The trains are awesome in the East. The handwritten tickets. The fur-headed border guards. The lack of a hurry. The contrasts. I took a night train from Budapest to Belgrade and everything is different. Another language, another alphabet, another taste of christianity, another history.
There was something utterly depressing about Hungary. I found it exemplified in the sad face of Stephen, the national saint, in a statue on the hill of Buda. Hungary has been oppressed for centuries. Two failed revolutions is all they have to boost their national ego. It’s not enough. You can see it in the streets. People bow their heads. They don’t trust you, they don’t trust each other. They’re accustomed to think that anyone, even a relative, can be an informer for the secret police.
The Serbians on the other hand are a proud and defiant people. Their history is marked by violent ups and downs. They conquered their independence from the Turks on their own. They liberated themselves from the Nazis, together with partisans from the rest of Yugoslavia. Most of all, they held their own against Stalin’s Soviet empire.
Yugoslav communism was generally not as a bad as it was elsewhere, and in Serbia it took ten more years to fall. Now, the nation is the last in Europe to be assimilated.
We went to the ‘House of Flowers’ yesterday to render homage to marshal Tito. A history student, an anthropology student, and me. Attached to the mausoleum there was the Museum of Yugoslav history. It was curious. There was no history. It was a temporary exhibition that had already closed. As far as Yugoslavia is concerned, nothing has happened.
Tito, born a Croat, was a partisan in World War 2 and went on to become dictator of Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. He was maybe the only communist leader who was widely respected in the East and the West. He was also a founding leader of the non-aligned nations.
The fact that Yugoslavia liberated itself in the closing stages of World War 2 (instead of being overrun by the Red Army) meant that the country could follow its own course, independent from Moscow. Naturally, Stalin didn’t like this. And he made various attempts to eliminate Tito like he had eliminated Trotsky (and millions of others). Tito’s official reaction was the following: “Stop sending people to kill me. We’ve already captured five of them, one of them with a bomb and another with a rifle (…) If you don’t stop sending killers, I’ll send one to Moscow, and I won’t have to send a second.” After this, the Russians left Yugoslavia alone.
One of the main differences between Tito communism and Soviet communism lay in the self management of the workers. In other words, it was not the state who owned the factories, but the workers themselves, at least in theory. Also, Yugoslavia had good trade relations with East and West, which boosted the local industry and allowed for a standard of living that other communist countries could only dream of. Another important trait of Tito’s Yugoslavia was a complete repression of nationalism under the slogan ‘brotherhood and unity’.
It kept Yugoslavia together for as long a Tito was alive. Afterwards, during the 1980s, the union slowly deteriorated towards a breakup.
The two most important nations compromising the former Yugoslavia were Serbia and Croatia. Let’s take a look at the differences and similarities. The main differences are three. Croats are generally catholic, Serbs are orthodox. Croats use the Latin alphabet, Serbs primarily use the Cyrillic alphabet. Croatia, historically, has been more orientated towards (Nazi-)Germany, whereas Serbia has been orientated more towards (Soviet-)Russia.
The main similarity is that they speak the same language, Serbo-Croatian. But the funny thing is that since the breakup neither will admit that it’s the same language. What’s more, the Croats have started to invent new words to differentiate ‘Croatian’ from ‘Serbian’.
The differences don’t explain the sudden hatred that exploded between Serbs and Croats in the early 1990s. An explanation for this lies in the genocide of Serbs at the hands of fascist Croats during World War 2. When Hitler invaded the kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1941, he divided Serbia and installed the infamous Ustaša puppet regime in Croatia. In addition to Jews and Gypsies, the Ustaša’s killed over 300.000 Serbs during the war.
When war broke out again in the 1990s, Germany actively favoured the dissolution of Yugoslavia, and the Serbs were usually painted as the bad guys by the media and the international community for trying to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ through ethnic cleansing. This went so far that ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Croatians – as had been meticulously planned and executed in the Krajina – was tacitly accepted and encouraged. Commentators generally failed to add the greater historical context of the conflict. At the time, the genocide of Serbs in WW2 was not even history. For many people, it was still part of their memory.
This doesn’t go to justify anything. It only helps to understand. And it makes it all the more amazing that Tito’s ‘brotherhood and unity’ policy managed to keep the country together for as long as it did. Currently, there is still a lot of nostalgia for the Tito era, especially in Serbia. “Tito was a magician”, you will hear people say. He alone could make Yugoslavia work.
The real breakup of Yugoslavia started and ended in Kosovo. Aside from all regional separatisms, the main responsible was Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Kosovo had been an autonomous province of Serbia since the 1970s. The territory was inhabited and governed by a majority of ethnic Albanians. With rising ethnic tensions in the 1980s, Serbs began to complain about maltreatment at the hands of the Albanian police force. In 1987, Milosevic visited the province, he heard the complaints and promised the Serbs, ‘You will not be beaten again’.
It was the beginning of his rise to power. Two years later, Milosevic organised a massive Serbian rally near Pristina to commemorate 600 years of the battle of Kosovo Polje between the Serbs and the Turks. The battle was an absolute bloodbath, which left both sides decimated. It meant the end of Serbian independence, but it also significantly slowed the Turkish advance in Europe. It would become a major event in Serbian national consciousness. In their view, the Serbs protected Europe with their blood.
There were over a million Serbs present at the rally, from all over Yugoslavia and beyond. Milosevic held a rousing speech, which unleashed Serbian nationalism. He paid lip service to Tito’s ‘brotherhood and unity’, but his true objective was to galvanise the Serbian nation. In doing so, he ominously foreshadowed ‘future battles’.
In twenty years time, with every conflict, a piece of the country was carved away with the blessing of the international community. Nowadays, you can cross all of the former Yugoslavia from Austria to Greece without passing by any Serb-controlled territory.
The Serbs rose up against Milosevic in the year 2000 and toppled him in what came to be known as the ‘Bulldozer Revolution’ (after a man who inspired the masses by charging the gate of the broadcasting tower with a bulldozer).
Now the country is torn between two different spirits. The liberals want to move towards membership of the EU, while the nationalist won’t forget the bombs that were dropped on Serbia by NATO in 1999.
An expression of this conflict was the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the liberal prime minister and successor of Milosevic, in 2003.
The nationalists received another impulse when Kosovo unilaterally declared its independence in 2008. The province was recognised by almost every western nation. It wasn’t recognised by China, Russia, India and many other countries. In Europe, notably, it remains unrecognised by Spain and Greece.
The current government wants to start EU-membership talks as soon as possible, but Germany demands that Serbia stop supporting the Serbian minority in Kosovo and that it ‘normalise’ its relationship with the province.
‘Normalisation’ in practice means recognising Kosovo’s independence. Such a demand, coming from Germany, is the last in a long series of humiliations, and for many Serbians it will be very difficult to swallow.