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News 24 Jan 17

Records Show Yugoslavia's Dramas Kept CIA Busy

Newly available CIA documents show that America's top spy agency had its hands full following Yugoslavia's turbulent existence and eventual bloody collapse.

Sven Milekic
Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslav leader, and Nikita Khrushchev, the President of the Council of Ministers of the USSR visiting Skopje, Macedonia, in 1963. Photo: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia, DARM/Wikimedia

The CIA had its eye fixed on communist Yugoslavia from the 1940s, closely following developments until its final days in 1991.

After an American NGO, MuckRock won a case against the CIA, the agency had to make its already opened files more accessible. Last week, the online base of documents was opened to the public.

Documents show the great interest the CIA took in the situation in Yugoslavia, especially during the turbulent 1980s, with the rise of nationalism and a worsening economic crisis.

With the death of Yugoslav President-for-life Josip Broz Tito in 1980, a file named "Yugoslavia: The Strains Begin to Tell" from 1982, states that its “political system may prove incapable of coping with country’s international financial difficulties, domestic economic problems and growing ethnic tensions.

“During Tito’s lifetime, Yugoslavia was able to function successfully, despite the weaknesses of the system, because Tito had the prestige to intervene at critical junctures and to impose remedial measures,” the file reads.

The file explains how the Yugoslav federal system included in the new constitution in 1974 – introducing a federal Presidency with a rotating one-year Presidency President – was Tito’s attempt to prevent any “ethnonational” group from dominating Yugoslavia.

A year later, in 1983, a file "Yugoslavia Trends in Ethnic Nationalism" reports on growing nationalistic tendencies in the country, although still considering widespread ethnic violence not “imminent”.

“Ethnic rivalries are being exacerbated by polemics in the country’s lively press, the increasing tendency of religious leaders to link matters of faith with ethnic interests, and the attraction of ethnic nationalism to Yugoslavia’s dissatisfied youth,” the report underlines.

Nevertheless, an analysis from January 1991 – on the eve of armed conflicts in Slovenia and Croatia – is titled more pessimistically "Yugoslavia: No Way Out".

“Yugoslavia still appears on the way to dissolution, either in a bloodbath or, much less likely, through mutual agreements among the republics,” the analysis read.

Yugoslavia’s relations to both the US and USSR were also of concern to the CIA. Its report from 1986 show how Yugoslav officials and its media slated the US bombing of Libya, when its airforce bombed Tripoli with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi surviving the attack.

“The collective State Presidency, in an extraordinary session on April 15, ‘most harshly condemned the US armed attack’ as ‘a flagrant violation’ of Libyan sovereignty and demanded an urgent end to the ‘aggressive US military operations,” the file reads.

A year after, with Yugoslavia falling deeper into economic and political crisis, the CIA watched with concern renewed talks with the USSR under the new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev aimed at bringing the two countries closer together.

“Belgrade’s main goal in improving its relationship is to gain economically while avoiding any political strings.

"It almost certainly will remain deeply distrustful of the USSR and view the Warsaw Pact [former USSR-led military pact] as the only credible threat to its security,” the file reads, explaining that the US can best keep Yugoslavia distant from the USSR, by “giving continued political, military and economic support to Belgrade”.

Files contain numerous reports on Yugoslavia's battles with terrorism in terms of nationalistic “extremists” in the country and abroad.

A number of CIA reports deal with Communist-led Yugoslavia's struggle with the left-overs of the Croatian World War II Fascist Ustasa movement in 1946, when the agency estimated that up to 10,000 Fascist fighters remained in Yugoslavia.

A report from 1972 on the “Croatian Separatist Problem” noted the attack by 19 Croats on the western Bosnian town of Bugojno, when extremists from the Croatian Revolutionary Organisation, HRB, attacked the Yugoslav police. They were all killed and arrested in the end.

The same report blamed the assassination of the Yugoslav ambassador Vladimir Rolovic in Stockholm in 1971 on the Ustasa. The Croat assassin, Miro Baresic, who died in Croatia’s war for independence in 1991, was honoured with a monument in Croatia in August.

A report from 1972 focused on the "Croatian Spring", a political movement emerging from within the ruling League of Communists of Croatia that demanded political and economic reforms in 1971.

“A good share of the responsibility for the crisis falls on the strong liberal wing of the Croatian Communist Party. This wing has for some years sought to exploit nationalistic sentiment in order to consolidate its local power and to win concessions from the central authorities in Belgrade,” it read.

Reports also noted the arrival of Greek refugees escaping the civil war in Greece in 1950, the activities of the Soviet-sponsored Free Macedonia Committee that advocated turning parts of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Greece into a larger Macedonian state and the existence of labour camps in the vicinity of Belgrade.

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