Fast-food provides fast track to post-Soviet normality

The other night I caved. I fell asleep on the streetcar and missed my stop, and when I woke up, there it was - its golden arches shining through the Zagreb evening like the fleece on the mast of the Argo.

I'd only ventured into a McDonald's once since coming to study in the former Yugoslavia. It was on a Sunday afternoon in Belgrade when all the stands were closed, and I was facing a nonstop six-hour bus ride back to Croatia. But on this fabled evening I felt like I was fated to be there, drawn out of my slumber by the smell of french fries and hamburgers.

It wasn't the unhealthiness of the food that had been keeping me away; Croatian food is equally greasy and fatty. But I had this sense that somehow McDonald's was like an American embassy, and if I went in I would be on U.S. soil, potentially passing up my whole abroad experience for a single hamburger. That somehow McDonald's represented the West, or globalization, or everything that was not the former Yugoslavia.

The restaurant was packed with swarms of teenagers and families enjoying the spring evening and delighting in a delicious American export. It seemed that every bite was one swallow closer to throwing off the shackles of post-communism. But given the unique economic history of the region, McDonald's means something a little different.

The first McDonald's opened in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in Belgrade in 1988, two years before the franchise's first USSR location opened in Moscow. It was the first McDonald's in a communist country (four years before, Sarajevo was the site of the first and only Olympic Games in a socialist country).

This same McDonald's, the one I found myself in before that bus ride, was razed by the people of Belgrade during the NATO bombings in 1999, as an expression of their anger at the U.S.-driven, 78-day bombardment of their city. As I had thought, McDonald's was a suitable effigy for Serbians in 1999. It was a literal representation of invisible structures of capitalism and globalization that were crippling Serbia-Montenegro during the 1999 sanctions. But this doesn't fit with the economic history of the place that was a country.

Croatia didn't get a McDonald's until 1996, one year after the country's war had stopped. But for Croatia, capitalism did not follow after independence overnight. The SFR Yugoslavia technically ceased being a part of the Eastern Bloc in 1948, when President-for-life Josip Broz Tito was expelled from the Cominform by Stalin over ideological differences. Tito had been aggressive in his foreign policy, trying to spread the communist sphere of influence into the southern Balkans, which wasn't working with Stalin's close relationship with the West (at this point, the wartime cooperation was still carrying over into relations between the capitalist West and Stalin's East). Once Yugoslavia was ousted from the Eastern Bloc, Tito invented an entirely new socialist economic model and slowly institutionalized a market economy, with loans pouring in from the United States and other capitalist countries.

The point is that Croatians have been swallowing bites of capitalism since Tito cited a small section of Marx about "self-management" in 1952. The 1984 Olympics and the 1988 McDonald's weren't the influx of capitalism or globalization into the SFR Yugoslavia. This was Yugoslavia needing those structures to survive. The bills for those loans from capitalist countries started coming in the 1980s, and the SFR Yugoslavia entered a period of incredible hyperinflation. Communism never failed Tito's Yugoslavia because the free market was always there, either behind-the-scenes or out in the open. Restaurants like McDonald's are just the end-game of a slow road to capitalism that started more than 50 years ago.

So that night in Zagreb at the McDonald's? The fries were a little bland so I started searching for ketchup. Unlike the U.S., the land of ketchup and barbecue sauce dispensers, condiments are kept behind the register. I paid two Croatian Kuna (about 38 cents) for ketchup. By the time I returned to my table, my tray had been bussed. I left feeling half-full and a little sick, holding 38 cents worth of ketchup in my hand and standing out of place in a restaurant that was anything but American soil.

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