The great theft

A conversation with Dubravka Ugresic

1 April 2016
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In a frank discussion with Kultura Liberalna's managing editor, the post-Yugoslav writer Dubravka Ugresic considers the state of European values a quarter of a century after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A lack of serious public forums, says Ugresic, has resulted in a lack of democratic thought.

Lukasz Pawlowski: You once wrote in one of your essays: “People in the East developed a bunch of stereotypes about the shiny democratic West, while westerners had a sense of superiority. A lot of lies were there on both sides from the beginning”. Are those lies going to haunt us now?

Dubravka Ugresic: I think that after the fall of the Berlin Wall, East and West didn’t really have a proper dialogue. A complex history of relations between the two sides, East and West, has been reduced to questions of power, prejudices and illusions. It seems that it would be difficult to have a proper conversation today. Extreme emotions exist and persist on both sides. Disappointment is one of these emotions.

LP: What has changed? Why is this “shiny, democratic West” no longer attractive?

DU: For the last 25 years we didn’t manage to solve many problems. Take the former Yugoslavia, for instance. After World War II, during “yugoslavism” and “titoism”, the citizens of Yugoslavia lived better lives. When Yugoslavia fell apart in 1991, the whole “ideological package” of World War II popped out: the same quarrels, the same patterns, the same nationalism, the same hatred. Now, as a result, and for the sake of respecting the “high standards” of democracy in Europe, we are not only witnessing but also tolerating the rebirth of fascism of a sort.

The change is not only visible in the Balkans but also in the rest of the central Europe – in Hungary, Slovakia after the recent elections, even in Poland there is a change of attitude towards the West. In Poland in 1989, we were willing to sacrifice a lot to become exactly like the western countries. And now there is a feeling of disillusionment.

I am sure that the patterns are similar across all of these countries. However, I prefer to talk about what I know best, and that is the post-Yugoslav case.

LP: How do you view the post-Yugoslav case?

DU: The truth was replaced. People claimed that the rise of nationalism was something good because during the Yugoslav years they had been nationally suppressed. They claimed that they had dreamt of the moment Croatia would become an independent state for thousands of years. The same pattern was repeated all over eastern Europe. But beneath that “national liberation” political narrative comprehensible to western politicians, primitive and unsophisticated plunder went on. Brutal and blunt plunder. Post-communist transition, with or without war, appeared to be a perfectly well organized great theft. Communist property didn’t have an owner, it had been “nobody’s property”, so everything was grabbed and sold in no time at all. Factories were sold for pittance. That was the so-called privatization time. The great theft was blessed by the Church and by those involved in it. Only people in power could participate in the process.

LP: What happened after that?

DU: Political leaders had to create an ideological justification for this plunder, in order to keep their share. Croatia became independent in 1991. The people in power have already been working for 25 years on convincing ordinary people that they were and still are right, mostly by repeating stories about communist repression and condemning Tito’s dictatorship and exploitation (both of Serbs by Croats and vice versa). Today in Croatia, at this very moment, you can see a triumphant return of fascist ideology. Croats at this very moment have a minister of culture who openly propagates elements of Ustashe ideology. For the first time in last 25 years of “independency”, some Croats are protesting by signing a petition for the minister’s dismissal. There is no sign that Zlatko Hasanbegovic (the minister in question) is going to be replaced. Even if he were replaced it would not make a difference. Because in the meantime everything has changed: the education system, school books, university curriculums, core ethical values. Money has become the top priority.

For instance, almost 86 per cent of Croats declare themselves Catholics, which was not the case before. The Church has managed to get into primary schools, high schools and universities, even into hospitals. There is a shortage of anesthesiologists and specialists, but in accordance with new laws, every hospital has been forced to employ a priest. Is this a change for the better or for the worse, I can’t tell.

LP: But you must admit that in general people are better off. If you take a look at the economic indexes…

DU: No, they are not. There are 4.2 million people living in Croatia. Out of that figure we have approximately 400,000 unemployed people and 1.2 million retirees. Half of the retired population are former soldiers, volunteers from the 1991-95 Civil War. That’s according to the figures. So I don’t know how people are better off? Who told you that?

LP: I looked at the statistics: GDP growth, average wage, life expectancy. For example in Poland the average wage has been rising for years. People are frustrated because it is not rising fast enough but…

DU: The figures I gave you were picked up from Croatian press. You tell me, how any state is able to function properly if it consists of 4.2 million people, out of which 1.2 million are retirees, 400,000 unemployed and 100,000 of those who are employed do not receive their wages for months?

LP: Would you then say that the growing radicalization of the social mood is driven primarily by the current state of economy?

DU: The growing depression is not driven only by poverty. There are many reasons for desperation. One is the collapse of the previous system of values. Thanks to so-called democracy, scum came into power: it started with Milosevic and Tudjman. Croats and Serbs are putting a lot of effort into the “beatification” of these two criminals and the Croats have succeeded, I must say with regret. Tudman, for instance, opened the door to de-professionalization. He established the “unwritten law” according to which only “true patriots” were capable of performing their duties. Many journalists, lawyers, doctors, etc. were fired simply because they were Serbs or former communists or too “opinionated” and critical of the values of the new societies. Many of them have been replaced by “young Croatian patriots”. That was a process of de-professionalization. That was the time of “national priorities”, when the social scum came to power, as an award for loyalty to the regime.

LP: What was the primary motivation for Croats to join the EU?

DU: Joining Europe provoked a national orgasm in Croatia. It meant that we are better than Serbs, that we are finally joining “our” Catholic European family. It meant “good bye” to Serbs and “good bye” to the Balkans. It meant that we, Croats, belong to Europe, and other people of the former Yugoslavia belong to all that Balkan shit. However, my problem is not Croatia. My problem is that Europe might feel flattered by the Croatian motivation for joining the EU.

LP: Has this motivation disappeared?

DU: Croats are not ready to articulate their problems, or to act critically, or to fight for their future. They are only ready to fight for the de-stigmatization of their Nazi past, and they are, I am afraid, succeeding. The media is the biggest friend of the Croatian regime. In all the Balkan countries you can hardly find decent media. Along with de-professionalization, there has been the process of “dumbification” of the nation (which has lasted for the last 25 years). The media is responsible for making people politically ignorant, passive, frightened and stupid. The media is responsible for making national heroes of ordinary killers and criminals. In all post-Yugoslav states there’s no media outlet in which one could publish a longer and more ambitious article. How in such conditions can one expect an intelligent narrative about today’s Europe and participation in European life?

Photo: Judith Jockel. Source:dubravkaugresic.com

The lack of serious public forums has resulted in a lack of democratic thought. People can get only trivial news, like about the colour of Angela Merkel’s outfit during the last European summit. From that perspective, everyday life looks really Orwellian, as though somebody decided to make people dumb and now, after 25 years of “dumbification” practice, they really are dumb. But then, Croatia is not my problem, my problem is Europe, which is supposed to clearly show that it doesn’t support such practices. However, Europe doesn’t show anything of the sort.

LP: What would be then the best case scenario for Europe in general and eastern Europe in particular?

DU: Europe is in big trouble – with the financial crisis, the migration crisis and the crisis of human values, or crisis of “social imagination”, as Slavoj Zizek would put it. How is all this going to end? I do not know. I’m not a prophet. I can only observe and comment on the environment in which we live. And what I see is not nice: people have lost their basic rights and they don’t even know how it happened. Their education system has got worse, their medical care system got worse, their worker’s rights are almost non-existent, they are more enslaved with each new day. They behave like lotus-eaters, although they eat cheap kale.

LP: I guess this is not a problem specific to the Balkans but rather shared by both the West and the East.

DU: That’s true, it’s a problem of our time, our digital epoch.

LP: Since you live in Amsterdam you can also observe western attitudes towards the so-called new EU members. Has it changed recently?

DU: Are you asking me specifically if the Dutch see the Croats differently?

LP: Or the region as a whole.

DU: Croatia does not exist for the Dutch people except as a holiday destination.

LP: Does it mean that 25 years after the fall of communism, the divide between the West and the East is still intact and the two parts of Europe have not gotten any closer?

DU: From the ordinary citizen’s point of view hardly anything has changed. An average Dutch citizen recognizes Romanians only as accordion street players. He recognizes Bulgarians only as maids, cleaners of their apartments. At the same time, those accordion players and maids are not interested in Dutch issues either, because they feel like victims of all those processes after the fall of the Wall. The Dutch are the winners, in their opinion. They see the country only as a good place to earn some money. On the other hand, do the Dutch see Romanians differently? Or do they see Romania as a possible place for their businesses?

LP: Would you then say that the whole process of unification, of transcending the West-East divide has been a failure?

DU: I’m just trying to say something from the point of view of an ordinary observer. I really don’t know whether Poles these days are totally united with France…

LP: No, they’re not.

DU: And probably vice-versa. This general indifference which was there at the beginning is still there. In fact, more interest was displayed before, in the case of the Balkans during the war or during communist times. When the Iron Curtain fell one could almost instantly find western products in eastern Europe. Now one can find Polish products in small ethno-shops in Great Britain. It’s not, however, because the British are so interested in Polish products but because Polish workers in search for better life “occupied” the United Kingdom.

LP: What in that case, keeps us together as Europeans?

DU: We can of course say, like Umberto Eco used to and some other intellectuals, that European culture is our common heritage and the most powerful unifying glue. But I would say that what keeps us together is money (for some) and that would be the unifying principle, while there is money to share. For the rest of us, who are not involved in any structures of power, we might be united by fear. We share our fear of poverty, of “migrants” whoever they are and wherever they are coming from. We all lived quite comfortably for some years but the time of plenty is over.

LP: Where do we go from here? Are we going back to nation-states?

DU: No, I don’t think such a thing will happen. It would be like returning to an old video game. At the same time, we can clearly see that many states are moving toward the radical Right. We constantly see examples of the radicalization of the social mood. They call it “incidents”. But if you have incidents for 25 years, and you end up with an “incident” of a huge swastika engraved on Split’s football stadium grass, so huge that could be seen from an aeroplane, would you still insist it’s an “incident”?! In other words, it all depends on “our, European, moral standards”: are we going to tolerate Croatian, Serbian, Orban’s fascists (or those in Norway and in Finland, and all over Europe) and call these movements just incidents instigated by “bad boys”, or are we going to recall our European past and revise what happened a couple of decades ago and then morally and politically reset ourselves while we still have time?

LP: That is precisely my question – are these only incidents or signs of a more profound change that may have serious consequences?

DU: In my opinion, more serious consequences are possible. And we will from now on probably live in difficult, annoying times of constant negotiations. Symbols and their meanings are going to be blurred (again because of education systems and media and the lack of a common system of values), we are going to be easily manipulated. We will have to constantly fight for clear meanings and the right decisions to be made.

LP: On the one hand you say that we are somehow going to muddle through the crisis, on the other your diagnosis is very grim…

DU: It is, but I still don’t believe that an apocalypse, like a World War III, is going to fall upon us. The people in power will try to keep the status quo. And fear, which is behind all these things, will not allow people to go for fundamental change. That’s why people will try to solve only minor problems. We are not going to change houses because it is too expensive and too risky, so instead we will only try to fix some minor faults every now and then.

Europe obviously does not see the rise of fascism (in Croatia, for instance) as a big problem, probably because Croatia is small and then because of European policy: nobody would interfere in the democratically chosen ideological preferences of particular member countries. I could not agree less with this state of affairs. We are constantly discussing our common currency, the euro. Instead, the people of Europe should start building a non-negotiable common set of values. Only by having such a non-negotiable set of values, can a citizen of Europe be able to say: “Yes, I am in”; or “No, I am out”.

Published 1 April 2016

Original in Polish
First published in Kultura Liberalna, 21 March 2016

Contributed by Kultura liberalna
© Dubravka Ugresic, Lukasz Pawlowski / Kultura liberalna / Eurozine

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