The Serbian authorities are in the middle of a witch-hunt against critical intellectuals, whose most recent victim, Sreten Ugricic was for over a decade the successful director of the National Library.
At around seven o’clock in the morning euronews has an appointment with Ugricic at Belgrade train station. He has gained national and international renown for modernising Serbia’s National Library, his writing, and for his struggle for democratic values. But after signing an appeal for better protection of freedom of thought and expression, he was targeted in a virulent virulent media campaign.
Then the politicians stepped in. The Minister of the Interior, Dacic, a close ally of the late Jugoslavian ruler Slobodan Milosevic, called an emergency government phone session, a procedure reserved for natural desasters. Ugricic was sacked immediately afterwards.
“One reason for sacking me from my position of head of the National Library of Serbia is obiously a political one. This is the beginning of the pre-election campaign period and this election campaign is a very brutal one… and my case, my so-called case started, when the Minister of Police – himself – declared publically in front of journalists that I am supporting terrorism,” he says.
Other Serbian writers who signed the free speech appeal are afraid the crackdown is coming for them, too. Parliamentary elections are in May, and the heat is rising.
Strong backing for Ugricic does not only come from fellow writers such as young poet Milos Zivanovic and novelist Mirjana Djurdjevic. The sacking of Ugricic has led to a world-wide outcry: among others, the International Federation of Library Associations sent an official protest letter to the Serbian president and government, stating that “library organizations in Europe and all over the World have been shocked” about the media campaign and subsequent dismissal. The European Commission and several EU member states are digging into the case, too.
“During the times of the repressive Milosevic regime, when the system wanted to react, it killed. It killed journalists. – Today, when the system wants to react, they fire you. So that’s what they did with Sreten Ugricic at the National Library,” says Zivanovic.
Mirjana Djurdjevic agrees that the game is rigged.
“You can write anything you like. You can bark at the stars if you like. But as soon as they have a reason to act against you, everything, really everything will change in seconds. They’ll start to needle-pick at every single word you say or write and the situation becomes within seconds a real nightmare, just like in a book by George Orwell,” she says.
Milos and Mirjana are at the station en route for Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to meet Bosnian writer colleagues. Inter-regional exchanges like this are rare. Closed for 18 years, the line reopened two years ago.
Travelling from Belgrade to Sarajevo involves two international border crossings and three engine changes. Four railway companies each jealously guard their stretch. And soon, when Croatia joins the European Union, the Balkan train will cross EU territory.
Miroslav Stanic’s father was an engine driver. So was his grand-father. It makes him sad that so few passengers take this famous train nowadays.
“The re-opening of this train link means that people can travel again. They can socialize, they can meet again. In the former Yougoslavia, many more people traveled by this train between Belgrade and Sarajevo,” he sighs.
At the first border crossing, the Serbian engine is changed for a Croatian one.
Croatia will join the European Union next year.
At the start of March, notwithstanding serious doubts about Serbia’s reform path, EU leaders also greenlighted its application for EU candidate status.
The remaining problems to be tackled are huge: Independant observers note almost no progress at all in Serbia to stop corruption. Political parties have infiltrated Serbian business – and vice versa.
It is made worse by almost no independent media say Mira and Milos.
“Things that would not be possible in Croatia are possible in Serbia, when you compare the media freedom in both countries. In Serbia, most editors willingly censor articles and fire critical journalists. That’s due to the fact that in Serbia most media are owned or closely controlled by politicians,” says Milos.
“There are too many lies published. I can not bear it any longer so I stopped reading some of those crappy newspapers and watching those crappy programmes because there are too many lies, well… and bad news will reach me anyway…” Mira’s shrug says it all. But even black humour will not save you claims Milos: “After the last elections we published a mocking photomontage, a caricature of Interior Minister Ivica Dacic from the Socialists, Milosevic’s old party, throwing the President of Serbia, Boris Tadic from the pro-EU Democratic Party onto a bull’s horns.
On the same day, our editor-in-chief got a very, very unpleasant phone call from those people controlling the media and buying advertising space in the media, and they told our editor: ‘if you want to tackle bullfights go right ahead, but we won’t be buying any advertisments in your newspaper any more’.”
It is early evening before Mira and Milos arrive in Sarajevo. Their dinner date is in an oldtown restaurant with Faruk Sehic, a well-known and much-translated Bosnian author who tries to face haunting war memories by writing about them.
Central cultural institutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina are on the brink of collapse because no nationalists of any stripe have any interest in making them work he says, especially blaming the “Rebublika Srbska”, the Serbian regional entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina.
And what about reconciliation?
“There is no will amongst the politicians for real reconciliation, because all their “apologies” are mere declarations. Their statements just serve political purposes. Maybe ordinary people or artists like us are ready to be reconciled, but not the politicians,” says Sehic.
The visit is almost over before it has begun, and it is time to say goodbye to Sarajevo.
On their way back to the train station, Mira and Milos pop into Sahinpasic bookshop,
the biggest bookseller all over Bosnia-Herzegovina. Regional literature is popular, and Sarajevans are hungry for novels written by authors from neighbouring countries. It seems that between regional publishing houses, co-operation works.
One more cup of coffee for the road, and then it is back to Belgrade.
One of the biggest taboo topics in Serbia today is Kosovo. The European Union is emphatic; this frozen regional conflict has to be solved peacefully before Serbia can join the EU. Full normalisation is in both Kosovo and Serbia’s interests.
A modest first step came in February, when Serbia agreed to Kosovo being represented in regional meetings, on condition that did not imply it recognised Kosovo’s independence.
“I think that Kosovo has been separated from Serbia for quite some time now. But I am convinced that none of our politicians would be brave enough to say this publically, because this would lead to a big loss of votes on election day,” says Milos.
Once the Bosno-Bosnian engine is changed for a Serbo-Bosnian one, the speed drops. Why does it take an entire day to link Sarajevo to Belgrade, some 400 kilometres apart, we ask driver Boro Brnjak while crossing the ‘Republika Srbska’?
“In the former Jugoslavia, there was one single railway company and only the crews were changed, not engines. But today, each country or even each entity within a country runs its own engines,” he explains.
In his literary periodical “BETON”, Milos Zivanovic combs through contemporary novels, poems, speeches, all kind of cultural and social phenomena, to see if they are ‘contaminated’ by nationalistic thinking, by open or hidden hate speech…
He is one of the very rare Serbian writers to have set up a stunning cooperation project with Albanian-speaking writers from Kosovo.
“In cooperation with colleagues from Pristina we published in Serbia’s capital Belgrade a collection of new Albanian literature from Kosovo, translated into Serbian, called: ‘From Pristina with love’. At the same time its twin was published in Pristina, in Albanian: a collection of the latest Serbian short stories written by young Serbian authors, called: ‘From Belgrade with love’,” he says.
Milos’ favorite poem is called “U Srcu”, remembering his – maybe lost – dream of multiple identities co-existing peacefully together.
‘In my heart I am Albanian’ the poem goes; ‘In my heart I am a Muslim, a Gypsy, an Arab, a Spaniard, a young American, a prophet and a priest, a Latino, a Byzantine…’