A Brief Economic Analysis of Yugoslavia

I. Nationalization and Reindustrialization

The port city of Zadar in Croatia after many bombings during the war.

The port city of Zadar in Croatia after many Allied bombings from 1943 to 1944.

The victory of the Yugoslav Partisan army in World War II created many hefty challenges for the newly-liberated Balkan region. After being occupied by the Ustaše from 1941-1945, the destruction was severe – “the human and material losses were the greatest in Europe after the USSR and Poland” [Simon, Jr. 5]. The former Kingdom of Yugoslavia was virtually left in ruins, being usurped of its raw materials and resources, and stripped of its transport infrastructure, mining, and manufacturing industries.

Being granted the honor of victors after World War II, the Partisans formed their own government, based on the ideology of Southern Pan-Slavism and a socialist economic philosophy in the Marxian tradition. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established on the 29th of November, 1945 and, after its creation, quickly allied itself with the Soviet Union. It immediately began to implement programs to rebuild its broken post-war state. Power became strongly centralized, based on the Soviet model of state socialism, and order firmly kept in place by Marshal Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Party. Six regions were then created, of relatively equal political power, in the newly drafted Constitution of 1946: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Macedonia. Soon after, sweeping restructuring began to take root; property was transferred from its former private owners to the communist-run state, financial capital was expropriated from formerly being privatized, and the means of production was converted to public ownership. Firstly, large financial institutions, such as the banks, were nationalized to control the money supply and the flow of financial capital. After that was achieved, large industries were then overtaken by state control to promote industrialization in the war-crippled socialist republic. Then, finally, the smaller transport, commercial, and agricultural industries followed suit; they were also nationalized to increase production [Simon, Jr. 5].

II. Deterioration of Yugoslav-Soviet Relations

Edvard Kardelj, one of the creators of the Yugoslav model of socialism.

Although the initial recovery program enacted under Tito’s leadership was derived from Stalin’s 5-year plan model, significant splits shortly began to ferment between the Soviet leadership and the Yugoslav communists. Economic blockades were being placed on the young socialist state because of their alliance with the Soviet Union, and Tito’s independent stance on issues angered Stalin and his associates. Moreover, Yugoslav theoreticians began to formulate their own strains of Marxist thought and began to criticize the internal political and economic structure of the Soviet Union. Consequently, this gradually led to Yugoslavia’s expulsion from the Cominform by the end of the 1940s. It was at this point Yugoslavia began to economically develop differently than its socialist counterparts – creating a unique form of decentralized market socialism based on workers’ self-management [Simon, Jr. 6]. Frankly, the idea behind it was simple; the withering of bureaucratic state would only occur if innovative mass-participatory structures were created. Egalitarianism and populism became more of a principle rather than a political tool, contrary to the Soviet Union. Decentralized socialization of industry quickly followed Yugoslavia’s alienation from the Soviet Union. Led by the efforts of thinkers by the likes of Edvard Kardelj and Milovan Đilas, the original state-control of industry began to be broken down into localities and councils were created for respective industries. The profits were distributed amongst the workers in each individual firm, and some functions of state control were relinquished and allocation became more relied on the basic mechanisms of the market to ensure self-management and proper distribution [Frei, 45].

 III. An Economic Revolution

Strictly speaking, this economic transformation can be described as taking place in three major stages: Firstly, in the 1950s, workers’ collectives were created but were restricted by the state’s regulation of capital construction. This was actually a remnant of the Soviet model of socialism. Secondly, the 1960s and 1970s were a radical shift from the aforementioned control that was present in the previous decade; rather than allow the state to control capital allocation and production, socialized markets began allocating it themselves with a self-managing structure using the labor involved. Thirdly and finally, liberalization reform followed until the ultimate collapse during the 1980s and late 1970s mainly caused by inflation and debt [Simon, Jr. 7].

52-07-01/ 6A

Lunch break for Yugoslav workers, 1952.

The decentralized Yugoslav model mainly employed during the 60s and early 70s was localized, but complex and interconnected. Authorities in certain districts were authorized to oversee consumption and production services, to ensure each commune (the basic local government units) were working in each others interests. Moreover, each autonomous region in Yugoslavia was different; each had different legislative procedures for planning. However, it did still remain a federalist system of governance – most of executive power was exerted in creating land uses, the geographic location of large industries, traffic networking, and grandiose public service projects that required cooperation with different regions [Simmie, 272]. Most of power was derived from the legislative regions, but the localities were actually given little statutory powers. Rather, they were consulted and functioned as “pressure groups” to ensure local interests within the regions are met such as in the areas of housing, settlement, education, national defense, and the likewise [Simmie, 274]. It was a demonstration of a collective economy at work, absent of a real large-scale “free market,” where different elements of production were decided by long-term plans, medium-term plans, and annual action plans – while also being guided by the mechanisms of the supply and demand curves in a regular market, except profits were socialized as was production [Simmie, 276].

The economic growth seen during the period of decentralization was upward and dynamic. Comparatively speaking, Yugoslavia experienced the greatest per capita GDP growth out of all the Eastern Bloc economies [Groningen]. It also embraced a tight-controlled policy on imports from developed capitalist countries after the restoration of Soviet-Yugoslav relations in 1954-1955; foreign trade with socialist countries increased from 1.8% to about 28% in the decade following the return of good relations, while the share from Western capitalist nations dropped from 80.9% to 57.7% mostly due to the policies enacted by the Committee on Foreign Trade which was given extra power in 1956 to protect infant self-managing industries in developing Yugoslavia. Equally important, Yugoslavia enjoyed a balance of trade with the socialist nations during this period – amounting to $176 million of exports and $169 million of imports in 1962. Manufactured goods, machinery, and equipment were traded with the Eastern Bloc nations, while trade with developed capitalist countries consisted mainly of raw materials, food, and tobacco [Frei, 45, 46]. Banking was also heavily regulated, but broken down locally. In 1961, it consisted of eight large sub-national banks and over 380 communal banks, all overseen by the National Bank of Yugoslavia, the main credit institution of the country and giver-of-loans. The sub-national bank, granted on a regional basis, served as intermediaries between the National bank and the communal banks. The idea behind this was to encourage development by focusing giving loans to regions in need of aid, and they used communal banking institutions to do so [Frei, 48, 49].

IV. The Collapse of Yugoslavia

Despite strong economic growth and potential – experiencing an annual GDP growth of 6.1%, a life expectancy of 72 years, and literacy rate of 91% according to 1991 World Bank Statistics from 1960 to 1980 – the experimental Yugoslav system soon imploded on itself due to a variety of factors. Perhaps more importantly, the Oil Crisis of the 1970s had the greatest impact on Yugoslavia and was a precursor to the catastrophe that would unfold after Tito’s death in 1980, ultimately leading to the breakup of the federation in a bloody civil war. The recession in the developed nations in the West severely hurt Yugoslavia, and hindered the economic growth it was experiencing for 30 years. Massive shortages followed in electricity, fuel, and other necessities and unemployment reached 1 million by 1980 due to the energy crisis and the increasing economic embargos imposed by Western powers. Soon, structural economic issues came to light and richer regions became frustrated from over-subsidizing the poorer regions of southern Yugoslavia, called “economic black holes” [Asch, 26]. Production severely dropped, and conditions only worsened as the decade went on; GDP dropped -5.3% from 1980 to 1989, the regions of Kosovo and Montenegro being hit the hardest [Kelly]. Real earnings dropped 25% from 1975 to 1980, further crushing the poorest regions. In an effort to curb the domestic crisis, Yugoslavia began to take loans from the IMF to boost infrastructure development and bring back production levels to their pre-crisis levels. Soon, its debt skyrocketed – Yugoslavia incurred $19.9 billion in foreign debt by 1981 [Massey, Taylor, 159]. As a request for incurring so much IMF debt, the IMF demanded market liberalization and many regions began to implement economic shock therapy: cutting subsidies, privatizing, and quickly opening trade to allow foreign capital, which only worsened Yugoslavia’s economic crisis. Inflation rates soared and Yugoslavia entered a period of hyperinflation, unable to cope with the currency crisis because of its complex banking system – it soon began printing large amounts of Yugoslav dinar banknotes, created a new note of 2,000,000 Yugoslav dinars in 1989. As the broken nation spiraled into further calamity, the terrible war, which would be the bloodiest on European soil since World War 2, would soon begin to rear its dark head and finally put an end to the Yugoslav experiment that lasted little over just 40 years.

The Yugoslav Partisan Army marching through the city of Bitola, Macedonia.

V. Bibliography

– Simon, Jr., György. An Economic History of Socialist Yugoslavia. Rochester: Social Science Research Network, 2012. 1-129.

– Simmie, James. The Town Planning Review , Vol. 60, No. 3 (Jul., 1989), pp. 271-286

– The Groningen Growth and Development Centre, n.d. Web. 3 Jun 2012. http://www.rug.nl/feb/onderzoek/onderzoekscentra/ggdc/inde&xgt;

– Frei, L. The American Review of Soviet and Eastern European Foreign Trade , Vol. 1, No. 5 (Sep. – Oct., 1965), pp. 44-62

– Beth J. Asch, Courtland Reichmann, Rand Corporation. Emigration and Its Effects on the Sending Country. Rand Corporation, 1994. (pg. 26)

– Mills Kelly, “GDP in Yugoslavia: 1980-1989,” Making the History of 1989, Item #671, http://chnm.gmu.edu/1989/items/show/671 (accessed June 03 2012, 10:32 pm).

– Douglas S. Massey, J. Edward Taylor. International Migration: Prospects and Policies in a Global Market. OxfordUniversity Press, 2004. (pg. 159)

– Government of the Republic of Croatia – Information on Croatian Economy http://www.vlada.hr/en/about_croatia/information/croatian_economy

– Ballinger, Pamela. “Selling Croatia or Selling Out Croatia?” Bowdoin College, 24 Oct. 2003. Web.

– Vojmir Franičević. Privatization in Croatia: Legacies and Context Eastern European Economics, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Mar. – Apr., 1999), pp. 5-54

  1. Very interesting summation. Yugoslavia was too small to survive on its own in the face of hostile capitalist encirclement, the same as any country of its size.

    Could Yugoslavia have been helped if the Czechoslovak experiments of the Prague Spring had not been crushed by the Soviet Union? It’s impossible to say, but Czech and Slovak workers, trade unionists and rank-and-file party members had begun working out a sophisticated system of democratic workers’ control in which enterprises would have been managed and directed by the workers, who would elect delegates to regional and then a federal workers’ control body to organize all production. In this case, the enterprises were to have remained in state hands. Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia could have given each other fraternal help, and served as examples for other countries.

  2. Excellent post and very interesting. I’ve always had a lot of respect for Yugoslavia as an example of Socialism working well, it was a prosperous federation and Red Star Belgrade won the European Cup!

  3. Anonymous said:

    Excellent text. It’s a shame that there is not much text like this on Croatian language (my native languege). I’m going to reference to this text in my presentation on Croatian economic system 🙂

    • Anton said:

      Yeah, it is a shame. Croatians seem hesitant to talk abut Yugoslavia in any historical context. I hope you did well on that presentation 🙂

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