Top dissident, now free to go abroad: Yugoslavia `faces a choice'

``You call this a free country?'' Milovan Djilas asked. ``Well I can't even go see my son.'' The conversation took place last summer in Mr. Djilas's comfortable Belgrade apartment.

He was, of course, expressing his personal anguish. But Yugoslavia's most celebrated dissident was also voicing his opinion that his country, by not permitting him to travel abroad during the past 16 years, possessed an arbitrary, unjust legal system - although it appeared to allow more freedom than those in other communist countries.

Now Djilas can visit his son Aleksa, who lives in London. This week Djilas was given back his passport, which the Yugoslav authorities had confiscated from him in 1970. According to press reports, Djilas said he did not understand why he was being permitted to travel abroad. He said the authorities recommended that he ``do nothing to justify being arrested.''

Joining Josip Broz Tito during World War II to fight the Nazis, he became the communist leader's closest aide and heir apparent. After conducting fruitless wartime and postwar negotiations with Joseph Stalin in Moscow, Djilas was instrumental in bringing about Yugoslavia's break from its alliance with the Soviet Union in 1948.

His questioning nature then led him to question the nature of communist power. Was communism authoritarian in character merely because it was associated with the Soviet Union? Or did the system itself lead to authoritarianism? He concluded that it was inherently authoritarian, and was purged in 1954 from the Communist Party and his government post as vice-president.

But he would not stay silent. In the following years, he spoke out against the Yugoslav regime in books and interviews. Twice arrested, he served nine years in prison before being amnestied in 1966. Even then, he continued his criticism, which led to the loss of his passport.

Djilas continues to offer sharp insights into the situation in Yugoslavia and the larger communist world. Speaking this past summer, in a mixture of English and French, he argued that Yugoslavia must make deep reforms to revive its faltering economy and open up its political system. He suggested a new form of ``socialist'' property that would motivate workers by giving them shares in their company. Politically, he remained adamant that only a multiparty system could provide checks against abuses of power.

Despite all his criticisms, Djilas is not a negative man. He noted the will of East European countries to achieve true independence, pointing to the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland. He even praised Yugoslavia's achievements under communism.

``Under Tito, Yugoslavia made great progress, achieving independent and relative prosperity,'' he said. ``We now face a choice. Either we go forward, become freer and join the rest of Europe, or we will fall backward and become the underdeveloped state we were before World War II.''

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