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30 Dec 11

The Changing Face of Yugoslav Journalism

Journalist Jurij Gustincic reflects on the changing world of journalism in the Balkans in an interview for Balkan Insight.

Andrej Klemencic

Raised in pre-Second World War Vienna and Moscow, Jurij Gustincic incorporated his worldly views and sharp thinking into reporting, making him a phenomenon of the then Yugoslavia's journalistic world.

He was one of the youngest correspondents of Yugoslavia’s main daily Politika to report from London and New York.

Now aged 90, Gustincic, who still writes opinion pieces for Slovenian weekly Mladina, remembers the days when Yugoslav journalists had the best seats at tables in London and Washington. He reflects on how journalists perceive reality in the post-war Balkans and also about where Slovenia and the region might be heading politically.

During the 25 years of your work as foreign correspondent you observed the relationship of two leading Western powers, the US and UK, towards Yugoslavia. Now these powers have relationships with the republics created after the break up of Yugoslavia. Do you feel Britain and the United States are capable of having a unified relationship towards these countries and do you think that would be a good idea at all?

I believe the countries in question had very clearly outlined politics towards Yugoslavia, much more then now, when they are dealing with the new countries. Their focus is dispersed and I believe they are far less interested in the [countries born from the collapse of] Yugoslavia than they were interested in Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia was a strategically important country particularly during and immediately after the Cold War. Whatever happens in politics of the new countries is treated by Western countries with much less anxiety than was the case in days of Yugoslavia. In those days, Western countries sent their best diplomats to Belgrade. That is not the case anymore.

All of this does not mean they let out of sight any of the parts of former Yugoslavia. Not at all. They are simply far less afraid to make mistakes in their political moves towards these countries.

Did you feel limited in any way when you worked as a Yugoslav journalist in the UK and the US?

Yugoslav journalists were no doubt privileged. In those countries Yugoslavia was  perceived differently than the rest of the Eastern Europe. The Yugoslav passport, for example, was incredibly respected throughout the world at the time. People had different opinions as to how much Yugoslavia was different from other countries of Eastern Europe, but we did have a different status.

We had easier access to everything compared to our colleagues from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, even Poland, although Poland always had a special status because of the vast Polish population in US.

I would even go as far as to say that we were more interesting to Western powers. This trend continued until the break up of Yugoslavia. The break up which, by the way, was never in the interest of Western powers. They wanted to see Yugoslavia survive.

In 1991 I was invited on a state visit to Germany and spoke to a very high ranking official close to the Chancellor. I was attacked as a Slovenian and asked what on earth we were doing with this independence thing. That was in March 1991. Two months later, the Germans changed their attitude completely and were among the first to recognize Slovenia's independence.

Why do you think that happened?

That remains a mystery to me to date. But that support was not synchronized among the Western countries. When I asked the American Secretary of State in Belgrade in 1991 if the US would recognize Slovenia's independence, he said: 'We will not!' America changed that position at the end of 1991.

What do you think made them change their position?

I believe they were realistic in their assessment of the situation and saw that they should not invest time in saving something that was falling apart. But despite that they were very reluctant to let go their view of Yugoslavia as a country important to American politics in Central and Southern Europe.

All this happened very fast. In that regard, I must say the following. We frequently attribute too much attention to the decision-making processes of superpowers. But sometimes, those processes are less profound than we may think. Even great powers can change their opinion out of the blue. Their politics towards Yugoslavia were not cement-solid. In the years before the break up they frequently warned that the country was about to dissolve and many of them saw that this would inevitably happen. Still, the official policies of those countries were that Yugoslavia should stay whole. Great Britain and the US played no destructive role in the break up of Yugoslavia. They simply accepted the events as they unfolded. That is all.

Before and after the break up of Yugoslavia you worked as a journalist. What is the difference between you as a Yugoslav journalist and now, when you are a Slovenian journalist?

I was already retired during the last years of Yugoslavia, but I still worked as a journalist in Belgrade. During that time, I wrote for Serbian, Slovenian and even Croatian publications, where I wrote daily opinion pieces for Slobodna Dalmacija for five years.

I stopped writing that when Tudjman came to power as it was no longer possible to write normally. The mentality of the three nations changed fast with the events leading to the break up. As I could no longer satisfy the needs of the three very  different readerships, I had to decide to choose one of them. I then decided I would write only for the Slovenian media.

The Serbian language has stayed with me for some time. I wrote my articles for Slovenian publications in Serbian and they were then translated. My only previous connection to Slovenian media was my decision, upon arrival in the US in the 70’s, that I would also report for TV Ljubljana.

If you take a detailed look into journalism of the former Yugoslav republics, what do you see?

Before reviewing the present situation, please allow me to go back a bit in the recent past. It is true that Serbia under Milosevic was a horrible place, but it is also true that he focused his pressure on the media only on the national TV and Politika daily. He left the other  magazines alone. Vreme, among whose founders you will also find my name, was one such publication. But what Milosevic touched, he destroyed. Politika daily was never able to recover.

What does the Slovenian journalism scene look like today?

I believe that Slovenian journalism shows good quality when it comes to covering Western Europe and the US. But Slovenia has had tough times. The former government of Janez Jansa tried to create a coup within the main Slovenian daily Delo. But they only succeeded partially. Delo is recovering, Dnevnik daily is getting better and Mladina weekly is as good and as revolutionary as it was in the Yugoslav times.

What did the transition bring to reporting?

It is my impression that when Slovenian media report on Western matters there is good dose of healthy liberalism. Also, reporting from Asia and Africa is very liberal. Slovenian media outlets write about Russia with some reservation. There is no great exhilaration over Russia, including reports on Putin. Slovenian media is critical of the West not for ideological reasons, but because they see things in America and Europe moving slightly too far towards the right. Generally, the reporting of Slovenian media is liberal.

Do you believe that readers from multi-ethnic countries like Yugoslavia have a different perception of reality than readers from mono-ethnic countries of the former Eastern Bloc?

I believe that the Yugoslav readers had very good perception of the West. When we speak of the communist times, we must acknowledge that Tito needs to be given credit for one major thing aside from winning the war for Yugoslavia and saying no to Stalin – he let Yugoslav citizens travel freely from 1961 onwards. Since then on, many went to work abroad.

Yugoslavia of course had ideological restraints but at the same time we translated Western literature, including the anti-communist writers. So, I would say that Yugoslavia was a strange place. It was at the same time a communist and a non-communist country.

Yugoslavia is a European phenomenon. If you could live with not openly criticizing Tito, you could do and say whatever you liked in all walks of life, save politics from the 60's on. Yugoslavia was not behind the iron curtain. It was behind some kind of a curtain, but not an iron one.

In the early 90's you said that in 1991 Slovenia stood alone against the occupiers as England stood alone against Hitler in 1940. After reviewing the heritage of the recent Yugoslav wars, do you still believe that was a good comparison?

I am not sure. We are still in the process of creating Slovenia. Some liberties are superior even to those in Western Europe, but on the other hand we have not dealt with the heritage of the Second World War. Slovenian right-wingers see the war and the post-war time as Iron Times.

I personally believe that the Slovenes were only once an important factor in world history and that is when we stood against Hitler. No small nation had partisan movement at the doorstep of Germany, and we even managed to create liberated territories very early in the war. People forget these things. Politically and ideologically Slovenia is and will continue to be a divided place.

Slovenia was a part of the break up of Yugoslavia. Do you feel that Slovenia reflects well on its role in that process?

That is a very complex issue. When we separated from Yugoslavia, all that mattered to us was to achieve the goals we had set for ourselves and the chief goal was to enter the EU as soon as possible.

We wanted to have the Euro as currency at any cost because we believed that to be an ideal and a permanent solution. Now we see that it was neither ideal and, as it seems, also not a permanent solution. Slovenia craved the West then, but now Slovenia will have to reflect on its position.

With Al Jazeera in Sarajevo and other media houses which have bureaus throughout the former Yugoslavia we see common media space being created here. How do you see this?

I believe that each of the countries has even more media products than it can consume.

Let me rephrase my question. In Yugoslav times, Slovenian journalists  worked for large Yugoslav media agencies. You are one such example. Do you believe that Slovenian journalists would want to take part in a regional media project or is Slovenian journalism self-sufficient?

It is more the latter. I am not sure if this self-sufficient attitude will be permanent.

I do not see Slovenian journalists wanting to see regionalism revived. On the other hand, I see young Slovenian actors who want to have a larger audience. I believe that the story of rapprochement of the Southern Slavs is not yet finished.

It has experienced an immense blow. We are still living with the consequences of that blow. But this will change. Young Slovenes go to Serbia to party, they don't go to Austria or Italy or other neighbouring countries. One must be cautious when addressing these issues. There has been much anger. I believe these are still transitional times and we must be careful when we speak of the future.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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