…or A Field Report from the Days of AVNOJ
Every last Saturday in November, several thousand people from all across former Yugoslavia gather in Jajce for Days of AVNOJ, an official celebration of Yugoslavia’s founding
at the Second Session of the Antifašističko vijeće narodnog oslobođenja Jugoslavije (Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia) which took place there on November 29, 1943. Political anthropologist Larisa Kurtović helps make sense of this event in this town in this day and age.
Three thousand comrades, a third-term mayor, and a General Major of Tito’s Guard also make an appearance.
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Episode Transcript (and More)
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PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your host Peter Korchnak.
The second Yugoslavia was founded on November 29th, 1943 in the Bosnian-Herzegovinan town of Jajce. On that day, at its second session, AVNOJ, short for Antifašističko vijeće narodnog oslobođenja Jugoslavije, or the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia, the wartime umbrella of national liberation organizations, or the Partisans, proclaimed the establishment of socialist, federal Yugoslavia.
November 29th was a major patriotic holiday in socialist Yugoslavia. On this Dan republike, or the Day of the Republic, citizens enjoyed two days off work, taking trips, visiting family, organizing feasts. It was a very popular date for weddings and for pig and lamb slaughter. First-graders took their Young Pioneer oaths and schools held performances, readings, recitals, and other events. Companies awarded medals to accomplished workers, cannon salvos were shot from castles in the republican capitals, newspapers ran features, TV channels showed marathons of old films about Partisans and cartoons for kids…
The Day of the Republic went the way of the country it celebrated. Croatia was the first to abolish it, in 1990; rump Yugoslavia, comprising Serbia and Montenegro, the last, in 2002. But the holiday, or rather Yugoslavia’s birthday, is kept alive around former Yugoslavia. Foremost among these events is the Days of AVNOJ, an official commemoration organized by the Museum of the Second AVNOJ Session. Every last Saturday in November, several thousand people from all across former Yugoslavia gather in Jajce for the festivities. Except this year of course, because of the pandemic; only a small commemoration ceremony, limited to 30 socially distanced and masked people was held at the Museum.
Here to help me make sense of this phenomenon in this town in this day and age is Larisa Kurtović, a political anthropologist studying political life in the aftermath of war and socialism. She is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Ottawa. She is at work on the book, Future as Predicament: Bosnia-Herzegovina and Political Life After Catastrophe, informed in part by her childhood experience of living through the Siege of Sarajevo and its aftermath. Among other things, Larisa has studied commemorations of defunct socialist Yugoslav holidays and their protagonists.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: A lot of times, you know, these groups, obviously, traffic in a certain kind of nostalgia for the socialist period but that nostalgia wasn’t just past oriented…
PETER KORCHNAK: Three thousand comrades, a third-term mayor, and a General Major of Tito’s Guard also make an appearance.
Jajce, Yugoslavia’s Birthplace: The Setting of Days of AVNOJ, Yugoslavia’s Birthday
PETER KORCHNAK: It is impossible to understand the Days of AVNOJ event without first understanding the city where it’s held. As with everything in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s a bit of a complicated story.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: Jajce is this fairy tale-like place. It’s this town that was built on the confluence of two rivers, Pliva and Vrbas, right, and it features in its center, this beautiful waterfall. And, you know, in the background of it is a medieval fort—
PETER KORCHNAK: —built at the turn of the 14th century, in the course of which Jajce was the capital of the Bosnian kingdom. At the top of a pyramidal hill the citadel crowns a terraced complex of ramparts, towers and other medieval and Ottoman-era buildings. A souvenir shop up there proudly flies the flag of socialist Yugoslavia. The waterfall with the walled city in the background and the wooded hills all around is the most famous and most photographed view of Jajce.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: And there’s just so much history that’s laid out in this one small place. And then part of that history was obviously the fact that this was a celebrated iconic city of socialist Yugoslavia. Residents of Jajce, you know, people who are from Jajce, are very proud of the history of their hometown and the significance that it had during the medieval Bosnian kingdom and also during socialism.
So Jajce was essentially a company town. So this is common, right, throughout Bosnia, and particularly the predominance of one economic entity that’s typically a factory. So for Jajce this was Elektrobosna. This was a factory that had originally been built during the Austro Hungarian Empire, but then was expanded significantly during socialism. Elektrobosna is a ferrosillicide-producing plant, but it was basically one of these combines, so kombinat, that essentially owned all these subsidiary companies in town. So there was a department store, but the owner of the department store was Elektrobosna; there was a football team, but you know, they were also Elektrobosna. You know, most of the residents of Jajce before the war had one, at least one family member who worked for Elektrobosna, right so this was very much the foundation of the of the economy and local economy.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the height of its industrial power, Elektrobosna sold 25,000 tons of silicon metals, a lot of it to Western European manufacturers. It employed some 3,000 workers, in a town of 12-13 thousand, and accounted for 14 percent of socialist Bosnia’s total export sales.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: Jajce used to be this model socialist community that also had this tremendous symbolic power and significance in the canon of Yugoslav socialism, because it had been the birthplace of socialist Yugoslavia, it had been a kind of a regional center, it was very multi ethnic, and it had a particularly brutal experience of the war in so far that there were two different military conquests and the concomitant waves of ethnic cleansing.
PETER KORCHNAK: Early in the Bosnian War, nearly all Serbs fled or were expelled from the town by separate Bosniak and Croat forces. Republika Srpska army retaliated with heavy bombardment and overtook the town, forcing in turn a Bosniak and Croat exodus. Bosnian Croat forces recaptured the town in 1995, allowing Croats and later Bosniaks to return.
Along the main drag in Jajce’s old town, two 1990s war memorials stand across the street from one another: on one side, by the town’s main mosque, the memorial to Bosniaks killed in the quote unquote “armed aggression,” on the other side a memorial fountain to Croat fighters killed in the quote unquote “Homeland War.”
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: And then the community had been sutured back together into this town in the central Bosnian Canton where Bosnian Muslims—Bosniaks—and Croats share governance. So the Central Bosnian Canton features some of these divided institutions and ethnically divided schools, ethnically segregated schools.
Except that in Jajce, the things were a bit more complicated, because there had never been a direct military confrontation between Croats and Muslims there. So, when these forms of co-governance were re-established in the aftermath of the war, the residents of Jajce often say this, that, Jajce is just not as divided as some of these other cities that have gained infamy, such as Mostar, for example.
PETER KORCHNAK: Like elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the post-Dayton world ensnared Jajce in questionable privatization and economic decline.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: Most of Jajce’s current problems stemmed from this incredible deindustrialization, that took place really violently.
In many ways, in the aftermath of war, it has been subject to so many of these processes that have, you see everywhere else in in Bosnia, including de-industrialization, the effects of privatization of the economy.
PETER KORCHNAK: Elektrobosna was broken up into several subsidiaries and sold off. Its privatization and subsequent history is now a common sordid and convoluted tale. The company still exists but it’s struggling and employs a tiny fraction of its former workforce. The bottom line:
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: Jajce experienced very much the breakup of Yugoslavia and the war as a kind of a story of its own ruination, as not just as a community, but as an economic powerhouse, and as a certain kind of a center.
So key problems in town are unemployment and disemployment.
PETER KORCHNAK: What’s more, between 1991 and 2013, Jajce’s population halved. In addition to the great many refugees who never returned, a great many others have left for better economic prospects abroad. Among the remaining 7,100 people in Jajce proper, Bosniaks and Croats now each comprise some 45 percent of the population.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: So there is a humongous diaspora that’s mostly in Scandinavia but also elsewhere in Western Europe, and some people are also in the United States and Australia. And there were a lot of empty apartments, empty houses, some that basically were being preserved for the retirement yet to come, you know, that, you know, someday these diasporan Bosnians, residents of Jajce would come back and retire. I haven’t done the research, I don’t know how many managed to realize these dreams.
People go and finish degrees sometimes in other cities in Bosnia, where there are universities, and then come back and then they have trouble finding work. And so there has been a lot of outmigration from Jajce. This is actually something that’s happening all over Bosnia. There is a lot of the socio-economic struggle, right, that I think characterizes the life of the town.
And then there are new kind of dimensions, political dimensions of everyday life as well. The state and public sector jobs have been become some of the most coveted in the, in the local context. And so a lot of people, you know, see a steady public sector job as the goldmine. The irony is that those jobs are distributed as a form of kind of political favor to members of various political parties. So this has become a clientelistic economy tied to the local political establishment. I mean, you know, it is a small community where nationalist parties have been sharing power for 20 plus years.
PETER KORCHNAK: At the hotel restaurant I spoke with a local business owner, let’s call her Iveta. A non-practicing Catholic, she fled Jajce during the war and spent over a decade in Norway as a refugee. She felt the urge to return to her roots and family who stayed behind or moved back. Because she is not affiliated with any political party, she constantly runs into problems with operating her business, whether it’s permits or deliveries or what have you. Her disillusion cut through the smoke of her cigarette. “Everything is divided in this country and if you refuse to play along, you won’t get a lot done,” she told me. She was considering leaving again to rejoin her children in Norway. She added, “We’re the bottom of the bottom in this country.”
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: There was this sense that the story was much more complicated, and the socio-economics and the questions of political power were far more important than the nationalist divisions that everybody read into the town.
I think that there is a much bigger story here and that this is playing out in a particular way in this community, that is, you know, politically heterogenous. I don’t want to give you this impression that everybody in Jajce is Yugonostalgic. There are plenty of nationalists, you know, of all kinds in the community as well.
“Odiseja” performed by KIC Pop Hor
Days of AVNOJ and the Museum That Makes It
PETER KORCHNAK: It is against this backdrop that the commemorations of Yugoslavia’s founding take place.
Before 2008, smaller commemorations were co-organized by a variety of groups, particularly Partisan veteran associations, various anti-fascist groups, and what I call Tito fan clubs.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: Tito Memorial Societies, Društva Josip Broz Tito, emerged in the aftermath of the breakup of Yugoslavia and the end of the so-called Yugoslav wars of secession. These groups in fact, there are many of them in Bosnia, in places like Sarajevo, in Jajce, in also, some of them are defunct now, but in places like Tuzla, but also in Slovenia, and Croatia. And these groups, these networks of Tito memorial societies help organize various kinds of celebrations of what are now defunct Yugoslav socialist holidays. So, the Day of the Republic, the November 29th, obviously, the day of founding of second Yugoslavia in the town of Jajce is one of these occasions.
PETER KORCHNAK: In 2007 the Croatian paper Jutarnji List reported that 600 people came to the last such informal celebration. The event ended in disagreement on practical matters. Delegations from all the republics had agreed on a potluck-style celebration, but only the Slovenes held up their end of the bargain, while, the rag wrote “the others failed. So because of disagreement over food and drinks, Yugoslavia fell apart again on the eve of 29 November into several separate celebrations that lasted late into the night.” End quote.
In 2008, the newly opened Museum of the Second Session of AVNOJ took over the commemoration of Yugoslavia’s founding. The official event, called Days of AVNOJ, has been held on the last Saturday in November ever since. I attended the event last year.
The Museum stands on the right bank of the Pliva, a few hundred meters upstream from the famous waterfall. The blocky rough-hewn stone building with views of old town dates to royal Yugoslavia, when, beginning in 1935, it served as a headquarters of the local Sokol Society, a pan-Slavic exercise and sport movement. During WWII it served as a Croatian Independent State prison, which Partisans burned down and then upon their return to town in 1943 rebuilt into a cultural space just in time for the Second Session of AVNOJ.
In 1953, the Yugoslavian government established the Museum of the Second Session of AVNOJ as a principal promoter of Yugoslavia’s founding myth and a keeper of its collective memory. It was one of the most visited museums in the country, whose citizens, from school children to workers collectives to Partisan organizations, made modern pilgrimages to the site.
During the Bosnian War the building was heavily damaged and most of its exhibits looted or destroyed. Its fortunes improved in 2002 when it was declared a national monument. In 2008, the Museum of the Second Session of AVNOJ was partially renovated and re-opened on the 65th anniversary of that session and of Yugoslavia’s founding.
EMSADA LEKO [IN BOSNIAN; OVERDUB LINDSAY SAUVE]: We are above all a historical site, not a museum in the traditional sense because we do not have collections. Everything we have is on display. What we had disappeared during the war; only about 10 percent of objects we’d had have been returned.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s Emsada Leko, the Museum’s director since 2014. We spoke at her office where a heater hummed along and the radio played poppy tunes.
When I visit before the 2019 Days of AVNOJ, I have the entire Museum to myself. In the vestibule a memorial plaque hanging above the portrait of Tito in Partisan uniform proclaims: “Representatives of all Yugoslav nations decided here on 29 November 1943 at the Second Session of AVNOJ to form a federal republic as part of a national liberation and revolutionary struggle.” AVNOJ declared post-war Yugoslavia would be “built on a democratic, federal principle” as “a community of equal peoples” comprising six equal republics.
Sunshine streaming in from windows underneath a black ceiling lends the theater-like auditorium an airy feel. I almost tiptoe so as not to disturb the reverential silence of the place. The charcoal-lacquered hardwood floor creaks as I walk between the exhibits showcasing wartime histories of each former republic and rows of chairs and benches in the middle. Flags of socialist Yugoslavia, Soviet Union, the US, and the UK cover the support pillars. Painted on the walls are slogans, “Long Live the Brotherly Red Army,” “Long Live Comrade Tito,” “Long Live Comrade Stalin,” “Long Live Our Allies, USSR, England, and Amerika,” and “Long Live Our Heroic National Liberation Armies” between portraits of Churchill, Tito, Marx, Stalin, and FDR.
Above the stage block letters proclaim SMRT FAŠIZMU – SLOBODA NARODU! [Death to Fascism – Freedom to the People!]. I resist the temptation to step over a red rope barrier and sit in the armchair whence Tito watched the proceedings in 1943. Red curtains flank the stage in whose far-right corner, a larger-than-life, gold-painted statue of Tito once stood against the back wall where two elongated flags of Yugoslavia hang around its coat of arms. A white bust of Tito dominates the front and center of the stage; here visitors line up to take photos, one arm wrapped around his shoulders, the other in a clenched-fist salute.
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EMSADA LEKO [IN BOSNIAN; OVERDUB – LINDSAY SAUVE]: We get a lot of visitors, about 20,000 people annually, which we’ve already surpassed this year. And that’s just ticket sales. During events like Days of AVNOJ we’re open free of charge.
People come from all over. When the museum first opened most visitors who came had a nostalgic connection to Yugoslavia, to the past times, they wished to return for a while to their childhood, their youth. Nowadays more and more young people come, people born after the 90s war, elementary and high school students on excursions, mostly from Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also increasingly from Slovenia.
Of all the former republics, Slovenes visit the most, a lot of them in big groups, on organized trips. They have strong associations of anti-fascists and Partisan veterans. People from other republics come mostly on family trips or school trips.
I forget who said it, but it’s true that “those who destroyed Yugoslavia did not count on Yugonostalgia.” I think this remembrance would not be as strong and as long-lasting if people were satisfied with their countries and societies after the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
PETER KORCHNAK: Some 5,000 people attended the re-opening of the Museum in 2008, Leko told me. The turnout at the event spawned the idea of the Museum holding Days of AVNOJ as an official annual event.
On the eve of the Days of AVNOJ festivities a new art show opens in the building’s basement which has been converted into a gallery space. I spoke with this year’s exhibit’s curator, Elma Hodžić, whom you may remember from the story about the Historical Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: “We Build Tracks, the Tracks Build Us” is a project which we developed together with four students of the Academy of Fine Arts. They actually had the possibility to spend over three months in the museum collection and to see the stories of the collection, the techniques that artists used in the Second World War and in [the] post-war period to create art, and they’ve also made their own interpretation of these works of art made in that period. I think the title of the exhibition is fantastic, and it’s very giving hope in our own participation and how we can today rebuild or build infrastructure in a physical but also in the mental way. Nowadays we have a new audience and we have to ask that audience, “Do we actually build tracks together?”
PETER KORCHNAK: Good question, and one that both Elma and the Museum Director Emsada Leko contribute to answering in the affirmative.
While Leko has strong reservations about the political and economic situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, she also says–
EMSADA LEKO: I love my job, I love this Museum. I love it because it caretakes the memory of a bright period in our history, of the national liberation struggle, of Partisans who were on the right side of history in that war–of us when we were better people than we are today.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
PETER KORCHNAK: Hi there, it’s me, Peter Korchnak, the creator and producer of Remembering Yugoslavia, with a quick peek at the making of the podcast.
I interview people across the Balkans and beyond and spend a good amount of time and energy writing and recording and editing to bring you these stories, interviews, and analysis two to four times a month.
It is your support that makes this reporting possible. Ensure I can cover the next important story and keep the memory of the country that no longer exists alive by supporting me on Patreon. Please go to Patreon.com/RememberingYugoslavia and donate today.
Alright, back to the story.
[COMMERCIAL INTERLUDE JINGLE]
The Event That Is Days of AVNOJ
PETER KORCHNAK: Saturday noon, people gather for the wreath-laying ceremony at the Memorial Fountain to Fighters and Liberators of the City of Jajce. The fountain consists of three concrete pylons, nestled horizontally into striped support slabs and interconnected so as to lead water between a number of fountain bowls. The memorial sits on a platform between the city rampart and the Travnik Gatehouse. Over a pair of loudspeakers a Museum staffer calls delegations from all former republics, Bosnia’s cantons, and municipalities, comprising representatives of anti-fascist organizations, Partisan veteran associations, and Tito societies, to queue up.
One after another, in a procession that’s as solemn as it is operatic, each delegation, mostly duos and trios, step up to the monument and lay their wreaths, sprays, and bouquets where directed, arranging the printed ribbons for greatest effect. They stand in silence for a moment, salute, bow, and move along.
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Large and small flags of socialist Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, a couple of Macedonia, a few of individual associations, and a giant red one of SKOJ, socialist Yugoslavia’s youth association, wave against above the shoulder to shoulder crowd. According to later estimates in the local media, I am one of more than 3,000 visitors attending Yugoslavia’s 76th birthday celebration.
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LARISA KURTOVIĆ: A lot of times, these groups, obviously, traffic in a certain kind of a nostalgia for the socialist period but that nostalgia wasn’t just past-oriented, it was also a means through which one could critique the newly emerging nationalist order of things.
Obviously there is a whole choreography to their activities, they’re celebrating these defunct socialist era holidays, there’s a lot of dressing up…
PETER KORCHNAK: I am also one of the younger people in the crowd, which skews into senior years. Amidst gray hair, dyed dos, winter coats and hats and daypacks, I see less paraphernalia than I expected but distinctly of the moment. Titovka and Young Pioneer caps with the red star; old Yugoslav pins and badges bedecking caps and hats and shirts and jackets; here and there a dusted-off Partisan uniform or a T-shirt with Tito’s likeness, a clever slogan, or the Yugoslav flag; lanyards saying “Life Was Better Under Tito;” a couple of jokers in exaggerated cosplay assemblages. And red, lots of red—scarves, hats, shirts—as many participants accessorized in the occasion-appropriate color code to mark their belonging.
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Elma’s experience attending Days of AVNOJ in the past was similar though of course she, having been born in the late 1980s, is of a different generation.
ELMA HODŽIĆ: We don’t believe that this meeting in Jajce was important. We don’t know why 29 of November is important.
I was actually very— at the beginning of a bit afraid but then I’ve seen friends of my parents in Jajce, people that never spoke about Yugoslavia, they were there as well, they were present. I felt that I had discovered one aspect, one very nostalgic aspect of my society that I did not knew [sic] it existed.
So nowadays we do not commemorate, we more celebrate and I think that Dani AVNOJa in Jajce are actually an opportunity for people to gather from different parts of ex-Yugoslavia in order to celebrate their values, their anti-fascism.
And I think that personally they can be annoying for some citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia and Serbia nowadays because these people had very strong ideological beliefs and today’s society does not have one common story to share.
PETER KORCHNAK: After the ceremony at the memorial fountain wraps up, here and there, spontaneous kolo dances break out. The crowd disperses, streaming across the green metal bridge over the Pliva to the parking lot outside the Museum where a stage is bustling with final preparations.
Under the empty gaze of shelled, roofless houses sprouting For Sale signs and ivy behind a fence, Mayor Edin Hoza, who was in the 2020 municipal election re-elected for a third term, opens the program with a welcome message.
EDIN HOZA [IN BOSNIAN; OVERDUB – PETER KORCHNAK]: In the name of Jajce municipality and my own it is my honor to welcome all of you, who came from all corners of former Yugoslavia at Days of AVNOJ, which commemorate events we all should remember and be proud of. From this event a nice picture of Jajce will go out into the world. I hope, if God provides, we’ll meet again in better health and better cheer in future years.
EMSADA LEKO [IN BOSNIAN; OVERDUB – LINDSAY SAUVE]: We’re fortunate the mayor of Jajce attends the event every year to greet the visitors. It’s a big deal for him to welcome them. But we get no funds from the municipal budget, unlike other cultural and sports events in town. The municipality does cover a portion of guest performer’s fees but there isn’t enough support on the council for us.
“Zemljo moja” performed by the Jajce Pensioners Choir
PETER KORCHNAK: Yugoslavia-evoking musical numbers by the Jajce Pensioners Choir you just heard and the local rock group Lazy Band alternate with speeches by delegates from former Yugoslav republics, in an echo of the gathering back in 1943. They represent anti-fascist organization or Tito memorial societies, and in their addresses they all exhort Yugoslavia’s qualities and pooh-pooh today’s realities.
With just a tiny stretch of imagination, the delegates’ appearance exemplifies attitudes toward Yugoslavia in their respective countries. There is no delegate from Slovenia. The Croat in unassuming middle-aged man civvies says Yugoslavia was “the best thing that ever happened in the Balkans since humans settled it” to cheers of “Bravo!” from the crowd.
The Montenegrin wearing a bright red lipstick, red scarf, and red heels and a stylish tan coat could be going on a date, or church, or here to what she calls, “a holy place and a symbol of a better tomorrow.”
The Bosnian is a member of the diaspora in Germany, representing associations of wartime wounded from around Western Europe.
The Macedonian dons the uniform of Tito’s Guard, the ceremonial troops of the Yugoslav National Army, including an officer’s cap and a light-blue-gray overcoat with a yellow braided belt. Macedonian delegates did not make it to the Second AVNOJ Session, so he forgoes a long speech and breaks into one of the most famous patriotic and Tito-hailing Yugoslav songs, “Long Live Yugoslavia.”
“Živela Jugoslavija” performed by Gorki Nikolov and the crowd at the 2019 Days of AVNOJ
PETER KORCHNAK: The Serb in a mint Partisan uniform wags his finger and enunciates to rile up the crowd.
[CROWD]: “Yugoslavia! Yugoslavia!”
“Mi smo Titovi, Tito je naš!” [We Are Tito’s, Tito Is Ours].
PETER KORCHNAK: At the end of the program, the famous Bosnian actor, writer, and activist Josip Pejaković, financed in part by the Jajce municipality, delivers his monodrama “Država” or “Country”, part autobiographical monologue, part political-satire standup, to bursts of laughter and appreciative applause.
As the program concludes, the spectators disperse towards their busses and cars, buying last-minute Yugo souvenirs, trinkets for kids, or dried meat from vendor stands lining the way.
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: There’s a whole material culture to it: souvenirs with images of Marshall Tito, t-shirts… Always at every single one of these events, there is at least somebody selling old antiquated books from the socialist period. And all this memorabilia, right. There’s a way one could tell so many stories through these objects and through these practices.
“Druže Tito mi ti se kunemo” performed by Lazy Band
The Meaning of Days of AVNOJ
PETER KORCHNAK: As I mingle through the crowd observing the festivities, I am trying to make sense of it all. Back at the Museum a panel in the exhibit on its history asks about Days of AVNOJ: “Industry of the communist heritage or escapist defense mechanism? Nostalgia or fight for (acceptable) memory? Subversive or Yugonostalgic?” Perhaps it’s all of those things.
I find my answer after the wreath laying ceremony when I meet up for coffee with members of the Josip Broz Tito Association from Velika Kladuša, a town on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s border with Croatia. The three women, perhaps in their late forties-early fifties aren’t all that interested in discussing what the organization does, what they think of Yugoslavia, the politics of today. They want to know if I’m married, if I have children, siblings, whether my parents are still alive and how their health is, and what do I think about their town which I’d passed the week before. We talk about their families, how their kids are doing at school, what time their group will head back today and what’s for dinner. Though they all know each other from their town, they rarely spend time together, what with work and family and other life’s obligations.
And in the course of the sit-down it dawns on me this is what these groups are all about. They travel to places and events connected with Yugoslavia, sure, but the point is to socialize, to catch up with one another, to take a break from everything and spend time together as a group and with their comrades from other towns across former Yugoslavia. Though holidays like the Day of the Republic may have been in service to the system, to the regime, to the ideology, they were also vehicles for the social aspect of living in Yugoslavia. A lot of people I talk to across former Yugoslavia say that, amidst the individualistic, everyone-for-themselves life of today, they miss people from other republics, they miss the fellowship that was part of the common experience in that country.
Larisa Kurtović came to the same conclusion a decade earlier. These people are—
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: —trying to keep alive this kind of an alternative vision of togetherness. People come together from various parts of what used to be the same country to celebrate these holidays to hang out, to recognize one another as kindred souls in a sense, right. And that to me was always really, really beautiful in a very particular way.
Especially for people who are of a slightly older generation, who grew up habituated to these forms of togetherness to what are known as izleti, so, that the field trips to these celebrations, even to things like you know, Yugoslav work actions, where the youth of Yugoslavia would not just go to build railways and roads, but also to build this famous thing called Brotherhood and Unity, so to get to know, people from other parts of Yugoslavia, to perhaps fall in love, to have a fling, you know, to make lifelong friends. I think that it’s really important to recognize that part of what’s being recreated or what people are after during these celebrations is also recreating these possibilities, even though they’re much older right now and those possibilities may take different forms.
It’s political in a different kind of a sense, because one of the things that the war had done is of course, it erected these national frontiers, you know, where there used to be one country, but it also, I think, eliminated some of these possibilities for druženje—
PETER KORCHNAK: —which is often translated as socializing but which also carries the subtext of comity, community, and camaraderie implying intimacy that marks solidarity and fellowship among close acquaintances and friends (in fact, some native speakers translate druženje as intimacy).
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: People got a lot busier, survival became a lot more difficult. And so when you see these kinds of organized efforts to come together, they’re also trying to revive these traditions of collective trips and field trips. I think that dimension is quite important and that it has this kind of subtle political character in so far that it points to a different way of being in the world.
A lot of people in Jajce in particular, had seen the destructive effect of ethnic nationalism and were looking for an alternative set of political orientations and narratives. This is not just Jajce this is much of former Yugoslavia, one of the forms in which, you know, opposition to ethnic nationalism took was, through a kind of return to anti-nationalist, socialist era values and ideas about what made community, what was the good life, you know, how society ought to be organized, what are the values that ought to be upheld.
PETER KORCHNAK: Emsada Leko, the Museum’s director, is one of the Jajce residents with this experience. She recalls Yugoslavia fondly.
EMSADA LEKO: People were more satisfied, happier, they socialized more. They say we lived in a totalitarian dictatorship but us young people we didn’t feel that way at all. Politics didn’t interest us, we didn’t follow it. We were free to travel anywhere, we listened to rock music, we wore the same clothes people in the West did. The living standard wasn’t high but some basic things were guaranteed, like free healthcare, free education, various opportunities for housing. Bosnia was perhaps the most satisfied Yugoslav republic, because were the most protected here.
I’m one of the people who think neoliberal capitalism isn’t good, it deprives us of solidarity, social justice, lots of other things.
PETER KORCHNAK: I had addressed my query to the Velika Kladuša group to its then leader Kajtez “Kajto” Sabljaković, whom a 2018 feature story in Jutarnji List described as one of “the greatest living keepers of the memory of former Yugoslavia, the most dedicated fan of the persona and works of the country’s greatest son [Tito], and a chronic nostalgic for the times that will never return.” But he was in the hospital and the Association travelled to Jajce without him for the first time in their history. Kajto died two weeks after the event; he was 64.
In addition to all the senior and middle-aged citizens, I also saw a good number of youth at Days of AVNOJ, people who have no memory, let alone lived experience, of socialist Yugoslavia. Why are they here?
LARISA KURTOVIĆ: There’s something really interesting in this idea that, you know, things could be different, or that we could organize the world differently, that we could base our political projects, our future making, on a different set of set of ideals and different set of ideas about about togetherness, about what matters. I see the continuing interest of younger generations precisely through that impulse.
Today in Bosnia, a particular type of nationalism is really becoming entrenched and has occupied much of, you know, the kind of lived experience. Especially young people see the contradiction between the ideology and practice, see the injustice, see the way things are not functioning as they should be. They’re seeking out alternatives. And one of these alternatives is actually rooted in a certain kind of a history that predated the war. And I don’t think that that impulse is going to go away precisely because youth who are, you know, activists in orientation, who are inspired by other leftist movements around the world, these things, are very much global. I’m not making a claim about how representative that kind of interest is, maybe it’s like something that’s on the fringes, right. But it’s definitely, you know, you see it among young leftists, the need to reckon with and investigate with curiosity about what it all means.
This imaginary is available to the new generations in various forms and anybody who’s interested in leftist politics in the region.
“Računajte na nas” performed by Lazy Band
Days of AVNOJ: A Coda
PETER KORCHNAK: Early next morning, a Sunday, the town is deserted. At the Travnik Gate a score of red petals strewn at my feet fills me with apprehension. Then my heart sinks. At the memorial fountain a scene of carnage: most of the wreaths, sprays, and bouquets have been destroyed overnight, the remains–heads, petals, branches, ribbons, even the event poster–ripped and scattered and trampled around the site. There’s nothing left to do but collect it all on a compost pile, perhaps there it won’t be in anyone’s way. The perpetrators of this act of vandalism would never be found (if they were sought in the first place).
And so I leave Jajce in a ponderous mood. I came searching for meaning, with the preconceived notion that what the people celebrating the defunct birthday of the defunct country are doing is commemorate the prosperous and peaceful times before they became the losers of the transition to liberal economy or succumbed to retirement. I discovered they gather to be in each other’s company, to again be comrades, to hang out and socialize with people from their country, the one that no longer exists, if only for a day. And that not everyone’s happy about that.
And then, a mother of all sendoffs. On the winding, rising road to Pliva Lake, the back side of both the Welcome to Jajce and Come Again signs is tagged with the letters SFRJ, the acronym for the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Turns out I was in Yugoslavia all along.
PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.
[SONG EXCERPT]: “Walter” by Dubioza Kolektiv
PETER KORCHNAK: In a special Christmas episode, I’ll play a dozen neo-Yugoslavist or Yugoslavia-themed songs to find out why some artists celebrate that disappeared country in their music.
Tune in wherever you listen to podcasts and subscribe to make sure won’t miss out.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, photos from 2019 Days of AVNOJ, and the transcript of this episode in the show notes at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
Special thanks to Lindsay Sauvé.
I am Peter Korchňak.