Rebuilding Balkans' fallen ideals

As Clinton visits the region today, many experts say the multiethnic

President Clinton's visit today to the former Yugoslav republic of Slovenia comes eight years to the month since the first shots were fired in a string of Balkans wars.

With the end of the Kosovo war, Mr. Clinton is expected to appeal for reconciliation among Balkan states, and support efforts to rebuild and integrate them into Europe.

Yet more than just repairing war-shattered ancient buildings and bridges, what will be difficult to restore is what was known as the "good life," a society of diverse people that existed for half a century in Josip Broz Tito's Yugoslavia and was broad-minded, creative, and fairly prosperous.

Today, an assessment of what was lost is needed, say experts, if what was good about this troubled land is to be remembered and used as a basis for rebuilding.

Some progress is evident among the ruins. States like Slovenia, where in-line skaters glide through main streets loaded with expensive brand-name products, are integrating with the West.

European nations plan to spend upwards of $30 billion over six years for the Balkans. Yet plans for economic recovery do not tell the deeper story.

For most former Yugoslavs today, life is more constricted and less secure than before. They are largely confined to tiny geographic states. For the majority, the living standard has dropped. Yugoslavs once had the freest access to the world of any country.

Because Yugoslavia was a nonaligned nation during the cold war, its people traveled easily to both East and West. Now most people can't afford to travel. Even if they want to, outgoing visas for Balkan nations are the most difficult in Europe to get.

Crucially, the relative multiethnic harmony of the old Yugoslavia, which made its "good life" possible, is gone. The idea of "unity and brotherhood," enforced though it may have been, has given way to narrower ethnic enclaves deeply suspicious of each other, nationalist, and often locked in what one writer calls "the narcissism of small differences."

Language barriers

There is no longer a shared national language, Serbo-Croat. Instead, a Serb going to court in Croatia today is required to hire a translator, even though the language difference is only several hundred words.

"We used to live in a relatively large and respected state," says Dejan Anasatesavic, a Belgrade journalist who spoke last week at the Diplomatche Academie in Vienna. "Now we live in a small, impoverished, and despised one. In Yugoslavia, everything shrank, including the mind."

Slow disintegration

Since 1991, the former Yugoslavia has broken into five different states: Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Yugoslavia (including Montenegro and Kosovo), and Macedonia. The breakup was so slow and incremental that the scale and scope of what was lost is only now being noticed.

Shared multiethnic camaraderie and experience in the Army, a high ethnic intermarriage rate, and the possibility of attending college in any of a dozen large cities - all are things of the past. The market for art and film used to be 20 million people; today the market is fragmented across borders and languages. The cross-fertilization and ferment of ideas, identities, and creative expression has been harmed, experts say.

"There was an unimaginable richness of cultural life in Yugoslavia. I remember going to Zagreb [Croatia] in the 1970s," says a European diplomat in Austria. "You would attend evenings with dancers from Macedonia, musicians from Sarajevo, intellectuals from Belgrade, and painters from Croatia. This no longer happens."

Westerners often mistakenly assume that Yugoslavia was a communist empire on a par with the Soviet Union, experts say. It's true that dissenters could be jailed, the media censored, and wealthier republics like Slovenia forced to contribute a high proportion of their income.

But the old Yugoslavia did not experience the heavy control and repression of Soviet satellites like East Germany.

Now, for reasons of war, cost, some border restrictions, and just plain antipathy, most former Yugoslavs no longer travel in their old country. Many miss the beauty and breadth of the former Yugoslav landscape. "We could go to the rivers, the sea, the mountains and lakes, and then hit cities like Sarajevo with the incredible Ottoman architecture," says Attila Balaj, a former Yugoslav military commander, now a novelist living in Hungary. "Not now. You feel the beauty of the place more when you lose it."

Critics call such sentiments "Yugo nostalgia" - the dreamy and overly romantic reminiscences of those who are finding it difficult to adjust to the present.

'Balkan parties'

Still, in many cities there's a move to reclaim something of a Balkan identity. "Balkan parties," where music from the former Yugoslavia is featured, is now a fad in Ljubljana, for example. But they are often viewed with suspicion. As Dubravka, a political science major who works at McDonald's here puts it: "If you listen to Yugoslav music or feel nostalgic, people will call you a traitor."

Young people feel pressure from parents on whom not to marry. Maja, for example, whose mother is ardent pro-Slovene, has told her repeatedly that if she gets married, it must not be to a Croat or a Serb. "Anyone else is OK," she says. "I'm getting a lot of pressure about this."

"People criticize me for being 'Yugo-nostalgic,' " says Ivan Ivancic, editor of The Feral Tribune in Split, Croatia. "I say, 'Yes I am nostalgic. I am nostalgic to vacation in Montenegro, go to college in Belgrade, and take day trips to Sarajevo. Now I am stuck in Split. Why is that so great?' "

Jeremy, a graduate student in cultural studies at the University of Ljubljana who wears a ponytail and orange tennis shoes, was 14 when Slovenia declared independence. He has never visited any of the former republics - though if "the Rolling Stones played in Zagreb, maybe I'd go."

Security is another new problem. "I used to hitchhike to Slovenia and never think twice about it," says Boris, a cabdriver in Skopje, Macedonia. "Now I am afraid to go outside the suburbs of this city. I may not hate the Albanians. But they may hate me."

Is Slovenia a leader?

With the NATO airstrikes just over, security levels are extremely high in Ljubljana for the Clinton visit. The president will urge the Slovenes to "take a leadership role" in helping the Balkans join the European mainstream. Slovenia, along with Croatia, now has a stock market.

Whether Slovenia wants to take a leadership role, or whether other Balkan states would even want them to, is another question.

A main issue in Slovenian discourse today is: Are we Balkan? Many are deemphasizing Slovenia's South Slav heritage. After so much war, there is a certain shame about a Balkan identity. "Europeans think of us in the Balkans as animals," says one scholar. "We have to get over that hurdle."

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