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The Man Who Fought to Liberalize Communist Yugoslavia

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Yugoslavia was a communist country from the end of World War II until its bloody breakup in 1991. In the years directly following the war, it was as brutal as any communist regime — it repossessed property and jailed or killed whoever uttered a word against Marxist ideology. However, in the decades after the 1940s — especially in the 70s — it was the most liberal communist country in the world. In sharp contrast to the Soviet Union, this Balkan state enjoyed a dose of economic freedom that the average Russian could only dream of. Yugoslavia managed to serve as a buffer zone between the bitter opponents of the Cold War and was one of the founders of the Non-Aligned Movement. The Yugoslav passport was the most prized possession in the world during the 1970s, costing around $10,000 on the black market. Even Milton Friedman commented on the situation in the country in the late 70s in Free to Choose:

Even two communist countries, Russia and Yugoslavia, offer a similar, though less extreme contrast. Russia is closely controlled from the center. [...] Yugoslavia started down the same road. However, after Yugoslavia under Tito broke with Stalin’s Russia, it changed it course drastically. It is still communist but deliberately promotes decentralization and the use of market forces. [….] The inhabitants of Yugoslavia are not free. They have a much lower standard of living than the inhabitants of […] Western countries. Yet Yugoslavia strikes the observant traveler who comes to it from Russia, as we did, as a paradise by comparison.

Many falsely attribute the divergence from communism to Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito, as he famously broke with Stalin in 1948. Yet it was not Tito whose idea was to back away from the Soviets entirely, nor was it his idea to liberalize Yugoslavia.  This was the work of a man that has been largely forgotten today and his name was Konstanin “Koča” Popović. He was a writer, a general, a politician, and ultimately a communist turned liberal.

Konstanin Popović was born in Belgrade in 1908 to a rich industrialist family, but moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of the First World War. Growing up in Geneva he was exposed to Western values. However, upon arriving in Paris to study at the Sorbonne, he quickly became influenced by leftist movements and became a communist. He entered the Spanish Civil War as a volunteer and as a skilled artillery commander he was put into the Republican Army itself, not the volunteer International Brigades. As the Spanish Civil War was drawing to a close, the Second World War began and Yugoslavia entered this bloody conflict in April of 1941. Even though his writings during the war are pro-Marxist, as a man of Western values he contrasted sharply with the average Russian general and his hatred of war would soon allow his former pre-Communist self to re-emerge.

His liberal side came to the fore during his tenure as the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Yugoslavia, a position he held from 1953 until 1965. He became a fervent promoter of closer cooperation with the West and the founding of the Non-Aligned Movement to escape involvement in the Cold War. Through his diplomatic skills, he managed to form friendships with the West, but also remained on neutral ground with the Soviets, despite openly resenting them. He frequently visited France, the US, the UK and many other states with market economies – countries hitherto alien to communist Yugoslavia. Because of the Tito-Stalin split, the Soviets had around 500,000 troops stationed on the Yugoslav border from 1948 until 1954, and Popović managed to form a pact with Greece and Turkey in 1953, and as such indirectly with NATO, to deter the Soviets. Popović claimed that if it had been up to Tito, Yugoslavs would’ve still considered the Soviet Union as their greatest ally, and the Tito-Stalin split would have been little more than a mere academic argument. 

With closer alignment with the West, several reforms were passed that grew the Yugoslav economy, albeit it was still being restrained by the remnants of communism. The economic reform of 1964/65 had a massive impact in the sense that it was the official turning point away from doctrinaire centralized planning to a freer economy.  Popović was not an economist, he was merely the person leading Yugoslavia’s path to liberalization, by which he indirectly influenced others to speak out against centralization. The leader of the political reform was Kiro Gligorov. Popović pushed for even further reforms for an even freer market, but saw that his cries for liberty were shut down by staunch Marxists. Nonetheless  Popović knew that Yugoslavia was at least on the right path, and he was not alone in his pursuit of liberalization. Meanwhile, a prominent liberal movement had emerged in Yugoslav politics, whose members included the president of the communist party of Serbia, Marko Nikezić and its secretary Latinka Perović, among many others. 

Another aspect of  Popović's liberal policies could be seen in his resentment of Aleksandar Ranković, the Yugoslav Minister of Internal Affairs and a staunch Serb-natioanlist who favored the centralization of Yugoslavia's economy. As the Minister of Internal Affairs he also controlled UDBA, the Yugoslav equivalent of the KGB, Ranković openly criticized alignment with the West and his UDBA goons often tried to stymie Popović's liberalization plans. Popović enjoyed a reprieve in 1966 when Ranković was forced to resign in amid scandal.

Sadly, many staunch Marxists disagreed with the liberalization efforts, and every prominent liberal was relieved of his respective duties. After watching his comrades be crushed one after another, Popović voluntarily resigned in 1972. He spent the rest of his life in Dubrovnik — far away from politics as he saw that there was no hope of a true liberal society with the Communist Party still in power. 

The liberals had nonetheless left their mark – Yugoslavia’s last constitution of 1974 decentralized political power even more, granting two Serbian provinces, Vojvodina and Kosovo, greater political autonomy. Likewise, Yugoslav culture in the 1970s and 1980s drew great inspiration from the West — from music to film.

Popović opposed other forms of collectivism as well. Not only did he oppose communism, but he detested Serbian nationalism – famously stating what good is anti-communist rhetoric when its replacement is a system just as draconian and brutal. Although a Serb himself, he publicly declared himself as a “Serb only by birth“ and upon being accused by nationalists that he was unwilling to do "anything" for Serbia – he fired back that he would do “nothing stupid – I leave that up to you guys“. He resented the Serb nationalists (the Chetniks) of the 1990s just as much as those of the 1940s that he fought against on the battlefield.


Luka Nikolic

Luka Nikolic is a Master's student at the University of Ljubljana and his interests are politics, history and finance. He was born in 1995 in Subotica, Serbia and is looking to pursue a career in investment banking.
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