Monday, February 04, 2008

Nostalgia for life in the former nation is expressed in memorabilia, parties and even a Yugoland theme park.

This spring Bostjan Troha and 50 of his friends from across the former Yugoslavia plan to celebrate the official 116th birthday of the former dictator Josip Broz Tito with a pilgrimage in boxy Yugoslav-era Fico cars to Tito's Croatian birthplace and his marble tomb in Belgrade.

To mark the occasion, Troha has hired a Tito impersonator and dozens of child actors, who will wear Yugoslav partisan berets, wave Yugoslav flags and applaud enthusiastically after the impersonator's address. The revelers will down shots of slivovitz, the Serbian national drink, and dance to the lurching melodies of Yugoslav folk music along the 360-mile route.

Troha's group of pilgrims will be modest compared with the 20,000 from the former Yugoslavia's six republics -- Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia and the Republic of Macedonia -- who traveled daily to the tomb during Communist times after Tito's death in 1980.

But sociologists say it reflects a trend across the Balkans they call Yugonostalgia, in which young and old yearn for the past -- even an authoritarian one -- as they struggle with a legacy of wars, economic hardship and the grim reality of living in small countries the world often seems to have forgotten.

"I miss Yugoslavia," said Troha, 33, a Slovene entrepreneur, from a warehouse crammed with his collection of Yugoslav memorabilia, including portraits of Tito, vintage sewing machines, Serbian dolls and 50-year-old bottles of Cockta, the Yugoslav Coca-Cola. "We didn't have anything, but we had everything."

Cultural observers here say nostalgia for Yugoslavia is manifesting itself in different ways.

Nearly 5,000 Slovenian youths made a pilgrimage to Belgrade, the former Yugoslavia's capital and now the capital of Serbia, to celebrate the New Year. Cross-border investment among the former Yugoslavia republics has seldom been higher. The ".yu" Internet domain name remains popular on websites. Croats have been discarding ethnic rivalries to vote for Serbian songs during the Eurovision Song Contest. Basketball, a unifying passion in the former Yugoslavia, is played in a league that includes teams from across the region.

All the while, Tito's image is still used to sell everything from computers to beer.

In the northern Serbian city of Subotica, one businessman, Blasko Gabric, was so distraught when the name of his former country, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, was finally abolished on Feb. 4, 2003, that he decided to build Yugoland, a 4-acre Yugoslav theme park, complete with a mini-Adriatic Sea and a model of Mount Triglav, Yugoslavia's highest peak. He said the number of visitors had recently exploded.

"As far as I am concerned, I am still a citizen of Yugoslavia," he said. "Today, we have democracy and nothing in our pockets."

Here in Slovenia, a prosperous country of 2 million, Yugonostalgia is all the more surprising because the country this year will celebrate the 17th anniversary of its decision to become the first republic to secede from Yugoslavia. It did not experience the brutal wars of its neighbors, its economy is thriving, it is a member of NATO and it recently became the first formerly Communist country to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union.

But Troha, who will open a Nostalgia Museum with his collection, said Slovenians nevertheless missed belonging to a large multicultural country of 23 million people that everybody knew.

Critics of Yugonostalgia -- and there are many -- say it is driven by a dangerous and anachronistic fringe of crybabies who crave the social safety net of the Communist era and the cult of personality of Tito while ignoring the poverty, the rabid nationalism and 1,000 percent inflation of the 1990s, not to speak of the political repression and the censorship.

"I am puzzled by this nostalgia," said Dimitrij Rupel, Slovenia's foreign minister. "People say it was not so bad, that socialism was more human. But everyone was egalitarian in the former Yugoslavia because everyone was poor. Yugoslavia was a dictatorship."

For others, however, being Yugonostalgic means going back to a time of multicultural coexistence before Yugoslavia collapsed, before the autocracy of Slobodan Milosevic and before the Balkan wars of the 1990s in which at least 125,000 people died.

"Yugonostalgia expresses the pain of a severed limb that is no longer there," said Ales Debeljak, a prominent Slovene cultural critic.

In Velenje, a one-time socialist model town in Slovenia still known by some as "Tito's Velenje," a statue of Tito dominates the town square. Vlado Vrbic, a local historian, said Slovenians were Yugonostalgic because even if Tito kept tight control at home, Yugoslavs enjoyed free education and health care, open borders, a job for life, interest-free home loans, generous pensions and, above all, peace.

"The Yugoslav passport was the best in the world, and you could travel anywhere," said Vrbic, who at 16 hitchhiked from Ljubljana to India. "In the former Yugoslavia, the pension was guaranteed, so you didn't need to save anything and the workday ended at two in the afternoon."

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