Slavia without Yugo

Lester Earnest  http://web.stanford.edu/~learnest/

2016.08.12

 

First Visit. I have visited the Balkans area twice so far. In July 1971 it was called Yugoslavia and was run under the Communist regime of Marshall Tito, who unfortunately treated it as an ego trip under his sole control and made no plans for a sustainable government that could continue after he died, which he did in 1980, so the whole thing then fell apart.

My wife Joan and I started by picking up a new BMW 2002 in Munich and headed south over the Alps and down the Adriatic Coast to Dubrovnick, stopping overnight at several campsites along the way, then back up and through northern Italy to France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Netherlands and England, then home while sending the car there by ship.

Second Visit. My two week tour began on 2016.04.30 in Dubrovnik, Croatia, which is a scenic walled city on the rugged Dalmatian Coast of Croatia where there are literally a thousand islands. It was overrun by tourists more than ever with thousands of people climbing through it the day I was there. The populations of the former Yugoslavian countries are predominantly Slavic but their religions have mostly been set by the various groups that conquered them and they have been conquered from all directions.

I joined friends in an organized tour by bus and when we visited Montenegro on May 1 I was surprised to learn that it was Easter. That is because the people there are predominantly Orthodox Christian and use a different moon calendar than Catholics and other competing Christians. They are fortunate to have successfully split off from Serbia but they now effectively belong to the rich Russians who bought most of their coastal land and have filled it with fancy resorts, leaving the small inland population abandoned in the mountains in a state of poverty.

In the 1990s Serbia, with backing from Russia, began attacking neighbors in an attempt to take control of the region but succeeded only in creating a bloody mess. They managed to split Croatia in two for a time (1991-98) and surrounded Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, slaughtering thousands there during 1992-96. The United Nations sent a "peacekeeping force," which took up a position in the sole region from which people in Sarajevo could get supplies from the outside world and then, taking bribes from the Serbs, the UN soldiers built an aircraft runway across that route, blocking access. In other words, they were evidently corrupt. 

In a few months the locals managed to dig a tunnel under the runway so that they could continue to bring stuff in. However they remained grossly undersupplied with utilities: water, electricity and gas were shut off and there were big guns and snipers located on the ridges overlooking the town from three sides. The locals managed to stay reasonably warm by cutting down and burning most of the trees in town and also using them for cooking whatever food they could find but they were starving most of the time and did most of their movements at night because snipers on the ridges overlooking the town from both sides attempted to shoot anyone moving during the day. To this day one of the main streets there is called "Sniper Alley."

While the Bosnian community was predominantly Muslim there had also been a number of Croats, and Serbs living there but the latter, instead of helping, moved up into the nearby hills to help the attackers kill their former neighbors.

When that war finally ended the politicians who took over started selling their country's assets to outside investors, principally Germans and Austrians, including utility companies and even national parks. They did that at bargain prices and put a sizable percentage of each transaction in their personal pockets. As a result, even though this place had been a major manufacturing area before World War II it was effectively put out of business and the many old manufacturing plants remain locked and abandoned today with no apparent way to get out of this hole, given that corrupt politicians are still in control and the country is an economic mess.

I have not visited the rest of the Slavic countries such as Albania, which his reportedly doing okay, Kosovo, which is still fighting with their former Serbian overlords, or the Republic of Macedonia which is apparently doing well despite an ongoing feud with their Greek neighbors over the name they have chosen. Meanwhile both Slovenia and Croatia are thriving and are members of both the European Union and NATO, unlike the rest. I learned that Americans are generally liked by the Croats apparently because when they were engaged in widespread internal wars in the 1990s America (specifically the Clinton administration) intervened on several occasions to try to mediate. However the Serbians evidently hate us for the same reasons.

Lifestyle

While the Slavic countries vary a lot in their main religions, economic status and quality of life they seem to share a lot in the ways they live. A summary of my observations follows, though I am unable to confirm how widespread these patterns are, having not visited a number of places.

Roads and Railroads. Like many Europeans, they successfully use a lot of roundabouts instead of traffic lights and build a lot of highway tunnels, as we should. Like much of Europe, where they use traffic lights the yellow lights provide both to alert for a forthcoming red light and for a forthcoming green light.

Their train system is extensive and is all electrified, as ours should be. They also use a lot of elegant electric streetcars but also a lot of busses as we do.

Attire. Young women often wear their hair long, especially if it is black, trimming it at their lower waist. Almost none wear dresses or skirts, instead wearing very tight pants that display a lot of anatomical detail, often with lacy blouses that have a small semi-circular panel hanging off the back, resting on their upper buttocks. Yes, even Muslim women do that. Men generally wear Levis and nondescript shirts.

Advertising is a bit more sexist than in the US, both on television and roadside signs, in that they frequently feature girls in bikinis, even in Muslim areas.

More Travelogues.

After spending three nights (May 3-5) in Sarajevo, Bosnia, reviewing the permanent mess that has been created there, we continued north by bus and reentered Croatia in its northeastern segment, which is near Hungary and the Danube River, spending a night in the small farming town of Koranic. That whole area looks like the American plains, though perhaps a bit greener. It is very rich farm land that is used to grow all kinds of things including cattle and milk products. It is the main supplier of food for the entire Slavic area.

The people there are predominantly Croat but a number are Hungarian, German or Serbian. The Germans started migrating here in the 18th Century because all they had to do was get in a boat in southern Germany and float down the Danube. When this area came under attack by Serbia during 1991-98 the local Croats mostly fled to their capital at Zagreb  to avoid capture.

Moving on to Zagreb, on May 8 we took a bus trip into the back country to a place called Zagorje "Beyond the Mountains" where the small village that Tito came from was located. We then travelled to a restaurant atop nearby "Sinful Hill," which was near an even larger hill with an ancient Austro-Hungarian Palace atop it. we then learned that when the Austro-Hungarians controlled this place a young prince spotted a local peasant girl named Veronica and managed to set up a tryst with her atop this smaller hill, but they were caught, hence the name of the hill, and she was thrown into a dungeon to die. In other words, a kind of Romeo-and-Juliet story that ended badly.

While we were having a delicious lunch there a BMW motorcade rolled up the hill and out came the Prime Minister of Croatia and his party. It turned out that he was from a Croat family that migrated to Canada, where he grew up and became a very successful businessman. However a short time ago he was somehow recruited to come back to Croatia to serve as Prime Minister, which had happened just a few weeks earlier. He was somehow persuaded to come see the 17 American visitors and shook hands with all of us while chatting.

The next day (May 9) we went west by bus through the area where American inventor Nichola Tesla was born. He apparently was a Serb whose family had migrated to Croatia.

Further on we stopped at Plitvice Lakes, a 114 square mile national park with 16 lakes linked by a thousand or so waterfalls. None are quite as high as those of Yosemite but it is a spectacular area. There are a number of elegant hotels in the woods nearby that clearly serve the European elite.

We then continued on to the coastal highway and headed north. I could tell it has been improved a lot since I drove it in 1971 -- it was then a two lane road winding through the mountains but is now a four lane highway going though lots of tunnels. We ended up at the coastal resort community of Opatija in Croatia, that is located just south of Trieste, Italy, and has a lot of elegant resorts that apparently draw mainly from Germany, France, and Austria.

From there we moved on to Slovenia <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slovenia> and visited the Postojna Cave a twelve mile long karst limestone cave with a small railroad that takes you in most of the way in. It was initially treated as the private property of Austro-Hungarian royalty but was opened to the public in 1872. It has a vast collection of stalagmites and stalactites though I view Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico as being slightly more spectacular.

We finished our journey in LjubLjana, the capital of  Slovenia, which is the northernmost of the Balkan countries. Slovenia is a small country -- just two hours travel time from north to South (Austria  to Croatia) and three hours east to west (Hungary to Italy) but it is the liveliest of the former pieces of Yugoslavia and has a thriving high tech manufacturing industry. Its culture shows signs of both  Austrian and Italian influences. This country pretends to be 100% Catholic but only a minority actually practice that religion.

There are many ski resorts in the northwestern parts of Slovenia in what are called the Julian Alps, named in honor of Julius Caesar.

Like Montenegro, people here are tall. I see a lot of women over 6 feet and the tall ones generally speak authoritatively. You may have noticed that the gorgeous wife of fascist political candidate Donald Trump came from here but is not super-tall.

Slovenia and Croatia are both thriving and are the only Balkan countries that are members of both the European Union and NATO, which protects them from evil neighbors such as Serbia.

In summary, things have changed a bit since I last visited this area 35 years ago and while the northerly and coastal areas are generally doing well, some parts are malfunctioning with no apparent way to crawl out of the hole.