A farewell to Yugoslavia

About the author
Dejan Djokic is lecturer in history at Goldsmiths College, London. He is the author of Elusive Compromise: A History of Interwar Yugoslavia (C Hurst, 2007).
There is a website called Cyber Yugoslavia. To apply for citizenship one simply sends an e-mail to the webmaster suggesting a ministry for oneself.

The founders of Cyber Yugoslavia believe that their former homeland was destroyed by politicians’ quest for power. To prevent the same fate befalling their Yugoslavia, they decided to give every Cyber Yugoslav, including the founders themselves, an equal amount of power. Thus each citizen is a minister of something – there are ministers of rain, silly walks, even of opposition, but no prime ministers, presidents, generals or kings. Because cyber space is unlimited, the creators of Cyber Yugoslavia think that territorial disputes – another reason behind the tragic collapse of Yugoslavia – are thus avoided. They plan to apply for a UN membership once they have enough citizens.

map of Yugoslavia in 1992Yugoslavia 1945-1992. Click for bigger image
Creating a virtual state is certainly heavily laced with irony. After all, on the territory of what was Yugoslavia until 1992, there are today several virtual states. Yugoslavia was destroyed by real wars, but some of its successors are not just virtual states – they have also been created by virtual wars. So, why not have a virtual Yugoslavia, whose citizens may live around the world, but who are bound by a common Yugoslav identity?

The well-known Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešiæ also cannot easily cope with a new, narrower, Croat identity, imposed on her by the collapse of Yugoslavia. She initiated another Internet project designed to save Yugoslavia and Yugoslavism from total oblivion. With a group of friends she created a Lexicon of Yugoslav Mythology – the web site is available only in Serbo-Croat at present], a place where anyone, not just from the former Yugoslavia, can contribute by sending their own entries.

Thus the message of both Cyber Yugoslavia and the Yugoslav Lexicon seems to be that the real death of a country does not take place when it disintegrates, but only when it is forgotten. Both projects are highly Yugo-nostalgic and thus idealize the former state, emphasizing only what was good about it. But the idea they have in common is that memory, however painful (the very fact that those good things are destroyed forever must be painful) is the only mode of survival.

The creation of a virtual Yugoslav state, or a virtual encyclopaedia of Yugo-nostalgia, besides being witty and original, raises an important question: what happened to those who genuinely felt Yugoslav, but after 1992 had no state to identify with? In their view, the real Yugoslavia collapsed ten years ago, although an increasingly loose Serbo-Montenegrin federation continued to go by the name of Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY) even after Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia left.

The Yugoslav complex

I have a good friend from Croatia, who is half Serb and half Croat, and had always declared himself a Yugoslav. After the establishment of the FRY, he found it impossible to say he was a Yugoslav. His preferred alternative, Serbo-Croat, was not recognized anywhere, so he somewhat reluctantly became a Croat (although to most Croats he remains a Serb, which in Croatia has some added, not very pleasant, meanings). Another friend, whose father is a Kosovo Albanian and mother a Slovene, grew up in Belgrade and until the early 1990s she unquestionably felt Yugoslav. Understandably, she could not identify with a Yugoslavia comprising just Serbia and Montenegro. But she found it almost equally hard to relate to Slovenia, where she moved when the war had begun.

Because I come from Serbia, I had no problem continuing to declare myself a Yugoslav. Until now. In mid-March, Javier Solana, the EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, gathered around him leaders of Serbia, Montenegro and the Yugoslav federal government in Belgrade and got them to sign an agreement which, for the time being at least, ended months of difficult negotiations between the last two Yugoslav republics on their common – or separate – future(s).

The agreement proposes joint foreign and defence policies, but separate economies, currencies and customs. Leaderships of the two republics agreed to keep the country together for at least the next three years (Montenegro will postpone a referendum on independence for that period), albeit the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is not a federation anymore – the union is now a loose confederation, the two units virtually independent from each other – nor is it called Yugoslavia, but simply, and significantly, Serbia and Montenegro.

This is precisely what makes me sorrowful. I usually declared myself a Yugoslav, which had several advantages over being merely a Serb – which I also am, by virtue of being born in Serbia, to Serbian parents. True, by Yugoslav I don’t just mean a citizen of a country called Yugoslavia – in Central and Eastern Europe national identities have primarily ethnic and not civic meaning. This effectively means that even though there is no country called Yugoslavia anymore, I can continue to declare myself a Yugoslav.

But, I have an(other) ethnic identity – that of a Serb, and anyhow, being Yugoslav always meant something more to me than just a national identification. In any case, I still find it hard to accept that very soon after last month’s agreement, for the first time since the end of World War One, there won’t be a country called Yugoslavia.

map of Yugoslavia in 1929Yugoslavia in 1929. Click for bigger image
Between 1918 and 1929 the South Slav state was officially called the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, but everyone referred to it as Yugoslavia. In 1941-45 it disappeared from the map of Hitler’s Europe, but a Yugoslav King and government-in-exile were recognized by the Allies, and two rival resistance movements fought in the name of Yugoslavia.

The later Yugoslavia, born in 1992 and dying in 2002, was comprised only of Serbia and Montenegro. For most of its short life both its name and its Yugoslav identity remained highly contested. After the secession of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia, could a Serbo-Montenegrin union be called Yugoslavia? Wasn’t a federation comprised only of Serbia, with its ten million people and tiny Montenegro, with the population of some six hundred thousand, really an extended Serbia (Miloševiæ’s Serbia, to make it even worse)?

map of Yugoslavia todayYugoslavia 1992-2002. Click for bigger image
Questions such as these were asked often and often with much justification, and, I admit, I asked them myself. But, didn’t the Netherlands remain so after Belgium and Luxembourg left? And, anyhow, Yugoslavia was never really what its name suggested it was – the land of Yugo- (South-) Slavs – because Bulgarians were never part of it, and because it had large Albanian, Hungarian and (until 1945) German minorities. (Paradoxically perhaps, while its former leader is being tried at the Hague for genocide, with its large Hungarian, Muslim Slav and Albanian minorities, Serbia remains the most multi-ethnic country in the region – even if the mostly Albanian-populated Kosovo is part of Serbia on paper only).

The nobility of failure

I was born in Yugoslavia and the fact that even when hardly into my thirties there is no longer a country of that name does create something of an identity crisis. Yes, I know that all identities are imagined, and especially collective ones. And, yes, I believe that personal identity, the identity of an individual, should be the foremost identity. But each individual needs to belong and does belong to wider communities, and these collective identities can be manifold. Another one of my identities is that of a historian, even if that community is just as imagined.

I was proud to say I was a Yugoslav when I first travelled abroad in the mid-1980s, as a 15-year old. Yugoslavia, while not as prosperous as western countries, certainly did much better than any other Communist country. Everyone I met on my first foreign trips – I travelled to West Germany and to Poland – admired my country and the late President Tito. (It was, of course, another advantage Yugoslavs enjoyed over other Europeans, eastern or western – they could travel freely across the old Iron Curtain).

I am used to supporting Yugoslav – not Serbian (or Serbian and Montenegrin) national teams. The football team, unlike highly successful basketball, handball, volleyball and waterpolo teams, often made me swear I was never going to watch another game of soccer again. (I was pleased, however, when Croatia came third in the last World Cup, as most of its players were members of the Yugoslav U-21 team which won the World Championship in Chile in 1987). Only a few days after the Solana agreement, the football team of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia played its last game under that name. It was against Brazil, against whom, co-incidentally, the FRY also played its first game. Although the Yugoslavs lost both games, it was somewhat symbolic that the Brazilians of Europe, as Yugoslav players were once known, should play their swan song against, arguably, still the best football team in the world.

I was a proud if somewhat confused and scared Yugoslav army conscript while I believed I was defending Yugoslavia when the war broke out in Slovenia in June 1991; and I always received a friendly response from fellow students from third world countries I met in London after I left the last former Yugoslavia in October 1992 (they, too, always talked of Tito). If I had said I was a Serb, the response would undoubtedly not have been as warm, and not just because of Serbia’s pariah status. Admittedly, I often declared myself a Serb out of a need not to conform. In any case being a Serb and being a Yugoslav were not incompatible to me and, like many other Serbs, I mistakenly did not always distinguish between the two identities.

Although, as I already said, I always identified with Yugoslavia, I think I only became a real Yugoslav once the real Yugoslav state disintegrated, when I left Serbia for Britain. This is not just because it is only once you’ve lost something that you begin to realize what you had. It is mostly to do with the fact that I became a historian. Paradoxically, the more I learnt about Yugoslavia the more I discovered its faults, and yet I realized that it was the best solution for the Yugoslavs and the whole region.

As a student of history at the University of London and perhaps even more as a lecturer in Yugoslav history at the same institution, I learnt that the Yugoslav history I studied in Yugoslav schools was only one interpretation of the recent South Slav past – and a highly ideological and problematic interpretation, for that matter.

For instance, I realized that Tito, though unquestionably an able leader, was not such a faultless historical figure after all. Those with different opinions, be they former closest comrades, such as Milovan Djilas, or countless unnamed victims accused of siding with Stalin following the split with Moscow in 1948, were imprisoned and in some cases murdered. I also realized that in 1948 it wasn’t Tito who abandoned Stalin, but the other way around. And so on. But, I also came to a conclusion that Tito and his Communists cannot be solely blamed for all Yugoslavs’ misfortunes. After all, Tito only succeeded King Alexander as a Yugoslav dictator. And despite attempts at a democratic transition during the 1920s, interwar Yugoslavia was far from a democratic heaven, as some present-day anti-Communist historians would have it, or an artificial state doomed to failure from the very beginning, as others would argue.

'Ethnic Map' of Yugoslavia 1917Ethnic Map of Yugoslavia 1917. Click for bigger image
For all its faults, Yugoslavia was not an artificial creation – not more artificial than any other state, including the supposedly ancient nation states which emerged from its ruins, and certainly less artificial than the newly formed Serbia and Montenegro. The Yugoslav idea, which preceded the creation of Yugoslavia in 1918 by almost a whole century, was a noble idea. It ignored historic rights and religious divisions and was based on the then liberal concept of linguistic and ethnic unity (initially of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes).

The collapse of Yugoslavia, far from showing how wrong the proto-Yugoslavs were, has in fact shown that no matter how improbable, contested, imperfect - a united Yugoslavia was a far preferable solution to what followed its two disintegrations of the last century, that of the 1940s and of the 1990s.

In a sense, Yugoslavia was at the same time the most Balkan and the least Balkan of all Balkan states. Its creation required the balkanisation of the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires. But at the same time, the unification of Yugoslavs was quite a different phenomenon from what the toponym-turned-noun means according to the Oxford Dictionary of English Language: “to divide into a number of smaller and often mutually hostile units as was done in the Balkan peninsula in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”

Restless farewell

Since the break-up of the large Yugoslavia many people in London expressed their surprise when I told them I was from Yugoslavia – “but is there still a Yugoslavia?” they would often ask. Until now, I rejoiced in explaining to them that yes, there is, albeit it is only a third (the interwar Yugoslav Kingdom being the first), small Yugoslavia. Waving farewell to Yugoslavia means also saying a final goodbye to a large and important part of my own past, part of my own identity.

And it is not just me who feels this way. Many Serbs, but interestingly, Croats, Bosniaks, Macedonians and Slovenes, too, have been reflecting on the tragic fate of Yugoslavia following the last month’s agreement.

A Croatian journalist, in an unmistakably Yugo-nostalgic tone, reminded his readers that Milan Kundera once wrote how countries with complicated names have bad fortune and ultimately disappear. Kundera referred to Austria-Hungary and the Croatian journalist to Yugo-Slavia. Will Serbia-Montenegro eventually be added to this list? Most probably. Fortunately, because there is a new government in Belgrade and because the EU is now so closely involved in Serbo-Montenegrin affairs, a velvet divorce, like that of Kundera’s Czecho-Slovakia (another country with a complicated name) is most likely.

But, what will happen to Yugoslavs? Perhaps with the disappearance of the third Yugoslavia it will now be equally difficult – but also equally easy – for all those from Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia and, yes, Serbia and Montenegro, to declare themselves Yugoslavs. And anyhow, there is always cyber space, where being a Yugoslav is perhaps just as virtual as being a Serb, a Croat, a Slovene…