Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

International Justice/ICTY: Aug/Sept '11

IWPR story touches a nerve as local republication draws flurry of reader comments.
By IWPR

 IWPR’s article on Yugo-nostalgia published in September provoked an online debate among readers in the Balkans, who discussed the pros and cons of living in the old socialist federation, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, SFRY, which dissolved two decades ago.

The article, Yugo-Nostalgia Grows as Harsh Realities Bite, was written by a young IWPR trainee in Sarajevo, Mirza Ajnadzic, as part of the Tales of Transition project funded by the Dutch governmnet.

This story focused on a phenomenon evident in many parts of the former Yugoslavia among people of all generations who regret the disintegration of the SFRY, claiming that it was much better than the new states which emerged from it in the early Nineties.

SFRY, which 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-SFRY 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. 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 has come to be known as Yugo-nostalgia.

On September 30, Mirza Ajnadzic’s article on Yugo-nostalgia was republished by a popular electronic newspaper in Serbia, E-News, and sparked a big debate among its readers about the pros and cons of living in the old socialist federation.

In dozens of comments posted in the first few days after the report was republished, some E-News readers argued that the life in SFRY was much better and easier because people of all nationalities were equal and everybody felt safe, while others claimed that SFRY was an artificial state imposed on its inhabitants and doomed to fail sooner or later.”

“Everyone knows that the political system in SFRY was far from perfect, but the whole idea behind this joint state was not bad. Maybe a time will come when politicians in the countries of the former Yugoslavia will turn back to [look for] solutions from the SFRY era, simply because they worked,” one reader wrote in his comment.

“When [former SFRY president, Josip Broz] Tito died in 1980, 15 presidents of states and governments from all over the world attended his funeral. That fact speaks for itself. SFRY meant something to the rest of the world back then. It was much easier to live there than in one of these countries that emerged from it, which heavily depend on European Union, USA and Russia,” wrote another.

“Yugo-nostalgia is the worst possible way of dealing with the past, because it can’t produce anything positive. There should be no shame in admitting that it was good having free healthcare, social care and education in SFRY, but instead of mourning the loss of the benefits we once had we should demand them again,” argued one reader.

Ajnadzic’s report was also republished by a very popular news portal in Republika Srpska, Buka.

Readers who posted their comments about this article shared similar sentiments to those in Serbia, pointing out good and bad aspects of life in the former Yugoslavia. 

“I always like reading stories about the former Yugoslavia because I hope to find something there I can relate to. Just like many people quoted in this article, I don’t feel I belong to any particular nationality – be it Serb, Croat or Bosniak and I think the reason why young people look back at SFRY with nostalgia is the fact that it was a multi-cultural state with strong urban centres… I believe that SFRY was the best solution for the time in which it existed and the only problem is that it did not make the transition from socialism to capitalism peacefully – like other countries from the former eastern bloc, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland etc – but went through bloody wars before it disintegrated completely,” an anonymous reader wrote on Buka’s website, after reading Ajnadzic’s article.

Muhamed Kopic, a Bosnian journalist who now lives in the United States, wrote, “When I compare SFRY with the US, I come to the conclusion that my homeland was in many ways more advanced that the US. In SFRY, I could sleep in a park the whole night if I wanted to, without fearing for my own safety, which I would never dare to do here in the States. In SFRY, everyone had free health insurance, and in the US everyone has to pay that from their own pocket (and it costs a fortune). People who live in what’s left of SFRY have very few benefits which they inherited from SFRY and the majority of people are poor. I quit the communist party and disagreed on many things with my colleagues and bosses when I lived in SFRY, but I never suffered any consequences. I was even promoted and became a reporter with TV Sarajevo and Sarajevo Daily. I reported from all major centres in the former SFRY – Belgrade, Ljubljana, Zagreb and others – and criticised the former regime, but I was never punished for that.”

Zarka Radoja, editor of E-News, says she was not surprised by a large number of the comments posted on their website in response to Ajnadzic’s article.

“Subjects related to SFRY seem to be particularly interesting to E-News readers, both in Serbia and abroad. Croatia frowns upon any mention of SFRY and this subject is almost banned from public discourse. There isn’t much discussion about SFRY in Serbia either, but many people who remember the former state believe that life was better back then and they are not immune to Yugo-nostalgia,” Radoja said.

She added that “people’s comments about this subject are usually very emotional. They feel frustrated with the fact that they cannot express their feelings about the former state without being attacked by those who don’t share the same sentiments.

“Their feelings are best described by the words of a famous actress from the SFRY era, Mirjana Karanovic, ‘Yes, my homeland no longer exists, but allow me at least to remember it’.”

Only a few weeks after IWPR published Ajnadzic’s article on Yugo-nostalgia, Radio Free Europe, RFE, broadcast a half-hour programme on the same subject, which triggered yet more mixed reactions among Balkan audiences.

The producer of this programme, Omer Karabeg – a well-known journalist from Belgrade – said he really liked Ajnadzic’s article.

“I think it’s balanced and fair. It depicted well the phenomena of Yugo-nostalgia. The fact that the article was written by such a young reporter trained by IWPR is a big compliment to this organisation and a proof that IWPR provides really good training for young reporters in the region,” Karabeg said.