KUMROVEC, Croatia — Forget the European Union, many in this Croatian village are saying. The group of nations being celebrated this weekend is one that died more than 20 years ago when Yugoslavia – now fervently remembered as a haven of peace, prosperity and equality – fell apart in a cascade of ethnic wars.
Thousands of people came together Saturday in the birthplace of Yugoslavia's late communist leader, Josip Broz Tito, to mark his birthday and pay their respects to him and the ex-federation.
As Croatia prepares to formally enter the EU on July 1, becoming only the second former Yugoslav republic to become a member of the bloc after Slovenia, many in the village of Kumrovec and across the region still regard Yugoslavia as having been a haven of peace and prosperity despite a lack of democracy and freedoms.
"Tito, the one and only," Slobodan Janusevic, a 52-year-old retiree, said. "I think all the worse of both the EU and today's Croatia."
Waving Yugoslav flags with communist red stars, carrying banners and memorabilia, people – some dressed in T-shirts with Tito's portrait – listened to music blaring from loudspeakers and watched footage from the Tito era on a huge screen next to his monument and a small modest house where he was born in 1892.
Crowds of his followers also flocked to Tito's grave in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, coming in by buses, cars or on foot. Some wept, others danced and sang old revolutionary songs, while others dressed like Tito, who died in 1980 after ruling unchallenged for 35 years.
While vilified during the nationalist euphoria that followed the bloody breakup in the early 1990s, Yugoslavia has since regained popularity, commanding a steady influx of followers, even among the younger generations that were born after the country disintegrated. The phenomenon is called "Yugonostalgia" and is often explained as a mental getaway from the disappointments of the brutal reality of postwar and post-communist transition that the citizens of the troubled Balkans faced in the last decade of the 20th century.
"The citizens feel they live much worse than they did 30 years ago," explained Serbian historian Dubravka Stojanovic. "They feel defeated."
Formed after the end of World War II, Tito's Yugoslavia was a federation of six, ethnically-mixed republics that were kept together under iron-fisted Communist party rule. But unlike other Eastern European countries, Yugoslavia enjoyed a somewhat softer version of communism, separated politically and economically from the Soviet Union.
Yugoslavs traveled freely to the West as they enjoyed relatively high standards of living, job security, free education and health care. The transition to a market economy and wars left thousands jobless, widening the gap between the rich and the poor. Therefore the Yugoslav era is widely perceived as a just society in comparison with Western capitalism, which is often seen as too inhuman.
After Tito's death, Yugoslavia started falling apart amid political bickering between its republics. Ethnically-inspired differences exploded into wars. Slovenia, then Croatia, Macedonia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Kosovo split from the federation one after another. More than 100,000 people died and millions were left homeless after the most brutal conflict in Europe since World War II.
"It would have been better if we all gathered together to play guitars instead of holding guns and shooting at each other," Malina Jelic from Belgrade said. "Unfortunately, time has taken its toll and we are left with consequences."
Although Tito was a Croat, Croatians were the staunchest opponents of Yugoslavia, partly because they believed larger Serbia dominated the federation after Tito's death. The Yugoslav capital was in Belgrade, Serbia, where late strongman Slobodan Milosevic gained power and popularity with his populist and warmongering policies. Milosevic largely built his popularity on claiming that Serbia – the largest of the six republics – was stifled by other, smaller nations.
"Yugoslavia was a prison for all its nations and anti-communists," said Zorica Jovanovic, 49, who watched the Belgrade gathering from a distance. "It is wrong to glorify a dictator, but people now remember only the good things and forget the bad ones."
Anti-Tito sentiments also run high in Kosovo, dominated by ethnic Albanians and which was part of Serbia during Tito's times. Kosovo fought a war to break away from Serbia's rule and declare independence in 2008. Serbia still does not recognize the move.
"For the Albanians nothing good came from him," 71-year old Daut Krapi said. "Poison would have been better ... we are now free."
Even some who arrived in Kumrovec on Saturday believed that Croatia would be much better off alone, without the EU or Yugoslavia.
"This place is part of our Croatia," Ruzica Riffert, 62, said. "Croatia is capable of moving forward on its own. It doesn't need any union."
Stojanovic, the historian, said Yugonostalgia is an expression of the people's belief that the new, ethnically-defined, but mostly economically and politically weak states felt "inferior" compared to Tito's era. She added that "this is why they view Yugoslavia as a positive utopia."
Ivan Lovrenovic, a Bosnian intellectual, said this was particularly true for his country, where the three main ex-Yugoslav religious groups – Muslims, Catholics and Christian Orthodox – lived in harmony before the war.
"That's because no other new country was as devastated by the wars as Bosnia was, and nobody lost more than Bosnia did," he said.
Marko Perkovic, who created a pro-Tito group in tiny Montenegro, by the Adriatic sea, said he remembered Tito's era as the "time of happiness."
"Tito is a personification of a happy time in the most beautiful country in the world," Perkovic said. "His time is not comparable to nowadays. We were safe and happy."
In Montenegro's capital of Podgorica – formerly Titograd, or "Tito's town" – one of the city's most popular nightclubs is named "Titograd", while ex-Yugoslav TV programs and songs about Tito can be heard while dining at local restaurant "Nostalgia."
At another, western end of the former Yugoslavia, in Slovenia, Tito-era memorabilia such as uniforms, photographs or Yugoslav flags, are stashed in an underground wine cellar at the best hotel in the country's bustling capital of Ljubljana. Only special guests are allowed in, explained Oto Skrbin, a hotel employee, as he unlocked a thick, wooden door leading into the room.
"This room was created because of the nostalgic feelings for the old days," he said. "We all fondly remember Yugoslavia. Everyone had jobs and salaries, which is not the case today."
In the Slovenian mining town of Velenje, a towering monument of Tito dominates the main square. Residents said they prevented authorities, during the nationalist euphoria of the 1990s, from removing the 10-meter (30-foot) statue, which has since become a tourist attraction.
Sociologist Peter Stankovic noted that Yugonostalgia has been strong in Slovenia since the mid-1990s. It has been additionally fueled as Slovenia plunged into an economic crisis linked to the downturn in the eurozone, he said.
"Not everyone in Yugoslavia was prosperous, but there is a sense that things were balanced more justly than in today's society," he said.
Even youngsters born after the Balkan country's demise are identifying with yesteryear, sharing old movies, songs and symbols on social media. Historian Stojanovic said the drive is motivated by the desire of young people to move beyond the borders of their small countries "and let the fresh air in."
In the southernmost former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia, 17-year-old Igor Jovanov described Tito as a "communist king" who "enjoyed luxury, women and good food." A show dubbed "Tito's Kitchen" is a hit, drawing huge audiences, both young and elderly.
Ali Zerdin contributed from Slovenia, Predrag Milic from Montenegro, Aida Cerkez, from Bosnia, Nebi Qena from Kosovo, Konstantin Testorides from Macedonia and Dusan Stojanovic from Serbia.