Ante Marković: the last Yugoslav leader

A sustained effort to reform Yugoslavia before the country was drowned in tide of senseless nationalism has been near forgotten. The death of the prime minister who led it has lessons for today, says Goran Fejic.

Goran Fejic
12 December 2011

Ante Marković, the last prime minister of the former Yugoslavia, died on 28 November 2011 at the age of 87. There were, beyond some sparse obituaries in the international media, few news-agency reports of the event and even fewer newspaper comments. The media don’t celebrate losers, those who were "on the wrong side of history". But history is also work in progress. From today's perspective, in those parts of the world and in those times, history may well have been on the wrong side of itself: blind to evidence, deaf to warnings, and rushing mindlessly towards war and destruction.

Ante Marković was born in the picturesque little Bosnian town of Konjic, joined Tito’s partisans in 1941 at the age of 17, studied electrical engineering and spent the best part of his professional career as head of the successful electric-industry company Rade Končar. He led the Yugoslav federal government from March 1989 to December 1992, a short but turbulent period.

Ante Marković was during his brief premiership a lone voice of wisdom and reason. He worked skilfully in the midst of twin economic and political crises to set a constructive course in both areas. In the economic sphere, he laid the tracks for an ambitious programme of structural reforms, managed to tame inflation and stabilised the national currency. In the political, he anticipated the pernicious consequences of rampant nationalism and - as the ruling League of Communists of Yugoslavia sank into hopeless ineptitude and deep divisions - created his own party (the Alliance of Reformist Forces) whose orientation was broad, democratic and pro-European. He grasped that the common Yugoslav project could survive only if it undertook a thorough democratic overhaul.

In the event, Ante Marković failed to halt the tsunami of senseless nationalism that would consume the region. His quiet and rational voice was drowned by the deafening roar of the victors of the "first democratic elections in the region": the Miloševićs, the Tudjmans, those leaders of born-again nations inebriated with myths of grandeur and god-given destiny.

What followed was half a decade of atrocious wars, followed by a decade of semi-isolation - a bleak legacy that still overhangs the "western Balkans". The region is still regarded by analysts as weak, unstable and potentially flammable, "an unfinished story" that needs "to be kept under international scrutiny". Serbia is licking its Kosovo wounds, and divided between the (faltering) European promise and the temptation to look to fellow-Orthodox Russia for relief and protection; Bosnia is endlessly entangled in its pitiful identity knots. Croatia is (after the Brussels summit of 8-9 December) nearer to European Union membership, yet (as the election of 4 December makes plain) obliged to face the corrupt nexus between dirty business and murky politics. Macedonia struggles to escape from poverty, while its dreams of ancient glory under Alexander the Great locks it into unresolved symbolic struggle with neighbouring, broken Greece. Slovenia, its recent economic discontents notwithstanding (reflected in its own election result), is alone in its successful embrace of and by mainstream Europe - in part thanks to its inherited relative wealth, homogeneous population, and having escaped the traumas of the ex-Yugoslav wars.

A contemporary echo

Before history moved to the wrong side of itself, Yugoslavs had a feeling of belonging to a large, modern, multicultural and moving society where the future looked promising. This was a moment when, for example, Atelje 212 in Belgrade was a prime European stage of avant-garde theatre; the great Slovenian poet France Prešeren was taught in Serbian high-schools and Serbian novelists were read in Slovenia; and JAT-Airlines had direct flights from Belgrade and Zagreb to New York and Chicago. At that time, Yugoslavs looked with a certain condescension at their Hungarian, Romanian and Bulgarian neighbours. They are now at the very end of the queue.

There is another side to this picture. Today, nationalistic intoxication is fading, with welcome echoes in popular culture and social life; young Slovenians are again fond of Serbian rock music, and Serbian tourists are back on the Adriatic. But two decades have been wasted, and wounds inflicted that will take many more years to heal (if they ever do).

All the more reason to remember Ante Marković. It may be that (as many of the generation who knew and/or sympathised with him say), for all his good intentions, he came too late and was too weak. But this does not detract from his merit. His contribution - efforts and failures alike - remain a source of lessons that could still prove useful. Lessons for whom? Well, maybe for the Europe he saw as a beacon and a goal for his country; the Europe which today itself seems to be a bit at a loss and wondering about its purpose.

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