High Times in Yugoslavia

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Branko Franceschi

Branko Franceschi

In 1968, protests erupted around the world: Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Warsaw, Tokyo. The protestors, most of them part of a new generation untouched by World War II, demanded an end to war, dictatorships, economic follies, and the culture of death promoted by sclerotic leaders in the East, the West, the North and the South.

Yugoslavia participated in the global events of 1968 from a different vantage point. It was not in the Soviet bloc, nor was it an American client state. It was north of the equator, but it also sought common cause with the South through the Non-Aligned Movement. It promoted a third path — of worker self-management and a limited private sector — between communism and capitalism. But it also generated the same communist elite that Milovan Djilas decried in his 1957 book, The New Class.

Yugoslavia experienced youth protests in 1968 as well, though they too proceeded along a different trajectory. In Belgrade, as in Warsaw, the protests began around a theater production. Students at the university were incensed that the administration booked a popular theater group at a small venue, with seats reserved for the Communist youth elite, instead of at an open-air amphitheater. The demands eventually grew to encompass a larger critique of Communist privileges and economic inequalities, and 10,000 students occupied the philosophy and sociology faculty at the New Belgrade campus for a full week. The Yugoslav leader Tito, addressing the nation on television, supported the student demands and temporarily resolved the crisis (he would later mitigate his enthusiasm).

What also made the student protests in Yugoslavia different was that they took place in an atmosphere of relative cultural freedom. Through music, movies, theater, and visual art, artists in Yugoslavia operated with fewer constraints and greater access to Western culture than their counterparts elsewhere in the region. It wasn’t quite a situation of “anything goes.” In 1963, Tito dismissed abstract art as quasi-art and a waste of money, and Yugoslav films attracted the close scrutiny of censors in the first half of the 1960s. But by 1968, Yugoslavia was a haven for the avant-garde: the Black Wave film directors, the Music Biennale in Zagreb, the International Theater Festival in Belgrade. And Rock music was everywhere.

I’ve drawn this information on the Yugoslav avant-garde from the essay “High Times” by curator Branko Franceschi that accompanied his recent exhibition at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in New York. In Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, Franceschi pulled together examples of the psychedelic films produced in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. The Village Voice picked the exhibit as one of the year’s best.

The title was a good marketing idea since it combined psychedelia, socialism, and Yugoslavia, but it was also very interesting intellectually,” Branko Franceschi told me in an interview in his apartment in Zagreb in October. “These experimental films were inspired by the music coming from West, like for instance The Rolling Stones and similar bands. In the essay I made a point of mentioning the famous song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, who recently died. This was a huge hit here. In the rest of the Eastern Europe it was sort of a hymn, which they were singing in the demonstrations. Here in Yugoslavia, it immediately became the first hit for the young, up-and-coming pop star Miso Kovac. The verses were translated so that he sang it in Croatian. Thus it was stripped of any political power. It became just another hippyish song. I guess this is a metaphor for what happened to Yugoslavia.”

Franceschi has curated some of the most provocative art from ex-Yugoslavia. He and multimedia artist Kata Mijatovic were recently selected to represent Croatia at the 55th Venice Biennale. You can go to their page on Facebook, Arhiv Snova (Dream Archive), and contribute your own dream. In this project, “a large number of participants will create a global ‘pool’ of dreams; open a space to explore what it is that people dream about today, and ask questions to which we still don’t have the answers – why do people dream, and what is the function of the unconscious in the construction of reality.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about his early experiences with music in Yugoslavia, his memories of war, and the state of the art world.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Zagreb watching it on the television. We were thinking, “Okay, now that’s done we’ll be able to do what we want to do.” Which is basically what happened. I guess we all shared the same feeling of celebration of liberty, that the world will become an easier and better place for everyone. Since our society here in Yugoslavia was much easier, much softer, and much more open than the rest of the socialist bloc, my friends and I really believed that we could all go our separate ways peacefully. During those 40 years, we thought we’d created a more peaceful and more reasonable society. The level of violence that occurred – really, it was something no one thought possible. Now when you look backwards, you see that it could not have happened any other way.

I recently read a review of a book by Dushko Bilandzic, the historian, and he claimed that already as early as the beginning of the 1950s, Tito and Edvard Kardelj – the key Party leaders — believed that Yugoslavia had no future as a state and a society. I don’t know if that’s true…

They created a constitution in 1974, which…

That actually established the democratic right for the each republic to decide whether to stay or leave the federation, which was exercised in the 1990s.

I recall from my history lessons this Croatian concept, from the great revolutionary time of the mid-19th century, that all the Slavic peoples throughout Europe who were ruled by someone else should create a super state from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea – imagine that! And that these people, who had been oppressed for so long by other people and shared this painful history, would be able to understand what brotherhood – and later they added unity – really meant. Then, Yugoslavia was formed in 1919, and it proved the opposite. The problems almost immediately became obvious.

So, we have this strange and beautiful dynamic here. We are very similar and yet very different. Every little difference counts, which sharpens you intellectually. You have to find your standpoint among all these conflicting ideas that surrounded you and you’ve been aware of it from a very early age, whether or not you were politically active during the socialist period, whether or not you were a member of a political party. The other option was dissent.

I was not overtly political, and neither was my family at the time. Not having been involved in politics, you didn’t have the perks of membership in the Communist party. But you also didn’t have those difficulties. So basically, you were engaged in a bit of opposition by not accepting membership when you were invited, and you were invited of course if you were good in school or at your job or when you went into the army. For my generation it was easy to say something just so that you didn’t get drawn into the Party.

I actually just made an exhibition in New York about the decade from 1966-1976. It was called Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, and it was a great success. The title was a good marketing idea since it combined psychedelia, socialism, and Yugoslavia, but it was also very interesting intellectually. These experimental films were inspired by the music coming from West, like for instance The Rolling Stones and similar bands.

In the essay I made a point of mentioning the famous song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, who recently died. This was a huge hit here. In the rest of the Eastern Europe it was sort of a hymn, which they were singing in the demonstrations. Here in Yugoslavia, it immediately became the first hit for the young, up-and-coming pop star Miso Kovac. The verses were translated so that he sang it in Croatian. Thus it was stripped of any political power. It became just another hippyish song. I guess this is a metaphor for what happened to Yugoslavia.

What was exciting for me about the exhibition was to see how an American audience that knows the songs would react to these moving images made in a different system at the same time, 50 years ago on the other side of the world. And it went great actually. There’s always a chance that the films we think are great will look stupid to people from a different culture. But they didn’t. One critic from the Village Voice even called the exhibit one of the five best exhibits of the year.

Where was the exhibition?

The Stephan Stoyanov Gallery. It’s our Bulgarian connection. You should talk to that guy. He’s funny. He has a very interesting exhibition space. It’s a commercial gallery, but having this kind of program where you can’t sell anything, it’s almost suicidal

It’s a public service.

Maybe since he was brought up in Bulgaria, he is still in the hold of this idea of “the public.”

Between 1966 and 1976, the period of time covered in the exhibition, was also the rise of nationalism in all these republics.

Yugoslavia was never actually as cohesive as it seemed. So for instance the artists in Vojvodina were prosecuted for promoting change in society, and they ended up in jail. In 1971, Lazar Stojanovic was thrown in jail because of his film Plastic Jesus [which looked at ethnic hatreds among south Slavs]. In Croatia, the Croatian Spring raised nationalism as an issue. In the beginning of the 1960s, Slovenian artists were arrested. Then in the 1980s, there was the Slovenian industrial music group Laibach. They would be banned in one republic, so then they’d go to another republic. They’d be banned there, so they’d go to a third republic. They were masters of playing the system, the federal system of Yugoslavia.

Laibach parodied the system, with their brown shirts and over-the-top propaganda rhetoric.

They have recently had a retrospective, so I had a chance to relive it while I was watching it. Today it looks much crazier than it looked then. They really knew how to put out these totalitarian, bureaucratic statements, and their appearance was so remote. Back then, as I recall it, it was a new wave, punk type of angry attitude. But today it really looks surreal and scary.

So, this political period was marked by the introduction of elements of the free world and economy into our system, and it ends with the constitution in 1974. This could have been a step toward the peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia, which unfortunately did not happen.

Did you see that documentary about musicals in the Soviet bloc?

No.

East Side Story. It’s a great documentary. There are a couple of East German musicals, a Romanian one, something from Bulgaria. They were made in that brief period of time when a musical was possible. They look like Beach Party Bingo from the United States, but of course the content is very different.

This is very curious stuff. People were trying to think of ways to manifest what they were thinking about. I remember when I was a teenager in the 1970s and I heard about these Slovenians living in a commune promoting a back-to-nature movement. It was legendary. For the film program I used one of the sayings of the Slovenian artist Marko Pogacnik, who was a leader of the group. I asked him why they made their films with the Rolling Stones music, which was Marko’s favorite band. He said, “When you build a fire you need matches. And the Rolling Stones were the matches that started our fire.” They were aware that it was a tricky line. They knew that this freedom through pop music could be swallowed by the system, which actually happened very fast. If you’ve never come across this group, the OHO Group, you should really look into them. They were really amazing.

I interviewed a member of the Bulgarian rock group Tangra, from the late 1970s, early 1980s. They started out as heavy metal then they turned to new wave. But they were very influenced by Yugoslav rock, and they looked wistfully at what was going on here.

I am from the coastal city of Zadar. I went to a grammar school with a very general type of program, but still you had to learn Latin and ancient Greek. At the end of school, there was a tradition to go to Greece. I was 18 years old. I remember the discotheques and clubs. During the daytime we were sleeping at the ruins, at Delphi, at the Acropolis. We were spaced out most of the time. So I remember this from the photographs we took! Anyway, on the way, we went to Belgrade, which was the first time for me. We took a bus to Nis, which was completely exotic for me. Then we switched buses for Bulgaria, which to us looked like a place where time stood still. It was grey. Well, we weren’t very bright. We were 18 years old, we were just trying to find where the fun was, and we ended up having to make our own fun. Then we went to Greece. When we crossed the border it was as if the leaves started to move again. We were joking, but I remember that vividly.

We were young and carefree. We really realized at the time how lucky we were to live in Yugoslavia. But we received our bill in the 1990s. You always pay. That is a huge lesson in life.

Our avant-garde artists at the time were not inspired by the local rock music that existed from the 1960s onward here. They said that they didn’t feel that anything made here had any revolutionary potential compared to the music created in the West.

Was there a point in the 1980s or earlier when in the art world you realized that Yugoslavia was not going to last as a unit?

I was an outgoing party person. I had a great time throughout the 1980s. In the 1970s there were shortages, and then of course when Tito died in 1980, that was the first thing. We were already aware of the tensions. Every 10 years there was some sort of upheaval here. So there were these centrifugal forces in the society. But then somehow you always believed that humans would find a way out, would negotiate their future in a logical and reasonable way. Unlike what history has told us, of course.

You could feel this neurosis in society. It got tough here with the troubles in Kosovo, which became such a big issue, and the different republics felt differently about how it should be handled. From the Slovenian and Croatians standpoint, we had this constant frustration that we were bringing the most economically to Yugoslavia. Basically our interests here were more to the west than to the east. So, for instance, I went to Belgrade for the first time on that trip to Greece, and I even had relatives there! That was also the first time I went through Macedonia. I had been maybe once in Sarajevo. In the 1980s, I went for the first time to Montenegro, to Budva. In the 1980s, I was a sort of film fan, so I went to Belgrade for the huge international film festival, which I believe is still happening there. There was also a very lively rock scene, so I used my relatives to go to see that stuff. Other than that, I didn’t have any interest in going there.

In the 1980s, the explosion of new wave music and pop culture was actually really amazing. We had such a powerful scene. It was really international and you could love this music even more than something coming from England or the United States. Especially the new wave bands from Belgrade. They rocked much more than the bands from Zagreb, which were mellower. We were very concentrated on what was going on here and in the West.

And then came the magical moment with [Yugoslav President] Ante Markovic, one year before the war, when there was the international attempt to save Yugoslavia. They equalized our wages, dinar for deutschmark. Before that we went through the stages of hyperinflation. Then, one year our living standard improved dramatically overnight. That’s when we realized that it doesn’t really mean anything. We went from eating at the diner to eating at the restaurant. We went from smoking local brands to smoking international brands. We quit drinking rakia and switched to whiskey. It wasn’t about the quality but about the branding.

You know the expression “swan song.” So that was it: our swan song. We were young and reckless. We were just joking that this was the end of it all. There was no actual authority. At that moment, in terms of the level of democracy, you could do anything. There was no control. It would have been great if it could have remained that way. There were all these new radio stations starting up. There were lots of initiatives from a young generation full of vision. We felt that we had already become part of the so-called democratic free world. But of course we weren’t.

This was 1990-1991?

This was 1989, as I recall. The best was when Miles Davis had a concert in Ljubljana, which I believe was his last tour. And the cost of the tickets was for the first time probably on the international level. It was a lot of money, but I wanted to see him, so what the hell. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ljubljana was much more exciting than today in terms of culture. And it was always beautiful to travel from Zagreb to Ljubljana. Sometimes you had more fun in the car, of course, than in the concert! For many reasons, this concert was sort of a cosmic experience for me. And in the middle of the concert, I was thinking, “My god, if I had been a little stingier, I wouldn’t be having this experience.” I realized that this is something that no money can buy. You cannot name the value of that experience.

I saw Ravi Shankar in Moscow in 1985. I had that same experience.

Despite all these hardships that we lived through, especially the economic changes like the shortages and hyperinflation, actually the social life was better in a way because we still didn’t have any concept of the value of money. On a personal level, I believe it is good. But unfortunately without that concept, society has a lot of problems!

We used to go to restaurants with piles of bills in order to pay for the food. We were young and we were very cocky in comparison to the rest of the Eastern bloc. Everything was cheap for us whenever we would go to Budapest, to Brno. We would, of course, get drunk, insult people, throw money around. Now I’m a bit ashamed of this.

But as I told you, we really got it in the 1990s. That was payback time.

Zagreb experienced the war. And a huge number of refugees went to Zadar.

In Zadar, my parents were under siege for two years. This is actually an untold story. Internationally, people know about Dubrovnik and Vukovar. But they don’t know about cities like Zadar and Karlovac, which were bombed daily. They were left without water and electricity for two years. Zadar is a city with 100,000 inhabitants including its suburbs.

The Serbs were masters of psychological warfare. Zadar was a city without electricity, on a constant general alert. Then, as the sun went down, they would drop a bomb or two. It was a good night type of thing. For my parents, this was the second war they experienced after World War II. Once, when my father needed surgery, they came to Zagreb for three weeks. They couldn’t wait to go back to Zadar! They had bonded so much with all their neighbors. They were constantly phoning them. I remember before the war, they would always talk about their experiences from the Second World War, and these were always hilarious, funny stories. This is again the optimism of memory. And this is what I remember now from the war: their stories of Zadar and how they dealt with the hardship.

During the war Croatia was completely schizophrenic because parts of the country were not affected by the war since they were not included in the area that the Serbs wanted to cut away — like Zagreb and Istria and the northern islands. In these places, tourism and everyday life was going on like everything was normal.

Thanks to culture, I did not have experience of the front. Two times I received a notification to report. Then they asked me what I do and I was running the gallery. In a war, there is always this political goal to create the pretense of normality. So everything has to be running like normal. But you had one half of the country under siege, which you could watch on television. You would be watching a program and it would say underneath, “General alert proclaimed for the city of Zadar.” Or: “There was an air raid on the city of Zadar.” This news was basically for us, because the people in Zadar didn’t have electricity so they couldn’t see this information.

My parents didn’t have a shelter to go to, so they would stay home during the air raids. They didn’t have electricity, so they would go early to bed during the winter and keep each other warm. Then I would give them a phone call because I knew that most everyone else was in the shelters so I could get a free line. And we would talk and talk. Then I would hear something like “fffhh” and I thought, “Who is sighing like that?” And they said, “No, no, it’s just a bomb that fell nearby.” The street below my house was basically the only road that connected Croatia and the rest of Dalmatia. So sometimes they were hit pretty hard.

In a way, I’m one of the lucky ones who actually didn’t have any losses in my family. Of course, this is probably why I am able to talk calmly about it.

I still vividly remember when during the summer I would go to Zadar. We had a summer house a few kilometers north. I would go there and see how nature recovered from the tourism. There were more fish in the sea, and the sea was clear. There was no electricity, so you had these starry, starry nights. Beautiful. And then occasionally you’d hear the sound of machine guns in this quiet, in this endless darkness, or remote artillery fire like “doon doon doon.”

I was curating an exhibition by an artist from Zadar on the island of Losinj, which is close to Istria. We went there by boat and passed by the island of Silba where there were boats and tourism, everything was normal. At Losinj, we did the show, and there were lots of Italian tourists there. Everything went great. We stayed one more day and then we sailed back to Zadar. And at a certain point, near the islands of Silba, it was as if we had passed some invisible line. Suddenly we were alone at sea. There was no one. And then in the direction of Zadar, which we still couldn’t see, against the clear blue August sky were two enormous plumes of black smoke. We just looked at each other and said, “We’re going there?”

There was a concert of Siouxsie and the Banshees that I wanted to see in Ljubljana. The war was already on. It had ended in Slovenia and moved to Croatia. There were alerts in Zagreb of air raids, and there was a curfew. We were thinking, “Okay, there are people being killed. Is it ethically wrong to go to a concert in Ljubljana?” And then someone said, “Okay guys, we can be shot down any day. What do they care?” So we went to the concert, and it was a beautiful experience. But we were late because we forgot that there were new borders, and it was very slow because everything was still getting organized. The concert was great. We were going back to Zagreb and again traveling back through Slovenia. And there were fewer and fewer lights, and it’s getting darker and darker. And you feel like a lid is coming down on you. The only lighted spot was on the frontier. Then we asked whether there were any air raids in Zagreb, and they said, “No, everything is fine tonight.” And so, this was the normal situation and we went all the way home.

I recall my cousin telling me about what she was doing during the Second World War. She talked about these travels: “We went from Split to Osijek. And then we went from Osijek to Zagreb.” And I said, “You were traveling, but wasn’t there a war going on?” And she said, “War isn’t like how you would imagine. War does not happen all the time, everywhere. There is a fight here, a fight there, and then you try to live normally.”

So, that’s what it exactly was like. Of course, in Zagreb, there were no shortages. There was plenty of everything. But I also remember, near the end of the war, when Zagreb was hit by these long-range missiles from Banija, the part occupied by Serbs. I was installing an exhibition. I was just running around like crazy to get the stuff that I needed to install by the next day. And then I heard this boom that was actually five blocks away from the gallery where I was working. But you just don’t pay attention. Later, in the evening, I watched it on television.

Did artists at that time produce art that reflected on the war?

Yes, that’s the usual question. Yes and no. There is this sort of pathetic art that is normal to understand. As a professional in the field, you always feel like it should be something better than that. But then you can maybe think of it like the Americans have great movies about the Vietnam War that were also completely pathetic. It was this sort of situation where emotions take over. People were organizing exhibitions all over the place, and there were a lot of auctions to help the people I was involved with.

In certain ways the artists have been criticized for not creating a great piece of art. No one created a Guernica. No one wrote a Naked and the Dead. Where is the greatness, they asked? I believe this tells you a lot about the Croatian mentality in general.

I made an exhibition that first opened in Sarajevo about the ambient art of the 90s. They were such sad art pieces, art pieces about crying, huge black cocoons, escapist paintings. People were so sad and disillusioned. So, in that sense, my answer would be yes, the art reflected what was going on. The art was more subtle and refined, which of course didn’t mean much to the people that voted in favor of imposing figures and flags and all this bravado. So I made this exhibition of Croatian artists in a Sarajevo gallery, thanks to the Center of Contemporary Art and Dunja Blazevic. We actually met at a conference about the wars and the galleries and museums after the war.

Then I organized basically the first exhibition of the great new Bosnian art in Croatia. Dunja managed to create an internationally significant scene there during the late 1990s, an explosion of video art and neo-conceptual art. We exhibited artists like Maja Bajevic and Danica Dakic, who both later became internationally important and famous. I presented the program in the gallery in Zagreb and later brought it to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka.

Before that I remember being in Graz, in Austria, for a manifestation on the topic of transgender, and after that I was heading to a conference in Sarajevo. In the tower of Graz, there’s a brass plate showing the distance in kilometers to Belgrade, to Athens, to Sarajevo. It was a completely different world. Here I am in Graz and the topic is transgender and tomorrow I’ll be in Sarajevo and the topic will be museums and art after the war.

By the way, did you know that they closed the museum in Sarajevo last week, Zemaljski Muzej, the National Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina?

Why’d they close it?

They closed it because they were working without wages for one and a half years. The financing was not organized. There are supposed to be seven institutions of national importance that should be supported by all the political entities in Bosnia. But I understand that the Republika Srpska doesn’t want to support this accord and has been blocking it forever. The museum staff made the point that museum was not closed even during the war. But they as professionals cannot take responsibility for the art that’s displayed there because they cannot protect it. It is very, very, very sad.

There is a character in Dubravka Ugresic’s novel who says that, before the war, she read all sorts of critical works and avant-garde novels and very interesting things. But during the wars she only read the most sentimental things like fairy tales. Her ability and her interest – whoosh — went like that. I’m curious whether you encountered that phenomenon as well, not in your life but in society in general.

In a certain way it reflects what I told you about good art production. It was basically about this very personal sense of grief. You felt helpless and frustrated, and you wondered how it could happen and why. And then you also realize, as I guess this person in the novel realized, the futility of any knowledge of history. Because that knowledge actually didn’t prevent anything. It was just a repetition of what happened in the 20th century. We had three wars and three revolutions. That’s a little bit too much for a small society! So you got disillusioned about progress and humanism and the evolution of human society, about the avant-garde thinking and intellectuals. They are always making these mental constructions that don’t get realized, and it’s usually because of the weakness of those same intellectuals.

So I kept myself busy working. In Croatia the fighting went on for six months and then it was the dreading of the war. This dread actually had a much bigger impact on society than the fighting itself. This seven years of dread was like a limbo: no war, no peace. And then there was all this killing going on in Bosnia, this bleeding in our backyard all the time. You just watched it, and part of you was thankful that our destiny was not as hard as theirs. But it is so close, only half an hour away.

This created the space in our society for all the things that we are now trying to get away from, this horrible economic and political transition. Everyone was focused on the war and on survival, and then some smart guys used the situation to get ahead. It is pretty universal, not just a Croatian thing. If we had been capable — or been allowed, some might say — to liberate ourselves sooner, we would be in much better shape today. The prolongation of the war, the extension of hatred and frustration, prepared a fertile ground for all those negative aspects we are fighting today.

Have you encountered this phenomenon of Yugonostalgia?

Of course. It is a part of nostalgia for being young: the chemistry, the hormones, the feeling of being more vivid and alive. Everything was more intense in a way. Even now when we are swamped with consumerism you sometimes think, “I just want to buy a pair of jeans. Don’t fuck me with these 60 varieties! I don’t have the time, I don’t care.” That’s when you recall the simplicity of socialism.

Of course, it is easy now to idolize Tito. I curated one exhibition in Rijeka on his yacht, Galeb. It was on avant-garde art that fought the system and we installed it in the symbol of his rule. Because Galeb was not just the symbol of Tito, it was equally the symbol of Yugoslavia, of its hedonism, and elitism. Yugoslavia’s leadership in the movement of non-aligned countries gave us the feeling that even though we’re this tiny population, we have international impact. We always have to be the most important in the world: first in football, first in tennis, first in skiing, first in culture. We had to uphold a certain standard. Tito gave to the people here this sense that we are important internationally, that we are different, smarter. Though it was proved, even in his time, that this was not so. But we believed it for a long time.

Personally apart from being generally nostalgic about my youth, I am not nostalgic about Yugoslavia. Now, thanks to contemporary technology, we can have all the perks of being able to follow the media from our different neighbors because we are familiar with the mentality and we can understand the languages. That’s something that comes with any satellite package, with cable TV. So, that’s something we can work on, how to collaborate together, and I think it’s for the better. Then again, there is the Yugonostalgia, but I wouldn’t treat it like my grandma used to think that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the best empire in the world. There are people who tend to think that life was easier during Yugoslavia. But now when you look at the photographs from the socialist period and see how low the standards were at that time…

As I told you before, even during Yugoslav times, my interests were much more inclined toward the West. We were more Western in a way than the others. Basically there was this element of the Bosnian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Serbian culture and mentality that for us was exotic in a way. It was exotic folk music, exotic food. Even their way of partying – it was more passionate. We were much more reserved.

When I talk to people in Serbia, they view Croatia very positively form a political sense because they believe that basically political parties here, HDZ and others, engaged in a kind of auto-lustracja, a kind of political self-cleansing. That hasn’t happened in Serbia or in Bulgaria either. I’m curious whether you think that really is the case in Croatia?

Yes, definitely, Croatia is dynamic in that sense. It’s what happened with HDZ as one of the strongest parities. They moved to the center and now they are leaning again more to the right with the new leadership. But it is also the part of the natural political life of the parties. There was a strange conversion of politics here. The social democrats were promoting liberal capitalism and the conservative parties were promoting a softer, more populist approach toward the current crisis. Though, of course, we are living in a perpetual crisis here. Maybe they say the same thing in Serbia: that nothing ever functioned here so the crises wouldn’t either.

The new developments in Serbia are scary in a way, a throwback to the past. We’re interdependent: if their parties are tougher, it will make our parties tougher. We still feel this sense of danger. And this is one reason why we want to finally enter the European Union: to feel safer. And also maybe even in psychological terms to separate ourselves from this sort of mentality that we believe is destructive but that is also a part of our own mentality.

In fact this is why I believe we don’t like that Croatia is connected with the term “Balkan.” Because, for us, “Balkan” has a very negative connotation in psychological terms: aggressive, destructive, non-creative, non-constructive. The “Balkan” mentality is all about the most basic hedonism, what we call “in yourself, on yourself, and under yourself.” In other words, the big three: food, clothes, and fucking. We feel that this is the Balkan mentality: it’s all about this and nothing else. This sort of worldview is of course not intellectual. It’s about corruption. It’s about cheating. Everyone wants to distance themselves from this Balkan mentality. For the Austrians, it starts in Slovenia. For the Slovenians, it starts with Croatia. For the Croatians, it starts south of the River Sava in Bosnia. For the Serbians and so on and so on.

But we also like the pleasures of it too. We like the food and the drinking and the mindless hedonism, which is very appealing especially to the young.

Croatia has been on the list to be a member of the European Union for God knows how long and you are supposed to enter in six months or so.

But of course we are not yet sure.

Of course, the EU is in an economic crisis. But you could say that Croatia will be the first country to enter the European Union with a realistic understanding of what it means to be a member. Bulgaria and Romania had widely unrealistic expectations….

We were disillusioned a lot, but we still believed in the EU. And we still promote that idea. Our politicians warn, “It’s going to be hard.” But it’s still believed to be part of the solution, which creates unrealistic expectations among the people. So, the people believed that all the problems of Yugoslavia would be resolved once we claimed our independence. Now basically Croatia has the same problems that Yugoslavia had: unemployment, huge debts, a not very functional state. For really understandable reasons, we are not very good at administrating: because we didn’t have an independent state for 700 years and our elite was wiped out lots of times during our history. But by some miracle we managed.

I believe that some politician here should use the public media to soothe Croatians. The politician should say on television, “People of Croatia! Touch the screen. Relax. You are doing fine. You are good. You managed. You have to believe in yourself. And you can make it better.” Of course no one is doing that. The media is always about negativism. And today all the Croatians treat their country like it’s their stepmother: “Bitch, she’s not giving us enough! But ya, give me more.” It’s insane.

With the European Union, we need to realize that it’s all about how we manage ourselves. In the long run, I’m optimistic, but it will be very hard. There are so many things that we can improve! Starting with my room.

People ask me many times why didn’t I go overseas. But I like it here. It is full of possibilities. You just have to deal with it and fight and do, do, do and everything can be done. You can say that about everywhere, I guess, but with our goals, our ideas, and our ambitions we can really make this a great place for four and a half million people.

I believe it was Heidegger who said that where there’s danger, there’s also the possibility of salvation. You just have to focus on it. The difficulties actually bring out the best in you. We have had, in terms of democratic politics, a few critical moments that were dependent on the general vote. And no matter what you think, especially if you are an intellectual and you despise everyone else and you tend to perceive the majority of Croatians as illiterate, lazy, stupid, ignorant, and passive bastards, they voted for the best option. So this gives me confidence in how it’s going to end up.

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since then until today how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to ten with one being most disappointed and ten being most satisfied. What number would you give it?

7

And in your own personal life from that same period of time?

12

12? Excellent

I did a lot, I really did.

And then when you look into the near future how would you evaluate the prospects for the country on a scale to 1 to 10 with one being most pessimistic and ten being most optimistic?

I would say 10, but I am a sort of optimist by nature. I feel very energized. I went through a lot of professional changes and crises. But that gave me optimism regarding myself and this country.

Zagreb, October 11, 2012