Over the past two years, a collection of photographs of WWII memorials from (the former) Yugoslavia has made the rounds on social media. Popular sci-fi and fantasy blog io9 reported on it and this post from Crack Two appears to have been "liked" over 173,000 times on Facebook alone. And here is the same article, with more or less the same perspective, on a blog from BiH. This process of "re-discovery," however is to me the truly fascinating aspect of this phenomenon.
The authors of these articles, as well as those leaving comments, repeatedly refer to the monuments as "bizarre," "haunting" or, at best, as "modernist," which one can safely interpret to mean "weird." This commentary is essentially an inversion of the Stalinist insistence on "socialist realism." We are now surprised that a society once existed, some long ago civilization which we relate to as though it were an artifact of Tolkien lore, which was capable of producing abstract representations of real events. What does it say of our societies that in the second decade of the 21st century, we consider symbolic representations to be "strange?"
As it concerns the Balkans, this fascination is emblematic of the virtually wholesale dissolution of culture and art in the post-Yugoslav space. It reminds us, I argue, of the anti-political nature of the post-Yugoslav, neoliberal-nationalist political order.
On the one hand, the eternal specter of "joining the EU" has been revealed as illusory not only because of the global financial crisis but also because former socialist states and now EU members like Romania and Bulgaria, as well as former Yugoslav republics like Slovenia and Croatia, appear no closer to resolving their internal political contradictions in 2014 than they were in, say, in 1984. Oligarchy still defines these political systems and kleptocracy their economies, as I continually stress. Whereas they previously felt themselves marginalized by Moscow and Belgrade, they are now marginalized by Brussels. Incidentally, was this not also the central motif of David Černý's brilliant EU installation from a few years ago? The rage comes precisely from the realization that this abstraction reveals much more of our sordid reality than the neoliberal insistence on no possible alternative to the EU project.
On the other hand, the nationalist dream of ethnically pure "nation-states" constitutive of the Yugoslav dissolution but also of the anti-migrant and anti-Roma policies of most of Europe is likewise a bankrupt one. As we are asked to engage in successive rounds of purges of [insert preferred current national enemy here], we seem to come no closer to resolving the underlying problems of our societies. And as "new" terrors emerge, with new grievances (e.g. the LGBT movement), the true intent of the national dream reveals itself. It is to fundamentally deny popular participation in politics, to crush dissent and debate.
Yes, we are invited into the streets to defend our communities from the enemy but we are presented with a finished program. We are asked merely to become grave diggers and executioners not citizens. And when the Muslims are gone, we'll turn on the Roma, and when the Roma are gone we'll turn on the homosexuals...and then? Then it's the turn of the domestic critics, the liberals and the communists and perhaps our own selves because by this time the "purging" seems never ending and the factories are still shuttered. Wasn't it the fault of the Muslims and aren't they gone now? The Roma too, and homosexuals and liberals and communists. They're all gone, the factories remain shuttered and yet there's still shining BMWs among the wreckage. And to ask to whom these belong is to find our own selves declared national enemies, in turn.
So perhaps those photographs reveal all this in of themselves, but what is that we see? I am particularly interested in the "local gaze," that is of the (former) Yugoslavs themselves.
The sight of these monuments is a moment of dislocated recognition. As we are still unable to really talk about the horrors of the war, nor the horrors of the post-war period, to accept and acknowledge the suffering of our former friends and neighbors, we remain largely frozen in place. In this frozen space, trauma is dealt with differently; anger, suspicion and paranoia fester but the the freeze remains. And yet when presented with these photographs we are haunted by a suspicion. The suspicion that what was necessary to create these monuments was a complex society, one we have forgotten and were forced to forget. A complex society which had memorialized the past, however problematically, and devoted most of its energy on imagining a future. A "self-managed society," where we were political agents and if we felt frustrated by the actually existing imperfections of this system, the solution(s) were self-evident; it was not to dissolve the system but rather to insist on the actualization of its ideological principles.
The mere recognition of these monuments' complexity, however, allows for a kind of mourning that has otherwise been denied to us. Their now crumbling edifices allow us to mourn for the future that was taken away from us, to mourn all that which we individually and collectively lost, without having the process interrupted by emotionally charged questions of who did what to whom, when and how.
Beside the overt chauvinist implications of many contemporary monuments in the Balkans, their primary failure is that they are essentially ahistorical constructs or, at least, this has been their intent. They memorialize a kind of ethereal suffering that serves not to turn us toward reconciliation but rather to keep us frozen in trauma. Whereas the Yugoslav monuments were massive, abstract, leaping out of the earth with little to hide precisely because this was a society with a future that allowed for participation and interpretation (a truncated kind, granted), the contemporary monuments are small and literal. They are our tombstones not memorials in the true sense.
The Western fascination with these installations is by comparison much simpler: a long-standing Oriental fixation on the East, their odd customs and spectacularly horrific political systems. If they are beautiful, they are either beautiful in a vacuum or in the way the Ryugyong Hotel might be deemed spectacular. This is not to accuse individual viewers of these photographs of racism. The monuments are beautiful. But it is to point to a generally banal conception of Yugoslavia in the Western imagination, which naturally places all "socialist experiments" on a spectrum between Stalin and the Kim dynasty. Hence, the likening of these structures to UFOs as though the whole of the Yugoslav period was not merely one of fiction but of spectacular science fiction.
Yugoslavia was real, once. And it once had a future. It was a society capable of producing complex structures and systems: political, economic, cultural. These structures and their remnants ought to be taken seriously on their own terms precisely because they point to the absence of all these phenomena in our present. A fact worth mourning, indeed.
I will run the risk of opining before the final figures for the municipal elections in Kosovo are released but only because the pattern seems so familiar.
Numbers have been trickling in throughout the day, but as of this writing it appears we are looking at a 47.9% country-wide turnout, sans the municipalities in the North, though as much as 63% in some of the the southern Serb municipalities.
Voting places in the North have been attacked by right-wing, ultra-nationalists and voting lists stolen. Given the track record of the groups behind these attacks, peoples lives are now likely in danger. We can only speculate how many people voted prior to the attacks, though initial figures seemed to suggest well below 20%, perhaps even below 15%.
It is pertinent to step back at this juncture and ask what context these elections are taking place in.
Belgrade's claim on Kosovo, well before these elections, had been definitively signed over by the Nikolic-Vucic administration, whatever other performances they may now put on after the fact. Kosovo, of course, was long gone, but credit to the current administration in Belgrade for having accepted a reality that the supposed liberal Boris Tadic never could. Vucic, in particular, may not be the "liberal" Brussels expected, especially given his past track record: a fundamentalist proponent of the Greater Serbia myth, whose foreign policy, at one point, consisted of "if you kill one Serb, we will kill a hundred Muslims." Perhaps precisely because they had these "radical credentials," Nikolic and Vucic were able to make a more substantive pivot than the "European" Tadic. Quite the make-over, in any case.
With no serious threat on their right, Nikolic and Vucic are able to move towards the EU, having met the brunt of the international community's expectations, yet preserving in the North of Kosovo enough of a hostage population to prop themselves up as guardians of "Serbdom." If anything, it is Pristina that now runs the risk of appearing as the radicals within these negotiations if they insist on extending their statist, "monopoly of violence" regime to the North, via Police incursions and the like.
Yet while 5,000 KFOR and 2,000 EULEX troops stationed in Kosovo could not prevent a fistful of goons from jeopardizing the lives of hundreds of people and with a sordid 45% turnout rate in even the functional part of Kosovo, one can nevertheless fully expect the rhetoric from Brussels to be buoyant. Elections, progress, Europe. Whatever we may think of Belgrade and Pristina, at least their leaders know what they're playing for--even if it's often just for personal privileges. Brussels just appears stuck on auto-play.
After all, in BiH, bit-players like Dragan Covic of the HDZ and Milorad Dodik (both of whom long ago lost the support of Zagreb and Belgrade, respectively) have been able to paralyze reform efforts for years. In the case of Covic, the man who has steadfastly insisted on derailing the Sejdic-Finci case into a fictional "Croat Question," the situation has reached absurd depths.
For instance, Covic has for years claimed that the (two!) HDZs are the "only legitimate representatives of the Croat people in BiH." Between them, these two parties won in 2010 something like 150,000 votes. Now he claims to have received (illegally, I add) early census numbers that suggest there are 570,000 Croats in BiH. The number, of course, is likely a fabrication but let's suppose it's real: when did receiving 26% of a vote turn one into the "only legitimate representative" of anything? Frustrated by his inability to push through complete fiction as sound public policy, Covic is now openly threatening to return to his past (overt) nationalist practices if the Sejdic-Finci case is not resolved. Again, recall, this from the man who has done his utmost to ensure that at no time were we even in the neighborhood of addressing the substantive aspects of the ECHR decision.
Yet Covic is a key "partner" of the EU in BiH. As is Dodik, the President of the 49% of BiH most dedicated to ensuring that we all pretend that the expulsion and murder, in some cases, of 90% of the pre-war population in his entity is irrelevant. Especially to his current denunciations of supposed conspiracies to radically alter the demographic picture of the RS. Instead, the EU would prefer to focus on deadlines that are never met and sanctions that are never implemented, in farcical but nevertheless marathon-like constitutional reform efforts--conducted not by accountable parliamentary bodies--but partisan political oligarchs.
It appears that they've given up the "end of history" narrative everywhere but in Brussels, where the goal of "EU membership" appears as the only possible foreign policy objective conceivable. Don't you want to be Cyprus? they want to say. Or perhaps Greece? They're confused by the fact that small-time hustlers in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Pristina would rather be Dons than Statesmen [sic]. That they would rather be in the Balkans (?!) than in Europe.
Why would they want anything else, though? In Serbia, Kosovo and BiH, the elites have all learnt that there's plenty of money and zero accountability in being a perennial not-quite candidate for the glorious Union. In Athens and Nicosia they've just got plundered banks.
After the "Hour of Europe" ended in the largest foreign policy disaster on the Old Continent since the Second World War, one would have thought policies would have changed. Some patterns might have been recognized. Instead, nearly 30 years after the first bands of thugs began terrorizing eastern Croatia and BiH, these same thugs, realistically speaking, are back in the news.
But, hey, at least Aleksandar Vucic is now a Progressive!