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Ex-Yugoslavs pine for unity and dignity

Last year's Eurovision Song Contest witnessed rare unity among the Balkan states - which carried Serbia to victory with their votes.

With Belgrade hosting this year's competition on Saturday, Jonny Dymond traverses the war-torn region to see if people hanker for the old Yugoslavia.

Bosnians hold a picture of Josep Broz Tito
Tito is still revered by some in the former Yugoslavia

Every one of the thousand pages that make up Rebecca West's 1930s Yugoslav travelogue Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a gem. But one line of hers sticks out.

"I had come to Yugoslavia," she wrote, "to see what history meant in flesh and blood."

That may seem an odd reference, as the fireworks and spotlights of the Eurovision contest light up the Belgrade sky this Saturday.

But you never escape from history in the western Balkans.

In northern Serbia I wandered round Yugoland, a mixture of memorial and homage to the Yugoslav state. Here, in among the photos of dead kings and bygone basketball teams, you are reminded of quite what an international player post-war Yugoslavia was.

Margaret Thatcher, Leonid Brezhnev, Saddam Hussein and Yasser Arafat were amongst the international who's who that attended the funeral of modern Yugoslavia's founder, Josip Broz Tito.

But what, I asked Yugoland's enthusiastic owner Blasko Gabric, did Yugoslavia mean to him?

"Peace," he said, without reflection.

"We had peace. We had brotherhood. They said we had artificial brotherhood and unity. I said, I like artificial brotherhood and unity 100 times more than the war between brothers!"

Craving security

A long, slow train ride takes you from Belgrade to the Croatian capital, Zagreb, and a long drive took me on to Pula, on the Adriatic coast, to meet Alexandra Broz, Tito's granddaughter.

When I asked her nationality, she dodged the question, describing herself only as "cosmopolitan". But on the topic of Yugoslavia she was more forthcoming.

Alexandra Broz
Alexandra Broz said people lived with dignity in Yugoslavia

"I think many people are crying for the secure times of Yugoslavia," she said.

"They didn't have much money, but they could live like people with dignity. They all had a flat, their children could study free, they had free health. It was a great deal."

Not all Croatians are so enthusiastic. Of all the former Yugoslav republics, Croatia probably chafed most under the grip of Serbia.

It is an irony that Tito was born in Croatia. His village is now a museum, the house where he was born is perfectly restored.

Crime problem

Political analyst Davor Gjenero gives a cooler view of what is left of Yugoslavia.

"Organised crime is the only cross-border activity which is functioning in the framework of the former Yugoslavia," he says.

"And it functions in a superior way - better than it did in the former Yugoslavia."

On the overnight train between Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, my wallet was stolen.

It is a long, slow train ride, stopping at innumerable lonely little towns, entering Bosnia-Herzegovina via the semi-autonomous region of Republika Srpska, and terminating in the burial place of Yugoslavia - Sarajevo.

Sarajevo building
Sarajevo's bullet-riddled buildings ooze history

Sarajevo is history made flesh, from Princip bridge, where an assassination sparked the cataclysm of World War I, to the bullet-riddled apartment buildings and fresh cemeteries that speak of the more recent conflicts.

Surely no-one here would mourn Yugoslavia? But in the sunshine, outside the Tito cafe - next to the monument to tinned food that shows Balkan humour is alive and kicking - there was a real longing for the days before division and border checks.

"We are all Yugo-nostalgic, we all feel as Yugoslavians, at least people I know. And we know that we are from the same stem," says Lejla Veskovic, 23.

"Just the name of the language and the name of the country has changed."

Her friend Ajla Yagic, 23, agrees. "We have the same roots, it's basically the same, and we're not changed," she said.

Fading memory

There is plenty of Yugo-nostalgia around - and it is more than a longing for badly produced cars and central planning.

Across the former republics people say how they miss the unity of the old country, its relative wealth, and how its place in the world meant that they could travel freely.

But Yugo-nostalgia is not Yugoslavia.

Only if the countries of the western Balkans get to join the EU will the borders disappear, the currencies merge - and then some sort of Southern Slav union will rise again.

Until then, Yugoslavia remains little more than a fading memory.


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