ON A SUNNY Sunday in Belgrade in the midst of the civil war with Slovenia and Croatia, I met the wise man who three decades ago systematically prophesied the fall of the communist system.
"I expected that communism would disintegrate," said Milovan Djilas, 80, who shocked the world with his indictment of communism in "The New Class" in the 1950s. "But I did not expect it in this form. I thought it would be easier. I believed there would be nationalistic differences here, but not so great as they are."
Djilas paused and added with an unusual note of sadness: "My knowledge of democracy is not very good. I didn't realize that it needs a long time. It needs a middle class, a liberal economy, people accustomed to some rules of democracy. I knew the theory."
Djilas continued. "The societies of Eastern and middle Europe never were liberal societies as were the Anglo-Saxon societies, or the Scandinavian. The leading ideology of the second half of the 19th century was nationalism, but in Eastern Europe, with the Soviet occupation, those nationalist ideas were suppressed, there was no development of democratic forms." He then said perceptively: "For democracy, it needs time. For nationalism, it does not."
That is what is happening in the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia, and Djilas expects the situation to worsen. For these are not situations that respond to either economic threats or hopes. That is why the Slovenian and Croatian leaders have largely ignored the European and American attempts to intervene economically. The economic argument does not touch the fanatic.
"They're obsessed with nationalism -- traumatically, like a drunk," said Djilas. "The Croats are engaged to renew the Croat state of 1202. In both Slovenia and Croatia authoritarian forms still exist, and the anti-communist impulses have only been transformed into extreme nationalist ones."
Djilas was an early true believer in communism, the talented vice president to Yugoslav President Tito, and the intellectual father of the transformation of the East Bloc today. He is widely considered one of the towering personalities of our time. He had begun questioning communism in the early '50s as the country's vice president. For he dared, in that age of faith, to question. Why? I asked him.
"What I remember is thinking after a while," Djilas began, "is that what we had was not a better power than before communism and that it was even worse." When Djilas saw what Stalin's repression of free-thinking communist Yugoslavia, and he compared it to how Tito's bureaucracy was repressing his own )) country, he wrote "The New Class" and "Conversations With Stalin" and spent two long terms in prison.
But what next? Djilas is not sanguine. "My impression is that the federal army (of Yugoslavia) will be more active in fighting for its own survival; it will be more aggressive.
"If the army continues to fight in Slovenia, the fight will be enlarged to Croatia. That means the army will disintegrate on a national level. If the Croats start to fight, that will provoke the Serbs in Croatia and that means a large civil war that I think cannot be isolated."
Is this complex Yugoslavia of six republics, 24 languages and at least 30 movements for autonomy and independence gone? "Until now, I believed not," he said. "Now I am not so sure."
Before I left, I had to ask one question that has always fascinated me with men such as Djilas, men with the courage to take lone, painful steps, knowing the world would revile them. What was the price the original men had to pay? For some reason, I was not surprised when he answered me with a kind of riddle.
"The first time I was in prison, I had difficulties. But the second time, when I was imprisoned for five years, I could have continued to live there to the end of my life." Why? "Because everything was clear to me. I was not dependent on the comrades anymore. I felt myself totally, not only juridically, innocent."
"And right?" I asked. He nodded.
Perhaps, I thought, that is why people who used to scorn him stop him on the streets now. So many years later they tell him, "You were the one who was right."