Reflections on Yugoslavia’s Socialist Past and
In this essay I present my personal reflections on the life in the former Yugoslavia (Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) and on the current trends of privatization and corporate takeover of Yugoslav natural, economic, and human resources. Years ago, I personally experienced the best phase of Yugoslav socialism and worked in academic and research institutions. Even though the following pages don’t appear in the form of a scholarly article, I attempt to briefly present and explain the most important institutions and aspects of the Yugoslav socio-political and economic system, highlighting “the Yugoslav way of life” and what it meant for the diverse peoples of Yugoslavia. Seven small, disoriented, and colonized countries—the remains of Yugoslavia—struggle today, torn between their unique past and unsettling present. Desperation and apathy go hand in hand with wars and foreign occupation. Yet, Yugoslav people are resilient and therefore I finish this essay with some examples of current workers struggles and people’s resistance.
Growing Up in the Socialist Yugoslavia
Growing up in Belgrade, and in the socialist Yugoslavia, my generation was very fortunate. As elementary school children, we got to participate in self-management days. The entire school was run by students during those days: from administration, to class instruction, to cleaning and maintenance of school kitchens—everything was managed by students with no adult presence. Students applied and adjusted programs, maintained regular school schedules, gave lectures and graded assignments of their fellow students. I vividly remember a few times when I acted as a teacher. All the grades that I gave to my schoolmates had the same importance as the grades given by our real teachers. We felt much empowered, trusted, responsible, and quite free. We went to school in shifts, because it was recognized by the society that some children (and adults) learn better in the morning and some stay more alert and creative in the afternoon. The emphasis of the entire society was on developing collective values. Everything that happened in one classroom, including individual students’ performance, was discussed with all parents and students present. All the way into my adulthood, my generation felt safe and secure. As one of the three founders of the Nonaligned Movement, Yugoslavia’s goal was to only teach new generations how to defend their country; we never thought about meddling into any other country’s affairs. My generation did not worry about the future. We grew up relaxed and optimistic, cherishing priorities such as well-rounded self-development and self-liberation from any relicts of capitalist and patriarchal ideologies.
As a college student and later as a researcher and social scientist, I believed that one of my greatest priorities was to develop and maintain a critical approach towards the Yugoslav socio-economic and political system, so that it could continue to evolve. It is possible that my generation was one of the last generations of Yugoslav idealists and dreamers. Yugoslavia was like no other country in recent history. I came to this realization in much more profound ways once I immigrated to the U.S. My friend Andrej Gruba?i? wrote eloquently: “Yugoslavia for me, and for people like me, was never just a country—it was an idea. Like the Balkans itself, it was a project of interethnic coexistence, a transethnic and pluricultural space of many diverse worlds…a home to pirates and rebels; a refuge of feminists and socialists, of antifascists and partisans; a place of dreamers of all sorts struggling both against provincial “peninsularity” as well as against occupations, foreign interventions… Like my grandparents, I too believe in and dream of a region where many worlds fit, and where everything is for everyone. I have no other emotion but utter contempt for people who helped destroy Yugoslavia and I feel the same about the people who are now selling what is left of it.”I am definitely one of the people who share Mr. Gruba?i?’s views.
Basic Characteristics of the Yugoslav Model of Socialism
In some instances, the Yugoslav model of socialism is recognized as unique even by those who are a priori against socialism. Yet, most scholarly works published outside Yugoslavia have failed to understand what constituted that uniqueness. Neither Yugoslav theoretical concepts nor their practical application are really well known in the Western world. I don’t use the phrase “communist Yugoslavia” because I don’t equate the rule of a communist party with communism. I would only use the term “communism” in its original Marxist terms as a new socio-economic formation. Rather, I believe that the word socialism is much more appropriate and reflective of the social reality that existed in Yugoslavia between 1945 and 1990. Every socialist society is transitional and contains elements of the old and new social systems. Socialist Yugoslavia was founded on several basic concepts, institutions, and practices. The most important ones were self-management and social ownership. Local control of local resources was guaranteed by the associations of free producers in the work arena while people directly participated in local governance in their neighborhood associations. In order to better address issues of self-management and social ownership, the society created a special branch of law called self-management law and corresponding self-management courts. Some people criticized this legal duality and the quantity of self-management laws and regulations.
It was considered that no one should acquire income based on private property, but based on labor. Theoreticians of socialist self-management argued that a unique category of social ownership would ensure that. Social ownership was not equal to state ownership. Means of production, land, housing resources, natural resources, common good, art, media, and educational institutions, were all to belong to the society as a whole—to everyone and no one in particular. Only about 20% of agricultural resources and small businesses were in the private sector. Land that belonged to farm workers was limited to 10 hectares per individual. During the socialist era, most housing was constructed for working people and their families. Following specific criteria, workers were awarded apartments to use, but not to own. Their children and all future generations could also use the same apartments, but none of them were considered owners. Neither were they renters. This legal category is difficult to explain, as it goes beyond common understanding in the Western world.
In socialist Yugoslavia, it was a basic premise that local people had an inalienable right to control local resources. In associations of free producers, workers had many opportunities to make informed decisions about their needs, available resources, and spending. The Yugoslav people made decisions about their own natural resources, productive assets, and production itself. For example, domestic production of electric energy was designed to meet domestic needs for a period of several decades. All the way to the 1980s the majority of Yugoslav products were produced for domestic use, not for exports. Official data showed that between the 1950s and the early 1990s, the most common trading partners of all former Yugoslav republics were other Yugoslav republics.
In addition to social ownership, self-management was another crucial social institution; both were seen as ideals and basic principles of social organization. Associations of Free Producers (OUR) were basic units of associated labor and they were organized on several levels. Working people decided to work together in order to meet their common needs and interests, so they created these associations. They worked collectively by using socially owned means of production and produced goods and values. Associations of free producers existed in the sphere of material production, but also in other social sectors such as social services, culture, art, education and health care. In every such association, most important decisions were made by referendum. Workers also formed workers councils that met regularly in order to run the associations on a day-to-day basis. Some American authors, such as Michael Albert, often talk about participatory economics implying that this is somewhat a new concept. Such authors rarely recognize the importance of the Yugoslav model of self-management that was in place for more than forty years. My own father was at the same time a production worker and a manager. In my youth, I was able to see self-management in practice and witness some of its organizational efficiency. For example, the complete body of workers in one association would meet and propose candidates for worker’s council, or plan their annual production. It is true that over time the existence of the market economy and other factors, limited economic and political power of the working people. Yet, this shouldn’t nullify the value of the Yugoslav experiment with self-management, in both theory and practice.
Neighborhood associations (Mesne Zajednice) were another type of basic units of self-governance. In associations of free producers, neighborhood organizations, and communes, Yugoslav people had an opportunity to engage in direct self-management. In neighborhood associations people made decisions about their neighborhoods and daily lives. In addition, they selected delegates for communal and republic governments, made decisions regarding working and living conditions, social politics, child care, education etc. Every neighborhood association had its own statute created by the people living in it. The most important decisions were also made by referendums.
Communes were larger territorial units, founded on the principles of the Paris Communeto ensure decentralization and people’s direct participation in local self-governance. Communes, republics, autonomous provinces and the Yugoslav federation were connected in the same pyramid of the socio-political system. All republic constitutions acknowledged the Commune as the basic socio-political unit, critically important for republic and federal governments. The main goal of all economic and political processes in socialist Yugoslavia was to achieve the best possible working conditions and living standards for all working people.
Socialist Yugoslavia’s Achievements and the Global Corporate Agenda
During the entire socialist period, and especially between the 1960s and the 1980s, Yugoslavia was a prosperous country in which every person was guaranteed the right to work and receive a living-wage,free education of superb quality–all the way to post doctorate degrees, a minimum of one month paid vacation, unlimited sick leave based on health needs, a yearlong paid maternity/paternity leave, and the right to housing. In addition, Yugoslavia was the only country in the world that incorporated women’s reproductive rights and freedoms in its constitution. Women made multiple advances in the spheres of education and employment, entering traditionally male dominated fields in very significant numbers. My master’s thesis compared Yugoslav and Californian women’s achievements in these two spheres. The data I collected showed that women in Yugoslavia made greater advances and challenged patriarchal divisions more often than women in California.
During the same period, public transportation worked well, cultural and artistic life flourished and much of it was considered vanguard in global terms. All forms of artistic and cultural events and performances were produced for the people and there was no “elite culture” or “elite art.” Participation in all of cultural and artistic events was very affordable. Children were taught music, art, and a number of foreign languages at a very early age (starting in kindergarten). In the original Marxist tradition, it was considered that all people should be raised as well-rounded individuals. Starting in elementary school, we were taught to always perform and balance manual and intellectual work and to resist over-specialization. General education was highly valued. History and geography classes included lessons covering all continents. Especially during the early years of socialism, people of all ages, and youth in particular, volunteered to work together to build bridges, roads, plant trees and forests. Doing public works gave them a sense of pride, provided opportunities for new friendships and expanding horizons. My generation had annual school plans that included week long fieldtrips, so that we could go to different resorts and see natural jewels located in other Yugoslav republics. Yugoslav multiculturalism is rarely understood in the Western world. Throughout the socialist period there was a high rate of intermarriages and great numbers of people embraced what was called “Yugoslav brotherhood and unity.” Socialist Yugoslavia had a good reputation all over the world: it was seen as an instrumental member of Nonaligned Nations and an important partner in international relations.
As Michael Parenti stated numerous times, this is exactly an example of a country that would bother the U.S. policymakers, especially after the 1980s. Such countries challenge the U.S. quest for global domination, prospects of the global corporate agenda and “thirdworldization” of the entire planet. At the beginning of 1990, the time came for the U.S. and its NATO allies to intervene: they did whatever was in their power, including the use of the pure force, in order to wipe out Yugoslavia from the map of Europe. Yet, Yugoslavia (and especially Serbia and Montenegro) was the only country in the region that wouldn’t voluntarily discard what remained of its socialism in order to install a free-market system. The dismantling of Yugoslavia and wars of the 1990s are not the topic of this essay. Much has been written on that topic, mostly as a justification for NATO and U.S. wars and subsequent occupation. However, for a small number of scholars and activists it was obvious even in the 1990s that the goals of the global empire were no different in Yugoslavia than in multiple other countries around the globe. Again, in Parenti’s words: “the U.S. goal has been to transform Yugoslavia into a cluster of weak right-wing principalities with the following characteristics:
- Incapable of charting an independent course of self-development
- Natural resources completely accessible to transnational corporate exploitation, including the enormous mineral wealth in Kosovo
- An impoverished but literate and skilled population working at subsistence wages, a cheap labor pool that will help depress wages in Western Europe and elsewhere
- Dismantled petroleum, engineering, mining, pharmaceutical, construction, automotive, and agricultural industries, so they no longer offer competition against Western producers.”
The U.S. and its NATO allies had some additional goals to be achieved by destroying Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was often seen as a regional power and a seed of a larger Balkan federation. That in itself was a real threat for the global empire’s quest for absolute domination. The U.S. and its European NATO allies also knew that their physical presence in the Balkan Peninsula would bring many additional rewards such as better oversight of all European resources and developments, control over the heroin trade, human and organ trafficking, and the Caspian Sea pipeline. The so-called peacekeeping missions which obviously became clear occupation agendas ensured building and maintenance of permanent military bases and detention centers.
In many ways, the U.S. and the E.U. have already achieved a number of their imperial goals. Visiting my hometown on an annual basis, I can see greater numbers of accomplishments every year. However, the complete occupation, privatization of all economic and natural resources, as well as total demoralization of people are not easy goals to achieve in the Balkans. In his documentary film The Weight of Chains, Serbian-Canadian director Boris Malagurski shows that many people are waking up, now realizing that the free-market economy and foreign domination have brought hardly anything positive. This has happened in all countries that once constituted Yugoslav republics. What free-market ideologists call “Yugonostalgia” is actually awakening and realization of the great loss. This is also an affirmation of people’s collective memory and a testimony that opposing processes exist together in their own dialectical unity: some social forces strive for inclusion in E.U., while others struggle to go back to their socialist tradition and maintain independence. Yugoslav peoples couldn’t simply erase their positive experiences gained from living under socialism. Even though the imposed ideologies glorifying capitalist values and consumerism, the values of the European Union and global corporate agenda are influential, significant numbers of workers do attempt to regain their power. They struggle against privatizations, corporate takeovers, loss of jobs and general austerity measures. The resistance has never stopped.
The Advancement of the Global Empire
The neocolonial agenda has advanced in recent years. Here is what I observed several months ago in Belgrade, Serbia’s capital.
People’s Resources, Industry, Financial Sector, and Consumerism
Walking around Belgrade, especially in the downtown area, I counted numerous offices of foreign banks. In many instances, these banks are on every corner and often spread out with their doors only 100 meters apart. In addition, the number of exchange offices didn’t decrease that much from the time of the early 1990s when they were mushrooming literally everywhere. This is consistent with the takeover of the Serbian financial sector by the EU powers & so-called international financial institutions. The Serbian workers who work in these banks are sometimes quite grumpy and not necessarily meeting the standards of “professionalism” expected in other countries. This time, because of an incident when an ATM machine wouldn’t return my card and the bank was closed on Friday evening, Saturday, and Sunday, I had to endure their bad customer service and arrogant attitudes. It seems that they are not happy about their working conditions imposed on them by these unscrupulous foreign banks and their disturbance and disappointment are then reflected in their work with customers.
The newly embraced capitalist ideology that glorifies consumerism is clearly visible on the streets, in shops, institutions, and in the media. Every year, there is a slightly larger number of fast food restaurants such as Mc Italia, or Greek and Chinese fast food. These unhealthy foods and drinks are coupled with what many Belgraders believe is already happening behind closed doors–imports of GMO seeds and foods, in spite of the government claims that they wouldn’t allow something like that to happen. The same is applicable to inhumanely produced meat that is full of hormones and infectious bacteria. As a result, we can see more overweight people on the streets of Belgrade. However, it seems that this is still a marginal problem since Belgraders walk a lot and many now jog, bike and go to yoga classes. The more alarming part seems to be the increase in numbers of people in their forties and fifties who suffer from high blood pressure, heart diseases, and stroke.
The foreign firms bought numerous formerly Serbian or Yugoslav companies. The privatization of Yugoslav water resources is one of the most striking examples. Rosa Water is a Coca-Cola Hellenic owned company, VODA VODA is owned by the Arteska International Co, BB Minaqua Co. is divided by Krones of Germany, Sidel of Italy and Thomson Machinery for its Cyprus production. Even though many of these firms claim that they have eco-friendly packaging, such as “Rosa plant-based bottle,” the plastic packaging and its waste are saturating the environment while leaching toxic chemicals into the bottled water that many Belgraders now buy and carry around with them. Previously, the tap water quality was much higher and hardly anyone believed that they needed bottled water. Until the 1990s, all beverages were packaged in glass bottles.
Garment and cosmetic firms are now either foreign or domestic ones that have been bought by foreigners. For example, if we look at the children’s clothing, shoes, cosmetics, food, etc. we get a combination of these mostly foreign and well-known brands that now have all markets open to them: Avent, Disney, Chicco, Graco, Bertoni, Peg-Perego, Bambino, Pavlogal, Humana, Frutek, Hipp, Nestle, Juvitana, & Bebelac. Kosili and Dr. Pavlovic are among a few exceptions. While we had a few Italian baby firms present in Belgrade even before the wars of the 1990s, Nestle & Disney are definitely more present now. Even some domestic firms wanted English names such as BEBA KIDS, Just Click, etc.
Belgrade based Dahlia Cosmetics used to produce predominantly plant and mineral based cosmetic products. Now Dahliacosmetic is privatized and, as stated on its website, 100% owned by the Belgrade’s Beohemija. Beohemija in turn, was formed as a merger between Delta from Zrenjanin and Slovenian Sanpionka. In all of those mergers and privatizations thousands of workers lost their jobs and it is difficult to believe that now Dahlia wouldn’t replace the mineral based products with the use of synthetic ingredients. Just by looking at the labels of a few products I had seen, it was difficult to say.
Duvanska Industrija Niš or Nis Tobacco Industry was repeatedly bombed during the NATO’s bombing operations in 1999. It was one of the largest factories employing 2,500 workers.These bombing operations prepared the terrain for the subsequent take-over. In 2003 the tobacco giant Phillip Morris seized the Serbian cigarette factory. Philip Morris uses GMO tobacco additionally saturated with pesticides in its cultivation and other toxic substances in the cigarette production.
Speaking of privatizations and loss of jobs, many businesses have closed and new ones opened in the past 2 years, since my last visit. There was a souvenir shop across the street from the Belgrade City Hall the last time I was there, but now there was a different kind of store in the same space and no one I asked knew what happened with the souvenir shop. Serbia doesn’t have the domestic garment industry anymore as Centrotekstil, Kluz, Beko, Tekstilna Industrija Zemun, all ceased to exist. The same is true for the Elektronska Industrija Niš (Nis Electronic Industry) and Zemun’s INSA that produced clocks and watches. Both of these viable domestic industries completely disappeared. Zastava—the domestic car industry based in Kragujevac is also destroyed. Once solid shoe industry is now reduced to Boreli a firm whose production sites and stores were targeted by the Croatian Borovo for potential sell-offs. Borovo claimed to be the headquarters of the Sombor firm. Workers’ prolonged struggles at Boreli have not resolved the question of privatization. In Serbia, all industry together now amounts to 37% of what it was in 1986. In addition to corporations, even politicians such as Madeleine Albright have an eye on the Yugoslav industry, services, and resources. Albright Capital Management or ACM–the former Secretary of State Albright’s Company–is buying Kosovo’s Telecom, as reported by Tanjug & RTS on August 18. Madam Albright served under Bill Clinton and was instrumental in the delivery of the “humanitarian wars” against Yugoslavia and Serbia specifically.
Apple now has several offices in Belgrade and is selling its expensive equipment to the wealthy segment of Belgrade’s population. Yugoslavia always had good foreign language university departments and domestic institutes. This year, I saw a Berlitz Institute’s office at Belgrade’s hillside called Banovo Brdo, so I suspect that the new assumption is that domestic language institutes are not necessarily considered “world-class institutions.” It might sound strange to some, but is probably a logical consequence of the destroyed economy that relied on black markets during the war years, but it is still not that uncommon to buy a computer in regular stores, get an official declaration and warranty certificates that list official service providers, and then receive service through official channels by knowledgeable individuals who would work for those servicing firms unofficially.
Language, Culture, Services, and Public Displays
It is often considered that one of the best indicators of the level of colonization is the incorporation of the language of the oppressor into the native language of the oppressed people. At this time and era oppressors come as a multiplicity, not as one. The Serbian language is definitely invaded with so many foreign words, but they are predominately English words. In many instances, they sound almost ridiculous, as funny hybrids (such as surfuj, katering, etc.), directly put in Serbian Cyrillic and with Serbian spelling. It is difficult to listen, and sometimes refrain from laughing. We still have countless numbers of Turkish words and phrases that became so deeply ingrained into the Serbian language because of the centuries long Ottoman rule; regardless of the fact that we used to resist and protest their usage, now some of them might sound better than what is currently invading the Serbian language. Countless local businesses, music bands, tourist offers, etc. all have English names instead of Serbian. In addition, Belgrade has always hosted some of the most famous rock groups, other musicians and all kinds of celebrities. This summer, it also had Cirque de Soleil perform for Belgraders. The popular riverside boat restaurants (splavovi) are as active as ever. One of them is called “Bollywood.”
For the first time I saw Chinese-Serbian people walk around town relaxed and behaving like tourists. During previous years I could see them only working in Belgrade’s Chinatown. The estimates are that now we have less than 5,000 Chinese residents in Belgrade. Some do have children who go to regular Serbian schools. This is one of the great illustrations of surprising patterns of global migrations.
Public transportation is still working well in Belgrade. Yet, they recently introduced an electronic ticketing machines to be used in buses leaving too many passengers confused and uninformed about how to use them, where to get tickets, etc. The transition has not happened smoothly.
Belgrade has too many humongous billboards that celebrate the new capitalist consumerism and contain commercials for foreign banks, corporations, and products. There are a few enormous sized billboards advertizing Viagra equivalents. Now, Serbian people have their own Viagra product called “Vulkan” (volcano). As all colonized people are, the people from the Balkans were also often over-sexualized by their oppressors over the centuries, especially men. Yet, in today’s world, many are being convinced that they need boosters and medical help. All of that generates profits and dependent, long-term customers.
Serbian People’s Realities, Resiliency and Resistance
My daughter presented in her paper that the urban culture of Belgrade remains torn between the pressures of global markets dictated by political powers coming from the E.U. and the U.S., and its own original multicultural present and past. The people of Serbia, and the Belgraders in particular, are resisting these powers in many different ways. They might find that it is beneficial to incorporate some elements of the dominant E.U. culture into their own. Yet, for the most part, they continue with their own traditions. Belgraders have many summer events such as open air theatres (this time I saw a roof-top theatre, summer scene), free street jazz concerts in downtown, countryside tourism on the edges of the city where the traditional village culture meets some of the technological advances. They also organize youth events and camps, yoga courses at Belgrade’s beach called Ada, in the grassy, shady area. It seems that Belgraders and other Serbian people remain determined to make the best of all possible cultural blends, attempting to reverse the oppressors’ quest for suppression of what is uniquely Serbian.
Belgraders also have a small sized Occupy movement and groups such as the Freedom Fight Movement. The Freedom Fight is active on multiple fronts, from accompanying workers in their struggles, to protesting the NATO conference last year. This group also collaborates with many international organizations who are working towards organic sustainable, independent local food systems. The determined political actions of Belgraders have forced the American Embassy to remove all windows from its building facing the street side! They are now built-in walls where once they had large windows. Last year, when the media reported that the largest European nuclear waste facility would open in Vinca near Belgrade the people's outrage obviously produced some effect. The authorities are now completely silent about this issue.
The decades of economic crises, wars, embargoes, NATO bombing, the almost complete take-over of Serbian industries and financial systems, the forced loans and programs that imposed “educational reforms,” and the continuous decline in standards of living have taken a toll on the population of Serbia. The Serbian national debt is now bigger than the one that the former Yugoslavia had in 1990 when the U.S. said it was too big and impossible to pay, presenting that as a reason for supporting (actually causing) the dismantling of Yugoslavia. Last year, the median monthly income in Serbia was only 320 Euros. With this decline in living standards, I noticed especially this year, that woman’s fashions also changed. For the first time, Belgrade’s women don’t look as elegant as they once did. The young people are, of course, exceptions from any rules. They seem as fashionable, cosmopolitan, and rebellious as ever.
However, Serbia has another enormous problem: the aging of its population. It is now one of the top 10 countries in the world with the oldest population. So many of us left our homeland during our prime working years and those who stayed do not have the means and motivation to raise children. Serbia is now experiencing the 7th year in a row with negative birth rates and the country is in a dramatic demographic crisis. During this extra hot summer, it was not always easy to see Belgrade’s aged population walking around. Many of them stayed indoors.
It would be wrong to think that the Serbian people are just accepting everything silently. Even in extremely dangerous situations, such as during the 78 days of bombing Serbian people formed human chains to defend buildings and bridges, held concerts and demonstrations to send a message that they would resist occupation in the spirit of their ancestors, as Greg Elich, pointed out. Additionally, Andrej Gruba?i? describedhow Serbian workers fight for years and do prevent or delay some privatizations and takeover of their means of production. This year, I met more Serbs who are very critical of the Serbian government, the E.U. and U.S. global dictates than I could imagine in my previous visits. In spite of everything, I did not leave Belgrade without hope. Serbian and all Balkan peoples have demonstrated over the centuries that their resiliency, common wisdom, and stubborn, principled resistance directed towards many oppressors do help them survive, adapt, and live the best possible life under most unfavorable circumstances.
All Yugoslav people lost a lot in the past twenty years. But so did people of Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, and many other European countries. In its quest for greater profits and absolute domination the global empire demands more exploitation, more sacrifices and more ruthless austerity measures. These detrimental economic, environmental, educational, health, and other social policies are actually forced down the throats of most working people around the world. Hopefully we can spark the interest in Yugoslavia’s unique past and current workers’ struggles, paving the road for greater understanding and solidarity beyond national boundaries.