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article imageForty years on, Tito's legacy still contentious

By Katarina PETROVIC with Lajla VESELICA in Zagreb and Rusmir SMAJILHODZIC in Sarajevo (AFP)     May 3, 2020 in World

A benevolent unifier or power-hungry dictator? On the 40th anniversary of his death, the legacy of the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito remains a subject of debate in the Balkan lands once united by his grip.

Though coronavirus restrictions put on a damper on mass gatherings Monday, small groups of faithful devotees still paid tribute at sites honouring Tito across the countries that emerged from Yugoslavia's bloody unravelling.

"Every year we gather here no matter what happens," said Vladimir Vignjevic, an admirer who visited Tito's marble grave in Belgrade, normally a site of pilgrimage for fans from the region.

If not for the pandemic, "there would be a big gathering here, from Macedonia, Croatia, from the whole of ex-Yugoslavia", he lamented.

Across the border in Tito's native Croatian village of Kumrovec, a siren wailed at 13:05 GMT -- the exact time of his passing -- while some 20 people joined a ceremony to lay wreaths in front of statue that stands outside his former house.

And in Sarajevo, a group gathered at the same hour to sound a siren and hold a moment of silence before a statue of Tito that still stands in the Bosnian capital.

"As long as I'm alive, he will be my president," said 84-year-old Ibrahim Sinanovic, who laid flowers before the statue.

"He gave me an apartment, allowed me to study, allowed me to build a house," he told AFP.

With a mix of charisma and coercion, Tito held Yugoslavia's diverse peoples together for almost 40 years until his death at age 87 on May 4, 1980.

Without him, the federation lasted only a decade longer before fracturing along ethnic lines in wars that claimed more than 130,000 lives.

There will be no official state ceremonies to honour the 40th anniversary of Tito's passing in ...
There will be no official state ceremonies to honour the 40th anniversary of Tito's passing in the countries that emerged from the bloody unravelling of his socialist Yugoslavia

Today, the Marshal's shadow falls unevenly across the countries that still bear the scars of those conflicts.

Critics highlight his regime's jailing of political opponents, while some argue his suppression of nationalist sentiments created the pressure cooker that exploded into war.

But strains of Yugo-nostalgia, as it is known, are still found across the region among those who remember -- or have heard stories about -- the open borders, solidarity prosperity that elude the Balkans today.

- Freedom within limits -

Tito always defied easy categorisation.

Born to a Slovene mother, Croat father and married to a Serb, he seemed to embody his vision for a multi-ethnic Yugoslavia.

Faithful devotees are expected to pay their dues -- though in small numbers due to coronavirus restr...
Faithful devotees are expected to pay their dues -- though in small numbers due to coronavirus restrictions -- at his marble tomb in Belgrade and his native village of Kumrovec in Croatia

The proponent of socialism also had a taste for glamour and hosted a range of glitterati, from Hollywood stars to British royalty, at his many villas.

On the world stage, he defied Cold War divides by helping found the Non-Alignment Movement, a grouping of states that offered an alternative path.

And in a break from other communist autocrats, under Tito Yugoslavs enjoyed significant cultural freedoms and opportunities to travel to the West.

But the man named president-for-life drew a line when it came to criticising his state.

Thousands of his political opponents were purged and thrown in prisons under his watch, while hundreds are estimated to have died.

The total number of the regime's victims has never been officially established.

Tito was born in the village of Kumrovec  50 kms (30 miles) from Zagreb  to a Slovene mother and a C...
Tito was born in the village of Kumrovec, 50 kms (30 miles) from Zagreb, to a Slovene mother and a Croat father

Gordana, a 77-year-old pensioner in Belgrade who declined to give her surname, told AFP she "never liked" Tito or "his communists".

"His regime confiscated our private property and imprisoned those who thought differently," she said.

Accused of encouraging a personality cult by some, Tito's image was once ubiquitous and his name graced a town or city in each of Yugoslavia's six republics and two provinces.

In the years since, his name has been scrubbed out while many photographs and monuments have also been removed from the public eye.

In Serbia, only one daily put Tito on the front page Monday, asking if the trope to 'not to speak ill of the dead' had helped his legacy.

Montenegro's media was more mournful, with one portal recalling his passing as the "The day when Yugoslavia cried".

And in Croatia, the state-run news agency HINA ran a piece titled: "Josip Broz Tito: Memories of his times are 'complex and ambivalent'."


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