Kratovo - CharlesFred/flickr

Kratovo - CharlesFred/flickr

Freedom, politics and wrongs of the past. The Balkans of today and their inheritance from the 90s, an interview with Miljenko Jergovic

28/10/2010 -  Azra Nuhefendić

With the author's kind permission we are publishing the complete version of the interview which originally appeared in the Il Piccolo newspaper on 27 September last.

In the former Yugoslavia politics was a dangerous job and, despite the changes, still is. Why?

Our Balkan experience is as follows: politics are dangerous for everyone, except for the politicians. To tell the truth, over the last twenty years since the Berlin wall crumbled on our Yugoslav heads and the nationalists took over from the communists, there has been only one serious and tragic political attack, that against the Serbian reformer Zoran Djindjic. In that period, systematically in unclarified circumstances, other less important Croat and Bosnian politicians were also killed, but no more than five people in all.

At the same time, during the war, as a more radical form of politics, in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Erzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia about two hundred thousand people were killed. They all, without exception, lost their lives because of politics.

I must say that, contrary to some of the deep rooted beliefs held in the West, the Balkan wars were in no way chaotic conflicts of a tribal or religious nature, but resulted from a precise and well organised political direction. Naturally that policy was a nationalistic policy. That is fascist in the classical sense of this term, or sometimes national-socialist, but it was always and only political.

In ex Yugoslavia there are no more political prisoners but the great democracies export them, opening secret prisons in Banana Republics. Are you surprised or disappointed by this?

When you talk about great democracies exporting political prisoners you no doubt refer to what the United States are still doing in their so-called War on Terror. Whereas I think all their penal institutions, from the well known ones like Abu Graib in Baghdad, or the one that still functions in Guantanamo on Cuba (Obama lied when he said he would close it), as well as many others whose names or existence we don't know, should not be called prisons. I mean a person is imprisonned for a misdeed or awaiting trial, but in a prison sited on the territory of that State which applies its laws to him/her, and these laws also imply certain rights for that person.

In Guantanamo nothing of that sort exists, nor did there at Abu Graib nor in who knows how many other similar parts of the world. That's why it's correct to call Guantanamo a concentration camp administered by the USA. Of course it scares me to know that the Americans set up similar camps in Eastern Europe, and sincerely I am shocked that such concentration camps could be possible on ex Yugoslavian territory too.

Not long ago we celebrated the Day of Freedom of the Media. Everywhere, in the countries of ex Yugoslavia journalistic freedom is at risk, and the situation is even worse than it was during the war. Those who think differently from the political-economic-religious structures of the men in power are blocked and excluded from public life. For example, disobedient journalists are fired, opposition newspapers are closed, journalists killed and their families threatened. Why is it so in countries with a “young democracy”?

There are various reasons behind the creation of such situations. First of all, these countries do not have a tradition based on freedom of thought and speech. Their citizens have for a long time been accustomed to living under a despotic regime, so they do not feel the present lack of freedom in an excessively dramatic way. The ex Yugoslavian states, moreover, are not the only example. I mean that in that country a so-called soft socialism was operative, that of Tito, who, particularly in his final phase, in the late 70s, had allowed freedom of speech, of the press, of artistic expression, something which in the countries formed after the dissolution of Yugoslavia was never again achieved. So the problem is not to be looked for in the preceding deficit of freedom, but in the fact that over the last twenty years we have become used to not having freedom.

One thing you must know, nationalism and also the populist right (the only right wing in existence) exclude even the idea of freedom of the press and artistic creation. It is therefore an internal problem of ours. But an external one exists too. In the 90s when the nationalist and pro-fascist regime of Franjo Tudjman was in power in Croatia the eyes of Europe and the World were on us. Some international organisations were always there with a single task: to see if Tudjman's regime violated press freedom. And they did this absolutely seriously. Whenever Tudjman threatened journalists, the State Department threatened him with economic sanctions.

Today there is no one to check on the state of freedom in Croatia, and the result is paradoxical: freedom of the press is at the lowest possible level while journalists are forced to censure themselves even more than in Tudjman's time. This problem became worse particularly after Sanader's resignation, and after the arrival of Jadranka Kosor who, in just six months, has renewed the ideals of a corporate society, carried out changes and sackings in the State television service and put unbearable pressure on independent media and their owners. She meanwhile had formed a coalition with small neo-nazi parties restoring their right to citizenship which Sanader had taken away, bringing society as nearly as possible back to Tudjman's ideals.

It is incredible that no one in Europe has taken any interest in this.

You find yourself in a privileged position: not subjected to anyone, politically or materially, and so you can have a really independent opinion. You often express this publicly and are criticised for it. Why?

I doubt they fear me, since I don't possess the kind of power that here, in these parts, is taken seriously. Look, I have no economic power, no political connections in Brussels, I don't even have a mafia-type organisation to sell heroin to kids or beat up my intellectual adversaries.

I do nothing but say and write what I think, and that's exactly what irritates them. When I say to them that I'm thinking of the nationalists and fascists in these parts, but I'm also thinking of another extremely interesting group, that is a group of formerly independent journalists who, in the 90s materially exploited the Soros funds for freedom in the media, and are now furious because no one wants to finance their social involvement any more.

They, like all the other nationalist comrades would be very happy if I left Croatia. That's the line they take and write up in the newspapers. It's a very interesting sensation when self-proclaimed men of the left and anarchists begin to inform me that I am an intruder in the country I live in.

The Croatian President Josipovic made a gesture which is unusual in the Balkans. In Bosnia Erzegovina he bowed before the victims and asked for pardon from the survivors. He was immediately criticized. In Croatia they maintain he was wrong because “Croatia must not ask for pardon as it was not an aggressor.” You spent a period during the war in Bosnia Erzegovina, do you remember who attacked and who defended?

President Josipovic was attackedby the Tudjmanian right, led by Jadranka Kosor; it would be an exaggeration to say he was attacked by the whole of the Croatian public opinion. In point of fact it could be said that many citizens supported him in his apology for crimes committed in the name of Croatia in Bosnia Erzegovina. It is dangerous for Kosor and her followers, in both politics and the media, to assume such aggressive positions, historically of a revisionist nature and openly fascist.

 Dujomir Marasovic, President of the Split section even asked the rhetorical question “who in Croatia will pay for all those blood transfusions the Muslims received in the Split hospital?” In the war between Croats and Muslims, begun in 1993 by Franjo Tudjman, in order to divide Bosnia Erzegovina and drive the Muslims into a kind of corner, a bantustan similar to the Srebrenica enclave, Marasovic described it as “the clash between two villages”.

To answer your question openly: in 1993 under the command of Franjo Tudjman, with the intention of dividing Bosnia Erzegovina, Croatia made an attack on Bosnia. In the course of this attack some Bosnian Croats were used, although the Croatian army also participated in it. This attack, thanks to American pressure on Tudjman, was ended in February 1994 with the Washington agreement, signed by Alija Izetbegovic and Franjo Tudjman.

Naturally, it must be said, that in that war the Muslims also (today they are called Bosnjaci, Bosniaks) committed many crimes against the Croatian civilian population, and in some parts of central Bosnia the enacted large scale ethnic cleansing against them. But these facts do not change the nature of the attack which was waged. And this was what Ivo Josipovic had in mind when he said sorry.

Ex President Stipe Mesic knew this well and kept it in consideration, as did Premier Ivo Sanader, but Jadranka Kosor does not know it, and she has gone back to the starting point of Tudjman whom she considers her political father.

Since you are both Bosnian and Croatian, a question on Bosnia Erzegovina is inevitable. What is its future? Will Bosnia survive the present “policy” of the international community and Bosnian politicians? Is there a future? Is there any possibility it will remain undivided?

Right now I think the future of Bosnia Erzegovina looks quite sad. Today, from a political point of view, it functions on the basis of two nationalisms, the Serbian and the Muslim, plus a third one, the Croat, but this is marginal since only a small number of Croats have stayed in Bosnia Erzegovina.

This country will not be divided but neither will it be unified. It would be unified if there existed a social cohesian which treated it as a single unit and which had the same feeling towards it and relationship with it. Today such a thing no longer exists, although it did even during the war. For example during the siege Sarajevo was a model city from the multicultural viewpoint, plurinational, in which diversity was respected. Today it is not.

Today Sarajevo is a muslim and bosniak city and all the other people are reduced to minorities with limited rights. The only exception to this rule is Tuzla, the only town where the nationalists, be it Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks, are not in power, a town where a spirit of equality and multiculturalism has been maintained.

Tuzla represents the hope of Bosnia. A small hope, but one that's very dear to me.

The trial is under way of Radovan Karadzic, accused of war crimes and for the war in Bosnia Erzegovina. Often here in Italy it is said that the blame is equal, that is that all are equally to blame, Serbs, Bosnians, Muslims and consequently their leaders, Alija Izetbegovic, Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic. Do you agree?

Of course this opinion is wrong. I suppose it is easier to reason by referring to categories where the blame is equally shared, but if we are really interested in knowing the truth, then it is simply an error. Individual responsibilities are known precisely and can be even more precisely attributed.

The first place is occupied by Slobodan Milosevic. He was the real 'butcher' of the Balkans and of Yugoslavia. The second place is taken by Franjo Tudjman. He was the 'butcher's half brother of the. His responsibility is dreadful but at the same time different and less than Milosevic's. All the others were just their henchmen.

Regarding Alija Izetbegovic I have a different opinion. He was neither a criminal nor one who wished for the crime and he did not support it. Among other things, in the Sarajevo of the war, where the multicultural dimension was maintained, Izetbegovic was its sovereign. After him, as leader of the Muslims in the post war period, came Haris Silajdzic, Izetbegovic's Foreign Minister during the war, but with ideals approaching, so to speak, Tudjman's, and during his period in office Sarajevo became a homogeneous city. I refer to him explicitly to compare him with Izetbegovic.

Alija will always remain dear to me, even if I did not share his political ideas nor his vision of the world, but, I confess, he was one of the rare politicians in the Balkans of the 90s towards whom I felt respect.      

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