SUBOTICA, Serbia — Blasko Gabric and his friends found it hard to cope with the collapse of Yugoslavia, so they made a miniature one of their own.
Now, they could lose this one too.
The Yugoland theme park, for years a gathering spot for the admirers of the former communist state, faces closure because Gabric put up part of the property as collateral in a bank loan that went bad.
"I will try to save Yugoslavia," said Gabric, a 70-year-old retired Serbian printer. "It would be truly sad if this Yugoslavia disappeared as well."
Gabric's mini-Yugoslavia is squeezed on 3.5 acres (1.5 hectares) of land featuring a fake mountain, a ditch meant to represent the Adriatic sea, Yugoslav flags and communist red stars. It all symbolizes the despair of a people whose country dissolved in brutal wars of the 1990s, leaving thousands dead and millions homeless.
Facing a new reality of shrunken lands and free market chaos, many ex-Yugoslavs have started to look back at the former communist dictatorship as a dreamland that offered equality and job security.
The trend became known as "Yugo-nostalgia."And Gabric is a main proponent.
"No Bible can describe a more beautiful heaven than the one we had in our Yugoslavia," he exclaims. "We had the most wonderful country in the world."
During the communist years, Gabric spent many years in Canada, where he owned a printing press. He returned in 1983 and set up a business in Subotica, a town near Hungarian border.
Then, in the early 1990s', Gabric witnessed Yugoslavia torn to pieces by nationalists: First Slovenia, then Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia left the federation in a series of bloody ethnic conflicts.
What finally spurred Gabric to action was the decision in 2003 by Serbia and Montenegro — the two republics that had remained together — to abolish the name of Yugoslavia altogether.
Gabric registered a "mini-Yugoslavia" on his land in February 2003. He and his friends put up border stones and a bronze bust of the late Communist dictator Josip Broz Tito. They recreated Triglav, Yugoslavia's highest mountain, by piling up several tons of soil they dug out to create a miniature Adriatic Sea. They even started issuing virtual mini-Yugoslavia passports.
"We wanted to preserve a piece of our lives here," he explains.
Mini-Yugoslavia today has over 8,000 "citizens." A sign at the theme park gate reads: "Yugoslavia will live as long as we live."
Over the years, thousands have visited the park, mostly to mark Tito's birthday on May 25, or other former Yugoslav holidays. On such occasions, the theme park organizes picnics, music and dance. Thousands more, from all the former Yugoslavia, have gathered each year at Tito's grave in the capital Belgrade, or in his birthplace Kumrovec, in Croatia.
Tito's admirers say the former leader was a skillful politician who split from the Soviet Union and steered the country successfully through the turbulent Cold War era. They say Tito's leadership was softer than the communism in the rest of eastern Europe, noting that Yugoslavs were able to travel abroad and enjoy relative freedom, if not democracy.
Miroslav Andrijevic, a 62-year-old retired photographer from Subotica, became a citizen of mini-Yugoslavia seven years ago. Andrijevic tearfully says mini-Yugoslavia has offered consolation to the people who felt lost without the country they had lived in for most of their lives.
But, with Socialism gone, mini-Yugoslavs have encountered one major obstacle to making their dream come true: money. The miniature country is shabby and dusty, the Adriatic Sea has bushes growing at its bottom and Mt. Triglav bears no resemblance to the Alpine original in today's Slovenia.
But Gabric won't give up.
He hopes to organize a charity concert to gather funds to pay off the bank.
The stakes are high. If I don't succeed, Gabric says: "we will lose Serbia and Macedonia."