With the passing of Josip Broz Tito, the world has lost one of its most remarkable leaders. One need not subscribe to communist beliefs to admire the man who defied Stalin in 1948, took Yugoslavia out of the Soviet-dominated communist bloc, welded a unified nation, and set it firmly on a course of independence and nonalignment. His regime was not without its ruthless aspects. But, through innovative economic and political reforms, Tito made Yugoslavia by communist standards a relatively open and humane country. It is no wonder he was a hero to his own people as well as a respected statesman abroad.
The obvious question many now ask is whether Moscow will seek to reclaim its maverick stepchild. The danger in the short run is minimal. The military and political cost to the Soviet Union of a frontal attack would be enormous. Not only would the Russians invite fierce guerrilla resistance from a people drilled for 30 years on the history of Yugoslavia's partisan struggle World War II. They know such an invasion would trip a broader conflict. The United States and Western Europe could not stand by and watch the subjugation of Yugoslavia, whose independence is now an integral component of stability in Europe.
The long-term danger is something else, however. At the moment Yugoslavs have a vested interest in sticking together. Precisely because of concern about Soviet subversion, they are determined to make collective leadership work. The problem is whether it will prove strong enough to resist centrifugal ethnic, religious, and political forces that could pull the country apart. Tito's genius lay in his ability to meld a complex patchwork of different and often conflicting nationalities and cultures. But age-old antagonisms -- between Serbs and Croats, for example -- are not erased. Hence the challenge for the new leaders will be to foster an even stronger sense of Yugoslav identity which can withstand internal dissension and thwart any pull toward fragmentation -- conditions the Soviets will be looking to exploit.
The task will not be easy, especially at a time of deteriorating East-West relations and widespread recession. The Yugoslav economy -- the instrument Tito used to persuade his countrymen of the benefits of unity -- is in a fragile state, with high inflation, unemployment, and other problems. The nation's uneven economic development, in particular, aggravates ethnic conflicts between the richer northern republics and the poorer south. Among other things, the government will have to move vigorously to develop world markets and expand exports to pay for the flow of luxury imports which have added so significantly to Yugoslav's climbing standard of living. It may also find itself dealing with increased pressures for more personal freedom from a people who today have considerable contact with the West and are more affluent and sophisticated.
For the West, the prudent policy is to be as supportive as it can of Yugoslav's independent course. The option of closer ties with the West should always be made available. But it would be unwise to try to exploit the new situation to Western advantage. The Yugoslavs view their policy of nonalignment as central to their careful balancing act between East and West, and they indicate they do not want any specific pledges of Western military backing. It should be left, in other words, to the Yugoslavs to run their own show and to take the lead in relations with the West. They ought to know best how to keep the Russians at arm's length.
In short, a new era begins for the collection of nations called Yugoslavia. Tito will be remembered for the solid foundation of unity he laid. The free world will wish his successors well as they seek to build on it.