Branko Mikulic - socialist emperor manqué
by Mile Stojic
It is Sunday on Bjelašnica. At the spot called Babin Dol, the few visitors are mainly from the diplomatic corps. On the site of the former International Olympic Centre an enormous tourist complex is rising. According to the panel at the entry to the building site, the investor is Bosnalijek from Sarajevo. Though it is a weekend, the workers are rushing to complete the final preparations on apartments destined to house an expensive clientele to the sound of hammering and heavy machinery in operation.
What was once called the property of the working class has been privatised, and is now being sold at prices no worker could possibly afford. I walk along the Olympic tracks covered with autumn leaves, reviewing in my mind’s eye the story of the man who tamed this temperamental mountain and turned it into a tourist paradise - Branko Mikulić.
His time is gone. Now that both the Yugoslav state and its political system have ended in ruins, its former builders and protectors have been consigned to oblivion and are treated with nothing but contempt. Most Communists turned into warring nationalists. Behind a curtain of smoke and blood, a group of criminals has seized possession of the material wealth created over years by the working class. Nationalism replaced socialism. Everything changed in order to remain the same. Alongside the story about Branko Mikulić, a great story of our time, there exist umpteen sagas about perishable human material, about scoundrels who betrayed their lives for the sake of material gain.
His father’s legacy
Branko Mikulić was born in 1928 in a respected Croat family from the vicinity of Bugojno. His father Jure was a prosperous farmer and a leading local member of the Croat Peasant Party, who during World War II became a deputy on the Anti-Fascist Council of the National Liberation of Bosnia-Herzegovina (ZAVNOBiH). This wartime parliament reflected the structure of the rising Bosnian state, built on the famous principle that it was ‘neither Serb, nor Croat nor Muslim, but Serb and Croat and Muslim’. As a young and ambitious party leader, Mikulić made his name by fulfilling his father’s legacy. After studying in Zagreb he returned to his birthplace to become a full-time politician. He became a deputy for Bugojno, a deputy for the West Bosnian district, and in 1965 secretary of the Bosnian Communist party’s central committee - before being elected its president a year later.
Bosnia at this time was indeed something of a ‘dark vilayet’ [Ivo Andrić’s epithet]: although formally equal to the other republics of the Yugoslav federation, economically it lagged a long way behind Slovenia (in particular), Croatia or Serbia. Its leadership, headed by Đuro Pucar Sr, was composed of dogmatic Communists who mainly attended to and nurtured their own political charisma: men who never understood the meaning of the Yugoslav federation, or why Bosnia should be a member of it. Inheriting a land in which the basic form of transport was the horse and cart and the main roads were goat tracks, Mikulić and his youthful team sought to make Bosnia equal to the other federal units, by offering a developmental programme that included thousands of schools and libraries, an asphalted road to every village, culture and education as the only path out of backwardness and poverty.
Mikulić and his team - which included Hamdija Pozderac from northwestern Bosnia, Todo Kurtović from Herzegovina and Hasan Grabčanović from Semberija - proceeded to build a system of social and national equality on the ZAVNOBiH model, by way of full emancipation of the Muslim nation and reintegration of the Herzegovinian Croats into the political system. During the administration of Mikulić and Đemal Bijedić, the Muslims - who in earlier censuses had been treated as ‘undetermined’, or worse still as Serbs or Croats - won their right to national individuality and their own separate symbolic flame on the Yugoslav state emblem. Meanwhile western Herzegovina’s economic regeneration, and the removal of label such as ‘Ustashe’, ‘clericals’ or ‘enemies’ from its Croat population, was another great achievement of Mikulić, perhaps his greatest. Nor did he neglect the Bosnian Serbs.
The Olympic triumph
At the start of the 1970s Mikulić strongly resisted nationalist and liberal movements in favour of an orthodox party line, as a result of which he survived the purges that swept away the Croatian and Serbian leaderships. Mikulić formed a close alliance with Hamdija Pozderac and the other Bosnian Muslim party leaders in Sarajevo, while remaining in a protracted conflict with dogmatic and pro-Informbiro [Stalinist] forces in his own party. He sought to strengthen his fragile position by encouraging the cult of Tito, and by applying a repressive across-the-board policy of treating all nationalisms as dangerous, and especially dangerous for Bosnia-Herzegovina the Croat and Serb irredentist varieties coming from Zagreb and Belgrade. This ‘dogmatism’ made him a target of Belgrade Marxist ‘liberals’ like Ljubomir Tadić, Dobrica Ćosić and Mihailo Marković. He already knew what we were to learn only at the start of the 1990s: that this type of Serbian liberal smile hid bloody jaws.
The same ‘liberal course’ was at times followed mechanically by certain Croat intellectuals, who described Mikulić’s Bosnia as a ‘Stalinist state’, a ‘bantustan’ or a džamahirija. This is how one of them would subsequently judge his criticism of the Bosnian leadership at that time:
‘I was very hard on the Bosnian leaders. They had a discourse, a political rhetoric, that was hard and reminded me of that which characterized the immediate post-war years, and which should have evolved faster than it did. In doing so I "missed" what was far more important: that those men, people like Branko Mikulić and the whole group that came after Đemal Bijedić, in fact liberated Bosnia-Herzegovina from a kind of colonial status in relation to Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana. I did not take into account the fact that those people made a great contribution to Bosnia on the social plane. I insisted too much on their lesser errors, thanks to which their political culture failed to reach the level of the European socialist culture I imagined and wished for.’ (Predrag Matvejević, Dani, 1991.)
During that time of ‘Stalinism’ and ‘monolithic thought’, Bosnia-Herzegovina underwent a rapid economic development. By uniting industrial firms into so-called ‘large systems’ (Unioninvest, UPI, Energoinvest, RMK Zenica, Hepok, Soko, etc.), Mikulić, Pozderac, Kurtović and others made the Bosnian economy competitive, not only on the domestic but also on international markets. During this time they also constructed the state’s informational infrastructure: the Sarajevo TV building, the Oslobođenje printing press, the buildings housing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s parliament and government.
Then came the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. The Games represented the symbolic crowning of a faith in Bosnian statehood - a faith that less than a decade later would totter under the impact of ‘fraternal’ shells. Throughout this time Mikulić met strong resistance from Serbian Communists, who were always going on about the ‘dark vilayet’ and placing stories about his ‘Stalinism’ and ‘peasant origins’ in Belgrade’s yellow press. On the eve of the Olympics, under pressure from charges that he was a ‘socialist tsar’, Mikulić refused to move into a new official residence at Mejtaš, aware how hard it is to endure or forgive ostentatious living in a landscape marked by poverty. But the Olympic Games were a success, far surpassing popular expectations, with a delighted Samaranch heaping praises on Mikulić in the Bosnian and international media. By now, however, Tito’s ship - four years after the captain’s departure - was starting to rock badly, with the federal presidency unable to hold steady on the bridge. Might Mikulić be able to save it? Two years after the Games, he was appointed Yugoslav prime minister and formed a government that seemed ready to pursue stabilisation. Thirteen of its twenty-eight members were young men drafted in from industry and academic institutions. Mikulić’s intention was to reduce inflation by 90%, but Yugoslavia was in fact already dead. He resigned his post on 16 March 1989 and returned to Sarajevo.
A silent death
The man who created Bosnia’s modern infrastructure was forced to watch its sudden destruction by an army that used to enjoy his trust. The Socialist Republic was dying together with the system. Mikulić’s fall was welcomed by some of his Bosnian comrades and colleagues, unaware that they too would soon meet the same fate. Certain of his former loyal subordinates beat the drums of nationalism: Renovica, Kecmanović, Maksimović, Prlić. Such former ‘liberals’ as Tadić, Marković, Vučelić, Krnjević or Ćosić were now pulling the wires behind the cannon. As one cancer destroyed his country, another cancer was destroying his lungs. He refused invitations from eminent politicians to leave the besieged city and seek treatment abroad - he remained until the end on Bosnian soil. He died on a cold May day in 1994 and was buried in St Joseph’s graveyard at Koševo. ‘No wail broke the silence. No TV camera whirred. There was none there’, Alija Isaković wrote at the time in Dani. Bosnia was left to the mercy of those whom he had kept locked up for years.
Today, some ten years after his death, people remember him with sadness, comparing his time with that of Ban Kulin. He was the father of modern Bosnia and the greatest Croat politician this country has produced. He fought for equality for the Muslims of Bosnia-Herzegovina, for the emancipation of Serbs, and did more for his Croat people than any Catholic prelate. He once said that Bosnia would live as long as people believed in it. He never envisaged the possibility of a Croat-Bosniak war - a rare political error. His daughter Planinka, a painter and teacher of English, died soon after him and was buried beside him. His wife Rajka recently sold the family flat in Sarajevo’s Sunce neighbourhood and left to live with her son Rodoljub in Zagreb. The Mikulić family no longer lives in Sarajevo and Bosnia. There are just two graves and a memory of better times.
These were my thoughts as I walked through Babin Do, with the Indian summer winds collecting the fallen leaves into heaps only to scatter them once more. Dear faces rose from the past as if from a dark urn, warning me that of all human values the most important is faith in the word and loyalty to memories.
Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 28 October 2005