Culture / Development

Former Yugoslavia – Lost in Translation?

Stefan Minic explains how and why former Yugoslavia became the various states that exist today, the inaugural article of a fortnightly feature on the region’s politics, history and economics.


While living in a contemporary society, we face different types of trade-offs, debates, and issues – starting from everyday life to international trade and sustainability. Inevitably in the limelight of those events are the big economic and political empires of today, such as Russia, the EU and the United States. This leaves very little space for developing countries facing highly complex issues. One such region which suffers in this way is the Western Balkans. High unemployment, brain drain, poor and often biased education, and national intolerance dominate, leading to animosity towards and lack of knowledge about the region. How is it possible that once upon a time former Yugoslavia suddenly disappeared, and transformed into a group of economically challenged countries populated mostly by South Slavs? I can’t help but ask this question when, as I introduce my self to fellow students at my prestigious Ivy League school, I find my home country of Bosnia & Herzegovina being described as “exotic”. Lack of knowledge about not only this country, but also the whole Western Balkans is to be blamed on dissolution of Yugoslavia and inability of politicians to present these countries to an international stage, and revitalize the economy.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of six federal countries within Yugoslavia, which experienced high GDP, with accelerated growth and development. Yugoslavia the 1950s and 1970s had the second highest GDP growth rate in the world, just after Japan. The Yugoslavian government, led by lifelong president Josip Broz Tito, managed to unite the nations of the region and create a country with a decent egalitarian socialistic system. These years of Yugoslavian development were golden years, where people were not divided based on nationality, religion, or socio-economic status, and where Tito had the status of ‘God on Earth’. However, scarce resources and low levels of technological advancement forced the government to start borrowing money from abroad, which resulted in hyperinflation during the 1990s, and complete destruction of the regional economy.

Knowing the geopolitical position of Yugoslavia, Tito exaggerated the importance of neutrality at a time when the Cold War was running very hot. His decision to form the Non-Aligned Movement together with premiers Jawaharlal Nehru (India), Gamal Abdel Nasser (Egypt) and Sukarno (Indonesia) was one of the key steps towards achieving that neutrality. Their call for neutrality and non-interventionism made people question the geopolitical norms. These questions became very popular around the time of Tito’s death, when people became concerned with finding a suitable successor. This happened at roughly the same time as Gorbachev starting opening the USSR up to alternative political systems, creating an environment where people were not sure if they were “doing the right thing”.

During the 1980s, common public opinion was that Communism would fail sooner or later, but it was difficult to predict that it would also result in conflict. The Balkan region is especially interesting because the Yugoslavian nations suddenly started fearing loss of the cultural, national and religious identity that Tito had emphasized. Nationalist movements started to gain popularity. Cultural differentiation between nations became highly important, and the Serbo-Croatian language started to be replaced by regional dialects. Once nationalities started living differently, they started demanding independence, which required ethnically clean countries that would easily transition from one to the other system.

Bosnia and Herzegovina was the most damaged country after the war. The controversial Dayton Peace Agreement signed by Milosevic, Tudjman, and Izetbegovic set the basis for formation of a new multi-ethnic and religiously diverse country. The reason why many politicians, mostly Serbian and Croatian, were and are concerned by the agreement is how it divides the country. About 49% of the territory belongs to Serbs, while the rest is shared between Bosniaks and Croats. All three, in their nature extremely similar, languages became internationally recognized and officially used in the country. However, tensions between people and politicians did not disappear. Politicians ruling the country in the past 20 years have not managed to create stability in politics and economics. Economically destroyed industry that is ruled by discrimination and corruption does not give enough confidence to foreign investors to bring capital into the country. Human rights are very weak, and not much is done to help people who are socially marginalized.

In the country where children are taught three versions of history, a country where people have lost trust in the government and a better future, it is difficult to change things overnight. However, the attitude of both people and politicians need to be changed. We need to choose the focus of development in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Intolerance and ignorance need to be important topics discussed in schools in order to create a new, innovative people that are provided with safe space for work and collaboration.

Stefan Minic is a graduate of the United World College in Mostar, in Bosnia & Herzegovina,  and studies Applied Mathematics and Economics at Brown University in the United States

3 thoughts on “Former Yugoslavia – Lost in Translation?

  1. It is historically inaccurate and analytically irresponsible to say that Yugoslavia “suddenly disappeared.” Right after Tito’s death, “The Land of South Slavs” begun experiencing economic hardships inherited from the past years of incessant borrowing, and the rising national tensions were a result of the international demise of communism as much as they were a logical conclusion of the internal political developments in the country (Cvetkovic-Macek in 1939, The 1974 Constitution, to name just a few).

    Furthermore, if the breakup of Yugoslavia, or the formation of new South Slavic countries can be correctly labeled as “transformation”, we ought to apply the same noun to other, more or less violent historical processes. Obviously, one makes a grave mistake writing about the “1789 French transformation from an absolute monarchy to a republic”, or “the 1871 Italian transformation from a conglomerate of petty states to a unified kingdom.” Correct labels matter in history.

    In addition, Bosnia and Herzegovina was not a “one of [sic] six federal countries” in Yugoslavia; it was one of the six republics, whereas Socialist Federalist Republic of Yugoslavia itself, as its name indicates, was a “federal country.”

    The statement that the citizens of Yugoslavia “were not divided based on nationality, religion, or socio-economic status” is meaningless, which any census from the era will show. What Mr. Minic merely meant was that they were not discriminated against based on their nationalities, religion etc.

    The problem with this essay is quite a naive, implied assumption that in Yugoslavia all nationalities existed as one – mind you, an assumption contradictory even to some claims in this essay, like those which talk about “emphasized” sense of national pride during Tito’s reign. For example, what to make of this proposition: “Once nationalities started living differently…” One is perplexed as to what the author had in mind when writing about nationalities “living differently.” They used to live in just the same way and then they decided to stop doing that? The nations started wearing different T-shirts? They stopped intermarrying? Watching the same TV shows? What? What happens when “nationalities start living differently?”

    Even more scandalous from the previous preposition is an assumption that “independence,” that is sovereignty, requires an “ethnically clean” country. The hope remains that the author simply intended to convey the popular public opinion of the time.

    Not only is the author’s lack of historical accuracy to be lamented, but the outright ignorance of the post-war political situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina as demonstrated by the statement that it is “mostly Serbian and Croatian” politicians who are concerned with how the Dayton agreement divides the country, is unforgivable and inexcusable in the case of someone who purports to write a well-informed opinion-piece on the body politic in the Western Balkans. Time and time again, the usage of misinformed language makes any an enthusiast in politics cringe; 49% of the BH territory does not, as a matter of fact, “belong to the Serbs”, but is rather under the jurisdiction of a Serb entity Republika Srpska.

    It is true that “the attitude of both people and politicians need [sic] to be changed,” but palpable and meaningful solutions, except for a passing remark about education, are not to be found in this rashly written piece.

    Mr. Minic is advised to carefully study South Slavic history, culture and contemporary politics before attempting to grace us with another one of his “articles.”

    “Immature thought is predominately purposive and utopian. Thought which rejects purpose altogether is the thought of old age. Mature thought combines purpose with observation and analysis.” E.H. Carr


    • Thank you for your comment, because I believe any sort of criticism is good criticism.

      Yugoslavian state started experiencing economical hardship mostly because of a big debt and constant borrowing from abroad. Money was used for financing large army the country had. These debts were successfully covered during Tito’s life, however, after his death these issues become more present in debates.
      “Transformation” refers to sudden change from one state to another and it may be connected to many different meanings. The fact that countries decided to have a new progressive start after the Civil war, which can be characterized by adapting democracy and opening borders for trade, is a sudden change in their functioning and I don’t see in what ways my choice of words would bother you.
      Yugoslavian government gave freedom to national and religious identification, however, as you may know, religion was not very welcome in Yugoslavia back than. “Religion is the opium of the people” was used as an argument against religion in order to create more unified society.
      The feeling in that country was one thing that made it progressive. Yugoslavia is often used as a symbol of unified group of nations that lived well with a lot of respect. I hope you do agree with me on this one. Nationalism started being very present in the society closer to the break down of the country, which did change attitude of people regarding the country. Belonging to different national groups, that presence of different nationalistic streams in the country made people respond to things in a completely different manner.
      I stand behind my words that that nations wanted ethnically clean states after the break down. Whether or not we want to accept what some armies did, that does not change the fact that they did happen. I believe that you have heard and read about the idea of “Great Serbia” which implied that all territories populated by Serbs should be ethnically cleaned from other ethnicities, hoping that it would be easier to control such a country. Military operation Storm in Krajina had for an aim to protect Croatians living on that territory, which also meant that large part of population living there, mostly Serbs and Bosniaks, needed to leave their homes and become refugees. Even today Croatia does not allow all refugees to go back in Krajina. I believe that this says enough of raise of nationalism in the region.
      Serbian and Croatian politicians tend to criticize Dayton agreement more than any Bosniaks do. President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, for instance does not believe in Dayton agreement. Attitude like this is not beneficial for Bosnia and Herzegovina.

      I respect and thank you for sharing your thoughts on the article (not “article”) that I wrote. I stand behind my words. In addition, I believe I have solid knowledge of history, anthropology and politics of Balkans to be competent to write an opinion article on this so many times mentioned and discussed topic. I believe in future economic and cultural development of our countries in Western Balkans, including my motherland, Bosnia and Herzegovina.


  2. However, the author’s positive outlook and an apparent wish for the betterment of Bosnia and Herzegovina, is much appreciated and applauded.

    Liked by 1 person

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