ANTI-EUROPEAN ZONE – Strictly controlled identities in Serbia by Saša Ilić

In the acclaimed film Stalker (1979) by Andrei Tarkovsky, the director uses a a metaphor of a mystical Zone to which one travels in order to face the unknown, namely to meet one’s own deepest desires which are often hidden from oneself. Even when a person goes there with the intent to save the life of his closest family member, what they percieve as their deepest desire, the Zone can “sense” what they actually desire, thus confronting them with the truth about themselves. One of Tarkovsky’s travellers is the Writer, who sets off on a journey through the deserted and dangerous landscape of the Zone only to realise, at the very entrance to the room of desires, that he is afraid of facing the truth about himself. One could say that the same journey was chosen by the Goverrment of the Republic of Serbia, as it imagines the European Union as a “room of desires” that will make all Serbia’s dreams and wishes come true. However, navigating the Zone is not an easy task. The journey implies transformation and changes, without which the wishes cannot be realised, therefore the outcome is often the one we haven’t expected – instead of getting what we declared we need, we get the very thing we didn’t dare to express, but which was actually our deepest wish.

The cultural policies which have been in place in Serbia in the last decade, under the slogan of “alignment with the European standards”, resemble anything but the European framework of values, standards and aims towards which Serbia allegedly strives. Vladan Vukosavljević, the Minister of Culture, took upon himself the task of “tidying up the sphere of culture” by turning it into a space of conservative and discriminatory ideas. Literature was the first field to be dealt with, having been already in the past similarly damaged by the work of the Ministry of Culture. Namely, Vukosavljević and his team came up with the “Cultural Development Strategy 2017-2027”. He intended to deliver it to the EU, but effectively in his briefcase – resembling those well-hidden desires from Tarkovsky’s Stalker – one could only find an ethno-nationalistic concept of culture, easily discerned in the bigger part of this Cultural Manifesto.

The greatest problem with Minister Vukosavljević’s Strategy, apart from its very badly concieved aims and budget, is its actual abandonment of culture in the name of only one of its ideological offsprings. This ideological offspring is the result of the cultural policies shaped by the nationalistic agenda, which dominated the Serbian political life in the 1990s. Even though it formally advocates European integrations, primarily via its dependence on the EU funds, the Strategy defines culture as the bastion for defending Serbian identity, identity that “comprises language and literature, the awareness about its history and religious affiliation, customs, way of life, authentic forms of spiritual and historical knowledge, dominant mentality models, and the overall image that the nation holds of itself.” This ideological blend further generates the obligations for the contemporary culture in Serbia, which needs to be put in service of preservation and cultivation of the Serbian language and alphabet (favouring the Cyrillic script, at the expense of the Latin script which is uniquelly used in paralel with the Cyrlillic script in Serbia), as well as “to disseminate scientifically established findings on the genocide committed against the Serbian people in the 20th Century”.

This strategy of cultural development aims to remove the Latin script as equal to the Cyrillic and pushes for its discrimination. This will be regulated by a set of laws once the Strategy is passed in the Serbian Parlament. Hence the Minister of Culture openly offers financial support to publishing houses who print their books in the Cyrillic, as well as openly promoting media outlets which offer their newpapers in the Cyrillic. This leads to the discrimination of literature printed in the Latin script, which has so far always been available in Serbia. The goal of such cultural policy is the complete obliteration of the Latin script from the public domain, which will include the removal of all public signs of the names of streets, squares and cities, traditionally written in both scripts. This will be also applied to the names of various institutions, associations and organisations. This set of discriminatory laws may reflect on the publishing industry, which will resort to printing books solely in the Cyrillic, out of fear of losing the Government subsidies. At the same time, this will be the final blow to the Yugoslav heritage which up until now survivied in the public domain in Serbia. Furthermore, this constitues an attack on many ethnic minorities which articulate their cultural production using the Latin script and in a slightly different cultural code.

The shift to the exclusive use of the Cyrillic scipt would mark the beginning of the control of the publishing industry by the state, which could in the next instance lead to strict monitoring of literary narratives, which is the aim of the serving Minister of culture, given that he would like to reduce Serbian cultural identity to the Cyrillic script and the investigation of the genocide against Serbs in the 20th Century. Also, Minister Vukosavljević himself takes part in the launches of the books he deemes of exceptional literary value. Recently, he spoke at the launch of a book by Božidar Zejak, the director of the Museum of Pedagogy in Belgrade. The Minister took the opportunity to emphasize that the Zejak’s main character (Zejak being so far a completely unknown author, but as the head of an important national institution directly subordinated to Minister Vukosavljević) “stems from the inspiration and the robust awareness of national identity that is firmly embeded in the mother tongue, which makes me greatly value this literary character.” Minister added that the book was written in “solid, juicy, well controlled and balanced Serbian language which is not so common nowadays.” Surely this statement is neither true nor accurate, because there is a range of authors whose use of Serbian language is very creative, as well as their treatment of the contemporary themes which arise from the very real problems that a society in transition, stuck on its way to the EU, faces today.

Finally, the criticism aimed at these cultural policies, raised by several independent media institutions – such as Peščanik.net, Autonomija.info, N1info.com, Vreme.com – is being qualified by the Minister of Culture as coming from the representatives of dangerous acullturation processes and those who deny Serbian cultural identity, as conceived by the new Cultural Development Strategy, now being presented to Serbian MPs as the ultimate expression of the Serbian regime’s “European cultural awareness”.

By Saša Ilić

Translated by Svetlana Rakocevic

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe website on 4 April 2018.

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