Serbs have a big nostalgia problem. Things are slowly getting better but they refuse to believe it and still hanker for the good old days of Titoby Tim Judah / February 26, 2006 / Leave a comment
A journalist from a Serbian magazine recently came to interview me. (I have been writing about and commenting on the Balkans for many years.) I thought she might want to talk about the negotiations on Kosovo’s future or Serbia’s dealings with the EU. But it soon became clear that for her the future was far less interesting than the past.
“Who was most responsible for the breakup of Yugoslavia?” she asked in an accusatory tone, as if it might have been me. “At what point did Milosevic go wrong? What do you think about the role of Serbian intellectuals in the war?” She then asked me if I had interviewed Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the wartime leaders of the Bosnian Serbs. When I said that I had, she asked, somewhat awed: “What were they like?”
Eventually I broke off. “Why are you asking me about all this old stuff?” I asked. “It was so long ago, I can’t believe people are still interested in all this.” But, she assured me, I was quite wrong. “People are interested in these things. They explain how we got from where we were to where we are.” I was amazed, but now I think she was right.
A few days earlier I had been in Kragujevac, a town in central Serbia where I had read that the local economy was in such trouble that the authorities were worried about the health risk posed by poverty-stricken former industrial workers keeping domestic animals in their gardens in town.
Well, you should not believe everything you read. In fact, Kragujevac, which lies in the heart of what became known as “hunger valley” during the 1990s, is showing strong signs of recovery. And it was here that I encountered the oddest phenomenon now stalking the Serbian psyche: Tito’s ghost.
Kragujevac used to be a company town. Of its 200,000 people, at least 40,000 once worked directly for Zastava, a massive industrial conglomerate that made everything from cars to Kalashnikovs. But the wars that destroyed Yugoslavia came close to destroying Zastava. In 1989, the last full year before the collapse of the country, it made 230,000 vehicles, most of them in Kragujevac. When the wars began, Zastava lost suppliers and markets and Serbs had no money to buy its cars. The company struggled, and during the Kosovo conflict in 1999, Nato bombers virtually finished off the company.…