Re-visiting Dubrovnik after a 30 year absence: September 2021

A week ago I concluded an 11 day sojourn in Dubrovnik. The trip was a kind of Rip Van Winkle return to a city that I had visited at least once a year from 1980 to 1987 when I served as the Country Manager, Yugoslavia for the telecoms conglomerate ITT. We had no business as such in this historic coastal resort city, but it was the venue of the annual gatherings of the US-Yugoslav Trade Council, of which my employer was a member. The center of these events was the then newly built Hotel President on the outskirts of the city, 10 minutes drive from the Old Town.  

In the 1980s, the Hotel President was a much talked about architectural landmark: built into a hill that descended to the sea, it offered guests spacious, well-appointed rooms with terraces and unobstructed panoramic views of the magnificent seacoast and sea lanes below while respecting and fitting well into the natural topography. The structure was very representative of the Yugoslav concept of public space: generous open areas overlooking the sea were available for holding cocktail receptions of the business-government events such as ours.

To savor our return completely, my wife and I booked that very same luxury hotel for five nights of our stay. That was a calculated risk, as I was aware that the hotel had served as center of refugee housing in the midst of what is now called the Croatian War of Independence.  However, we were well rewarded,  because the hotel has benefited from substantial improvements and capable management in recent years, along with the entire hospitality infrastructure of the Dubrovnik region.

My long absence from Dubrovnik and more generally from Croatia was prompted by my “knowing too much.”  In my seven years as a regular monthly visitor to Yugoslavia, I had watched up close the country’s long slide into economic collapse and political turmoil under Marshal Tito’s successors. The young technocrats who replaced retiring veterans of the Tito administration lacked the reputation for military valor, revolutionary zeal and charisma to make things work by ignoring petty bureaucrats and stifling regulations in their path. Moreover, the enormous public debt load from Yugoslavia’s decades-long status as the Continent’s biggest investor in (duplicative) manufacturing capacity dictated by political balancing among the republics was becoming unmanageable. The final nail in the coffin was precisely the approaching end of the Cold War in the rapprochement between Gorbachev and Reagan, and most particularly the Soviets’ acquiescence in the fall of the Berlin Wall and end to their hegemonic control of Eastern Europe. With that, Yugoslavia’s geopolitical balancing act between East and West became irrelevant, and the Great Powers left the country alone with its economic plight.

Following my departure from ITT in 1987, I resumed business travel to Yugoslavia, though at irregular intervals, in my capacity as Business Development Director, Eastern Europe for the logistics company United Parcel Service. Thus, I witnessed the onset and early stages of the Yugoslav civil war that economic collapse facilitated.

I literally had a seat at the table in the months before Yugoslavia imploded. At the 1990 Zagreb Fall Fair we brought together representatives of our various delivery partners in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia. Tensions and mutual animosity between these communities was running so high that had anyone been carrying firearms there would have been a shoot-out at our banquet table.

Just nine months later came the June 1991 declarations of independence of Slovenia and Croatia. The first led to a military clash that was short-lived, just 10 days before Belgrade let go of its northernmost republic.  The Serbs had no intention of pushing troops and weapons up to the Italian/NATO border in pursuit of unity and Slovenia as such was not critical to the survival of their state as was Croatia.  

In short order the Yugoslav army began brutal air and land assaults on Croatia about which I heard directly from our delivery partners in Zagreb. I was also in regular contact with the little airline based there which provided us with daily carriage of our sacks of documents and parcels into the country; they went on to become what is now Croatia Airlines.  In a touching gesture of war fatigue and plea for outside support, one of their managers gave me several bottles of white wine as a souvenir of one of the towns in central Croatia that had just been destroyed by incoming Yugoslav Army units. I took these back to Brussels and opened them only when peace came to that unhappy land.

As for Dubrovnik, by December 1991 this UNESCO Heritage site was under siege, cut off from electricity and water. The Old Town was bombarded regularly by Serb artillery from the mountains which loomed over the harbor. Residents were prohibited to leave by the local authorities lest the city’s defense forces be reduced.

The devastating civil war finally ended in 1998 when NATO effectively destroyed the war-making potential of Serbia, the moving force in the entire tragedy, though by no means the only party  guilty of what we would call “war crimes.”  Indeed, under its first president Tudjman, independent Croatia was both the aggrieved party in some territory and an aggressor both to minority populations on its land and in territories beyond its borders.  On a visit to Ljubljana in 1993, I found that several of my former business associates from Iskra Commerce, ITT’s agents in country, were now actively engaged in illicit arms trade with one or another former Yugoslav republic.  I could see no entirely innocent actors in what had become a national tragedy.

And so I lost my appetite to revisit the lands of former Yugoslavia, though I knew them well to offer some of the most beautiful seacoasts and alpine resorts in all of Europe.  Several years ago, we relented and made a short visit to Slovenia for a cultural festival in Maribor to which my wife had been invited as a journalist. We used the occasion to revisit parts of the country which we knew much better from the past, Ljubljana and the mountain retreat of Lake Bled, the nearest reaches of the Julian Alps.  Our impression from that trip was mildly disappointing, because the distinctive culture of the country seemed to be fading into European Union standardization and blandness.  The local high cuisine in particular was already long forgotten.

This summer, after 18 months of lock-down in our Brussels home, my wife and I were keen to travel abroad, to resume normal living. We made four lengthy trips abroad, the final one being Dubrovnik. As in the case of the other three destinations, we were guided both by considerations of Covid risk, meaning the rates of local infection, and by considerations of weather, seeking an escape from the cold and rain that descended on Belgium and on much of Western Europe from June through August.  In this context, we looked first to the North, and visited St Petersburg in May-June. The weather was good and the Covid wave now lashing Russia had not yet made itself felt.  This was followed by a July trip to Helsinki, about which I have already written separately. The weather in Finland that month was exceptionally warm and the sanitary situation was exceptionally good.  Next came a trip to Venice in August which proved highly successful on all counts. The waters of the Lido beach were delightfully warm, the beach itself was sun-drenched and under-visited by foreigners so that social distancing was never an issue.  The Venetian experience directed us to think about the coast further down the Adriatic, and we followed the logic by ordering our flight tickets to Dubrovnik for the first week in September, when the 40 degree heat of August diminished to very tolerable daytime readings in the mid-20s.

The overriding impression of our visit to Dubrovnik, to its nearby Elafiti islands and to the further removed island of Korcula, home town of Marco Polo halfway up the coast to Split and today the producer of superb white wines that are served in all the best restaurants of Dalmatia, was one of high professionalism of the domestic hospitality industry, daring private investment in state of the art hotels and bold public investment in resort infrastructure, meaning in particular public beaches and seaside walks, that are enjoyed by local residents and visitors from abroad in equal measure.

I put the emphasis on “in equal measure.”  It may be that due to curtailment of some traditional tourist flows as, for example, from Australia, which remains under lockdown, foreign visitor numbers were still down this season and the percentage mix with guests from elsewhere in Croatia or the Balkans was not quite “normal.” That being said, we encountered large numbers of Americans and British, goodly numbers of Germans and Russians in the four and five star establishments we visited. 

However, in the most expensive places, and in particular on Korcula island, there is no question that the wealthiest guests, the owners of the multimillion dollar yachts in the port, were Croatians, not foreigners.  This is a “sea change” from the Yugoslavia that I knew, where the guests at prestigious, though never excessively ostentatious, establishments were most likely to be government officials, not business people, as is clearly the case today.

In this regard I think back of the refrain I heard many times from one of my colleagues in Ljubljana in the Iskra office representing our products and technologies in country: “We are Slavs, not slaves.” There was back than an obvious defensiveness related to their own relative poverty compared to our West European and American managers. There was a particular sensitivity to Germans which came down from the horrors of the Second World War.   All of that insecurity is now history, from what I observed over the past few weeks.

As for the civil war, there are in Dubrovnik streets wall signs bearing photos of the destruction of this or that building by Serb artillery. In one of the historic palaces just next to the cathedral, there is a room dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives during the siege.  But this is exceptional.  We spotted an Air Serbia plane at the Dubrovnik Airport and I have no doubt that the Croats just want to move on with their lives, including having normal relations with their neighbors.

The Yugoslavia of my memory was to a great extent a fun-loving place where the business people with whom I associated had a well developed a sense of humor, cultivated witticisms, enjoyed immensely good food and good drink.  Their standing joke was “call us whenever you want a problem arranged in some very nice place.” That mindset has clearly survived very well into the present-day Dalmatian coast.

Aesthetically the development of Dubrovnik and the surroundings has been world-class. This comes at a cost: the region is not cheap, prices for food and lodging are entirely in line with Northern Europe. But the value is there, you get what you pay for, and more. The natural beauty of the region has been maintained. Everywhere we looked, including in the marinas and commercial port, the sea water was transparent, sparkling clean and inviting.

As for Covid, all the hotels and restaurants were operating with keen attention to the sanitary rules. All of the hotel guests were observing mask requirements and social distancing indoors. It was very reassuring.

Having cast these bouquets, I now will turn to another set of impressions from this visit. The Yugoslavia of my past was more than a place valuing joie de vivre. It was a country with ambition, and it managed to serve a very important role globally, hitting way above its weight in the mission to preserve peace and stability in a world divided by two armed camps, the United States with NATO versus the USSR with its Warsaw Pact. Tito’s Yugoslavia, alongside India, was a founder and leader of the so-called Non-Aligned Bloc of Nations. 

The six nations which have resulted from the break-up of Yugoslavia have no such ambition. Nor do they have the demographic or economic weight to support such ambition if ever it existed today. Their biggest hope is to grow as equals within the European Union which is today just another word for NATO, meaning vassals of the United States. Croatia is thus willy-nilly aligned against Russia and surely soon to be aligned against China.

The disappearance of the Non-Aligned Movement deepens the lines of cleavage in the ongoing and deepening New Cold War and makes the world a much less safe place than it was when I was a frequent visitor to Yugoslavia and a once a year visitor to Dubrovnik

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2021

One thought on “Re-visiting Dubrovnik after a 30 year absence: September 2021

  1. “Our impression from that trip was mildly disappointing, because the distinctive culture of the country seemed to be fading into European Union standardization and blandness. The local high cuisine in particular was already long forgotten.”

    This is one of the biggest reasons I, as a Ukrainian, am against Ukraine joining the EU.

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