Monday, September 5, 2011

The Stronghold and the Strongman

Though yesterday was Saturday, we still had our Serbian class in the morning. We learned to conjugate biti/бити (to be) in the present tense, and zovem se/зовем се (to be called/my name is). We went to Ceca's and talked with a doctor about how health care works in Serbia (national single-payer insurance, just like the rest of Europe) and what to do if we get sick or injured. This hasn't been a serious problem in previous years, and I don't expect it to be this year. Still, now I know who I'm gonna call. (Not Ghostbusters.)

That afternoon, we all went on a scavenger hunt that Milica and Ceca designed for us. It was a pretty long trek, but the most interesting task was to learn the song "ocam tamburaša/оцам тамбураша" (eight tambourine players) from a local and to sing it, on camera, in view of the Austro-Hungarian-era Petrovaradin fortress named in the song. As luck would have it, the first pair of Serbian women we ran into spoke about as much English as we spoke Serbian and were eager to help us. They enlisted passers-by to try to help remember the lyrics, and, despite the odds, they taught us the chorus and a verse. I promptly forgot it. Oops.

For dinner, we took a taxi up to the fortress itself and had dinner at the restaurant at the center of the stronghold. It was beautiful to watch the sun set and moon rise over Novi Sad. From the fortress I also saw fireworks from a local music festival on the beach of the Danube.

Sorry, no pictures. It's late and I don't have any good ones of the fortress. I'll definitely be back by there.

Today was our first real time off. Jacob and I walked to a bakery and picked up croissants for breakfast, and we walked to Ceca's to talk with the group's psychotherapist. We had an interesting conversation about the millennial generation, and our defining characteristics.

In the afternoon, we went to Milica's apartment to watch a movie, Bringing Down a Dictator (narrated, as I later found out, by Martin Sheen, or President Bartlet of The West Wing). I had already covered most of the content in my self-imposed summer reading, but it was still fascinating to see footage of Otpor (literally "Resistance," the main anti-Milošević organizers) in action. Some of their techniques were plain hilarious. We were shown an ad ostensibly for detergent that promised to remove stains; the example stain was in the shape of Milošević's face, the product's name was Otpor. One scene was particularly touching.

On Orthodox New Year (January 13) 2000, Otpor put on a big party in Belgrade. As the clock struck midnight, the live music stopped. Projected onto a screen were the names of those who had died under Milošević's rule. Everything was silent except for a narrator reading out the names. Once the names were through, there was an announcement:
Serbia doesn't have any reason to celebrate anything, not even the new millennium. It was 1999, it is now 2000, but nothing has really changed. In fact it is all getting worse. And you must go home without your celebration, because you have nothing to celebrate. 
This evening at dinner, I sat next to Nikola, Milica's husband, and we discussed (in English; his was nearly flawless) geopolitics and the movie. I mentioned that, according to the movie, it seemed like Otpor and the Democratic Opposition of Serbia were heroes. He smiled a little. According to Nikola, Otpor and the rest of the anti-Milošević movement were entirely backed by the States. I asked him again, to clarify whether he meant USA-backed (which is widely acknowledged) or USA-started; he claimed the latter.

Nikola was interested in talking about geopolitics. He was very much into the "Clash of Civilizations" theory, which I'm only barely familiar with. He was also very much a realist-- he saw international relations as pure power politics. He saw the "humanitarian" intervention in the Bosnian and Kosovo wars as a facade, and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia as a complete sham. He brought up Milošević's convenient death in jail as an example of NATO sort-of cleaning up their mess. Nikola made it very clear that he wasn't nationalist, and that he saw Serbia's flaws too. He was anti-Milošević, but he saw that the democrats who took power afterward were not that much better. His view was very jaded, but somewhat convincing.

What struck me the most by this conversation was how defeated he seemed. "What have we in Serbia done to deserve this?" he asked. He never wanted Milošević, or his wars, or the sanctions, or the bombing campaign. He reminded me that Serbia's got a losing record-- it first lost (the Serb-held areas in) Croatia and Bosnia i Hercegovina, then Kosovo, then Montenegro. I asked him what he thought the way forward for Serbia is. Nikola couldn't see any positive future for the nation.

I don't know how common this attitude of defeat is, but it's certainly shown up in what I've read about the country. That attitude is foreign to me. As cliché as it sounds, I think most Americans have been brought up with some internal anchor of hope. My generation especially was taught that we can do anything we want, that life always gets better, and that just by being who we are, we have something to be proud of.

Nikola also pointed out something that I hadn't realized at all. "Yugoslavia was the first EU," he said. Orthodox, Catholics, Muslims, six individual nations, all lived together during the Yugoslav golden age-- he pointed out the EU's current tensions with Muslims as a sign of it falling short of the Yugoslav standard. I'm not sure that his nostalgia for a country that no longer exists is completely founded. I'm glad that we had this conversation, and it encouraged me to seek even more viewpoints.

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