. Slovenia life, history, and war in Yugoslavia : Budget Travel Adventures

Slovenia life, history, and war in Yugoslavia – an interview with Marijan Kriskovic

Learn more about Slovenia culture, food, people, history, tourism, geography, life in Yugoslavia, war, and more in Part I, Part II, and Part III of my interview with Slovenia Tour Guide Marijan Kriskovic.

My encounter with her was brief but passionate.  I didn’t get to know her as well as I would have liked.  However, I fell in love in our short time together.  She was beautiful, our time together was passionate, and I enjoyed learning more about her despite our differences.

The trip was short but I fell in love with Slovenia.  One of the most beautiful places I ever visited was Lake Bled – an Alpine lake just a short drive from the Slovenia capital of Ljubljana.  I enjoyed the beauty and the culture but also learned a little about the history of Slovenia.  This unexpected surprise made Slovenia one of my favorite countries and gave me the opportunity to put together a travel guide to Slovenia for those who want to explore more of this country.

However, there is so much more to Slovenia that the beautiful outdoors and a mountain lake.

Growing up in Slovenia and the Yugoslavia War

Many years ago, I had the chance to meet Slovenian tour guide Marijan Kriskovic who was a guide on my tour of Europe.  Marijan has spent his entire life growing up in the former Yugoslavia.  Marijan’s father and mother were from Croatia and Slovenia so he spent time experiencing both countries during his childhood.  While most of his childhood years were spent in Croatia, Marijan also spent a lot of time in Slovenia and even went to university in Ljubljana.

Over the years, I’ve developed a friendship with Marijan and have had the opportunity to get to know him.  He’s truly one of the nicest, most engaging, and insightful people I’ve ever met in my travels.  He’s fluent in a number of languages and has spent years leading tours all over Europe.  He understands Europe’s complex history and has enjoyed sharing his knowledge for many years.

However, I wanted to talk to Marijan and learn more about Slovenia history, the Yugoslavia War as Croats and Serbs fought one another, and what it was like growing up in Yugoslavia.

Marijan was kind enough to take a little time out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions about the war, the region’s history, and growing up in Croatia and Slovenia.

1.  Tell me about your family.  Where did you grow up?  How much time did you spend in Slovenia as a kid?

I was born in the Slovenian capital Ljubljana (then part of Yugoslavia), but went to elementary and high school on the island of Rab in Croatia, before moving back to Ljubljana to study at the University. Due to my mixed background (parents from both countries) I spent a lot of time in both places at any given time in my life.

2.   As a kid, what did you want to do when you grew up?

I think the earliest thing I can remember wanting to be is an actor. I got quickly over that phase though and moved on to next week’s idea.

3.  Growing up in Yugoslavia, it was much different than the rest of Eastern Europe and other Communist countries.  Why was Yugoslavia different and how much did you travel as a kid?

Yugoslavia was different in the respect that it wasn’t a Soviet block country, but was still communist. One of the major differences compared to the countries behind the iron curtain was that its people were free to travel. In fact a Yugoslav passport was probably one of the best ones to have in the days of the cold war since you could travel without any major restrictions both to the East and the West.

Still, my parents always decided to head west on one of our frequent family trips. Places like Italy, Germany, Austria, France, Spain probably offered more “color” and diversity not to mention being more family friendly in those days.

Rab Island Croatia Marijan Kriskovic

Marijan's home - the island of Rab, Croatia

4.  What was it like growing up in Yugoslavia as a kid?  What memories do you have?

My personal memories are very nice ones as I grew up in a resort town on a northern Adriatic island. My father managed one of the main resorts on the island, which was mainly frequented by well to do Germans and Italians. So, my memories are those of cocktail parties on yachts and enjoying the beautiful setting of a stunning Mediterranean island like Rab. Not exactly images one would necessarily connect with a communist country. Ha, ha.

But seriously, I was very fortunate to grow up in such a sheltered and idyllic place and a loving family home. There were a lot of problems in Yugoslavia that I was not aware of living in a place like that. Overall the country had a mix of planned communist economy and market economy. So there was significant political freedom, concept of private property etc. but still with certain limitations.  For instance, its shops wouldn’t have been as plentiful and nice like the ones in the west, but at the same time not as empty as the ones in the east.

5.  What did your parents and family think of life under Tito?  Is life better now?

My parents would have somewhat different points of view in regards to that and that would pretty much reflect the polarized sentiment in the general population as well.

Most people my parents’ age (that would have been born just after WW2) would think of Yugoslavia with very fond memories. Statistically there was no unemployment and with relatively easy work you could afford a reasonably high standard of living (which doesn’t make much sense in a market economy and turned out to be largely funded by loans which Tito got from the West and which my great-great grandchildren will probably still be paying off). Most of all, life was simpler and put a stronger focus on family and friends. There was less corruption and mismanagement (at least so it seemed) and the average family was doing significantly better than now.

If someone’s goal was just to have a comfortable day to day life, Yugoslavia would have been a good place, but anybody wanting to achieve something more or “out of the box” would have had a hard time.  As time goes by and the economical situation for the majority middle class gets harder every day, people tend to romanticize about the “good old days” in Yugoslavia and phase out in their memories all the absurdity and not so nice things that the communist regime brought in the same package.

6.  The war started in the early 90s but many people only know about the tragedies under Milosevic.  What was the conflict about? 

Yugoslavia war first shots fired Plitvice Lakes Croatia

First shots of Yugoslavia war - Plitvice Lakes, Croatia

The conflict around the breakup of Yugoslavia was not just one but several, spread out in different time lines between 1991 – 1995. There were multiple and very different backgrounds ranging from historical, cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic and political making it very difficult to understand fully due to its complexity.

Yugoslavia was a 20th century artificial creation left after the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the end of WW1 in which nations were thrown together that had very little in common and therefore little chance to make it as a “family”. The differences could not be bigger and as vast ranging as from one end of Europe to the other – from language, religion, culture and mentality to economy. These territories haven’t been part of the same state since the Roman empire broke up in two parts in the 3rd century, with the border going right through the heart of what would be Yugoslavia.

Essentially it was doomed to fail from the start. Grossly oversimplifying it, one could say that it was a combination of Serbian expansionism and chain reaction of Turkish conquests of the southern Balkans 5 centuries ago and the resulting ethnic migrations.

At the core of the 1990s conflict was the rivalry between Serbs and Croats who weren’t always enemies as some would like to portray. On the contrary; while they were ruled by foreign powers (which they shared as a common enemy), they even got so close that by the mid 1800s they wanted to merge their language into one (which almost happened, except for a few differences in the pronunciation). Once they got to share the same “household” with the creation of Yugoslavia, troubles started.

The growing rivalry erupted in ethnic violence in the context of WW2 and was after the decades of Tito’s rule (who suppressed the nationalistic tensions) resurrected when Milosevic claimed the right for Serbs to rule other people and territories under the political program of “Greater Serbia” triggering a reaction in the Serbian communities across Yugoslavia as well as other ethnic communities that saw themselves threatened by these events.

7.  What was life like for you and your family in the war?  Did you lose friends over the conflict?  Were there any people that you or your family knew that died in the war?

I fortunately lived at the time in a part of Croatia that was not directly affected by the war itself, but rather the economical impact that the conflict had on a community that previously exclusively depended on the tourist industry.

With the war, things literally changed overnight.  For instance my father found himself changing professions from hotel manager to being head of a refugee camp in the same workplace, as the big empty hotels on the coast proved to be the ideal place to house the numerous refugees fleeing the war zone further inland. Seeing images of burning villages and people being killed just an hour away seemed surreal and like something out of a Hollywood movie. It was hard for me to fully grasp reports as being reality and some part of me refused to acknowledge it, all up to a single event.

I remember it was the very beginning of October and I was helping out with the wine harvest in my father’s vineyard when I heard six shots fired in the distance. It sounded as if a hunter would have been hunting for pheasants in the neighboring woods, but when a couple of fighter jets came flying low over our heads, it became clear that wasn’t the case. The air sirens sounded from the town and the war had become part of my life.

Fortunately, nobody was injured in the attack.  In fact what had happened was that a naval blockade was proclaimed by the Yugoslav navy and the ferry boats servicing the island decided to ignore it (since they didn’t think it would concern them with the island being far away from any strategic target). Still, jets showed up and fired the warning shots at the ferry. So, for a time the supplies were transported by night using speed boats with no lights.

In the following months things were like something that I would have never thought experiencing off a TV screen – daily air blackouts (so the planes could not easily recognize their targets at night), buildings like medical facilities monuments etc. marked with special signs which should grant them exemption of any military action and the notion of the possibility of any of those planes dropping their bombs at any time anywhere. Again, we were lucky and the island was not targeted, but made for a few very stressful months.

8.  What was the relationship like between Slovenia and Croatia like under Tito, during the war, and after the war?

The relationship between Slovenia and Croatia remained good at any point since the two countries had a lot in common, being the most economically developed parts of Yugoslavia  and sharing a common Austro-Hungarian past and culture.  In particular Slovenia managed to remain in good relations with all of the republics of former Yugoslavia since it wasn’t involved to a larger extent in the military conflicts following the breakup of the country.

Yugoslavia war Croatia Slovenia history

War torn Croatia in the Yugoslavia War

9.  Slovenia was one of the more fortunate countries in the Yugoslavia war.  How did the war affect Slovenes?  What steps did Slovenia take to declare independence?

Slovenians didn’t necessarily want to break away from Yugoslavia but at the time this was the only alternative to being subdued by greater Serbia. Presented with these facts, people voted in favor of independence with an overwhelming majority. Still, one more chance was given to the possibility of living in a common state and the declaration of independence was delayed for another year.

During this time negotiations went on between the presidents of the Yugoslav republics which ultimately didn’t produce any results and in 1991 officially the independent state was declared. On the 25th of June the Slovenian flag was raised and the president prophetically proclaimed “today dreams are allowed, tomorrow reality begins”. The following morning tanks of the Yugoslav army were rolling down the streets of Slovenia as an introduction to the “10 day war of independence” which was contained to a number of minor skirmishes and luckily didn’t escalate into a full scale war as it was seen later in Croatia or Bosnia.

Modern day Slovenia – an ideal travel destination

Slovenia’s independence from Yugoslavia was relatively peaceful.  However, neighbors and families were torn apart by the tragedies of the war in Yugoslavia.  Even resort destinations in Croatia like the island of Rab and Dubrovnik weren’t spared attacks.

Today, the older generation in Slovenia remembers the days of Tito fondly.  The middle class is struggling to establish itself in a more capitalist economy while the younger generation enjoys the freedoms.  Understanding Slovenia’s history, as well as that of Yugoslavia, can be difficult.  However, this region of Eastern Europe is unique and beautiful.

Whether you explore the tragedies or treasures of this country, Slovenia is a place worth exploring.  Thanks to Marijan for sharing his experiences growing up in Slovenia and Croatia as well as his perspective and history on Yugoslavia.

For more information on one of my favorite countries, check out photos and travel guides for Slovenia.

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  1. Interesting to hear an analysis of the Croat/Serbian relationship from a local. It clears up a lot of confusion. Hope those years of conflict are behind them and they can flourish in the future.
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  2. Enjoyed this interview. Always interesting to learn about a part of the world that is not emphasized in our history books or media.
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  3. Thanks for this interview with Marijan – most interesting. But even now the situation is fluid in this region. The Serbs don’t have coastline and I believe their objective is to secure this. History is an ongoing story.
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    • It will be interesting to see what happens here. I think time has healed some of the wounds. Not sure how much angst is still there. The regions seems relatively peaceful now. I hope this area remains peaceful but being there gave me such a greater appreciation for the people and history here.

  4. Sophie says:

    Interesting interview, thanks for sharing his story. I’ve talked to many in the various countries of the former Yugoslavia and so many seem to have very fond memories, a longing even, for the good, old days – and Tito. There’s a term for this – Yugo-nostalgia, similar to the East German Ostalgie.
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    • Amazing that people long for those days. But given the adjustments to a new economy and the struggles we are seeing financially around the world, I do understand the appeal of jobs and security in this day and age. Give Tito credit – he made this work. You see how badly this fell apart after him. I don’t think he fixed their problems by any means as there were plenty of issues bubbling underneath the surface. Another great thing about Yugoslavia is the freedoms they had that other Communist/Soviet block countries didn’t have.

      Many may disagree with how things were done but it is probably one of the best examples of a socialist regime under Communism.

  5. Steve says:

    Feeling glad to go through this interview. It gives a deep insight into the history of Yugoslavia and also helps you gauge the current situation of the country. Interesting read!

  6. Andrew says:

    A fascinating interview.I’ve been to Croatia and sat in a train in the Ljubljana station if that counts as “being there”. Beautiful places both seen from the train windows.

    That conflict and the results and sources of it are tragic and interesting both. It is good to read a more insiders view. I remember doing an essay in University around the Council of Berlin that in some ways built together the states that would become Yugoslavia. As mentioned it was a way of keeping power balance in Europe with Austria, Russia, Turkey and England all wanting a piece or an aspect.

    I do hope the countries figure out how to live together in peace. It is too nice of a place to be destroyed.
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    • I think things are much better now in terms of piece. Time does heal some wounds but I think the separate countries helped fix some of the problems as well as help heal.

      When I was in Croatia just a few years ago, it was still weird seeing one home completely in tact while the neighbors home was still in pieces. Still a sign what hostility existed. I think Tito did a really good job of keeping things together but obviously there was a lot of stuff underneath the surface.
      It will be interesting to see how this area develops in the future. However, I think it is one of the most fascinating areas that I have visited.

  7. Dayna says:

    Loved this interview. Having just spent quite a bit of time exploring Slovenia, it was really interesting to hear a local perspective of Yugoslavia. Thank you!
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  8. Dragan says:

    It is interesting that Marjan forgot to tell how Slovenia actively worked on their secession from Yugoslavia since mid-80′s, well before Slobodan Milošević came to political scene. It is true that tanks were sent on Slovenian border. Also it is true that that order was signed by late Ante Marković, a PM of Yugoslavia, born in Croatia. Effective power at that moment was fully in hands of Croats, as President (Stipe Mesić), PM and MOD was from Croatia.

    Very next thing Slovenina did was to strip all non-Slovenia born citizens from human and citizen rights . Some of them was extradited to paramilitary forces of Croatia and subsequently killed.

    As that wasn’t enough, Slovenia supported other secessionist movement and financed them, like those on Kosovo.

    Also, Slovenia has hidden barriers for investments from Croatia and Serbia. Properties and human rights are still denied to those expelled. Slovenian people often refers to rest of ex-Yu people as barbarians and savages from south. Not the single Slovenian citizen will tell you that after WWII majority of Serbian industry was transferred to Slovenia thus making them Yugoslavian industrial power. Non of them will not tell you how they were buying Serbian raw materials for prices under market value because Yugoslavian industry was politically led by Slovenian and Croatian cadres.

    Please, to us, from Serbia, do not tell stories about Slovenia.

    • Slovenia is a fantastic country. It is sad to hear of all the atrocities that occurred there on all sides. I know Marijan personally and I know he doesn’t have anything against anyone. He has traveled the world and been to many countries and cultures.

      As for the politics involved, maybe he knows everything that happened and maybe he doesn’t. I can’t speak to that. However, I hope that this area will be able to live in peace in the future. You did it for so many years.

      I hope to be able to visit Serbia one day. I really love this area and have had the chance to visit Slovenia and Croatia. I want to see Serbia, Montenegro, and more areas of the former Yugoslavia. However, every area deserves to tell their story. Hopefully the tragedies that we learned from this area will never be repeated and people will once again live in peace.

    • Andrej says:

      I see the Milosevic goverment brainwashed you fine.

      First of, all polls in Slovenia till the end of the year 1988 over 80% of the people in Slovenia were against the idea of sucession from Yugoslavia. The only thing most people wanted was peace within the country and especially within the different cultures & nationalities.
      After the Kosovo incidents and the “yogurt revolution”, the idea of a great Serbia and the monetary steal of federal reserves in 1989 however the people of Slovenia recognized that the hate from the WW2 between the Croats&Serbs meant no possibilities of a peacefull solution to the Yugoslavian question and in year 1990 the idea of sucession (away from nationalistic Serbia/Croatia) gained immense popularity (That was also the time the Knin incidents happened).

      Human rights were violated by the Serbs in Kosovo. Human rights violated?!?
      How manny Slovenians were/are prosecuted in Haag? 0.
      The reallity is the Yugoslavian army used cassete bombs and killed manny tourists/truck drivers in the 10 days of war. Also there was a 18month window where all citizens had to get the Slovenian passport and the majority of people that didn’t ask for the citizenship/passport at that time were just counting on Serbia winning the war (some even active JNA officers that were in charge for the war in Slovenia) and coming back to Slovenia to revenge the 10 day emberassment the JNA encounted.
      Anybody can have his own opinion on that but i feel that 18 months is a fine time frame to get the passport/citizenship.

      There was never EVER any proof to any kind of finnancing of Kosovo and with the broken Yugoslavian market (no export to BIH,Serbia,Montenegro) for Slovenia I have some serious doubt a new country could afford tho finnance anyone since the economy in Slovenia experianced pretty big losses.
      However the diplomatic side was more on the Albans side after the Serbian governant had captured manny people to political camps without any prosecution and deprivated the autonomy of that part of country.

      And after the WW2 Slovenia was by far the richest and most industrial succesfull country in Yugoslavia(due to previous Austrian/Habsburg history). In fact the GDP per capita was 2-3 times bigger in Slovenia then in Serbia and the difference was only getting bigger after the succession (currently, Serbia: 6,268$ vs Slovenia: 22,851$ per capita).

      And the most people from Serbia don’t have any problems with Slovenians – one reason there is a fine grow of Slovenian tourists to Serbia. And after the fall of Milosevic, the relations are only getting better with the end of that stupid nationalistic propaganda.

      • Dragan says:

        Andrej,
        Rade Lavrenčić, a founder of FAP, was sentenced because he opposed order of Franc Leskovšek to transfer FAP to Slovenia. Google that. Also, the last case was AvioGenex/AdriaAirways.
        Since Tito’s death, there was number of incidents by Kosovo Albanians toward Serbs (not including first large scale demonstrations demanding Kosovo Republic – 7 years before Milošević). The prominent case was case of Đorđe Martinović http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C4%90or%C4%91e_Martinovi%C4%87 (serbian article is richer in details, especially about Slovenian role in the case http://sr.wikipedia.org/sr/%D0%82%D0%BE%D1%80%D1%92%D0%B5_%D0%9C%D0%B0%D1%80%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BD%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%9B).
        In February, 1989, Albanians faked strike in Stara Trepča mine, demanding – Kosovo Republic. Milan Kučan gave them support stating that “Strikers are defending AVNOJ Yugoslavia”. In September same year, Slovenian govt (before any incidents in Croatia), voted for amendments to constitution, giving it precedence over federal one. Few months later, a small bunch of people demonstrated in Ljubljana demanding from Slovenian government not to leave Yugoslavia and not to give support to separatists on Kosovo. They were mostly Serbs and all of them were put in jail.
        In mean time, Franjo Tuđman had become president of Croatia. Tuđman was expelled from Communist party due his pro-fascist and pro-ustaša attitudes. Many of WWII war criminals got back to Croatia, many Serbs had been to leave their workplaces and posts. Croatia sent policemen from Zagreb to take over police station in Knin (a place with great majority of Serbs) and strip off policemen of Serbian descent of weapon and duty.
        And what Milošević did at that time? He was writing “Time of changes” in which he expressed his strong belief in future of Socialist Yugoslavia, led by Communist party(sic!). Yeah, Milošević did monetary steal, only after years of same practice by Slovenians, which, by the time, decide not to pay customs taxes in federal budget.
        Fast forward and in June, 25th,1991 Slovenia declared independence and took control over borders. JNA reacted, with strict order not to fire. Soldiers were not given any ammunition! The first casualty in Slovenian war was – Slovenian pilot, member of JNA. Sorry, but that’s how war escalated. TO attacked JNA troops. Heads of JNA asked for political support to occupy Slovenia, but Federal Cabinet, headed by Serb Borisav Jović, was against.
        After war was over, JNA was obligated to leave heavy weaponry and other weapons which Slovenia later sold to Croatia and Muslims in Bosnia. Some of those weapons was used by KLA. Details can be found here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ten-Day_War

        “18-month window” is actually just excuse which doesn’t stand for Council of Europe: “The cancellation is a European problem, because it violates fundamental human rights provided by the EU Convention.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Erased and here http://www.izbrisani.org/ Do not forget to read about Stevan Jeremić and Alija Makić.

        There’s a big difference between you and me. I very aware of crimes committed by Serbs and in name of Serbs. I do not want to have war criminal for neighbor. I want to teach my children about what is good and what is evil. I want to teach my children truth, not myths. I will teach my children how my grandfather cried in summer of 1991, trying to reach Slovenian family that he took care of during WWII.

        Maybe, you are right. Maybe Milošević did brainwashed me. It probably happened between 1996 and 2000, when I had been fighting against his regime, being expelled from uni, earning broken ribs by police bat and lung obstruction from tear gas.

        Jeremy, sorry from making your blog a Balkan kafana. This is my last post on this theme and I would not answer any more.

        • Dragan, I appreciate the discussion you two are having. I like the insight – even from opposing points of view. Here in the US, the details of this conflict and the varying perspectives are not something we get to hear very often. So call me evil but I am enjoying the conversation! :)

          • Dragan says:

            Sorry Jeremy, but Andrej and I just agreed that what happened in the past should stay in the past, left to the historians and not to linger to the myths produced by our political elite.

        • Andrej says:

          Pa neću ja ovo tužno povijest ponovno s tobom razgovarati jel ja ne volim pricati sa ljudima koji jos uvijek zivijo u nekim oblacima gdje je Miloseviceva Srbija samo jedna velika žrtev koja nije imala skoro ništa u toj tužni povijesti.

          Pa, želim ti sve dobro u životu naprije a što još želim je da te nekada nađe срце.

  9. Dragan says:

    Jeremy, I understand, but war in ex-Yu is important part of article. France and Germany agreed to leave their past behind after ten years.

    Peace and stability comes when finger pointing stops.

    If you decide to visit Serbia, politics free, I would be your host gladly.

    • Dragan, thanks for your passionate thoughts and comments. The idea behind this interview was to share the experiences from the perspective of a person living in Slovenia and Croatia. This wasn’t a factual account of the war or an attempt to take sides. The idea was to paint a picture of the experiences during this time, regardless of who is right or wrong. This wasn’t meant to be a political or historical account nor do I believe it was one where fingers were pointed.

      I wanted to put a human face to the tragedies and experiences to show that regardless of what side people are on, it is the people that matter. I hope people were touched by this and have a lot more respect and appreciation for this area.

      Whenever I make it to Serbia, I would gladly accept your invitation to learn more about the country! I have discovered that there is beauty in all of these places.

      If you do want a different perspective on the war, try reading my post about Yugoslavia and basketball. This touches a little more on the history of the wall as well as a completely different experience from it.

      http://www.budgettraveladventures.com/blog/remembering-yugoslavia-basketball-war-and-a-nation-divided/

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