In troubled Balkans, nostalgia rises for Yugoslavia

Blasko Gabric is a Balkan dreamer who has set about building a new Yugoslavia - Yugoland - here on the northern edge of Serbia. While his mini-Adriatic Sea is still only a waterless hole, and his Mount Triglav is but a pile of dirt, he hopes his 3-1/2-hectare theme park will prove popular with an older generation nostalgic for the defunct nation.

"It's for everyone who loved or appreciated how Yugoslavia was," says Mr. Gabric, 68, a former printer in Canada and erstwhile politician in Serbia.

Vexed by a parliamentary vote in 2003 that scrapped the name Yugoslavia and replaced it with Serbia and Montenegro, Gabric hoisted the Yugoslav flag, marked trails on his property with signs like "Road of the Yugoslav Great Ones," and declared Yugoland.

Since the park opened two years ago, more than 3,000 people have paid $3 each to become "citizens" of Yugoland. Feelings of "Yugonostalgia" are on the rise, as three of the five countries that spun off the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia struggle with the aftermath of ethnic warfare, collapsed economies, and international isolation.

Comparisons between today and the era of Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito are made especially frequently in Bosnia, which suffered some 150,000 dead and saw half the country become refugees in its 1992-1995 war of independence from Yugoslavia.

Pensions plummeted

Retirees receiving monthly pensions of $94 today remember the kingly $1,200 pensions given out by Tito. Today's average monthly wage is just a few hundred dollars; nearly half the country is out of work.

"I was an electrician, and we had a lot of money. Now, where am I?" mourns Fikret, a 50-something man hunched over an afternoon drink at the Tito Society's club in downtown Sarajevo. The club's couch, chairs, and stained carpet have seen better days; dozens of Tito portraits hang on the red-painted walls.

The older men gathered at the club speak for many people throughout this fractious region when they say they long for the days of unfettered travel on their old Yugoslav passports. They resent having to now stand in long lines for visas to travel to Western countries.

"It was the best passport in the world," says club owner Omer Pipic. "When I went to America, I went as a human being, not as a refugee or a social case. We used to go to Austria to have a coffee! Now that was total freedom of movement."

Many young people of the former Yugoslavia - who weren't even born when Tito died in 1980 - would agree. But their approach to Yugonostalgia is more ironic, whether it's enjoying socialist-era kitsch or the cult of Tito. Sarajevo's Tito Bar, for example, has been the place to be seen in that part of town since it opened two years ago. "Of course, freedom to travel or higher living standards can be taken as some of the many reasons why people today feel Yugonostalgic," notes former Sarajevo University sociology professor Dzemal Sokolovic. But "one should differ between Yugoslav-hood and the Yugoslav state. [Though] the state of Yugoslavia was destroyed by nationalists, 'Yugoslav-hood' has never been destroyed."

Back at Yugoland, Gabric is optimistic that his park will expand and become a cash cow, despite a reporter's observation that the only people here on two consecutive summer weekdays were a few of Gabric's pals lounging in the picnic area. Another 17 hectares of land, he says, and he'll have enough to create a sports and recreation center that could rival Disneyland as a lucrative tourist destination.

Some visitors aren't impressed. Four foreign students taking summer language classes at the university in nearby Novi Sad give Yugoland a thumbs down. "There's nothing there - just a ditch and a hill," says one. Another noted that the park trail named after Gabric was called a boulevard, while Tito himself warranted only an alley.

'It was a perfect country'

Yugoland may not yet be wowing the tourists, but the idea behind it remains alive and well in at least some corners of the former Yugoslavia.

Dragan Dobricki, a Serb policeman in nearby Palic, points to his two friends watching television in a local cafe.

"What did Yugoslavia mean to me? That man there is my best friend, and he's a Croat. That man there is my other best friend and he's Hungarian," Mr. Dobricki says. "It was a perfect country. But Tito didn't plan his succession, and he's to blame."

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