27 March 2003, Volume 5, Number 7
'BALCANIS' -- OR DEBUNKING THE BALKANS
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's" 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.
Mr. Lokotar, from the Croatian point of view, are Slovenia and Macedonia as foreign as, for instance, Bulgaria and Romania?
Kruno Lokotar: Well, that, I think, depends on the region. To me, Slovenia seems far from Dubrovnik but very close to Zagreb. There are no border-crossing problems and the language can be fairly well understood, so you do not really feel like a stranger there.
As far as Macedonia is concerned, I am pretty sure that it is quite difficult to get there from Croatia, and the differences between the two languages are greater.
Serbia was behind the Iron Curtain for at least 10 years [longer than Croatia and became] a terra incognita for most Croats. Even those who knew it very well [before 1991] have forgotten how it looked like. Moreover, the source of evil in the region is there, so I understand why people despise and fear that country.
Bosnia is a special case, and Croatia has a very ambiguous attitude towards it. Do Croats consider Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, or the Muslim part of Bosnia a foreign country? I cannot answer that question. Tickets for Herzegovina used to be sold at windows for domestic destinations....
Marija Knezevic: I would like to explain how the former Yugoslav republics, which are separate states now, have come to regard each other as foreign countries. When somebody from Croatia, Slovenia, or Macedonia comes to Belgrade -- and more and more people are coming now -- we talk to each other normally. We do not feel like strangers.
However, if you want to leave Belgrade, you need a visa for any destination farther than 200 kilometers. This is why we see Zagreb, Ljubljana, or Skopje as places in foreign countries.
This is what makes the situation schizophrenic: we understand each other perfectly -- in terms of the languages we speak and things we discuss -- but we have to pay to cross our borders.
Bosnia is the most special case of all. Bosnia, and especially Sarajevo, remain the great unknown for people in Belgrade.
And it is more than just another foreign country. Bosnia represents a horrific memory -- I hope just a memory -- of the war, a living memory and an open sore. In this period of convalescence, people avoid the subject of Bosnia and do not like to travel there or think about the place.
RFE/RL: Let us go back to the renewal of cultural ties. At this particular moment, who is the most prepared for the renewal of cultural cooperation?
Ales Car: As far as "Balcanis" is concerned, Belgrade was the most eager. We were also well-received in some small towns in Croatia, although in Zagreb we had no significant promotional event. There were quite a lot of people at our Ljubljana presentation, and all the authors who were invited expressed their readiness to cooperate.
Everything went great until the media wrote about us. That is where the problems and misunderstandings started.
It seems to me that we were best received in the communities and states that had been the most isolated and deprived of information about what was going on in the region during the past decade. That might be the reason why Belgrade showed the most interest in cooperation, since its isolation for a decade has led to the biggest hunger for information [of all the capitals].
It seems to me that reactions in some places would have been more positive if our project had had another name. For instance, if instead of "Balcanis" we had named it "Southeast Europolis" or, as one foreign ambassador ironically put it, "South Scandinavis"....
Knezevic: What my colleague Car has just said about Belgrade's readiness for cultural cooperation is a compliment for the city I love more than any other in the world, but I would not be ready to idealize it.
I believe that proportions play a significant role here. Belgrade is simply bigger, with a bigger population and a greater likelihood that more people will to come to a presentation like the one we organized in November 2001, which was attended by more than a hundred people.
This is how I understand things, although I also think that in spite of everything, Belgrade has preserved its metropolitan character in some magical way.
RFE/RL: I have the impression that the people who are most ready for cooperation are young people who spent only their childhood in former Yugoslavia and do not remember very well what it was like. How do you explain that?
Car: I have asked myself the same question. People under 25 years were the most numerous at our promotions in Podgorica, Bar, or Mostar. They had no real experience with the former state.
So what explains their interest? Maybe it is their openness or longing for a dialogue -- because they had no such previous experience. Or maybe they realize that some channels of information need to be re-established in the region, since there is no future for fragmentation in the world of culture....
The Balkans and the region of former Yugoslavia seem to be somewhat exotic for this new generation, like a taboo that is being broken....
Lokotar: [It reminds me of the interest in] forbidden fruits that teenagers like so much....
On the other hand, many times in trams I have overheard young people talking. Their education was based on textbooks demonizing the Serbs, both those in Croatia and those across the Drina River -- the Serbs in Serbia.
Listening to those brutal, aggressive, and chauvinist comments, I was not afraid that we might somehow cease to be able to coexist, but I did wonder how many normal people will some day be left in this region....
RFE/RL: And, finally, do you see the "Balcanis" initiative as the start of a new trend in cultural cooperation in the region of former Yugoslavia, or it is going to remain an experiment for specialists?
Car: "Balcanis" arrived at a moment of renewed thinking about joint cultural projects and cultural ties, and that might make it significant.
I do not know whether "Balcanis" is going to remain an experiment or will become a trend. I think that economic issues will play a positive role here. If I were a Croatian, Serbian, or Bosnian publisher, I would see [it as a vehicle] for distributing my authors' works throughout an entire region, which is good both for the publisher and the author -- and it brings in money....
Lokotar: For me the answer is very simple: everybody wants to have the best possible staff, and bigger the region, the easier it is to find people.
I am the editor in chief of "Godine nove," and when I became aware that the readers were tired of domestic authors -- who in the meantime had become stars in Croatia -- the simplest way to reinvigorate the magazine and preserve its quality was to bring in authors form Bosnia, Serbia, and Slovenia....
Knezevic: I do not consider "Balcanis" an experiment because it exists as a fact of cultural life.
There certainly is a trend toward restoring a dialogue. As far as culture is concerned, the dialogue is, unfortunately, very politicized....
Our relationships should be relaxed, and a situation should be created in which freedom to choose will prevail. For the moment, it all remains quite restrained, but I see no reason why such ties should not develop and take hold.