RIJEKA, Croatia — Once an industrial hub, the port city of Rijeka, on the edge of the Kvarner Bay, has grand ambitions to transform itself into a bustling art center as it embarks on the path to become a European “capital of culture.”
The aspirational title was bestowed by the European Union on Rijeka, Croatia’s third-largest city, as part of a campaign to celebrate the diversity of the bloc’s 28 members, and it has sent the city on the Adriatic Sea on a refurbishing spree.
Officials are sparing no expense, setting aside about 20 million euros to transform the city’s decaying infrastructure, and they are considering allocating €30 million to finance a yearlong cultural rejuvenation.
As a symbolic centerpiece of the makeover, they have plucked a maritime relic from Croatia’s past to restore and to showcase: a nearly 80-year-old ship named Galeb, or Seagull, that belonged to the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Once a prized vessel of the Yugoslav Navy, which used it as a training boat, it has been rusting at the city’s port for years.
The Seagull now carries the hopes of a city struggling to revive its economy after the near-collapse of the heavy industry and manufacturing sectors in the late 1980s. If officials have their way, Tito’s boat will become a museum to display the complex history of Rijeka and serve as a point of pride for the nation.
But Tito’s controversial legacy is threatening that plan. Far-right nationalists, who have surged into Croatia’s political mainstream in recent years, vehemently oppose it. They are determined to bury Tito’s Communist history and revive the narrative of the country’s Nazi-allied regime during World War II.
Feared and revered in his day, Tito is described by some as a hero of the anti-fascist struggle who kept Yugoslavia’s six republics, including Croatia, together for more than 35 years. Others call him a Communist dictator who purged his enemies.
Tito used the yacht, built in 1938 in Genoa, Italy, as his floating residence, Yugoslavia’s embassy and a party boat. He hosted soirees on it for world leaders and Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.
He made 49 voyages on the vessel to four continents as Yugoslavia’s president, including a state visit in 1953 to Britain, where he met Winston Churchill as the first Communist leader after World War II. The boat was also the incubator for a Tito idea: the Nonaligned Movement, a bloc of countries outside the spheres of influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
To some liberal politicians in Croatia, the restored yacht, 380 feet long, would be the perfect symbol of Tito’s ties to the city and the region. But far-right nationalists equate Tito with an oppressive Yugoslavia, which violently disintegrated after his death in 1980 at 87.
Nationalists want to wipe his name from textbooks. Zlatko Hasanbegovic, a former Croatian culture minister and an ultranationalist, led a successful campaign to strip the central square in Zagreb, the capital,of Tito’s name.
The dispute in some ways echoes the debate in the United States over Confederate statues and what to do with relics of the past. But not everyone is falling in line with Croatia’s nationalists.
Looking out over the pier at the Rijeka Port recently, Zlatko Marencic, 60, who works in the shipping industry, spoke with a tinge of nostalgia about life under Tito. He said:
“Everything was better in Yugoslavia when the old man was running the country. Some say he was a dictator and it was a time of darkness. I say it was the time of peace.”
Denis Romac, a political correspondent for the newspaper Novi List in Rijeka, said the “raging opposition to preserving Galeb and the remains of Tito’s diplomacy on the sea” was rooted in jealousy over his enduring legacy.
“In 25 years of democratic nation states that have risen from the ashes of socialist Yugoslavia,” Mr. Romac declared, “none of their leaders have come close to matching Tito’s achievements.”
To keep Yugoslavia’s six republics — Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia — in place for decades, Tito used an iron hand. He crushed any hint of nationalism. But after his death, nationalism mushroomed in the republics, and Yugoslaviafell apart.
Croatia seceded in 1991, and a war of independence morphed into an ethnic bloodletting that engulfed the region for a decade. Croatia emerged from those tumultuous years into the embrace of the European Union, joining the bloc in 2013.
The union later granted Rijeka the title European Capital of Culture for 2020 (along with Galway, Ireland). Because of its strategic location in the northern part of the Bay of Kvarner and its deepwater port, Rijeka has historically been one of the most fiercely contested cities in Europe, with shifting demographics, languages and names.
In the past 100 years, the city has been part of multiple states — including the Austrian-Hungarian empire and the Nazi-allied Independent State of Croatia. After Tito created Yugoslavia in 1945, the city was officially made part of Croatia.
A multiethnic city of about 168,000 people with a thriving art scene, it has pinned its hopes for revitalization on the European Union’s development funds, but it is fighting the nationalism creeping across Croatia.
As architects and designers draw up plans to create museums, art galleries, music halls and theaters out of Rijeka’s old factories, storage buildings and port facilities, the ascendance of hard-line nationalists is raising fears that Croatia will follow the increasingly autocratic governing styles of Hungary and Poland.
Nationalists like Mr. Hasanbegovic have stepped up the pressure. In February, far-right groups flew neo-Nazis flags at a march in support of Donald J. Trump’s election as president of the United States.
But emboldened nationalists are unlikely to kill the plan for Tito’s ship. Work on the vessel will begin at year’s end, and it is destined to become part of the City Museum of Rijeka.
“It’s not our aim to establish a museum of idolatry,” said Vojko Obersnel, the mayor of Rijeka. Although Tito “made mistakes,” he added, he is “an important historical figure, deeply connected to our city.”
Many Croats say they are fed up with the bickering over the past. Mario Kruzic, 32, director of the port authority in Crikvenica, spoke for many who are too young to view Tito’s legacy with either nostalgia or resentment.
“I have my life and career ahead of me,” he said. “I want politicians to look for solutions to the problems of the present and leave the past to historians.”