Bringing back Tito

The independence of Kosovo seemed to mark the final chapter in the story of Yugoslavia. Yet a surprising number of its former citizens remain passionately devoted to it – and, in particular, to the memory of its greatest dictator. Peter Popham reports on the remarkable rise of Yugonostalgia
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The Independent Online

With Kosovo's declaration of independence two weeks ago, the last nail was slammed into Yugoslavia's coffin. The Land of the South Slavs (which is what "Yugoslavia" means), dreamed up back in the 17th century, forcibly imposed by King Alexander I in 1929, reimposed by Tito after the war and finally tossed in the bin, is an idea whose time has gone.

But, for a growing number of former citizens, its demise is a cause of dismay. And one of them, Blasko Gabric, 65, a printer and town councillor in Subotica, near Serbia's border with Hungary, has committed his fortune and energy to ensuring that Yugoslavia, though gone, is not forgotten.

Mr Gabric spent many years in Canada – he ran a printing works in Hamilton, Ontario – but, during that time he formed a miserable opinion of capitalism compared to socialism as practised in Tito's Yugoslavia, land of his birth.

"Capitalism is a modern form of slavery," he told me as I scurried in his wake into Yugoland, the theme park he is establishing in an industrial park on the outskirts of Subotica.

"I give you credit, I hang you on the cross until you die. In Canada, I knew people who couldn't afford chewing gum. Capitalism is struggle for survival. The big guys survive by killing the little guys, that's why you have five-and-a-half million bankrupt in the US each year. That's why the big guy survives. The little guy comes to America with two suitcases dreaming of making his fortune – and he dies without the suitcases."

A gymnastics champion in his younger days, Blasko Gabric is still a figure of bustling vigour. He returned to Yugoslavia in 1980, his faith in socialism reaffirmed by long years of exile – just in time to mourn the death, aged 88, of the man who embodied Yugoslavia throughout the post-war years: Josip Broz Tito.

Back home again and building up a new printing business, he watched with growing distress as the handiwork of "the great man who led the country" was picked to pieces: by nationalists from the different Yugoslavian republics that Tito had taken such pains to keep in their boxes, but above all (in his view) by capitalism and by America, "because America didn't want Europe to be united. Because in Yugoslavia we had united Europe before Europe had the idea to get united".

He watched in growing horror as Slovenia seceded, Croatia followed suit and war broke out between Serbia and Croatia, as Bosnia fell apart, Macedonia split away and Nato attacked Serbia to stop Serbia raping Kosovo, and Kosovo itself became independent in all but name – until the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia finally contained nothing but Serbia and Montenegro.

Then on 4 February, 2003, Yugoslavia suddenly vanished. It was replaced by the State Union of Serbia and Montenegro. "I had this idea," he says, "when they changed the name of the country without a referendum."

The idea was to immortalise Yugoslavia in miniature. He bought a parcel of land behind his printing press and set about it.

There is a problem, however. Say the word "Yugoland" and we can almost see the finished theme park in our mind's eye, so strong is the influence of Disneyland and its imitators.

There will be a Main Street, Yugoslavia, with stalls selling pickled cabbage and slivovitz, roasted paprika and spicy sausage. There will be a Cinderella Castle equivalent, perhaps a conflation of the various ex-royal palaces where Tito lived out his lavish years at the top, wreathed in Havana cigar smoke and waited on by dozens of servants.

The "imagineers" will go to town on the Second World War: there will be a scary ride through an animatronic Battle of Neretva River, when Tito's Partisans defeated the forces of the Nazis and Fascists; another might give visitors a virtual tour of the factory that turned out Fico cars.

The architects who scattered lumpy, chunky, brightly coloured post-modern hotels and town halls all over Yugoslavia will find themselves in work again here, recreating that look.

Sad to report, Mr Gabric hasn't got that far yet. He is in the uncomfortable position of building a monument to socialism but of being in dire need of capitalist investment to complete it. "Any smart investor could come here and make money," he says, a touch plaintively. "People made millions out of Disneyland – why can't we make millions here? I am waiting for people to invest: I need €2m (£1.5m) to bring the plan to fruition."

So far, he has recreated Mount Triglav, the highest mountain in Slovenia, its three peaks indicated by three sizeable heaps of earth at the far end of the property. Croatia's Adriatic coast is represented by a large hole in the ground, awaiting completion.

Another hole in the ground is where he will put the underground lavatories, funds permitting. And so on. In lieu of more expensive installations, he has put up photographic displays of proud moments in Yugoslav history: world champion gymnasts, big-time basketball teams, Tito arm in arm with an ancient Churchill, meeting Kennedy, at Non-Aligned Movement meetings, etc.

Tito is actually missing from the most impressive photograph of the lot. That is the shot of the dignitaries who attended his funeral in 1980. Mr Gabric has blown it up big so that we can scrutinise it carefully, because it is a crowded picture. And though the big man himself was missing, it says a lot about the punch he and his country packed.

One hundred and twenty-eight countries sent political delegations to the funeral; those present included the USSR's Brezhnev, Jimmy Carter's mother, James Callaghan, Yasser Arafat, Colonel Gaddafi, the Duke of Edinburgh, Nicolae Ceausescu, Erich Honecker. There were four kings, 31 presidents, six princes, 22 prime ministers, 47 foreign ministers. Only five countries, including Pinochet's Chile and apartheid-era South Africa, stayed away. "He was one smart guy," Mr Gabric says. "He was milking three cows: the West, the communist countries, the non-aligned countries. He was one smart cookie."

How many kings and princes, one asks, will attend the funerals of the present leaders of Serbia, President Tadic and Prime Minister Kostunica? How many came to the exequies of Slobodan Milosevic? That's how far Yugoslavia has fallen, and how fast.

"Yugonostalgia" used to be a term of abuse but, as a return to prosperity remains maddeningly elusive for much of the former federal republic, which continues to Balkanise nearly a decade after the smoke of battle finally lifted, it has quietly become a fad.

There are sophisticated people in Belgrade who mutter that Mr Gabric is a "lunatic". But there are many others in former Yugoslavia who feel exactly the same way he does.

Slovenia, in particular, is a bastion of sentiment for the good old days: odd, in that this is the one republic that got out of the federal republic without suffering any ill consequences, avoiding war, and that is now safely installed in the EU.

But then tiny Slovenia exemplifies the post-Yugoslavian complex, being claustrophobically small while Yugoslavia was so ample. And Tito himself had a Slovenian mother, and passed away in Ljubljana. Come 25 May, 50 young Slovenians will head to Belgrade to celebrate Tito's 116th birthday around his grave, accompanied by a Tito impersonator and children dressed up as Partisans.

Bostjhan Troha, the brains behind the party, a 33-year-old Slovenian, has a large collection of Yugoslav memorabilia that he plans to turn into a museum.

In Sarajevo, capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Café Tito has niches holding ancient typewriters and telephones; a large red star is painted on the floor, and the clock is stopped at five past three, the time of Tito's death. In Kotor in Montenegro, one Yugofanatic runs a "consulate of the Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia", as if it still existed somewhere else, in another dimension, and celebrates Yugoslavian national day every November.

A website called Cyber Yugoslavia invites people to register as citizens and 16,000 have done that, nearly 13,000 more than have so far paid 200 dinars each to acquire a "passport" for Mr Gabric's Yugoland.

What drives people to pine for the heyday of a dictator? One Serbian journalist said, "It's simple: job security, mobility, and safety. In Yugoslavia everybody had a job for life, and it was nearly impossible to get sacked. With a Yugoslavian passport you could go anywhere in the world without a visa. And the country was at peace." "Eighty-five per cent of my parents' generation are nostalgic for Yugoslavia," says Alex Brkic, who was nine when Tito died. "Everyone had a second home and a car and took holidays at the seaside or in the mountains, and we had passports that allowed us to travel everywhere. My parents were intellectuals and we had a Volvo estate and when we went on holiday my father said 'Shall we go left or right?' Left to Greece – or right, all the way to Spain. We drove to Spain."

Yugoslavia was far more prosperous than Serbia is today. "It will be another four years before GDP reaches the level it was at in 1990," says Slobodan Markovic, a political scientist, "even though the Serbian economy is growing at 6 to 7 per cent a year. During the Milosevic years, production plummeted by 50 per cent."

"Yugoslavia did not fall apart because of the will of its people," says Josip Broz, Tito's grandson, who runs a restaurant in a Belgrade suburb, "but the will of its politicians. And today more and more people are feeling sorry it fell apart. Including many of those who were against the regime.

"Because of the wars, which poisoned relations between the peoples, because living standards plunged – and because of the continuing disintegration. Kosovo is going now, but who says it will be the last bit to break off?

"Many young people today are sorry they weren't born in Yugoslav times. That they couldn't live normal lives as we did. With normal education, good healthcare, travel abroad. Able to make enough money to have a decent standard of living. Now these things are only available to the top 10 per cent."

"People have forgotten that Tito was a dictator," says Slobodan Markovic. "They remember there was peace and stability, and they forget the violation of human rights. Yugoslavia lived well because it was the only communist country that received enormous US aid and then loans.

"But the ordinary people weren't aware of that."

In 1979, Yugoslavia plunged into a debt crisis; a grave economic crisis started immediately after Tito's death the next year – "all of which," says Mr Markovic, "reinforced the notion that Tito had magical powers."

Straddling Europe's most dangerous religious and ethnic faultlines, Tito's Yugoslavia was a brave creation. But it was also a deluding dream, a Truman Show of a country that was kept alive by huge infusions of dollars. It is no accident that Mr Gabric is having trouble bringing hisYugoland to fruition. Nostalgia is the last thing the South Slavs need now.