License plates are little, mundane slabs of metal or plastic that generally serve two purposes – to identify vehicles, and to promote a culture. I find them fascinating.
We just returned from a phenomenal, once-in-a-lifetime 3-generational tour of the former Yugoslavia, from where my parents emigrated in the 60s. Since breaking up in 1991, these countries have gone from waging war against each other to varying degrees of recovery. Slovenia is in the EU, and Croatia will join this July. Bosnia and Hercegovina is almost perpetually in political / ethnic crisis, while Serbia and Montenegro have just recently gone their separate ways, having dissolved their confederation. Macedonia is plugging away, nestled between the Serbia-Kosovo conflict and the Greek economic crisis.
The title of this post is the slogan of the former League of Communists of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – Tito and his successors promoted “Brotherhood and Unity” among the Southern Slavic peoples, who were united after World War I under Serbian rule and then fought each other mercilessly during the second World War. Perhaps it was always doomed to fail, as the Yugoslav nations had distinctly dissimilar backgrounds – Slovenes and Croats were under the Austrians and/or Hungarians for centuries. The Serbs, Macedonians, Kosovars, and Bosnians under Ottoman rule. Serbs and Croats essentially share a language, but the Serbian Orthodox Christian heritage didn’t always mesh with Croatian Catholicism, and while the former writes in Cyrillic, the latter uses the Latin alphabet. Small differences that, with the right spark, can result in inexplicable cruelty and violence.
I have a similar fascination with international frontiers. It seems astonishing to me sometimes to think how an arbitrary, imaginary line on a mountaintop or the middle of a creek can so starkly separate two distinct languages, histories, religions, and cultures.
During our trip, I cataloged the plates I saw that represented a once-united country. The only ones I didn’t see were Kosovo’s (although I saw several new and old-style Albanian plates, which were unheard-of when I was a kid and Albania was Europe’s North Korea.)
Only Slovenia can display the blue Euroband with the gold stars of the EU. All the rest, except Croatia, have a blue area for the Euroband without the stars, but with the country’s international vehicle registration code. (Slovenia = SLO, Croatia = HR, Bosnia and Herzegovina = BIH, Montenegro = MNE, Serbia = SRB, Macedonia = MK, Kosovo = RKS – note that Kosovo used to be a province of Yugoslavia and then Serbia, and the two countries have not yet resolved their dispute over Kosovo’s independence). Croatia has no Euroband, but left room for it to the left of the regional code that precedes the Croatian coat of arms (shown here is PU for Pula).
A lot of blood was shed to get to this point, where there now exist seven independent and sovereign republics where once there was one federal entity. The irony, it seems, is that they all seek to enter a troubled European confederation where the movement of people and goods would once again be completely without frontier or limit.