BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — A week ago, Serbian intellectuals were saying that Slobodan Milosevic was the first Yugoslav politician in the last eight years to recognize that former strongman Josip Broz Tito is really dead.
A slight revision was in order Thursday, in the aftermath of a turbulent week in Yugoslav Communist Party politics. And it came down to this: Tito might be dead, but the system he left behind is very much intact.
The implications of this realization are far-reaching for Yugoslavia, a federation of six jealous republics headed by a weak central government that has not been able to solve the nation's economic problems. These include a 217% annual inflation rate, a $21-billion hard-currency debt and about 1 million unemployed people.
It was Tito, Yugoslavia's leader from the end of World War II until his death in 1980, who devised this system in the conviction that the nation would not hold together unless it was ensured that no one republic would ever get the upper hand over the whole. In large measure, it was Serbian ambitions in this regard that Tito--and the rest of the country--had in mind.
Milosevic, 47, the Serbian Communist Party chief, has surged to prominence by exploiting Serbian nationalist feelings, particularly in regard to the historic Serbian cultural heartland of Kosovo, an autonomous province carved out of Serbia in 1946 and populated largely by ethnic Albanians.
Milosevic (pronounced mee-LOW-sheh-vitch) challenged the system, and his challenge gathered force over the last three months with huge Serbian demonstrations that demanded a return to Serbian control over Kosovo. At the same time, pressing on the sore point of the nation's economy, Milosevic demanded a major housecleaning of the Communist Party.
This week's meeting of the federal party's Central Committee was to be the turning point for Milosevic and the nation's fortunes, his supporters predicted. Shamed leaders would be forced to resign, Kosovo would be on its way back to Serbian control and Milosevic would consolidate his gains on the way to larger power.
But the Titoist system prevailed. Despite all the pressure and the general discontent with the party's endless capacity for talk while the economic slide continues, the Central Committee contented itself with imposing retirement on some of its members and their eventual replacement with others loyal to the system.
Milosevic himself was chastised when one of his loyalists, a Serbian, turned out to be the only member of the ruling Politburo to fail on a vote of confidence.
And it all happened almost precisely as Tito might have predicted. The principal targets of the Milosevic drive--Stipe Suvar, the party Presidium president, and the leadership of Kosovo--all survived. The clear intent of party leaders from each of the other republics was to stop Milosevic and to bring a halt to his use of great crowds of demonstrators as an instrument of change in the Communist system.
A crowd of about 20,000 Serbs gathered in Kosovo on Thursday to protest the Central Committee's action, charging that the Serbs had been sold out. But Milosevic called off a mass demonstration scheduled for Saturday in Belgrade.
The Milosevic defeat, however temporary, has double-edged implications for Yugoslavia.
First, many party leaders believe that Milosevic has used the tools of a demagogue in his drive for power and his successful effort to capitalize on the ethnic conflict in Kosovo, where he offered no real solutions beyond increased Serbian control of the police and judicial systems. And all his opponents, including many who did not raise their voices against him, feel that any appeal to nationalist sentiment is dangerous in Yugoslavia. In this light, they view his setback as a victory.
On the other hand, this week's Central Committee meeting demonstrated the party's vast capacity for self-preservation, its resistance to thoroughly cleaning its house and its reliance on hours of repetitive speeches as a substitute for action. Two speakers on Wednesday, the third day of the meeting, said they were "embarrassed" at the party's performance.
It was a fresh reminder that Tito's system was not only designed to preserve the federation but also those who inherited control over it.