It’s a strange feeling to have found this hidden away and stripped of all importance on an old Calcutta street. In my years of roaming around old joints to look for interesting old currency to buy, this has been my most emotional find, so to speak. This find is a banknote from a country that doesn’t exist anymore- the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a multi-ethnic communist country that died out in 1992, following a series of bloody wars, heavy illegal CIA and NATO involvement.
This note is from 1986.
Deep among the pavement sweatpant stalls of Dharmatala Road in Calcutta are a few sellers of discontinued and foreign coins and notes- old versions of the rupee, small discontinued paisas and the occasional annas, as well as a range of currencies from foreign shores which are obtained from discarded bundles left behind by foreign exchange touts or careless tourists.
The man began with offering the usual notes from the tirelessly decorated countries of the West- the flashy euro, a 10- dollar note, a Singapore dollar, etc- valuable money from valuable destinations- with boring backstories on how they got here. Upon reaching this note, he wasn’t expecting me to notice it- he didn’t know what Yugoslavia was, (as most won’t)- it’s been 30 years since it’s been gone.
Yugoslavia and India go way back. Yugoslavia was the only communist nation to criticise the Soviet bloc and the Western nations- becoming one of the original 4 countries that made the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) along with us (India), Egypt and Ghana. The NAM would become an influential bloc that prevented many developing nations of the world from turning into proxy war-states for the Cold War rivalry.
In the early 1900s, Yugoslavia began as a fractured kingdom of many nationalities, each trying to- in reductive terms- “wipe out” the other. It was invaded in 1941 by Nazi Germany, and became a Nazi puppet state. Yugoslavian general Josip “Broz” Tito would lead the largest military partisan army in the world (civilian turned communist army loyal to Tito and opposed to fascism- these were literally ordinary people- romantically referred to as the “Yugoslav Partisans”) and liberate Yugoslavia. The sheer magnitude of this victory is immense, it would become one of the largest wins in partisanship history against formal armies and nations such as Germany.
Upon winning, the issue of ethnic tensions was rapidly solved- Tito united ethnicities that had been trying to wipe out each other for centuries. Yugoslavia would go on to become one of the fastest growing post-War economies, comparable to nations such as West Germany and Japan. Other rapidly developing economies of the time were funded by the West with extreme friendliness to oligarchs and the industry owning capitalists (except USSR). Yugoslavia did it as a communist nation- free healthcare, free education, free housing programs, incredibly low unemployment rates and rapidly equalising participation of men and women in the workforce. The ethnic issues took a backseat- each region was awarded its own governing style- Tito even included the right to secede.
Yugoslavia would lead to the creation of what is today called “market socialism” (developed by Marxist economist Branko Horvat)- This basically meant that essential sectors of housing, healthcare, education etc were not allowed to be dictated by free market corporatism- the market existed but was constantly corrected by the government. Companies were owned by worker co-operatives (bodies democratically formed by workers which were used to have a say in the operation of the corporate entity)- a socialist experiment that hadn’t been tried anywhere yet. Life was good, real incomes rose rapidly and people…lived well (as well as one can in post-War republics).
Yet, like all non-Western good things, Yugoslavia, too, ended prematurely and suspiciously. With Tito’s death and the creation of NATO and weakening of the USSR, the West did not want a strong, successful socialist presence in Europe. The CIA began to heavily- and covertly- bribe political parties and ethnic groups in Yugoslavia, reigniting ethnic tensions and disrupting the state machinery. The puppets had been successfully deployed and the successors followed the money- the state collapsed in 1992 and each ethnic group went back to killing each other for the next few years.
It’s a funny feeling to imagine how this note got here and the events it passed along the way- a relic of a great multi-ethnic state that made its way to another one- India. The Indian and Yugoslav experiences are comparable- warring ethnicities, post-War nations and a non-aligned outlook. Yugoslavia, for all its effectiveness, broke down as a result of bad leaders and private sector romanticism- the people’s lives became secondary to the people’s ethnic/religious identities for politico-economic gain.
In all the ways the former Yugoslavia and India are comparable, maybe the most striking one will be a predictable similarity in matters that can often break a multi-ethnic state.
Yashoroop Poopa Dey is a graduate of political economy from King’s College, London. Currently, he is pursuing a variety of ventures related to copy-writing and creative authorship.