30 years after his death, Tito's legacy lives on in the Balkans

Depending on who you speak to, he was a "magician of self-promotion" or a man who triumphantly led the former Yugoslavia during its golden years. His critics talk disdainfully of his love of Cuban cigars and whiskey – but his supporters say that everything he had belonged to the people. On the eve of the 30th anniversary of his death, the legacy of Josip Broz Tito remains a topic of keen debate.

The wars of the 1990s that tore their former homeland apart, and the painful transition to a market economy which impoverished millions, means the era of the Communist leader Tito is now nostalgically recalled, particularly by the elderly, as the best period of their history.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia ceased to exist almost two decades ago, but one thing unites its peoples: from Slovenia to Macedonia, everyone remembers where they were on 4 May 1980, when Yugoslavia's Communist ruler for 35 years died at the age of 88. "It's normal for people to be nostalgic," Tito's grandson Josip-Joska Broz, 63, told The Independent. "It was a time of safety and security; a working father could support a whole family, education and healthcare was free for all. Yugoslavia had a good reputation around the globe," he added.

In Belgrade, museums have staged a series of exhibition of Tito memorabilia which have drawn thousands from Serbia and other former Yugoslav republics. "Everything has been turned upside down since 1980, particularly in the 90s and now, and so many lies have been told about Tito, young people are confused. History should be the judge of his merits," said Mr Broz, a pensioner in Belgrade.

The Broz family has inherited nothing from Tito, although the Yugoslav leader was often condemned for his lavish lifestyle, including socialising with international film stars. His supposed achievements, such as the non-alignment foreign policy into "neither East nor West", are also often derided.

"But he took nothing. He wanted everything – all the houses, artefacts, paintings and gifts from international guests – to belong to his people. Now we don't know where many have ended up, maybe as the loot of local tycoons," Mr Broz says.

A decade after his death, the former federation disintegrated amid bloody fighting. It led to the collapse of the social-care system, from which impoverished Bosnia and Serbia are only now slowly recovering. Good medical treatment is a privilege for the wealthy in private clinics, while even the state-run universities have introduced enrolment fees, which is why many remember the Tito era with fondness. "It was the time when God walked the Earth: safe jobs, good money, holidays abroad or in Croatia," said Gordana Majstorovic, 55, a Belgrade bank teller. "I am nostalgic about that period."

One of the injustices after Tito's death was the isolated life of his widow Jovanka Broz, now 85, who still lives in Belgrade. She was moved to a decaying villa immediately after Tito's death, and was allowed to take just a few mementoes, but no jewellery, documents or even photographs from their life together.

For the historian Predrag Markovic, there are no mysteries about Tito, his international or domestic position, or his charisma. "Tito was one of the greatest magicians of self-promotion, a Communist dictator popular in the West," Mr Markovic said.

"He was loved by the British for his Second World War anti-fascism, by many due to his resistance to Stalin, and by his people for high living standards, freedom of travel and life under very soft or liberal dictatorship. Socialism was a very comfortable system: you work a little but you're safe in all ways," Mr Markovic said.

But he recalls that although there was also little repression against dissidents, Tito created a personality cult and brushed divisions between Yugoslavs under the carpet. "The inter-ethnic hatreds were invisible as long as there was money. They destroyed the state later on but the dimensions of his heirs are dwarf-like, when compared to Tito.

"It's like a comparison between de Gaulle and Nicolas Sarkozy," Mr Markovic added. "That is where the nostalgia begins – it's a nostalgia for a real state and not these banana republics or 'plum republics' that we have now," Mr Markovic said in a reference to the most widespread fruit of the Balkans.

For the historian, there are lessons the European Union can learn from Tito's mistakes, one of them being the introduction back in 1974 of a complicated voting system for six former republics and the right to veto decisions reached by consensus. Such a complicated decision-making system paralysed the former Yugoslavia and introduced separatism.

But life was not easy for those who opposed Tito, despite the rosy memories of millions in the region. Aleksa Djilas, 57, a Belgrade author and sociologist, said Tito was "a man of power, with a strong personal love for power, a product of specific post-war circumstances". In his opinion, besides the personality cult at home, this helped create "a cult of Tito abroad". Mr Djilas is the son of the most prominent Yugoslav dissident Milovan Djilas, who spent years in prison for his criticism against the Communist dictator. Milovan Djilas was one of Tito's closest aides in the anti-fascist movement in the Second World War but fell from grace in the 1950s.

"However, Tito's was a vegetarian dictatorship. Sweep-ups were not bloody; people were removed to be forgotten, in order for him to stay in power," said Aleksa Djilas, who himself spent years in exile. He said some credit had to be given for the achievements of Tito's era including social justice and the participation of workers in decision-making.

But many former Yugoslavs do not go that deep where their memories of Tito are concerned. For the ageing, the museum exhibits on Tito were an opportunity to remember their youth. For the young, "it looked like time travel", as Marina Jankovic, 22, a Belgrade student, observed inside one of the exhibitions. "It's still not clear to me how life looked like during his time and sometimes I think that the stories I hear from grandparents or parents are just their memories of their sweet youth," she said.

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