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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

One Nation Under Tito

Serbian nationalism wasn't a big issue when I lived in Belgrade as a correspondent in the early '70s. Serbs still seemed remarkably at ease in a "big" Yugoslavia that was thriving economically and, in many ways, politically, too. Serbs vacationed on the Croatian coast, married Slovenes and Bosnians and generally fit into a pleasant Balkan melting pot.

The big story was the increasing assertiveness of nationalists in Croatia, Slovenia and Kosovo, who were testing the limits of new freedoms and regional autonomy granted by Yugoslavia's redoubtable communist leader, Josip Broz Tito. Prodded by economic reformers, Tito was loosening centralized police control. In 1974 a new constitution gave more economic and political power to regional leaders in Zagreb, Llubljana and Pristina. The result was outbursts of nationalistic rhetoric by politicians and press, on which Tito eventually cracked down.

Perhaps the most restrained rhetoric came from Serbia's communist leader, a respected intellectual by the name of Marko Nikezic. The Belgrade press, then among the best in the communist world, took a disapproving, though fairly measured view of the nationalist mood developing beyond the borders of the Serbian Republic.

But in the years that followed, the comfort level of Serbs in the larger Yugoslav state declined.

Traveling through Kosovo in 1970, I found an "Albanian spring" in full swing, nurtured by Tito. The Albanian language was being used alongside Serbian at the University of Kosovo, and Shakespeare's plays could be read in Albanian. Years of Serbian police control were being relaxed. Albanians and Serbs were sharing power in the towns and provincial government.

Tito believed that the concessions would ease tensions, which in 1968 had erupted into rioting by some of the 850,000 Kosovo Albanians. His regime took on Kosovo as "Yugoslavia's number one problem," and constructed an enlightened policy based on economic aid from wealthier northern republics.

But what we, Western reporters, hailed as a "political renaissance" for Albanians was not so good for Serbian families and farmers. As a Tito-backed Albanian communist political machine flexed its muscles in the 1970s and 1980s, Serbs felt increasingly threatened, and many thousands left for Serbia proper. When I first visited Kosovo in 1970, the Serbian population was 350,000. At the start of this year's war it was under 200,000. The Albanian population had more than doubled.

From the Serbian standpoint, Serbian interests eroded steadily after Tito's death in 1980. The Titoist system that controlled Yugoslavia after World War II was wary of Serbian nationalism. The boundaries of the six republics were drawn in ways that divided Serbs and ruled out a "greater Serbia" that could dominate the rest of the country. But as long as Yugoslavia was run as a centralized communist state, the scattered Serbian populations in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo felt secure.

With decentralization, however, that sense of security diminished and the seeds of virulent Serbian nationalism began to grow. Then came the breakup. The decision of Croatia and Slovenia to unilaterally declare their independence in 1991 stranded Serbian minorities without providing any guarantees of their future status.

The breakup enabled Croatia to capture all of the revenues from the lucrative Adriatic tourist trade, and left Serbian factories at the mercy of newly independent neighbors that weren't inclined to continue economic cooperation. In Croatia, Serbs were eased out of senior positions in government and businesses; Serbian policemen were disarmed, and thousands of Serbs fled their villages in Croatia's eastern Slavonia.

The West was complicit. The United States opposed the breakup, but "without vigor," as U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke writes in his book, "To End a War." Washington eventually followed Germany's lead in recognizing Croatia.

Faced with a series of accomplished facts, Serbian character and Slobodan Milosevic's personal demons came into play. In the uplift of national paranoia, Serbia's own darker history of bloody deeds against Moslems, Albanians and Tito's World War II partisans resurfaced.

Instead of working through diplomacy f using the American and European friends he had made as a senior Yugoslav banker f Milosevic played the nationalistic card and chose force. In the fall of 1991, he had his generals raze the picturesque old Croatian town of Vukovar, in a prelude to what was to happen later in Sarajevo, Srebrenica and Kosovo.

But now thousands of Serbs have been forced out of Croatia. Vukovar, won by Serbia at the cost of many lives, has been returned to Croatia. NATO has left Serbia itself in ruins. Leading Serbs stand accused of war crimes, and people the world over equate Serbs with men in black ski masks.

I can find few premonitions of the horrors to come in my yellowing news stories from the Balkans of the 1970s. But perhaps that is a hopeful sign. It suggests that dangerous Serbian nationalism is not a given. It dissipates in a political environment in which Serbs feel secure.

How to recreate such a climate after Serbs have done so much to threaten the security of others is the next challenge for the international community. European models abound. France and England embraced Germany within NATO and the European Union after World War II.

In the Balkans another model exists: the old Yugoslavia. It cannot ever be reconstituted as it was. But it provides a structure for integrating economic and security interests that could heal wounds and contain Serbia's demons, if men of good will in Belgrade and Zagreb decide to make it work.

Dan Morgan was The Washington Post's East European correspondent, based in Belgrade, from 1970 to 1973. He is now on its national staff.