Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 9. Nr. März 2001 Editorial

Chains of the Past

Marija Mitrovic (Triest)

For anyone who speaks about the experience of the "unstable zone" of former Yugoslavia, the mention of ethnic borders as obstacles which hinder the process of "trans- and interdisciplinary research and practice" may have a positive or a negative meaning, but it is always very highly strung. Inhabitants of that former country are strictly divided into those who believe that the new states are the centuries-old-dream-come-true of their people, and those who feel that they have once and for all lost their true homeland - which was precious for the very fact that its multi-ethnic and multi-confessional composition made it possible for something of their neighbours, members of related but similar cultures, to live in every individual. For a while, when within Yugoslavia there co-existed different cultures (Serb, Croat and Slovene in the First Yugoslavia, and along with them Macedonian and Bosnian in the Second) and almost invisible borders between them, getting acquainted with other cultures and the mutual permeation of different strata of culture was considered to be quite "normal", not in the least extraordinary. When a writer from one republic clashed with the authorities "at home", he or she was warmly welcomed and his or her works printed in another republican centre. Literary magazines in Belgrade, Zagreb or Sarajevo published contributions written in all variants of Serbo-Croat, as well as a large number of translations from Slovenian or Macedonian. One might even claim that 15 or 20 years ago Yugoslavia did not successfully operate as a federal state on the political level, but had instead developed a model of "federalist" relations among the various cultures of the peoples that lived within that country.(1) This is the model which is nowadays essentially lacking and which even the former supporters of "pure" ethnic cultures have lately begun to express nostalgia for. One of the positive signals of the search for such a model is the establishment of Group 99 which consists of some thirty intellectuals from all parts of former Yugoslavia.

Historians have already described or will describe the causes of the dissolution of Yugoslavia, proving that the fuse of the explosion had been lit in the past, that the dissolution at a given historical moment was inevitable. There will be historians, just as there are other intellectuals, writers and artists, who will agree with those who have taken the highest posts in the new distribution of power and material goods in claiming that, for thousands of years, exactly such a geo-political map of the Balkans was being desired, designed and constructed. However, if, at least in the sphere of culture, a multi-ethnic state was being constructed over the course of 70 years, and at least in the past 10 years an effort has been made to erase from memory everything that connected us, it is the task of us who remember the cultural climate and culture of everyday life at the time of Second Yugoslavia to repeat, record, testify and publicly keep incriminating the newly created states for pursuing a retrograde policy in the sphere of culture. Regardless of the fact that there are essential differences among the newly created states in political and economic life, in all the new states the development of culture started in a direction opposite from that expected: a step back was taken in the social sphere, in health, science, education, in relations between the state and the church. In the sphere of general culture a more decisive step back was taken; an anti-modern, local, narrow-minded trend is now predominant, with elements of folklore. In proportion to its population, Yugoslavia had a comparatively high number of theatre, film, literary and visual artists of international esteem. Nowadays, when all such creative individuals are considered, the total number is smaller, and it is paradoxical that those who are known in the world do not live in the territory of former Yugoslavia any more, but are scattered around the world, "between asylum and exile" as Predrag Matvejevic untiringly repeats.

I am starting my discussion from a puzzling but well-known fact: in the process of transformation from a communist to a democratic system, the most tragic consequences were suffered by the inhabitants of former Yugoslavia, once the most progressive and the most attractive among all communist states. The burden borne by the former inhabitants of Yugoslavia is not the same throughout the earlier state, just as the type of political, social and cultural life is not the same. Slovenia, whose intellectuals, especially writers, had systematically made preparations and participated in political lobbying in favour of secession from Yugoslavia, has experienced change with the least trauma. In the eighties when, instead of the democratisation of the existing system, nationalism emerged as the new collective energy which would, it was believed, enable the creation of national states after the model of Western European countries, Slovenian intellectuals had a comparatively easy task. The population of their Republic had always been ethnically homogeneous: 98% of the inhabitants are Slovenes, and true political pluralism has not been expressed among them to this day. At the same time, the political and intellectual elite from the biggest republic, Serbia, was at that decisive historical moment autistically certain that only its own way had been correct, so it did its best to get rid of Slovenia as soon as possible, which then took serious steps on the road to modernization of political thought. Macedonia was lucky to have at its head at the crucial moment a team of people (primarily the president of the state Kiro Gligorov) who had done their best, even in what seemed impossible, to prevent the war on its territory. Its ethnic composition (almost 30% are ethnic Albanians who in some western parts reach the figure of almost 100% of the population), unlike that of Slovenia, is unfavourable for the creation of an ethnic state. Its geopolitical position is also unfavourable: it borders four countries, every one of which has terrirorial aspirations towards Macedonia.

In the dissolution of Yugoslavia into separate states along ethnic principles, the most difficult separation, still not complete, was among the most closely related territories: Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. Until ten years ago, in these four republics, a single language was used - Serbo-Croat - which was divided into two variants (Ekavian and Iyekavian) and two scripts (Latin and Cyrillic). The war that broke out in 1991 was fought for territories. The Serbs tried to occupy the parts of Croatia in which Serbs also lived; after that the Serbs and the Croats wanted to occupy parts of Bosnia in which the majority population was Serb and Croat, respectively. Since all these parts had for centuries had only provisional and very fluid borders, an attempt was made to establish new, firm borders by military force. At the same time, the process started of intensifying language differences within each of the created states, so that the single language developed into three, with the strong possibility that soon the birth of the fourth (Montenegrin) would also be officially proclaimed.

In her story 'Ministarstvo boli'(2) ('The Ministry of Pain'), Dubravka Ugresic describes a group of young people from different parts of former Yugoslavia who live in Amsterdam and who feel this divided language to be rigid. They begin to stutter, to confuse their accents and finally start speaking to each other in either Dutch or English. In an interview, the writer stresses: "We have not lost just the state, but also our language". A sociologist from Zagreb, Jovan Miric, describes the new situation as follows:

a panic-stricken and thoughtless flight from those who are unbearably similar to us is especially obvious in the language and violence done to the language. New revolutionaries of the culture and spirit, language-lovers and state-lovers, have for ten years already tried to force the people into the straight jacket of their own complexes, traumas, frustrations and paranoid fears. They are forcing the people to learn their own mother tongue, as if they were their mothers. The people indeed cannot use the language these purists impose on them as Croatian. It is a foreign language for the Croat people.(3)

Telephone lines between Croatia and Serbia were cut for four years, and for more than six years there was no public transport between the two neighbouring republics: the railway line between Belgrade and Zagreb which operated even during the Second World War was not used during the nineties. Not a single newspaper, book, magazine, crossed from one into the other state, both of which spoke the same language. In the meantime, especially in Croatia, the so-called "cleansing" of libraries took place of all books printed in Cyrillic: hundreds of thousands of copies of books were burned or sent to be recycled. Nowadays, even if a library still happens to have a book by a Serb author, it can only be borrowed after submitting a demand in writing. A well-known linguist, university professor, high party and state official at the time of Tudjman, Dalibor Brozovic, ordered that 40.000 copies of the Encyclopedia of Yugoslavia should be burned. I could list endless tragic examples. The main goal was to drive as far apart as possible two essentially very closely related and firmly connected cultures which were created in a language of the same grammatical structure with minimal lexical differences. These very differences were to increase.Yet despite this, when two years ago, after a minimal but nevertheless occasional exchange of cultural goods was re-established, a Belgrade film was presented in Zagreb in Croat "translation", so that along with the original language of the actors on the screen, the "alleged" translation appeared, people went to the cinema to see the film several times simply to laugh at the language written on the screen.

In Serbia, which - paradoxically - remained in the country which is still called Yugoslavia, in parallel or perhaps even slightly before the dissolution of the Second Yugoslavia, everything was done to make the adjective "Yugoslav" disappear from all kinds of art. The once very rich Museum of Modern Art, which has a large collection of works by all Yugoslav artists, with exceptionally fine catalogues made as serious studies (on the second, the third and the fourth decade in Yugoslav arts), is now empty. This was done at the time of the NATO bombing, but the attacks were just a pretext for the collection never to appear in public again; it was taken away, most probably stolen. The same happened to the Museum of Yugoslav Revolution. Much the same may be said of other regions; even films made by teams from all cultural centres are nowadays described as "Serb", "Croat", "Slovene" ...

There is a tendency to remove from the ethnic organism the artists who have left the country(4), either as new dissidents or even before, not for political, but for private reasons. Irena Vrkljan, Croat writer who lives and works in Berlin, and who was until the nineties present in all debates and who was awarded many prizes, has now completely disappeared. Two years ago a Croatian alternative journal for culture (Zarez) in the report from the Frankfurt book fair made it public that at the Croatian stand there were no books of Croatian authors who were at that very moment achieving enviable results expressed in high circulations in German, English or French translations. Among the authors recognised abroad but despised at home are Dubravka Ugresic, Slavenka Drakulic, Rada Ivekovic, Predrag Matvejevic, and among the theatre artists Slobodan Snajder.

Another short note from the past will facilitate better understanding of the profundity and perplexity of the latest changes. Right along the middle of the territory of former Yugoslavia, a schism has divided Christianity into the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Catholic churches. Earler, the nation united three great monotheistic religions: Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim. Roman, Byzantine and Turkish-Arabic civilisational circles touched each other, penetrated each other, fought for prevalence. Potentially, multiconfessionality, everyday life in the presence of different religions and corresponding cultures (with the centre in Sarajevo) can become the foundation for acquiring the experience of alteration, the capability to be the other too, without marring original identity. But

in order to make this possibility effectively and truly the wealth and for it to cease to be the curse, it is necessary to develop the type of society we have never had before - the type of democratic society in which religion and religious society will be spared the possibility of being politically manipulated but also its own temptations and wishes to manipulate and establish profane fusion with political structures.(5)

In such a complex context, the Second Yugoslavia had made a big historical step forward: it had separated the church from the state. Nowadays, however, not only is the return of the church to the political sphere quite evident, but also its involvement in education. Confession has become a key element in the determination of ethnic affiliation, and all three religious communities are firmly linked to national institutions, party and state authorities. All these institutions together are petrifying the society into a premodern, collectivist (not socialist any more, but ethnic/nationalistic) one. Relative but significant results of modernisation and individual-civic emancipation have been completely rejected and nullified, as has the autonomy in culture and the personal freedoms achieved during the sixties and seventies.

I might in conclusion add a few quotations which will may appear comic but which are taken quite seriously in where they originate. In a history textbook, for instance, you will read that Croatian navy was born in the battle near Makarska in 887. A Bosnian member of the Academy of Sciences and Arts, who was until recently ambassador in London, Muhamed Filipovic, writes that "the Bosnians are one of the oldest European peoples and they belong among the peoples with the oldest state tradition; our state history reaches back to the seventh century of our era".(6) Such a statement is just a reply to Serb and Croat myths: Croatian state radio-television often broadcasts a song called "Since the Seventh Century", and it was also quoted by Tudjman in his speech when Croatia was received into the UN. Its refrain may be paraphrased thus:

We've been here for a long time, everyone should know:
Since the seventh century the Croats have lived here.
The Serbs, of course, do not lag behind:
The quiet Danube river knows well
The Serbs were here since the seventh century
from Pakrac, from Pakrac,
all the way to Vukovar, all the way to Vukovar.

This is the climate in which one is expected to live and create. Should anyone wonder why those who really wish to create something in the sphere of the arts seek refuge outside these newly created homelands of theirs? Grown up from related and mutually intermixed cultures, all those who neither wish nor are able to reject such a past nowadays live far from the new borders of the states that have emerged in the territory of Yugoslavia.

© Marija Mitrovic (Triest)

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(1) I do not have in front of me the results of any research, and none will be carried out in the foreseeable future in the newly-created states, although it would be good if funds were to be found for it, because both the positive and the negative results of the models of co-operation and exchange developed in the territory of former Yugoslavia could be applied to a community of peoples which is just emerging: the European Union.

(2) Bastard, October 1998, 1-22.

(3) J. Miric. 'Nacionalni pogrom'. Feral Tribune, 26/02/00, 40-4.

(4)  At the beginning of July, the assembly of Croat writers was held. It accepted with long applause the proposal that the Union of Writers receive back all those who had been expelled from the Union at the beginning of the nineties and who had lived in exile ever since, or as Predrag Matvejevic, one of those expelled and nowadays a professor at the Sorbonne and Rome, likes to say, who live "between exile and asylum". The idea of the return of the "lost sheep" into the flock and the applause with which the idea was accompanied would have deserved quite different attention had it not been that very same assembly, formed of the same people, that had made the decision with equally thunderous applause that those whom they are now calling upon to return should be thrown out and labelled as traitors.

(5) Ivo Lovrenovic. 'Urlici iz bozje kuce: Paradoksi bosanskoga konfesionalizma' ('Screams from God's House: Paradoxes of Bosnian Confessionalism'). Feral Tribune, 25/03/2000, p. 46-47.

(6) Quoted in the Sarajevan newspaper Dani, 16/02/98.

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