Disintegrating Yugoslavia slights man who united it

October 02, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- Marshal Josip Broz Tito, symbol and creator of a united Yugoslavia, is being cast onto the dustheap of history.

Plans are under way to remove his body from Belgrade's Tito Memorial Center and return it to his embattled native Croatia. This week the army, which was the last Titoist institution, ordered the removal of Tito's pictures and busts from military installations.

But while the icons of the past are giving way to the future in other Eastern European countries, this icon's destruction signals a return to the past. The moves are symbolic of the ethnic disintegration of the country Tito held together as well as the transformation of the Yugoslav army into a Serbian army at war with Croatia.

It is a measure of the stranglehold that the wily, red-haired dictator held on his country's psyche that he is only now facing a tide of anger -- 11 years after his death. Though many Yugoslavs disdain the Tito Memorial Center because of the vast trivia of his life collected there, few until now dared to openly challenge the memory of the man who united Yugoslavia and ruled it with an iron fist for 35 years.

Tito was a dictator par excellence in an age of dictators. He was a contemporary of Stalin and Franco. He kept age-old ethnic hatreds in check while at the same time becoming a

world statesman who gave his country a place in the world. He was a maverick Communist paid lavish court by both West and East but mastered by neither: Instead, he founded the Non-Aligned Movement.

But Tito's Yugoslavia is no more. Serbs, Yugoslavia's larges ethnic group, are asking how Tito, a Croat, ruled Yugoslavia for so long. Serbia, not Croatia, always dominated Yugoslavia in pre-Tito days when the region was known as the "Balkans Powder Keg," its jigsaw of tribes always warring or striking short-lived back-room deals with one another.

Serbia and Croatia are traditional enemies. Tito did all he coul to weaken Serbia's strength, even carving out two semiautonomous regions.

The oust-Tito movement is led by a right-wing Serbia nationalist, Vojislav Seselj, better known by his nickname "The Red Duke." Leader of an armed Serbian extremist movement known as the Chetniks, Mr. Seselj wanted Tito's body cut up into six pieces and distributed among the six republics "as a symbol of the way Tito split up Yugoslavia." But he will settle for its return to Tito's home village of Kumrovec.

A spokesman for the Serbian government offered a mor "reasonable" explanation: Tito should be removed from Belgrade because his body was buried here "without proper permits."

Many Serbian nationalists agree with Mr. Seselj. "The memoria center is a waste of money, and Tito is a dinosaur of the past that has nothing to do with the present day," said Slavica Petrovic, a 37-year-old hairdresser.

The anti-Tito ground has been prepared for several months Articles in the Serbian press have carried old and new allegations "revealing" all manner of Tito scandals. There was the revival of the old rumor that he was a Russian who took the name and identity of a dead Croat. He was said to be a secret Freemason. Legendary stories about his appetite for women were revived.

The press has also argued that the memorial center, Tito's former home in Belgrade's posh Dedinje suburb, loses more than $1 million a year and is a waste of money.

Until this week, it was a shrine for the army Tito created as an elite, highly paid force with a specific mandate to repress ethnic divisions. All the more significant that the force with that mission wants to get rid of his memory.

It also reflects that no similarly towering figure ever emerged to take his place.

The system of government that he put in place to succeed him -- a collective presidency with representatives of each republic and region -- is weak without him, fulfilling all the direst predictions that preceded his death in 1980.

The country's republics have become overwhelmed again by their historic inability to get along with one another.

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