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Opinion: The lessons of Yugoslavia | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A statue of Josip Broz Tito, the late Yugoslav Communist leader, is seen in Kumrovec, some 45 kilometers (29 miles) northwest of Zagreb, Croatia, Saturday, May 25, 2013. (AP Photo/ Marko Drobnjakovic)

Supposedly, time moves forwards, not backwards. Although the past must not be forgotten, no matter how cruel and horrible it was, psychologically healthy people should treat it as history or heritage that they can learn from. However, being nostalgic for the past and insisting that things used to be better than what they are now or will ever be is a major problem.

In the Balkans, where World War I erupted and which later, in the 1990s, witnessed one of the most bloody conflicts Europe has seen, there is an increasingly popular phenomenon called “Yugo-nostalgia.” People there today are filled with nostalgia for the era of Josip Broz Tito, the former Communist leader of Yugoslavia.

Surprisingly, this sense of nostalgia is not limited to those who lived under Tito, who are now mostly elderly. Today, even the youth, who were born after the country’s division into six republics, express similar feelings. It appears that the youths compare their status quo with the state of coexistence they are told existed in the single state.

While celebrating Tito’s birthday last Saturday, people remembered with nostalgia what they consider a period of peace and stability in their country, according to news agencies. Throughout his 27-year rule, Tito managed to maintain unity among the six republics and a state of coexistence among the kingdom’s Orthodox, Catholic and Muslim social groups. He achieved this by ruling the country in a softer and less Communist fashion—at least, compared with the governments to the east of the Iron Curtain.

That unity was shattered after his death in 1980; in particular, national, ethnic, and religious sentiments were on the rise in each of the six republics. The six republics were engaged in a struggle that led to horrible massacres being committed as a part of a civil war that killed 100,000 people (especially in Bosnia and Kosovo), destroyed whole cities, and displaced millions. In what is considered to be the first war to take place in European territory since the Second World War, NATO intervened to protect the Muslim minority from being killed by obsessed warlords and politicians who are now on trial at the International Criminal Court.

It was a moment of madness in which people surrendered to the slogans adopted by the racist politicians and warlords who, instead of solving problems wisely and politically, resorted to weapons and bloodshed. It aroused animosity and led to massacres being committed, in an age that does not accept such criminal acts. None of the six republics has made much economic progress or significantly raised living standards. On the contrary, their situation has deteriorated from what it was under Tito.

But being nostalgic for the good old days does not mean that the past was perfect. Given how long he was in power, the roots of the 1990s conflict certainly extend into Tito’s rule.

The collapse that followed Tito’s death indicates that his communist regime did not lay the right foundations for a smooth transition of power after his death. Perhaps Tito could not see signs of transformation in the world, with the collapse of most totalitarian state-run economies only a few years away.

This is not to deny a generation’s responsibility for that fatal moment of madness, which will take later generations decades to recover from.

Yugoslavia is not the only country whose politicians committed mistakes that had dire consequences for later generations. History is rife with such examples, which we must learn from. It is natural for nations to lose wars and suffer from setbacks on different levels. However, the most dangerous of these setbacks are civil wars, which create divisions in society and lead its members to fight each other.

Are there any lessons for Arabs to learn from the Balkans and the subsequent collective “Yugo-nostalgia”? That is an easy question: from what we see happening on the ground in the Arab world before our very eyes, it might be too late for us.