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Transnational dialogue in times of war

COMMENTARY
Transnational dialogue in
times of war
The peace movement in ex-Yugoslavia

Nikolai Jetts

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aced with the prospect of continuing war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, the West
is still fumbling for an adequate response. The choices on offer seem to be scant:

withdrawal or more active intervention. It is scarcely surprising that Western pleas for

peace encounter a problem of address – after all, which nationalist leader in ex-Yugoslavia
would publicly admit to favouring war? But further external military intervention, even setting
aside its imperialist implications, would do nothing to solve the political problems on the
ground.

The pessimism this dilemma has generated is reinforced by the dominant image of the East
European intellectual as someone who has converted to nationalism, and traded his or her
dissidence for the new positions of power available after the collapse of socialism. In Eastern
Europe this image is evoked by the towering figure of Vaclav Havel, and is underwritten by the
claim recently made by the Slovene philosopher Slavoj Zizek that it is impossible to be a
transnational intellectual. In the light of recent developments, some still dissident thinkers in
ex-Yugoslavia have asked whether being an intellectual does not now virtually entail being a
nationalist. Should we give up the idealized notion of the detached intellectual dispensing good
advice and sharp non-conformist criticism? Should we perhaps go back to Gramsci and accept
that, at present, East European intellectuals are organically linked to the emerging class
coalition, and engaged in producing the sordid ideology of ‘transition’?

As if to confirm the positive answer to these questions, Zizek is presently arguing in
Slovenia that the ‘Balkans’ are a ‘Deckerinnerung’, a screen-memory – that all the talk about a
past of multicultural coexistence is just a retrospective phantasy. Of course, this is true. But it
is just as true that ‘Europe’, that haven to which many Slovenes aspire, is a Deckerinnerung
too. Why does Zizek not argue both at the same time? Or – to be fair to those who seek solace
in the myth of a multicultural Balkan space – why not first destroy the imperialist myth of
‘Europe’?

After all, there have been, and still are, a variety of counter-movements against nationalist
fragmentation. In part, the ‘myth’ of a multicultural Balkan space is being realized through
transnational dialogue – a crucial feature of current ex-Yugoslav peace initiatives. One
example of such dialogue would be LUR (Leteca Radionica Ucionica – ‘Flying Workshop’),
which annually brings together individuals from the various republics who are campaigning for
peace, and on human-rights and refugee issues. Although LUR has been promoting dialogue
for the past three years, it has not sought to find a grand political solution to the war. Rather, its
objectives are to ensure transnational exchange and co-operation, and to help forge
international anti-fascist solidarity. The Slovene philosopher and activist Rastko Mocnik sees
LUR as taking on a more actively coordinating role in the future. Instead of bringing together
different strategies, LUR may start forging common ones which could thus be more effective.

But as far as politics is concerned, he insists, ‘any sustainable solution will have to come from
inside the war region.’

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Radical Philosophy 73 (SeptlOct 1995)

Transnational dialogue is a way of breaking out of the nationalist/ethnic paradigm currently
dominant in ex-Yugoslavia. But this will ultimately have to entail the moral disarmament of
the ‘soft nationalists’. It is easy to dismiss the ethnic violence against Albanians in Macedonia,
or the curtailment of human rights in Slovenia and Croatia, as insignificant in comparison to
the suffering and human-rights abuses in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But such a dismissal would
mean the endorsement of one nationalism against another, and would be founded on a rhetoric
of sacrifice which discounts the suffering of the few in view of the overall ‘healthy’ picture of
– for instance – Slovene democracy.

More importantly, the endorsement of soft nationalism paralyses initiatives on the ground.

It is significant that one of the ways in which the Slovene government denounced members of
the Helsinki Monitor in Slovenia recently, when it highlighted human-rights abuses there, was
to call them ‘Yugo-nostalgics’. But the abuses – against both Slovenes and citizens of other exYugoslav republics – were the result of the break-up of Yugoslavia, and can be decisively
resolved only through a comprehensive all-Yugoslav settlement, an acceptance of a oncecommon past, and the rejection of the definition of the political body through ethnicity.

Political denunciations which deride ‘Yugo-nostalgia’ represent what Mocnik calls
‘Balkanism’ (a variant on Said’s ‘Orientalism’). He points out that the current alternatives to
Yugo-nostalgia are either an anti-Balkan racism or a fetishization of Europe. In his view, both
are dimensions of a colonized mind and form the ideological supports of the present mode of
domination, as well as being alibis for the introduction of a peripheral form of capitalism.

Proposals for all-Yugoslav settlements have been put forward in various internal peace
initiatives for the good reason that only such settlements can escape the bond of nationalist
particularism, and guarantee the rights and aspirations of those who will lose twice: the first
time in the war, the second in an ethnically tainted peace. The founding document of the now
largely defunct trans-Yugoslav Civilni Pokret Otpora (Civil Resistance Movement) consisted
of a policy addressed to the heads of all the states emerging within Yugoslavia, as well as to
peace mediators, which tried to tackle the needs of these double losers. Recognizing that the
nation-state could neither satisfy the needs nor guarantee the rights of those who came from
nationally mixed families, who had regional instead of national identities, who were members
of various minorities, or who did not declare their nationality or equate it with raison d’ etat,
the document argued that all these people should be guaranteed simultaneous citizenship of all
the nation-states founded on the ashes of former Yugoslavia. They should also be exempted
from military service and compulsory labour.

Dilemmas of civil society
One of the dilemmas of the Civil Resistance Movement concerned the degree to which it
should address itself to various nationalist heads of state. Would such an address not involve
their legitimization, and thus an admission (given the relative weakness of non-nationalist
discourse in ex-Yugoslavia) that asymmetrical dialogue can ultimately only benefit those in
power? This problem, one of positioning, faces all groups opposed to the war in exYugoslavia. The suspicion of asymmetrical dialogue reflects the experience of the collapse of
socialism, which paradoxically led to the disintegration of the very movements of ‘civil
society’ which played a central role in challenging socialism in the first place. When political
democracy was established as a side-effect of the struggles of civil society, the new pattern of
class domination was constructed by political means. Nationalist mobilization first achieved the
exclusion of civil society from political relevance, but then also used it as an instrument in the
battle for the ‘dividing of the cake’. This partition was both ‘structural’ (a still on-going battle
among fractions of the incipient capitalist class) and – in certain parts of Yugoslaviageographical. But geographical partition, of course, means war.

The fragile efforts to reconstruct civil society cannot afford to be hijacked by the
institutions of power again. The prevalent mood in most ex-Yugoslav peace initiatives is one of
constructing an independent public sphere, a counter-culture with hegemonic aspirations
similar to the civil society which burgeoned under socialism. Certainly this is the case with the
pacifist and non-nationalist media. For the Croatian publication Arkzine this attitude is

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crystallized in its principled anarchist stance, while for the Croatian oppositional and satirical
magazine Feral Tribune it is expressed through figures of carnivalesque subversion. Radio Zid
from Sarajevo refuses unconditional support for the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina; and
the Serbian radio station B-92 aims to build a cosmopolitan youth culture in sharp contrast to
that of Milosevi6′ s young Serbian socialists, and to the ‘para-militarization’ of youth and the
‘folklorization’ of Serbian urban culture (as the Serb anthropologist and peace campaigner Ivan
Colovi6 describes it).

The refusal to legitimize in dialogue those engaged in the discourse and practice of war has
marginalized peace initiatives, but it also means that these initiatives – despite their numerical
weakness – do not suffer the blind spots characteristic of Western attitudes to the war. (How
can one expect to bring the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzi6, before a war crimes
tribunal while legitimizing him as the one who must be brought to the negotiating table?) At the
same time, a purist refusal of contact with the powerful risks becoming a dead end.

In the spring of this year two Serbian philosophers, Miladin Zivoti6 and Obrad Savi6
(members of the Belgrade circle, an oppositional grouping which serves as a non-nationalist
counterweight to the sinister Serbian Academy of the Sciences and Arts, which first revived
plans for a greater Serbia) formed part of a delegation to the president of Bosnia-Herzegovina,
Alija Izetbegovi6, in Sarajevo. This meeting (the second of its kind) suggests that asymmetrical
dialogue may be desirable when it transcends nationalist rivalries and breaks the myth of an
ethnically defined frontline. But the choices are not easy. For it is equally arguable that only a
strict principle of ‘equal distance’ from all parties engaged in the war can prevent an insidious
quantification of suffering, and an acceptance’ of the rhetoric of sacrifice. Hopefully what is
happening is a subtle process whereby those nominally regarded as confronting each other
re group to face a different ‘other’ together.

Post-Praxis philosophers
Miladin Zivoti6 could be described as a ‘post-Praxis’ philosopher. In general philosophers have
played, and continue to play, a significant role in the peace movement. But this commitment
does not derive from any common theoretical orientation. Rastko Mocnik (Slovenia), Mario
Kopi6 (Croatia), Obrad Savi6 (Serbia), Miladin Zivoti6 (Serbia, Nenad Miscevi6 (Croatia),
Zagorka Gulobovi6 (Serbia) – to name but a few – constitute as improbable a philosophical
grouping as one could imagine, ranging from analytical philosophers to deconstructionists and
Marxists. But all have spoken out against their own national governments and denounced the
war, regardless of which side the bullets are flying from.

Unfortunately, the fate of the celebrated Praxis school, the Yugoslav version of ‘Western
Marxism’, is deeply equivocal in this regard. Some leading figures, such as Mihaljo Markovi6,
have fully endorsed Serbian nationalism. Others such as Miladin Zivoti6 and Zagorka
Gulobovi6 share a peace platform with members of the younger philosophical generation. The
reason for their rejection of nationalism resides not solely in their ‘moral integrity’, but in the
fact that they remained within the left tradition and open to post-Praxis – for example, ‘poststructuralist’ – theoretical developments. It is worth remembering that in the early 1970s the
Praxis group staunchly opposed and brilliantly analysed the first stirrings of nationalism in exYugoslavia (see Praxis nos 3 and 4, 1971), which were fostered and incorporated by the
Communist regime. Indeed, many members were marginalized or lost their positions as a result
of this.

Marginalized and demoralized, the peace initiatives in ex-Yugoslavia have nothing but
example, appeal and demand on offer. But their moral strength and political weakness
counterbalance the opposite strengths and weaknesses in the position of the West. If the will
were there, the West has resources to demarginalize the peace initiatives. It could, for example,
provide full support for non-nationalist media in ex-Yugoslavia; highlight the plight of
deserters; endorse – or at least give consideration to – the policy proposals made by nonnationalist politicians, intellectuals and citizens’ groups; facilitate international dialogue and
cultural exchange. Between withdrawal and intervention there is a third way: active support for
the peace movements in ex-Yugoslavia.

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