Conversastions with Milovan Djilas
Milovan Djilas

hroughout the 1980s, I had been coming as a journalist to Yugoslavia. It was a lonely task because few were interested in what was going on in the place, or where it might be headed. On every trip to Belgrade, I paid a visit to the apartment of Milovan Djilas. After the first visits, our conversations become eerie affairs, because I realized Djilas was always right. He was able to predict the future. His technique was a simple one for an East European, but a difficult one for an American: he seemed to ignore the daily newspapers and think purely historically.

Djilas was already seventy when I first met him in 1981. He had been one of Tito's top wartime lieutenants in the guerilla struggle against the Nazis. Later, he became vice-president of post-WWII Yugoslavia, and was considered to be Tito's heir apparent. Indeed, Djilas had conducted the difficult, one-on-one negotiations with Stalin that set the stage for Yugoslavia's break with Soviet Communism in 1949. Djilas' recollections of these vodka-filled midnight meetings, Conversations with Stalin, provided a uniquely personal glimpse of one of history's great criminals.

In the early 1950s, Djilas started having grave doubts about Titoism. Djilas' demands for a democratization of the system --- perestroika three decades before its time --- led to his expulsion from the Yugoslav Communist party and to his imprisonment for nine years. In his prison cell, Djilas wrote The New Class and other powerful critiques of Communism that became dissident classics, as well as two novels, two autobiographical works, and several volumes of short stories.

In 1981, following the start of the Albanian intifada in Kossovo, which nobody in the outside world had the slightest interest in, Djilas had told me,

    Our system was built only for Tito to manage. Now that Tito is gone and our economic situation becomes critical, there will be a natural tendency for greater centralization of power. But this centralization will not succeed because it will run up against the ethnic-political power bases in the republics. This is not classical nationalism but a more dangerous, bureaucratic nationalism built on economic self-interest. This is how the Yugoslav system will begin to collapse.

By 1982, this was starting to come true, although again, few outside cared. In November of that year, the world's attention was taken up with the new leader in the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, who was said to collect modern Hungarian furniture --- whatever that was --- and who therefore might prove to be a great reformer. Djilas was skeptical. "Andropov is sixty eight, the same age as Charles De Gaulle when he returned to power. But you will see that Andropov is no De Gaulle: he has no new ideas. Andropov has possibilities only as a man of transition, making the way for a real reformer to come afterwards."

By 1985, that reformer had emerged: Gorbachev. But Djilas was, by then, no longer impressed. "You will see that Gorbachev is also a figure of transition. He will make important reforms and introduce some degree of a market economy, but then the real crisis in the system will become apparent and the alienation in Eastern Europe will get much worse."

"What about Yugoslavia?" I asked.

He smiled viciously: "Like Lebanon. Wait and see."

In early 1989, Europe, if not America, was finally beginning to worry about Yugoslavia, and particularly about the new hard-liner in Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic. But the worry was only slight. There was still several months before the first East German refugees began streaming into Hungary on their way to the West, which eventually ignited a chain of events resulting in the collapse of Communist regimes across Eastern Europe. Eastern Europe was then enjoying its final months of anonymity in the world media.

But Djilas' mind was already in the 1990s:

    Milosevic's authoritarianism in Serbia is provoking real separation. Remember what Hegel said, that history repeats itself as tragedy and farce. What I mean to say is that when Yugoslavia disintegrates this time around, the outside world will not intervene as it did in 1914....Yugoslavia is the laboratory of all Communism. Its disintegration will foretell the disintegration in the Soviet Union. We are farther along than the Soviets.

A thought then occurred to me: if Yugoslavia was the laboratory of Communism, then Communism would breathe its last dying breath here in Belgrade. And to judge by what Milosevic was turning into by early 1989, Communism would exit the world stage revealed for what it truly was: fascism, without fascism's ability to make the trains run on time.

It was now the last month of the decade. Eleven months had passed since I had last seen Djilas: eleven months during which the world had changed. In December 1989, Slovenia and Croatia were experiencing peaceful transitions to democratic rule, and even here in Serbia --- so Byzantine, so Orthodox, so Eastern --- the breath of liberalization was unmistakable. All of Djilas's books, banned for decades in his homeland, were being published in his native tongue of Serbo-Croatian for the first time. Thee was even speculation that Milosevic was "yesterday's man" and that he would soon fall from power. Djilas was not so optimistic. He laughed that vicious laugh of his and told me:

    Milosevic still has possibilities....The liberalization you see has a bad cause. It is the consequence of national competition between Serbia and the other republics. Eventually Yugoslavia might be like the British Commonwealth, a loose confederation of trading nations. But first, I am afraid, there will be national wars and rebellions. There is such strong hate here.

---From Balkan Ghosts
Robert Kaplan
©1993, St. Martin's Press


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