This article is a two part series. In the first part we will look at Yugoslavia from a historical perspective. In the second part we will go over a two week itinerary to visit the countries that made up the block formerly named Yugoslavia.
So what is Yugoslavia? Yugoslavia was originally formed after World War 1 (after the defeat of Austro-Hungarian empire). It was meant to join all Slavic speaking people . After World War 2 a communist government was established thanks to the influence from U.S.S.R. Growing up in the 80’s watching Olympics (both summer and winter), I’ve always seen players from Yugoslavia play competitively in many games. They usually come out on the top of swimming, gymnastics and skiing.
Yugoslavia is fascinating from a cultural and ethnographic perspective. It is the most ethnically and religiously diverse region the world has known to date.
In order to understand how it became so diverse one need to go all the way back to Roman Empire. When the Roman empire collapsed in the early 4th century, the eastern half of the empire broke along two major groups – Catholic to the west and the Orthodox religion to the east. A few centuries later the Ottomans invaded the eastern part and dominated the region for five centuries imparting their Islamic culture and influence in the region. This once again split the region into Christian (north) and Muslim (South).
Many new ethnic identities emerged over the next few centuries. This is when the Yugoslavia “land of the south slavs” began to take root with major ethnicities – Croat, Slovene, Serb and Bosniak. These slavs essentially descended from the same ancestors and spoke related languages however the only major difference was their religious beliefs.
After World War 2, Tito came to power with the vision of unifying the south Slavic countries into one major block that could dominate Central Europe. Some saw Tito as a tyrant, though others found the phrase “benevolent dictator” to be more fitting. He intended to achieve balance of power among different republics – Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia.
Tito’s vision was firm in that it offers equitable power among all ethnic groups and never allowed one group to dominate the other. Even though Tito was a communist he refused to ally with the communist USSR. He also saw the west with suspicion. He played both the East and the West against each other and knew that no good would come from aligning with one side over the other.
The arms industry in Yugoslavia flourished under Tito. In fact they were the number one arms export market. Several companies manufactured combat aircrafts and tanks. I happened to visit the hidden aircraft-manufacturing center in Mostar.
There were early signs of sectarian and religious tensions in the 1970s, though these tensions were put down immediately by Tito’s ironclad rule. Hence these tensions never materialized into a a bigger revolution or breakdown. A lot of these issues were swept under the rug (like it happens in any authoritarian rule).
Then came the 90’s. With the sudden collapse of the U.S.S.R and Tito’s fall, Yugoslavia was in the brink of sea change. The republics that were kept intact so far were vying to break away. The 90s were quite challenging with many internal strife between nations, creation of temporary alliances, back stabbings and not to mention the biggest genocide in modern history in Kosovo conducted by the infamous Serbian leader Milosevic. Milosevic intentionally created the conflict between Serbians, Croatians and the muslim dominated Bosniaks.
During my travel across Yugoslavia I met with many people with different backgrounds. The impression I received was somewhat of a mixed bag. Some were nostalgic of Yugoslavian times and some felt this was a union that was never meant to be.
But today albeit some tensions which do still exist, these diverse ethnic and religious groups found a way to co-exist with each other. This is displayed more prominently in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia. Within a ten-minute walk from main square of the city you will find an Orthodox church, Mosque, Catholic Church and a Jewish synagogue.
Meeting the locals and survivors of the breakdown and listening to their stories is an intense experience. Though when you do meet people from these different ethnic and religious backgrounds in these countries it is important to not to take anyone’s side, but rather to listen and take in their perspective without judging them or their ancestral background.
Part deux of this article that outlines the Yugoslavia travel itinerary continues here..