25 October 2016
When Tito died in 1980, the country began to fray at the seams and the Yugoslav identity was lost. Photo:
When Tito died in 1980, the country began to fray at the seams and the Yugoslav identity was lost. Photo:

How Yugoslavia became a failed experiment in nationhood

Whenever I travel, I like to bring back souvenirs.

Over the years, my collection has grown and among my favourites are several bottles of “Tito wine” from the former Yugoslavia.

Even though it’s not any kind of fine wine, it’s notable as a historical relic.

The name Yugoslavia itself is history.

But today, in the town of Kumrovec in Croatia, the birthplace of former Yugoslav president Marshal Josip Broz Tito, the legendary strongman is still revered.

From the local museum built in his memory to the locally made wine named after him, Marshal Tito’s legacy lives on almost 40 years after his death.

For decades, it has been customary for people to gather in the town square every May 7 to mark Tito’s birthday.

Tito, however, is hardly remembered anymore by the rest of the world.

A BBC article published in 2010 said there was hardly anything associated with him in the 30 years after his death.

Under his rule, Yugoslavia was an authoritarian state.

Still, he was popular among Yugoslavs due to his sound economic policies, his determination to preserve his country’s autonomy in the face of Soviet aggression and his ability to hold the country together.

On the international scene, Tito was a highly regarded figure.

He was the chief founder of the Non-Aligned Movement and was among a handful of state leaders that successfully adopted a “third path” during the Cold War.

The principle emphasized self-determination and autonomy from the influence of the US and the former Soviet Union.

And the way Tito governed the country was a classic case study in the rise of nation states in the 20th century.

Yugoslavia was a new country put together by the victorious Allies at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 for strategic reasons.

Tito was aware of the built-in flaws of his country.

It was a fragile federation of rival ethnic groups, particularly the Serbs and the Croats, that had been fighting each other for centuries.

Tito went to great pains to promote unity, which often involved a lot of arm-twisting and, and a sense of Yugoslav identity.

He also imposed measures on some of the republics to maintain the balance of power among the various ethnic groups.

On his orders, an autonomous province made up of ethnic minorities was set up in Serbia in order to check the growing power of the Serbs.

Yugoslavia remained politically stable and unified during his reign.

However, his top-down governance could not be replicated by anyone else.

When Tito died in 1980, the country began to fray at the seams and the Yugoslav identity was lost.

Less than a year later, a student uprising broke out in Kosovo and the power vacuum Tito left behind quickly gave rise to nationalist movements.

The rise and fall of Yugoslavia shows how fragile and illusive a pluralistic society can be.

Today, a bottle of “Tito wine” is perhaps only enduring reminder of the once thriving Balkan country.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug. 26

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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