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Balkans Without Borders

Yugo-Nostalgia Prevails In Serbia, Bosnia

  • Gordana Knezevic
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.

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.
The school partition plan for Jajce is currently on hold, but it has not been ruled out -- and local authorities continue to insist on some form of separation.

High school students in the central Bosnian town of Jajce are still doggedly pursuing their yearlong rebellion to challenge a plan to segregate their school. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

High school students in the central Bosnian town of Jajce are still doggedly pursuing their yearlong rebellion to challenge a plan to segregate their school.

They have challenged a decision by local authorities to establish a separate classroom and curriculum on their campus for their Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, schoolmates.

It is a form of ethnic segregation, dubbed "two schools under one roof," that has been instituted in many parts of Bosnia, one of seven countries that emerged from the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the bloody internecine conflicts that accompanied it.

Its critics include a group of teachers in Jajce who have initiated a "better school" initiative that proposes simply modifying the existing curriculum to suit students of different ethnicities. They have the support of local Franciscans and some members of the local Islamic community.

The school partition plan for Jajce is currently on hold, but it has not been ruled out -- and local authorities continue to insist on some form of separation. Years into the dispute in their community and elsewhere in Bosnia, Jajce municipal leaders organized a meeting on May 17 between local lawmakers and the "better school" campaigners to explore an experimental curriculum to replace the "two schools" scheme.

"After being separated in primary school, we don’t want to be separated in high school, as well,” said Nikolas Rimac, one of the students currently at the forefront of the struggle for an integrated school.

Rimac was critical of his parents' generation and its role in the region's internecine wars.

"They can’t move past the way things were 20 years ago, during the war," Rimac said. "What they went through was terrible, but it's not a reason to pass on that experience to us. The hatred they are passing on to us is not a solution."

Student Ivica Jukanovic put it another way to RFE/RL in July 2016, soon after the furor erupted, saying, "We don’t like the very word 'segregation' because it only drives nationalism in Jajce."

At least 54 schools in Bosnia are ethnically segregated, most commonly in central and southern parts of the country that were made part of the Muslim-Croat federation under the Dayton accords that ended the fighting in the 1990s.

Students of different ethnicity are taught in shifts, with different textbooks, curriculum, and teachers. In some cases -- as in Jajce's case -- Croat and Bosniak kids even use different toilets.

"I think the children and their parents are hostage to an unscrupulous political game, and we will only see the consequences of this in 10 or 15 years," a former Jajce student and activist, Samir Beharic, said.

WATCH: Students Speak Out Against 'Segregation' At Bosnian School (from July 2016)

The federation's constitutional court declared "two schools under one roof" unconstitutional in 2014. But in practice, nothing has changed since then. Even in places where the local school is technically "unified," Bosniak and Croat students are still following different curriculums and certain subjects are taught separately, including language, religion, geography, and history. They are reunited in gym class and in the computer lab.

Croats and Muslims make up a majority of the population in Jajce. But there is a Serb minority, as well. Its options are even less enviable. Forced to choose between a Croat or Bosniak curriculum, some Serb parents prefer to send their children to school in Banja Luka, 70 kilometers away.

"Indeed, at the heart of segregating schooling is the reification of supposedly irreconcilable identities. While Bosniak students learn Bosnian history, Croat students learn the history of neighboring Croatia. While Bosniak students are taught the language they speak according to newly minted rules of Bosnian grammar, Croat students are taught the same language using Croatian grammatical standards," Tea Hadziristic wrote on OpenDemocracy.net.

She argued that the wartime practice of ethnic cleansing has been continued in peacetime through segregation in schools.

After the war (1992-95), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) made efforts to undo the results of ethnic cleansing. There was an attempt by the international community to facilitate the return of Bosnian refugees to their prewar homes. At least half of the expellees made their way back, and schools were ordered to make provisions for returnee students of different ethnicity. The resulting system -- devised to accommodate them, as well as local nationalists -- was "two schools under one roof" (1997-2000).

Despite the compromise, nationalist parties found a way to undermine the OSCE order even as they claimed to be implementing it. Sure, they provided space for students of different ethnic groups under the same roof, but nothing more. The curriculum, school management and staff, and all activities remained separate.

All attempts to reform the system have been blocked by the ruling parties in the Croat-Muslim federation. Their argument is that segregation is not discriminatory and that it protects the right of each Bosnian ethnic group to receive an education in its own language.

Jajce activist Beharic said he is concerned that calls for school desegregation will fall on deaf ears among members of the ruling parties. Writing for a local web portal, he warned of the danger of allowing something as unacceptable as segregation to become normalized with time.

"Unless the OSCE, which in 2002 was given a mandate by the OHR (Office of the High Representative) to coordinate a thorough reform of the education system, together with foreign embassies, does not put sustained pressure on local and cantonal authorities, Bosnia could soon have its 55th ethnically segregated school," he wrote.

Ambassador Jonathan Moore, head of the OSCE mission to Bosnia, recently congratulated the Jajce students for supporting unified education.

While Beharic acknowledged that Moore had been supportive of the high school kids' struggle for unified schools, he said more could be done.

"[F]or far too long, [Moore] has also been too soft and lenient with the main culprits, thanks to whom Jajce is poised to take a civilizational step backward," Beharic wrote. He suggested that the nationalists leading the Party of Democratic Action and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) in Bosnia are neither diplomats nor particularly trustworthy but former combatants whose holds on power depend on perpetuating ethnic divisions.

The group campaigning for unified education in Jajce may have received plenty of public support on its Facebook page (and elsewhere, frequently accompanied by the #skZIDN or #JajceZIDN hashtags), but Beharic argued that the students’ efforts will have been in vain without outside pressure on the ruling parties.

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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