The ruling Communist Party, posing a political crisis in already unstable, ethnically diverse Yugoslavia, split into rival factions during a special congress Monday, only hours after the party had voted to renounce its monopoly leadership role in the government.
The split in the party that has ruled here for 45 years came late Monday when delegates from Slovenia, richest of the six republics in the Yugoslav federation, stormed out of the congress of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, as the party is formally known. The walkout came after the Slovene delegation had been soundly defeated in a series of reform proposals.
Stepping to the podium after his delegation had been continually thwarted in attempts to add reform amendments to the central party platform, Slovene party leader Ciril Ribicic declared: “We are leaving because we do not want to share responsibility for the agony of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia.”
Some of the delegates from conservative Serbia applauded derisively as the Slovene delegates filed out. At the same time, liberal Croatian party leader Ivica Racan expressed dismay at the loss of his Slovene allies and called for the congress to be halted. But Serbian hard-liner Slobodan Milosevic insisted it continue and that a new quorum be constituted.
Party leaders from Slovenia, where a strong secessionist movement already exists, denied they are seeking a breakup of the Yugoslav federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces.
“With this gesture we are just trying to accelerate the movement toward democracy, not only for us but also for other republics,” said Petar Bakes, a senior leader from the Slovene capital of Ljubljana.
But since Marshal Josep Broz Tito founded the national party in 1945, it has been one of the few unifying elements in Yugoslav society, and the split could have far-reaching ramifications for future unity. Officers in the Yugoslav army and national police forces, for example, are required to be Communist Party members. Without the membership of Slovenia and possibly neighboring Croatia in the central party organization, the composition of these institutions could be affected.
Nevertheless, Western diplomats cautioned against overreaction to the party split. “The party has been losing authority for some time,” one said. “I don’t think this necessarily leads to the dissolution of the country.”
Earlier Monday, as it renounced its monopoly on leadership, the party also voted to accept participation of rival political parties in elections.
But the party membership, dominated by conservative Serbian delegates, soundly defeated a range of other reform moves, including a proposal to restructure the party along Western European Socialist lines.
In addition, Serbian delegates successfully blocked two human rights amendments to the party platform tied to alleged mistreatment of Albanians in Kosovo, one of the autonomous provinces inside Serbia. One of the defeated proposals called for the release of Albanian political prisoner Azam Vllasi, whose arrest and trial on charges of “counterrevolutionary activities” has been widely criticized in the West.
Even if the national Yugoslav party can keep its Slovene members, the congress’ actions gave mixed signals about the party’s commitment to radical reforms such as those in other Eastern European countries. By crushing reform efforts by the more liberal republics, hard-liners may have alienated important parts of the population.
“I came to this congress to save the League of Communists of Yugoslavia,” one delegate complained amid roars and catcalls in the meeting hall. “Now it appears from our actions that we are here to bury the party.”
At one moment in the often chaotic debate, a delegate from Bosnia proposed that the party be divided into a Socialist Party and a Communist Party. The proposal was defeated by a sizable margin, but it reflected the deep divisions among the delegates.
On several occasions delegates came close to blows. The leading Belgrade newspaper, Borba (Struggle), quoted a Serbian delegate as saying in defense of a monthlong economic boycott of Slovenia instituted by the Serbian government: “Why should we buy goods from someone who is spitting in your soul?”
The boycott was called by the Serbian government after the Slovenian government banned a pro-Serbian demonstration last month in Ljubljana. Slovenian efforts to persuade the congress here to lift the boycott ended in failure.
In recent months, spurred by the wave of reform elsewhere in Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia has become a country with two distinct visions of its future.
The western republics, Slovenia and Croatia, where multi-party elections are scheduled to take place in April, see themselves as becoming part of the liberal democratic tradition in West Europe.
In Serbia, the largest and most populous of the republics, the party clings to the Communist tradition of centralized direction. Under the leadership of Milosevic, the Serbian party has developed a strong populist, chauvinistic strain.
The division between the western republics and the Serbian-led easterners was reflected in a vote Monday on the question of relations with Western Europe. The Slovenian leader, Janez Kocjancic, director of the Slovenia-based airline Adria, had suggested that Yugoslavia seek membership in the European Community.
“We wanted as much as possible to be part of the modern European left,” Croatian party leader Racan said, explaining the western republics’ position.
But Serbian delegates urged that the country maintain its ties to the Soviet Union and its traditional trading partners in East Europe.
By a vote of 1,156 to 169, the Serbian position was upheld, leaving Yugoslavia as the only country in Eastern Europe where change is occurring that has not sought membership in the European Economic Community.