Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Six Months in . . . #3

I will, on occasion, defend Tito and Yugoslav Socialism.

Those who know me are aware that my politics amount to the 'leave me the hell alone!' cranky sentiments of rural populism. And those same people would probably be very surprised to hear my occasional defense of a federation of socialist republics. This defense, though, is usually limited to Macedonia's position within Yugoslavia. And it's usually brought about while trying to explain to someone that Yugoslavia was not in the Soviet Union.

Almost everyone over 30 that has spoken to me about Yugoslavia is exceptionally nostalgic for it - think the Golden Era of 1950's Leave It to Beaver America for which some people in the States long. There's a great deal of Communist nostalgia in Russia, too, but this is tempered by the Gulag, commodity shortages, bread lines, paranoia, and a brutal state apparatus. Yugoslavia was a much kinder sort of state. Sure, there were political prisoners, religious suppression, and a powerful state apparatus here, too. But Yugoslav citizens were far freer in their words and actions. People could travel abroad in Europe without trouble. Consumer items were plentiful compared with other nearby states, while food, alcohol, and cigarettes were always in abundance. Most people who lived under Yugoslavia, when asked, would say they considered themselves 'free'.

And Macedonia itself experienced a sort of cultural renaissance. For numerous reasons (to erode Serbia's influence in the Federation, to strengthen claims against Greece, as a political show for neighboring Albania, Bulgaria, and Greece) Yugoslavia invested heavily in Macedonian culture. The language was codified, institutes were created for preserving folk heritage, and resources were made available for archaeology and historical preservation. As a traditionally poor region, Macedonia benefited a great deal from the Yugoslav federal structure.

So, take a hypothetical case. If I were, say, an electrician in Yugoslav Macedonia, I would probably belong to some sort of state-sponsored guild, and would be guaranteed a job for life. This 'job for life' opens up the opportunity for credit (hey, a job-for-life is a safe bet for bank) and I'd be able to get an apartment, maybe a car, and all the trappings of a relatively comfortable life pretty quickly. Every company or guild or union 'owned' its own vacation resort (from government resorts on the Croatian coast to municipal garbage-men unions on small lakes here in Macedonia), and I would be able to take a month-long vacation every year at my company's place. Other, once-in-a-decade or so trips might be organized for Greece, or something like that. My passport gives me visa-free access to all of Western Europe, no travel restrictions. And, compared to neighboring Albania, Bulgaria, and yes, pre-EU northern Greece, I've got a spectacular standard of living.

If I were that same electrician today, I would be facing 30% official unemployment and a maze of tax regulations. My passport isn't all that great anywhere but the former Yugoslavia, because now I need an expensive and time-consuming visa for the UK, Western Europe, and Greece. The economy isn't all that great, because instead of Macedonian goods competing in the Yugoslav common market, they have to compete against the EU and all other former Communist nations. And odds are, I'm still living with my parents, because real estate is in short supply in Skopje and I just couldn't afford it. The future looks uncertain with regards to EU membership. And while a lot of people have made a lot of money since splitting with Yugoslavia, things may not be looking up for me.

This is an imaginary situation, of course. But I hope it illustrates the relative decline of some people's standard of living after the fall of Yugoslavia, and helps make clear why anyone would be nostalgic for socialism.

Of course, if you talk to young professionals, there's a whole different outlook: they often decry the "Yugoslav" mentality of the older generation as a very negative, anti-progress, anti-growth sort of thing. But that's for another post.


Anonymous said...

Very lovely of you that you have written down here what I try to explain people about Yugoslavia and what a mess the breakup of the federation has left behind, especially here in Macedonia, not to speak of Serbia or even Bosnia and Herzegovina.
I agree a 100%!

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