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Post-Tito Yugoslavia: A long way from Belgrade to Warsaw

By
RUTH E. GRUBER

BELGRADE, Yugoslavia -- 'What's the definition of total ignorance?' a Belgrade woman asked a visiting friend, passing on the latest example of Yugoslav black humor.

Answer? 'A Pole who flees to Yugoslavia.'

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Three years after the death of its longtime leader, President Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia is in the grip of one of its most serious postwar crises -- a combination of deep economic, social and political troubles that some people fear could lead to unrest.

Its $19 billion debt to the West is bigger per capita than Poland's, industrial production is stagnating, inflation exceeds 30 percent, shortages have led to spot rationing in some parts of the country, the Communist leadership is split and the political opposition is rumbling.

But Yugoslavia is still a shoppers paradise compared to Poland and despite some surface similarities, it is still a long way from Belgrade to Warsaw.

For the most part Yugoslavs resent the comparison.

'Our situation is not similar to the situation in Poland,' Deputy Prime Minister Borislav Srebric said in an interview.

'The fact that our two countries have certain similar problems does not mean that there are the same causes.

'Poland's problems are Poland's problems. Ours are our own.'

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Poland, a member of the Warsaw Pact, is run on the classical Communist system, with one main seat of central authority. The population of 36 million is virtually all ethnic Pole. Between 80 and 90 percent are devout Roman Catholics.

Yugoslavia, while a Communist country, is not part of the Soviet Bloc and is highly decentralized both politically and economically. Its 22 million people break down into a host of ethnic minorities, some of them historic enemies.

The country is divided into a federation of six ethnically structured republics and two provinces, each with its own government.

The economic system is based on 'socialist self-management' by which individual factories are meant to make their own policy.

'In Poland, they found out that the government was responsible (for bad economic decisions),' Srebric said.

Said a Western diplomat, 'In Yugoslavia it may be like that Pogo cartoon: 'I've seen the enemy and he is us.''

The balance between Yugoslavia's local interests and ethnic divisions is delicate and this is the key to the political, as well as economic, difficulties.

Regional rivalries are strong and even politics differ.

A play recently was banned as 'nationalistic' in Vojvodina province. It went on to play to packed houses in Belgrade and was given an award in the northwest republic of Slovenia.

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'It's much more complicated here than in Poland,' said Milovan Djilas, the former Yugoslav Vice President who became a dissident and spent nine years in jail for his views.

'There is no Solidarity and no Catholic church,' he said - meaning no unifying opposition force that would create a mass alternative to the Communists.

Said a Yugoslav journalist, only half-joking, 'If something does happen here, it will be like in Beirut, not like in Poland.'

Still, authorities are worried that the economic strains may lead to political unrest as they implement a tough austerity program that foresees a sharp drop in public consumption and in living standards.

Partly on the basis of the program, the United States has coordinated an economic 'rescue' package via the International Monetary Fund to help Yugoslavia with its debt payments.

Mitja Ribicic, current head of the Communist party's 24-member collective presidency, warned last fall:

'We must be capable of preventing at any cost the process of alienation of the working class, the process that is one of the chief causes of the catastrophe of the Polish (Communist) party. We must not deceive ourselves that we are immune.'

In one recent incident, shoppers in the southern city of Titograd rioted after growing frustrated standing in line for detergent, which was put on sale for the first time in a month.

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Most observers say the Titograd trouble sprang from mistakes on the part of the local authorities who created unnecessary bottlenecks in serving customers after provoking shopping hysteria by advertising the detergent would go on sale at one certain hour.

Coffee, detergent and cooking oil -- scarce for years -- have been rationed in about half of Yugoslavia's municipalities, over the objections of the central government. Gasoline is rationed nationwide.

Even in its poorest areas, though, most other goods are readily available. Restaurants and cafes are full, with ample supplies of food and drink.

'I don't foresee any social turmoil,' said a Western diplomat. 'People can still remember when things were worse.'

But a Yugoslav journalist said, 'Everybody is waiting for something to happen. Something must change.'

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