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22 June 2024

Tito's legendary, rusting yacht set for overhaul


Once a stage for geopolitical dealmaking and host to the 20th century's most glamorous stars, the now-dilapidated yacht of late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito is set for a new chapter as a museum.

"Galeb" (Seagull in Croatian) was in its heyday an icon of Yugoslavia, carrying the charismatic communist president on business around the globe -- and counting Elizabeth Taylor, Sophia Loren and dozens of heads of state among its guests.

After Tito's death in 1980, his yacht declined in tandem with his rudderless country: Galeb was left to rot as the federation collapsed in a series of bloody wars.

Now Croatia's northern port city of Rijeka, which bought the boat nearly a decade ago, plans to transform Galeb into the star feature of its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2020.

"A ship with such a history can be an extraordinary attraction," Rijeka's mayor Vojko Obersnel told AFP.

The mayor has come under fire for the project in Croatia, where Tito is much more controversial than in other ex-Yugoslav republics.

In September, the capital Zagreb -- under pressure from nationalists -- stripped the late leader's name from a prominent square.

While admirers praise Tito's role in defeating the Nazis and raising the global profile of Yugoslavia, opponents slam his communist rule and personality cult.

Croatian conservatives -- increasingly hardline in recent years -- are keen to downplay the legacy of Tito, which they link to Belgrade's domination of the former Yugoslav federation that Croatia battled to leave in the 1990s.

"The idea of the ship is not to glorify Tito non-critically," said Obersnel, of the centre-left Social Democrats.

The aim is rather "to talk about the history around Yugoslavia and Croatia" -- and tell the tale of the boat's "very turbulent" past, the mayor said.

- Banana boat turned warship -

Built in 1938 in Genoa, Italy, to transport bananas from Africa, Galeb -- then called "Ramb III" -- was deployed in World War II by the Italians and torpedoed by the British in 1941.

Repaired but later seized by German forces and turned into a minelayer, the ship was sunk by Allied bombing while in Rijeka in 1944.
The 117-metre (384-foot) boat was raised from the sea and became Tito's official yacht after the war.

The Ship of Peace, as it was also known, first drew global attention in 1953 when it sailed Tito up the Thames in London to meet Winston Churchill, marking the first visit of a communist head of state to Britain.

Galeb also played an important role in the Non-Aligned Movement, founded by Tito and the leaders of India, Indonesia, Ghana and Egypt in reaction to US and Soviet dominance during the Cold War.

"It was indeed on this ship that the most important talks regarding that political movement were held," said Kristina Pavec, curator at Rijeka's City Museum, which is overseeing the project.

- Communist chic -

Looking today at Galeb's rusting hulk, it is hard to imagine an era in which presidents, royalty and Hollywood stars trod its decks.

Dusty mid-century modern chairs lie scattered around the main salon, a bucket catches dripping water in one of the narrow corridors and some ceilings look close to crumbling.
Among the better preserved parts of the ship are the cabins of Tito and his wife Jovanka.

"All the furniture is original and we will try to keep it in its original state in order to present their life on the ship as genuinely as possible," said Pavec.

The city plans to spend 40 million kunas (5.4 million euros, $6.4 million) of EU funds on refurbishing Galeb as a floating museum, with some quarters offered in concession for a hotel or restaurant.

- Rijeka reboot -

Like the ship in its docks, Croatia's third-largest city has seen better days.

Once a thriving industrial port, Rijeka's economy is now struggling -- a consequence of the 1990s war of independence and badly-managed privatisation, sparking the collapse of major companies.

The city is now banking on cultural attractions and tourism to boost its coffers, aiming to complete what the mayor calls its "post-industrial transition" by 2020.

It bought the boat at auction after it had been seized by a Rijeka court over the non-payment of debts by a previous owner, and had been declared part of Croatia's cultural heritage.

Rijeka has its own eventful story to tell, having been run by various different states over the 20th century -- from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to two decades of Italian rule and subsequent Nazi occupation, the former Yugoslav federation under a post-WWII peace treaty and finally the Republic of Croatia.

- Support -

Tito ruled the former Yugoslav federation from the end of WWII until he died.

He made Yugoslavia one of the most prosperous communist countries, but political dissidents were jailed under his regime and opponents denounce his lavish lifestyle.

But on the anniversary of his death, thousands of his supporters still gather every year at his birthplace in northern Croatia.

The renovation of his yacht appears to meet largely with approval among the 130,000 or so residents of "Red Rijeka", as it is known for being traditionally on the left of the country's politics.

"Thanks to Tito, Rijeka was finally Croatian," said Biljana Perincic, 43, a local jewellery designer.

"But the younger generation, I don't know if they know enough about Tito to make a proper judgement."