Balkans: Back to the future with Yugo-nostalgia
22 October 2009
Separated by wars which marked the 1990s, some citizens of the former Yugoslavia are attempting to rebuild the cultural ties, which were a feature of the Titoist state. Today, with encouragement from Europe, political leaders are also beginning to recognize this trend.
In 1999, the "Group 99" stand, which represented writers from all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia, astonished many visitors to the international Frankfurt Book Fair. Ten years later, fire-fighters in the region mobilize to help their colleagues in neighbouring states, and entrepreneurs are working to establish cross-border businesses. Could it be that Yugoslavia is not dead and gone? Or is the current wave of Yugo-nostalgia simply a passing fad?
For many people, the wars in Yugoslavia resulted not only in the death of friends and family and the loss of their homes, but also in the loss of their identity. What became of the large numbers of citizens who were proud to call themselves "Yugoslav" at the beginning of the 1990s? Those who were of mixed background experienced enormous difficulties when the borders were redrawn – and a significant number of them were forced to leave the region. The famous Bulgarian-Croat writer and essayist, Dubravka Ugrešić, is a case in point. Vilified as "the witch of Zagreb" for her criticism of the nationalist stance of Croatia's first president, Franjo Tudjman, she quickly became a social outcast. In the face of mounting pressure, she finally opted to leave the country and start a new life as a teacher in Amsterdam.
Tito is still popular
The notion of "Yugo-nostalgia," as launched by novelist Dubravka Ugrešić, which came under heavy attack in the media of the mid-1990s, is making a come back, and is now a discernible trend in all of the former republics. On the walls of blocks of flats in Belgrade, you often see slogans like "Tito come back, all is forgiven," and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, popular expressions of nostalgia for life under the socialist leader are even more effusive than they are in Serbia. Over the last few years, no less than three films about Tito – two of them made in Serbia and one in Croatia – have been released in the region.
No doubt, the wounds inflicted by the war will remain painful for many years to come. However, we are now seeing an increasing number of political gestures designed to encourage the healing process. In this context, it is worth noting Serb President Boris Tadić's apologies to the people of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina for war crimes committed in the name of Serbia. Reconciliation has also been promoted by greater cooperation with the International Court of Justice in the Hague. The handing over of war criminals, who were often considered to be heroes in their respective countries (for example, Croatia's General Ante Gotovina, or former Serb president Slobodan Milošević), has marked a major milestone on the road to reconciliation for Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo.
You will cooperate
At the same time, we are seeing more and more cooperation between Belgrade and Zagreb, and more recently between Serbia and Macedonia. Even the secession of Montenegro has not managed to weaken long-standing ties between Belgrade and Podgorica. This is evidence of a growing political conscience that there is much to be gained from establishing dialogue. At their worst, conflictual relations between the former republics of Yugoslavia, especially on the issue of borders, have the power to cause considerable harm: to wit the dispute between Croatia and Slovenia, which brought negotiations on Croatia's accession to the EU to a stand still. In bilateral negotiations with the region's leaders, European diplomats are unequivocal in their insistence on cross-border cooperation: put simply they insist "you must cooperate" or abandon any hope of accession to the EU.
The cultural sphere has always had the potential to build better relations. Even when the region was ravaged by war, the peoples of former Yugoslavia were listening to the same music. Ceca Ražnatović, the huge Serbian turbo-folk star, who is also the widow of the war criminal Zeljko "Arkan" Ražnatović, is the most curous example of this phenomenon. Hundreds of thousands of her records were sold in Bosnia at a time when Arkan's militia were committing appalling atrocities.
Ex-Yugoslavs back at the table again
Goran Bregović is another much less controversial symbol of shared musical culture. Born in Sarajevo to Croatian and Serbian parents and married to a Bosniak Muslim, in the 1970s and 1980s, he was known throughout Yugoslavia as the leader of the famous rock ban Bijelo Dugme ("White Button"). A few years ago, the group reformed for a tour of all the former Yugoslavian republics, which was a triumphal success. And music remains a strong motive for traveling across borders in the region, where thousands of young people from all over the former Yugoslavia travel to the EXIT cultural festival, which is held every year in Novi Sad, Serbia.
Finally, the former Yugoslavia lives on in the form of a certain solidarity that is at its most visible abroad. In Brussels, Paris and Warsaw, expatriates from all over the region gather in Balkan restaurants, and journalists from the former Yugoslavia are always form a clearly distinct group at press conferences in Brussels. Although there is no denying that the road to reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia will be a long one, at least there is an awareness that such a road exists and a recognition of the general direction it should take: it is a road that leads through Europe.