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A Late Obituary for a Country: Yugoslavia (1918–1991)

Yugoslavia is dead, and it isn’t coming back.

· 12 min read
A Late Obituary for a Country: Yugoslavia (1918–1991)
Cemetery above Sarajevo city. Bosnia and Herzegovina, Southeast Europe. Photo by Uta Scholl on Unsplash

Born as a monarchy, died as a failed socialist state. Succumbed after a life-long illness at the age of 73. Survived by seven ungrateful and prodigal children, nation-states. Preceded in death by other fellow-socialist countries of Europe. Donations (still) welcomed to the impoverished, orphaned Yugonostalgic peoples of the region.

I: The tsar was driven to a wall (Doteralo cara do duvara)

As of 2021, it has been 30 years since Yugoslavia’s bloody decomposition began. It went on for almost a decade, and when it was finally over, it brought a new “transitional” era in the region which did little more than obstinately perpetuate liminality as the region’s modus operandi.

What the previous elite of the Milošević regime did with brutal extra-legal force, the “new” post-Milošević elite do within the bounds of the law (mostly), modifying legislation in their own ever-expanding self-interest. At the end of November 2021, a modification to the Law of Expropriation was proposed in the Serbian Parliament (Skupština). Using its parliamentary majority as well as Covid-related restrictions, the Vučić-lead regime in Serbia is attempting to push forward laws which will enable the present ruling party (the Serbian Progressive Party) to stay in power indefinitely. This amendment to the Law of Expropriation (from 1995) was introduced almost two weeks after the Law of Referendums (from 1994) was amended to abolish the need for a 50 percent voter turnout in order to have a referendum. Together, these amendments create a Serbia where, henceforth, a loyal clique can, with the full force of the law on their side, essentially do whatever they want. Further, it’s notable (though not surprising) that this amendment was introduced discretely and was covered by only one Serbian media organization.

If passed, the amended Expropriation Law would allow the government to expropriate any private property for use by the Serbian state, so long as it’s for the “public good.” Evidently, a small clique of elites decide what constitutes “public good.” Naturally, people were unhappy with this and thousands have taken to the streets to protest. Foreign press has been quick to paint these massive demonstrations occurring in all major Serbian cities as an ecological uprising against the opening of a lithium mine by Anglo-Australian mining company, Rio Tinto. There are more to the protests, though. On the one hand, the amended laws will benefit investors like Rio Tinto because it allows the Vučić-regime to repurpose any property it wants for self-defined acts of “public good,” such as mining or some part of the mining supply chain. Production will increase which means Rio Tinto will make money, and, in turn, so will the Vučić-regime. The law is especially despicable because it compensates owners for the building materials of their property, not for their market value—meaning that pay outs often amount to a meager 20 to 50 percent of their actual worth.

When the amendment to the Law of Referendums was proposed and rapidly accepted by Serbia’s parliament, there were no massive demonstrations. People were “amused” by the media’s reporting on how the Serbian Left and the Serbian Right argued about "the color of the wallpaper,” a rather tame way to describe real controversy about portraits that had appeared on major streets in Belgrade and Novi Sad depicting General Ratko Mladić—a Bosnian Serb, convicted war criminal, and colonel-general who led the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) during the war in Bosnia. For the Left he is a living reminder of what all went wrong during the decomposition of Yugoslavia and what impedes Serbia from adhering to what is seen by its Left as “European values,” hence the controversy around his portraits. While the Law of Referendums was successfully pushed through, the amendment to the Law of Expropriation had a different destiny. The very concept of “expropriation” united the Serbian Left and Right, the ecologist movement, apolitical and otherwise apathetic citizens, vaxers, antivaxers, and even part of the Lawyers Bar. It was a moment well depicted in an old Serbian saying doteralo cara do duvara (the tsar was driven to a wall): people felt cornered. Until present, the Vučić-regime was pretty street-smart. It’s possible they will back down. Either way, the demonstrations highlight a rare case of people rising up—loudly and together—to protest the self-interested policymaking of Serbia’s elite.

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that the Law of Expropriation is especially objectionable because of its historical precedent. In 1945, it was laws like these that allowed the socialist Yugoslav regime to “expropriate” individuals declared to be “enemies of the state.” Nearly 50 years later, they were used again to “expropriate” property from people in like Petrovaradin, in Zemun, and (especially) in Hrtkovci. The crime of these people? Being born into the “wrong” ethnic groups.

In 2021, Serbia has come full circle to Yugoslavia in 1945. To this end, we must ask: is there any difference between the Yugoslav Left of the 1940s and the Serbian Right of the present day, or are they different faces of the same Kleptocratic coin?

II: Speak no ill of the dead (O mrtvima sve najbolje)

One of the most important gods of the ancient South Slavs was the god of the underworld, Dabog (alternatively, Dašbog or Dažbog in Serbian), commonly known by his nickname, Limping Daba (Hromi Daba). For Serbians, his name is both a blessing and a curse, and is often used either to wish someone good fortune or ill fate.

Veselin Čajkanović (1881–1946) a Serbian classical scholar, philologist, ethnologist, and religious history expert wrote a lot about Slavic mythology and how these pre-Christian gods were later canonized as saints. The importance of the ancestors is one of the frequent leitmotivs in Čajkanović’s analysis. The cult of ancestors was and in some sense still remains the pivotal point of Serbian religious life. It is in death, Čajkanović pointed out, that ordinary men are closest to God.

Folklore, as the authors Žanić and Čolović‘s ethnological works sustain, are at the center of political life for South Slavs (Croats, Serbians or others). In that spirit, the veneration of the deceased is ever-present in the everyday life of Serbs. A politician can be despised, vilified and most viciously slandered during his earthly existence, but as soon as he dies, or “throws away the spoon” (baci kašiku) as the saying goes, he instantly becomes venerated. His past mistakes, errors, and faults are forgotten and often embellished beyond belief.

Take for instance the case of the assassinated Prime Minister Zoran Ðinđić (1952–2003). Two decades after his assassination, those who once fervently opposed him as a sworn enemy have become his most nostalgic apologists. While the political circumstances and the actual order-givers still remain unknown, these politicians intuitively know that it’s imprudent to take Daba lightly, so the praising of the deceased hypocritically goes on each year in March, on the anniversary of the assassination.

The same goes for Željko Ražnatović (aka Arkan), a notorious paramilitary leader of the Yugoslav wars, who was a career criminal in peacetime before the war’s outbreak. His widow, who spent some time in the jail for aiding the conspirators in the Ðinđić assassination, is almost “sanctified” in Serbian popular culture without even having had to die. She is often referred to in Serbian media as the “Serbian Mother.” The deadly glow of her deceased spouse shines on her from the afterworld.

As time passes, the deceased become holy and blameless, at least in collective narrative and memory. In that spirit, Yugoslavia too–may it rest in peace–is remembered and regretted by many. “We did live better then” say those who defend the concept of Yugoslavia, imagined as a country in which all the South Slavs could live peacefully. No one bothered to ask ethnic minorities what they thought about that idea.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia did not officially have any homeless, any hungry, or any unemployed. There were no petty crimes on the country’s safe streets. People were particularly proud of their passports. Those who had the means could freely move between Yugoslavia, the Warsaw-bloc and Western Europe’s capitalist nations. Every “tomorrow” was promising and looked ever better than “today.”

It has been three decades since the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia, better referred to as the Yugoslav war cycle—because there were several overlapping Yugoslav wars. Only Montenegro and Macedonia separated peacefully. The war between Serbia (which was not yet independent) and the other “republics” (which were not yet technically republics) lasted a decade. First came the war in Slovenia (1991), then the one in Croatia (1991–1995), then in Bosnia (1992–1995) and finally in Kosovo (1998–1999). The NATO airstrikes in spring 1999 precipitated the end to this bloody cycle. It was time for Yugoslavia to die. And with the dawn of a new century, it officially did in 2003.

For those unfamiliar with the conflict, the Yugoslav wars may sound like factional commotion. In many ways, they were. So much so, that most of the people who lived and continue to live there have forgotten the everyday realities of the conflict and remember only the big events like the siege of Sarajevo (1992–1995) or the genocide of Srebrenica (1995). But for many Serbs, their most potent memories revolve around NATO’s 1999 airstrikes. This was the final blow, the end of a cycle that had seemed interminable. As those from the other republics put it, “the bear came to dance in front of the gate [of Serbians too]” (zaigrala mečka i pred njihovom kapijom). No one gets away from trouble.

Remembering the Jewish Yugoslavia that the Nazis Destroyed
The story of how I came to know one of those survivors, and chronicle her life.

The Yugoslav war cycle produced innumerable victims and refugees, a new economic order, a new elite, and some expressions and idioms which now proliferate in the English-speaking world. The term “balkanization,” for instance, refers to an oftentimes (nasty) division or fragmentation of a region, state, or group. More colloquially, it refers to times “when the shit hits the fan,” typically in multicultural societies. “Yugosphere” is another example. Coined by Tim Judah, the term refers to the geographical and cultural area of the former Yugoslavia, an imaginary encompassment of the region, and the renewal of broken ties among the same hands that strangled each other in the 90s. Or “yugonostalgic” (alternatively “Yugonostalgia”), nowadays exemplified in expensive commercials oriented toward globalized consumers, like this advertisement dedicated to Jugoplastika, a successful factory from the Yugoslav era. This is how some remember Yugoslavia—great factories and huge men knowing how to throw a ball (“homo balcanicus colosseus”!). In the “yugosphere,” there are still people who mourn the fall of “the most beautiful country in the world” as it was referred to during all those decades of socialism. It was beautiful, children in school were taught, because the country had it all. Mountains, fruitful plains, the majestic Adriatic Sea, and numerous beautiful little islands. But beauty is never enough. As my mother would say, the decorative plates on a wall are beautiful, but no one ever ate from them.

III: [Offspring] of an evil father and worse mother (Od zlog oca i gore matere).

The death of the “most beautiful country” gave birth to dwarflike mockeries of modern nation states. “Trickster” nations, to use Szakolczay’s term, who imitate, rather than producing something new. Several of these prodigal offspring continue to dispute borders—Slovenia and Croatia, Croatia and Serbia, and Serbia and Kosovo being the most obvious examples. Some disputed their rightful name for a long time (Македонија!). It is ironic and sad that children in the modern day yugosphere dream of better lives in Western Europe when their parents partook in grotesque, seemingly interminable conflicts to ensure they had a country of their own. The painful truth is that these dwarf-states produce little more than cheap labor for the rest of the world—eternal generations of Gastarbeiters.

Serbia today has become a market for some of the cheapest manual labor on the planet, in which many people work long hours with poor pay in squalid work conditions, sometimes even wearing adult-diapers during work hours because they are prohibited from bathroom breaks during that time. Women are routinely fired as soon it is discovered that they are pregnant. Ordinary men and women are “rented out” brevi manu by the state to foreign investors. To secure well-located, functional factories filled with cheap manual labor, foreign investors often bribe Serbia’s kleptocrats. To attract foreign investors, Serbian officials pay subventions, typically amounting to the monthly or yearly salary of each factory worker. The investor wins because they (essentially) get free land and free labor from government officials who cover the workers’ salaries. The elites win because they get bribes and kickbacks. Everybody in the orbit of the Serbian elite gets a cut. The only real losers in all of this are the citizens: it is from their tax-dollars that these subventions, which are issued only once elites are sufficiently bribed, ultimately get paid. What’s more, many of these projects are often abandoned five years into their lifespan, leaving nothing but empty buildings and unemployed factory workers. In a way, it’s really just a neo-feudal arrangement disguised as capitalism. Those with the means to do so, usually the highly educated, often leave the country as soon as they finish university. This works out well for the feudal overlords, who have no use for the educated anyway.

For many, life during those 50 years of socialism was better than it is today. Education was free, as was healthcare. And it was a good healthcare too. Worker’s rights were respected. People got jobs immediately after high school or after serving in the JNA (the Yugoslav People Army), which was an excellent vector of social mobility. Once they got that job, they could be sure that they would keep it for life, if they so chose. Salaries were smaller than in Western Europe, but higher than in Eastern Europe, which was under the Soviet boot in a way that Yugoslavia was not. Provided they had a job, one could always get a credit from the bank to buy winter coats, cars, and to build houses.

Nostalgia, however, is like being in love. It results in blissful partial blindness. People tend to forget the shady side of Yugoslavia, such as the laws of collective guilt which were introduced after WWII and were not abolished in Serbia until 2011. Those laws created an “enemies from inside” mentality in the yugosphere, as they have in all socialist systems.

Almost the whole population of Danube Swabians (Donauschwaben; Podunavske Švabe) (according to some data, one million people) “disappeared” from the demography of Socialist Yugoslavia. First, they were interned, then they were “repatriated” to Germany. Their houses and properties were seized (“expropriated”). And a new more “loyal” population (loyal to the ruling communist party) from Lika, Herzegovina, Montenegro, etc. was moved to live here. They “got” the German houses and they received some land for free. Some Germans (Švabe) “became” overnight Hungarians, just to stay alive and keep what they owned. The Vojvodnian Serbian, Hungarian dialects keep their memory alive in everyday language (like kibicfenster, kitnikez, and so forth). Many of their houses still remain, in numerous cases decrepit and unpainted, 80 years later. Many died in internment camps, their bodies still scattered around Vojvodina in unmarked collective pits.

In the years after WWII, ethnic minorities had to prove their loyalty to the Communist Party before any opportunity for social mobility was made available to them. The private businesses that did exist were taxed 85 percent of their income each year. They were routinely fined for the most minute of offenses—such as incorrectly painted walls. In post WWII Yugoslavia, dissidents had the unfortunate habit of “disappearing” or being interned on Goli Island (Goli Otok). Workers at factories and communitarian plants may have received free housing, but somebody had to pay for that and all the other goodies and freebies of the regime. And they did—in exorbitant taxes and in baseless fines, but mostly in blood. Remember, though, de mortius nil nissi bonum (o mrtvima sve najbolje).

IV: “Fucked up as a short blanket” (Zajeban k’o kratko ćebe)

The story of Yugoslavia is a messy one. Messy or “fucked up,” as the saying goes, “just like a short blanket.” It may cover one part of your body, but other parts will be left to freeze. There is not much one can do with a short blanket or with Yugoslavia, which brings us back to the initial question. Have we come full circle to 1945 some seven-and-a-half decades later in 2021? Was it better then, or is it better now? Ultimately, these are unanswerable questions.

Yugoslavia is dead, and it isn’t coming back. If it was truly a good project, it might have lasted—because truly good things do last. Or is it perhaps the destiny of countries to be like humans: to be born, to live and prosper, and to die when their time has come? Yugoslavia was only good while the hearts of its inhabitants were good. And that was, comrades, ladies and gentlemen, truly good. Until it wasn’t.

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