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1948: Stalin, Kosovo and Swallowing Albania

Milovan Djilas - Time Life
Milovan Djilas. Photo: Time Life

Milovan Djilas was, with Tito, one of the founders of the Partisan movement which fought the Axis powers during the war in Yugoslavia and then a founder of communist Yugoslavia. After that he was one of the architects of the policy which led to the break with the Soviet Union in 1948. Then he came into conflict with Tito and the Yugoslav communists and in 1954 he was expelled from the government and party. In 1956 he was arrested and jailed for his support for the Hungarian revolution. One of his most influential works was The New Class published in 1957 in which he argued that communism was not bringing about the classless society it promised but rather a new ruling class made up of the communist party, its elite and bureaucracy.

This extract comes from another book though, his famous Conversations with Stalin. We have chosen it because it describes a pivotal event which many have heard of but few actually know exactly what happened. After the Second World War Yugoslavia and Albania developed particularly close relations and as Djilas says: "Both Governments agreed in principle that Albania ought to unite with Yugoslavia, which would have solved the question of the Albanian minority in Yugoslavia." Here he is referring to Kosovo. However, resistance to this began to emerge within the Albanian communist party led by Naku Spiru, who, "finding himself isolated and charged with chauvinism and probably on the brink of being expelled from the Party, killed himself." It is one of the great "what ifs?" of Balkan history to consider what might have happened to Kosovo and the region if the unification had taken place. Shortly after Spiru's death, in 1948, and after Yugoslavia had broken with the Soviet Union and Albania with Yugoslavia, Spiru was lauded as a hero in Albania. Before that though Djilas was summoned to Moscow and left by train in early January 1948. Immediately upon arrival he was summoned to the Kremlin:

After the customary greetings, Stalin immediately got down to business: "So, members of the Central Committee in Albania are killing themselves over you! This is very inconvenient. Very inconvenient."

I began to explain: Naku Spiru was against linking Albania with Yugoslavia; he isolated himself in his own Central Committee. I had not even finished when, to my surprise, Stalin said: "We have no special interest in Albania. We agree to Yugoslavia swallowing Albania!..." At this he gathered together the fingers of his right hand and, bringing them to his mouth, he made a motion as if to swallow them.

I was astonished, almost struck dumb by Stalin's manner of expressing himself and by the gesture of swallowing, but I do not know whether this was visible on my face, for I tried to make a joke out of it and to regard this as Stalin's customary drastic and picturesque manner of expression. Again, I explained: "It is not a matter of swallowing, but unification!"

At this [foreign minister] Molotov interjected: "But this is swallowing!"

And Stalin added, again with that gesture of his: "Yes, yes. Swallowing! But we agree with you: you ought to swallow Albania the sooner the better."

Despite this manner of expression, the whole atmosphere was cordial and more than friendly. Even Molotov expressed that bit about swallowing with an almost humorous amiability which was hardly usual with him

I approached a rapprochement and unification with Albania with sincere and, of course, revolutionary motives. I considered, as did many others, that unification with the truly voluntary agreement of the Albanian leaders would not only be of direct value to both Yugoslavia and Albania, but would also finally put an end to the traditional intolerance and conflict between Serbs and Albanians. Its particular importance, in my opinion, lay in the fact that it would make possible the amalgamation of our considerable and compact Albanian minority with Albania as a separate republic in the Yugoslav-Albanian Federation. Any other solution to the problem of the Albanian national minority seemed impracticable to me, since the simple transfer of Yugoslav territories inhabited by Albanians would give rise to uncontrollable resistance in the Yugoslav Communist Party itself.

Clearly this moment was to have ramifications above and beyond the question of Albania itself:

Though it did not even occur to me to differ with the view of my country's leaders and to agree with Stalin, still Stalin's interjections for the first time confronted me with two thoughts. The first was the suspicion that something was not right about Yugoslavia's policy toward Albania, and the other was that the Soviet Union had united with the Baltic countries by swallowing them. It was Molotov's remark that directly reminded me of this.

Both thoughts merged into one into a feeling of discomfort.

Conversations with Stalin. Milovan Djilas. 2000.
[pp. 132-134 (intro) and main extracts, 143-145 / Harcourt Brace]

January 2009
Tim Judah

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