Yugoslavia's 1968

Conference Report
Karl-Marx Red University, Belgrade, June 1968

“Upon first glance, these seem to be very different processes. Political, social, cultural processes, and does this date determine just one year, or does it determine a couple of months or weeks? What 1968 is was always disputed. It is difficult to bring all these things under one roof... the student movement, the youth movement, the generational revolt, protests about the social conditions and the standard of living.”

This was a quote used by historian Irina Scherbakova to launch the 7th European History Forum in May 2018 in Berlin. Scherbakova, a historian focusing on German-Russian relations in the 20th century and the head of research programs at Memorial, an organization focusing on Soviet history as well as human rights in post-Soviet countries, was one of the many historians, researchers and analysts gathered at the Heinrich Boell Offices in Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of the events of 1968.

While the attendees included the “usual suspects – representatives of organizations from countries traditionally associated with the key events of '68 – such as those from Prague, Poland, Russia and so forth, it also included representatives from the former Yugoslav federation, whose experience in that period is often neglected and sidestepped in the analysis of the scope, effects and motivation of the protesters.

Yugoslavia – an outlier

The speaker from Prague, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes, focused his presentation on the polarity that existed between the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and their counterparts in Moscow, the latter fearing that any sign of “political liberalism” stemming from one of the satellite states could lead to a breakaway from the Soviet monolith.

Yugoslavia had solved this “problem” in 1948 when Tito severed ties with Stalin. This is why the protests of 1968 in Yugoslavia had nothing to do with an overbearing KPSS. Students in Belgrade, the capital of the federation and host to its biggest higher education institutions, gathered to protest the “bureaucratization of socialism” and to confront the “generations of their forefathers”. They wanted, unlike the other East Bloc countries and Balkan communist states, to improve the existing socialist system within their federation and not to get rid of it – and the progressive, anything-is-possible spirit of '68 served as the perfect setting for such a movement.

Milan Ristovic, a professor of history at the University of Belgrade and one of the participants at the event, highlights the fact that many of the students who participated in the movement centered around the Yugoslav capital were very much aware of world events. “They followed everything that was happening in Paris, in Germany, and in contrast to the neighboring countries every day you could see what happened in the rest of Europe. There were a lot of discussions, because the student subcultures in the capitals were very active.”

Belgrade students had protested before – in 1966, against the war in Vietnam, just like their US counterparts. While there were times when these protests were quite forcefully quashed by the police – as it was the case after a concert in Belgrade in the same year, which left bitter memories in the minds of the students – no one found it terribly surprising that the young generations of a country that was officially socialist side with the students of the biggest capitalist country in the world – and herein lies the biggest difference between the situation faced by the students in Yugoslavia and those in the rest of the Eastern Bloc. While the events in 1968 officially started with a sign of support for the student demonstrations in March in Warsaw, then spilling over to June to coincide with Paris and the Prague Spring, the ideological diversity at the heart of these movements was what made them uncharacteristically open, progressive and would set the scene for the future intellectual discourse in the country.

Socialism, but better

Ristovic says that the protests in 1968 were seen as a “final straw” by the young, highly-educated students who were more and more aware each day of the idiosyncrasies between the official stance of the League of Communist of Yugoslavia and the way in which their policies were implemented on the ground. “The student protest was the red line between the first period of the Yugoslav experiment and it showed that the experiment was facing a deep crisis. After '68 nothing was the same again, the Yugoslav system lost this self-constructed face of perfection and it showed how deep the crisis in the country was.”

Priding itself in being “the best of both worlds” and the most humane and open socialist country in the world held little significance towards the end of a decade that had seen two failed waves of economic reforms – instead of making life better, the economic reform programs of 61 and 66 had actually left a segment of the population unemployed and widened the gap between the social-classes – akin to blasphemy in a country that so proudly boasted itself as being the “great equalizer”.

This gap created a clearly privileged section of the Yugoslav population, whose strong ties to the party and evidently comfortable lifestyles fostered resentment amongst the idealistic youth, who were quick to decry them for being part of the “red bourgeoisie”. These groups took on more radical left-wing views than the ones espoused by the SKJ, akin to those promoted by China's Mao Zedong. They formed one part of the group that was distancing itself from the party's diktat. The other, feeling that Yugoslavia had a lot of progress to make in taking on the ideals of Western liberalism, took on views that were more liberal than those supported by the party – these people were found even within the SKJ itself, such as Koca Popovic and Latinka Perovic, and famous human rights activists like Lazar Stojanovic. The students occupied the university – renaming it “The Red Karl Marx University” and organized a communal-like life at the campus (much like the National Conventions of the French Revolution) as a sign that they were taking things seriously.

Tito “supports” the students

Most of the discussions at the European History Forum focused on the various ways in which the respective communist parties in Eastern Europe tried to suppress and quell the protests in the streets, the most radical being the case of Prague and the Soviet tanks that rolled in to deliver the final blow to the protesters. Once again, Yugoslavia represents a slightly different picture, with party functionaries like Veljko Vlahovic and Milos Minic trying to mediate between the students and the police during the escalations.

The chairman himself was absent from the initial days of the movement in Belgrade. “Tito was quiet for one week, he was in Brioni and tried to develop a strategy on how to deal with the student movement. He then held a speech on the central TV station and said that 90% of the student's claims were ok while 10% represented a risk of infiltration by anti-revolutionary forces. The students understood this as a recognition of their demands, but in fact it was a recognition and a suppression of the movement at the same time,” explains Ristovic.

Tito understood that any strong reaction to the protests would only add fuel to the fire, and could lead to the protests that were until then isolated to the capitals of the respective Yugoslav entities spreading to other parts of the country – many workers organizations had sent their letters of support to the students. It would also seem as if the SKJ was mimicking the Soviet response, and thus further clash with the party's claim that they were “better” than Moscow. His speech, carefully worded and continuously transferring the blame to the party - “this is an honest youth, a youth we did not care enough for so far” or  “we have left them alone, and now we must face our mistake” - led to an appeasement of a large part of the student body. This reinforced his aura of a reasonable, benevolent leader – again, an image fostered in contrast to the strongmen of the rest of Eastern Europe. Most of the departments of the university halted their strike soon after, with only the most devout part of the student body – the Faculty of Philosophy – continuing their strike.

While Tito and the party did abandon the economic reforms of the 60s and reoriented the economic development of the country to its own brand of “self-managed socialism”, many of the participants and especially the leaders of the 68 movement were later subject to repressive measures – such as having their passports taken away and them being removed from the party – the social “peace” of the 70s was mainly bolstered by an increase in foreign debt, something which would come crashing down in the 80s which is by many thought to have led to the breakup of the federation itself.