphs on the skin of their little brains. They are traffic policemen of the law, semaphores with three red lights. Their prospects lie in protocols, in patent leather shoes in drawers and file cabinets.”

To this joyless picture, one could add the discussions and meetings of the League of Communists, the Socialist Alliance, the federal executive council, the federal assembly commissions and lesser and more numerous agencies which seem mass produced on an endless conveyor. Once or twice a week Belgrade television gives over prime time, on the single channel, to yet another conference of officials costumed in black suits at tables equipped with the familiar notebooks, microphones and bottles of carbonated water. (“We get lots of comments from viewers about the number of meetings on television,” one station staff member said. “And it is true, meetings do not represent our life; this is not what we do all the time. But we show them, partly because it is a habit of the past. And partly because it is easier to report a meeting than to dig out information on your own.”)

Thus, the words flow out and the press caricatures a stack of verbiage against a small ration of action. It returns now and then to the theme of confused or uncertain direction. It lampoons the notion of upward progress and rosy optimism.

A comment on progress in Yugoslavia by artist I. Gatalo in the weekly Belgrade magazine of satire, Jez

A few weeks back, Premier MitJa Ribicia, was the guest of Belgrade foreign correspondents at a dinner and press conference. Ribicic is a mild looking man of 50, balding with a whitish mustache and gentle eyes. He wears his dark suits inconspicuously and speaks quietly, at great length. His concerns that night were economic growth, price stability, convertibility of the dinar, trade and diplomatic missions to London and Moscow. All very important without doubt (most of the hour and a half press conference was replayed on television the next night) and, like a budget message to congress, all ponderously dull.

What is absent these days, and what therefore nurtures a sense of purposelessness, is a striving for new accomplishment. This November will mark a quarter century of the postwar Republic of Yugoslavia. The past years have recorded sacrifice and deprivation, a share of terror and dictatorship, and no one wishes for the “excitement” of those events. But they also recorded great challenge, first to break out of the Soviet orbit, then to find another place, for Yugoslavia in the world order in the form of a nonaligned bloc and then, in the 1960s, to reform the country’s economic and political structures.

For many years then Yugoslavia was in the, maelstrom. Great powers fought either for its survival or demise. A speech by President Josip Broz Tito had world currency, especially if it contained another condemnation of the Soviet Union. “Titoism” entered the international vocabulary, even if Americans, for one interested group, were unsure where exactly on the map Titoism could be found.

In the sixties, there were new pressures to change the economic model. In 1965, a slow process of handing investment decision over to individual industries was begun. And in 1966, Alexander Rankovic, secret police chief, was deposed, paving the way for “liberal” politicians. (“We were economically ready for the 1965 reform at least two years before it was adopted,” one Yugoslav claimed. “But we were not politically ready for it until 1966.”)

In retrospect, Yugoslavs can summon up headier days of action and change. There was movement, and more importantly, movement toward independence, prosperity and liberty. Reminiscences, of course, tend to compress time and exaggerate action, like an adventure film in which no one seems to attend to the daily cares of eating, shopping, fixing the plumbing, doing the ironing or waiting for the bus.

Now, to a great extent, Yugoslavia has charted out its future. But it is somewhat like an adolescent who is mature enough to have his own visions, but not quite adult enough in his ways to thrash out for their fulfillment. The country therefore seems in that formative stage where, to some, nothing happens quickly and decisively. The counsel is patience and dedication. And the consequence is frustration or disenchantment because the promises have not been transformed into reality as speedily as anticipated. Independence, prosperity and liberty still appear as attainable objectives, but not yet attained. There is a deepening awareness that the dreams are generations away. (one Belgrader explained: “A foreigner comes here, walks around the city and sees the rudeness, the primitiveness. Aha, he says, you see what it is in a socialist country. But that is nonsense. Tomorrow you could have the clerk who is rude work in a capitalist system and he still would be rude. It’s a matter of culture. You cannot change people in 25 years just because you say you have a socialist revolution. It takes a hundred years.”)

Other phenomena are also at work. One, it seems obvious, is a feeling that after so many years in the midst of great affairs, Yugoslavia is now more on the fringe of events.  The Soviet Union and the United States, while still concerned about Yugoslavia’s politics, seem, from here, increasingly occupied with their own negotiations. Contacts, between West Germany, on the one side, and East Germany and Poland, on the other, seem beyond Yugoslav involvement. (Commenting on his then forthcoming trip to London, Ribicic said: “Yugoslavia, as a European country, should be more engaged in Europe. One cannot divorce political questions of central Europe from southern Europe.” A spokesman for the Yugoslav foreign ministry said in a private discussion: “There is always the danger that the superpowers will make agreements to the disadvantage of small countries. They have a right to talk about their own problems, but not to settle international problems on their own.”)

Yugoslavia thus seems intent on exercising a role in European politics, though geographically it is on the periphery. This explains, for example, why the League of Communists sent a delegate to Moscow in January to attend a Soviet sponsored discussion of a European security conference. Yugoslav representation risked the appearance of joint action with the Soviet Union. But that was preferable to being left out altogether.

President Tito’s month long tour in February of seven African and middle eastern countries can similarly be interpreted as a Yugoslav effort to shore up an eroding international status. The old nonaligned bloc-the one imperfectly composed of Nehru’s India, Sukarno’s Indonesia, Nkhrumah’s Ghana, Nasser’s Egypt and Tito’s Yugoslavia-has decomposed, partly because only two out of five leaders (Nasser and Tito) survive in power, and partly because the countries themselves have undergone internal changes that turned them away from the nonaligned cause or because they have drifted toward one or another coalition. Egypt, for example, is dependent on the Soviet Union. Indonesia is substantially pro-west.

But Tito remains convinced, it is evident, that a coalition of the small nations is their hope for survival and gain. The intent now is not only to have a planning conference, but a summit meeting of nonaligned states before the fall session of the United Nations general assembly and to wrench from the jubilee 25th convention “meaningful” action on underdeveloped countries—a condemnation of surviving colonialism, an endorsement of aid and more equitable trade relations between the rich and poor nations. (“Tito wants a UN resolution to take in the underdeveloped world,” a western diplomat said of the president’s African tour. “If he can pull that off, it will be his peak performance. In his 78th year. His last great trek through the world.”)

Still it remains to be seen how expertly Yugoslavia, or Tito, can regroup the nonaligned nations and command influence on global terms. In the meantime, Yugoslavia’s international activities seem dominated by development of financial and commercial links with western Europe-a crucial matter in the country’s long term growth, but not a process that fires the imagination. Perhaps the dilemma lies in this: Tito, a legend in his own lifetime, a world statesman, continues to seek after his own vision of the world order, not least for the benefit of Yugoslavia. But the country itself seems already adjusting to an international relationship in which it will no longer be the daring rebel or innovator but a rather orthodox nation with rather orthodox foreign concerns.

Within the country, a related adjustment seems to be occurring. The economic reform, now five years old, is at a stage where, as Yugoslav officials like to emphasize, it can no longer be called an “experiment.” Self-management is authentic in the sense that management teams, with various degrees of participation by workers councils, do in fact run the factories without directions from a central authority.

Public and private comments flourish when it comes to describing the system. “It is not self-management, it is anarchy,” one friend half joked. There are complaints in the press of management riding roughshod over workers councils, or stacking councils to produce predetermined decisions. And, the reverse, people will say that the workers councils have too much authority and that it is impossible to operate enterprises efficiently when you have to defer to councils composed of little educated, or at least uninformed workers.

Anarchy, however, is not the concept or self-management, but the division of authority between management and labor. Thus, no one anticipates another revolutionary scheme for the economy, but rather attempts to perfect the present arrangement. (In an interview in Ljubljana, a Slovenian trade union official, emphasizing the need to improve factory newspapers, said: “The first law is that people must know the most important facts before the council makes decisions. What will it cost? What is the problem? What will it mean for me and my family?”)

Meanwhile, the reform, despite problems, has contributed to economic growth. And the glimmer, of prosperity brightens. But the prosperity remains at the fingertips, not whole in the palm. Even those who enjoy it fullest are beginning to have qualms about a consumer society. The pace of life in cities seems to be quickening, getting and spending seem to be goals in themselves. These are familiar anxieties among Americans, but they are relatively new here and in some circles it has become faddish-perhaps prematurely to lament the passing of a lifestyle that placed more value on human relations than on material riches.

The model for Yugoslavia, in any case, is not very utopian. “Yugoslavia,,,” said one experienced western diplomat, “is basing its entire future on a controlled form of liberty and a market economy.” For most people here, these are sound enough concepts. But, day to day, the building of a market economy is a technicians’ preserve. It is a career, not a cause. Everyone knows that it is going to be a long time before Yugoslavia_pulls abreast of west European countries. There is no one mighty effort that will transform the country into the great society.

The acceptance of the fact that development is a plodding occupation damps enthusiasm, except perhaps among politicians, economists and bankers who are directly concerned with nation-building. And where enthusiasm could be generated—say, in the cause of Yugoslavia’s own poverty stricken masses—it is put off by the simple and accurate explanation that Yugoslavia is not rich enough to solve its social-economic problems all at once. (Speaking at a conference last January, senior political leader Edvard Kardelj responded to egalitarianisms thus: “Were we then to deprive everyone in Yugoslavia of part of the monthly personal income over 2,000 dinars, we would collect—according to data for March, 1969-61.3 million dinars. If we would divide these funds among the other employed persons, they would receive monthly personal incomes higher by 17-90 dinars.11)

There are rational sounding reasons as well as to why civil rights and political democracy cannot be the object of spontaneous popular,,movements. Yugoslavs, it is said, have not much tradition in democracy. Or, people must be aware that what happens inside the country may bring unwanted consequences from the outside (Czechoslovakia is the current example). Or, socialism must be defended against reactionaries. There is some truth in all of these views. And it is true that people voice their thoughts here with increasing open-hearted abandon. (One official of the League of Communists noted in an interview: “Through our experience, we have given up the idea of monolithic unity. We know well that any society or no society can live without conflicts. If a society is dynamic, then differences of opinion are possible.”)

A cartoon in Jez on the theme -ofrestricted thought in Yugoslavia

Yet, constraints are placed on the interplay of ideas by reference to various “national interests.” The practice of democracy remains on a tether. And although it is a lengthening one, those who strain for added distance feel the harness. Thus, the activists in Yugoslav society channel their energies along accepted routes, or dissipate them in argument and private protest, or only occasionally test the limits with personal action.

It is still inconceivable here that like-minded citizens would voluntarily and privately band together, form an organization, set down their objectives and then agitate for a cause that was substantially different from accepted policies. Most people would not do so, even if it were possible. But for some, the absence of the opportunity is frustrating. It nurtures both hypocrisy and cynicism.

And too often, the first ray of new thought is blacked out. The repercussions are still being felt from two mid-winter sessions at Belgrade University on “Culture and Socialism” when uninhibited criticism of the intellectual atmosphere in Yugoslavia poured out. A sample of the oratory were these remarks by one Dobrica Cosic:

“I call for the creation of full democratic conditions under which all the intellectual forces of society would through an equal struggle and conflict of views and concepts take part in the establishment of an adequate social concept of culture… A society which feels endangered by art is above all a society suffering from delusions. A system which can be overthrown by art and philosophy has no historical justification to continue in existence.”

Only Student, the university newspaper, published excerpts of the speeches, before the editorial board was removed. The Belgrade City organization of the League of Communists initiated a general condemnation of the “Socialism and Culture” discussions (though not on the basis of the remarks just quoted) and the condemnation was repeated in numerous meetings of subordinate party units in offices, enterprises and editorial boards.

The episode illustrated what seems to be a common condition—Yugoslavia has outlived “monolithic unity” but it has not fully accepted pluralistic politics. It is somewhere in the political gray zone.

The same can be said for the economic condition. The country has drawn away from state economic planning, but it has not adopted wholly a market socialism.

And similarly, Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet bloc, but it has not-developed a coalition of its own to lobby on an international scale.

Yugoslavia thus seems in a state of suspension. There is a sense of immobility or stagnation. The national objectives seem hazy. The leadership seems preoccupied with trying to put policies into effect, and less with imagining the shape of the future. Dobrica Cosic, quoted earlier, also issued this dreary forecast:

“If the social development is not directed energetically towards a radical change of the social role and importance of the intellectual and cultural factors, I doubt whether it will be possible to achieve on our soil anything more important than a belated, Balkan variant of modern technological-consumer civilization.”

When one walks the streets of Belgrade, or Zagreb, or Ljubljana, this seems a rather academic statement. The “modern technological-consumer civilization” sounds otherworldly in cities where the citizenry and thus the mores and manners are generally one generation removed from the countryside. But certainly in the next quarter century, Yugoslavia will develop that sort of civilization more rapidly. And it may be because it seems so automatic, so inevitable and so without originality that to some here there is no purpose, no cause, nothing that brings people together or excites them.

Received in New York on March 13, 1970.


Mark Hopkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from The Milwaukee Journal. This article may be published with credit to Mr. Mark Hopkins, The Milwaukee Journal and the Alicia Patterson Fund.