If you’re American, you’ve been conditioned to think of communism as basically evil, no matter the context. Countless public speeches from Presidents and other public figures have cast communism as a terrible, repressive system that will inevitably succumb to the advancing tide of capitalism.
That’s how it looks to us, but how do things look to people who actually lived under communism? Do they in fact feel liberated, now that their old system is defunct and they have the ability to take part in the open world market?
Enter the former Yugoslavia.
Yugoslavia was a complex place. It was a “United States” of sorts, a country created of at least 7 other countries and territories, each with its own ethnic group, identity, and heritage. The country, in its early forms, came to exist as a result of a “Pan-slav” movement that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries. After four centuries of Turkish occupation, then over a century of Austrian occupation, intellectuals and political elites believed that the best bet for independence was to form a collective entity that comprised all of the slavic peoples in southern Europe. By the end of the 1800s, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was born.
Along comes Communism.
The Communists in Yugoslavia were the ones who beat Hitler out in World War 2. After the war, they took over and set up their communist utopia. And the funny thing is, compared to today, it kind of looks like a utopia.
Every worker has the right to: a dignified job, an apartment near his work, a car, and a place in the countryside for rest. That was the Yugoslav dream. For decades, this dream appeared to be turning into reality. Healthcare was decent, and free. Everyone had a job. The workforce was decently well-educated.
Remember the Yugo?
Nationally, there was a sense of real pride. The country produced cars that were sold around the world. Entire cities were built. Vast urban planning projects were undertaken to support the population of 30+ million. Citizens were generally free; they could travel to visit other communist countries freely, but also to most Western countries.
Many places in Yugoslavia went from primitive agrarian societies to modern, bustling cities during the time of Communism. Then things changed.
Today, things are much different. Communist projects lie in ruins. Unemployment in many places hovers around 30% or higher. And in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority of young people say their highest aspiration in life is to simply leave their country, and live somewhere else.
After the wars that split up Yugoslavia, the new systems of trade and capitalism have not brought prosperity. People live in small apartments and have very little money. National systems are very weak. Politicians are corrupt. Infrastructure projects go incredibly slowly, or not at all. Foreign politicians come and promise assistance, but deliver very little.
To the modern Yugoslav looking back, the modern “system” is hardly a system at all. It’s very hard to see the benefits of a free-market system that leaves most of the country unemployed — especially when compared to a time when everyone worked.
This complexity is something that we live with every day in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Just like most things, the actual situation here is complex. There is not a clear black-and-white answer, especially when it seems that the period of communism was a time of relative progress and prosperity, and the modern period is one of stagnation. As we labor to bring hope and opportunity to young people, we are slow to give too much quick advice, and we do our best to truly understand where people are coming from.