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Bos/Hrv/Srp 12 Nov 12

To Be Yugoslav Now Requires a Footnote

One of the loudest opponents of nationalism, Dubravka Ugresic spoke to Balkan Insight about identity, the media’s responsibility for the conflict and the criminalisation of former Yugoslav society.

Andrej Klemencic
BIRN Belgrade
Dubravka Ugresic | Photo by Beta

Q: You frequently focus on dichotomies between the East and West, in particular the relationships within the transitional societies of Eastern Europe. Has former Yugoslavia made any use of its “Eastern-ness“?

A: Eastern Europe lost its self-esteem. It would be right to ask the question if we ever had one to begin with, but I would argue that our films, our books, our culture in general show that we did have some self-esteem after all. However, when Communism fell, that spirit was lost, because Eastern Europe always defined its finest culture through opposition.

There was Communism, as an oppressive system, and culture fought to increase the space for liberty. Once that was gone, when the Wall fell, a reverse process began, and that process was life under the stigma of Communism and speedy adaptation to Western values, with the idea that being Western is being better.

The result was standardisation, which is boring and disgusting. The press is boring, because you have the same tabloid press and magazines in all the countries of the region, video clips look the same, music is the same, even the literature strives to look the same.

Q: You deal with issues of identity in your writing. If we assume a large part of the population of Yugoslavia before the wars declared themselves as Yugoslav, at least on paper, what are the consequences of the disappearance of this political identity?

A: The Yugoslav identity disappeared because it was supported by no one. Sometimes these things happen because of some kind of a trick. Slobodan Milosevic, for example, performed a trick by stealing the name Yugoslavia for Serbia and Montenegro.

With that he took away the chance from all those who lived outside Serbia and Montenegro to declare themselves Yugoslav. If you said you were Yugoslav, that meant you supported Milosevic’s politics. So much negative propaganda was in those years connected to Yugoslavia that many people became afraid to call themselves Yugoslav.

There was also the fact that many people thought that being Yugoslav meant being Communist. This connection between Yugoslavia and Communism brought about the fact that European politicians supported the breaking apart of Yugoslavia in the same way that they supported the break-up of the Soviet Union.

Take the case of Slovenia. I am sure there were fewer people in the late 1980s who declared themselves Slovenian than Yugoslav. However, the idea of independent Slovenia was supported by the Western powers, Yugoslavs, on the other hand disappeared.

Q: In recent years Yugoslavs seem to have re-surfaced, with more people again declaring themselves Yugoslav. What happened?

A: It’s just terminology. You have this new idea of a Yugo-sphere and many similar ideas and names, but this is difficult linguistically, because it always requires a footnote. And you always have to justify yourself. For example, if someone today calls you Yugo-nostalgic, you have to say that you are not nostalgic about Tito and Communism, but about the common cultural sphere, etc. We have not yet invented new, more precise terms, and until we do, the footnotes will be necessary.

Q: Which are the barriers that people who fled Yugoslavia and decided to return to one of the new countries face when identifying themselves with their surroundings?

A: If you take the young, you have to presume that they spent their childhood and formative years abroad. A five-year-old left Yugoslavia and now a 25-year-old is coming back to the region. They come back as American, French, Swedish, Norwegian and they view this space as something new and interesting. If his or her parents did not burden him or her with any of the national identities of former Yugoslavia, or with a Yugoslav identity, then these children grew up as American, French...  They are innocent in terms of having no developed identity patterns in this region, and the development of their relationship towards the cultures of former Yugoslavia is an interesting process to observe. But this is just one perspective.

Q: Does this space stimulate artists to create?

You can’t view this space as though there are no differences. It depends on how you view the situation in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia. If you see that in Serbia you have had for a long time a process of profound Fascisization of society, then this, to a writer, is excellent terrain for fighting those principles. This is what I would call a beautiful opposition with countless things to analyse and write about. But, you know, there will come a question: Where were you when society was being taken over by intolerance? What did you do? Why did you stand still?

Q: Who were those intellectuals who did not react to stop the war? Before the war, you were a member of the Association for Yugoslav Democratic Initiative, which advocated for Yugoslavia and against the war.

A: That is nonsense. I was a member of that organisation for five minutes, which is about how long it took for this initiative to disappear, right after being created. Almost no anti-war opposition was possible then. But, yes, I was against the war and the violent break-up. It could have happened in a non-violent way but people did not want that. Why?

Because it was necessary to perform a full-scale robbery on all levels of society. And robbery is most easily performed by starting a war. The result of the Yugoslav war is not only the new countries, but also the fact that the money of the majority is now in the hands of a very small minority. That is the so-called transition. In fact it is a savage robbery whose results are numerous human casualties. I have no respect for this.

Q: Can there be some kind of catharsis in the countries of former Yugoslavia?

A: First, those who robbed have to protect their newly acquired properties. You need to create laws and systems that legitimise this transition. So, the countries of the region will in time consolidate as independent units.

Q: Cooperation between culture institutions and artists in the region is growing. How do you view this trend?

A: It depends on which generation you belong to. If you are a young resident of Serbia, for example, who grew up here in isolation and never was in Croatia, you have the thrill of the new discovery opening up in front of you. Aside from that you have the so-called moral profiteers who are now advocating building cultural bridges, etc.

For me all this comic, because I am old enough, and I never burned bridges to begin with. I see those people as phony demagogues. However, such views are legitimate for someone who is twenty. For them, it is all about discovery. The same goes for a young Croat. To discover that he can go to Serbia without being killed and eaten there must be a thrill. Plus, his language is understood there, which makes these discoveries even easier. All this can come out as a new quality of this region, so I am an optimist when it comes to the young.

Q: What about the 50-plus generation, which actively took part in the break-up, by trying to prevent it or speed it up?

A: They are now fully integrated. If they are not behind the bars in The Hague, they are in the government. They were in the pyramid that supported the first big national leaders like Milosevic and Tudjman, and they are still where they were, if they are alive.

Croatian national TV is a good example of this, the radio as well. We are under the impression that if the government changes these people will go away. But they won't because the network they have created is so strong that their position is safe. The new pyramid has been created.

Q: Why doesn’t the public react to this?

A: Because of the media, their greatest supporters. The media in this region actively participated in promoting war and hatred and no one ever held them responsible for it. They retained close relationships with the government and this means that there is no independent media. If your job for 20 years was to promote quarrels between Balkan nations, who could expect you to be better and promote cooperation?

To move things for the better you also need to fully de-compose the school system because it, too, for 20 years has been educating children in the way that the Church and the state have instructed them to. That is why this process is so complicated.

Q: You said Serbia has been exposed to Fascis-ization. Is Croatia better, given the fact that it will join the EU next year?

A: It is the same. I could not say that Serbia had entirely fallen into Fascis-ization, or that Croatia is entirely democratic. Extremism is taking place everywhere.

Q: You were born in Kutina, then Yugoslavia, now Croatia. You left the country in 1993 and moved to The Netherlands. How do you identify yourself?

A: That is a very complex question. Yugoslavia was a homeland, and this is something that shaped the views of my generation. I cannot deny that this identity formed me as a person. After that came trauma and disillusion, war and breaking apart.

In my case this was even more intense because I had to leave home at a time of my life when people are not preparing for exile but for retirement. Yugoslavia impacted on me strongly and in a way disabled me from answering your question as to how I identify myself. In order to discover that I write essays that analyse my situation and help me get answers to questions of identity.

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

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