A massive natural disaster hit Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in May 2014. Disastrous floods followed several days of torrential rains. Whole towns and villages were devastated; thousands of people were displaced. Experts estimate the material damage in the billions of US dollars. Both human and countless animal lives have been lost.
For those affected, the recent floods revealed that the area of former Yugoslavia is a geographically a compact region, and that nature does not respect international borders. The floods also highlighted the region as a culturally shared space in which citizens feel connected across ethnic lines and physical territory; their ties go beyond those usually imagined in the yugospheric neoliberal, future-oriented narratives that underscore the primacy of economic interests.
During and after the floods, the posts circulating in the social media, reveal how quick, passionate, and overwhelming citizens’ response throughout the former Yugoslavia was. These posts contained hundreds of moving stories and images of bravery, selflessness, and solidarity that transcended ethnic, religious, and all other fault lines. They tell about Croats helping Serbs, Slovenes and Macedonians organizing the collection and transport of huge amounts of aid to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and people from one part of ethnically divided Bosnia helping those in the other part. There are also stories about asylum seekers rescuing endangered citizens and helping clean up the debris, Roma women breastfeeding evacuated babies, and Chinese shop owners distributing rubber boots for free.
This unity in compassion and solidarity was accompanied by many references to socialist Yugoslavia and its legacies. The Serbian tennis player Novak Djoković, who worked intensely to raise international awareness about the massive scope of the disaster, posted on his Twitter account a photo of the former Yugoslavia with the note, “Yugoslavia has emerged from the flood!” adding “Long live the peoples of the former Yugoslavia!”
Many Facebook and other social media users noted the importance of their training at the “Defense and Protection” classes in the schools of socialist Yugoslavia, which, soon after the end of socialism, were abandoned as an ideological residue of the totalitarian regime. As I write this, the water is slowly receding, and although the danger remains that some rivers’ level will still rise, volunteers are already getting organized in “work brigades”—another reference to Yugoslav socialism—that have started cleaning up affected areas.
Framing citizens’ mobilization for help and solidarity has provoked several cynical and critical reactions about the resurrection of Yugoslavia and the familiar notion of Yugo-nostalgia. Critiques complain that this nostalgia is an unreflective, consumerist, and thus politically irrelevant feeling. The strong resonance between Yugoslav modes of sociability, experiences, and legacies and the large-scale, proactive engagement of citizens in former Yugoslav societies that the catastrophic floods have prompted, however, deserves more serious consideration.
In Dominic Boyer’s article on nostalgia for socialism in Eastern Europe, similarly warns that “we should listen to nostalgia more carefully” and “take seriously the fact that nostalgia talk in many contexts means something more or other than resignation to westernization and melancholy for how much better or easier or younger life once was.” The floods raging in the former Yugoslavia revealed an important and telling link between the socialist past and the citizens’ agency. Jessica Greenberg shows that in post-socialist Serbia, the inability of individuals to perceive themselves as “capable of agentive action or moral interiority” significantly influences their social world. Similarly, Maja Petrović Šteger describes how her interviewees “would often state that the everyday facts of their lives made it hard for them to imagine themselves actively participating in remaking, or just in contesting, the political and economic fabric in contemporary Serbia.”
This impossibility of imagining oneself as a legitimate agent of political and social processes is often mitigated by the extensive use of parody and irony. Njuz.net (a local version of The Onion) is a widely read media portal in Serbia, bringing “news in the mirror” and filtering real news, events, and statements through the prism of parody and irony. News Bar plays a similar role in Croatia, and there are many other media portals of this kind in the region. These new parodies allow those disenfranchised by postsocialism to form an affective community that provides space for laughter, comfort and tension release. But both the authors and consumers of this fake news remain troubled by the question whether this could lead to any effective political action.
In the prompt response to floods and their disastrous consequences, a new affective community was formed across former Yugoslavia—a community sharing feelings of solidarity, compassion and care. But it is also based on mobilization, action and agency. The largely inadequate response by state institutions and political elites offered a lot of fuel for irony and parody: the Serbian prime minister “rescued” people from the water only to be photographed in action, while the country’s president withdrew to silence, so people guessed that he was busy making homemade brandy. However, citizens did not only embrace irony and parody. In a matter of hours, apathetic, cynical and passively ironic people transformed themselves into volunteers, helpers, dedicated builders of sandbag walls, rescuers of the old and helpless, and providers of care and psychological support.
In extraordinary situations, people act extraordinarily. Perhaps a wave of despair may accompany the diseases and other dangers that may inflict the region once the waters recede. Solidarity, compassion and organizing people in response to state dysfunctionality are the usual companions of large-scale disasters and catastrophes. But in the particular post-socialist trajectory of the former Yugoslav societies, whose citizens feel largely deprived of any sense of agency and hope, this moment of mobilization, solidarity, and compassion is nevertheless extraordinary and politically significant. It provides an opening for reclaiming citizens’ agency and for the emergence of new moral communities and definitions of citizenship.
The fact that this massive and effective mobilization of citizens is largely framed through references to socialist Yugoslavia signals that Yugonostalgia is not a comforting, consumption-driven mechanism that ideologically freezes post-socialist subjects in an idealized past. On the contrary, the “emergence of Yugoslavia from the floods” reveals citizens’ desire for forms of agency, autonomy, and morality that would provide an alternative to the extremely restricted horizons of possibility, limited by the paralyzing synergy between local ethno-nationalisms and global economic exhaustion.
Tanja Petrović is associate professor at the Research Center of the Slovenian Academy of Sciences and Arts. She is the editor of Mirroring Europe: Ideas of Europe and Europeanization in Balkan Societies (forthcoming), author of Yurope: Yugoslav Legacy and the Politics of the Future in Post-Yugoslav Societies (in Serbian), A Long Way Home: Representations of the Western Balkans in Media and Political Discourses, and author of numerous articles and chapters on culture, memory, and linguistic identities in the societies of former Yugoslavia.
Kristen Ghodsee is contributing editor of the Soyuz column in Anthropology News.