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The Past is Another Country

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Sometime in the years 1991-92, Yugoslavia ceased to exist as a country. But it persists, in imagination, in memory.

In the cities of the former Yugoslav republics, there linger vestiges of the past. Capital city streets gleam with the blush of new asphalt but concrete blocks with gaping eye socket windows loom like undead phantoms in the distance.

These constituent countries—Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Kosovo—are called post-Yugoslav, or post-socialist, countries.

But a post assumes a pre, and in that very nomenclature remains a past that refuses to be past.

The Balkan connection

In Ljubljana, capital of Slovenia, Yugoslavia has all but disappeared. The capital is brilliantly green, clean and small.

It is a miniature city, obsessed with its environment. It is a city that takes much from Vienna, that other inordinately planned and ordered metropol.

Ljubljana is now more Western than Central Europe, if the latter is to be characterised by semi-dysfunction and haunted by the past. Ljubljana, more than any other post-Yugoslav city, seems to have embraced the new order with open arms and has grown richer for it.

This, of course, is ostensible; it is superficial. But there is not much else to Ljubljana, except for impertinent philosopher Slavoj Zizek. It is a beautiful city, it is a very pretty city.

In Zagreb, capital of Croatia, things get murkier. Zagreb is bigger than Ljubljana, both in size and population.

It is cacophonic in its urban landscape, attempting to leap across a chasm with just one foot outstretched.

It is taking from disparate places, learning from Denmark but also from Chandigarh. Yugoslavia and India, Josep Tito and Jawaharlal Nehru, these ties that continue to bind. But Zagreb is neither here nor there; it is neither chaotic nor ordered.

It is neither pre nor post. A cycle lane merges into a pedestrian path as it dips under an overpass as cars roar above.

There is a new housing block, the ground floor empty and awaiting occupation, the walls painted in bright pastel hues.

It is nearly desolate, eliciting a kind of dread that only large abandoned buildings tend to. A ten-minute walk away is an older housing block, dating back to the Yugoslav years.

There, every window is shuttered a different colour and men and women of all ages seem to gather, smoke and drink coffee.

The space is green, open and vibrant. It has been this way for decades, I am told.

Then there is Belgrade, Beograd, the white city, at the confluence of the Sava and the Danube, at the frontier of the East and the West, Christiandom and Islam.

By turns opulent and derelict, modernist and socialist, gleaming glass and fading concrete, Belgrade is a palimpsest.

As the once capital of Yugoslavia and the now capital of Serbia, Belgrade has a feel to it, something effervescent yet so palpable you could taste it in the air.

When I arrive, there is an open air café where a crowd of people are aggressively dancing the salsa. Opposite, an old man with a Karl Marx beard pages through a book before shuffling off. It is here, in the once-beating heart of Socialist Yugoslavia, that the past is most alive. Socialist-era buildings loom large in all their Brutalist glory.

While the churches of Vienna sing the glory of god, these Socialist monoliths edify man and human capacity.

But it is also Belgrade where the forces of neoliberalism and crony capitalism have run rampant.

While the right-wing national government snatches away freedoms, the mayor promises a new waterfront that will turn Belgrade into Dubai. If a few hundred people have to lose their homes in the dead of the night to masked men to make way for the novi waterfront, so be it.

Still, there is a romance to the old Yugoslavia, fragments of which can be glimpsed in say, the Hotel Jugoslavia, where presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens alike were housed.

It was bombed by NATO in 1999 and now, ironically, houses two American restaurants.

Yugoslavia, for all its faults, appears to be the kind of socialist state that India under Nehru and Nepal under BP Koirala once aspired to be.

The future as another country

Nepal’s socialist aspirations vanished in the puffs of exhaust from every Prado-Pajero owned by every socialist-communist politician.

What can a country like Nepal and a city like Kathmandu learn now from these Balkan states? These countries and their history appear in our newspapers only when some paranoiac raises the spectre of ‘Balkanisation’.

But in their temporal trajectory, there is something to be gleaned, especially now that capital Kathmandu has its first mayor in nearly two decades.

Perhaps Kathmandu is not too far gone, perhaps it can still be salvaged from the maws of rapacious neoliberalism.

We must pay heed. The Bretton Woods mantras of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation are not always the answers.

Neither are more cars and wider roads. Nor big commercial buildings or another new mall. Kathmandu is currently a nightmare city; it is a city of smoke.

From Ljubljana learn the pleasures of air as sweet as morning dew even in a city of stell and concrete. Public parks, trees, shrubbery, flowers are all rest for the eyes and pleasant for the soul.

Stifled on all sides by concrete and the drudgery of everyday life in a city like Kathmandu, everyone needs respite and a place to lay on the grass, look up at a canopy and sigh away sorrows.

From Zagreb learn that everyone needs a place to come home to, one that is not simply tarpaulin and plastic, one that does not reek from the stink of a thousand toilets emptying into a once-holy river. Social housing for the indigent is long overdue.

A home is a right, like food or clothing. Remember when it used to be gans, bas, kapas?

And from Belgrade, a warning. Urban regeneration can arrive like wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Mistrust in the government should not equal blind trust in the private sector. Public officials might be corrupt and incompetent but unwatched, private interests can be insidious and before you know, your city has been hollowed out and sold to the highest bidder.

Make no mistake, they will peddle the snake oil of metros and city rails when all we need are buses and pavements.

Urban planning should not be about how to move cars most efficiently from point A to point B; it should be about moving people.

In the once-Yugoslavia, the past is another country. For Nepal, the future could be one.

Published on The Kathmandu Post, July 3, 2017