The Yugosphere- A Useful Concept?

Nick Holdstock

How should we refer to the seven countries that comprised the Yugoslav federation? ‘The former Yugoslavia’, the most common phrase, is somewhat problematic. Though factually correct, it is also a backward-looking description, one that privileges what these countries were over what they are, and might become. ‘Western Balkans’ seems a more neutral label, but has different usages: European Union institutions and member states use this to mean Albania and the former Yugoslavia, minus Slovenia; the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development uses ‘Western Balkans’ to refer to the above states, minus Croatia.

The problem is not merely one of nomenclature- such terms inevitably reflect our conception of a region. ‘Europe’ is thus simultaneously a geographical, cultural and political term for the places and peoples it encompasses, one that arguably presupposes a degree of unity, or at least, commonality. This notion of region-wide similarity is at the heart of the idea of a ‘Yugosphere’. The term was coined by Tim Judah in 2009 in an article written for The Economist, then subsequently expanded. Judah’s argument was part-demographic, part socio-economic, an attempt to relate what he saw as the region’s shared linguistic (i.e. despite four different names today, still the language we used to know as Serbo-Croatian) and cultural values (e.g. ‘most former Yugoslavs like the same music as they do much of the same food’) to a web of economic, strategic and political cooperation that had resumed after the disintegration of Yugoslavia. In support of this thesis he cited a broad range of examples of inter-regional exchange, ranging from top-down structural changes, such as the founding of organizations like the South East European Trade Union Forum and the Regional Cooperation Council (the latter’s members include not only the 7 post-Yugoslav states, but also Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Turkey, a fact Judah sidestepped by trying to minimise the contribution of these non-Yugoslav states), all the way down to the existence of events like the Exit music festival in Novi Said, to which we could add the Sarajevo Film Festival as well, and the return of ‘Yugoslav brands such as Slovene milk and Croatian chocolates’ to the shelves of supermarkets in the region. According to Judah, such trends constituted an ‘unappreciated dynamic at work on the ground’.

On the face of it, Judah’s thesis seems appealing- there is undeniably considerable cultural and linguistic overlap in the region, as well as increasing economic and strategic links between the different states. The move to establish a common freight railway company by Serbia, Slovenia and Croatia might seem to confirm Judah’s and other people’s feeling that a Yugosphere is re-emerging (though this is arguably due to the inability of each country to meet the costs of such infrastructure on their own). If, as Judah claimed, he was merely offering ‘a description of what exists and what is emerging’, one might have expected the term to gain currency.

However, although the term has provoked debate, it cannot, despite Judah’s recent assertion, be said to have ‘entered the lexicon’ in a more significant way. At the time of writing, a Google Search for the term in English yielded only 6,020 results, a small number for a term that claims to describe an existing state of affairs (though in fairness, a search for the Serbo-Croatian version, jugosfera, yields considerably more- 190,000 at the time of writing). Part of this may be due to Judah’s tendency to overlook the divisive factors within the societies in question (e.g. class, ethnicity, political views), as well as ignoring the broader (i.e. non-regional) economic context, in which the amount of trade between these countries is considerably less than that which occurs between them and the EU. There is also still a strong current of protectionism, in the form of many non-tariff trade barriers.

However, the greatest attacks on the notion of a ‘Yugosphere’ have occurred in the political sphere. Just as the idea of ‘Europeanisation’ and an imposed transnational identity has been used to provoke nationalism for domestic political gain in countries in the region, so too has the notion of a ‘Yugosphere’. The Croatian prime minister, Jadranka Kosor, has repeatedly raised the spectre of a reformed Yugoslavia and a ‘Red Croatia’. She recently commented that “the problem is that some people do not wish to forget the past and everything that had happened in Croatia”. That many see the notion of a ‘Yugosphere’ as a form of ‘Yugonostalgia’ is suggested by comments such as the following, which appeared in response to Judah’s recent article:

Once again I will say that thousands of people lost their lives so that the people of today would not have to be called Yugoslavian, so they would not have to live in Yugoslavia. For someone to now call it a Yugosphere is a total insult and utterly disrespectful to those lives lost. I wish you could somehow understand what that feels like and I hope that someday you will stop using the term. Please acknowledge that each of those countries is its own independent country and should be referred to as such. 

Thus a concept that was meant to describe (and one presumes, promote) greater unity and co-operation in the region seems mainly to have fostered its opposite. Judah’s occasional lapses into quasi-orientalism probably has not helped. He offers the following analogy, ‘intended not to offend but to put things in perspective.’

Imagine Europe as a city. The region of the former Yugoslavia is a poor but peripheral suburb, with some nice streets and others controlled by gangsters, whether real or dressed up as politicians.  

If the concept of a Yugosphere has any utility, it is probably in the cultural sphere. In both the literary and dramatic spheres, there are reports of joint publishing ventures and cross-border productions, and a general renewal of the cultural ties disrupted by the Yugoslav conflict. However, whilst this trend is to be applauded, such trends are far from unique to the region- co-operative financing, with sources from multiple countries, is a commonplace of film, television and theatre productions. This is especially true for the blossoming film industry. No post-Yugoslav film can be produced without a coproduction by at least 2 or 3 post-Yugoslav states. The industry found its centre in Sarajevo and around the Sarajevo film festival that has an even wider regional scope, involving cinemas from Austria to Malta and Cyprus. This is due to economic necessity, rather than because the countries involved can be considered part of some kind of ‘sphere’. As for the presence of goods and cultural products outside their area of origin, it is debatable whether this is indicative of a meaningful trend; it need not imply any substantial cultural or social links. A Croatian theatre production in Belgrade, or Slovene milk on Bosnian and Croatian shelves, is thus no more indicative of a Yugosphere than the popularity of Swedish and Danish crime fiction suggests the existence of an entire Scandinavian sphere.

So how should we refer to the region, in a way that acknowledges its commonalities, whilst avoiding the charge of trying to resurrect Yugoslavia as a political project? One possibility is to speak in purely linguistic terms, so that the region is reconceptualised primarily as a zone based on the shared language that everybody is allowed to call as s/he pleases, Croatian, Bosnian, Serbian or Montenegrin. Slovenians and Macedonians do not share this language but, due to linguistic proximity, travel and cultural consumption, most understand it and even speak it well. This would be a more transnational view, one that avoids the charge of following borders, national or otherwise, past or present, and might thus be less susceptible to attacks from those seeking to earn political capital. However, it still needs a less controversial name. Even if Judah’s suggestion continues to be used in the future, its explanation and uses remain problematic.