Sunday, February 3, 2008

In former Yugoslavia, nostalgia for days of communist rule

LJUBLJANA, Slovenia - On May 25, Bostjan Troha and 50 friends from across the former Yugoslavia will celebrate the official 116th birthday of the late dictator Josip Broz Tito with a pilgrimage in boxy Yugoslav-era Fico cars to Tito's Croatian birthplace and his marble tomb in Belgrade.
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To mark the occasion, Troha has hired a Tito impersonator and dozens of child actors, who will wear Yugoslav partisan berets, wave Yugoslav flags, and applaud rapturously after the Tito impersonator's address. The revelers will down shots of Slivovitz, the Serbian national drink, and dance to the beat of Yugoslav folk music along the 360-mile route.

Troha's group of pilgrims will be modest compared with the 20,000 people from the former Yugoslavia's six republics - Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, and the Republic of Macedonia - who traveled daily to Tito's tomb during communist times after his death in 1980.

But sociologists here say it nevertheless reflects a trend across the Balkans known as "Yugonostalgia" in which young and old yearn for the past as they struggle with a legacy of bloody wars and economic hardship, and the grim reality of living in small countries that the world often seems to have forgotten.

"I miss Yugoslavia," said Troha, a 33-year-old Slovene entrepreneur, from a warehouse crammed with his collection of Yugoslav memorabilia, which includes portraits of Tito, vintage sewing machines, Serbian children's dolls, and 50-year-old bottles of Cockta, the Yugoslav soft drink.

"We didn't have anything, but we had everything," he said. "Neighbors baked each other cakes; we had a leader we trusted. I remember my mother crying when Tito died. I was only 5, but I knew the world was about to change."

Cultural observers here say nostalgia for Yugoslavia is manifesting itself in different ways.

Nearly 5,000 Slovene youths traveled to Belgrade, Yugoslavia's political and cultural capital, to celebrate the New Year. Cross-border investment among the six republics of the former Yugoslavia has seldom been higher.

The dot-yu Internet domain name remains popular for websites. Croats have been discarding past ethnic rivalries to vote for Serbian songs during the Eurovision Song Contest. Basketball, a unifying passion in the former Yugoslavia, is still played in a league that includes top teams from across the region.

In the northern Serbian city of Subotica, Blasko Gabric, a businessman, was so distraught when Yugoslavia was finally abolished on Feb. 4, 2003, that he decided to build Yugoland, a 4-acre Yugoslav theme park, complete with a mini-Adriatic sea and replica of Mount Triglav, Yugoslavia's highest peak.

Gabric says the number of visitors to Yugoland has recently exploded. "As far as I am concerned, I am still a citizen of Yugoslavia," he said. "Today we have democracy and nothing in our pockets."

Here in Slovenia, a prosperous country of 2 million people, Yugonostalgia is all the more surprising because the country this year will celebrate the 17th anniversary of its decision to become the first republic to secede from Yugoslavia.

It did not experience the brutal wars of its neighbors, its economy is thriving, it is a member of NATO, and it recently became the first formerly communist country to assume the presidency of the European Union.

But Troha, who will soon open a Nostalgia Museum featuring his collection, says Slovenes nevertheless miss belonging to a large, multicultural country of 23 million people that everybody knew.

The shift to Yugonostalgia comes at a time when Kosovo, the breakaway province of Serbia, is poised to declare its independence soon, a move that would mark the last act in the dismemberment of the Yugoslav federation.

Critics of Yugonostalgia argue that it is a dangerous and anachronistic fringe of outmoded crybabies who crave the social safety net of the communist era and the cult of personality of Tito while ignoring the poverty, the rabid nationalism of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic, the hyperinflation of the 1990s, the repression and the censorship.

Vlado Vrbic, a historian, said Slovenes were nostalgic because even if Tito kept tight control at home, Yugoslavs enjoyed free education and healthcare, open borders, a job for life, interest-free loans to build houses, generous pensions, and, above all, peace

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