Yugoslavia Burns Again
There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.
- Walter Benjamin
Yugoslavia burns again. No, not again those images familiar to the West: the mute shriek of witnessing mothers, the implausibly thick, Murillo-tears of their children, not again blonde Muslims in snow country, or ragged bones ensconced in dried mud, no eerie sniper alleys, no bombardments and cold-weapon massacres. None of that.
Here’s a storm that literally came out of a single sentence. In columns, blogs, interviews and on TV shows, certain words by the Montenegrin writer Andrej Nikolaidis were being fervently discussed, mostly out of context, all the while there have been calls for his head and his bread. Others were promptly defamed and lost important jobs for giving the writer moral support.
And we thought the word was dead. Manuscripts do burn in the Balkans, if at least with the passion of political division. Shitstorm in a writing desk drawer. Not so catchy, but all the famous players were there: Bosnia, Montenegro, Serbia, Croatia. What did Nikolaidis say?
First, the background.
On January 9, Milorad Dodik, the president of the Republika Srpska, hosted in Banja Luka a celebration of the 20th anniversary of a declaration of proclamation of the Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina, formally recognized in Dayton in 19951. It was a little orgy of atavistic, ethno-religious, tribal kitch. Songs in florid skirts, in those shrill major-fifth rural harmonies. Odes to the holy paternal soil. Tradition is never quite so vigorous as when it is painstakingly manufactured, or resuscitated. There were deadpan, unqualified encomia on the necessity, even the very justice of the “republic.” There were fantastic newspeak representations of its brief history. During the festivities, not a word on Karadzic or Mladic, the Romulus and Remus of this republic, no word on genocide and the Caesarian butchery of its birth. This carved-up land was presented as something that had survived the war, rather than as the very thing that had caused it. From the tinseled dais, Emir Kusturica, the renowned, Bosnian-born, now Serbian director, described how he’d seen a giant billboard with the likeness of the Nobel laureate Ivo Andric, and he affirmed “how well the Republika became him [Andric].” The dead man was not asked for a response on being appropriated for this dubious cause. Then Serbian president Boris Tadic, whose presence gave the spectacle an air of legitimacy, looked on, along with Irinej, the Patriarch of Serbia, who’d called the entity “the youngest Serbian state.” Everything was done to depict the territory as a second independent Serbian nation state. Similarly, its future was sung as well, promising a golden age of wealth and machinery. It all smacked of totalitarian parades -- the taste bad, the odour pungent, the mask stolid. Techno-kitch and lachrymose patriotic zeal are always the twin lodestars of despotisms. The extent to which the truth was obfuscated was a little alarming, though expected. Surely, false face must hide what the false heart doth know. One Croatian writer dubbed the revelries “The Vampires’ Ball.”
Now the plot thickens, it goes gunpowder: suddenly that day it was leaked to the local media that a large stash of weapons and explosives had been found inside the arena selected for the event. They pounced. A thwarted assassination attempt! There were murmurs about Islamist terrorists, what else could it be? -- giving Dodik’s position as an essentially separatist, anti-Bosnian politician further justification. It turned out, however, that the weapons were left there by one of the arena’s aging and ailing employees, a Serb. As an attempt at rousing inter-ethnic tensions, this was a fiasco.
Now enter Andrej Nikolaidis. He was born in Sarajevo, in 1974, to Greek-Montenegrin parentage. When Sarajevo was put under siege in 1992, he fled to Montenegro, became a writer of note, as well as a leftist commentator on all kinds of Balkan iniquity and grotesquerie. He is currently the advisor to Ranko Krivokapic, speaker of the Montenegrin Parliament, and his novel The Coming was recently translated into English. He was the ideal candidate to say something astute on the absurd comedy surrounding the 9 January celebrations. On 11 January he published a piece titled “What’s Left of Greater Serbia” in E-novine, a Serbian-based and the region’s most popular progressive online journal, condemning the celebrations. What he wrote was an allusive, well-argued if a little piquant denunciation, outraged by the hypocrisy, the shameless falsification, the mindless jingoism at play, including the media’s attempt at whipping up anti-Bosniak sentiment with the alleged assassination plot. He condemned the political elite’s manipulation of its apathetic public -- the way they still represent themselves as a Christian and civilizational “bulwark,” under perpetual stress from the hordes, a necessary narrative veil behind which the reins of power remain unchallenged. The happy few, and the exploited many.
Using Walter Benjamin’s dictum about civilization and its monuments, Nikolaidis took up the figure of the arrested would-be assassin and wrote:
A civilizational step forward would be also if Bole had used dynamite and guns which he hid in the hall where political and religious leaders as well as artists were celebrating 20 years of forming the Republic of Srpska. If Bole was an unsatisfied worker, who understood that national and religious antagonism was just a mask under which the elite hides the basic antagonism of every society -- the class antagonism. If Bole, for example, said: I am a Serb, but I am a worker too, so I will blow up those who ripped me off -- wouldn’t that be a civilizational step forward?2
Nikolaidis does not call for a terrorist action here. He rather bravely points out the painful idea that in the larger context of one exploited society and the truth of its genesis, such an action, although barbaric, would nonetheless mark the historic awakening of class consciousness among the masses -- their refusal to be instrumentalised in perfidious nationalist schemes -- and would thus be a step forward akin to similar such moments in the annals of history.
This is the controversial hypothesis or metaphor that proved so explosive. The detonation itself tarried for three days. There was no outcry at first. The piece was subsequently published in Bosnia, and only when it appeared in Montenegro three days later did it cause monumental umbrage. Now, Montenegro figures heavily in recent Serbian wounds. While perceived by many Serbs as a historic Serbian territory, Montenegro chose independence from Serbia six years ago. Nikolaidis’s position as an adviser to a prominent Montenegrin politician gave the added incentive to attack and discredit certain leftist currents in Montenegro.
Serbian film director Emir Kusturica called Nikolaidis “The Taliban from Podgorica.” (It is perhaps slightly ironic that Kusturica had some years ago sued Nikolaidis on charges of defamation.) Milorad Dodik said, in his inimitable caveman rhetoric, on hearing that Nikolaidis had recently been awarded a literary prize by the EU: “You may quote me on this: Fuck his literature.” The verb here, more idiomatically, would mean a combination of: shit/spit on. The onslaught from Serbian and pro-Serbian Montenegrin media was ruthless, an orchestrated character assassination of Nikolaidis. The villainous creep that emerged out of that scurrilous bog was likened by Nikolaidis himself to “the Joker, as played by Heath Ledger, some sort of metaphysical evil.”
Nikolaidis’s hypothesis was the ostensible casus belli. I and many others suspect the real wound lies in the writer’s fearless remembrance of the gruesome genesis of the Republika. Serbian communities have not adequately dealt with the grave remnants of the 1990s. Historical revisionism and failure to face the facts has stood in the way of reconciliation. What Nikolaidis said about Republika Srpska being “founded on genocide” flies square in the face of the general consciousness and the evasive discourse regarding those events.
Courageously, many Serb writers reacted against the witch hunt, writing in support of Nikolaidis, elucidating the hypocrisy of those condemning his essentially anti-totalitarian stance as “hate speech,” while at the same time that same faction unabashedly supports war criminals, and a political and territorial entity that was plainly built on mass war crimes.
A petition against the persecution of Nikolaidis was signed by a number of Serbian intellectuals, including Sreten Ugricic, a respected director of the country’s National Library. Now the brunt of the outrage fell on him. He was accused of supporting terrorism. The Minister of Internal Affairs Ivica Dacic added to the hysterical atmosphere by calling for his resignation, saying, “A director of the National Library can support such things only from prison.” Within days, Ugricic was fired. Serbia is thus a country in which the chief policeman removes an eminent cultural functionary for supporting freedom of speech. More than anything else, the Ugricic case proves Nikolaidis’s main thesis, that the countries of Yugoslav succession are small, immoral emirates with a democratic face. Writers and the word, to paraphrase Kundera, have their deepest significance and a kind of ironic respect in totalitarian, or unfree societies. They are feared. Something similar may be said about these immature, vestigial democracies. The neverending Rushdie controversy attests to this as well. Paranoid elites fear the word and always aim to restrain it. The Serbian government found Nikolaidis’s text dangerous enough to send an official protest note to Montenegro.
Yugoslavia burns again every once in a while. And why do I call it Yugoslavia twenty years after the demise of that country? Some have named that psychogeographic space Yugosphere. What is it? It burns in journalistic skirmishes. It may also more perversely be said to burn in the corny sense of pulse, or flame as life. The fact that a text from one state can be published and taken up in another without translation and cause a fiery debate in a third and fourth as well reveals that we are dealing with a uniform zone to some extent. The misinterpretation of Nikolaidis is not linguistic but ideological. Ideological conflicts such as this show that the divisions are not between nations, but between two factions which exist in all of them: the nationalist/conservative, and internationalist/progressive.
And yet twenty years ago that patchwork land tore apart for the net gain of a number of threadbare new flags. And a number of ever kindred, ever kindling iniquities.
Elvis Bego was born in Bosnia and currently lives in Copenhagen. He is hoping to finish his first novel this year.
1 This makes it in legal terms merely a teenager. The date Dodik marks as its inception is 9 January 1992, when Radovan Karadzic proclaimed the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina an illegal and amorphous parastate whose borders had not been decided as yet, and would be eventually through bloodshed and mass deportations.
2 Translation by Lena Ruth Stefanovic, slightly adapted by the author.