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Yugoslavia, Government

banovina, Josip Broz Tito, Axis allies, major policy decisions, Nationalist parties

In 1921, a little more than two years after the creation of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, a constituent assembly approved the country’s first constitution. The constitution established a monarchy, under Serbia’s Karadjordjevic dynasty, with a single-chamber, popularly elected parliament. Despite the desires of Croat leaders for a federal state, the kingdom was highly centralized. The Serbs, who were the most numerous and widely dispersed ethnic group, dominated the government, the state bureaucracies, and the army.

The constitution provided that all adult men could vote. With the exception of the Communists, who were banned and driven underground in 1922, all political parties were organized along national lines and promoted the interests of one or another major nationality. As a result, no one party ever won a clear majority of the seats in parliament. Politics were dominated by conflicts between Serb advocates of a centralized state and Croat advocates of a federal state. Meanwhile, the Slovenes and Muslim Slavs played off both sides against each other. Frequent deadlocks paralyzed fragile, short-lived coalition governments. In 1929 King Aleksandar I declared a royal dictatorship and renamed the kingdom Yugoslavia. He suspended the constitution and parliament, banned political parties organized along national or religious lines, and reorganized the kingdom into banovine (provinces; singular, banovina). He designed the boundaries and names of the banovine to break up historic national units. In 1931 Aleksandar proclaimed a new constitution that created a bicameral (two-chamber) parliament. However, the constitution guaranteed the king’s ultimate authority, and two new electoral laws ensured that his supporters would win a majority of seats in the legislature.

The dictatorship continued even after a Macedonian terrorist assassinated Aleksandar in 1934. A three-man regency, headed by Aleksandar’s cousin Prince Paul, ruled on behalf of Aleksandar’s young son, Petar II. Prince Paul oversaw further relaxation of the dictatorship, but the crown still controlled the elections. In 1939 Paul approved the establishment of an autonomous Croatian banovina, in effect turning Yugoslavia into a federation with two units: Croatia and the rest.

In March 1941, during World War II, Yugoslav air force officers overthrew the regency and government and declared Petar II of age. In April Germany and its Axis allies invaded, conquered, and dismembered Yugoslavia. The king and his government fled and established a government in exile in London, England.

By the end of World War II in Europe, in May 1945, Yugoslavia had been restored by the Partisans, a wartime anti-Axis resistance movement created and led by Josip Broz Tito, head of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (CPY). The monarchy was abolished and Petar remained in exile. A Soviet-style constitution was adopted in January 1946. It established the country as a federation of six republics and two autonomous provinces, ruled by a totalitarian, Communist dictatorship. Tito was officially the prime minister, but his real power flowed from his position as general secretary of the CPY, which was the only legal party. All seats in the federal and republic legislatures were held by members of the CPY. Following a break with USSR leader Joseph Stalin and the Soviet bloc in 1948, Tito allowed some liberalization and decentralization of the government. Tito became president of Yugoslavia in 1953.

In 1952 the CPY was renamed the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY). By changing its name, the party tried to show that it was no longer a dictatorial party but rather an association of Communists who would play an ideological guiding role in a democratic society. In practice the LCY retained its sole grip on all organized political activity. It did this, in part, through a mass-membership organization, the Socialist Alliance of Working People of Yugoslavia, which organized elections and mass actions such as rallies and parades. Eventually, both the LCY and the government were decentralized into eight increasingly autonomous republican and provincial Communist parties and governments. These and other reforms were provided for by a constitutional law in 1953 and new constitutions in 1963 and 1974.

Amendments to the 1963 constitution in 1968 and the 1974 constitution reduced the powers of the federal government, which after 1953 was called the Federal Executive Council. That government was limited to foreign policy, defense, and a few economic agencies. Consensus by all eight federal units was required for most decisions. The federal presidency and other state and LCY organs became collective bodies, with chairs rotated annually among representatives from increasingly independent republics and provinces. Tito, named president of the republic for life in 1974, led the collective presidency, but after his death the position of president (chair) of the presidency was to rotate. To many observers, Yugoslavia had moved from federation to confederation.

Tito remained the loosening federation’s principal and at times indispensable unifying element. In his later years he usually did not involve himself in day-to-day domestic issues and politics. However, his unchallengeable personal authority enabled him to force quarrelsome regional and national party and government leaders to negotiate and agree. Tito could also force these leaders out of power, and out of the party, whenever he thought the situation required such measures.

Yugoslavia became more unstable after Tito died in 1980. Tito’s successors in the collective federal government and the party all had to agree on any major policy decisions. With little formal power and even less talent, they proved unable to respond effectively to a deepening economic crisis and a rising tide of divisive nationalisms fanned by regional political leaders. With other central institutions already largely paralyzed, the LCY disintegrated into independent and mostly feeble regional parties at its last congress in January 1990.

Between April and December 1990, pressures generated by the collapse of Communist regimes throughout eastern Europe, and in some cases by liberals in their own ranks, forced the regional Communist parties to agree to multiparty elections in all six republics. Nationalist parties won the most votes everywhere. Communists won only in Serbia and Montenegro, where they were also Serb nationalists. The leaders of most of the republics opposed holding federal elections, so such elections never took place before Yugoslavia disintegrated.

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