Final Yugoslav president 'knew I would be last'

Saturday marks 25 years since two of the six Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, became the first to declare their independence with the strong backing of their populations.

Final Yugoslav president 'knew I would be last'

World Bulletin / News Desk

Even its last president did not have faith.

Twenty-five years after the bitter collapse of Yugoslavia, the final leader of the communist federation believes the country was doomed following the death of its father figure Josep Broz Tito in 1980.

"It was clear to me that I would be the last president," Stipe Mesic, now 81, told AFP, recalling his arrival in the top job in the tumultuous summer of 1991.

Saturday marks 25 years since two of the six Yugoslav republics, Slovenia and Croatia, became the first to declare their independence with the strong backing of their populations.

The right to self-determination was denied by Belgrade, ruled by strongman Slobodan Milosevic who quickly sent federal troops into Slovenia.

After a ten-day war he gave up and turned to Croatia, marking the first chapter of the bloody Balkan conflicts that would leave more than 130,000 dead within a decade.

Mesic, then 56, was a lawyer-dissident who had faced imprisonment in the 1970s under the communist regime for his views.

He had returned to politics in 1990, joining the Croatian independence party, HDZ.

In May 1991 his turn came at the helm of Yugoslavia's presidency, whose chairmanship rotated between the six republics -- but Mesic's appointment was opposed by the Serbs.

They eventually gave in under international pressure and he came to the post in July, but it was too late for Yugoslavia -- his presidency lasted from July until December, while the rest of the country sank into chaos. 

 Tito, party, army  

Communist Yugoslavia had emerged after World War II, led by Tito whose Partisan fighters had driven out Nazi German forces.

According to Mesic, there were three things keeping the diverse federation together: "Tito with his charisma, the League of Communists as the only political party, and the Yugoslav People's Army, which listened to both Tito and the party."

After Tito's death, the country began to disintegrate and its demise was accelerated with the arrival of nationalist Milosevic as the leader of Serbia -- the largest republic -- in 1989.

"No one was happy with the federation anymore and a new political agreement was being sought," Mesic said.

Croatia was pushing for a confederal model, backed by Slovenia.

"But a deal could not be reached as Milosevic's Serbia wanted something completely different: An ethnically pure 'Greater Serbia' on Yugoslavia's ruins," said Mesic.

"Milosevic wanted war."

At a dinner following one of the presidency's "fierce meetings", Mesic said he warned Milosevic that "everyone will have victims, including Serbs".

"Due to Serb victims, Serbs will eventually hang you on Terazije," Mesic recalled telling Milosevic, in a reference to Belgrade's main square.

Milosevic, smoking a cigarillo and drinking whisky, replied: "We still have to see who will be hanged."

Mesic said he next saw Milosevic on trial before UN war crimes judges at The Hague, after his overthrow by a popular uprising in Belgrade.

"I believe he remembered my message then," Mesic said.

Milosevic died in his cell in 2006 before the end of his trial.

 World was sentimental 

 Mesic believes the West bears some responsibility for the 1990s conflicts.

"The world was sentimental towards Yugoslavia and its positive role during Cold War era," he said, referring to Tito's careful balancing act between the United States and the Soviet Union.

"Some believed that Milosevic was really struggling to maintain Yugoslavia and he played on that card," added Mesic, who said in reality all the Serb strongman wanted was a "Greater Serbia".

The bloody inter-ethnic wars in Croatia and Bosnia ended in 1995, and were followed by conflict in Kosovo in 1998-99.

Mesic went on to become president of independent Croatia from 2000 to 2010, helping to transform the country into a genuine democracy after his nationalist predecessor Franjo Tudjman.

Recalling his arrival in the president's office, Mesic discovered there was a direct phone line between Tudjman and Milosevic -- but his predecessor had not left the required code.

"I wanted to call Milosevic to ask him: 'Did you finish what you started? The war ended, and borders did not change.' But I could not get through."

Tudjman had taken the code to his grave, dying before he could face trial for war crimes.


Güncelleme Tarihi: 22 Haziran 2016, 11:21