Like the Yugoslav federation that survives in name despite the death of its ideal of multiethnic harmony, Milovan Djilas has outlived almost everything he once stood for.
The 81-year-old whose life parallels the violent contours of Yugoslav history has seen the Communist cause discredited, the war against fascism revisited, the Balkan alliance of nations dismantled and any chance for democracy scuttled by political zealots.
In a lifetime that predates that of the late Yugoslavia, Djilas has dodged in and out of history’s spotlight, working through successive roles as revolutionary partisan, politician, dissident and sideline commentator.
From a dimly lit Belgrade study cluttered with books and paintings, Djilas now serves as unofficial chronicler of one of the 20th Century’s most intricate stories.
Though he is mellowed by age and decades on the periphery, there is still an ember of the radical in his piercing eyes, a fleeting hint of the warrior who describes in his memoir “Wartime” how he once cracked a rifle butt over the head of a German soldier and then slashed the man’s throat.
While most of the political ideals Djilas has struggled for died with the old Yugoslavia, he appears comforted by a conviction that time will vindicate at least some of his life’s work.
As a member of the late Marshal Tito’s inner circle in the years after World War II, for example, Djilas was among the handful of political architects who determined which territories were assigned to each of the country’s six constituent republics--a division now denounced by Serbs and Croats as arbitrary and unjust.
And even though much of the country has been at war over those borders, Djilas seems sure they will eventually be judged as correct.
“Criticism of the Communists for the manner in which they resolved the national question is coming only from Serbian and Croatian nationalists, and it is not correct or truthful. They have nationalist pretensions to enlarge their own states,” says Djilas, one of the last survivors of Tito’s postwar Cabinet.
He defends the much-maligned borders, defined in Yugoslavia’s 1946 constitution, as logical conclusions based on human geography, with regions grouped according to their ethnic majority and shared political heritage.
“The Communists didn’t just sit in some office and draw these from nothing,” he insists. “They are the product of long experience, of history and ethnic principles, not just the desires of the Communist Party.”
Serbs, particularly, contend that Tito, who was half Croat and half Slovene, parceled out Yugoslav territory with his native Croatia uppermost in mind. During the past year of vicious fighting, Serbian guerrillas driven by a sense of historical injustice seized huge stretches of Croatia’s Slavonija, Krajina and Dalmatia regions.
Djilas concedes that much of the oddly shaped Krajina has for centuries been populated mostly by Serbs. It should be accorded some form of political autonomy, he says, to prevent perpetual unrest.
But he rejects Serbian claims that Croatia was apportioned the fertile farmland of Slavonija or the rich Adriatic coastal territory that extends to Dubrovnik on any grounds other than their majority Croatian populations.
“Serbs always say Tito was a Croat. He was, and he had some national feelings as a Croat, but he could in no way be called a nationalist,” says Djilas, a Montenegrin who harbors neither grudge against nor nostalgia for the late Communist strongman who was by turns his political mentor, partisan ally and heartless oppressor.
Indeed, as has been evident in the 12 years since his death, Tito was the glue that held the federation of historic adversaries together. When he died in May, 1980, leaving no heir apparent, there resulted a power struggle and nationalist revival that gradually became Yugoslavia’s undoing.
For the first few years after World War II, Djilas was seen as a potential successor to President Josip Broz, known until his death by his nom de guerre, Marshal Tito. As a committed Communist, distinguished partisan and polyglot intellectual, Djilas had the credentials.
Born in 1911 in what was then the Kingdom of Montenegro, a poor and mountainous enclave whose people are ethnically the same as Serbs, Djilas became what he calls a “confused leftist” while studying in Belgrade when he was still in his teens.
In 1931, he led a student challenge to the royal dictatorship’s one-party rule and helped organize a Yugoslav Communist Party--an activity that earned him his first prison term in 1933.
“At that time I didn’t know anything about Marxism, but in prison there were many well-educated Marxists. I met one man who spoke four modern languages perfectly. How this impressed me!” recalls Djilas, smiling at the naivete of a rural youth thrust into the company of committed ideologues.
Once out of prison, he joined with Tito to organize Yugoslav brigades for the Spanish Civil War. After the Nazi invasion of 1941, the partisans spearheaded the four-year resistance that resulted in victory and the start of Tito’s 35-year reign.
Djilas was parliamentary president and one of Tito’s most trusted lieutenants until he began criticizing the evolution of Communist elitism, which he blamed on one-party rule. His proposal for a rival socialist party to compete with Tito’s League of Communists prompted the Yugoslav strongman to turn against him in 1954, initiating a progressive confrontation that kept Djilas in jail for most of the next decade.
In his 1957 book, “The New Class,” Djilas condemned the pampering and privilege that had become customary in top Communist circles, and five years later he lamented the corruption of communism in “Conversations With Stalin.”
Long removed from the corridors of power, Djilas offers a detached perspective on the origin of ethnic conflicts that have torn the country apart.
Oddly for one betrayed by his closest comrades, Djilas endorses some of Tito’s most notorious decisions: the granting of autonomy to ethnic Albanians in Serbia’s Kosovo province, formation of a separate republic called Macedonia and according the status of an ethnic group to Slavic Muslims in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
While war rages in Bosnia, Kosovo poses a potentially even more explosive problem in the ruins of Yugoslavia. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic has stoked nationalist passions over the medieval Serbian heartland to a fever pitch and is feared to be plotting a bloody pogrom against the Albanians who are now a 90% majority in the province.
Kosovo was accorded its autonomous status, Djilas recalls, with an eye toward its eventual union with neighboring Albania and the enlarged state’s absorption into the Yugoslav federal framework. But when Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet Bloc in 1948, Albania took dictator Josef Stalin’s side, which poisoned relations with Belgrade.
Today, any suggestion of Kosovo’s union with Albania would be considered heresy by the fervently nationalist Serbs. Milosevic has convinced his people that the loss of Kosovo, scene of Serbia’s glorious--albeit, losing--battle with Ottoman Turkey in 1389, would be tantamount to cultural and historical desecration.
“At the time, the Serbs agreed” to linking Kosovo with Albania, Djilas says. “This myth about Kosovo only began with Milosevic.”
Tito was also correct in designating Slavic Muslims as a nationality in 1970, Djilas argues. He says the term Muslim is incorrectly applied to the group of people who once called themselves Bosnjak , but over the years adapted to the religious name applied by Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.
On the subject of Macedonia, designated a Yugoslav republic in 1944, Djilas again backs the logic of seeing cultural and linguistic differences as deserving of national status.
Macedonia declared independence from Yugoslavia in September, following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia, but has yet to win international recognition because of objections from Greece over its name, which dates from ancient times and is shared by a northern Greek province.
“I am on the Macedonian side. This dispute over the name is crazy,” says Djilas, always willing to take up with a lost cause. “But I don’t know if it is worth saving at the expense of recognition.”
Name: Milovan Djilas
Career: Allied with Marshal Tito in late 1930s, organizing Communist brigades for Spanish civil war and acting as resistance leader to Nazi occupation. Fell out with Tito in mid-1950s and spent the next decade in prison.
Quote: “In the Balkans, everything always develops around the struggle for power. . . . “