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Yugo-Nostalgia Prevails In Serbia, Bosnia


People in the northern Serbian city of Subotica celebrate the 71st anniversary of the establishment of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, on November 29, 2016.

Seven independent countries have emerged from the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

But, as a recent Gallup poll shows, the residents of two of them are more nostalgic than the rest for the former shared state. In Serbia, around 81 percent of people think that the breakup of Yugoslavia harmed their country in its current context. Bosnians are not far behind, with 77 percent expressing regret over Yugoslavia’s dissolution. But what do they all miss, and are those the same things for Serbians as for Bosnians?

"Cockta," the Yugoslav version of Coca-Cola, "Kiki" candies, or cheap "Jugoplastika" flip-flops stuffed in a backpack and a ticket for a weekend train to the Adriatic coast are some aspects of daily life still fondly recalled by former Yugoslavs in Bosnia.

"I think that this [positive] disposition toward Yugoslavia is more a reflection of present-day problems than a result of Yugoslavism as an ideology," Vjeran Pavlakovic, a Croatian historian who led a team investigating nation-building processes in the Western Balkans, told RFE/RL.

Belgrade art historian Branislav Dimitrijevic has just published a book titled Exhausted Socialism, in which he argues against two dominant competing myths about ex-Yugoslavia -- on the one hand, that it was a country of prosperity and security, and on the other, that it was a "prison of the peoples."

"I teach in an art school, and new generations are more and more interested in ex-Yugoslavia, as in their regular education they learn virtually nothing about that country. And not only do they learn very little about it, but the information they are receiving from their parents about that period is contradictory," Dimitrijevic told RFE/RL in Belgrade.

His observation was supported by a poll conducted among young people in Belgrade.

Vuk Panic, 19, said he believes that Yugoslavia was a nice place to live: "With a Yugoslav passport, you could go wherever you wanted!"

But his friend Milos Mihajlovic, 22, has little good to say about the former country: "It was not possible to build a state with Croats," he told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau.

Interethnic Stability

Yet most residents of Serbia see the breakup of Yugoslavia as a negative development. Only 4 percent declared that the violent Balkan divorce that took place in the 1990s was beneficial to Serbia. The inhabitants of Kosovo and Croatia, on the other hand, have the fewest regrets when it comes to the breakup of the former country.

Asked what Bosnians miss about Yugoslavia, Besim Spahic said in a telephone interview that, above all, they miss the stability and harmony of interethnic relations.

"In [Josip Broz] Tito’s Yugoslavia, Bosnia was defined as a common state of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. The focus was on shared values between different ethnic groups. Now the differences are highlighted and blown out of proportion."

"Bosnia was the most-Yugoslav of all the republics, with the largest number of multiethnic marriages," Spahic added. Twenty-five years later, only around 4 percent of all marriages in Bosnia are multiethnic.

Former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980)
Former Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito (1892-1980)

"'Yugonostalgia' survives not because of Tito's dictatorship but because 'brotherhood & unity'" -- the motto of Socialist Yugoslavia -- "doesn't look so bad now," Robin Wilson of openDemocracy tweeted.

The gloomy present faced by many Serbians and Bosnians arguably makes them more likely than some of their neighbors to indulge a rosy vision of the past -- at least some of which is fantasy. This stereotype is seemingly perpetuated through popular culture and media that harken back to a better time.

Competing Pasts

The most popular radio station in Sarajevo, Stari Grad, only plays music from 1980s, apparently catering to the needs of listeners struggling to deal with the experience and memory of war (1992-95) and preferring to recall the comfort of the seemingly untroubled years before nationalist-inspired violence knocked at everyone's door.

But it may also reflect a bleaker future and a struggle between competing pasts. While Yugo-nostalgia has grown in Bosnia and other parts of the region in recent years, the goal of joining the European Union is becoming more distant.

Some former Yugoslav states may be less Yugo-nostalgic than others because they have been more successful in nation-building, suggested Pavlakovic.

"I think that Croatia has managed to secure its geostrategic goals, becoming a [relatively thriving] independent state, and maybe this is the reason why people support this new state [independent Croatia] more, influenced by this 'pumping-up' of the narrative of 'us as winners,'" Pavlakovic said, adding that he thinks the same would apply to Kosovo.

But according to Skender Lutfiu, a historian working at the Kosovo Institute of History, the absence of nostalgia among ethnic Albanians has as much to do with their experience in Yugoslavia as it does with the realization of nationhood in the present. Talking to BIRN, Lutfiu said that Kosovo Albanians "have no reason" to remember Tito fondly. He argued that Albanians in Yugoslavia admired Albania's communist dictator, Enver Hoxha, more than Tito.

"Albanians [in Yugoslavia] had to struggle constantly to defend their rights during Tito's time," he added.

While some might suggest that Albanians had greater cause for complaint than many in Yugoslavia, the Serbs were the largest and most dominant group -- too dominant, especially in politics and the military, some would say. Yet despite their preponderance -- and present-day Yugo-nostalgia -- many modern scholars have argued that the primary responsibility for the destruction of Yugoslavia lies with Serbia and the Serbs.

A woman touches a bust of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at his grave in the Serbian town of Pozarevac. (file photo)
A woman touches a bust of the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic at his grave in the Serbian town of Pozarevac. (file photo)

Although Croatia certainly was not blameless in the breakup of Yugoslavia, historian Tony Judt was one of many who have argued that "the primary responsibility for the Yugoslav catastrophe must rest with the Serbs and their elected leader Slobodan Milosevic."

"It was Milosevic whose bid for power drove the other republics to leave. It was Milosevic who then encouraged his fellow Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia to carve out territorial enclaves and who backed them with his army," Judt said. "And it was Milosevic who authorized and directed the sustained assault on Yugoslavia's Albanian population that led to the war in Kosovo."

Selective Memory

In his highly-acclaimed book, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt wrote that the destruction of Yugoslavia was not a case of spontaneous ethnic combustion. "Yugoslavia did not fall: it was pushed. It did not die: it was killed."

Some might regard it as paradoxical, then, that alongside rising Yugo-nostalgia, a parallel trend in Serbia has seen the steady rehabilitation of politicians who are allegedly most responsible for the disappearance of the former state.

Last year, Ivica Dacic, the Serbian foreign minister, was among those calling for a monument to Milosevic to be erected in Belgrade.

Meanwhile, Labor Minister Aleksandar Vulin rarely squanders an opportunity to express his admiration for Milosevic.

Yet the contradiction may not be as striking as it appears.

Ultimately, both the nostalgia for the former Yugoslavia -- whether for a time when Serbia dominated its neighbors or, as many Bosnians remember it, a place of peaceful coexistence of different ethnic groups -- and a desire to honor the architects of its demise are founded upon selective -- or faulty -- historical memory. The Serbian case in particular seems to bear out the 19th-century French historian Ernest Renan, who wrote that "Forgetting, I would even say historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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