The city’s seizable ex-Yugoslavian community looks to the past for unity and identity

In Central Europe, the truth is often hidden behind a joke. Like: “What is the capital of Yugoslavia?” Most will look perplexed, then relieved. “Nowhere!” they say triumphantly. “The country doesn’t exist anymore!” But those who are better informed just smile: It is, of course, Vienna.

Or at least it’s not far from the truth. Vienna’s ex-Yugoslavs are a major presence, and perhaps the best embodiment of “brotherhood and unity” – the old country’s motto. They share a culture, history and language, known colloquially as naš (our), in order to avoid the political implications of calling it Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, or Serbian. Despite the wars of the 1990s, or perhaps because of them, Vienna’s “Yugos” have formed a tightly knit community of common activities, food, music, events and endless cultural references.

According to the Vienna Department of Statistics, there were around 170,000 people from the countries of former Yugoslavia in the city in 2016, making up almost 10 percent of the population. Con­sidering that only those who have not be­ come Austrian citizens or who were born outside of the country were counted, the real figure is likely much higher.

Many came fleeing the upheavals as Yugoslavia fell apart. Others arrived much earlier, as so­called Gastarbeiter (guest workers) during the postwar economic boom of the 1960s and 70s to do manual la­ bor, after Austria signed the Agreement on Labor Migration with Yugoslavia in 1966. Many stayed for good, their children and grandchildren now living in­between cul­tures, feeling both Austrian and Yugo, not always a positive term among Austrians. And the ow of immigration continues: At present, around 9,000 students from for­mer Yugoslavia are enjoying the benefits of Austrian education.

Armin Šestan, a Bosnian studying me­chanical engineering at the TU Wien (Vienna Technical University), says that the ex­Yugoslav community helped him tremendously when he first arrived, both in finding an apartment and a job, regard­ less of their country of origin. In Vienna, “someone who had slept through the last 30 years in the Balkans wouldn’t even notice that Yugoslavia had fallen apart,” Šestan joked.

Everywhere a Yugo

Yugos have integrated to a significant de­gree into Viennese society, and are present in nearly all spheres. That optician who gave you the prescription for your eye­ glasses? Yugo. The cashier at Billa who rang up your articles? Yugo. That tanned woman in high heels, tight clothes and with strange music blasting from her ear­ phones who just passed you on the street? Definitely a Yugo. The associate concert­ master at the Volksoper? Also Yugo. Famous athletes like football legend Ivica Vastić or the Olympic swimmers Mirna and Dinko Jukić? You guessed it. Yugo.

In 2016, one of the contenders for Austria’s representative to the Eurovision Song Contest was singer Azra Halilović, originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her song “The One” attracted significant attention, and although she did not win, Halilović was grateful for the experience – proof that Austrians respected her skill, irrespective of her place of origin. Arriv­ing in Vienna as a nine­year­old with no knowledge of the language or customs, she recalls her early fears. “I was very scared of Vienna. In the be­ ginning, I couldn’t go outside because I was afraid of such a big city,” she said. “People were talking to me, but I couldn’t under­ stand what they were saying.” Today, Halilović appreciates what Vienna has to o er, especially its international and multi­ cultural nature. Being both Austrian and Bosnian, she shares a common destiny with many people in the diaspora who do not fully belong anywhere.

Past perfect

One of the ways that Yugoslavia lives on in Vienna is through restaurants serving Balkan cuisine, and clubs playing music popular in the homeland. Some of the most popular are in Ottakring, playing turbofolk, an infamous mixture of Balkan folk, oriental and techno sounds, often paired with highly suggestive lyrics. For a different sound, places such as the popu­ lar Beertija on Kaiserstrasse promote “ex­ Yu rock,” a genre inspiring “yugonostalgia” – a yearning for the halcyon days under Tito, popular even among those born after the country’s dissolution.

yugoslavians Vienna
Many Yugoslavians came in the wake of war in the 1990s, but immigration to Austria had been common since 1966, when Gastarbeiter came to stay. // © Courtesy of Wien Museum

Croatian émigré author Dubravka Ugrešić wrote a lot on the phenomenon, claiming that in the beginning, it was a sort of resistance to the disappearance of the world where she grew up. Ugrešić feels that later, yugonostalgia lost its element of sub­ version and turned into another source of pro t for the capitalists. In 2012, Serbian website Peščanik published an essay by her where she stated: “In the meantime, yugonostalgia has become a mental super­ market, a dead symbol list, a mere memo deprived of emotional imagination.” In May 2017, a Gallup Poll found that yugo­ nostalgia is widespread in the former Yugoslav republics, mostly in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Concerts, baptisms and birthdays

Such yearning could be a sign of dissatis­faction with the current political and eco­nomic situation, with the good old days of relative social and political stability often exaggerated and idealized.

But yugonostalgia is significantly less present in the only two EU members among Yugoslavia’s successor states, Croatia and Slovenia, a sign that with increasing prosperity, the socialist past does not look so great after all. But, re­moved from home, the diaspora further fuels the myth of Yugoslavia, the utopian ideal of a country that was livable, and their own. Because, no matter how inte­grated they are, they are still Yugos.

For those who crave a con­nection with the Yugo world, there are many cul­tural events, often sup­ported by Austrian institu­tions. This month, the Volkstheater hosts the Kroatischer November (Croatian Nov­ember) festival with four plays, the Croa­tian duo 2Cellos will play the Stadthalle, and comedians Zoran Kesić from Serbia and Željko Pervan from Croatia will per­form only days apart. Also, the Wien Mu­seum is hosting an exhibition on Gastarbeiter until February 11.

Such an abundance can sometimes be overwhelming. Daniela Vančić, an American of Serbian origins, considers Vienna a “home away from home” after an exchange semester here. Almost all of her extended family lives here as well, as does her boyfriend. Still, she says, sometimes the presence of so many Yugos is too much. “I grew up in Detroit where there are not many of us, and sometimes it’s nice to have some distance from people who’ve known my family for generations.” She found a middle ground in Cologne, Germany, where she’s removed from all the weddings, birthdays and baptisms she is invited to here. But when she gets a crav­ing for real Serbian food, is homesick for her family, or feels distant from her roots, she needn’t travel far. The Yugoslavian capital Vienna is where it’s at.