Yugoslavs keep cool -- despite Soviet moves
Belgrade — "If there is any alarm on our account, it is outside the country, not here," says a senior government official. "People are concerned over the President's health and by world events. But there is no alarm. Everything, as you can see, is very calm and normal."
And so it is.
Stories in some Western newspapers about increased public security here, or about Yugoslav armed forces being placed on alert, undoubtedly have been exaggerated.
NATO and other Western military attaches here are unanimous in saying there has been no sign of any unusual movement or activity by Yugoslav troops.
"There is, you might say, just a small 'alert,'" one of them said. "But it's pretty much at the grass roots -- the ordinary civilians in town and country involved in 'all people's defense forces' which will back up the army in the event of any attack. They've been told to be even more prepared, intensify training, and so on."
Neither, say the military men, is there any evidence of movement by Yugoslavia's three Warsaw Pact neighbors, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary, nor by the Soviet forces stationed in Hungary.
Nevertheless, the Yugoslavs are concerned. The sudden news that President Tito, whom they have long been accustomed to see as hale and ever active at "work or play" despite his advancing years, was taken ill came as a shock.
For some years they have thought with some apprehension of the transitional period ahead and what mightm happen after he has left the scene. That his incapacity should coincide with grave new East-West conflict, generated by Russia's seizure of Afghanistan, sharpened anxiety at least momentarily.
But now the first shock has subsided. The government has acted carefully, preparing public opinion for the possibility that the transition may come sooner than expected. On Jan. 20, President Tito's left leg was amputated.
Only a few months ago President Tito was making his customary speeches throughout the country to shore up the unity that has always been his principal goal as Yugoslavia's surest security.
That unity has become more vital than ever. Yugoslav leaders are confident that it would hold in the event of attack.
Old differences between the republics -- between the rich north and the poor south, for example -- have not been resolved, even by equality, autonomy, and federal aid. But "any attack," said a senior party official, "would only unite our peoples still more," and Western opinion concurs.
Nowhere, however, is there any impression or air of emergency, least of all at the 20- story building that houses the top party leadership, the Central Committee of Yugoslavia's ruling League of Communists.
There was not even an armed guard at the entrance -- just two civilian receptionists -- when this writer presented himself Jan. 19 for what proved to be an exceedingly wide-ranging talk covering the whole Yugoslav situation.
For two hours Todo Kurtovic, president of the socialist alliance that guides every aspect of Yugoslavia's political, social, and cultural life, talked in an open, relaxed manner of all his country's problems. He discussed both domestic concerns and Yugoslavia's present situation vis-a-vis the Russians.
He was a forthright as the Yugoslavs have been from the start in condemning Russia's Afghanistan move.
It was motivated, he said, by the desire to extend the Soviet Union's "hegemony" -- China's label also for Moscow's expansionism -- and influence as well as an old Russian territorial dream.
"It has nothing to do with communism or internationalism," Mr. Kurtovic said.
The Yugoslavs have no desire to "provoke" the Kremlin.They are aware of its capacity for precipitate action and intervention. They recognize the Soviet Union's importance to them as a major trade and economic partner and a source of one-quarter of their oil as well as of major development credits.
But there are no illusions here either about the nature of Moscow's global appetite (and the latter's apparent indifference to its impact) or its continued aim one day -- "after Tito" -- to maneuver this country back into the conformist fold from which it escaped in the break with Stalin in 1948.
They do not anticipate brutal military intervention of the kind inflicted on Czechoslovakia in 1968, nor, in its different context, currently on Afghanistan.
But they are alive to the dangers of "indirect intervention," that is, through Soviet-inspired emigre propaganda playing an old national animosities. Or, by subversive efforts to exploit disaffected elements as the Russians did a few years ago with a handful of "Cominformists" planning a new "communist party" to realign Yugoslavia with the Soviet Union.
These were an insignificant group and quickly nipped in the bud. But in some future situation of uncertainty or confusion the Russians might well calculate the time was ripe for such a plan to be employed more effectively.
Beginning with Nikita Khrushchev's pledge in 1955, the Soviets frequently have affirmed their respect for Yugoslav indepenence. But the Yugoslavs soon learned to take each successive declaration at its face value and wait for the next bout of pressure.
The country's economic problems have escalated sharply in the past two years. Inflation runs at well over 20 percent. Some 12 percent of the work force is unemployed. Foreign borrowing has reached the alarming total of $13 billion and , what possibly hurts most, European Community (EC) restrictions on Yugoslav products have caused a present trade deficit of nearly $3 billion with the community.
Nonetheless, the country still must spend an estimated minimum of 10 percent of its gross national product on defense and internal security. Yugoslavia maintains a largely professional army, navy, and air force totaling nearly 270, 000, plus the "all people's defense forces" able to mobilize a million men and women trained and armed for partisan warfare.
The Yugoslavs, meanwhile, are launching a tremendous effort for economic retrenchment and stability. They are highly gratified by prospects now -- albeit only under the spur of Afghanistan -- of EC action next month to give them greater access to its markets.