The good past and the bad past: Two Belgrade exhibits

A family tree

A family tree

Picturing the past

Picturing the past

Belgrade is hosting two very different exhibits these days, just a few meters apart: The exhibition Bogujevci—A Virtual History was opened with much public attention, it was less the few protesters who opposed the exhibit, but rather the visit of Ivica Dačić. Even now, a few policemen in front of the exhibit and out on the street keep a watchful eye. Otherwise, there is a steady trickle of visitors… just down the road another exhibit just opened, called Živeo život, a second exhibition about “what we lost and brought with us from Jugo”. Here, unsurprisingly, a much larger number of visitors listens to Yu-Music, marvels at sports stars of Yugoslavia or looks through the Yugoslav supermarket.

A painful reminder of the past

A nostalgic couch

A nostalgic couch

Both exhibits give a central place to a living room, complete with couches, TV, dark brown wall unit and kitschy decoration. In both, they are reminders of the past. The first represents the home of the Bogujevci family in Podujevo before most family members were killed in 1999, the second is generic living room of Yugoslavia. Both exhibits try to take historic events out of the larger political narrative of grand events and big politics to a personal level–literally into the living rooms. The exhibit about the Bogujevci family is neither pathetic, nor does it provides for a grand narrative of the wars. It simply shows the consequence of a war crime on a family and the very personal efforts of the family to see some of the perpetrators punished. The exhibit is testament to their effort to remind the public of the crimes. The “Live your life” exhibit instead offers an escape from the present. It puts the red Yugoslav passport into a golden frame, and presents the glories of Yugoslav life and consumerism with little irony or critical narrative.

For visitors, this is the opportunity to put on the pioneers’ cap and scarf, step on a vespa and listen to Yu-music. There is no mention of the inflation, the shortages, poverty, or the absurdities of the political system. Where the House of Terror in Budapest and similar exhibits  try to paint a picture of Communism as a period of pure horror, this exhibit does the opposite by mixing personal nostalgia with the memories of a country gone by. These two exhibits shed two very different perspectives on the past and how large events effected everyday life.

Red passport--golden frame

Water and plums with Ante Markovic

Ante Markovic (Source: Nacional)

When I went into his office in early September in Sarajevo, there was no doubt in recognizing the person opening the door. Ante Marković had aged since being the last Prime Minister of Yugoslavia and being a witness at the Milošević trial eight years ago, but was full of energy, dressed relaxed and confident. He offered me some plums and water. I had come to invite him to a conference on the end of Yugoslavia I organised in Graz. We had been discussing his visit for months, but he remained hesitant whether to come. However, when I called him he was enthusiastic about meeting Sarajevo and discuss the conference. It was a tough sell. Marković was curious about the conference and genuinely hesitated about whether to come or not. He made me give him the best sales pitch I could offer, why he should come to Graz, the place he spent a decade after he resigned as prime minister. It was close to home, somewhere in Yugoslavia, when home was not really an option. He was a persona non grata for governments in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, for different and yet similar reasons. Only Macedonia kept an open door. However, returning to Graz after all these years did not convince him. He had fond memories of Graz, he told me, but this was the past. He had returned to Sarajevo after a decade outside of Yugoslavia. He told me about the offer to advise the Bosnian government, an offer he turned down in order to focus on his business. He originally intended to build water power stations in Bosnia, a plan which failed, leading him to focus building apartments and houses in and around Sarajevo.

When he first tentatively agreed to come to Graz, he did so with the caveat that urgent business meetings could always get in the way. At an age when many might look back, he was firmly looking forward. This was also the reason he decided not to share his memories of the dissolution of the country at the conference. He did not want to look back. He said this without any bitterness or sadness about the past. He had little good to say about todays politicians or the politics in the post-Yugoslav space, but he seemed to have little nostalgia. Maybe this is not surprising, considering that his brief time (just over 2 years from March 1989 to December 1991) as prime minister of Yugoslavia (officially the president of the Federal Executive Council of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia) was decline despite his efforts to save the country and economy.There was no time to celebrate his successes at curbing inflation, filling the shops and giving some renewed confidence in the political system.

Even though he withdrew from public life after his resignation, he was very much aware of how popular he was throughout Yugoslavia. But he would remind me in our conversation, how this popularity stems from two years of his life, but his work and passion was not politics, but working in companies, something he did for decades, both before holding his first political offices in Croatia in the early 1980s, and after moving to Graz to start a new company.

Looking back at the economic reforms he initiated, Ante Marković did not think of them as opening the door towards a liberal market economies. While liberalising the Dinar and enabling privatisation and greater private engagement in the Yugoslav economy was the first step towards a market economy for all the seven states now on the territory of Yugoslavia, he rather saw his reforms as an effort to bring about a new type of economic system that would preserve the best feature of socialist self-management and combine them with some aspects of market economy. The global economic crisis reminded him of the failings of capitalism and the abandonment of the socialist system without the effort to preserve some features appeared a mistake in his mind. While he was persuasive and the economic difficulties especially in the Yugoslav successor states seem to prove him right, I was not entirely sure that the economic system he was beginning to build really could have become an alternative. But, as so many of his successes, they are incomplete and thus remain a path not completed.

His memories were a curious mixture of pride and awareness of his significance at a historical crossroads, but also a lack of interest to be celebrated for this. This might also help answer the puzzle of why his efforts to challenge the rising nationalist elites in Serbia, Bosnia and Croatia failed. His reformist party gained some votes, especially in Bosnia, but was not able to challenge the new nationalists (he founded them in July 1990, too late for elections in Slovenia and Croatia). He might have lacked the drive and will to impose himself and his ideas were popular, but not sufficiently populist for the time.

I left the office with a strong handshake by Ante Marković and an invitation to return anytime if I were in Sarajevo. Unfortunately now an offer I will not be able to take him up on. As I emerged on the streets of Sarajevo, not far from the new EU offices, I was wondering if the people I passed on the street knew how close Ante Marković was working in normal office building, building houses, as had he not been, briefly, the best hope in the worst of times.

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