Storm Clouds Over Yugoslavia
Published in Socialist Worker 8 March 1980 under the name Curtis McNally.
Some weeks ago Socialist Worker underestimated the capacities of Yugoslav medical science by publishing what amounted to an obituary of Tito.
But we can be more confident of being right in predicting that when Tito is gone Yugoslavia will face deep economic and social problems. For those problems have already been present for some time.
Yugoslavia’s precarious balancing act between East and West makes it particularly vulnerable to the world crisis.
On the one hand it is still dependent on massive trade with Russia and Eastern Europe; on the other it has a huge trade deficit with the Common Market. Per head of population Yugoslavia is the world’s biggest borrower from the World Bank.
The crisis is made worse by Yugoslavia’s particular brand of economic organisation.
Ever since 1948 Yugoslavia has tried to develop a more decentralised alternative to the Russian style of state planning. (The so-called ‘workers’ control’ is a myth; all the workers can control is the form of their own exploitation – like choosing whether you want to be fried alive – or boiled).
In time of crisis the Yugoslavs get the worst of all worlds – the competitive anarchy of Western free enterprise combined with the cumbersome bureaucracy of Russian state capitalism.
All this may seem very abstract. But for Yugoslav workers it means two very familiar things – inflation and unemployment.
In 1979 over the year inflation in Yugoslavia was 23% – in August it was running at 30 per cent.
This year’s target is to get it down to 17 per cent but there’s little hope of that being achieved.
Petrol has just gone up by 20% to about £1.60 a gallon – one of the highest prices in Europe. And rising prices go together with shortages – last November the mayor of Belgrade threatened to resign over food shortages.
Between August and October last year the government tried a prices freeze, but in Yugoslavia’s ‘decentralised economy’ it simply didn’t work. And the trade unions, bureaucratic as they are, wouldn’t buy an 18 per cent ceiling on wage rises.
Unemployment is now between seven and eight hundred thousand – in population terms a higher level than Britain. Recession in the West is making things worse as thousands of Yugoslav immigrant workers are being forced to go home.
The warnings of immediate crisis after Tito’s death are probably melodramatic.
In constitutional terms, Tito’s replacement poses no problems; there is a complex system of rotating power designed to keep a balance between regions.
The alleged Russian threat will doubtless help the government in the short term, as will the newly-discovered Western concern for Yugoslavia’s well-being.
The Common Market has rushed to sign a new agreement which makes Yugoslavia an associate member in all but name.
Already, however, the government is calling for sacrifice.
Yugoslavs have been told they are living ‘beyond their means’ and public spending has been cut.
The government used a special procedure to push through the 1980 plan against possible opposition in the National Assembly. The plan’s proposals are familiar – more exports, less imports and a limit to wage rises.
With such problems Tito’s successors will not find things easy. For the last thirty years Tito skilfully squashed all potential opposition, so there will be no clear focus for discontent.
The danger is therefore great that dissatisfaction will take the form of conflict between the different regions and nationalities in Yugoslavia. Such conflicts are made worse by the deep economic differences between regions. If Yugoslavia’s national unity is threatened, it will be the price that had to be paid for Tito’s attempt to develop a ‘national communism.’