Yugoslavs in the twenty-first century: ‘erased’ people

Two decades after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, Balkan countries have a complicated relationship with their Communist past. Two recent events in Slovenia and Bosnia and Herzegovina highlight the complexities of regional identity, and the negative effects of compulsory ethnic identification.

Earlier this month, the Slovenian Parliament adopted a Declaration on Yugoslav communities, a document which presents a general attitude of Slovenia's legislative body towards ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia who live in Slovenia. This marks a step forward in respecting international human rights standards, as since 1991 thousands of so called “erased” people living in Slovenia who had their origins in the former Yugoslav republics remained unrecognized in Slovenian citizenship laws. In the language of the post-Yugoslav, ethnically-based rubrics of the region, the “erased” are ethnic Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Kosovan Albanians and Roma. These people had their origins in former Yugoslav republics, but do not qualify or identify as ‘Slovenian’, having lost their official identity in their country of residence with Slovenia’s independence.  While a handful of the “erased” have since managed to acquire Slovenian citizenship, many more left Slovenia with their official identity there still in limbo, and a significant number continue to reside there without citizens’ rights, despite the binding decision made by the European Court of Human Rights in 2010  which urges Slovenia to give permanent residence to the erased people.

Beyond the still-unresolved case of the “erased” in Slovenia, there is another group of erased people on the territory of former Yugoslavia – the Yugoslavs themselves.  At the beginning of the 1960s the Yugoslav state authorities allowed citizens of the federation to declare themselves ‘Yugoslav’. Most of the people who declared themselves Yugoslavs were children from mixed marriages, and the permission of the state so to do was a welcome change for them, as they felt it was the most appropriate way to express their national identity in a multi-ethnic reality. When Yugoslavia collapsed, around 5 % of the state’s citizens called themselves Yugoslavs. But after the protracted and painful collapse of the state, Yugoslav identity became undesirable for new political leaders and many former Yugoslavs changed their national identities into ethnically-based national identities: under this schema, ‘Yugoslav’ was a false identity from which the new nations were liberating themselves. But such an attitude ignored an inconvenient truth: even today, there are a number of people who claim to be members of the Yugoslav nation, and they want to be officially recognized as Yugoslavs. Most of them are organized in the NGO “Our Yugoslavia” and on several occasions they have urged authorities in Croatia, Bosnia Herzegovina and Serbia for official recognition as Yugoslavs. The only success they achieved in Croatia and Serbia is the registration of the organization, while the Bosnian branch of the organization is not recognized yet because the Ministry of Justice of Bosnia and Herzegovina refuses to register them while Our Yugoslavia has the name of the former state in the title. The last letter from the Ministry is just a few weeks old.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s resistance to even registering ‘Our Yugoslavia’ provides a significant case study of how Yugoslav identity is marginalized and officially denied in Balkan political life.  In many respects, the resistance to ‘Our Yugoslavia’ is part of the logic of the Dayton constitution, established as part of a peace treaty in 1995, and which still exists, with some modifications, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2011, keeping the country all the limbo of a post-conflict ‘protectorate’ state.  Under the Dayton Constitution, three ethnic groups - Bosniak (or Bosnian Muslim), Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat - are listed as the “constituent peoples”, and these three identities are structurally privileged by both the electoral system and in public life, where quota systems are used.  In late 2009, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in the Sejdic and Finci versus Bosnia and Herzegovina case that Bosnia’s constitution violated the human rights of Jews and Roma, who are officially listed as “ostali” (literally meaning ‘other’). As such, they are not afforded the same civil and political rights as the three “constituent peoples”, such as the right to run for political office.  Over a year later, the Sejdic and Finci ruling on Bosnia’s constitution has yet to be adequately addressed. Moreover, the Sejdic and Finci ruling could also be applied to those who identify as ‘Yugoslavs’, just as it can be to those who identify primarily as “Bosnian” rather than as one of the three ethnic ‘groups’ - in the exclusivist consociational structure, there is no room for freedom of self-identity. In this context, the marginalization of ‘Our Yugoslavia’ matches the broader framework of compulsory ethnic-identity that has been in place since the end of the war.

And yet, in cultural and social terms, Yugoslav identity is very much alive, and this gap is striking between the social and cultural spheres on the one hand and the political frameworks on the other.  Allegiance to the defunct state never disappeared from the societies of the successor-states, and in the 2000s, as the Balkan countries proceeded along their various twin paths of post-conflict reconstruction and post-Communist transition to democracy, sympathy for Yugoslavia was a permanent feature of social discourse. Last year a poll by a Macedonian-based think tank, the Centre for Research and Policy Making, revealed that many if not most believed that life was better in the former Yugoslavia particularly in terms of issues such as job security and social cohesion. Further, the newest survey “Life in Transition” published and conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development in 2010, shows that more than 70 percent of participators in the survey in Bosnia-and-Herzegovina disagree with the statement that the economical and political situation is better today than around 1989.  According to the same survey, more than 50 percent of people in Croatia think that the economical situation was better around the 1980s than today, and around 40 percent think that the political situation is better than today.  The results in Serbia are quite similar as those in Bosnia.

Affection for Yugoslavia as a concept, if not a potential-state, also manifests itself in a series of cultural phenomena that have been grouped together as ‘Yugo-nostalgia.’   Yugo-nostalgia is often characterized as a Balkan equivalent of ‘ostalgie’  - the mixture of kitsch and tenderness for the former East Germany, in relation to which films such as Goodbye Lenin! were both product and comment - with the added gravity in the Yugoslav case of the obvious juxtaposition between the largely peaceful Tito era and the atrocities of the 1990s.  Whilst the term can be used derogatively to connote views that are anachronistic or ‘unpatriotic’ (under the current ethnic-identity schema), in everyday conversation it is more likely to refer to knowing references and affection to Titoist iconography and Communist-era objects and aesthetics.

To equate ‘Yugoslavism’ with‘Balkan ostalgie’ - either as pure apolitical sentimentality or pure kitsch -is to fail to recognize the centrality of the identity to those such as members of the group ‘Our Yugoslavia’. In ‘Yugoslavism: histories of a failed idea, 1918-1992’, Dejan Djokic and others outline the internal contradictions of Titoism and the philosophical foundations of the state.  The glorification of the Partizans who liberated Yugoslavia in World War Two was entrenched in the motto ‘brotherhood and unity’, but this papered over both intra- and inter-ethnic divisions as well as the rise of the Yugo nomenklatura.

Yugoslav identity is no doubt fraught with internal contradictions, but to dismiss it, or marginalize it, as a somehow uniquely ‘false’ identity, plays into the rhetoric of ethno-nationalists, who allege that the “true” identities of the peoples of the former Yugoslavia ‘re-surfaced’ after Tito’s death.  In this sense, ethno-nationalists actually deploy a constructivist critique of nationalism but only on a selective basis, to dismantle the authenticity of Yugoslav identity, whilst keeping their own rubric of ethnic-lines (Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks, and so on) unexamined by the same lens.

The total marginalization and denial of Yugoslav identity and discrimination against organizations such as ‘Our Yugoslavia’ is significant in two ways.  On the first level, it is a discrimination against people who self-identify as belonging to a particular national minority, an issue important in its own right in the same way that the Sejdic and Finci case at the European Court of Human Rights drew attention to the institutional discrimination against Jews and Roma in Bosnia’s political system.  On the second level, the marginalization of Yugoslavs is a case study which exposes the wider problem of compulsory ethnic identification in the region, and the lack of a civic framework in public life that allows people to freely choose how to identify. ‘Yugoslav’ as an identity ruptures the structure of the modern ethno-politics of Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, not simply by presenting a threat of an ‘ancien regime’ waiting in the wings - it is practically inconceivable that a state of Yugoslavia will ever be re-born - but because it breaks the rubric of post-Yugoslavian exclusivist identity politics. It may be questioned whether a group of persons who identify themselves with a dead state can be called nationals of that state. But these persons cannot be ignored by the authorities.

Twenty years after the painful collapse of Yugoslavia, the ‘liberal democracy’ that was promised eastern Europe at the end of the Cold War has yet to materialize in most of the former Yugoslav republics.  As the Balkan countries progress towards EU access, the compulsory ethnic identification and residue of ultranationalism means that the prerequisites of liberal democracy – choice in self-identification, and equal rights for all citizens – are still tragically lacking.

About the authors

Anes Makul is a Bosnian journalist and researcher working on nationalism. He has a Masters in Human Rights and Democracy in South East Europe from the Universities of Bologna and Sarajevo, and a degree in journalism from the University of Sarajevo.  He has worked for over two years as a journalist on Bosnian daily newspapers and worked for a year as a researcher on Bosnia's economic crisis.

Heather McRobie is a journalist, writer, and co-editor of openDemocracy 50.50. She is completing a PhD on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and holds an MA focusing on Balkan studies. Her latest book Literary Freedom: a Cultural Right to Literature was published in December 2013.  Follow her on twitter @heathermcrobie