Our Man in Belgrade – Part 2

In 1978, Yugoslavia was neither beast nor fowl. When you sought to leave the Eastern Bloc, the Passport Gate said ‘To the West and Yugoslavia’, whilst in the West directions read ‘To the East and Yugoslavia’. In retrospect, ‘Yugoslavia’ was just one of those awful brand names, like Insignia (thankfully restored to Royal Mail), made-up by a not very good ad agency. It should more accurately have been called ‘Tito-land’.

In the aftermath of the war, Tito’s dominance and a repressive government had managed to enforce a kind of collective amnesia on the people who lived in Tito-land. By 1978, it seemed Croats and Serbs, Bosnians and Kosovan Albanians had forgotten how much they hated each other and the tribal indignities of the past. Like an anaesthetic gas, it was later to wear off  with genocidal consequences, but that is not the topic for now.

Yugoslavia at that time was part of the ‘great game’ not the ‘oil’ one played earlier, but the one between East and West, each trying to lure or checkmate it into their fold. Tito was having none of it.  So there was a powerful, repressive state with the much of the rhetoric of Communism but quite a bit of freedom of travel as well as some recognition of market forces with private enterprise was allowed to a point.

Industrial cooperatives or collectives were widespread but typically, despite the tools of workers’ control, they were really run by party apparatchiks.  Conditions were often unsafe and workers paid on piece rate. I visited one paint factory and managed to talk to a worker away from our party appointed guide, who had been a ‘geist arbeiter’ in West Germany. I asked him what was the difference. He said ‘To be honest, they screw you in the West and they screw you in the East…..’, his shrug completed the rest of the sentence. Like China now, factory conditions at times could put Victorian Britain to shame in their thirst for gain.

Anyway, back to my bit part in this great game.  It seemed, Tito was proud of his achievements (defeating the Nazis, and then creating a country whilst keeping the Russians and Americans at bay deserved some recognition). Employing slightly less derring-do than this epic struggle,  he thought it would be a good idea to have a bunch of economics and politics academics from around the world spend a couple of months studying, or more accurately being shown at his expense, the Yugoslavian version of The Middle Way’. I am sure like many things, such as eating airline food, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We had to listen to speech after speech on ‘ Yugoslavian Workers Control’ in a vast Soviet-style lecture hall using simultaneously translated rhetoric from Serbo-Croat day after day. The speeches invariably used the enchanting and flowery terminology of Marxist-Leninist Theory, and were delivered by a wide variety of ill-fitting, grey-suited Professors at the University of Belgrade.  (I am not sure which was ill-fitting, the suits or the professors but given the quality of much Eastern European tailoring at the time, I will give the latter the benefit of the doubt.) This was their idea of propaganda.In the West, it seemed, we had shortages too. We were evidently sadly lacking in plenums of the 5th Presidium of the Agricultural Committee of the Communist party but here in Yugoslavia  we were free to revel in them. Someoneshould  tell The Stranglers, I think I know what happened to all the heroes…they died of boredom.

This might not have sounded a laugh a minute way to spend 2 months, but gather 150 young to middle aged people, from probably 40 countries around the world, make them share a couple of hotels and ply them with free accommodation, food and very cheap booze and the recipe suddenly gets a lot more interesting. Many of the people there were single, or at least a long way from their loved ones and suddenly it becomes ‘Game on!’

However, politics was not totally left behind. The Soviet Union had four delegates, all male three of whom looked like typical professors. The remaining one had been a boxing champion and never said much but spent a lot of time looking at what the others were doing. I heard from the Hungarians that he was the KGB guy. The Russians largely kept themselves to themselves outside of hours. The Americans had sent 5 academics, one of whom was a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at the University of Florida. Over a drink he had let me know that his father had been in the SA in Germany and had fled to Latin America, and then had moved to the USA. He mainly seemed interested in what everybody else thought about socialism, especially Westerners, CIA we suspected. He did however, have two other interests. One was drinking with the KGB guy and the other was trying to get in the knickers off a female Bulgarian professor. By all accounts these had been made from a remnant of the Iron Curtain.

The rest of us mingled. I mainly hung out with a Finnish guy and a couple of pretty Columbians. I was attached to my then girlfriend in Poland, but after a day of men in grey suits bubbly and flirtatious went quite a long way, though not the whole way I hasten to add. Western integrity was kept in touch, I mean in tact, at least as far as I was concerned.

There were four delegates from Poland, three from Hungary and two from Czechoslovakia. As long as the Russians were not around, they talked freely of the failings of Communism, the size of the black market and the culture of gift lubrication, that was necessary to get hold of anything desirable whether it be meat, jeans or a doctor’s appointment.  One of the Hungarians was Jewish and talked to me of the lynchings and anti-Semitic pogroms that occurred during the 1956 uprising, disappointingly on the side of the nationalists. The Communists had occasional purges but as we have seen in recent elections in Hungary, there is a deep fascist strand that lives on.

The one East German delegate was paranoid, understandably and chose his words very carefully even when surrounded by the outspoken Poles and Hungarians. Only after 6 weeks and god knows how many bottles of wine did he admit that there might actually be a black market in East Germany or the DDR as it was known then. One thing that I have learned over the years is that there is an inverse relationship between the use of the word Democratic in a country’s name and the amount of popular accountability that exists., the old Deutsche Democratic Republic, The Democratic Republic of Congo and the People’s Democratic Republic  of Korea (North Korea) are just three that come to mind.

Interestingly, there were also four lecturers from Spain, enjoying their new found freedoms after Franco had recently marched to his grave. In a poignant comment one younger politics professor said to me ‘In the last years of Franco, young students spoke of creating a new world, of competing values and ideologies, of promise and opportunity. Now all they talk about is getting new TV sets and cars.’

Aside from these, there were academics from what then were generically named ‘non-aligned countries’ from every continent and many others I do not really remember. The conversations outside of the lecture theatre were the most interesting. We were all determined to use our stay to try and scratch below the surface of the game in general and Yugoslavia in particular. We were watched but we were free, but who was watching and how free were we? I was soon to find out.

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