07/05/2013 11:17 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2013

Catharsis in Serbia

Catharsis is an important element in both theater and politics. On stage, the actors enact a drama that generates a great change of emotion in the audience. Through this outpouring of emotion -- of pity, of fear -- the audience can experience some kind of spiritual renewal.

In politics, too, catharsis is an important stage that separates the old from the new. The fall of the Berlin Wall, that first mass demonstration in Wenceslas Square, the reburial of Imre Nagy in Budapest: these highly symbolic occasions all produced an outpouring of emotion that prepared people for something new. A friend of mine in Poland liked to tell me that the Poles didn't have such a symbolic catharsis in 1989, a storming of the Bastille moment, and that complicated the political transition.

The Center for Cultural Decontamination in Belgrade is devoted to the creation of catharsis. Or perhaps it would be more precise to say a counter-catharsis. After all, Slobodan Milosevic was, if nothing else, a consummate theater director who knew precisely how to stage his political ascension, how to dramatize the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo in 1989, and how to blow on the embers of Serbian nationalism to produce a fiery catharsis of public emotion.

In 1993, the Center for Cultural Decontamination began the long process of draining that nationalism from Serbian society. At the heart of this enterprise was a realization that pallid liberalism didn't stand a chance in Serbia. A new politics had to appeal to the emotions. There had to be a counter-catharsis to substitute for the false emotional renewal that Milosevic and his successors promoted.

Last October, I talked with Borka Pavicevic in her office at the Center for Cultural Decontamination about the failures of liberalism in Serbia.

"Liberalism is weak because it wasn't well prepared. It's weak because there were 11 wars in this area over the last century, and there was never enough time for change to take root and grow. It's weak because of the enormous propaganda from the government in the 1990s," she told me. "Liberalism is weak because there were not enough anti-nationalistic and anti-war statements inside of these parties. Liberalism is weak because we didn't have Adam Michnik and all the other who were working and preparing all those years in Poland."

The one figure who embodied the hopes of liberalism in Serbia in the early 1990s was Zoran Djindjic, a philosopher who became first the mayor of Belgrade and then prime minister of the country at the beginning of 2001. On March 12, 2003, he was assassinated.

"The assassination of Dzindzic was by itself a catastrophe," Borka Pavicevic told me. "During his funeral, I thought that all these people, the next day, would finally do something different. You need a capacity for tragedy, which is also a capacity for history. You have to have an opinion about the war, about him, about everything in order to have a catharsis."

That catharsis did not happen, however. Instead, as she points out, a counter-revolution took place.

Today, the Center for Cultural Decontamination continues its job of provoking the Serbian public. When I was in Belgrade last fall, it made headlines for its exhibit Ecce Homo, which featured photo tableaux of Jesus in various homoerotic scenarios. The Center courts controversy. After all, catharsis is not something that takes place quietly in a corner. It takes place on the main stage under the lights and in front of the largest audience possible.

The Interview

Many people have told me that the current government here in Serbia features many of the same people from 20 year ago, and that the political environment is similar as well. How would you compare the events of the early 1990s with what took place here at the Center over the last week around the exhibition Ecce Homo?

I was thinking that night with the police here at the Center that I'm standing in the middle of a scene from 1991. It was a performance of the play Saint Sava by Siniša Kovačević at the Yugoslav Drama Theater. It was performed by a theater group from the Bosnian town of Zenica under the direction of our Macedonian friend Vladimir Milcin, and it was part the theater festival called the Sterijino Pozorje. At that time, too, there were many policemen around and these army cars painted as police cars. There were some people with placards, but these placards were not written in the usual way. Everything was stylized, like a weapon, with the O like a shield. The curtain went up and the actors came on stage. Then suddenly we heard all those people from the galleries shouting, "Get out!" and "Enough of that!" They were dressed in military gear and I'm sure that a lot of them were the leaders of the so-called paramilitary organizations. And the performance was stopped. It was incredible. I thought that I was in the middle of a Visconti movie or 1900 by Bertolucci.

That was 1991, and I was thinking about this scene a few nights ago in our yard during the exhibition Ecce Homo. I was thinking, "Oh my god, it's been 22 years of the same scene." I was also thinking of the quote from Martin Niemoller: "They came for the Jews, but I did not react because I wasn't a Jew. Then they came for the communists..."

In between, in 2008, there was also a scene involving an exhibition of the Albanian visual artist from Kosovo, Dren Maliqi, who did a portrait of the Albanian guerrilla leader Adem Jahsare in the style of Elvis Presley. And these protestors destroyed that picture. We wrote about this in the newspapers and gave it to the Serbian government. The Ministry of Culture said, "This is something against you. It's not against us."

There was also at that time an incredible speech by Amfilohije Radović, who is now the metropolitan of the Orthodox Church in Montenegro. I was really shocked by his words, by the way he was speaking. He called actors "drug people" and talked about Richard Burton as an alcoholic. I was deeply shocked not only by his condemnations but also his level of thinking. I called Vuk Draskovic the next morning, and I started to shout terribly. The person who was also with him on the phone, the writer Milan Komnenic, said to me, "Borka, this is not us! This is Seselj, who's putting together his own party." So Vojislav Seselj created his own party, the right-wing Radical party. And today, we have these people, who say that they have changed, forming our current government.

And then we are coming back to the Center for Cultural Decontamination, which began its theater life with The Devils by Dostoyevsky, from an adaptation by Albert Camus. There's a sentence in that adaptation: "The terror comes not from the power of those others. It comes always from the weakness of the liberals." That was actually the Center's platform. A friend of mine, Tanja Simic, wrote a play called Srpski Faustus about what happened at the Yugoslav Drama Theater in 1991. We had a huge discussion of the play here two or three years ago on the responsibility of the artist and theater people.

This government is composed of the people who were involved in the destruction of the country. But we, each citizen of this country together with those of us who were opposed, in some way allowed that. So this is a bigger question of responsibility. How could we have stopped them? The Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vucic was the minister of information in 1998 and was responsible for the "Vucic law" that fined independent journalists critical of the government. You can read about the consequences of this law in a fantastic memoir by Grujica Spasovic, the editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper Danas. And it's amazing: now Vucic is deputy prime minister! It all goes back to Milovan Djilas and the post-communist chaos that happens if we don't prepare for something different.

I think you can evaluate government by its language, the language that has been dramatically rotten. Maybe the government will be successful in investigating privatization. But the language is dying. It's just incredible what government people are saying in public. As the linguists say, human beings don't have language, they are language. Of course, I've had some personal experience with these neo-populist, national socialistic statements. Maybe they changed, but the circumstances surrounding them have not. Each of these public people is a duplicate, a successor to their previous persona.

There is one big difference, in my opinion, from 1990. At that time we had something more left over from the previous Yugoslavia, the Yugoslavia of King Alexander and of Josip Broz Tito. But today this is no more. We've been practically robbed of everything in this process of so-called transition. The war changed things. The war was its own kind of privatization, which is what Mary Kaldor was saying back then. After the NATO intervention, you'd wake up in the morning to see all the new buildings and installations of the new class, which were constructed in the name of patriotism. It makes me sick! But we the people are to blame.

Why has liberalism been so weak in this country?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.