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South Slavic: February 27, 2003


27 February 2003, Volume 5, Number 6

NOTE TO READERS:
The next issue of "RFE/RL South Slavic Report" will appear on 27 March 2003.

'BALCANIS' -- OR DEBUNKING THE BALKANS.

Part I.

A program of RFE/RL's Radio Most (Bridge) by Omer Karabeg, with Ales Car, editor in chief of "Balcanis" from Ljubljana; Marija Knezevic, author and "Balcanis'" editor from Serbia; and Kruno Lokotar, literary critic and "Balcanis" contributor from Croatia.

RFE/RL: This program deals with cultural cooperation between the states of former Yugoslavia. Our guests are all associated with "Balcanis," the only magazine in the region equally dedicated to readers in Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia.

Let us start with the newspaper's name. Mr. Car, why "Balcanis," bearing in mind that during the last 10 years the name "Balkans" has almost always been used in a negative context, especially in the northern parts of former Yugoslavia, Croatia and Slovenia?

Ales Car: The name came [to us] spontaneously. It was a friend of mine's idea. Of course, the choice runs against the dominant political and cultural currents. We were well aware of the negative connotation and its strong emotional dimensions. We intended to provoke our readers, in a positive way, to think about what they are...and where the borders of their personal, political, cultural, national, or any other identity are.

Kruno Lokotar: To work with a magazine called "Balcanis" means to support debunking the concept of the Balkans. During the 1990s, the Balkans came to be perceived as a dark place where evil has taken root.

[Everybody in the region consequently thinks that their country is not included in the Balkans, including the Croats. They believe] that Croatia clearly belongs to the Central European and Mediterranean regions, while, interestingly, the rest of the world considers it part of the western Balkans....

Marija Knezevic: I have no problems with the name of the magazine, and I have never heard that our colleagues or readers do.

The seemingly universal negative image of the Balkans is nonetheless something that cannot be ignored. In America -- where I spent four years teaching at Michigan State University -- the term balkanization is very often employed, even though the students hardly know where the Balkans are.

In modern Western theory, balkanization is a seemingly abstract notion meaning disintegration, fragmentation, or a war-torn region generating intolerance and still more wars. In any event, the image is negative.

On the other hand, the Balkans refers to a real geographic or geopolitical entity. We from "Balcanis" are most interested in the cultural landscape of the Balkans and what the Balkans can offer in terms of similarities and differences. This is why I find the name "Balcanis" very good for a magazine.

RFE/RL: As far as I know, five issues of "Balcanis" have been published so far. Have there been reactions from people accusing you of trying to resurrect Yugoslavia?

Car: Of course there were, although without direct accusations. We were mostly called Yugonostalgics, which is a negative term, just like the notion of the Balkans.

As far as I am concerned, yugonostalgia is nostalgia for the multiculturalism of the region -- which is what Yugoslavia was about....

The cultural links that existed in former Yugoslavia were created according to certain ideological and political dictates (in terms of forced reciprocity). But those ties today, although post-traumatic, have emerged much more spontaneously, triggered by an authentic need for cultural information and not by any sort of ideological, political, or other considerations.

Lokotar: As far as I know, there have been no objections to "Balcanis" in Croatia on the grounds that it allegedly seeks to restore a Yugoslav state....

[This is a cultural publication with a limited audience, which largely shares our outlook. It is probably for that reason that aggressive nationalist critics failed to notice us.]

RFE/RL: So, you squeaked past them?

Lokotar: Yes, we squeaked past them, which should not really make us happy. I would prefer reactions, even a controversy, since the Balkan issue has simply been taken off the agenda in Croatia before ever being properly discussed. However, I am sure that sooner or later it will be taken up by the intellectuals.

Knezevic: My colleague Car has mentioned yugonostalgia. Yugonostalgics are a very diverse group of people. They range from those advocating the restoration of former Yugoslavia, to the Serbian fans of the Croatian rock band Atomsko skloniste [Atomic Shelter], who are ready to chase all over Belgrade for the group's latest CD....

The point is that our cultures need to become less local in their focus because they are both similar and fascinatingly different. What we need is the truly creative exchange we did not have all these years of living behind barbed wire [in communist Yugoslavia]....

RFE/RL: "Balcanis" embraces what used to be called the "Yugoslav cultural space." Mr. Car, what is left of that now?

Car: I do not know what is left of it, but I know about some individual ties that -- thank goodness -- were never completely severed. Communication existed even during the periods of fiercest destruction. There were fewer projects, but they still existed. We went to Belgrade in 1995 and 1996, as well as to Zagreb, to talk with our colleagues. This is how the "cultural space" stayed alive....

Lokotar: The best indicator of what is left of that Yugoslav cultural space is the print run of some bestsellers in local milieus, which are now states and which used to be federal republics. If we tally up all the print runs of the bestsellers of the different former Yugoslav republics, we would not approach the print run for similar works in former Yugoslavia. The total now would be about 30 percent less than before....

This region took a big step backward. Now we have isolated xenophobic cultures at a time when no kind of isolationism can survive, especially not in culture, since culture lives from the exchange of ideas and mutual contacts....

Knezevic: It is true that memories are what is left of [the former Yugoslavia], a lot of very nice memories. At the same time, there are many wounds. What is also left are lasting values created in that period, as well as the consequences of violent destruction.

But when you talk with young people, you can also see that huge holes are also left. For instance, I am shocked every time I speak with a 25- or 30-year-old [Serb] who has never been to Slovenia or Croatia. For them, those are foreign countries, just like America or Australia used to be for us. They simply haven't the slightest idea of what those countries look like, while we used to make school excursions there.

RFE/RL: Mr. Car, are Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, or Macedonia seen as foreign countries in Slovenia, like, for instance, Austria, Germany, or the Czech Republic?

Car: Of course they are; this is exactly how they are perceived. That is OK, since technically speaking they are foreign countries, but the problem is how to rank them.

The typical Slovenian point of view (and probably not only Slovenian) is one of superiority towards the South and humility towards the North.

It seems to me that Slovenia perceives Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia as lovers to be visited several times a year -- just enough not to be forgotten. It is nice to be there, and this is why from time to time a trace is left, like for instance the stores of the [Slovenian] Mercator supermarket chain.

However, Slovenia is getting married to less inspiring Austria and Germany [when it joins the EU]. At the same time, it is shedding bitter tears (of course, not too loudly, so that nobody can actually hear) because it will be low in the pecking order and because its national language is going to disappear in that huge conglomerate of Western Europe.

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