Life in Yugoslavia

Alan Fraser moved to Yugoslavia in 1990 to perfect his art and acquaint himself with Slavic culture and pianism. He learned the language, Serbo-Croatian while living in Novi Sad, a town in Voivodina, formerly a part of Hungary but since 1918 an autonomous province of Serbia. In this article written in 1996 he refers to ‘Yugoslavs’ wherever possible rather than Serbs, Croats, Montenegrins, Muslims, Slovenians or Macedonians because although politically the country no longer exists, the people still does. All these ‘nationalities’ belong to the South Slavic Peoples (yug meaning ‘south’), just as much more diverse cultures such as those of England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy all fall under the term ‘European’.

The first thing I noticed about Yugoslavia was the ease and honesty, the trust people had for each other, treating one another like family. You get on a bus with three doors, it doesn’t matter which one you use, if the bus is crowded (the bus is not considered crowded if the doors can still close unimpeded by the crush of passengers!), just give your 20 dinars to the next person, ‘One ticket please’, and your money gets passed from hand to hand to the front where your ticket is bought and handed back to you. There’s no question whether it gets back to you – it’s normal that it does.

How many students at Canadian universities go home for the weekend? In Novi Sad the dorm is half empty Saturday and Sunday: kids go home. Sunday evening is always bounty time for me: when they come back they generally bring a rucksack full of Mom’s homemade cooking, and that includes homemade sausages, pies, cakes, puddings, everything which we are used to getting out of a package. Often there is enough to last the student the whole week. Or it would last the whole week except it’s normal to share everything with your friends, which means that Sunday night is pig out night in dormitory! I, of course, the only Canadian and virtually the only resident from anywhere in the West, often enjoy the benefits of being guest of honour… If the student doesn’t go home, Mom will often send the hamper by bus: in Canada it’s all done officially: you fill out the form, pay the fee and Voyageur Bus delivers your packet. Here you just go talk to the bus driver, give him your stuff and then call your friends or kin to be there when the bus gets in. No problem! Parents care for their kids, people take care of each other.

The normal Yugoslav household in the 18th and 19th centuries consisted of 10 to 12 people across 3 or 4 generations. Very patriarchal, all adults working to support what was really a mini-community, granddad handling all the finances. Traces of this still endure. Even today, rare is the family with no connections back to a village homestead. People could survive the worst economic times (1993) when the average pay was $5 a month (now it’s a whopping 2-300!) because there was always food grown back home, a parent, uncle or grandparent who could help out.

The generosity of the people is striking. It is not only an honour to share all that one has, people do it with pleasure: they are still sensitive to how much more beautiful life is when lived in this way, how poverty-stricken an existence one leads when one lacks generosity of spirit. Here people who expend all their energy simply struggling to meet their daily needs will still share their all with you – it’s mind-boggling!

A friend of mine told me how when she was in England she noticed that it was considered impolite to call on friends unannounced, and if one did so one stood and worried about the impoliteness of imposing on one’s host until one could beat a hasty retreat. She asked me, what does it say about the human dimension of existence when the pace of life simply does not allow for the most normal daily forms of gracious human intercourse? In Yugoslavia to a large extent it still does.

She noticed that in England one simply does not talk about so-called ‘human’ things, it’s considered impolite. Generosity is considered impolite. How many new psychological systems, spiritual groups and magazine articles have cropped up to address these problems in the West? Imagine a society where there wasn’t this tremendous search for spiritual values, this tremendous attempt to regain what has been lost, because those things still permeate the daily fabric of existence.

Another striking aspect of the country is the juxtaposition of new and old. There is a wonderful space-age bridge conceived by some wizard of a Yugoslav engineer which soars across the Danube at Novi Sad (by the way, from Budapest to the Black Sea the Danube is anything but blue: sandy soil turns it to a quite unattractive (read loathsome!) greenish-brown colour). But on that bridge I am just as likely to see a horse-drawn cart (with automobile wheels) full of items some gypsy has gleaned from various Novi Sad garbage bins, as I am to see the standard Yugo or Mafia Mercedes.  In many parks the grass is still cut with scythes, and again it is gypsies who take away the hay to feed their animals.

Speaking of gypsies, in coming here it was my dream to hear legendary gypsy musicians, violinists who can outclass Perlman and Mintz, descendants of guitar great Django Reinhardt. Well, there are gypsy musicians all right. You can see (and unfortunately hear them as well) walking in the streets on any remotely festive occasion, some half cretin banging monotonously on a drum while his cohorts cause trumpets and trombones to emit various fart-like noises which at times resemble a melody. There are really good (acoustic) gypsy bands playing old folk tunes and folk versions of just about anything you or I have ever heard in some restaurants, but on television there is a glut of narodnyak, electrified quasi folk sung by garish women indulging in the most tawdry, inexpert dance gestures – you have to see it to believe it.

Parties are also different. There’s more wild dancing than polite talk, but there is also almost always a guitar or accordion, and it’s only a matter of time before the Yugoslav penchant for rowdy or melancholy song supercedes the canned music. Then it’s singing en masse until dawn, with two part harmonies, often even in tune, being a natural part of the proceedings.

If you are one of the unlucky ones to come from an ultramodern,  supercivilized family (by Yugoslav standards), then your Mom doesn’t produce gallons of delicious homemade fruit syrups, which leave any commercial product in the dust, from the cherry, peach, apricot, pear, quince and plum trees in the back yard. They tell me as well that Yugoslavia is the only country in the world where home distilling is legal. You raise your eyebrows with skepticism, questions of health, safety etc.? I can tell you from wide personal experience that homemade rakia (plum brandy, also made from just about any other fruit) by far eclipses any similar commercial product. Neighbors pride themselves on outdoing one another in the taste and potency of their concoctions, and the ultimate embarrassment is to be caught adding sugar to the mix for increased yield but reduced quality. This stuff is explosive, and leaves you hangover-free the next day!

One story of two neighbours who traditionally tried to best one another in the art of home distillery: neighbour ‘A’ would each year trundle over to neighbour ‘B’s, try ‘B’s excellent new batch and pronounce it vastly inferior to his own, scarcely worth saving. One might just as well pour it down the drain. Yet when neighbour ‘B’ would entreat him repeatedly to at least take one bottle home with him he would never refuse. One year ‘B’ and some friends decided to have one over on old ‘A’, and filled a 60-litre barrel with water. When the usual pronouncement came, they agreed with him and proceeded to pour the contents of the barrel out on the garage floor!  Scarce did old ‘A’ avoid having a heart attack on the spot!

At Yugoslav universities even undergraduate students must write a thesis and defend it in front of a jury. A diploma defence is a big event attended by family, friends and colleagues – a rite of passage, the real moment of each student’s graduation more so than convocation. And of course it’s another opportunity for a party: the reception following the usually successful defence again features all of Mom’s homemade goodies, but mountains of them, hams smoked personally by an uncle or grandparent, and all the abovementioned liquid refreshments as well.

A piano recital given by my colleague Kemal Gekic illustrates the Yugoslav propensity and capability for good living. The event took place in a small-town library, was attended by around fifty people: townsfolk, music lovers and their friends. After the performance we were invited to another room for drinks and hors d’oeuvres. Awhile later we returned to the main hall to find a long trestle table set up and loaded with all sorts of food and more drink including Hungarian paprikash, deer meat stew, soup, several types of homemade rakia: the whole audience was invited to the feast! We ate and drank ourselves into oblivion, yet not so far as to lose consciousness of Misha’s booming voice insisting that each and every one of us must now contribute to the continuation of the performance.

We heard everything from narodnyak (national folk music) to rock and roll to…. Domacha rakia definitely improves the spontaneity and wit of Chopin waltzes from pianists who normally play so seriously and technically correct that any would-be waltzer would find himself rooted to the floor. Imagine in Canada someone being intelligent enough to organize a classical music event just as an excuse to have some real fun. And remember, this was not some private function but a public event organized by the town administration! Of course, not all classical recitals end up like that, but the fact that even one could is something to think about.

The current student demonstrations in Belgrade illustrate as well the unique nature of the Yugoslav collective psyche. Never before have such demonstrations taken place anywhere on such a scale. These kids have gone one step further than Ghandi. This isn’t just passive resistance, it’s festive resistance! My Mom calls me and tells me ‘now don’t you start marching in the streets, it can turn ugly in an instant’. I suppose it could, but when a crowd of two hundred fifty thousand dancing, singing young people is marshaled by three traffic cops (as shown in Nasha Borba, ‘Our Fight’ one of the few independent newspapers still allowed to publish here), it’s hard to see where the bullets are going to come from!

People want a change, they are fed up with Miloshevitch who put the country through this incredibly dirty war. But the art of living says, don’t let your anger be so intense, so complete that it takes you over, hurts you, suffuses you and spoils the quality of your moment to moment existence. Here it’s really déclassé to indulge in the type of ‘getting your emotions out’, being ‘expressive’ so popular in the psychologically oriented West. Yes, Yugoslavs are open, expressive people but not indiscriminately. These demonstrations show real quality of character, saying, ‘We want an end to the criminality of this administration, and we will not lower ourselves to your level in order to break you. We will destroy your government with our joie de vivre’. The government cannot repress these protesters precisely because they (the students) are proving themselves to possess the highest possible integrity. And this is not some elite group of intelligentsia but the people, en masse.

Last weekend (Nov 14, 1996) 126 people walked the 120 km from Novi Sad to Belgrade in support of the student protests. I spoke with Tibor, a student and participant in the walk. They started at 3 Friday afternoon and walked through the rainy night, students, mothers, WW2 veterans who wouldn’t even sit during the rest breaks. When at 11 Saturday morning they crossed a bridge into Belgrade, hordes of students met them as if they were saints, kissing them, hugging them, singing. Constantly as they walked to the plateau in front of the Parliament there were no words, only songs, smiles, gestures of camaraderie. Over 500 families offered places to stay.

This characterizes the jubilant, thoughtful character of the proceedings. The students provide their own marshals to keep order amongst the demonstrators, and plan the route of the march each day including any special activities which might take place. One day they threw thousands of eggs on the Radio-Televizia Beograd and Politika Newspaper buildings, and received in reply a telegram from journalists saying, ‘Please don’t throw rotten eggs on the building, there are enough of them already inside’. Another time they placed a funeral wreath at the Parliament buildings to commemorate the death of responsible government. When they wanted to march to Miloshevitch’s residence they were met by a line of policemen who told them, ‘It’s not on us but we were told to tell you not to go any further’. The students turned back with no trouble.

There are many refugees from Bosnia living here. Bosnia had perhaps the finest of all the Yugoslav cultures, where they perhaps refined to the highest degree the art of blending, melding disparate cultures into a living, harmonious entity. Bosnians were in many respects the Yugoslav Newfies. There are literally thousands of Bosnian jokes, many of which have as their main characters Muyo, his wife Fatah  and his friend Hassah. They are the warmest of the Yugoslavs – overwhelmed as I was by the relaxed, super-friendly reception I received here in Novi Sad, I was told that that Voivodinians are cold – there is too much Austro-Hungarian influence. Go to Bosnia to meet real Yugoslavs! And until the war began I was never aware that there are Serbian, Croatian and Muslim Bosnians – they were simply Bosantsi, an incredibly happy, simple, warm and outgoing people.

Zholt is one of my Bosnian friends (there is no special English letter for this consonant ‘zh’ although we have it in many words: it is pronounced as the ‘s’ in ‘confusion’. As ‘sh’ is to ‘s’, so ‘zh’ is to ‘z’. Yugoslavs do have a special letter for it, ‘ž’.). He tells me that Bosnians will welcome you with generosity and judge you severely, though not unfairly. They are quick to express themselves, possessing a generous amount of Mediterranean lack of repression. With them you may well have the unsettling and confusing experience of being welcomed with unsurpassable hospitality, generosity, merriment, warmth and humour and in the same moment being roundly twitted for not loosening up, wearing funny clothing, having some sort of weird (for them) occupation, doing anything which for them is ‘not normal’.

The trick is to live life with elegance: not material so much as behavioural. Whatever you’re doing, to be done really well should have some little kernel of good humor nestled in it somewhere….

Of course, more recent governments have found ways to abuse the trust vested in them by the people. One of the most striking examples is the repeated stealing of millions from the populace at large. When I showed up at the end of 1990 the government had just banned the withdrawal of foreign currency from banks. You couldn’t change it into dinars and withdraw it either – if it was in there, there it stays, to this day – theoretically of course. In reality it’s gone – used to finance the early part of the war.

This of course created a certain distrust of the government on the part of the people, so when the government reasoned that there were still millions of deutschemarks sitting in people’s homes which by all ‘normal’ logic should be filling government coffers, they had to invent other ways of separating the Yugoslav people from their monetary surplus.

So they allowed the creation of private banks. These were run by independent people, no chance of government interference, right? Well that’s what they told us! And, wonder of wonders, these banks were offering 10% interest monthly on deposits in any foreign currency! Although it was obvious that this was a scam and sure to fail eventually, with inflation running at 100% daily many people couldn’t resist. I even considered it. We surmised that they were using the new money constantly coming in to pay the interest due on older accounts, or that capital was needed to finance lucrative weapons deals, or that the whole Yugoslav banking system had been transformed into a giant money laundering warehouse, or all three…

The thing is, nobody knew when it was going to fall, so putting your money in was a real roulette game. Many didn’t play because of caution, common sense; many didn’t play because it was obviously dirty money and they weren’t morally comfortable. But many did play. At a certain point there was a cover of Vreme, the Yugoslav Time magazine showing the president of Dafiment Bank surrounded by literally millions of deutschemarks and shoving a fistful of them at the camera. At that point I figured out, correctly, that they had reached the bottom level of the pyramid, that this was the last psychological push; they would milk people’s pockets for what little more they could get and then close the thing. Once again, the people screwed by their leaders.

One thing which amazed me was, as far as I can tell there was no major coverage of this in the Western press. Would outsiders have flocked to help finance the Serbian war effort if such big gains were possible?

This shows how the basic character traits of a people can work against them. Their naive, childlike mentality loves to have a strong leader, needs to have it, needs to trust it even when it practices flagrant deceit. Their psyche needs to have the strong Daddy on the wall, and if it’s not Tito then Miloshevitch will do. The government has developed a brilliance in dealing with this mentality, and occasionally achieves strokes of psychological genius such as: when salaries jumped from 5 DM to 100 DM a month, everybody was happy! Imagine a government capable of satisfying the populace on a hundred bucks a month!

Politicians have traditionally been criminals here, and basic abuse of the system, rather than being something at which people work to eradicate, is a time-honoured tradition which has been raised to an art form. If you want a room in the best student dormitory, one bottle of good Scotch brought to the appropriate person as a ‘gift’ will go a long way towards improving your chances. Everything is done preko veze, through connections. If you want a certain job or to fulfil a certain business transaction, if your uncle or your father or your father’s father or your neighbour’s uncle  knows the person in charge… no problem. If you want to receive an apartment from the university or city or county it takes more work: visiting the right person repeatedly, larger gifts – it’s all done appropriately, according to the ‘rules’ or at least what is considered fine or respectable, normal! Here is a case where the Yugoslav ‘normal’ is something Canadians would not aspire to (or would we????)!

Today there are signs of societal deterioration here. When I came here I was in the habit of running for buses and was constantly told, ‘Never run after buses and women: there’ll always be another bus and there’ll always be another woman’. Eventually I learned not to run after… buses!

I also noticed that if a coin drops on the floor one did not pick it up – because it’s dirty, or perhaps simply because one doesn’t look good grubbing around on the floor for something that’s not so important. Yugoslavs have the paradoxical dual capability of treating money with the disdain it deserves, relegating it to the role of a minor, slightly odious encumbrance to living a truly aesthetically pleasing existence, yet managing to keep enough of it on hand to finance three-day wedding feasts and etc. when needed. But they’re losing that capability: people now grub after loose change. And people have started running for buses too. And wedding banquets are mostly down from three days to one, but they still make ours look like Grandmother’s tea party…

More seriously, there is at present a tremendous crisis in values going on, largely due to the huge influence of American culture. There is a constant stream of American films and series on television; standard student dress is jeans and jean jacket. The fact that the students you see now on the news are not in ‘standard dress’ indicates how poor the country has become. Many people simply don’t understand the importance of what their society still has, don’t even realize what it is they still have – it’s taken for granted. People here would wonder why I even write about these things when they’re normal? Many look to the West with stars in their eyes, to the opportunity for a new life, prosperity, and never realize what they might be losing in the bargain until they get there. Even money is taking on more importance: people are constantly suggesting ways I could earn money, telling me I should open  a language school, etc. I try to explain to them that I’m not here to earn money, I’m here to perfect my art – for them it’s beyond comprehension.

The psychiatry-psychology profession is virtually non-existent in Yugoslavia. This is perhaps the most concrete evidence for the exceptional soundness and health of the Yugoslav family unit. Families are normal. What does this mean? Yugoslavs don’t work too hard. They like to work efficiently, in intense bursts, then enjoy the necessary intervening rest periods to the max. There’s a story of one Japanese scientist invited to Novi Sad on some specialization. She walked into the lab the first day to see people talking over coffee and a cigarette, reading the paper, otherwise diverting themselves. This was such a shock for her, her logical process was so fixed into one way of perceiving things that she could only be led her to ask, “Why are we on strike?”.

One year I had a Chinese roommate who was of the opinion that Yugoslavs are lazy and don’t accomplish anything. I admit at times it does seem that they err too much on the side of relaxed living. He taught me the ancient Chinese martial art, T’ai Chi, but at first would not take Yugoslav students because ‘they’re lazy, they will learn the form (choreography) then abandon it, it’s a waste of time to invest any effort in teaching them’. But at the end of his 1½  year stay he presided at the first Yugoslav national T’ai Chi competition, the competitors’ list which included over 60 of his own students!

A popular Yugoslav saying is, “My grandfather never worked an afternoon in his life”. And still the standard Yugoslav work day is from 7 am to 2 pm. We all know that the quality of life is the most important. Yet how many of us can claim to live in a culture where gracious living is still the norm, where it is considered in bad taste to visit a friend without sitting and chatting or taking a coffee, and if you take less than half an hour to drink it, you’re not normal, not friendly. “You’re not normal” is another oft-heard phrase of criticism, but by their culture’s standards I wonder if any of us in our stress-ridden, hyperactive, rushed, achievement-oriented world would qualify for normality. Here societal habit still cultivates various Balkan versions (read: slightly chaotic) of the Japanese tea ceremony.

When I came here I discovered what  a miser I was, not only with money but with my time and most important, with my soul. It was very difficult for me at first to stop myself from committing the faux-pas of going to visit someone and telling them what  I wanted right away instead of visiting, sitting for awhile before gently easing into my business. There’s an art to this which is very attractive… You also play piano better when you pay attention to the quality of the rest of your life. My friends had been telling me this for years in Montreal, but here it’s not just an occasional friend telling you, it’s the whole fabric of everyday existence which in a way forces you in the end through a continuing series of gentle nudges to give up your various methods for making yourself miserable! I can’t describe to you the incredible difference between having something explained to you, or getting it out of a book, and living in a world where those things still exist in the culture, in everyday tangible experience, surrounding you and changing you fundamentally.

Because Yugoslavs tend not to work too hard, their family structures tend not to be subjected to undue pressures and thus can remain normal. It is interesting how Yugoslavs have incorporated certain modern, socialist or feminist ideas into their social fabric yet retained many of the best aspects of a more traditional lifestyle. There are just as many women as men even in such traditionally male-dominated (in the West) faculties as engineering. Most families have two working parents and had them even in economically happier days when it wasn’t absolutely necessary. Yet the extended family is still largely intact, thus rendering it unnecessary to create an extensive daycare system. Imagine, people get along well enough with their parents that Granny and Granddad or an aunt or uncle or cousin can take care of the kids while Mom and Dad are at work.

And old folks homes? Unheard of. You can only see them on television, which now feeds a steady diet of American films and TV series, subjecting this society, so healthy in many ways compared to Western cultures, to many of  the same erosive influences which have already so devastated our minds and souls. It’s a funny thing: many Yugoslavs ask me what in God’s name I’m doing here when most of them are trying desperately to get to New Zealand or Canada? I try to explain to them what happens: you earn more money, you buy a bigger house, everyone in the family gets their own room, and you start learning to be separate from one another. You lose your natural closeness.

Life here is still lived firsthand, not one step removed. I love living here because I’m not in the jungle somewhere – it’s not totally primitive, yet I live with people who haven’t lost something essential, something hard to pin down yet very refreshing to share, some elemental closeness to life.

All this effusive praise for Yugoslavia and her people is sure to provoke the response, ‘how then such a horrible war?’ That is difficult to answer. One reason is that although most people (95%) didn’t want the war, the general tendency to occupy oneself with more personal aspects of life, to leave politicking to the politicians, left the politico-criminals with a free hand. There was a lot of money to be made by certain people in re-igniting ethnic tensions which had really subsided during the glory days of Yugoslavia, the harmonious, prosperous 1970’s, when everybody here will tell you there wasn’t a better country to live in on the face of the earth. How did this come about?

It is dangerous to oversimplify the complex historical antecedents for the Yugoslav problem, but who’s got time to read the book? (Rebecca West’s magnum opus, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is the book to read about Yugoslavia. Ivo Andrich’s Nobel Prizewinning The Bridge on the Drina also gives a wonderful psychological insight into interactions between the various cultures making up the Yugoslav peoples.) A ‘political’ article is much harder to write than one of personal impressions. But it may prove worthwhile for me to attempt the impossible, to explain something which I have been trying to understand for 6 years from an inside point of view: the Yugoslav problem.

The South Slavs were originally one people. The kingdom of Serbia at one point spread as far as Split on the center of Croatia’s Adriatic coast. The religion of the people was Orthodox Christianity, a branch of the church that through history has lacked the aggressive type of policies that characterize so much of Catholic political history. Many of Byzantium’s richest art treasures, frescoes etc. are preserved in present day Serbia and Macedonia. Saint Sava, the country’s patron saint, was king of Serbia but gave up the throne to take monastic orders.

That culture’s heyday was the 12th and 13th centuries! Every Serbian student has dominating his consciousness the battle of Kosovo, a key event in Serbian history, which happened in the 1300’s!  It was here that ‘valiant Serbian warriors laid down their lives en masse to save Europe from the Turkish horde’. Serbia prides itself in defending Europe from the Turks, yet was itself occupied for 500 years, until Austro-Hungary took over around 1800. Meanwhile down on the Dalmatian coast, Venice had been governing for several hundred years, converting those South Slavs to Catholicism. Much of the Northern Croatian sea coast is today rocky and barren because the cypress forests were taken to supply the pilings upon which Venice still stands today.

Thus ancient Serbia had a strong culture and national identity which was battered and subdued by various foreign powers and which it is now trying to revive. Croatia on the other hand never had a strong national identity, and has formed it only in modern times by fighting for its independence from Serbia. The Muslims of Bosnia are largely of Serbian origin as well, whose families generations ago took the Muslim faith the better to get along with their Turkish overlords.

Thus from the most historical standpoint the ‘problem’ was caused by colonialism or imperialism. A people labouring for hundreds of years under foreign domination simply doesn’t have the chance to develop a feeling of national strength, maturity, and like an as yet immature youth will always be fighting to grow up. In that fight they will often misperceive the cause of their present immaturity and blame the parents or a brother or sister. Colonialism sowed the seeds for more recent ‘familial’ strife. In the quest for self-determination, South Slavs have for generations awaited the day when they could call their own their own.

Yet by the beginning of the twentieth century, Croats and Serbs were politically so separate that they could end up on opposite sides in WW1,  Serbia being allied with France and England while Croatia sided with the Germans.

Because of these centuries of occupation, neither people was considered strong enough to form an independent state at the end of WW1 and so Yugoslavia was formed, to at least free the various republics from foreign occupation. Yet by now an antagonism between the Croat and Serbian nations had become entrenched, the Croatian nation despising Serbs as being primitive and uncultured but priding themselves as being closer to a European culture, more refined or evolved. This seems unfortunate when you look at the generations during which Austro-Hungary bled Croatians and continued to treat them like peasants

I use the term nation specifically, because there was little antagonism personally between Croats and Serbs. As in Canada, where most French and English Canadians actually get along relatively or even extremely well, most Serbs and Croats really have little to separate them culturally: the similarities of the South Slav cultures far outweigh their differences, and to a great extent they have lived like brothers. Mixed marriages between Serbs and Croats abound even after the atrocities of WW2 (more about that later). I heard one story about a bus ride from Paris to Budapest in 1993, the passengers comprising  many Germans, and Yugoslavs, both Serbs and Croats. When the Germans found out who their travelling comanions were there was general consternation. But when the Yugoslavs found out there were other Yugoslavs on the bus it was time to break out the rakia, bring out the guitar, find out who knew whom from where and generally have a party.

However, there were always problems between the two nations as distinct cultural groups. Even through the glory days of Yugoslavia, Croatians and Bosnians could freely drive to Belgrade and not expect any problems, but if a Serbian drove to Zagreb to watch a soccer match, for instance, his tour bus or car with Serbian registration ran a good chance of having its tires slashed, windows smashed, being overturned.

Compare this to the tradition in Canada of viewing French Canadians as peasants. We know that this is an unrealistic view (at least, if you look at it statistically Canada has far more English-speaking peasants than French!), yet the tradition lives on…. The real Yugoslav peasants are Montnegrins! As little as 50 years ago some of them still practiced the tradition of letting the best man have first wedding night privileges, ostensibly to save the groom the trouble of ‘all that mess’! Friends of mine here have lost relatives to Montenegrin blood revenge murders. This is a tradition where if any member of your family is severely enough wronged, the guilty offender or any member of his family can pay for it with his life. Today Serbia is filling up with Montenegrins and they are primitive!

When we jump to W.W.II, again we find Croatia and Serbia on opposite sides. The present day Croatian flag was first flown over the first independent Croatian state which existed for a short period towards the end of W.W.II. This state was allied with Hitler and overtly Fascist. They had concentration camps, one called Yasenovats, in which Serbs, Gypsies and Jews were exterminated. Strangely enough, although virtually all nations (Germany, Hungary, America for the Japanese internment camps) have admitted and apologized for their war crimes, Croatia has never acknowledged the existence of Jasenovats let alone what went on there, even though there is filmed documentary evidence. Mass graves, gas ovens just like Auschwitz, all of which of course was repeatedly broadcast on Serbian TV through the 1990’s war years.

In WW2 Serbia again fought for the Allies.

At times Serbia seems like a naive kind of big brother, with basically good intentions and no clear idea as to how to carry them out. And if they do have more of the peasant in them I would say this is to their benefit, just as many of my good Anglo-Saxon countrymen could do with a good dose of Québecois joie de vivre to loosen them up! As well, something in the Serbian mentality seems to actually require domination by external powers or personalities. The national psyche seems to need domination against which they can chafe and eventually rebel.

Which brings us to Tito. Croatia, seeing that it could not become an independent entity under its own steam at the end of the second war, saw its chance for sovereignty through becoming a part of Yugoslavia. When the national borders were drawn up, somehow much Serbian occupied territory ended up in Croatia, a state which took on a strange crescent shape as a result. The Serbian psyche was right at home with Tito, a ‘foreigner’ (He was Croatian) at the helm.

In Yugoslavia’s first post-war phase, communism was the new religion and the psychological motivator to rebuild the country. Brotherhood was a high ideal, and many people would for instance work for months building a railroad without pay, ‘for their country’. Serbians, the naive big brothers, bought into this perhaps more than anybody. However, under the guise of brotherhood and with the help of foreign aid from world powers (from Russia as a fellow communist country and from the West as the most independent of the communist countries), Tito, a Croatian, and his second in command Edward Kardel, a Slovenian, were developing industry and the economy much more in Croatia and Slovenia than in the other republics, moving them towards economic self-sufficiency and preparing them for eventual independence. Yet Tito also did many things to hold the whole country together and strengthen it politically, for instance acting against Croatian nationalism, in the 1970’s going as far as to replace most of the Croatian communist party leadership.

Unfortunately foreign loans were used more to create short term artificial prosperity rather than to develop a realistic, effective industrial infrastructure which would see each republic through to true economic self-reliability. There were often shortages of such simple items as coffee or detergent, yet the communist mafia was busy helping its own. So prosperity was something of a mixed bag.

In Emir Koustaritsa’s film ‘Underground’ the hero deceives a group of people living in a cellar, bringing them to believe that WW2 is still going on, and getting rich selling the munitions which those unfortunates in the basement in Belgrade are manufacturing for the ‘war effort’. One of Tito’s slogans was, ‘Live as though there will be peace for a hundred years, yet be prepared for war tomorrow’. The allegorical message of the film is that, if it (the Yugoslav federation) hadn’t all been based on lies, there wouldn’t have been this war.

In the late 1980’s Franyo Tudjman brought out the old Croatian checkerboard flag from the  second war and began making noises about an new Croatia, an ‘ethnically clean’ Croatia, and many Serbs living there began to feel worried. Whereas in Serbia many Croatians live with no problems, these Serbs in Croatia had to worry about their jobs, their safety, their lives. The concentration camps of the second war existed only two generations ago, and it looked like it could happen again. When Croatia left the Yugoslav federation Serbia, the big brother, now led by Miloshevitch, another foreigner (he’s Montenegrin), reacted by trying to protect and retain what it perceived as its own.

Perhaps the events of April 6, 1992 in Sarajevo best illustrate the fact that the people did not want the war. 200,000 Sarejavans were in the street that day, half the city’s population, demonstrating for a peaceful solution to the political tensions.  When snipers opened fire on the  crowd the killing was indiscriminate, and the snipers were from all three sides: Muslim, Croatian and Serbian. Political and economic interests were served at enormous cost of human life and suffering.

The web of lies spun in this war will never be unraveled completely. We watched CNN broadcasts supposedly showing Croatian and Muslim inmates of a Serbian concentration camp. Unfortunately for CNN we could tell from what the prisoners were saying in Serbian that they were Serbs. Serbs here feel sure that the stories of Serb concentration camps are fabrications of the media who are being manipulated by Croatian interests. Having seen that CNN broadcast I know that this type of radical misinformation was being disseminated.

I also know that  the Miloshevitch administration has been guilty of distorting the truth for nationalistic ends as well. One small but typical example: One evening towards the beginning  the war we watched a TV broadcast of a radical nationalist Croatian parliament member calling for the ‘execution’ of 10 or 100 civilian Serbs for every Croat lost in battle. This received a frigid reception by Parliament, and an opposition member immediately rose to condemn such fascist, cruel, inhuman attitudes inappropriate to a civilized government body. This member received generous applause. The next day we saw the same broadcast cut so that the applause followed immediately on the first member’s speech, seeming to approve his opinion.

I don’t present this necessarily as etched-in-stone truth but as the way a relatively normal, that is to say not your ultra-nationalistic Serb sees things. Of course he cannot be proud of the war – it leaves him perplexed, guilty and ashamed. He didn’t want the war and now sees that Miloshevitch could have avoided it. There are a few extremely enriched criminals, many dead and bereaved, many innocents who lost everything, and a nation who now has little reason to call itself such. Its own leaders have betrayed it, many of its most educated have emigrated to the West, the country is in economic and moral ruin.

Montenegro is now an off-shore zone: anyone can set a bank up there, no questions asked, money launderers and others welcome. This is very convenient for the Yugoslav government Mafia. Most ministers have ‘day jobs’ in private industry and see no reason to avoid using their political power towards further private gains. Conflict of interest? Not as long as everyone involved covers each other’s backs.

This is why there is such a big fuss over elections which were not national nor even regional but municipal. If the opposition comes to power even in any major town, they can set up local TV stations and begin to inform people what is actually going on!

My friends tell me that what Miloshevitch actually did was to have local courts recount the votes in towns where opposition parties had won, and whatever these courts’ judicial competence might have been, they indulged in some pretty fancy (and questionable) mathematics to have the recount come out in Miloshevitch’s favour. Brian’s wife Mila is not the only Yugoslav with a famous husband: Einstein’s first wife (Mileva Maritch, a mathematician who some here say supplied Einstein with many of his formulae!) was from Novi Sad, and she built one of the older bridges here. Perhaps these courts borrowed some of Einstein’s (or his wife’s) quantum equations where 1 + 1 does not equal 2 to arrive at these new results.

Now Miloshevitch is upholding the courts’ decision and even offering the results for scrutiny by Western observers, and people have had enough. I am still wondering where were these students four years ago, but nobody can answer that one for me.

The West supports Miloshevitch in his present actions because the peace in Bosnia is anything but stable, and political stability in both Croatia and Serbia will supposedly help, or at least avoid the creation of yet one more headache… And so two of the biggest criminals of the twentieth century, are free to continue in power and are even supported by the justice and democracy-loving West. Fancy that!

The present student protests perhaps herald a new phase in the evolution of the Serbian psyche. It is possible that people are finally ready to shed their apathy and to seek something other than a government of thugs, something other than a Daddy figure president who is free to do as he wants. Perhaps they are finally ready in this respect to enter the 20th century.


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