Yugoslavia in me

By Johan Galtung
March 10, 2010

July 1954
I came from Vienna on a tiny motorbike heading for Perugia in Italy and had two weeks to explore that great unknown on the way. A road so steep that I had to walk the motorbike up to some pass and almost burnt out the brakes on the way down brought me to flatlands close to Ljubljana – and the police. A massive stop, and a wait by the main road.

And then they came, the motorcade flashing blue lights. The great man was in car No. 3. They swished past the motley crowd of dilapidated cars and a motorbike with foreign plates on it. Come, went, gone. The police lowered their signs, and I accessed the country that had defied the Soviet Union June 1948, uninvaded. We high school graduates celebrated.

All over friendly, gentle people with a tight mouth about anything political. And then all of a sudden a little bang, not from the engine, that one puttered on, but the chain had burst and like a snake brushed a trail into the grasses by the highway. A crisis, in other words. A motorbike without chain is neither motor nor bike. A dialectical jump, downwards.

From the little farm nearby came a guy. He had watched what happened, found the chain, beckoned me to walk the bike for the second time that day to his little workshop, scratched the dirt floor and underneath was a chest with all impossible spare parts including a missing chain link. He tested it, it worked and then invited me in for a meal. Immensely grateful, with address and all, I rolled off. Greatly impressed. Not easy for any invader to beat a people that high on creativity and ability to improvise – crossed my mind.

Many themes actually took shape as I came ever further south in the vast country – at that time.
The road became more and more like a river bed. And there, way down in Macedonia, a glittering car was nicely lodged across the road, on its edges, like a bridge for the coming rains: a US embassy car. Some people were working on the emergency. By now I was well trained in walking my bike.

Many trips were to follow that first one. Friendships in all republics. But above all a sense of belonging in a country bridging not only East-West but also North-South. Tito had created something unbelievable: out of Balkanic ashes he shaped a country that radiated an alternative to the stupid blocs willing to murder much of humanity with “more developed” vs “less developed” installed for eternity. Yes, there was suppression inside like in the Spain I also visited frequently in the 1960s. But from Spain came no light; a dark hole in the European universe, self-absorbed by a dictatorship with the past, landowner-military-clergy elite rule, as a project.

Yugoslavia radiated future: basic needs first in a mixed economy with expanding private sector of small businesses (Cuba could have learnt from that one!), nonalignment by Tito’s key adviser in foreign affairs, Leo Mates, and the coexistence of 6-8 nations within their borders. And, within some of the republics. The project stranded on that one with the Croatian spring 1971 as the first serious challenge. Spain did not.

But before Yugoslavia started unraveling the country was a light house in foreign affairs, and beyond Europe. When a Yugoslav diplomat spoke there was silence in the room. The country commanded respect. And at the same time a tourist pearl. That incredible coast. My 1954 motorbike made it up to Dubrovnik – and would have gone beyond if the driver did not prefer a rest on a ship watching the beauty in the moonlight.

In Pugwash I met many of the top people, like Leo Mates. And then I was invited to become the first Director-General of the Inter-University Centre, IUC, in Dubrovnik, an all-Yugoslav place for courses short and long, with professors and students from countries West and East, North and South. It became an intellectual free port for the type of high caliber academics at various level of maturation with enough energy to find a way to Dubrovnik. Some famous, some not. A morning option, course or intercourse, was also attractive for the students. Many students became professors, some in new fields like peace studies, future studies, women studies. It worked, under a shadow.

At the first council meeting in 1973 I asked about the Serb-Croat relations. Thundering silence. Tito as a young man looked at me from a photo up in a corner. I switched to “who covers postage expenses”. The whispered answer afterward: “Don’t ask again. Very bad. We even cannot talk about it”.

But they could act. It soon became clear that the center was an instrument of Croatian academic foreign policy, opening to the West and North; the rest was not their concern. I was to be an instrument undermining a country I loved. No way. So when they managed to expel the Praxis group of independent brilliant philosophers, many Serbs, from Korcula I hosted them in the free harbor of Dubrovnik. It worked for a while. Then diversion of funds became a part of the picture. I resigned. And some years later started something similar in Spain, in anther tourist town, Benidorm. Again, many professors.

Such is life. Dialectic. And the dialectics of that incredible creation, Yugoslavia, was stronger than most other places. Too exciting, and too contradictory, to last. But a part of my heart stayed behind, lodged in that dream. Still there.

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