Europe, Headlines

Once, There Was Yugoslavia

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Jun 24 2011 (IPS) - For decades, the former Yugoslavia was a communist country with a human face, whose nations enjoyed high standards of living compared to other Eastern Europeans, visa-free travel abroad, and participatory government. Twenty years ago, on Jun. 25, all that ended.

It ended for a country where private property was allowed, be it homes or small business. Education and healthcare were free, jobs were secure, and Yugoslavia had a firm reputation as one of the leaders of the non-aligned movement.

On Jun. 25, 1991, the most developed republics of Croatia and Slovenia made unilateral declarations of independence. They saw the Serbian leader at the time, Slobodan Milosevic, as the incarnation of evil who wanted their nations to remain under what they saw as the iron rule of Belgrade in a world that had changed after the fall of Berlin wall in 1989.

Milosevic was acting as the protector of all Serbs, who lived outside present day Serbia in hundreds of thousands in Croatia and Bosnia. He publicly declared “the need for all Serbs to live in one country.”

“Those two things set the stage for the wars of the 90s,” historian Predrag Markovic tells IPS. “After the human loss of some 150,000 people and enormous economic losses, it is hard to say what the benefit of independence was for some 24 million people who lived in former Yugoslavia. Yes, they are proud of having their own countries, but the essential substance of serious states is lacking in almost all when compared to former federation.”

Slovenia with a population of two million, Croatia with 4.6 million, Bosnia-Herzegovina 4.2 million, Serbia 7.5 million, Montenegro 650,000 and Macedonia with two million people are quite different places now. The three leaders that led nations in wars of the 90s, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, Bosniak leader Alija Izetbegovic and Milosevic are all dead.

The most developed Slovenia is so far the only member of the European Union (EU), since 2004. Croatia stands next in line for membership in 2013. Montenegro and Macedonia are candidates; Serbia awaits its status by the end of the year, while Bosnia-Herzegovina is unable to recover from the 1992-95 wars.

“The EU was our only and natural choice,” Slovenian economist Joze Mencinger tells IPS. “But we have a tiny say in the EU, smaller than ever in former Yugoslavia.”

Apart from human losses and direct war damages in the 1991-95 period, sociologist Milan Nikolic singles out “the collapse of values such as empathy, solidarity, intolerance of crime – organised or other etc…But the world has also changed so much since 1991. We all have to look into future.”

Of the many devastating effects of the disintegration of former Yugoslavia, the economic crisis is striking. The debt crisis is hitting all former Yugoslav nations hard due to the economic consequences of the war (particularly in Bosnia), as production is low, imports are high and transition into a market economy has taken its toll in a massive loss of jobs. A lack of substantial foreign investments since the global economic crisis is also hitting hard.

Unemployment in Slovenia is the lowest – around 10 percent. It reaches a staggering 40 percent in Bosnia.

The foreign debt of the six new nations is 171 billion dollars, compared to former Yugoslavia’s debt of 24 billion dollars. Macedonia has the lowest, 2.5 billion dollars, and Croatia the highest, 64 billion dollars.

Production level (except in Slovenia) has not reached the level of 1989, the best year prior to wars. All former Yugoslav statisticians use that as a benchmark.

“Had we not fought in wars, Yugoslavia would have been in the EU long ago and the development level could have been at least double compared to 1989,” Nikolic says.

But for many people, such ideas mean little. Many young people are almost unaware there was a Yugoslavia once, as history books differ and give only a superficial overview of the past.

“I don’t know what Dubrovnik is,” 22-year-old Bojan Stancic from Kraljevo in Serbia tells IPS, when asked about the most prominent tourist spot on the Croatian Adriatic coast. “It’s Croatia? Well, that’s a foreign country I plan to visit one day.”

Many older people still have connections that date to the days of former Yugoslavia.

“I have family in Belgrade and we go to visit,” says Dara Buncic (65), a pensioner from Zagreb in Croatia. “It still has the outlines of the capital of a big country. We are all small now (new nations) but I tell friends to go and see it (Belgrade)…it’s part of our common history no matter how proud we are being independent Croatia.”

“Until 20 years ago, I spent two months each year on Croatian coast since the age of two,” says Belgradian Sasa Jaksic (55). “We had family there. So, in the 35 years of former Yugoslavia I can say I spent a total of almost six years living in Croatia. No one can take that from me, or the memories of good times we had in former Yugoslavia.”

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