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Home » Content » The great chronicler of the Balkans: “The virus of nationalism has awakened in Spain”
Drakulić spent a lifetime reflecting on what happened in the Balkans and noting how difficult it is to placate the "nationalist virus" once contagion begins

Ángel Villarino. Barcelona

10/08/2017 05:00 – Updated: 10/10/2017 22:30

The historical parallels are full of traps, so Slavanka Drakulić (Rijeka, Croatia, 1949) prefers to address the problem of Catalonia by reflecting on what has already happened and knows so well: the uncontrollable volatility that generates a nationalist inflammation. Journalist, novelist and essayist, she is one of the most independent and translated voices of the Balkans, although she now lives in Sweden. She has written the best books and articles on the decomposition of the former Yugoslavia, titles such as ‘Café Europa: life after communism’ or ”No matarían ni una mosca’ (translated into Spanish). She collaborates with ‘The New York Times’, ‘The Guardian’ and ‘Süddeutsche Zeitung’.

Question. The interest of this interview, it is evident, has to do with the crisis unleashed in Catalonia. Every time we have more flags on the balconies throughout Spain and expressions of hate multiply, for example in social networks.

People need to be willing to kill and die for their goals. This, fortunately, takes time to happen

Answer. My experience says that the main obstacle to a war is psychological. You cannot go out and start killing your neighbors, Spaniards or Catalans, because you would be considered crazy. You need a justification to start killing, you need to be convinced that you are doing the right thing, that you are defending yourself from a diabolical enemy that wants to hurt you. The virus of nationalism has awakened in your country, but you still need to build a psychological justification to come to a real conflict, persuade and contaminate people to justify violence. People need to be willing to kill and die for their goals. This, fortunately, takes a while to happen. So we have to hope that we are still in time to explore possibilities to avoid a fatal conflict fatal in Spàin..

Q. Let’s talk about what happened in your country. In 1984, Yugoslavia was one of the places in Eastern Europe where it was best to live in, with a standard of living very similar to that of Spain at that time. Sarajevo hosted a Winter Olympics and, in general, seemed to be on the favorable side of history. Nobody could imagine what ended up happening after an economic crisis and a nationalist inflammation fueled by power.

A. No one saw it coming, nobody thought that something like that could be possible. And it did not happen so fast. Conflicts and wars are not usually unleashed overnight, although from the outside it seems so. In the former Yugoslavia, it took at least five years for the nationalist propaganda and the homogenization of the population, the division between “us” and “them” that prepared the bloody conflicts afterwards. Remember that everything started when Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Serbia and launched the ‘apartheid’ in Kosovo, in the eighties. In a way, the awakening of Croatian nationalism was a response to the awakening of Serbian nationalism, especially when the Serbian minority proclaimed autonomy in Croatia. Once that was done, Milosevic, with the Yugoslav People’s Army, felt he was legitimized to attack.

Q. What were the first worrying signs?

A. The media was crucial in the process of creating an enemy. My fellow journalists, writers, intellectuals, academics … participated willingly in nationalist propaganda, some because they were authentic believers and others out of pure opportunism. We have to be aware that history repeats itself: the first thing is to define who the enemy is. That is the main goal of nationalist propaganda and it is much easier when there is a historical conflict, when you can resort to a past grievance. In Yugoslavia Serbs and Croats were very aware of the Second World War. With the help of historical elements, myths and half-truths are fed. And in the end an explosive emotional mix is ​​achieved.

My fellow journalists, writers, intellectuals, academics … participated willingly in the nationalist propaganda

Q. When conflicts enter an emotional phase, they begin to be unpredictable.

A. The ideology can be imposed on the economy and the reason. We always underestimate the power of emotions. And the most powerful of all is the fear that the ‘enemy’ can take away your territory. If the nationalist propaganda manages to create that terror, the step towards the conflict is already given. Then the first blood bath arrives and the problem becomes real. The smell of blood triggers the confrontation. In the first phase the victims are very few, isolated individuals and everyone knows their names. The war begins when you can no longer know the names of all the victims, when they begin to be totally anonymous.

P. The intermediate positions, the conciliatory ones, are the first to be silenced and despised. Equidistance equals treason.

A. That is just what war does to individuals, it forces them to take sides. When this happens it is already too late for conciliatory voices, which are usually silenced much earlier. Their cornering is a sinister sign that the problems are about to get worse. In Yugoslavia there was not strong enough opposition to the threat of conflict.

The conciliatory voices are silenced before the war breaks out. What happens is a symptom that the thing is about to worsen

P. Why?

A. I attribute it to two reasons. The first, the very nature of the authoritarian and undemocratic society in which we lived, prevented the development of a true civil society. Yugoslavia was a country without a political alternative like that in other surrounding nations such as Poland, Hungary or Czechoslovakia. The other problem was that my generation, born in the late forties and early fifties, should have done a job that it did not do. We were pampered and satisfied with crumbs of freedom, like the possibility of traveling abroad, a quality of life superior to that of other countries … Contrary to other places that I mentioned and that were in the Soviet bloc, we did not have enough repression as to generate a democratic political alternative, nor leaders such as Lech Walesa, Adam Michnik or Vaclav Havel. The key is that when nationalism appeared on the political scene, there was no longer a real alternative.

Q. In the former Yugoslavia, most families had relatives of all nationalities. It was a very mixed society and, nevertheless, they turned against each other. How did it happen?

A. Yugoslavia was a federal country, a mixture of several nations. As the Polish historian Adam Michnik says, the virus of nationalism is present everywhere, but especially in a multinational society. It is never enough by itself, it takes certain sociopolitical circumstances to awaken it. The former Yugoslavia, obviously, succeeded in meeting those circumstances. Bosnia Herzegovina was an example of coexistence between Serbs, Croats, Bosnian Muslims … but the war was worse precisely there. Not only because of the number of victims. In Srebrenica, in 1995, the Serbs executed more than 8,000 Muslims, men and children. In Bosnia, about 30,000 Muslim women were raped in rape camps.

Q. It is usually explained as a religious conflict, of Muslims against Orthodox and Orthodox against Catholics, but in reality the population was very mixed.

Nationalism and conflict divided families. It seems that emotions are stronger than reason and family ties

A. Before 1991, a year before the war, around 30 percent of children came from mixed marriages. Nationalism and conflict divided families. It seems that emotions are stronger than reason and even family ties.

Q. One of the most shocking scenes of ‘They would not kill a fly’ is that image of the war criminals responsible for the worst massacres making friends and having dinner together in the prison of The Hague when the war ended. How can you explain that?

A. It is paradoxical, I agree. But it’s not that hard to understand. These men spoke the same language because Serbo-Croatian was compulsory in schools. All had lived and grown up in the former Yugoslavia and shared a past, a culture, a gastronomic, musical tradition, a lot of shared memories, they even had mutual friends. That’s why they developed personal relationships. Even though their armies fought, they did not have any personal problems. Ideology and politics divided them, but they saw nothing personal about it. They did not kill members of their families, for example. In other words, there were more elements to unite them than to divide them and a reclusion center is a closed place, it is difficult to isolate oneself completely. For example, regardless of their nationality and side, all war criminals greeted Milosevic as “president”.


Undated file photograph showing a man in Lion’s cemetery, where Sarajevo victims killed by Serb-Bosnians during the Bosnian war in Sarajevo are buried. (EFE)

Q. I wonder what Yugoslavia would be like if none of this had happened. When you travel through the Balkans, you understand that there is still a huge trauma, and the generations born after the war are not spared of it

A: It affects everyone, even those who do not fight directly or who live abroad. The destruction and pain is of such proportions that it is difficult to cope and forget. In Bosnia, for example, with more than 100,000 dead, virtually everyone lost someone close to them. Not to mention the destruction of houses, entire towns, even cities like Vukovar (Croatia). It is not easy to recover from the loss, it takes a lot of time.

There is very little interest in reconciliation because reconciliation depends on the truth and this is really difficult to achieve

P. But even in the political climate is still very present. Once the tiger leaves the cage, there is no one to put it back.

A. There is a lot of manipulation and politicians evoke war intentionally whenever they want to justify their intentions. There is very little interest in reconciliation because reconciliation depends on the truth and this is really difficult to achieve. This was, in addition to Justice, the mission of the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The truth is not always comfortable, so even the rulings of this Court tend to be despised by politicians and societies.

Q. Nationalism is still very strong today in the six countries of the former Yugoslavia and there are regions that claim their own independence in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo … It never ends.

A. That is so because there has not yet been a reconciliation. There are two ways to overcome the wars, the Spanish and the German. The Spanish is, or at least was, let the past sleep peacefully, without evoking the evil spirits of nationalism or fascism. The German is to confront the fascist past bare-chested to be able to move forward without the burdens of the past. We, especially in Serbia and Croatia, are not able to discuss even the Second World War, much less the most recent wars. There are historical reasons, for example that we only learned the communist interpretation of history, instead of the facts. I think the time has come to change that.

I think the EU has not learned any lessons from the wars in the former Yugoslavia

Q. Do you think the European Union learned any lessons about what happened in Yugoslavia? Would they react differently if something like this happened again?

A. For a long time, the EU paid no attention to the fire in its backyard. In addition, Yugoslavia was not a member of the EU. An irrelevant nationalism, in an irrelevant country that was unraveling in bloody wars in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo … Two million displaced people and refugees … In the end, the US ended the war in Bosnia, but the EU continues to pay financially for the functioning of Bosnia. I think no lessons have been learned from the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Not even to recognize the signs and dangers of the new nationalism that is raising its head everywhere, not only in the EU.

Q. Some experts stress that there are two types of nationalism. The romantic, based on language, traditions, land, birthright and ethnic differences. And political nationalism, based on ideas or democratic values, as it was for years in the US. Do you agree?

A. There is no doubt that the nacionalist ideology was important in creating the national identity and the nation-state. But I do not like to mix nationalism with patriotism, something we do often. Nationalism is an ideology that needs an enemy, which is constituted as a confrontation against the other, needs the other. Patriotism is different because it does not need an enemy, you do not have to prove that your country is better than another to say that you want it. You do not need justification.


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