Certainly 1989 was a watershed year for politicians, political scientists, and human rights activists in East-Central Europe. But the people that really must have felt the ground shake beneath their feet were: real estate developers. Just imagine all the amazing housing stock that suddenly became available in the heart of beautiful historic cities: medieval buildings, castles, villas, Art Deco apartment complexes. The region was one enormous fixer-upper.
But who had the money to buy these properties? In the 1990s, the region as a whole was hit by massive economic dislocation with the closure of factories and farms, the shrinking of governments, and the wholesale shift to capitalism. Prices were low, but the unemployment rate was high and people were burning through their savings. Still, some people did very well indeed during the transition, and there were also plenty of outsiders who were eager to buy a little piece of Prague, a small corner of Krakow, or a few buildings in Budapest.
You can see the change most visibly in a place like Prenzlauer Berg, in what was previously East Berlin. After 1989, the area was a squatter’s paradise, with many empty apartment buildings and even huge empty complexes like the old brewery now known as the Kulturbrauerei. Today, Prenzlauer Berg is the Brooklyn of Berlin, home to hipsters and expats and young couples with children, and the rents are rising accordingly.
You can find these neighborhoods throughout the region. Just step outside and smell the cappuccinos. In many places in East-Central Europe, gentrification has taken place quietly and without barely a protest. But not in Zagreb.
A couple years ago, an effort to construct a shopping mall and luxury apartments in the center of Zagreb’s old city met with spirited resistance from groups like Green Action and Right to the City. The developers eventually won the fight over the mall at Flower Square. But it was not a total victory.
“The shopping mall was built there,” explains Petar Milat, a philosopher and co-director of the independent cultural center in Zagreb called MaMa. “But other projects were prevented. True, partly that was because of the real estate bubble that burst during the crisis. But we were able to intervene into public opinion and make people more cautious toward those huge investments, and this had significance beyond discourse. There was some improvement in legislation, for example. But much more significant was that the investors, and the national public administration promoting investments, have had to fight back with intellectual resources that they usually lack.”
The anti-gentrification struggle prefigured the Occupy movements that swept through the United States and Europe the following year. But it was also important at a theoretical level, for it symbolized an effort to re-establish some sense of the commons after a couple decades of emphasis on privatization, private property, and individualism.
At MaMa, Petar Milat works on a number of initiatives that blend theory, activism, and art. The interior of the space resembles an airport lounge designed by postmodernist hackers. It’s only a short distance from the new mall on Flower Square. But it’s a world away.
Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
I was in Germany, in Frankfurt am Main. I recollect it quite well. I was 15. It was 6 p.m. I’d just come back from German gymnasium and saw the pictures on television. It was an event. November 9 is such an important date in recent German history, so I also have mythologized it to some extent.
Did you respond any differently from the German children in your gymnasium?
I was the only foreigner in my gymnasium. All the other students were German. We lived in a wealthy suburb of Frankfurt. They were all traumatized by their poor cousins coming over from the East looking for bananas. This was the experience immediately after the fall of the Wall. The landlord who rented us an apartment was traumatized by the idea that the “Ossis” would come and demand something.
In the German context of the late 1980s, the media set-up was already prepared by the many Germans from Russia, mostly from Kazakhstan, who used the privilege of their German descent during the time of perestroika to come to West Germany. This was already traumatizing for my German co-pupils. Those newcomers were probably less favorably regarded than even the Turkish people in the schools. The gastarbeiter were higher in the hierarchy than the so-called Germans coming from the East.
Was there a specific moment in your life when you became an activist?
For sure there was, though I would never claim to be a hardcore activist. I’m probably more of an oblique activist, a kind of leftist liberal more suited to speak about the hegemonizing of the cultural sphere.
But since we met last time in Zagreb, my own institution the Multimedia Institute (MaMa) and many of my friends all became more activist and militant. There was a huge struggle in Zagreb around the anti-gentrification issue. It was just emerging when we talked last time. But then in 2009, this anti-gentrification struggle became highly visible in Zagreb and then along the whole coastline of Croatia: Dubrovnik, Split, Pula. It was a real struggle, not just our pretension to be socially relevant.
In December 2008 we held a conference called The Frontiers of Neoliberalism. Back then we thought because of the emerging financial crisis that neoliberalism was already a dead horse, that it was non-operative. We held this conference hoping to get beyond this discourse, this vocabulary. But somehow we got stuck in the neoliberal discourse. Yes, we got out on the streets and became a political factor. But this struggle is already lasting for four to five years now, so it’s probably time for a change, for new institutions.
Are people still coming out on the streets on this issue?
In Zagreb not as much. On October 11, the unions were out on the streets here in Zagreb. As for anti-gentrification, there is less action. It is more in Dubrovnik or Split, which is also partly coordinated by my friends and colleagues. Now we’re actually trying to channel this kind of political unrest and insurgent practice into the format of parliamentary politics, be it local or national.
Has the political victory of a more-or-less left-wing government changed the dynamic of the anti-gentrification activities?
Unfortunately not. Perhaps it only changed gear a bit. For the so-called autonomous cultural sphere, which is pretty vibrant in Zagreb and Croatia, the hopes were high that the new government and the new ministry of culture in particular would legitimize themselves on taking over power by embracing values of autonomy, regional European cooperation, sustainability. Now, after almost 10 months of the new government, we can probably tell that everything has stayed the same. Left-liberal circles are pretty much disillusioned with the new government.
The people coming to power last December replaced a conservative party so corrupt that it couldn’t introduce the neo-liberal policies it wanted. The new government has backed up its legitimacy with the discourse of crisis and of Croatian comparative advantages and disadvantages. At least one part of the government is not even trying to pretend that it’s not neo-liberal. The so-called Croatian People’s Party (HNS) is openly entrepreneurial. The name is misleading: it’s actually a liberal party that wants to improve the entrepreneurial climate and the investment atmosphere.
Did the Occupy movement have any effect on the amount of interest or the discourse here?
These things already happened in 2009 with the occupation of the academic faculties here in Croatia, though they called it blokada. Another movement that prefigured Occupy was the anti-gentrification actions in 2010. The physical struggle on the streets lasted until early July 2010. For six or seven months people were occupying a particular street here in the center of Zagreb called Varsavska Street. Occupy, at least the American model, was looked at more in terms of solidarity. In the sense of a model, it was of less importance.
Of course the Occupy Movement attracted huge attention. Some of the intellectual interventions describing what was happening on U.S. streets and squares provided new input for the local movement here. All those images could be used to tell people that something was going on in New York, in London, in Greece or Spain, something we connected to, a broader context. Which meant that there was less discursive work that we had to do. We didn’t have to make up a huge conceptual framework to convince people that what we were doing here was important and had global relevance.
For the last four or five years, can you point to any accomplishments for the anti-gentrification movement beyond the rhetorical achievement of bringing the concepts into the public sphere?
Yes, there have been. The paradigm case — the Flower Square located about 200 meters from us here — we could not prevent this. The shopping mall was built there. But other projects were prevented. True, partly that was because of the real estate bubble that burst during the crisis. But we were able to intervene into public opinion and make people more cautious toward those huge investments, and this had significance beyond discourse. There was some improvement in legislation, for example. But much more significant was that the investors, and the national public administration promoting investments, have had to fight back with intellectual resources that they usually lack. The violent, brutal legitimation doesn’t function any more, like it functioned a decade ago. This is a significant victory.
After some time, these new activists have had an urge to build a para-political initiative or para-political party, something like the German Greens did in the late 1970s and early 1980s. There’s a vast reservoir of groups now waiting to become involved in parliamentary struggle in some way. We’re on the brink. In 2013 or 2014, it will take specific shape. But this imperative has grown very organically out of all those divergent movements, dynamics, and events.
One of the discussions taking place inside the Open Society Foundation is about the diminishing utility of NGOs. Are we heading into a world in which NGOs are no longer the center of political organizing?
The German experience of the Greens is telling in this regard. Here was a party formation of heterogeneous actors that happened 10-15 years after 1968. They had 10-15 years of political, intellectual, and even terrorist efforts to think of alternatives. The residual NGO sector, particularly in Eastern or Southeastern Europe could be the cohesive factor during our time of incubation of new things. And since we spoke last time, it’s interesting how much the German political foundations have been instrumental in financing some similar efforts here — the Heinrich Boll Stiftung or the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation, which is currently more visible in the Balkans.
Myself, I am more on the liberal side of the left equation. I had many debates with my younger neo-Marxist colleagues who simply attacked NGOs. But I would tell them how much knowledge and organization is embodied in the NGOs in these countries, and they should not dismiss this organizational knowledge altogether. At the point at which they might think of forming a party, they will lack the resources if they ignore these NGOs.
Of course, the question now is what kind of knowledge produced within the NGOs is needed for this time of incubation – or is it just a question of scale? For example in Croatia today, how can these divergent dynamics be channeled into a single party or a broad coalition of parties or actors? Also, how can we bypass the populist resentments that have also been fueled by the economic crisis? NGOs, in this sense, are quite important in order to avoid falling into chauvinist policies that are anti-government or anti-minority. Our experience with direct democracy models is that they can easily be appropriated by nationalist policies. Also, some leftists and neo-Marxists forget about identity politics and focus only on the class issue and political economy. NGOs are very much needed to prevent such parochialism.
In 2011, several thousand indignado people marched in public protests here. It was an interesting set-up. It was, for example, always important who was at the head of the march. It was either Marxist students marching with their posters and banners about fighting capitalism, or it was nationalist organizations or veterans or some nationalist-inclined union. Nationalists, soccer hooligans, and war veterans at some point took over these marches. It was so obvious that this was not a heterogeneous movement in the sense of organization or ideology. They were totally dissonant, and the marches were very hard to control. After these marches, even the left and the liberal side that was pretty much disillusioned by the choices of the parliamentary parties realized that something new had to built from the ground up.
In Croatia, the people who were the driving force behind the direct democracy Occupy event at the philosophical faculty at the University of Zagreb – and the people who were probably the most antagonistic toward NGOs — last year set up their own NGO, the Center for Worker Studies, and next week they will have their conference in Zagreb. People who were dismissive of NGOs have now set up their own NGO!
It’s a rather intriguing time right now in Croatia. Just before mid-2013 we will have local elections, and if nothing unforeseen happens, Croatia will enter the EU in July. For the generation to which I belong, entering the EU, even if you are anti-EU, promises a new kind of dynamic in which the asymmetry between Croatian citizens and the citizens of EU countries begins to soften. On the other side, there is a massive feeling of stasis, of things stalled. It’s quite a peculiar schizophrenic feeling.
I’d like to get your opinion about the new left that seems to be emerging in the region: a new left movement in Bulgaria, Kritika Politiczna in Poland. This is different from when I was here four or five years ago. A number of people have pointed to Croatia as inspiring much of this.
I belong to the Frankfurt style of social theory: Habermas and Rawls more than Marx. I’m very much into normativism. A decade ago, I was responsible for publishing Negri, Hart, Agemban, and others here in Croatia. I’m still far too skeptical to subscribe to this model of direct democracy. The neo-Marxists have totally neglected the issue of nationalism, relegating it to secondary status not worth proper intellectual consideration. But that’s certainly not the case. I would also say that the democratic or Marxist versions of direct democracy are still somehow embedded with populist or parochial resentments from the so-called losers of the transitions. If you could say that nationalism was the way of articulating this kind of resentment in the early 1990s and the early transition phase, this kind of Marxism became the way of articulating this kind of feeling in the 2000s, especially since the economic crisis. For myself, I prefer a more skeptical or more normatively nuanced political or cultural action.
There was a saying that you are probably aware of. Some art historians in the late 1990s termed the art supported by the Soros Foundation to be “Soros realism.”
I know it from you!
Ah, okay. So, that was making fun of the arts. But now the dominant form of political action on the Marxist side is the “reading group.” They are reading Marx’s Capital Volume One, with the support of the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation. So, this is a kind of “Rosa Luxembourg realism,” replacing the Soros realism of the 1990s. And they’re saying, “We’re not begging for money from Mr. George Soros. We are getting decent money, German money, the money of Der Linke or the Greens or the Social Democrats.” But still, when they have to put up on the poster that they’ve been financed by those institutions, those foundations are still viewed as bad “foreign agents” meddling into “our” organic body politics. So, not much has changed, just anti-nationalism being replaced by anti-capitalism.
Then perhaps there’s the generation gap. Those people subscribing to neo-Marxism are mostly 20-somethings or early 30-somethings. This is the generation coming after the generation to which I belong or the generation of the activists of the 1990s.
In 2009-10, in Zagreb, this same anti-NGO effect was palpable. Everything was about direct democracy, about plenaries and general assemblies on the streets and squares. What could be interesting is that “popular front” organizing is coming back to the fore. My only reservation would be that evoking fascism as the thing to fight against is too much. I would not go so far as to say that we are fighting fascism today in the sense of that particular 20th-century experience.
On this issue of nationalism, you’re absolutely correct that from a neo-Marxist nationalism doesn’t receive much theoretical attention. Certainly, in the case of Bulgaria, Serbia, nationalism remains very strong politically — it’s impossible to overlook. Here in Croatia, however, the situation is fundamentally different. Whereas nationalism may still be important, it seems to have been kicked to the margins. The Party of Rights is functionally not important any longer. HDZ has moved to the center. From a political point of view, the far-right nationalism in Croatia no longer has the same power as the past. Would you agree?
I would subscribe to that interpretation. I do not think that there is a uniform interpretation why Croatia is different. The influx of financial capital, especially in the real estate business, was huge in Croatia through 2008-9. This was a game-changer. It changed the stakes, institutional-wise.
But probably the most important factor is the EU accession process. This was the watershed event dividing Croatia from Serbia, Macedonia, Bosnia. Some people have been attacking EU accession for Croatia, but this critique was made possible by the EU accession process itself. If Croatia had not entered the process of EU accession, those voices would have been rendered incomprehensible. This is because the EU would be as far-fetched as it is in Bosnia.
Complying with EU legislation or normative standards is also an issue here, but it’s much less important. Even in neo-Marxist circles, at first glance it looks as though they don’t support Croatia entering the EU, but on the second glance, they embrace political realism: “Okay, we are ready to enter.” The argument that Croatia should stay out: probably no one today will make that claim.
In the referendum the no vote attracted only 33 percent.
Even the referendum was, from the left, mainly used to channel some of the divergent struggles — anti-gentrification, Occupy, student movement – into starting to think of a new political force. The referendum was not really more than that. The only other people promoting the anti-EU perspective were the few surviving political nationalists.
What about rebuilding regional links here, perhaps using the EU as a platform for linking with Bulgaria and eventually Serbia, or building up common infrastructure and common culture outside the EU context. Do you see that emerging?
Yes, to give a telling example, Croatian cultural NGOs have been hearing the mantra that EU funds — cohesion funds, structural funds, even funds for culture — are just waiting to be harvested. These application processes are highly competitive, highly institutional, highly bureaucratic, highly complex. It’s almost rocket science for any non-NGOs or non-formalized initiatives. In 2012, there was one particular fund in this EU culture project — a 24-month project with 110 participants selected each year. In 2012, out of 110 EU-wide projects, almost 20 of them had Croatian and Slovenian cultural NGOs as senior partners. We’ve been asked or almost pushed by our national ministries or local municipalities – which are giving us smaller and smaller amounts of money — to apply for EU funds, though of course with no guarantee that we will get this money. The NGOs took the first step, and now 20 of these projects are headed by Croatian and Slovenian initiatives: an incredibly high number. And most of our partners are from Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and so on. This turns out to be an indirect promotion of regional cooperation.
Though I live partly in Belgrade with my spouse who’s Serbian, I am highly skeptical that this will amount to a popular resurgence of cooperation. It’s probably just for the elites. And this was already something I told you four years ago: I’m highly skeptical of those interpretations of Yugoslavia as so integrated. The cultural sphere at least was not uniform at all. There was just pockets of cooperation, like the Yugoslav National Army or maybe the media. But not even the Communist Party was uniform in the 1970s and 1980s. So, we’ll have a high amount of cooperation promoted by EU funds, by the Soros Foundation, by the German political foundations, all of them operating on a regional level.
Is there a cultural project that involves this kind of cooperation, even if it only involves the elite, that you think is worthwhile?
There are many such projects. For example, just two nights ago, a colleague from Ljubljana talked about the monuments of the socialist past, and there’s an exhibition at a local gallery about the monuments that were destroyed in Croatia in the 1990s. Tomorrow at another gallery, some people from Belgrade among others will open an exhibition on how to construct a monument to new internationalism. These elites are highly mobile, fluent linguistically, affluent in terms of resources. They can do this kind of cooperation without outside help.
In terms of the local population, some of them will still say that during the Tito period it was better. But this cycle of socialism, post-socialism, post-post-socialism is over, and now we have entered something else. Even the neo-Marxists are not so much into the past. They’re not interested in a witch-hunt to discover the greatest revisionist who introduced market-oriented socialism. They are much less into the reinterpretation of the Yugoslav past and Yugonostalgia. They are more focused on the present and the future.
Last time, we talked a bit about media concentration. Is it still the case that there are few outlets here in Croatia compared to Serbia?
Yes, that’s still the case. A month ago, Croatian public TV introduced a new third channel, the Cultural Channel, and this will be a game changer. In the first period, it will probably be just a cinematheque, streaming art-house films and having some highbrow cultural programming. The idea is to open up the public media.
The outlets in Croatia, if you compare the numbers even in Bosnia, are just a few. At the moment, the most avant-garde print publication in Croatia is the weekly Novosti, run by our friends. MaMa is on the premises we get to use from Prosveta, the local Serbian cultural community. Prosveta and Serbian National Council are also putting out Novosti, where most of the people from Feral Tribune are now working. It has a lot of commentary — sometimes inflammatory, sometimes Marxist and fighting capitalism in Croatia — since op-eds are cheap to produce. Novosti depends on public money and the Serbian National Council here in Croatia. This is one of the rare instances of a new outlet opening up.
Another nice instance of new media practice in Croatia since 2009 is the website of the Free Philosophy Faculty, Svobodni Filosofia, produced out of the student occupation of the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities in Zagreb. It’s maybe less intense than a year ago, but still they are translating a lot from different languages, making a platform for this kind of discourse. There are a number of portals like Svobodni Filosofia, Novosti, e-Novine in Serbia, as well as some in Bosnia, Slovenia, and Macedonia. You now have a pretty decent number of highly visible sites that share content and are quite intense in their coordination. Otherwise nobody is very much interested in setting up new media like Open Society did in the 1990s. It costs too much money. People would like to have an independent weekly, but it’s already anachronistic. Syndicating content online is more useful for immediate action.
Is Novosti published in Cyrillic?
Partly. It was in 2010 that they became publicly available on the newsstands. Before that, it was just a small bulletin that probably we here at MaMa were the only ones reading. Then they went public. Publishing in Cyrillic is important in going public, and also that the graphic design sometimes resembles that of Feral Tribune. But much more important is the online presence. They have basic WordPress blog, and they get about 45-50,000 unique visitors monthly. This is opening up a completely new media space.
What has happened in the field of digital arts and activism over the last four years and what is exciting for you looking into the future?
The coordinates have pretty much stayed the same. Some of the technologies in 2007-8 have become more ubiquitous, such as Web 2.0 platforms. That’s probably the only difference. We haven’t seen many flash mobs, except for a few cases in Belgrade. We also started a new project with New Publishing in London, Kuda in Novi Sad, Kontrapunkt in Belgrade, and a German partner that’s called Static Education Expanded and is one of those Croatian projects funded by the EU.
Over in the States, live streaming has become more important.
For us too. I recall how much we used on-line streaming when we set up our own surveillance cameras in the city. In 2010, I was spending my nights on the night shift in my apartment, live-streaming on Varsavska Street to see when the construction would begin. That year during a very cold night, we set up a huge Trojan Horse, like you saw in the movies of the 1960s. We built it and put it in Varsavska Street where the construction was to happen. It was snowing and cold, but we had 3-4,000 people out that night. The authorities were just waiting for most of the people to disappear before the riot police would intervene. It happened at 2 or 3 a.m. About 150 activists were at MaMa watching on the live stream feed from the surveillance cameras, waiting for the police to come. And then it became like a literary experience as you watched on the live feed as the police seized your friends and destroyed the Trojan Horse. It was quite impressive, aesthetically.
When you look into the near future and you think about the prospects for this country, how would you evaluate them on a scale of 1 to 10, with one most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?
I’d go for 8.
When you look back from 1989 to today, and evaluate everything that has happened or not happened here, on a scale from 1 to 10, with one most dissatisfied and 10 being most satisfied?
I’m much more ambivalent. I would say that it would be below 5. On the other hand, this is the only history that I’ve lived through. In 1991, I was just waiting to graduate high school in Croatia and go back to study philosophy in Frankfurt, and then the war broke out and the social order collapsed for a few years. Then came the muddy time of the late 1990s, the late Tudjman government. Time was just eaten up. But this particular flavor makes our experience today very specific. Probably I also told you four years ago that I have a high regard for the dissident culture of the former socialist countries. This also adds a specific flavor.
Sounds like a 5. Finally, the same period, same scale, but your own personal life.
Hmmn. Let me make a small detour. On Croatian public TV there was something called the Alternative Format. Two professors of sociology were talking about the conference two weeks ago organized by Croatian T-Mobile. It was a conference about the knowledge society. It was kind of a business conference organized for the illustrious entrepreneur. Those two professors of sociologists are recognized by the neo-Marxists as the proponents of neo-liberalism in Croatian academia. One of them said that we should not stick too much to public resources and infrastructure. Instead we should focus on the producers of wine and extra virgin olive oil in Dalmatia and the Adriatic Coast. That was his metaphor. In a sense, this is the same petit bourgeois dream that I personally share, though I’m in a different sector.
This is also my concern today, thinking about the roads not taken 20 years ago and trying to promote institutional cultures. If I’m nostalgic about something from my upbringing in Germany, it’s that all of my friends shared this basic confidence that things will in the end always turn out okay. This is still something that most people lack here in Croatia. I don’t want to exoticize it and make it the only experience of the post-socialist countries, but this cynicism is still there.
If I would need to say something to someone about socialism or post-socialism, I would point to Romanian cinema today. If you want to get a specific sense of what it was like, see films like 12:08 East of Bucharest or Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days.
A professor in Bulgaria told me that she could not explain to her students what life was like before 1989, Only when she showed that movie Four Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days did they understand.
Yes. In 2002, I introduced some post-Marxist literature with book launches. By 2008, I’d become somewhat disillusioned. I felt that someone else could pick that up, and I could do something else. Fifteen years ago, I was trying to start things that would only become visible in the years to come. The one benefit that I have now is that I have an organization that allows me to have this period of incubating new things. This gives me a privileged position. It’s not a revolution. It’s more old-style European: petit bourgeois and social democratic.
Zagreb, October 11, 2012
Our Multimedia Institute MI2 began as an NGO in 1999. We were a spin-off of the Soros Foundation. In May 2000, we opened the physical interface – Culture Club Mama – which is a small backyard space, and that has been our focus since then. We opened Mama at a time of a new liberal social democratic regime here in Croatia in 2000. We decided that although we came out of a specific civil society and human rights context, it was no longer necessary for us to do that kind of civil society initiative. We decided to be innovative. Our focus is partly technology, partly new media culture, partly digital arts. Most of the people in our institution are from the independent sector, which is huge. All of us have a social science background. We wanted to promote progressive social theory ranging from Frankfurt theory to Italian theorists like Antonio Negri to French theory. We have also published books through our micropublishing house.
ON CIVIL RIGHTS
We are a kind of refuge. For the last eight years, we have been an island within something we called Croatia. This has been our first impression. Then we came to experience something else. In a region so small or culturally confined, you get easily defined as a usual suspect, as a radical. At the same time, you are considered as a representative of the national culture. We are one of the best-funded institutions in Croatia — and we have been criticized for “besmirching the nest” or acting like a cultural traitor. So, here, you are either a radical or a state representative. It is easily to slip into this dichotomization.
To address the issue of new civil rights, we decided to focus on the question of the public domain. This approach came from the digital domain and also from question of social theory. The concept of intellectual property rights (IPR) has been promoted by the free software movement through the creative commons movement. We are one of the first members of the creative commons movement, globally. Though we are small and independent, we have started a kind of long march to think through institutions – to change them, to create new ones. Last year, there was a creative commons summit in Dubrovnik that brought 350 people from Brazil, South Africa, Japan. It was an important sign that we are part of something global, a struggle over the global public domain.
We were the first people doing queer organizing, activism on animal rights. But it was not enough to draw attention to what we were doing. With the introduction of neoliberal policies here some 2-3 years ago, we started an anti-gentrification movement in Zagreb. This has finally made us a political subject here. We could never guess that we would be in the headlines and on the TV news as “mercenaries” and “foreign agents” for stopping the “progress” of gentrification in Zagreb.
There is some sense from people in Zagreb that tearing down blocs in Zagreb is not good. We benefited from this support. In 2008, we tried to address this work in a discursive sense by bringing in the work of Saskia Sassen, of architects and urbanists from around Croatia and regionally, to talk about gentrification and neoliberalism and transition. Both of these processes are going on, not just neoliberalism but transition from supposedly socialist to supposedly capitalist. This was the first effort to make these trends publicly coherent.
In 2002, along with some other NGOs, we got USAID support, which was great. But the moment the first U.S. bomb fell in Iraq in 2003, we gave up 100,000 euro. We gave it back to the U.S. government. Most people here in Croatia interpreted this not as a heroic act but as a bourgeois act by people who actually can afford to give up so much money. This is a kind of paradox. We are the only partner in the independent sector working with the government on a major new foundation to support independent culture in Croatia. But simultaneously we are the most targeted people as outsiders.
We have partners in Belgrade, the most important of which is the Belgrade Circle. We work with other Serbian institutions around publishing books but also in the social sciences. We have learned from them that our Belgrade and Sarajevo friends have never had difficulty explaining themselves to foreigners. They were attractive enough – even Ljubljana with Zizek – to make them the object of study. But Zagreb and activist culture? There is a kind of ideal Croatian who is submissive, disciplined, German-like, very boring, and also very unattractive. We have learned from our friends in Belgrade and Sarajevo how to translate some of the local antagonisms into the broader domain.
Throughout the 1990s, there were two or three refugee points where there was critique that went beyond the mere day-to-day opposition. There was the Feral Tribune in Split and the circle around Boris Buden. I had just started to study philosophy in 1993. Most of our professors were older leftists. Studying philosophy was a starting point. We didn’t hear much about Marx in 1993-94. We heard something about the Frankfurt school. Most of the socialist philosophy and theory was transformed into a Hannah Arendt seminar. There was an intellectual discontinuity. This discontinuity was palpable when the Yugoslav state shrank down to small Croatia. During most of the 1990s, it was unimaginable that we would visit Serbia again. Sarajevo was besieged. This discontinuity was very real. There was a sense that up until 2000-1, Croatia was more or less out of the global focus. We were closed off, financially and intellectually. It was rare for people from abroad to come here, with the exception of UN humanitarian staff.
In 2000, when we initiated our club, it was very hard to rearticulate civil society in new terms. It was difficult not simply to switch back into a victim role. We needed some years to get this street feeling, to get authentic. The newly imposed neoliberalism has been so abstract and contradictory, we needed some years for these practices to become palpable enough to criticize. You couldn’t criticize gentrification five or six years ago. It was too new, too fascinating. Now people have the urge to critique it.
We have been this small refuge here in Zagreb, and 50 percent of our audience is foreign. Just the other day, we had a concert by a Belgrade-based artist, and most of the audience was ex-Yugoslavs living in Berlin who came here to Zagreb. Our space Mama is owned by the Serbian cultural community. These are mostly elder people, 65 to 70. They listen to folk music. So there we are, in Mama, below them with our electronic music and our Japanese anime. That’s the globalization and Balkanization contradiction right there, in immediate experience.
The Croatian media landscape is so small, and you can’t imagine how difficult it is to penetrate the media, either state-run or private. People in Belgrade and Sarajevo don’t have that. In Belgrade, you have 10-15 TV stations just for Belgrade. In Zagreb, there’s just one, and just 4-5 stations for the whole country. It’s worse with radio.
People from Ludmila in Ljubljana, they were the digital institution in the 1990s. With Ljubljana so close, it is easy to connect. We also work with people in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Skopje. The digital arts community is so small. Most of the important communication still happens physically. There are 15-20 people in Ljubljana, in Novi Sad, and we are traveling around ex-Yugoslavia. There has been no problem in terms of reintegration. We are again living in the same market. There is only one enterprise that owns most media from Ljubljana to Skopje, the German-owned WAZ (Westdeutsche Allgemaine Zeitung). Soap operas produced for Croatian TV are rebroadcast in Belgrade. One of them deals with Croatian history and is very anti-nationalist and is very popular here and in Serbia. Then there is the pop music. Slovenes and Serbs adore Croatian pop music. And Serbian pop music is very popular here. So, the market for popular culture has been reestablished.
Most Croats will tell you that we are somehow on the threshold of several geopolitical domains. This is the Titoist third way ideology that said that we were the center of everything. Croats, from the far left to the far right, will tell you that we have an incredible resource, the Adriatic coast. There is something similar in the arts. Zagreb was always top-notch when it came to the avant-garde, after the break with Stalin and the dismissal of socialist realism. There was the neo-constructivism movement here, the Praxis school, the video arts from the 1970s and 1980s. Leftists will say, “We really had something back then.” I say, yes, it’s true, but we don’t always have to go back to that point. At Mama, it was a tricky question how to rearticulate something that we feel and that we know. Yes, neo-constructivism in the 1950s and 1960s was important. But how can we rearticulate this in the global domain? The challenge is not to dig out a new avant-garde that was overlooked but rather to look at a different discourse, for instance to look at Yugoslavia as a bio-political experiment.
Foreign funding played an important role in the NGO world here. There was a kind of Soros realism here. This was a kind of progressive, subversive cultural critique of nationalism but from the standpoint predefined by foreign funders. But these days, if you are applying for EU funding, it is almost non-ideological. You just have to be very professional as a NGO to get funding. It is not as ideologically preformatted as with Soros.
In Belgrade I once saw people milling around in the park. They were doing some folklore, by themselves. They were doing a kind of dance but not with costumes. I heard that they were the Krajina Serbs, the refugees from Croatia. They have their own kind of DIY folklore. Some are coming back to Croatia. The others are still refugees. They come back several times to Croatia every year, to collect their pensions, before going back to Serbia. They tell me their stories, and their stories are very depressing. A month ago, I met an 82-year old man who knew by heart every house burned from 1941 to now. I’m reading postmodern theory, I’m reading Zizek, and beside me is this person with this kind of narrative.
It’s not just Serbs who are again being granted rights. With Croatia beginning the process of entering the EU, the same thing will happen with Italians. During 1943, there was an Italian community native to the coast. But after World War II, 200,000 Italians, maybe more, were expelled from Croatia and Slovenia. Now these people are claiming rights to have their houses back. For Serbs, it was rather marginal parts of Croatia. But for Italians, this is the Dalmatian coast and it is very valuable.
The human rights and anti-nationalist narrative was the predominant one in the 1990s. There has been of course some counternarratives from the far left. I’m not sure what the real, alternative anti-nationalist narrative would look like, but it would include biopolitics, Italian theorist Antonio Negri, populism like Ernesto Laclau’s. We need research to show how the nationalism of the late 1980s or early 1990s was a product of the internal contradictions of Yugoslav society itself, not just an outburst of primordial barbarism.
Our generation of 30-somethings, we want again to go through institutions, to change them, to create new institutions, in a very conscious and reflexive way. We don’t want just venues or refuges. We want to have something that is self-sustainable. When we opened Mama in 2000, we had our suitcases packed and ready to go. But we’ve been there now for eight years, which for us has been an eternity.