View from Brussels: Heard the one about Yugoslavia's space programme?

Have you ever heard the story of how the Yugoslavs pioneered space travel and sold their project to Nasa - with devastating consequences for the Balkan country's subsequent history?

I think I started to get suspicious when the documentary filmed a piglet being put inside one of the test rockets. The documentary is called ‘Houston we have a problem’, and up to that point had been quite a completely plausible and highly professionally produced account of what claimed to be the history of the Yugoslav space programme.

knew there had been no piglets in space. Never. Not even Balkan ones. So what kind of a documentary was this?

Up to that point, there had been shots of genuine world events with clips of the American historian, narrator and investigator of the story visiting a secret underground bunker in the mountains of former Yugoslavia. There was an overgrown concrete runway, and interviews in a studio with ageing rocket scientists, speaking Croat and Slovenian, according to documentary convention side-lit and thoughtful and serious. In the first few minutes, we learned that the Yugoslavs had sent the first rocket into space sometime after Sputnik in October 1957, sixty years ago this month – but before the Americans got their act together.

Okay, I will admit that one – that the Yugos were ahead of the Yanks - was a bit suspicious too. One of the pioneers in astronautics, space station conceptualist Herman Potocnik, was in fact Slovene, though settled in Berlin between the wars and using the German pseudonym Herman Noordung. He really did exist – Wikipedia has a fascinating article – and was cited in the documentary as a reason why the Yugoslavs were able to get in early on the space travel act.

Big secrets in the area of technology have existed in history. The British kept the code-breaking Project Ultra – which was of huge importance for victory in WW2 – hidden for decades. The neutral Swedes actually had an active nuclear weapons development programme and could have been the fourth country in the world to achieve nuclear weapons status, around 1960, before France and China. It was a hugely ambitious project and it was no coincidence that Sweden harvested several Nobel prizes in Physics in the 1950s and 60s, something it has not done since. Under pressure from the Americans, Sweden slowed down the research, then backed off and signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968.

The Swedes had the technological capacity and a serious cold war mindset. Living in an underpopulated country, they thought that nuclear deterrence was a smart option compared to the costs of defending their vast geographical area with conventional troops. It was a huge feather in this small country’s cap. Many Swedes I speak to have no idea about their nuclear weapons programme. But it genuinely happened and books and many, many articles have been written about it. So here you had another neutral country, Yugoslavia, sandwiched between East and West, with pretensions to represent something like a Third Way between the Warsaw Pact and Nato (Sweden was always more developed and more capitalist than Yugoslavia though). Was it really that implausible that they would launch a space programme that would bring president Tito and the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia glory and prestige?

What happened next in the mockumentary (mock documentary, with the occasional editorial wink like that symbol of the Balkans, the pig) was that the Yugoslavs managed to sell their whole programme, lock stock and barrel, to the United States, which had gone into a panic after the launch of Sputnik. For all the glory, Yugoslavia needed the money.

Nasa handed over the equivalent of three years of its budget, $50bn in today’s money, and the negotiations and political lead-up was constructed using footage from Tito’s very real visit to President Kennedy in the autumn of 1963, using genuine archive footage. But then – disaster. In the best, or rather worst, East European fashion, the transplanted technology simply didn’t work.

The Americans embarked on their own programme, and the rest is history.

But they wouldn’t write off the Yugoslav deal; they asked for their money back. Much of the film concerns the schemes the Yugoslavs cooked up to try and appease and repay the Americans as they’d spent the American money on developing the Yugoslav economy, giving generous benefits to the workers as well smoothing over the economic differences between the republics. Although Yugoslavia was independent of Moscow, and had some private enterprise in its socialist model, the economy still had some, or rather many, of socialism’s incentive and organisational problems.

President Tito is portrayed as a sympathetic character who is enormously under pressure from all sides and understands exactly what’s going on. He decides he must pay back the money by building up Yugoslavia’s export car industry. His engineers misunderstand him and produce a rubbish car rather than a luxury sedan to compete with the best of the West in the American market. The most laugh-out-loud moments in the film come when – using either fake or real archive adverts, it is hard to tell – American marketing muscle and hyperbolic lifestyle advertising is used to sell the pathetic-looking sardine can on wheels that was the Yugo hatchback on American TV. It flopped. The Americans continued to demand their money.

‘Houston, we have a problem’ was Slovenia’s entry for the Oscars race of 2017 but didn’t get onto any shortlists. It got so-so reviews in the American press. They said it was a meditation on fake news, that it was a shaggy dog story that overstayed its welcome. I don’t think reviewers thought much about the political or historical context, for, while it is a fake documentary – like Borat – I see it as a parable for the terrible Yugoslav civil war that ended 22 years ago. One that tells the truth as only fiction can.

I was a young journalist when I made several reportage trips to the war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. I wasn’t one of the big names or prima donnas whom I always thought had a somewhat simplistic view of the war. But they were the ones being shot at in Sarajevo and who was a rookie like me to offer an alternative view? I was less interested in politics in those days and more interested in describing sights and sounds and dialogue, very much influenced by the New Journalism. The sights of funeral notices wilting in the rain. The headlights of armoured cars piercing the night fog. The desperate, unwashed, beautiful women.

The big Western media had a narrative which completely blamed the Serbs and saw the Muslims and the Croats as nothing but victims. (The Slovenes mostly stayed out). In the mainstream narrative, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic was the evil expansionist, genocidal dictator, the Hitler of the Balkans. He was stopped finally by US/Nato intervention in 1995 after years of European Union dithering. A lot of people made careers off that narrative and went on to become senior editors at international newspapers were they are sitting today, as belligerent and simple-minded about geopolitical issues as they were then.

There is no doubt that Serbs killed more Bosnians and Croats than vice versa, partly because the Yugoslav National Army was Serb dominated and had the heavy weapons. But the Bosnian president, Aliyah Izetbegovic, darling of the US press, was an Islamist who dreamed of a sharia society. It is still hugely disputed, but western intelligence officials believed Bosnian forces in Sarajevo shelled their own civilians going to market, at least once, maybe several times, and blamed it on the Serbs to create justification for Nato strikes on the Serbs. (Read Cees Wiebes’s Dutch government-commissioned ‘Intelligence and the War in Bosnia’). There were a lot of comparisons in the western media to the Holocaust. But the number of deaths was less than 100,000, half of whom were civilian, a third of whom were Serb.

It was the most violent conflict in Europe since World War Two, but it was not genocide – that magic word that accompanies the drumbeats for every Western military intervention. There were news stories such as the example when a British TV station filmed refugees that made the scene look as if they were at Auschwitz or something. But they selected a particularly ill-looking man and it was not the refugees who were behind a barbed wire fence, it was the journalists.

A peace deal could have been struck in 1991 or 1992, brokered by the European diplomats tasked with the job, including David Owen, but the Americans told their Bosnian clients not to accept a deal, which went at cross purposes to the French and the British. (The British government was the most pro-Serb of all Western nations. Was this the last time the UK took a different foreign policy position from the Americans?)

In the end, the Americans brokered a deal in 1995, and after many thousands more deaths, along lines very similar to what David Owen had got the warring sides to agree on in 1992. The Serbs were portrayed as aggressors partly because they occupied large parts of the areas of the other republics but that is because their people were already inhabitants of those areas long before the war – centuries before. They had not invaded Bosnia because huge swathes of the multiethnic Yugoslav Republic of Bosnia was ethnically Serb and had been for centuries. That kind of subtlety got lost in the media coverage. The Western powers did not accept the logic that, if Bosnia’s Muslims had the right to secede from a federal Yugoslavia, then the Serbs of Bosnia had their own right to secede from any new Bosnian state, taking their ancestral lands with them. 

One of most sober accounts to me is by historian Susan Woodward, who minimises the ‘ancient Balkan hatreds’ narrative and argues that most of the EU, Germany especially, and the USA behaved utterly irresponsibly by encouraging separatism in Croatia and Bosnia (The Vatican and the Catholic Southern Germans were very biased towards Croatia, which had been a good Nazi puppet regime in WW2). It was wrong to arm these sides, train separatist forces, rather than helping the sides to talk. Imagine what powerful outsiders could do to Catalonia and Spain today if they meddled in that stand-off?

But Yugoslavia was also suffering from an enormous economic crisis prompted by the hike in US interest rates in 1982. What happened was that the banks of the western world had for years been recycling the petrodollar income of the Middle East into cheap loans to developing industrial economies like Yugoslavia, Brazil, Argentina and Mexico. But the US was suffering from high inflation and poor productivity, so called stagflation, and had to re-establish the credibility of the dollar, which was slowly losing value, so that countries, particularly the oil producing states, would continue to use the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. Being the reserve currency basically allowed the US to print money to fund its imports. The weakness and sinking credibility of the dollar’s value meant that by 1980 Saudi Arabia and Iran were looking to other currencies to price some of their oil sales in.

But then US Secretary of the Treasury Paul Volcker hiked interest rates to 20 per cent, which sent inward investment into the US soaring, strengthened the dollar and therefore its credibility and allowed the US to massively increase its defence spending and lower income taxes at the same time, all funded by deficits – the so-called great Reagan revolution.

It also led to an unemployment squeeze on American workers. And it devastated economies in Latin America and Eastern Europe on whose dollar-denominated loans they now had to pay very high interest. This brought to the surface the tensions between Yugoslavia’s six republics. Western-looking Slovenia for instance was nearly eight times richer per capita than Kosovo and resented transferring its hard earned tax money to poor regions/republics like Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. Falling incomes and soaring unemployment in all the republics meant less money all around – there was less room for generosity.

In other words, according to Susan Woodward, you had to broaden your search for causes of the war and look at international power games and economics. It has also been said that Nato was looking for a new role after the Cold War and found one in Yugoslavia: the role of being a global policeman against human rights abuses.

So how does all this relate to the documentary, or mock documentary? Well, after the Yugo fiasco, America gets so frustrated that it doesn’t get its money back that it destroys Yugoslavia by CIA destabilisation in order to get access to Yugoslav mineral resources and that way get the money shelled out for that bloody space programme back. This development – fictional, of course – is covered light-heartedly in the last ten minutes.

In conclusion, I see it as a parable. So it is not at all a meditation about fake news and gullibility and the internet era but about using a simple myth about an underperfoming space programme to describe one version of the truth about the destruction of Yugoslavia: it was caused by the USA, maybe not CIA destabilisation, but certainly US economic policy. In real life, Yugoslavia had huge dollar debts which destabilised the country. In the film, the country had to return a huge dollar debt it had already spent for a space programme that didn’t work. The space programme was just a detail, a concrete fact to give a concrete narrative quality to the story.

Could one see ‘Houston, we have a problem’ as an olive branch to Serbia from the Slovenian film industry? The Slovenes hardly had to fight for their independence. They just slipped away from Yugoslavia; there were no Serb minorities. Consequently relations with Serbia have been better than Croat and Bosnian relations with Serbia. The Serbs are still outside the EU, still pariahs, while Slovenia is a star member of the EU and most prosperous country in Eastern Europe. Perhaps they are thinking, let’s promote the Serb view of the ugly machinations that led to the end of the federal state of Yugoslavia. It’s on us, in memory of the old brotherhood and unity, bratstvo i jedinstvo.

If some critics complain it’s the work of anti-Western propaganda the film-makers could turn around and say it’s just a joke. It is just a joke, man, about the Yugoslav engineers and their Balkan space programme. And the first pig to fly in space.


Further Reading:

Cees Wiebes: Intelligence and the war in Bosnia

Susan Woodward: Balkan Tragedy

Peter Brock: Dirty Reporting & Tragedy in Yugoslavia

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