Thirty years after Slovenia achieved independence, a bitter dispute over a street that since 1979 has been named in honour of Marshal Josip Broz Tito has highlighted how the former leader of the federation of Yugoslavia continues to divide opinion in central Europe.
A municipal decree changing the name of Tito Road, or Titova cesta, in Radenci, a town in north-east Slovenia, to Cesta osamosvojitve Slovenije, or Road of Slovenian Independence, has been debated in the country’s highest court. A referendum was even mooted as a solution in the face of opposition.
Despite a ruling by the constitutional court in December annulling the decree, the town’s mayor, Roman Leljak, an author and historian, has caused consternation in recent days by pushing on with his plans to remove all reference to the former dictator from the street.
At a municipal meeting where a new decree was apparently definitively approved, five councillors walked out and Leljak was accused of being an ideologue.
“Unfortunately, democracy died in the municipality of Radenci with the appearance of Mayor Roman Leljak, who arbitrarily changes the image of the municipality and makes suspicious decisions that will be paid by the citizens for a long time,” two councillors, Norma Bale and Dejan Berić, said in a statement. “Mayor Roman Leljak managed to divide the citizens into two camps and quarrel with each other.”
Slovenia celebrated the 30th anniversary of its independence from Yugoslavia late last month, a moment that the prime minister, Janez Janša, said had allowed the country to “breathe freely”. But the bloody recent history of the countries that made up the former Yugoslavia – Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia – has lent itself to an outbreak of Yugo-nostalgia in some quarters in recent years.
Tito, born to a Croat father and Slovene mother, ruled the former Yugoslavia of which Slovenia was part for 35 years until his death in 1980, during which time he made it one of the most prosperous communist countries through a national model that broke from Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.
He was ruthless in suppressing dissenting opinion and nationalist movements, and his role and conduct during the formation of the socialist federation of Yugoslavia continues to be debated. After Tito’s death, Yugoslavia collapsed into bloody civil war at a cost of more than 100,000 lives.
In 1989, Leljak published a book entitled Buried Alive: Josip Broz Tito’s Worst Crime – Huda Jama, detailing acts committed by Tito’s anti-fascist partisans after the end of war as they sought to build a new country in the communist model.
More than 1,000 people, mainly prisoners of war, were killed during May and June 1945 in the Huda Jama massacre, also known after the Barbara Pit coalmine where it took place.
In arguing for the removal of Tito’s name from the street in Radenci, Leljak has claimed that Tito was one of the great criminals of the 20th century.
The constitutional court ruled in 2011 that a separate attempt to rename a street in Slovenia’s capital, Ljubljana, in honour of Tito was unconstitutional. “The name Tito does not only symbolise the liberation of the territory of present-day Slovenia from fascist occupation in the second world war as claimed by the other party in the case, but also grave violations of human rights and basic freedoms, especially in the decade following the war,” the court said.
In the Radenci case, however, there was sympathy for maintaining the status quo, given its long standing.
The annulment of the decree was based on a technicality. The court said less than 15 days’ notice had been given for people to make their opposition known.
Leljak said the latest effort to change the street’s name was fully in line with the law. He added that the change was a sign of respect to Alojz Gaube, a former member of the Yugoslav People’s Army founded by Tito who was shot dead in the street when fighting for Slovenian independence in 1991.