By Mirza Ajnadžić
Twenty years after Yugoslavia’s bloody disintegration, Dzevad Kapetanovic, a 60-year-old man from Sarajevo, says the old communist federation is still very much alive in his own heart.
“I don’t mourn the fact that instead of one big country we now have six small ones. I am sorry because people’s sense of unity has been destroyed. The [common] life that we once lived is gone,” he said.
Though so much time has passed, many in the region still reminisce about and regret the passing of a bygone era when people of different nationalities lived more or less contentedly in one state – a sentiment that have come to be known as Yugo-nostalgia.
The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, FRY, the former communist federation that survived for over forty-five years, broke apart violently in the early Nineties as its constituent states sought independence, a struggle that was followed by a difficult economic transition from socialism to capitalism
Out of the six ex-FRY republics, so far only Slovenia has joined the European Union and enjoys relative prosperity, while the others are still battling with poverty, unemployment, corruption and the aftermath of the war.
Observers say the harsh realities of life in these relatively young countries is what prompts people to hark back to a time when there were fewer pressures and people could rely on the state far more than they can now.
However, those who believe that Yugoslavia should have remained one country rarely dare express their views publicly. Doing so is not encouraged by political elites in any of the former FRY states – except maybe in Serbia – because the prevailing attitude is that the federation was an artificial creation imposed on the people of the region and suited no-one but the Serbs.
Serbia was the largest of the six republics and is widely regarded to have had the biggest share of power in joint Yugoslav institutions and the army, and Serbia’s former president, Slobodan Milosevic, is seen as the architect of the wars of the Nineties, driven by opposition to the dissolution of the federation. He stood trial at the Hague tribunal for his alleged role in the crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, but died in 2006 before the verdict was handed down.
In 2002, an association named after former Yugoslav president Josip Broz Tito was established in Sarajevo and Kapetanovic is the association’s secretary. Tito, who was the president of Yugoslavia for 35 years, has often been regarded by people in the region as the best statesman the Balkans has ever had.
The association’s members are people of all ages, including those who were born after the collapse of the federation.
Kapetanovic says the absence of democracy in the FRY didn’t bother him at all because he felt secure and led a good life, “I don’t care what the system was like because I had a comfortable life, I had all I needed – freedom and protection.”
He continues to feel a strong attachment to places in the former federation that are now the capitals and regional centres of neighbouring countries.
“Split, Novi Sad, Dubrovnik, Ljubljana – I see all these cities as mine even today. Officially, Yugoslavia does not exists any more, but it does in my heart,” he said.
Explaining the phenomena of Yugo-nostalgia, Jasna Bajraktarevic, a psychology professor at the University of Sarajevo, said, “People who suffer from Yugo-nostalgia are basically seeing the past through rose-tinted spectacles. We all tend to forget the bad things and remember only the good things, and these people sometimes go to extreme.”
According to her, those who believe their lives were much better when FRY still existed actually have a problem with their identity.
“When we all lived in FRY, we felt that we belonged. Yugoslavia was our homeland and we were proud to be Yugoslavs. Today, the situation is much more complex, especially for people who don’t feel they belong to any particular nationality – be it Serb, Croat or Bosniak. They lack identity,” she said.
Bajraktarevic added that what people who spent a great part of their lives in the FRY miss today is the system of values which was in place back then.
“From the materialistic point of view, we have access to many more things today than we did when we lived in the FRY. But we neither see nor appreciate that. In the FRY, we had fewer choices or material possessions, though the system of values was different, too. What mattered then was not what you owned, but what you accomplished in your life as a person,” she said.
Bajraktarevic also pointed out that those older people who look back fondly at the FRY are saddened by the loss of values that were important to them in their youth and they blame the political elites of the independent republics that emerged following the collapse of the communist federation.
“Today, children are more familiar with the names of politicians than musicians, football players and artists. Politicians have determined the lives of these young people and their system of values. Today’s youngsters simply copy what they see – the lack of true moral and ethical values amongst politicians,” she said.
One of the strangest phenomena in the countries of the former Yugoslavia is Yugo-nostalgia among young people – those who never lived in FRY or were too young to remember it.
Adnan Fazlic was born in 1985 and was supposed to start school when FRY fell apart. Today, he is a post-graduate student at the faculty of criminal justice sciences at Sarajevo university and is best in his class.
“I don’t remember life in FRY, but I strongly believe that the system of values from that time was similar to my own. I liked the way people lived back then – it was much simpler and the music was better, too,” he added with a smile.
Yugo-nostalgia among the youth is akin to a sub-culture, especially for those who did not have a first-hand experience of living in FRY, claims Dino Abazovic, professor of the sociology of religion at the faculty of political sciences at Sarajevo university. He says youngsters who bemoan the values of the present seek to draw on positive aspects of the past – even though they have no direct experience of it – encouraged by stories from their parents about how everything was better under the old system.
“You can notice that on the sub-cultural level. These youngsters are using iconography from that period, they regard art movements and music from the FRY era as far superior to what’s available to them today,” he said.
Abazovic says the Yugo-nostalgia of the younger generation can be partly explained by the fact that many are unhappy.
“As a result, young people are glorifying the past when things used to be different. But, on the other hand, I am not sure how much these youngsters really know about that past,” Abazovic said.
In November 2010, Team Youth Initiative, TIM, within the faculty of political sciences at Belgrade university, organised a conference on Yugo-nostalgia. Many famous actors, musicians and intellectuals from the FRY era discussed the phenomenon, trying to offer some explanation as to why so many youngsters from the whole region feel nostalgic about a time they have no memory of.
Milan Krstic, a member of TIM and student at the faculty of political sciences at Belgrade university, was born shortly before the dissolution of FRY, but admits that he too is not immune to Yugo-nostalgia.
“I have to say that when I listen to alternative rock bands from that period, or watch the rally of students from 1968, I feel the spirits of those times and that people really believed in progress back then. My impression is that the state was in many ways more responsible towards its citizens than ours is today,” he said, referring to Serbia.
In 1968, students held protests in many FRY cities, demanding action on social inequality and unemployment and more effective government.
Although the protests failed to bring about any crucial changes in society, they were regarded as the most important movement in the post-war Yugoslavia.
According to Krstic, today’s youth in the whole region yearn for something they believe their parents had in FRY “social security and protection from the state”.
Krstic says one of the paradoxes of the Yugo-nostalgia phenomenon is that the passing of the old federation is lamented by liberals who – had they lived in FRY – would have been persecuted for expressing their political views.
“When we talk about FRY, we never mention its bad sides. We simply idealise our former country. This is why people of liberal political orientation, who would have probably been convicted and sent to prison for their liberal views, overlook the authoritarian side of the former regime,” he said.
He added that another thing that most who express Yugo-nostalgia miss is that people of different nationalities seemingly got along well in FRY and there were no ethnic tensions.
However, no matter how alluring the past may seem, Professor Bajraktarevic warns that in some ways Yugo-nostalgia can be quite damaging for young people because it prevents them from developing properly.
“When nostalgia keeps us in the past, it prevents us from living in the present. It is very important for young people to find a way of coping with the present without turning to the past,” she said.
REVIVAL OF YUGOSLAVIA?
Although many in the region look back with nostalgia at a time when everything seemed simpler and easier, no-one believes the former Yugoslav republics will ever reunite.
Krstic thinks this would be pointless because sooner or later they will join an even a greater union of nations – the European Union.
However, he believes that at some point some form of loose association of western Balkans countries could be formed, allowing the region to exert more influence internationally. “Such union would have much more to offer to Europe and the world,” he said.
This article was produced as part of Tales of Transition project funded by the Dutch government and produced by SCCA/pro.ba, IPWR and eFM Student Radio.