As war memories fade, the ex-Yugoslav states remember their common language
When commerce beckons, political and linguistic barriers come tumbling down
ANYONE interested in doing business in the region that used to be called Yugoslavia might be tempted not to bother—on the ground that its successor states were all very small, obsessed with minor linguistic and cultural differences, and generally not worth the effort.
A few years ago this might have been true, but now things have changed. Have a browse in a branch of Buybook, a Bosnian bookseller. In one section are shelves of “foreign” titles (by British or French writers, for example), and in another books by “local” authors. But “local” in this case does not mean only Bosnian. It means anyone writing in the language once called Serbo-Croatian—which is spoken, with only small variations, in Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro.
In business and economics, as well as linguistics and culture, the old Yugoslav space is re-emerging. Damir Uzunovic, the director of Buybook, complains that it is still hard to sell Bosnian books in Serbia; but otherwise the book trade between all the countries which speak nas jezik—our language, as it is sometimes called in a desperate effort to sound neutral—has been flourishing.
After all, together the populations of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia and Bosnia make up a market of some 16m people. Macedonians and Slovenes, also ex-Yugoslavs, speak different but closely related tongues; if you add them, the number swells to 20m. It grows to 22m if you throw in the Kosovo Albanians—most of whom understand the common Slavic language even if they abhor it. In any case, the simple fact that all members of the quarrelsome ex-Yugoslav family can understand one another (linguistically at least) makes it easy to market products of every kind.
Before the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s the country had plenty of strong brands. When it fell apart those brands lost most of their devotees. Now, partly thanks to the normalisation of relations between the former Yugoslav republics, those familiar labels are surging back. They include everything from Croatian chocolates to Slovene juices to Montenegrin wines.
Some of the change is psychological. A few years ago Croatian radio stations would not play Serbian pop. That taboo has now gone. Radio stations which specialise in “Yu-nostalgia” and festivals celebrating the music that all Yugoslavs once shared have become wildly popular. The best locally produced film about the wars—“Vukovar: The Final Cut”—is a joint Serbian-Croatian production. It tells the story of the devastating siege of the eastern Croatian town in 1991.
The re-emergence of a Yugoslav market in goods and culture has been helped by a fairly general economic recovery. People now have more money to spend, and they are using some of their extra cash to pay for cable-television packages that serve up broadcasts (and advertisements) from across the old country. In recent years Merkator, a Slovene supermarket chain, has made strong advances across the region. Croatia's main petrol company, INA, is also recovering some lost ground outside its home territory.
In diplomacy as well as commerce, the ex-Yugoslav states are getting along better and at last coming to recognise that they have common interests. But that may not suit everybody. Even though Serbia is a long way from joining the European Union, its interpreters had been licking their lips at the thought of thousands of pages of EU rules and regulations needing translation. Imagine their disappointment when the Croats, keen to smooth Serbia's European path, simply sent their Serbian colleagues all the translations they had already made. This left just a little tidying up (and a change of script from Latin to Cyrillic) to be done in order to convert the documents from the Croatian language to the slightly different Serbian.