Stipe Suvar

Croatian socialist who kept faith in a federal Yugoslavia
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The Independent Online

In the late 1980s Stipe Suvar was one of three politicians, among the generation that succeeded Marshal Tito's closest associates, who seemed destined to rule Yugoslavia.



Stipe Suvar, politician: born Zagvozd, Yugoslavia 17 February 1936; Croatian Minister of Education 1974-82; Chairman, LCY Presidium 1988-89; Croatian representative, Yugoslav Federal Presidency 1989-90; married (two sons); died Zagreb 29 June 2004.



In the late 1980s Stipe Suvar was one of three politicians, among the generation that succeeded Marshal Tito's closest associates, who seemed destined to rule Yugoslavia.

Of the other two, Slobodan Milosevic espoused a virulent form of Serb nationalism and authoritarian methods to stay at the top for 13 years until his fall in 2000 and then his ongoing trial before the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Milan Kucan, a Slovene, opted for Western-style democracy and served two full terms as independent Slovenia's first president, paving the way for his country to join the European Union and Nato this year.

Of the three, only Suvar, a Croat, stayed loyal to the concept of a federal Yugoslavia and Tito's brand of Marxism. As a result of his refusal to adapt to the changing circumstances while Yugoslavia was falling apart, he was consigned to political obscurity after 1990, though he remained a vocal polemicist.

Suvar's speedy departure from the top after two decades of steady advance was something of a surprise for a politician who had previously proved his flexibility in manoeuvring between the dogmatic and liberal wings of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), as the ruling party was known. Indeed, he had earned a reputation for being the "Croatian Faust" who had sold his soul to engage in the wheeling and dealing associated with the Communist-era politics of federal Yugoslavia.

But his sureness of touch in operating within the post-Tito framework abandoned him when that system disintegrated, and Croatia, along with the other ex-Yugoslav republics, became independent. That failure led to his being dubbed a practitioner of politics as "the art of the impossible".

Suvar was born into a family of poor farmers in the region of Imotski near what is today Croatia's border with Bosnia and Hercegovina. He was a top student throughout his schooling, graduating in law and earning a doctorate in sociology from Zagreb University. A cerebral figure, he worked as an editor of ideological journals and as a professor of sociology before he emerged in the spotlight as Croatia's Minister of Education in 1974. His wide-ranging reforms, which promoted vocational education at the expense of traditional schooling, were not popular with the public. He earned the resentment of liberal-minded intellectuals when he co-authored a publication in 1984, known as the Bijela Knjiga ("White Book"), that criticised free-thinking writers and artists.

Although he had acquired a reputation as something of an old-fashioned dogmatist, Suvar would later in the 1980s adopt a more reformist tone to attract support across a wider constituency in the LCY establishment. But the main reason for his success in making the transition from Croatian to federal Yugoslav politics was his firm commitment to the Yugoslav system. That secured the backing of the more traditional figures in the LCY leadership who had not been infected by the revived virus of nationalism.

In June 1988 Suvar became the first candidate to win a contest - rather than be appointed - for the post of chairman of the LCY Presidium, which had been filled on an annually rotating basis since Tito's death in 1980. Initially he appeared to have the backing of the key Serbian contingent within the Presidium because Serbs welcomed his strong opposition to Croatian nationalism. But soon Suvar came under sustained attack from the Serbian media - by then largely Milosevic's mouthpiece - for his alleged obstruction of tough action against Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians whom Belgrade was determined to rein in. In fact, Serbia got a largely free hand during Suvar's chairmanship of the Presidium to remove Kosovo's provincial autonomy in line with its own wishes. It was carried out through the imposition of a state of emergency and the deployment of the federal Yugoslav army.

Suvar was deeply concerned about Milosevic's use of Serb nationalist crowds - what he called "totalitarian populism" - to intimidate political opponents. He was equally concerned about the moves towards multi-party democracy that were taking place in Slovenia and later elsewhere. But he had little to offer other than issue frequent warnings of the dangers posed to the survival of Tito's federal Yugoslavia by rampant nationalism and a worsening economic crisis.

Unlike his fellow Croat Ante Markovic, who as Yugoslavia's last properly elected prime minister tried to rescue the federation by bold market-oriented reforms, Suvar had no viable alternatives.

Suvar survived the Serb campaign to unseat him from the LCY leadership, and in 1989 became Croatia's representative on Yugoslavia's collective presidency. It was from that post that he was removed a year later when the nationalists won Croatia's first multi-party elections and replaced Suvar with their own candidate, Stipe Mesic.

From that moment Suvar disappeared from the centre of the political stage. He was a classical Marxist who had always thought in class terms, and could not adjust to the national framework of politics that was established in Croatia and in the other former Yugoslav republics after the disintegration of the federation in 1991.

Even the Social Democrats - the reformed successors to Croatia's Communists - proved too liberal for his liking, and in 1998 he set up the Socialist Workers' Party for true believers in the left-wing cause. He led the party - which has remained on the margins of Croatian politics - until April, when illness forced him to resign.

As a polemicist, Suvar was intensely critical of all aspects of Croatia's political development since independence. He was highly sceptical of Zagreb's moves to join the European Union, warning less than a week before his death that the EU was a melting pot that would encourage many Croats to leave their own country in search of a better life elsewhere, while affluent, elderly West Europeans would take over Croatia's Adriatic coast. But his diatribe against the dangers of capitalist globalisation lacked conviction for those who remembered that during Tito's Communist rule a huge number of Croats (and other Yugoslavs) had already gone to work in Western Europe to escape poverty at home.

Suvar's status on the periphery of politics also reduced the impact of his more well-founded criticisms - particularly of the various forms of discrimination Croatia's Serb minority faced during the heyday of Croatian nationalism in the 1990s. For most Croats, Suvar's thinking was a relic of a bygone era.

Gabriel Partos

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