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The 'Greatest Croat'

Yugoslavia's late communist leader wins a weekly magazine's 'Greatest Croat in History' award, but analysts say it's got nothing to do with nostalgia. 12 January 2004 ZAGREB, Croatia--Josip Broz Tito, the former communist leader of Yugoslavia, is the greatest Croat in history, according to a recent poll conducted by a leading local weekly, Nacional.

Almost a quarter of a century after his death, Tito has once again reappeared among his people, winning 2,055 of the nearly 8,000 votes cast to determine who is the greatest Croat in history.

Second and third places went to world-renowned scientist Nikola Tesla, the "master of lightning," and 18th-century physicist, astronomer, and mathematician Rudjer Boskovic, respectively. Also earning spots among the top five were writer Miroslav Krleza and late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, who shares his position with late basketball star Drazen Petrovic.

The poll, which aimed to determine whom Croats consider their greatest compatriot of all time, was conducted over a five-week period. It was clear from the start that the numbers would swing in favor of the late leader of Yugoslavia, who led the struggle against fascism during World War II.

The poll's results sparked much public debate in Croatia. Some claimed that the survey methods were unreliable, citing the use of votes cast on the Internet and via mobile phone text messages, among other things. Others criticized what they felt was an inadequate selection of candidates to begin with. Still, during the entire five-week process, Tito's status was not once in jeopardy.

Nacional listed 100 nominees in the poll--among them politicians, artists, scientists, singers, actors, and many others, some of whose national origin was questionable.

Writer Ivo Andric, who won the Nobel Prize for literature, for example, was born in Bosnia and Herzegovina and spent most of his life in the Serbian capital of Belgrade.

Though the inclusion of certain candidates was predictable, there were some unexpected ones--among them Stevo Karapandza, a famous chef, who finished a surprising 10th place in the poll.

Former Prime Minister Ivica Racan, whose coalition government lost the general elections in November to the center-right Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), made a poor showing, at 54th place.

Far ahead of him was General Rahim Ademi, who is accused by the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of committing war crimes during the 1991-1995 homeland war in Croatia. Ademi garnered 135 votes, putting him in 12th place.

Ademi's colleague, fugitive General Ante Gotovina, who has been on the run since the ICTY unsealed the indictment against him in 2001, took 30th place.

According to sociologist Drazen Lalic, Tito's triumph in the poll is not related to any kind of nostalgia for the old Yugoslavia.

"This is a natural reaction from people who have come to terms with their history," Lalic said. "Participants did not cast their votes based on ideological criteria, but rather on global recognition. They remembered that Tito was well-known across the globe, that he was on the winning side in World War II, and that he said 'no' to Stalin."

Croatian President Stjepan Mesic, who won 266 votes in the poll to end up in seventh place, agrees that Tito played a great role in fulfilling Croatia's national interests.

"He led the resistance against Nazi Germany and Italian fascism and helped in ousting the monarchy. He ruled post-war Yugoslavia with an iron fist but maneuvered it away from Stalin. On a number of occasions, despite obvious ruthlessness when dealing his political opponents, Tito managed to prove he was a great statesman," Mesic told local media.


Following the bloody 1990s war for independence, Croatia worked quickly to dismantle all symbols of communism, including the legacy of Tito. However, regardless of prevailing public resentment of Tito, his diehard followers have never been discouraged.

Several thousand people still gather each year on 4 May in Kumrovec, the small northern Croatian village where Tito was born, to mark the anniversary of his death. The sirens wail at 3:05 p.m., the exact time of his death, and mourners honor the late leader with flowers and old partisan songs. Many file through the wooden cottage where Tito spent his childhood.

Many of those who attend the commemoration are elderly World War II veterans who served under Tito's command.

Evaluating the results of the Nacional poll, some analysts pointed out that many citizens now regard Tito as a symbol of more peaceful and relatively prosperous times, when the former Yugoslavia enjoyed considerable prestige in both the East and the West.

But for others, he remains a tyrant whose failure to begin democratization in the 1960s ultimately led to the rise of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and the tragedies of the 1990s. There are still many angry voices that caution against forgetting that Tito was responsible for such evils as the opening of notorious labor camps for political prisoners.

Speaking for Nacional, professor Zorica Stipetic, a former researcher at the Institute of the History of the Worker's Movement, said that globally, Tito was celebrated as one of the most important statesmen of the 20th century.

In the late 1980s, foreign diplomats put him on a level with Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt, calling him "the last historical leader from the era of World War II," one who "rejected the Kremlin's ultimatums and Washington's courting."

"The situation is different in the republics that rose from the ashes of the old Yugoslavia," Stipetic said. "The emotions here are still strong, whether positive or negative, because both the negative and positive consequences of Tito's rule directly influenced and determined people's destinies."

Like Lalic, Stipetic is convinced that Tito's victory has nothing to do with a possible comeback of the communist ideology he represented.

"Election day is the only poll that really matters," she said. The Croats recently voted against the leftist political options that share common values with Tito's doctrine. According to Drazen Lalic, the voters who--in the general elections--chose the conservative right-wing option to rule Croatia in the next four-year term were not guided by ideology.

"Their arguments against the Social Democratic Party [SDP] were economic. The SDP-led coalition government simply did not fulfill their expectations," Lalic said.

Tito's appeal, according to Lalic, lies in the fact that he was not a "typical" communist.

"He had a bourgeois style of living," he said. "He drove expensive cars and lived in luxurious houses. He projected an image of a bon vivant who enjoyed king-size cigars, good whisky, and the company of Hollywood celebrities such as Richard Burton and Liz Taylor. He was a true jet-setter."

--by Barbara Peranic

Related Stories:

BRR News: Reincarnating Tito
Celebrations of Tito's 111th birthday in Croatia's Kumrovec are a sign of the times.
2 June 2003

BRR Features: ‘Revolution Is a Process, the Struggle Continues’
Dead 23 years, worshipped, then scorned, and now worshipped again, the communist leader of the former Yugoslavia is making a comeback.
by Goran Tarlac
16 May 2003
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