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Slobodan Milosevic's death this week reminded me that the country he cherished, led and destroyed, once fatefully disengaged from - few would guess this one - Gaza.
In May '67, when Yugoslav troops comprised much of the UN peacekeeping force that buffered between Israel and Egypt, Belgrade summarily heeded Cairo's demand that it pull back its troops. For Josip Broz Tito it was a no-brainer. The Yugoslav leader and his Egyptian colleague Nasser were closely allied as co-founders of the Nonaligned Movement, where Israel was routinely derided as a colonialist aberration.
The Yugoslav departure from Gaza, which came coupled with fellow nonaligned crusader Indira Gandhi's pullout of India's troops, accelerated the escalation that resulted in the war that countries like communist Yugoslavia never forgave Israel for winning.
Still, from Tito's vantage point that episode was anecdotal, and could not change the broad contours of a spectacular career that defied fascist, communist and capitalist superpowers, and had courage, brinkmanship and vision written all over it.
As leader of the Communist Party during the Nazi invasion of spring '41, Tito led a guerrilla offensive that the Nazis could not quell, and the Serbian people were compelled to admire, despite Tito's hailing from their Croat archenemy. After the war he stood up to Stalin and bought arms in the West, which was happy to drive a wedge within the East Bloc. At the same time Tito challenged Soviet domestic dogmas when he decentralized industrial management.
After Stalin's death he sought a rapprochement with Moscow, rejecting his (Jewish) aide Milovan Djilas's suggestion that Belgrade democratize. After that went sour with the crushing of the Hungarian revolt in '56, Tito charted the nonaligned course, hosting in 1961 the first conference of nations that sought to defy the Soviet-American dominance of the international system.
However, Tito's most impressive endeavor involved the soul of his own country - an ethnic bag full of cats that he managed to control. As his departure approached, Tito devised an annual presidential rotation among the federation's republics, so that the balance he created among them would keep them away from each other's throats. This is how Yugoslavia was indeed run after Tito's death in 1980, and this is also what Milosevic began undoing already in 1987, when he told a frustrated Serb crowd "no one is allowed to beat you." While true in itself and reflecting fair grievances at the time, what Milosevic really meant, and what his listeners well understood, was that the kind of old scores that Tito had swept under a federal rug would finally be allowed to be settled.
THE YUGOSLAV federation was formed after World War I on the debris of the two empires that had ruled it for centuries: Austria and Turkey.
Its two main tribes, the Croats and Serbs, were separated by that imperial fault-line, the former having been largely ruled by the Hapsburgs and the latter by the Ottomans. The result was that the Croats and their Slovene neighbors to the north were much more industrialized and prosperous. Though they shared a language, Croats and Serbs also differed religiously and culturally, the former being Catholic and using Latin script and the latter being Orthodox and using the Cyrillic alphabet.
The result was a historic enmity that erupted repeatedly. Add to that combination Kosovar Muslims and anti-Greek Macedonians as well as Bulgarian, Albanian and Greek neighbors, and you get the most radioactive nationalist reactor history has probably ever seen - the last place a political pyromaniac like Milosevic should have been allowed to inhabit, let alone lead.
In the late '80s Milosevic understood earlier than others that postwar diplomatic axioms, norms and inhibitions were about to change. His passionately nationalistic address in 1989 to hundreds of thousands of excited Serbs who came to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, where their ancestors were defeated by the Ottomans, was delivered half-a-year before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Back then, romanticizing historical memories tasted as good as any forbidden waters. Little did anyone of the masses at hand understand they were in for four different wars in which 200,000 would die, their country would be dismembered, and Milosevic himself would end up extradited by his own countrymen as a war criminal.
THE BIG question surrounding Milosevic's career will be whether Yugoslavia's death came because, despite or regardless of the man who more than anyone else became synonymous with the Balkans' post-communist tragedy. The answer is not as simple as some TV coverage of his death made it seem.
Yes, while he understood earlier than others that the Cold War era had ended, Milosevic did not understand the New World that came in its place. He failed to fathom the rise of globalization, the decline of secular tribalism, the media's power to obstruct designs such as his, the futility of Balkan violence and the anachronism of national romanticism.
Then again, in terms of Tito's legacy the Milosevic wars were not the cause, but the result of its demise. If anything, in his quest to preserve Yugoslavia, albeit one dominated by the Serbs and depleted of its Muslims, Milosevic was actually the one who upheld Titoism. All other actors were out to undo the federation. He was merely responding to their unilateralism. Others will argue in his defense that, nasty as it was, his belligerency was no different - in its circumstances, scope and immorality - from Boris Yeltsin's in Chechnya.
Of course, Milosevic was no humanist, and in fact also no Tito. In a world stunned by the swift finale of the Cold War and torn between an end-of-history optimism on the one hand and a clash-of-civilizations pessimism on the other, Milosevic offered a third way: a return to history, a path that would provoke long-dormant nationalist tumors, territorial genies and ethnic Pandoras. Tito must have been tossing in his grave as the tribalism he worked so hard to suppress exploded; as his federation crumbled; as NATO bombed Belgrade; and as Russia became Yugoslavia's patron.
One wonders how Tito would have analyzed his life project's aftermath, and how historians will debate its causes. What is no longer disputable is that it has come to its end, one that will be memorably symbolized by Milosevic's dishonorable funeral.
Obviously, only a mystic would attribute the demise of the Yugoslav project to Tito's forgotten role in helping the effort in 1967 to finish Israel off. Yet it takes no mystic to feel vindicated in the face of the Tito project's arrival in history's dustbin. All it takes is an Israeli who as a child here in Jerusalem at the time will never forget Israel's abandonment by the former Yugoslavia to the devices of invaders whose tolerance of and plans for their unique neighbors were so similar to those Slobodan Milosevic later had for his.