Life under Sanctions

Posted April 12, 2013

Categories: Blog, Eastern Europe, Featured, Uncategorized

Even at an intuitive level, sanctions never made much sense to me. If North Korea is such an isolated country, and isolation only reinforces the leadership’s paranoia, then adopting a policy of further isolating the country through sanctions seems counterproductive. If you want the people of Iran to rise up against their leaders, why give the leadership an easy target to blame for the economic conditions that adversely affect the standard of living of average people? And then there are all those statistics about the spike in infant mortality – and the death of more than 200,000 children –directly attributed to the sanctions applied to Iraq in the 1990s. Sanctions are like drones: they cause death and destruction at a distance and there’s no one visible in the cockpit.

Sanctions are also an expression of the impotence of policymakers. They are the one alternative that politicians can think of between doing nothing and waging war. Of course, sanctions are not just one thing. They can range from an arms embargo and a freeze on assets held overseas to air embargoes and export bans.

In the 1990s, Serbia was subjected to a series of sanctions, as a result of first the war in Bosnia and then the conflict with Kosovo. As a result, Serbia became an international pariah, its economy tanked, and its population suffered. Did this erode the grip of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade? One part of the population supported him whatever he did; one part opposed him whatever the circumstances. The key question is whether the “wavering class” responded to sanctions by shifting their position and whether that shift had any impact. Serbian public opinion for much of the period of sanctions suggested that the population resented the intervention from outside and was determined to withstand the economic adversity.

Milena Dragicevic Sesic doesn’t think the sanctions and embargoes had much effect on Milosevic. “The embargo didn’t hurt Milosevic,” she told me in her office at the University of Belgrade last October. “But it hurt our industry. All factories were closed. There was no possibility to sell anything to anybody except through mafia links. If it was really a crucially important item like copper, then it was exported all the time. But the textile industry? No. And who lost out? Textile workers. The average person was the greatest loser.”

As a leading dissident and a key figure in the cultural world, Milena Dragicevic Sesic was in a good position to evaluate the impact of these isolating policies on Serbian culture. She told me about the vibrant youth culture that was completely overshadowed, during the war years, by a rising tide of nationalism. And the embargoes only intensified this nationalism.

“International embargoes never fulfill their aims,” she asserted. “They just strengthen mafia structures in every country. They prevent people from developing, from getting an education, and the result is that people become more nationalistic and aggressive, like in Iran. It produces the opposite.”

She spent those embargo years trying to support independent politics and culture inside Serbia and maintaining the slender lifelines between the cultural community and the outside world. We talked about her work with the independent radio station B92, the problem of blank spots in Yugoslav history, and her very disappointing trip to Kosovo in the late 1970s.


The Interview


Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?


I was at home in Belgrade. Of course my husband and I were extremely happy for several reasons. One was that personally we had a very bad experience in East Germany. We traveled there twice and were badly treated by the police and customs officers. We knew what kind of society it was, so we were happy for these people that the system finally collapsed.

It was also the year of the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. I went in the summer to France with a group of artists from Yugoslavia. We really enjoyed that, and some friendships developed then have lasted until today. This whole year had a revolutionary spirit. The official celebration was a big spectacle in France. But there was the fall of the Wall, the change in Romania, perestroika already had brought in new voices in the Soviet Union. Here in Belgrade, there was also a big manifestation at the student cultural center.

Before that, at the beginning of the 1980s, our big debates here about Poland’s Solidarity were repressed. It was more dangerous to put up a Solidarity banner on the street than to say something against Yugoslav self-government. They Communist Party believed that the movement to support Solidarity was very risky for Yugoslavia. But in 1989, we didn’t feel that Yugoslavia was going to split apart in a war. In 1990, however, it was already clear, and I can tell you exactly when I was able to clearly express this feeling.

I was at a symposium in Barcelona. Many people asked me what was happening – this was December 1990 — and I said then that soon it would be a bloody war. They told me I was exaggerating, that it was impossible, that this was Europe and Europe wouldn’t allow it. I said, “I’m absolutely sure.” First of all, there had been for years a level of exaggerated hatred in media.

But I was also thinking about an interview I had a long time before that in 1977 with the French professor Pierre Gaudibert. At that time he had just published a book called Cultural Action. He was a historian of art. But this was an analysis of cultural policy, and I was a student of cultural policy in France. We had a very relaxed discussion at his home. He said to me, “I don’t like to go to your country. You don’t have freedom of the press.” At that moment, I was also very critical toward my government. I’d never been a member of the Communist Party. But what he said hurt me, as I knew that level of freedom was greater in Yugoslavia then in many other countries of the world. I said something that unfortunately turned out to be true many years later. I said, “But if we would have complete freedom of press, the nationalists would use it immediately and there would be war.” At that same moment, I was ashamed I was saying this, and I was thinking, “Milena, why are you defending the lack of freedom of the press? Why are you inventing this argument?” Gaudibert had a small sarcastic smile on his face and just went on to the next question, probably thinking that I was just defending the regime with my stupid argument.

Around 1985, press became freer, and the youth press in particular–Mladina in Slovenia, Polet in Zagreb, and NON in Belgrade–was bringing up very important political issues. On the other side, some conventional mainstream newspapers and weeklies started to write about Serbs as the victims of all the others. Croats started to write about Bleiburg field where Croatian Ustashe and Domobrani soldiers were killed. Slovenians voiced their dissatisfaction with contemporary economic policy, saying that they as 15 percent of the population were producing 37 percent of the GDP, which was true. Bosnians said, “We are a Yugoslav colony. We are only giving raw materials and others are making profits.” Basically all the nations in Yugoslavia started with this kind of self-victimizing talk. And I started thinking that what I said to Pierre Gaudibert was unfortunately true. And it became worse and worse.

At the same time there was very good youth press. At Belgrade University, at least 15 young professors subscribed to the Croatian youth press Polet and the Slovenian youth press Mladina. We found it very refreshing then, and different from the mainstream media (but many of the people who contributed to this youth press now live abroad). Despite all the nationalism in the mainstream, there was a huge subcultural movement, like punks in Slovenia and new primitivism in Bosnia. We in Belgrade created the review Subcultures, and the last issue was published in 1989. After that, there was no money for projects like that, projects which were going beyond the nation.

By 1990 things had gotten worse. On March 9, 1991, I participated in the big demonstrations for a free TV, along with my father and husband, in front of the national theater. That evening, Milosevic sent in tanks. I said, “Imagine what he will do in other parts of the country if he is sending tanks against Serbs here in Serbia.” And then, in summer 1991, it started with the bombing of Vukovar. In 1992, the war began in Sarajevo. I felt terrible. I felt that I lost my country, and that there was no road back.

Throughout my life, I felt that my country was the whole country – Yugoslavia. It was only in Kosovo where we didn’t really feel at home. The first time we went to Kosovo was only in 1979. Before that we were constantly listening to all these stories about how Serbia is closely linked to Kosovo. But even during Tito’s time, no Serbian school dared to bring children to Kosovo. We went everywhere but not to Kosovo. My husband and I married in 1979 and we decided finally to go to Kosovo. Before that, every year we went to a different region: to Slovenia in 1975, to Croatia every year since my childhood and especially during student times since 1973.  Croatia was the ultimate destination, because of the coast and because of the numerous cultural events: the Pula film festival and the Dubrovnik theater festival. These were musts for us, as students of the Film and Drama Academy; you had to be there. And you felt at home.

But when we went to Kosovo, it was not just the Albanians that we didn’t understand. We didn’t understand the Serbians there, the way they spoke, their habits. And people looked at us suspiciously. At the time I was confused. Now I’m thinking that maybe they thought we were provocateurs. In Pristina, we wanted to go to Kosovo Polje where the famous battle took place. You imagine that this battlefield will be hidden somewhere, far from roads.

So I asked the guy at hotel reception, who knew that we were from Belgrade, “How can we get to Kosovo Polje?”

He said, “Just go.”

I said, “Yes, but how do we know that it’s the field? Where do we have to turn?”

He looks at us. “Just go!”

“But where?”

“To Belgrade!”

We were thinking, “Is he sending us home?” We took the road to Belgrade and then we realized that this road went exactly through the battlefield, and the monument was visible from the road. We had no clue before that. We thought it would be like the Mishar battlefield in Serbia, which is nowhere near the road, like so many other battlefields, and difficult to find. Also, to show how unfriendly the atmosphere in Kosovo was, I have to say that twice our car was stoned by little children. As soon as they saw the car, they threw stones. It was uncomfortable.

Two years later, in 1981, Albanians in Kosovo rioted for the first time, calling for their right to self-determination and asking for a separate republic within Yugoslavia. I said to my family, my aunts and uncles, “I think it would be better if we give them this right.” They were so shocked! One of my aunts stood up and couldn’t even speak. She looked at my mother and managed to say, finally, “How can Milena dare to say this?! It’s our heart, our soul.”

But we visited this heart and soul and even the orthodox priest didn’t welcome us. At the Patriarchate of Pec, we wanted to see the frescoes, but the nun in charge said, “We don’t open the church for tourists, only for tourist groups”.

“But we are coming all the way from Belgrade!”

“I have a lot of things to do,” she said.

That was probably true, but nobody was friendly! We went to Prizren, Pec, all around. It was not like our country. In Slovenia, we went from to place to place, and we felt perfect. Same in Bosnia, same in Macedonia.

Afterward, Kosovo was the heart of the conflict in the 1980s. Slovenia immediately stood on the side of Kosovo, which was something that Serbians couldn’t accept, and a mutual press battle started: “Austrian servants” vs. “Byzantines” or “primitive peasants.” That’s how all this turmoil started. That’s when people were talking about an “asymmetric” federation, and then Milosevic said that there’s no such thing as asymmetric federation. I remember thinking that Spain is an asymmetric federation because Catalonia has more rights than the others. How could Milosevic lie to the people like this? And no political scientist, nobody with real knowledge, opposed this!

This end of the 1980s was terrible. But the 1990s, when the war in Bosnia started, for us that was a huge tragedy. The bombardment and siege of Sarajevo was something we, civil society in Belgrade, couldn’t understand. We demonstrated for Dubrovnik when it was bombarded: maybe 2,000 people, no more than that, in the park in front of the state presidency. For Sarajevo, it was a massive protest featuring a huge black ribbon wrapped around the city. But the tactic of the Serbian government was to ignore us. That was the smartest tactic: to asphyxiate the movement. In May 1992, the student strike started exactly because of the Sarajevo blockade and the war in Bosnia. There were no exams during the whole of June. Students continued the strike through all of July. But in August, the students from the provinces went home, and everything evaporated. However, this strike was a very powerful sign that the younger generation is against the war, this huge human tragedy.

The economic situation at that time was so tough that everyone was preoccupied with basic survival. In 1993-94, there was no heating at the university, so we were not working from December to the end of February. My colleagues from outside the country kept asking me, “But you’re going to produce a new book, right?” But I hadn’t been working for months, I couldn’t think about writing a book. I couldn’t even explain to them that you got your weekly salary, your 25 kilos of flour and 25 kilos of sugar, and you went home and cooked and baked bread during the moments when we had electricity. You didn’t really get any money. It was organized so that you were just in a panic around survival.

In those days I was linked to the independent radio station B92, as they offered a possibility of resistance. I was book editor of a serial called Apatrides. This was a word used by Danilo Kiš, the famous Serbian writer of Jewish, Hungarian, and Monenegrian origin, to describe those not identified by their ethnic roots, as it used to be the case for intellectuals during the Austro-Hungarian empire and in Yugoslavia. We did several rounds, each with four or five books. We published novels and also non-fiction, critical books about the situation. I often represented B92 abroad – at the Council of Europe, the European Civil Forum, the Congress of Free Radio stations of Europe in Klagenfurt, and so on –because the editor-in-chief Veran Matić didn’t speak English so well and was busy with other things.

Until 1989, the only country in the eastern part of the world with a program in cultural management was Yugoslavia. I graduated from this program in the 1970s. I became a teacher, first in art production, theater production, and theater management. Then I introduced cultural policy. Coming back from France and post-graduate work — as the French are very socio-culturally oriented – I lobbied to develop our program in that direction, which became very successful. When the European Community developed a specific program in European cultural project management, I sent one student. This student was the best in the course. The next year, in 1991, they asked me to give a lecture in the program, wanting to see the professor who educated such a student. The northerners — Scandinavians and English — used overhead projectors at that time. The southerners – the Spanish, Portuguese – were more like French professors, more concerned with ethical debate and not just imparting skills. I did both, mixing a little bit of Kundera and Milosz with marketing tools. Somehow everyone appreciated this different approach I was bringing. The people in the European diploma program asked me to become part of the permanent staff in 1991. It was an honor. It was also a guarantee of independence for me. I could take the job, which was two two-week sessions plus one week for the exam period, without endangering my permanent position in Belgrade.

It also gave me ten times my Serbian salary. And that made me feel free. Many of my colleagues didn’t feel that they could say anything for fear of losing their jobs. But for me, making in this month and a half much more than my whole salary, I didn’t care. But then if you don’t care, you don’t lose your job anyway, as they know that they cannot blackmail you with salary. And, to be honest, at the University of Arts, we have good deans and rectors. Even in 1998, when the new law on university was enacted and the government began nominating deans, they couldn’t find anyone at our university to be nominated. Our rector at that time was a conductor who publicly supported the student movement. They didn’t reappoint her. They had to bring someone out of retirement, a singer who was married to one of Milosevic’s generals. But she was just a figurehead. I didn’t feel any repression doing these years from the standpoint of the deans or the rectorate.

One guy said to me at that time, “How can you travel to the West when they humiliate us, when we have to stand in lines for visas?” This was true. It wasn’t two or three hours of waiting on line for visas. It was days.

“So,” he said, “what kind of character do you have that allows you to accept those humiliations? I said, “I feel I have a privileged opportunity. I’m not going abroad to shop for something. I’m going to teach.”

I wasn’t just teaching. I also had an excellent opportunity to learn, to listen to my best colleagues from England, Spain… This was also a way to develop joint research projects, to write some books and texts together with my colleagues. We still collaborate in the came circle of cultural management professors – ENCATC. In the 1990s, I was sent throughout Eastern Europe to develop cultural management courses. I’m still doing that, for example in Poland, helping the National Cultural Center there to develop specific courses for professionals and managers of local cultural centers. I’ve helped all three Baltic countries with their arts management courses, and I also worked a lot in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan as well as Central Asia, and even Mongolia, where they translated my book.

My editor realized that not many Serbian books are translated into so many languages as mine has been: not only in Mongolian but also in Georgian and Russian. He decided to ask all the writers of the prefaces and introductions to the book about the reception of the book in their countries. The person from Mongolia talked about the huge debate with the translator about how to translate the word “animation” — not the cartoon but the social-cultural phenomenon. They could not find this word in the Mongolian language. So they just skipped it. This was in 2000. But when the editor asked her about it in 2007, she said, “It’s only now that we are developing these programs that we finally get what this socio-cultural animation means!” So, that was sweet.

Paradoxically, I began to get to know the eastern world only after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Before that, I knew it only sporadically. I’d only been once to the Soviet Union. I have some family in Poland so I knew that country better. Then, as I said, we had some bad experiences in East Germany. We tried to travel through Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but somehow the police would always stop our Yugoslav car and ask for money, claiming that we’d broken some rule. So, we really didn’t know the region very well. But since this need for cultural management training was expressed, I’ve been all over, including Romania where I started a course thanks to Open Society.

From the beginning of the 1990s, in spite of the war and the dissolution of the country, I had lots of opportunities for travel. One was through my profession and through the international networking of the European diploma and the European network of cultural administration training centers, of which my university was one of member-founders in 1992. Then the second “mobility” opportunity was offered through Open Society, because I was a board member here in Serbia.

The third was through B92 and through engagement with the European Citizen Forum, a French-organized activity, and the association of free radio stations. When they had an annual meeting, I would go to represent B92. I was extremely active in traveling for three different reasons. It became so much I had to cut back a bit in 1997.


How would you characterize the impact on culture of the resurgence of nationalism and the reaction to it?


In the early 1980s, the appearance of youth subcultures and youth media represented something important. Before the war, the generation of artists and youth subculture was basically the “happy youth of the 1980s.” It was a time of nearly total freedom. Everything was available. The country was living on easy credits, and we were all living beyond our means. We were traveling. The nightclubs were open, as well as many other private entrepreneurial initiatives (galleries, antique shops, cafe-bars, and so on). Students were very proud to say that they were apolitical because to be politicized meant to be a member of the Communist Party and that was not cool. But they also didn’t want to be dissidents. Life was good, and life for students was perfect! It’s not like now when they have to finish their exams on time and they can’t be permanent students. Do you know how long the average was for studying in those days?


In the 1980s? I have no idea.


Nine years, for a four-year program. For some programs, like law, it was 11 years! It was nice to be a student. Even good students sometimes didn’t want to graduate on time. Up to 1997, if they had the bad luck to have a dead father or mother, they could get the retirement benefits until the age of 27, so why graduate and lose that benefit? There were jokes about these “permanent students.” You could change from school to school. Then, as a student, you qualified for free tickets for travel and so on. There were hundreds of busses going to Venice for the Biennale: for the architecture students, students of fine arts, applied arts, people interested in culture could go there. It was a nice life for the majority.

But also at that time came the slow rise of nationalism and the publication of the nationalist books of Dobrica Cosic and other nationalistic writers. There was one book that I take as a paradigm. It was called Knjiga o Milutinu or The Book about Milutin. It’s a novel about a Serbian peasant who says everything that the nationalists think. It was total bestseller. Everyone was reading it. We didn’t really notice the moment when this nationalist discourse overtook the youth subculture. And with the beginning of war, because of the mobilization threat, the core group of urban youth involved in the alternative rock movement, the poetry movement, they immediately emigrated because they didn’t want to fight. It wasn’t just young people from Serbia who were leaving, but it was mostly from Serbia. That was the first time in Serbian history that escaping military obligation was not considered treason. Milosevic wanted to say that it was that, of course. But in wider social circles, everyone would say, “If you have a chance, go!” It was a huge exodus. For our university, it was tragic. In 1991-2, 25 percent of students and 10 percent of professors left the country. Everyone asked me why I wasn’t leaving. I could have. But there was my family, my parents. And there was my husband, his job and his family. My sister was already abroad. Somebody has had to stay with the parents.

But the majority of those who left are still living abroad. Very few came back. You know who came back? Film directors. They couldn’t cope with the Hollywood way that producers owned the project. Here the directors are the bosses. We, managers and producers, are in the service of the artists. When film directors realized that they couldn’t really have all this freedom, they returned. Even writers, like David Abahari or the poet Dragan Jovanovic, whose work depends so much on language, they left and stayed away. From one moment to the next, the urban art scene collapsed in 1991.

In 1992, a visual artist who’d become blind, Miomir Grujic, created a project called Urbazona. He was a great personality. He’d invite people onto his show to make an event, a performance. That’s how B92 started to make performative events. For example, when the siege of Sarajevo began, B92 invited their audience to make barricades in Belgrade to show in a humorous way how stupid the barricading of Sarajevo was.

Little by little a new generation of artists started to appear. Or, sometimes, artists who in the 1980s were totally politically insignificant, like Milica Tomic, became very different in their work. Back in 1992, Serbia was the subject of an international embargo that was not just military and economic but also educational, athletic, and cultural. There was also an internal embargo in which the Serbian government labeled everything foreign as “evil.” In spring 1992, in reaction to these embargoes, Milica Tomic invited people to bring a piece of foreign art they privately possessed to her house for an exhibition called Private/Public. She turned her house into a public space to show foreign art. From that moment on, she became an artist activist creating very important projects. For instance, when the Serbian army killed many civilians in a village in Kosovo, she recreated that event by restaging it on video. She was the first one to speak out about it and call it a crime.

Also part of this new generation were three young students of architecture that called their group Skart. It was 1992. They were university students, but they were so small they looked like high school students. They produced some cartoons, gave them to people in the markets, and documented the project through photographs. Open Society – I was on the board of the foundation back then — sponsored the translation of the project into English (Sadness). We wanted people to see that there were voices in Serbia other than the nationalists. There was also the group Ice Art that created objects out of ice that then melted. Many artist collectives were created. Open Society helped two groups to establish two independent spaces: Rex for B92 in 1994 and the Center for Cultural Decontamination in 1995. These were civil society spaces where you could give a lecture, where we would bring students from abroad to meet with our students and organize exhibitions, panels, and theater performances.

In 1993-94, the Yugoslav Drama Theater produced a few performances that could be considered anti-war by Nenad Prokic. Today he is in politics, in the Liberal Democratic Party. There were also many alternative theater groups at that time, like the Dah Theater and Dubravka Knezevic. In spring 1992 Dah Theater prepared a performance inspired by different texts of Bertolt Brecht called This Babylonian Confusion. It was a very strong anti-war performance, probably the first one in Belgrade. It started in the gallery of the Cultural Center and then went on the street. Inside the gallery, the audience was of course people like us, who knew what we were going to watch and supported it. But when they went out on the Square of the Republic, many people approached to see what was going on. And when they heard these strong anti-war statements, many people were offended: “What, you don’t want to defend our people! We should just leave those poor Serbs to be killed by the Ustase and the Bosnians?” Because the feeling of the people at the time was that we were defending Serbian people in Croatia and Bosnia, that we, Serbs, are “eternal victims.”

They continue to make these very brave presentations even today. Tomorrow they’ll put on an anti-war performance based on the oral history of women during the war. And each July 11th, they do a performance in the public space devoted to the Srebrenica genocide, which in Belgrade is unfortunately still courageous. There are always right-wing people and groups with crosses and with strong right-wing visual statements who stand there and look threatening. The artists might be ready for that and able to resist it, but if the average person approaches the performance and sees that group of right-wing protestors, they’ll just walk away.

But during the war the majority of the public cultural institutions did very “neutral” performances like Moliere or Shakespeare comedies. That’s the reason why this alternative scene became very important. And the Open Society was one of the only funders. Because of the embargo, other institutes or funders were not around as that wouldn’t have been politically correct or well perceived in their countries.

Because of the embargo, even I, as a known dissident, had a lot of problems going to international conferences. I couldn’t easily receive visas. I had to have a private invitation. If it was a conference invitation, no way. An official invitation to teach, no way. The director of the program had to invite me for a private visit. Once even, the French minister of culture invited me for a meeting. The French embassy told me the visa was refused by the French ministry of foreign affairs which they represent. “Here at the consulate, we are the ministry of foreign affairs,” I was told. “We are here precisely to prevent the French minister of culture from collaborating with you. An embargo is an embargo.”

International embargoes never fulfill their aims. They just strengthen mafia structures in every country. They prevent people from developing, from getting an education, and the result is that people become more nationalistic and aggressive, like in Iran. It produces the opposite. And people die because the system is somehow manipulated to keep out pharmaceuticals. I had an aunt who was a pharmacist. At the time of the embargo, she was 80 years old. She went to the doctor to receive her medication. It was all humanitarian aid, and it was all past its expiration date. She became angry.

“It’s free,” the doctor told her. “What do you want for free?

“But it’s a poison now!” she said.

And the doctor, who didn’t know that she’d been a pharmacist, said, “Lady, some medications become poison, some don’t. You never know which one!”

And I told the doctor, “Actually this lady knows very well because she made those medications when she was working!

The embargo didn’t hurt Milosevic. But it hurt our industry. All factories were closed. There was no possibility to sell anything to anybody except through mafia links. If it was really a crucially important item like copper, then it was exported all the time. But the textile industry? No. And who lost out? Textile workers. The average person was the greatest loser.


What about the intellectuals who threw their lot in with the nationalists, like Dobrica Cosic or the Shakespeare scholar Nikola Koljevic?


As one physician from Banja Luka said, it was “temporary madness.” Because of this nationalism, so many people lost any criteria, other than their emotions, for judging things. But they weren’t fake emotions. They felt empathy toward the victims, and in their mind the only victims were “our” victims. And it all started with a fact that is not really known in the West. After World War II, the Tito government said, “Yes, there were Ustase and there were Chetniks. They did evil and we killed them and that’s that and we won’t speak about it any more. Let their victims lie in caves unburied. If we organize an excavation, it would raise bad memories once again.” This was not done for bad reasons. Tito believed that “brotherhood and unity” would be much more difficult if these memories were not forgotten.

But that also meant that there was no burial for victims. In Herzegovina, Serbs were just thrown into deep pits in the karst. Much later, with the reappearance of nationalism, the Orthodox Church started to organize excavations, moving bones and conducting new burials for the people killed in 1942. This was very moving for many people. My mother watched this on TV and cried and sympathized with the grandchildren of those who were only now being buried. According to our tradition, you have to bury people. It’s the biggest tragedy if the body is not found. We are probably the only Balkan culture with cenotaphs, burial monuments for those whose bodies were never found. As a son or grandchild it’s your responsibility to raise the money to build a monument along the road. It’s not built in the cemetery because the body was not found, but rather on the road.

This is why I never considered becoming part of the Communist Party. I knew from both sides of my family not only what the fascists did, but also what the communists were doing. They took my grandfather. There was no trial, no body. He just disappeared. Everybody saw how he was taken from the apartment at the beginning of 1945. And my uncle, who was 16, was sent to the front around this time. Basically, urban youth were mobilized and sent to the front to fight with no equipment against the Germans. In Serbian collective memory it is remembered that during World War I, 50 percent of the male population was killed: the biggest percentage in the world. We repeated this huge loss in World War II, with Serbs killed in Croatia and Bosnia, and then Serbs were sent to fight Germans in 1945 for no reason other than to “do it ourselves,” because the war was going to finish in a few months anyway.

My sister and I were the rare children who knew something about Goli Otok (Naked Island). Our father would often say how lucky he’d been to be in Split in 1948 rather than in Serbia. A huge number of Serbs and Montenegrins were sent to Goli Otok as potential traitors to the Soviet Union. My father was a great Russophile. He taught himself Russian because of his love of Russian literature. So, he was sure if he’d been in Belgrade in 1948, he too would have gone to Goli Otok, as all of his friends did. (Now I don’t know what to do with his Russian books. Nobody wants any books these days, but those books are definitely the most not wanted!)

Not many people knew about Goli Otok because it was taboo until the 1980s. When I was in gymnasium in 1971, we had a professor of philosophy who was arrogant, awful. He humiliated everyone. Because I was well spoken, it was my duty to go to the director to complain, to say that we didn’t want this professor any more. I invited the lady director to come to class to listen to the students complain. It was self-government in those days: the director had to come! So, we complained about this professor, and then I saw that the director was confused. Her face turned red, and she didn’t know what to say or how to say it.

Finally she said, “Don’t make fuss about it. He’s going to retire next year anyway.”

That wasn’t true, by the way. He ended up teaching there for 10 more years. Anyway, one of the students asked, “But how does that concern us?”

And then the director said, “He was on Goli Otok, but please keep that confidential.”

I looked around at my classmates. They had no idea what she was talking about. She too realized that they didn’t understand. So she said, “He had a very tough time in his life.” She put it in very abstract terms and the students somehow got the impression that she was talking about World War II. Then she left. “She was manipulating us!” the students all said. “She didn’t accept the removal of professor, so we are back to the beginning.” I tried to explain 1948. And that’s when I realized that this was a taboo subject.

So, for me, membership in the Communist Party was not only not acceptable ideologically but it meant meant extra meetings that were really boring. It was a little bit unpleasant to refuse membership because I was always an excellent pupil. I was asked when I was in the fourth class of gymnasium, and I said I wasn’t interested. In 1972, out of 200 pupils, only three entered the Party: two Montenegrins with fathers who were generals and one whose parents were probably communists. Later, many enlisted in the Party, not because they believed in it but because they had to graduate and they were told that it would be easier find a job. The fact that I was not in the Party was a big negative factor, for instance when I was applying for a Fulbright grant. I competed seven times. Each time I was at the top and each time I was turned down. Basically neither side wanted me. Americans wanted to have future leaders of the country and since I was not a member of the Party they knew I couldn’t be a future leader. On the other side, I didn’t have Party links to push me from Serbian side. And now when I see who got those grants, I say, well, they made the wrong decision. But it doesn’t matter.


I want to ask you about the situation of nationalism today.


It’s huge. I wish I could say it wasn’t. In this faculty, nationalism is not big. Why is it so different in the faculty of drama? One reason is that the staff is known for their anti-patriotic feelings. Nationalistic students won’t want to study dramaturgy with Nenat Prokic or management with me.

But when I move to other schools I can’t bear the level of nationalism. Sometimes I get furious about the stories they say are “absolutely true.” For instance: Americans are changing the Serbian climate.

“We have five months of summer,” they say, “because of America’s war against Serbia. The Americans, after all, know how to change the weather.”

“If that’s true,” I say, “Why didn’t they stop Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans?”

“Ah, but you see, they wanted to kill Black people!”

When you hear such stories, what can you say to such people? How can I influence them? Maybe you heard that the vice minister of culture has a list of anti-patriotic intellectuals. It’s on some website of a right-wing paper. Nationalism has polluted a large area and it’s not only in Serbia. At a recent meeting in Macedonia some guy was talking about Alexander Great and Philip the Great, and I’d had it up to here.

“You can’t ride your Bucephalus [the horse of Alexander the Great] and  enter with him into Europe,” I told him. Half the group applauded.

He stood up and said, “You Serbs invented your history in the 19th century, now let us invent our history too.” And the other half the room applauded.

It’s nationalistic madness on all sides. And I can’t explain why some people become nationalists and others become anti-nationalists. For example, one of my best friends comes from Herzegovina, from a village that no longer exists because during the last war Croatians destroyed everything — houses, vineyards — with bulldozers. During World War II, her mother hid under a bed and watched the Croatian Ustase kill all her sisters and brothers. This was a huge trauma. Everyone on her father’s side was killed because he was a Partisan, and he felt terrible guilt. So, both of them have those traumas. During the Croatian Spring in 1971, they came to Belgrade because this Croatian Spring was even stronger in Herzegovina and they couldn’t stand it. Coming from this family you would expect maybe that she would be nationalist, but no, she is not a nationalist.


You talked about nationalist culture back in the 1980s. Is there anything comparable today?


Among the younger generation, there’s Kecmanović. He’s a refugee from Sarajevo. He’s writing about the war in Sarajevo from the perspective of a Serbian victim. For me that’s morally dubious. I would much rather he wrote from a Muslim perspective. The best poems about the genocide against Serbs during World War II were written by a Croatian (Ivan Goran Kovačić, Jama (Deep Hole) and a Muslim (Skender Kulenović, “Stojanka Mother from Knešpolje”). The duty of the writer is to recognize the suffering and pain of others.

Among painters, they paint what they painted before. Nationalistic themes were rare, like the Kosovo Battle of Olja Ivanjicki. But there was a group of painters that prevented an exhibition of Kosovo Albanian painters in Belgrade. One of them used to be a colleague of mine. We worked together in the 1980s, doing creative workshops in orphanages and work camps. We weren’t paid. We just wanted to do that kind of work. I left to do research and other things. But he stayed, and I always thought of him as one of the most humane painters I’d ever seen. It wasn’t common for someone to spend so much of his free time in an orphanage.

When I came to this opening of Kosovo Albanian art, there he was. And he was shouting, “I am an artist. How dare you bring this art here! They are killing Serbs in Kosovo!” Yes, some Albanians were killing Serbs, and some of our military were killing them. But they only see one side. He was really hurt. He was aggressive, but in a sense he was also not aggressive. He was shouting and he was very loud, but you could see the real pain. He really empathized with Serbs. And you have to realize that very few people actually sympathize with Serbian refugees. Serbian refugees from Kosovo are called shqiptar – Albanians — and people don’t really sympathize with them. They say, “Those Serbs have a lot of money because they sold their land to Albanians.” This hatred toward Serbs happens in spite of Serbian nationalism. The nationalism is often very abstract.

Many people ask me whether the Orthodox Church has something like Caritas with the Catholic Church. There is something called Dobročinstvo (Charity), but there’s really no such organization to help people in need. And by the way, the Orthodox Church priests are usually the first to leave places in danger. When the bombs fell in Dubrovnik, there was no Orthodox priest there. The first person to be killed was a poet, Milan Milisic, of Serbian nationality. He was buried by three Catholic priests. Orthodox priests do have good excuses for leaving first. They were the primary target up to now in conflicts: they were the first killed in World War II by the Ustase, and they have responsibility for their families, because Orthodox priests are married with children. So, yes, there were Serbian people in trouble in Krajina or Herzegovina or Kosovo, and there was no help for them from the Church. But for me the problem is that the nationalists can’t sympathize with others, with non-Serbs. I just can’t understand that.


Belgrade, October 8, 2012

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *