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Once Classified Report Sheds Light on CIA Estimates of Cold War Yugoslavia

By Chris Deliso

A brief analysis of a once top-secret CIA report, written in 1949, provides a glimpse of US understanding of communist Yugoslavia at a pivotal moment in the Cold War- after Tito’s famous break with Stalin the year before.

In the broad sweep of contemporary history, the views expressed therein can be assessed favorably as indicating an accurate judgment of the situation at the time. The report (.PDF), dated June 20, 1949 is titled Estimate of the Yugoslav Regime’s Ability to Resist Soviet Pressure During 1949. Unfortunately, there are no references to sources, methods or US capabilities that went into crafting the report. However, those seeking in-depth reading on the American views at the time and larger context can read Coleman Armstrong Mehta’s lengthy thesis (.PDF) on CIA assessments from 1948-1950.

The 12-page estimate highlights seven key findings regarding Yugoslav security, economy and political stability. It was published for internal use only and addressed to the intelligence heads of the army, navy and air force, and the Joint Staff’s Deputy Director for Intelligence, the Special Assistance to the Secretary of State for Research and Intelligence, the Director of Security and Intelligence of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as the CIA’s Assistant Director for Collection and Dissemination. In true Cold War style, there is also a ‘burn after reading’ suggestion.

Security Findings

Tito’s break with Stalin occurred in summer 1948 and was due in part to dissimilar views on the nature of a socialist state, doubts on the transposability of certain Soviet economic models, and not least, the proud Tito’s disinterest in looking to Moscow as the seat of supreme leadership.

In this light, after the break and chill in relations (which would not thaw until Stalin’s death), there were concerns about how the Soviet strongman might act towards Yugoslavia. The most important short-term conclusion of this report was that the Soviets, and satellite states, were not expected by the CIA to engage in any direct military action against Yugoslavia during 1949, but that “border incidents against Yugoslavia will probably increase.”

The CIA also expected “a more hostile, but probably ineffective propaganda campaign” against the Yugoslavs, and added by stating that “no large-scale guerrilla warfare” would be likely to occur in 1949. In conclusion, the CIA expected that Tito’s regime “would meet no insurmountable obstacle during 1949.”

This conclusion is reached following an examination of the perceived three courses of action Stalin could follow, should he wish to topple the new Yugoslav regime. These were: use of satellite states in direct war; a Soviet invasion; or support for “organized guerrilla warfare,” which would constitute a “war of attrition.” The third was considered the most serious possibility, though still not likely.

In this context, it is striking to note that the eventual dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s occurred with wars that began with (or featured aspects of) guerrilla fighting, particularly in the case of Kosovo. It was only the uncharted waters of the new, post-Cold War environment that made option one (in the modern example, aerial bombardment by NATO) even conceivable.

The possibility of an attack on Yugoslavia by neighboring states was dismissed by the CIA, as the Yugoslav Army was “the second-largest and second-most competent in Eastern Europe,” and could “defeat any combination of bordering satellite armies.” And the assessment also noted that a direct Soviet invasion would not succeed; “prior to any direct attack upon it, the Yugoslav Army would probably have from thirty to sixty days to regroup in the mountainous region south of the Sava and Danube rivers, thus preventing its annihilation by the USSR forces.” It was probably the intention of the authors to imply that Soviet commanders understood this as well, though it is not explicitly stated.

In 1949, the CIA estimated that Stalin would not support guerrilla fighting as it would be taken as a declaration of war by Tito. Quite interestingly, the report suggests that Tito would take “vigorous counter-measures” against any threat to his rule, including sponsoring guerrilla wars in Albania and Bulgaria, which would create “seriously difficulties, and especially for the “insecure Hoxha Government in Albania.”

Tito’s capability to withstand less dramatic, but equally hostile efforts from the Soviets was also considered in the report. The Soviets could hypothetically “infiltrate” small anti-Tito “bands” in neighboring states in order to “disseminate anti-Tito propaganda, enlist recruits, incite local insurrections, perform acts of sabotage, disrupt communications, and prepare the way for assassination of Tito and his aides.”

To this robust list of alleged capabilities, it was posited that arms, supplies and propaganda leaflets could also be dropped in by Soviet aircraft. Much from this menu of sabotage and guerrilla activities listed had in fact been used by Tito’s Partisans successfully against the Nazis.

Perceptions of the Communist Threat: Coloring Views of Macedonian Secessionism

Looking back, probably the most important theme conveyed in the CIA report seems to be that in 1949 the US understood all resistance or possible resistance to Tito in some relationship to Communism- even the ethnic and nationalist threats. This view would color the US perception of these groups for decades, leaving it from the 1960s to experts from ostensibly unrelated fields, like sociologists (something that today would be called ‘interdisciplinary’ input) to identify the ethnic and nationalist character of the opposition to Tito, that would outlive the dictator and re-emerge in dramatic fashion a decade after his death.

Rather, the 1949 report states that the primary danger of minorities in Yugoslavia was that these groups could allegedly be propagandized by the Soviets, “to overthrow the Tito regime in return for promised preferential treatment.” In other words, secessionist nationalist would somehow prefer client-state status under hardcore communism with a nationalist veneer to Tito’s light communism, which also allowed a symbolic amount of nationalism.

The once top-secret report notes that “certain minority groups” in Macedonia, Montenegro and other Yugoslav republics might aspire to overthrow Tito’s regime. The Macedonians are specifically named, though others, such as Albanians, Croats and Serbs, are not. In this light, one of the more intriguing elements of the report is the estimate that “the proclamation of an ‘independent Macedonia’ would have little success in gaining the support of any significant number of Yugoslav Macedonians.”

The CIA concluded, however, that such a proclamation was unlikely to be made, in the immediate future at least. It does not expand on where such a proclamation could be expected to come from, even if it did- from an internal Macedonian group, or from one in Bulgaria or Greece. The report also does not detail why Macedonians would not support the creation of an independent state, which leaves in doubt the reason for why it was seen as unlikely.

The CIA report also comes to a chillingly prescient conclusion: “if seriously threatened at any time in 1949 by the formation of a Macedonian state, Tito could engineer mass deportations of unreliable Macedonians to other areas in Yugoslavia. He could also cut off Yugoslav aid to the Greek guerrillas and might even come to some understanding with the Greek National Government.” The final two of these policies did occur in precise form as predicted, while the first, ‘mass deportations,’ was actually being done by the Greek Right, and accepted by Tito.

Looking at the situation through the lens of the communist threat also reveals why the CIA report dismissed any major support for a Macedonian state, from another point of view: it assessed that the Soviets’ image had been losing credibility in general among the Yugoslav public. It implies that if the nationalist-based secessionist threat was indeed fundamentally inspired by communists, perception damage suffered by the latter would adversely affect enthusiasm for the former. Of course, the historic relationship between national liberation and communist parties in this case is very complex and contentious.

The 1949 report notes that “since the beginning of the year, Yugoslav-Soviet relations have increased in hostility.” Yet despite extensive Cominform propaganda campaigns, the Soviet rhetoric was perceived as appearing more “hollow and ineffective” to the Yugoslav audience. In fact, it was argued that Soviet propaganda, ironically enough, had the effect of “rallying the extensive non-Communist population to Tito’s camp.”

Internal Communist Threats to Tito, and Secret Police Countermeasures

The CIA report estimates that, along with nationalist secessionists, Tito was also confronted with a potential threat from approximately 8,000 enemies within (2 percent of the party’s total membership)- most of whom, once again, exemplified the ‘Communist threat.’ These were comprised of: “old-line” Communists with experience in Russia, sympathetic to the Kremlin; Partisan fighters dissatisfied with their post-war rewards/jobs; and Communists who had fled (Royalist) Yugoslavia as dissident refugees before WWII, and who were repatriated after it, and thus had not participated in the Partisan resistance and lacked any loyalty to Tito.

The report goes on to reveal that such disenchanted elements “are allegedly attempting to organize active opposition to the Tito regime by concentrating on wresting control away from the army.” Tito’s countermeasures were said to include retiring disloyal persons “as a group” and “replacing known unreliables with young stalwarts.”

Intriguingly, the report adds that the UDB secret service played an instrumental role in preserving Tito’s authority, and that it in fact used some of the same tactics that were perceived as potentially being used against the regime. UDB members were “considered loyal and will provide stern counteraction to any campaign to infiltrate Cominform agents extensively, perpetrate widespread acts of sabotage, foment disturbances or insurrections, or organize assassination plots.”

In regards to any Soviet attempts to use proxy guerrilla groups from satellite states, the report also confirmed that “Tito can thwart the potential threat of such groups through his security police.” Throughout the Cold War, the UDB would gain a fearsome reputation for its efficient activities against perceived enemies of the state, both at home and in the extensive Yugoslav diaspora communities around the world.

Economic Issues and Military Assistance Projections

The CIA report, which concludes with a detailed assessment of the Yugoslav economy, also drew conclusions regarding Yugoslav economy and trade, noting that while the Soviets might entertain a strategy to force the collapse of the Yugoslav economy, any such attempt would fail due to “prevailing internal and external conditions.”

The report assessed that in any case the Soviets would not apply economic sanctions against Yugoslavia in 1949, as this would adversely affect their own imports of “strategic metals” from the country. In any case, sanctions would not “impair seriously” Yugoslavia’s general economy even if they were applied. The report noted that in the three years since 1946, Yugoslavia’s economy was rebuilding, and that grain production had approached pre-war levels, as had that of steel, non-ferrous metals, electricity, textiles and timber, with food shortages expected to be alleviated during 1949.

More negatively, however, Tito’s ‘Five-Year Plan’ for industrial expansion was viewed as “unrealistic,” with a lack of capital, Western technical assistance and trained workers hindering it, while gold reserves were low. An appetite for Western loans was noted as something expected to be increasing in the coming period.

Finally, should an emergency situation arise due to Soviet military attack, the report concludes that Western aid might be required. However, any military equipment for Yugoslavia would ideally be better provided by the West, the CIA believed, than “the means for production of such equipment.” It is not clear from this whether the report’s authors were making a case for efficiency, or outlining a long-term goal of preventing a competitive Yugoslav arms manufacture industry.

A Portrait of Tito

The CIA report also discusses Tito as a leader, though indirectly and partially. It is revealing in that its estimation of him was essentially accurate and held true far beyond 1949- thus showing that the aspiring leader would not significantly change his leadership style or chosen overarching Cold War role into the future. This assessment no doubt helped the Americans to predict the limitations of behavior and outlook of what would turn out to be an autocratic rule for decades, until Tito’s death in 1980.

In his life, Tito would become known for craftily playing “both sides,” trying to highlight his country’s advantages of being somewhere between both East and West, which would mature into the non-aligned movement. According to the 1949 report, he is “confident of Western determination to maintain him as a constant irritant to the Kremlin.”

This status, it was argued, meant also that Tito could feel assured of continued economic assistance from the West and steady imports of needed Western industrial goods. However, “following a policy of self-protection and economic self-interest, he will continue to trade with the East in certain strategic items,” it was added.