Archive for January, 2010

Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava

Browsing through some old photos, I found a great example to illustrate my post on the flag of Croatia and Serbia’s own nationalist slogan- “Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava” (“Само Слога Србина Спасава” in the Cyrillic alphabet, hence- C C C C) meaning “Only Unity Saves the Serbs.”  This photo was taken in Tivoli Park in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and it reiterates how one finds this image all over the Balkans.

The cross has been used by the Serbian states and the Serbian Orthodox Church since the Middle Ages shortly after Dusan the Mighty was crowned tsar of the Serbs and Greeks on April 16, 1345.  The cross is still used today as a national, religious, and ethnic symbol of Serbs.  Although the cross has been used since the Middle Ages, it conjurs up a new meaning since the wars in the 1990s, as I mentioned in the previous post, “Flags Symbolizing Hatred.”  The above photograph is a great example of the slogan in real life written as grafitti.


Waste of Space

(I apologize for the lull in writing.  Just a quick post in the middle of studying for exams…)

Parliament Palace at night

A few years ago, I met a young woman from Bucharest who emigrated to Canada.  She adamantly described Bucharest’s Palace of the Parliament as an eye-sore and a waste.  It turns out that her family used to live in one of the neighborhoods destroyed to build the communist monstrosity.  As a tourist in Bucharest a few months ago, I have to admit that although the Parliament Palace is ugly in the daylight in its typical Soviet-era neoclassical style, I found it rather impressive it its magnificent size.  According to the Guiness Book of World Records, the palace is the world’s largest civilian administrative building, most expensive administrative building, and heaviest building.  The building is 270 m by 240 m, 86 m high, and 92 m under ground and it has 1,100 rooms, 2 underground parking garages and is 12 stories tall.

According to wiki, construction of the palace by dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu destroyed the historic district of Bucharest, 19 Orthodox churches, 6 Jewish synagogues, three Protestant churches and about 30,000 residences.  Construction began in 1983 and was intended to house all major state institutions as well as the residence of Ceauşescu himself.  Ceauşescu was known for the eratic personality cult of his totalitarian regime, and the Parliament Palace represents the way that he lived in luxery as the people of Romania were impoverished and starving.  Eventually, his government was overthrown in 1989 and he and his wife were executed.  Today, the building is not completed.

Only 1/3 of the space in the parliament building is currently used, and it costs more than 50 million euros a year to maintain.  If only 1/3 of the space is used- this means that 20,000 personal residences were destroyed without cause, not to mention the historic district and aforementioned places of worship.   Recently it was proposed that part of the building would make a great shopping center, which could bring 20,000 new jobs and millions in revenue for the city.  The shopping mall would be four times as large as Southeast Europe’s largest mall currently, Afi Palace Cotroceni, which is also in Bucharest.  However, the public is divided over whether or not to turn a historic building into a commercial center.  Although Ceauşescu was a cruel dictator, the building symbolizes a large part of Romania’s recent history that cannot be ignored.

I think the best use for the building would be to house cultural institutions- a museum, theatre, concert hall, etc. However – pragmatically speaking, the enourmous space needs to be put to use and I think a shopping center in part of the world’s second largest building (after the Pentagon) is actually a good idea.  In this economy, a mall would mean more jobs and money for the city.  When tourists visit Bucharest, they like to take pictures of the exterior of the building (notice my photo above!) but most likely few venture inside for the boring tour of the governmental headquarters.  I can imagine that many people would want to go inside to see a shopping mall in the interesting and important space and maybe have a coffee in a posh cafe that kept historic elements in the decor.   If I were in the position of the woman I met a few years back and my home was destroyed to create such an extravagent building, of course I would be resentful of the dictator that destroyed the country and my home.  However, I would be most angry that the building was so extravagent that only a third of the space is even used.  What a waste.  The building will remain an eye-sore in the center of Bucharest, and will forever be a symbolic reminder of the country’s communist past.  Its about time that the building be put to use.

Arenas for Nationalism: From Sports to Politics

Although I recently wrote about my hopes for better relations between Serbia and Croatia, tensions are currently rising.  On the first day of the Australian Open, a group of young Croatian-Australians gave the Nazi salute and chanted Fascist slogans.  They also brought flares into the stadium, and were soon ejected for unruly behavior.  This display of nationalism is not unique; racial tension between nations of the former-Yugoslavia often erupts during sports matches.

In the political arena, Croatia just elected a new president, Ivo Josipovic, and it was recently confirmed that Serbian President Boris Tadic will not attend his inaugaration because Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu would be there.  Tadic does not want his attendance along with Sejdiu to be interpreted as an acceptance of Kosovo’s declaration of independence.  The inauguration of Josipovic is scheduled for February 18 2010. He will succeed Stjepan Mesic, who has been prominent in backing Kosovo’s independence, much to the annoyance of Belgrade.

Stjepan Mesic seems to be using his last days in office to make controversial statements to his neighbors, and especially to Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Republika Srpka (serbian entity) in Bosnia.   Mesic stated: “If Milorad Dodik scheduled a referendum for secession … I would send the army,”  adding that he would “break the Bosnian Serb region in half”.  Dodik responds by calling Mesic “ustasa.”

Stjepan Mesic

I agree that Dodik is doing everything in his power to keep Bosnia as divided as possible and he constantly makes threats of secession, but is another war the answer? Few experts seem to think that Bosnia will have another war like it did in the 1990s, yet the ethnic tensions between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia seem to be more aggressive than ever and Mesic’s threats are alarming.  Lady Ashton, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, has singled Bosnia out as the most unstable corner of Europe, according to the UK Guardian.

Sarajevo’s Contemporary Art Scene

Even though I only visited Sarajevo for a few days this summer, I did not get the impression that the city has a thriving contemporary art scene.  We toured the National Museum and the Bosnian History Museum but did not have enough time for gallery-hopping.  Sarajevo is a great city for strolling through the narrow, bustling streets but one does not see public art while walking.  In fact, the only public art that I did see was outside the National Museum- an ironic concrete block with the inscription: “Under this stone there is a monument to the victims of the war and Cold War.”  I snapped a photo as I am interested in public art and memorializing without realizing until today that the piece is by the only Bosnian artist I know, Braco Dimitrijević.  In October 2007, I drove four hours from my university to hear him speak near my parent’s home in Philadelphia.  He spoke at the Slought Foundation on his series “The Casual Passer-By” and although my father fell asleep in the audience and I did not understand everything he discussed, these early experiences led me to study the Balkans today.

Still, there must be more to Bosnian contemporary art than Braco Dimitrijević.  Today I am thrilled to read an article in the NY Times travel section discussing this very topic.  The article illuminates the struggles of contemporary art in Sarajevo, the gallery scene, and hopes for the future.  I am pleased to read that abandoned spaces in the city are now used to showcase local contemporary art.  Apparently the Ars Aevi contemporary art museum is open by appointment only because of financial reasons, but other galleries are mentioned that I would like to check out on my next visit.  Finally, I learned that Bosnia is planning a biennial for contemporary art to begin in 2011 if all goes according to plan.

Organizing a biennial with Serbia’s Ministry of Culture shows commitment towards creating a unified national identity and forging a future of tolerance and acceptance.  Hopefully the Council of Europe will follow through on their promise of finances, because this event would be a great opportunity for Bosnian artists with different ethnic backgrounds to work together.  I am a firm believer in the powers of art to create a sense of community.  If this biennial is a success, artists currently lost in the country’s rehabilitation process will be recognized.  Maybe Bosnia and Europe will see the need for more public art especially in the city of Sarajevo in order to help the country deal with the past.  A Serbian friend once cynically remarked that the Balkans have bigger issues than worrying about modern art.  Although I admit to being somewhat idealistic, I think that art is a great way to deal with some of these “issues”.  A greater importance placed on art in the Balkans in general and Bosnia specifically means steps towards a future of acceptance and peace.  The article in the NY Times today gives me hope.

For those traveling to Sarajevo, these are the galleries noted in the article:

Charlama Depot Gallery, Centar Skenderija, Terezije; (387-33) 203-178. Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday to Saturday (9 a.m. for the Sub Dokumenta exhibition).

Galerija 10m2 and Duplex/10m2, Stakleni Grad, Ferhadija 15; (387-63) 952-197; and Both galleries are open 2 to 7 p.m. (closed Wednesday and Sunday).

Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art, Obala Kulina Bana 22; (387-33) 665-304; and; visits by appointment only.

Obala Meeting Point, Hamdije Kresevljakovica 13, Skenderija; (387-33) 668-186. A cafe where mini-exhibitions are often on display; video pieces by artists are sometimes screened in the adjacent cinema.

A Long Road for Serbia…

Serbian President Boris Tadic (left) shakes hands with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt in Stockholm on December 22, after submitting his country's application for EU membership.

Serbia overcame many obstacles to submit its application to the European Union, but the country has many hurdles ahead. Boris Tadic hopes for a quick accession to the tight group of 27 member states, but what’s next for Serbia as the latest country to apply?

Any country wishing to become an EU member must meet a strict set of criteria. First, the country must adapt all EU law to its domestic system. The text of EU law is estimated to be about 70,000 to 80,000 pages long, so this is no easy task. Second, the country must meet economic criteria. Serbia must stabilize its market economy in order to become competitive with other member states. Lastly, there are political criteria such as having a stable democracy, respect for the law, and respect for human rights- in particular to the protection of minorities.

Still, the EU resembles an exclusive club, and becoming a member is far more than meeting specific criteria. The reality is that many of the EU member states are wary about enlarging. The older members in particular feel that the EU enlarged too fast and needs a period of rest. Although the EU claims they are committed to enlarging to the western Balkans, some member states may drag out the process of Serbia’s acceptance.

Also, it’s a problem that General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader indicted on charges of war crimes and genocide in the wars in the 1990s is still missing. Holland is particularly outspoken about the necessity of his arrest before Serbia has a future in the European Union. Serbia extradited former leader Slobodan Milosevic who died while on trial in The Hague, and most recently Radovan Karadzic. The European Union commends Serbia on cooperating with The Hague, but Mladic seems to be a significant missing piece of Serbia’s acceptance to the EU.

Lastly, the issue of Kosovo needs to be addressed. Not every member state of the European Union recognizes Kosovo as an independent state, but the majority recognizes the declaration. If Spain, Romania, and Slovakia have not recognized Kosovo’s independence, why must Serbia? The European Union is divided over the issue and thus cannot demand Serbia to accept Kosovo as independent. Still, it seems to me that Kosovo and Serbia need to figure out some agreement in order for Serbia to move forward.

Analysts say Serbia faces a long path to EU membership and that the process could take 5 to 8 years. Tadic is convinced Serbia will be a member by 2014. I am so pleased that Serbia submitted their application and that the country is trying to make reforms as quickly as possible. Joining the EU will bring Serbia out of isolation, but there is a long and difficult road ahead.

The Estonians

Here is an advertisement for an evening show of TV3 News Estonia…

A Need for Truth

I was surprised this summer to hear that many of my Serbian friends were afraid for their safety in Croatia. Serbs used to go to the stunning beaches on the Adriatic Sea before the breakup of Yugoslavia, but these days they seem to prefer Montenegro or Greece in the summertime. Before traveling to Croatia, a few people told me that a friend of a friend was beaten up while on vacation, or that any car with Serbian plates would be vandalized. The stories affected us so much that we were nervous to take a Serbian rental car across the border, and made sure to pick parking spots with careful discretion. The car traveled through Croatia unscathed and at the time, I dismissed these fears of my friends as paranoia. After all, people my age were children during the wars, and didn’t the wars end 14 years ago?

The more I study Southeast Europe, the more I learn that the conflicts in the former-Yugoslavia have not ended. I am reminded of this fact when I see photos of war criminals proudly displayed in a bus or when I read about segregated schools in Bosnia. Certainly I am hopeful to read about Serbia’s cooperation with the trial of Karadzic and I am thrilled that visa restrictions were lifted so that my friends can travel. Still, I do not think they will go to Croatia’s coast anytime soon.

Today the news reminds me once again that despite the EU applications, lift of visa restrictions, and other evidence of progress the countries of the former-Yugoslavia are nowhere close to moving past the war. Serbia filed a counter-lawsuit against Croatia at The Hague today for crimes committed against Serbs in the wars from 1991-1995. The decision to file a counter-lawsuit was passed on December 31, 2009, in response to Croatia’s claims for genocide filed on July 2, 1999 against then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Zagreb accused Belgrade of ethnic cleansing and killing of 20,000 Croats during the war and seeks reparations for war crimes, torture, the displacement of civilians and destruction of property. Serbia claims to want to address this issue out of court, but Croatia will not withdrawal their lawsuit from ten years ago. In response, Serbia’s counter-suit states that Croat forces committed war crimes and genocide against the civilian population during its offensives on Serb-controlled territories, including the expulsion of as many as 250,000 Serbs from Krajina towards the end of the war. The suit from Belgrade also includes a detailed report of the relationship between the two countries that dates back to World War II. The lawsuits fuel tension between two nations applying for EU membership.

I believe that people need truth before they can move forward. In Yugoslavia, Tito suppressed information about World War II in order to maintain peace among the ethnicities. Forced to live in silence, Serbia now brings up the atrocities of Jasenovac concentration camp in international courts over 60 years later. At first I want to dismiss these lawsuits on account of two countries holding grudges. After more consideration, I think Serbia and Croatia need to confront the past. They need to have a dialogue to promote understanding before either country can have a future in Europe. I wish this dialogue took place ten years ago, but memories of the past will not disappear. In the future, after discussion and time to heal wounds, I hope that Serbs again vacation in Croatia.

The coast of Croatia

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