Marshall Tito’s post-WWII Yugoslavia (“Land of the South Slavs”) experiment called for the reboot of a shabby pre-war monarchy into a non-aligned socialist federal state that would take numerous nationalities professing three major religions — Albanians, Bosnian Muslims, Macedonians, Croats, Hungarians, Montenegrins, Serbs, and Slovenes — and cast them somewhat forcibly into a melting pot, meanwhile doling out just enough regional autonomy to keep the area’s numerous historical demons at bay until economic modernization (supposed worker control of economic enterprises within the socialist framework) proceeded to such an extent that these evils of the past would fade away amid a new identification as Yugoslavs.
For a while, and to an extent, this program succeeded. The second global war was particularly devastating for Yugoslavia, which was founded at the conclusion of the Great War (WWI), with little time to regroup before another period of sustained violence began. An array of Yugoslav partisan groups fought the Germans as well as each other, and in many respects a civil war raged alongside the larger international struggle.
Tito’s faction emerged from the chaos, and because the Red Army was not needed to liberate Yugoslavia, Tito was given the leeway to steer his own path. Scores were settled, and by 1948 the necessary postwar rebuilding afforded an interregnum.
In retrospect, it seems clear that while the Yugoslav police state was softer than those required to maintain order in the East Bloc, the country’s economic reforms never really became substantive apart from propaganda value. Tito was a gifted juggler, but after he died in 1980 economic stagnation pried the lid off the socialist contract, and federalism became a means of exiting Yugoslavia rather than the way to keep nationalism contained beneath the broader umbrella.
Serbia’s Slobodan Milošević came to be blamed by the outside world for his out-sized role in the horror to follow. A more sober reading of the record doesn’t absolve Milošević; rather, it places his power-mongering in proper context of similar opportunism on the part of his brethren. The victims inevitably were the powerless.
The preceding provides background for this novel by Goran Vojnovic, which I read while we were in Croatia and Slovenia, which declared independence simultaneously in 1991 and provided the pretext for civil war’s renewal in obsolete Yugoslavia. Slovenia slipped away with little bloodshed, primarily because there wasn’t a Serb minority for Milošević’s goal of annexation. There was such a minority in Croatia, and consequently that’s where the real atrocities first unfolded, later shifting to Bosnia and Kosovo.
Ultimately Vojnovic’s narrative is concerned with fate. Are we as humans destined to endlessly perpetuate the worst aspects of our natures, or can we step away from them? The author has created a character, Vladan Borojevic, who learns enough to formulate this question about fate. It remains unclear whether there’s an answer, for him or any of us.
I highly recommend this book to anyone seeking understanding of what happened in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. For a more detailed rendering of the geopolitical factors, check out Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, by the retired American diplomat Louis Sell, which I read earlier this year.
Yugoslavia, My Fatherland by Goran Vojnovic: Balkan brilliance, by Eileen Battersby (Irish Times)
At last comes a work which will be required reading within and beyond the Balkans
Having spent years grieving for his father who went to war and never came back, Vladan Borojevic, the narrator, appears to have become an adult, estranged from Dusha, his silent mother, and life in general.
His father’s death was reduced to a curt announcement made by a widow who had already disengaged herself from her son, the narrator, and eventually married again to begin another family. Vladan, in a relationship with a bright young microbiologist, drifts along, fixing coffee machines and when he thinks of it, attending lectures for a degree he is half-interested in. One day he decides to Google his dead father and is shocked by the findings.