Croatian Spring 50th Anniversary Marked by Croatia in 2021

By 8 February 2021
Croatian Spring 50th Anniversary Marked by Croatia in 2021
Croatian Spring 50th Anniversary Marked by Croatia in 2021 © Leksikografski zavod Miroslav Krleža

February 8, 2021 – This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Croatian Spring, a reawakening of national identity which paved the way for the country's independence and the dissolution of Yugoslavia. A complicated movement involving disparate groups with economic, political and cultural concerns, TCN turned to one of Croatia's most noted historians to help explain its significance

When former Prime Minister of the Croatian Republic within Yugoslavia, Savka Dabčević-Kučar, took to the podium on Trg Republike (today's Trg bana Josipa Jelačića) on 7th May 1971, things were very different to how they'd been for Croatia ever since the Yugoslav federation emerged from World War II. Her style was different. Her words and rhetoric were different. The brazenly Croatian sentiments of the tens of thousands who gathered before her were very different - Croatian national identity had been something close to buried following the crimes perpetrated by its independent, Nazi-aligned state during the war. Yugoslav identity was more important. To be a Croat within that was secondary. It certainly was not something to be brandished on banners and placards en masse in the centre of Zagreb. This protest looked so powerful you could almost believe it could turn into open revolt. And yet, Savka Dabčević-Kučar who held the crowd's attention so well was no longer the Prime Minister of the Croatian Republic within Yugoslavia. She had been promoted. She was now the President of the Croatian Central Committee – the highest-ranking communist in the land.

This mass meeting was just one of many that would occur throughout the country in the same year. The year was 1971 and the movement of which these events were a part was known as the Croatian Spring. One of the key moments of the country's history in the 20th century, the Croatian Spring celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2021.

A popular movement that sought greater autonomy for the country, its people and their culture within the federation of communist Yugoslavia, the roots of the Croatian Spring are as disparate as the different groups temporarily aligned within it. The Croatian Spring reached its climax in 1971. In the same year it was quashed, its leaders like Savka Dabčević-Kučar and her leading Croatian communist colleague Miko Tripalo, retired and silenced. Others were thrown in jail. Yet, it did not entirely fail. It arguably paved the way not only for the independence of Croatia but also for the dissolution of Yugoslavia entirely.

Drni1971.jpgMiko Tripalo in Drniš during the Croatian Spring in 1971 © Leksikografski zavod Miroslav Krleža

Trying to understand Croatian and Yugoslavian politics is often extremely difficult. It is a particularly thankless task for an outsider to try and undertake. Yet, the Croatian Spring is such an important movement, and its 50th anniversary so monumental, it would be a disservice to ignore it. Besides, the Croatian Spring was not solely about politics nor nationalism. Its ranks of protestors were made up of very different groupings – some in direct opposition to one another, many of whom were not just politically motivated. For some of its proponents, economics and culture played a more significant part in what the Croatian Spring meant to them. To try and better understand the Croatian Spring, TCN decided to enlist the help of noted historian Tvrtko Jakovina, a tenured Professor of History at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb.

“The 19th-century movement of national revival existed everywhere in Europe at that time,” answers Mr. Jakovina, when asked if any parallels could be drawn between the earlier Illyrian Movement and the Croatian Spring. Both were concerned with Croatian national identity, linguistics played a part in each, but both seemed to hold inherent contradictions the Croatian Spring partially emanating from the communist party, the Illyrian Movement paving the way not for an independent state, but for a southern pan-Slavic one – Yugoslavia. “It was simply a major ideology of the 19th and 20th century, competing against or mixing with other internationalist ideologies, such as Marxism or organised workers. But, nationalism was always there. One of the questions Yugoslav communists faced between the two World Wars was 'how to solve the national question?' They had to think if Yugoslavia - formerly a kingdom - would dissolve or remain as a federation. Tito faced this question when he became the Head of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia in 1937. One of the first things he'd done before the war was to form two national communist parties – one for Croatia and one for Slovenia. After the war, each of the republics in the Yugoslav federation got similar national parties.”

In its infancy, Yugoslavia was aligned with the similarly communist Soviet Union. But, while Yugoslavia's leaders viewed the Soviets as allies, the Soviet Union's leader Stalin rather preferred to think of Yugoslavia as a satellite state of its own. A split occurred which saw Yugoslavia move to an independent, non-aligned position between the Soviets and the west, who were just embarking on the start of the Cold War. It did not serve Yugoslavia too badly to be between them, the west's financial and military aid initially helping to fend off the threat of a Soviet invasion. Economic reforms within Yugoslavia followed, opening this federation of six socialist republics - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia – to a semi-market economy. Power was decentralised and investments and reforms made in the industrial sector. One example was the sharing of profits between workers within a company, a unique aspect of communist Yugoslavia's liberalised reforms. The industrial sector boomed, a substantial amount of it being situated in Croatia. However, working methods and technology lagged behind the advancement of other countries and the industrial sector's success would not last forever.

rijecka-luka-proljece-58-port.jpgRijeka's port in 1958, a maritime industry there thrived at the time

“In the late 60s and early 70s we had a crisis looming within the Croatian industrial sector. It was the most vibrant and important one within the federation - all of those big companies that had done so well in the 1950s and early 1960s,” explains Professor Jakovina. “At the same time, you had a group of younger politicians who came to power in different republics of the Yugoslav federation, who had been put in place by reforms made by the central communist party of Yugoslavia. In 1965, Tito embarked on the most ambitious economical reform of any communist nation in the world. Yugoslavia was trying to find its own way economically while being endangered by the hegemonic policies of the Soviet Union. There was economic reform, but it necessarily followed that you had to reform how societies were organised. With the removal in 1966 of Aleksandar Ranković - a strong proponent of a centralised Yugoslavia and the third most powerful man in the federation – the door was opened to widespread liberalisation. Many of the politicians who had been active since the Second World War were also retired. It was a change of generation, and that was exactly the idea – to try and appoint people who were more educated or less rigid. The leaders of what became the Croatian Spring were around before that time, it's just they were in significantly lower positions. They were promoted to leading positions in the late 1960s.”

"Savka Dabčević-Kučar is a good example. She had been educated at the Faculty of Economics, University of Zagreb. Then, she had taken a scholarship in Russia. When Yugoslavia split with the Soviet Union, she returned and took another scholarship in America. Such students were versed in diplomacy, different cultures. They had a different style – they were not grey. Many were very adept at public speaking. And they became very popular. When you see and read the speeches of Savka Dabčević-Kučar and Miko Tripalo from the Croatian Spring, you see a western-style – modern politicians. Their words were interesting, rousing. People applauded."

"Their ambition was to change Yugoslavia. And it wasn't only in Croatia that such people existed. Groups of like-minded politicians existed in Macedonia, Kosovo and liberals in Serbia - Belgrade particularly."

Croatia's industrial sector benefitted for Yugoslavia's non-aligned stance. It was free to trade with both the east and the west. But, it wasn't the only sector in which Croatia excelled. The increased liberalisation of Yugoslavia meant that its borders were way more porous than in other communist states and tourism was successfully promoted and succeeded through the 1960s. With its huge, pristine coastline, centuries of heritage and hundreds of islands, again, Croatia was the peak performer within the federation of Yugoslavia. However, although holding the status as one of six republics within the federation, overarching control of Yugoslavia remained in the hands of Tito and the centralized federation communist party in Belgrade, most significantly, the economy. Though Croatia created a significant portion of the federation's wealth, that didn't mean it was entitled to keep the profits.

dubtour6.jpgTourism was already well established in Croatia during the 1960s, as this old postcard from Dubrovnik in the late 60s shows

“It's true that Croatia was the provider of hard currency into the federation,” Professor Jakovina offers. “The dollars and Deutschmarks that were coming into Yugoslavia were largely a result of Croatia's industry and tourism. All of that money would go to the central banks in Belgrade. Managers of enterprises would then have to fight or negotiate for the money. The opinion of many in Croatia was that, because that money had been generated in the republic, it would only be fair for it to remain and be invested here. But, at the same time, it is important to remember that Croatia received much from the federation that it didn't have on its own – from Bosnia, Serbia and so on. Things like electricity, coal, free access to the market of the entire federation (and to outside markets negotiated by Yugoslavia's leaders), cheap labour. The cost of these to Croatia were way below the market price. So, some things were not beneficial to Croatia in this set-up, but others were".

That many in Croatia felt aggrieved about their hard-earned money disappearing out of sight is perhaps understandable. While Croatia may have been better off compared to other, less well-developed republic in Yugoslavia, it still required much investment and modernisation, not least within the once-thriving industrial sector. Even though there was no internet, with more porous borders than any other communist state, Croatian youth could easily see the goods, culture, life and opportunities available to their near peers in western Europe. And, many of them took advantage of the free access. Just like today, the country lost many of its best-abled and youngest members of the workforce to emigration, particularly to Germany. For all of the money Croatia sent to the federation centrally, a relatively small amount was sent back for improvements and investments. Compared to what they contributed, a much larger portion of the monies was invested in severely underdeveloped regions such as Kosovo which, at that time, was a semi-autonomous state within Serbia. There was a feeling that the funds were being unfairly diverted.

”It is true to say that, in Belgrade, there was a domination of certain ministries by Serbian politicians and managers. That was because the capital city was in Belgrade, Serbia. But, few people from the other more-developed republics actually wanted to go to Belgrade to assume positions there, unless something at the very top was offered (it rarely was). Apartments were less available in Belgrade, and the money you earned was actually less than you would earn working in Ljubljana or Zagreb. It's not so different if you look at some ministries in modern-day Croatia and ask “How many people from Dubrovnik work here?”

HL2736protest.jpgA protest lead by Croatian students during 1971, with people in traditional folklore costumes marching behind the flag © Leksikografski zavod Miroslav Krleža

Today, suspicions remain that Tito was sympathetic to some of the reforms asked for in the Croatian Spring. Tito used many machiavellian schemes in order to hold together a huge federation throughout which long-held ethnic tensions rippled just below the surface. For instance, it could be argued that he pursued a policy of weakening Serbia, believing that a weaker Serbia meant a stronger Yugoslavia. He was also quite adept at playing different groups off against each other. And at abandoning, at an instant, those who no longer served his purpose.

Though radical in their modern style, rhetoric and demands, leaders Savka Dabčević-Kučar and Miko Tripalo remained loyal to communism. It was perhaps a different kind of communism than that envisaged by those in comparable positions within other Yugoslav republics. But, in a sense, this is exactly why Tito had appointed them and other modernising, competent, more liberal party and republic heads across the whole of Yugoslavia. Tito actively pursued modernisation and reform in order to keep the federation viable and independent. However, the voices of Croatian communist leaders like Savka Dabčević-Kučar and Miko Tripalo were not the only ones that could be heard in the Croatian Spring. And the demands of these other voices were often much more radical than those asked by the movement's communist figureheads

"Within the Croatian Spring movement you had clear and distinct centres. There were high-ranking party members, like Savka and Tripalo and other local party members, people like Stipe Mesić, who later served as the President of Croatia. Then you had students and the students' association, some of whom had much more radical ideas than these politicians. And then you had a cultural institution, Matica Hrvatska, a grouping of scholars, poets, intellectuals, people like that, who were actually quite often in direct opposition to the Croatian League of Communists line.”

"The problem with the Croatian Spring was not all of its demands chimed with those asked by similarly modern peers from the heads of the parties and republics within the Yugoslav federation. With certain demands, the Slovenes were happy, or the Macedonians and Kosovars were happy. But, with many of the demands, they simply could not agree. There were great similarities between the Belgrade-based Serbian liberal voice and some of what was being said in the Croatian Spring. But, the demand for Croatia to take care of its own money could never receive support from less-developed republics. This is ultimately one of the reasons Croatian politicians remained abandoned and alone after they were sacked for their part in the Croatian Spring. No outrage followed in other, partially-sympathetic parts of Yugoslavia.”

12-01-MASPOK-savka.jpg© Leksikografski zavod Miroslav Krleža

The collapse and aftermath of the Croatian Spring

Though the Croatian Spring had been building momentum since, in 1970, Yugoslav centralism had been denounced at an official meeting of Croatia's communists, in 1971 it exploded onto the streets. There were mass demonstrations in Zagreb, with thousands of students taking to the streets. Public addresses similar to that undertaken by Savka Dabčević-Kučar on Trg Republike in May were repeated in other areas of Croatia, worrying ethnic minorities within the country and severely annoying Belgrade. When the Croatian communist party leaders failed to publicly denounce the more radical demands of their Croatian Spring allies – the student body, Matica Hrvatska and other sections of the intelligentsia – and a student strike was announced, Tito hit back. The leadership of the Croatian communist party was forced to resign and thereafter eradicated from public life, as were many of their immediate juniors who had also taken part. Similar removals of reforming communists took place throughout the Yugoslav republics. Furthermore, in Croatia, this political sweep was accompanied by the intervention of the police and secret police, who rounded up the Croatian Spring's protagonists from each of its contributing elements. Over two thousand people were criminally prosecuted in 1972 and 1973 for participation in the Croatian Spring. In 1972, more than 25,000 people were expelled from the League of Communists of Croatia. And, if the country's population had been recently diminished by the emigration of workers, this was nothing compared to the loss created by the persecution that followed the collapse of the Croatian Spring. In the aftermath, the country experienced the largest exodus of people since the Nazi-allied NDH state had folded after the end of World War II and the radical regime change this brought about. These two mass exoduses partially explain the large numbers of the Croatian diaspora in North America and Australia and why they are, generally, vehemently opposed to Yugoslavia and communism.

student_strike.jpgCroatian students in preparation for their strike in 1971 © Youtube screenshot

“One of the most permanent consequences of the Croatian Spring were the changes to the constitution, adopted in 1971, which gave more rights to the republics,” states Professor Jakovina. “This also paved the way for the constitution of 1974 which eventually gave the right to each republic to secede from the federation. This became the basis for the Badinter commission of 1991 by which Yugoslavia ceased to exist. Although the 1974 constitution that proved later to be so important, was not adopted by the Croatian Spring politicians, but by those who had replaced them. After 1974, we also had our own affirmative action type of scenario, where, by law, you had to had a certain number of Croats, Muslims, Serbs, Albanians in the country's top positions. It wasn't permitted that all of the heads of ministries, for example, would continue only to be Serbian.”

“But, more than that, I would say, was that following the Croatian Spring, there was a general feeling that, within the country, you were not permitted to express a national sentiment, national pride. In my opinion, the response to the Croatian Spring was the last chance for Yugoslavia to survive. And they failed to respond appropriately, to deal with this longstanding difficulty of nationalism, thus sealing the fate of Yugoslavia. The sacking of these modern, intellectual and liberal politicians all over Yugoslavia, brought to power a generation of grey, obedient, less liberal and less brave politicians who simply followed the party line or bided their time until Tito left the scene. Yugoslavia missed a real chance. After that, and the constitution change in 1974 - which made Yugoslavia more like a confederacy than a federation - it became almost inevitable that the federation would break. While Tito was around, he still made it work like a federation. Without him, no-one could do that. Each of the republics thereafter had different ideas of what self-management meant.”

TvrtkoJakovina.jpgTvrtko Jakovina, author and a tenured Professor of History at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Zagreb