Nostalgia Grows for Tito's Lost World

Social and economic instability prompt many Balkan citizens to yearn for a time of order and prosperity.

Nostalgia Grows for Tito's Lost World

Social and economic instability prompt many Balkan citizens to yearn for a time of order and prosperity.

Kaqusha Jashari, head of the Social Democratic Party of Kosovo, has fond memories of the days when she carried the baton for Yugoslavia’s late strongman, President Josip Broz “Tito”.

A prominent Albanian politician in the communist regime, she was selected for the honour of carrying a baton containing a message from the nation’s youth to the president in a relay from Slovenia in the north to Kosovo and Macedonia in the south.

The culmination was the handing of the baton to the president in the army stadium in Belgrade amid cheering crowds on his birthday on May 25. “The celebration of worship for Tito fitted in perfectly with the education we had at the time,” Jashari recalled. “It was everyone’s celebration, a festival of youth.”

Jashari’s views are less unusual than many think. While four of the six Yugoslav republics are now independent states and Kosovo – still technically part of Serbia – is desperate to become the fifth, many inhabitants of the former federation, especially the elderly and those from the poor south, recall Yugoslavia with nostalgia.

For them it was a time when food and jobs were plentiful, crime was low, ethnic differences were downplayed and difficult political decisions were left to the uniformed Marshal, whose stern features stared down from thousands of portraits in offices, railways stations, shops and homes.

“I was rich in Tito’s time, there were factories and handicraft businesses – we had jobs, we had everything,” mused 84-year-old Mehdi Shabani from Pristina. “The standard of life was far better,” added Osman Krasniqi, 62, also a resident of the Kosovo capital. “With a low salary you could build a house - you can’t do that now.”

Kosovo was the least Yugoslav area of all, for the simple reason that it was the least Slav. “Albanians were less connected with Yugoslavia than the other nations because they were the only non-Slavs. All we had in common was the communist ideology, which was less personal than sharing a language, culture and religion,” said Jashari.

Among the neighbouring Slavs of Macedonia, where locals not only got jobs and food but their own republic, affection for Tito is far greater. Whereas Tito’s once ubiquitous name has been torn down from most streets and squares in ex-Yugoslavia, in the Macedonian capital of Skopje, the largest and most elite school still sports the title “Josip Broz Tito” and each May 25 it honours its patron saint with a folk dance and a flower-laying ceremony.

For many Macedonians, poverty-stricken independence has proved a poor exchange for a secure life in a large Slav federation. “There was no division between rich and poor, everybody could afford to go to school and have a home and a job,” maintained Makedonka Jancevska, 62, a retired Macedonian language teacher.

“Patriotism was fostered on a broader scale; it meant respect of everything related to the uniqueness of all the nations and nationalities that were part of Yugoslavia.”

“The standard of living we had provided us with economic security and many social benefits,” recalled Petar Mojsov, 46, a Macedonian accountant. “Everyone could afford a flat and a car. I travelled to Italy for shopping. I went to Greece for a vacation whenever I felt like it.”

Tose Nackov, an electrical technician, remembers when whole towns in Macedonia turned out to welcome the birthday baton that youths like Kaqusha Jashari of Kosovo once proudly carried.

“We were impatient for the day when it would visit our town,” Nackov said. “It was like a holiday and we would all gather in the square to welcome it and see it off on its way to another town.”

Enthusiasm for Tito’s memory is so strong in Macedonia that last year a new association was set up under Slobodan Ugrinovski to celebrate his life. His 6,180 club members go on trips to (the few) institutions still bearing Tito’s name and visit the main shrines, Tito’s final resting place in Belgrade’s House of Flowers and his birthplace in Kumrovec, Croatia.

As in Macedonia, the hapless inhabitants of war-torn, economically ruined Bosnia and Herzegovina cannot help but contrast life under Tito with what they have now. To Bosnians, Tito's name is widely associated with “the good old times”.

Far from dimming, the cult of Tito there grows ever stronger. When the authorities recently tried to rename the main street in Sarajevo after Alija Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s first post-independence president, the city’s inhabitants rose up, hanging a billboard across the boulevard with Tito’s image on it and the slogan “This is the Street of Marshall Tito”. Months after the initiative collapsed, this billboard remains.

“The young are turning to Tito because he personified prosperity,” said Adnan Koric, a member of the Bosnian Association of Josip Broz Tito. “They know that only during Tito’s time we constantly progressed for 45 years in every aspect of social and economic life.”

Koric believes Bosnians yearn for the time when they did not need several currencies and visas to cross what was once a single territory. “Now we cannot spend a tank of fuel driving in a straight line without getting six visas first,” Koric joked.

In Sarajevo, Tito’s image has returned from the cellars and second-hand shops to popular bars and restaurants. At Tito Bar, a popular haunt of students, young people and professionals, walls are covered in Tito insignia and photographs while waiters wear uniforms bearing Tito’s still-familiar signature. “I come here to think about and live in the past,“ said 26-year-old Amel. “Whatever some may say, our past was brighter than our future.”

While Bosnia and Macedonia lost much and gained little from the fall of Tito’s Yugoslavia, memories are less rosy in neighbouring Serbia and Croatia. For more than a decade under the rule of Slobodan Milosevic, Tito was demonised in Serbia as a Croatian enemy who had plotted the Serbs’ downfall in Yugoslavia.

But even in Serbia, the disappointments of the past decade, including lost wars and collapsing living standards, have changed minds. Misa Djurkovic, of the Belgrade Institute for European Studies, says a growing nostalgia for Tito’s era is related to more than sorrow for lost living standards.

"Yearning for [the old Yugoslavia] is also a yearning for order and dignity,” he said. “Our ‘soft’ communist dictatorship was, after all, a serious, well-established system in which there were none of the robberies, chaos and anarchy that are now sadly typical.”

Djurkovic believes this nostalgia has even spread to some of the younger generation, “Youngsters today see in Yugo-nostalgia an instrument of protest against the rotten legacy of the Nineties, which they have inherited.”

There is certainly no sign of the House of Flowers shutting its doors to pilgrims, though it is a more neglected site than it was in the Eighties, when foreign diplomats and visiting heads of state came to the grave to pay their respects as a matter of course.

But if the crowned heads of state and presidents no longer troop past Tito’s mausoleum, war veterans, communist party members and non-governmental organisations, NGOs, still return on the late leader’s birthday. Svetlana Ognjanovic, the House of Flowers spokeswoman, said she expected up to 2,000 people for this year’s commemoration, including a large party of Slovenian Hell’s Angels (the motorcyclists have made an annual pilgrimage to the site since 2000).

The head of the Tito Centre NGO, retired army general Stevan Mirkovic, also marks the day with dinners of partisan-style beans and a re-enactment of the baton ceremony. And in Serbia’s far north, Blasko Draskic, 73, has gone as far as you can in a campaign to restore Tito’s memory, opening a theme park named “Yugoland” near the border town of Subotica.

Mini-Yugoslavia has several of the geographical attributes of the former Yugoslavia, including a hill named after its highest peak, Mt Triglav, in Slovenia. Old flags with red stars flutter around the entrance, while Tito’s portrait adorns every wall, showing Tito hunting, playing the piano, reading, dancing and paying state visits. Blasko even issues citizenship papers for Yugoland to visitors, and has enrolled 2,500 so far.

Draskic says the abolition of the name “Yugoslavia” was a crime. “The government [of Serbia and Montenegro] has killed off the name of the best country, Yugoslavia, the last thing that reminded us of former Yugoslavia, but without asking people for their consent,” he said. “I had to save it for all Yugo-nostalgic people who can come here freely to enjoy memories of Tito’s time.”

Although Draskic claims visitors are all of ages, the photographs of celebrations held in Yugoland suggest Yugo-nostalgia is mainly a middle-aged or elderly phenomenon.

Among the young people of all republics, interest is small or confined to a ironic cult, a bit like those ex-east Germans who mock-celebrate their communist past by driving Trabant cars and sporting badges with communist slogans.

Aca Bogdanovic, 32, from Belgrade, said he only respected Tito “because he was the greatest hedonist of the 20th century” - hardly the kind of compliment real devotees appreciate. That kind of ironic appreciation is equally evident in Tito’s Croatian homeland where only a handful remain faithful to his political ideas, while a much larger and younger group enjoy experimenting with Titoist motifs.

“It is mostly the young who buy these t-shirts - those who weren’t even born when Tito died!” remarked a salesman in Osjek, in northeast Croatia of his stack of t-shirts with Tito’s face on them.

Zagreb sociologist Drazen Lalic says that while only a few older people can be described as truly Yugo-nostalgic, a growing interest in Tito personally and in the country he once ruled stems from the fact that Croatia is more at ease with itself now than it was ten years ago.

“After years of hearing that we belong solely to the Mediterranean or Central European culture, we are now facing the fact that Croatia also belongs to the Balkan cultural circle,” said Lalic.

“Yugo-nostalgia exists but people do not grieve for Yugoslavia as their former state,” said Milanka Opacic, of the Social Democratic Party. “They grieve for the quality of life they had. They think they were much better off, safer, had a better standard of living and better health protection than they now have.”

The plain fact is that Yugo-nostalgia no longer antagonises anyone because no one seriously believes Yugoslavia will ever be recreated. In Croatia, as the country heads towards the European Union, Yugoslavia is seen as a thing of the past - an unsuccessful project that cannot and will not be restored. As a result, Yugo-nostalgics in Croatia are now viewed as romantics, rather than the enemies of the state they were called during the era of Croatia’s nationalist, leader Franjo Tudjman.

Marcus Tanner is IWPR Balkan editor/trainer; Dino Bajramovic is culture editor at the Sarajevo weekly, Slobodna Bosna; Vladimir Sudar and Mitko Jovanov are journalists with the Belgrade weekly Reporter and the Macedonian daily Dnevnik respectively; and Muhamet Hajrullahu, Drago Hedl and Tanja Matic are regular IWPR contributors.

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