24 May 2012

Boris Malagurski’s The Weight of Chains


Though Twelfth Night may indeed have been a comedy, in modern history the fate of the Southern Slavs in whose homeland Shakespeare’s comedy was set is a tale which should provoke outrage and a profound sadness for the promises which have been broken.  The case of mistaken identity which drives the farcical action of Twelfth Night is repeated as tragedy, as the Southern Slavs were torn apart and set against each other not by tensions preexisting but by hatreds carefully lighted, tended and fanned into violent blaze by conquerors bent on casting themselves as heroes, and wrongly scapegoating the Southern Slavs generally - but the Serbs in particular - as the villains of the piece.  The narrator of this tragedy, not a Thespian so much as an incisive and devastatingly-sarcastic Serbian-Canadian version of Michael Moore (according to the daily newspaper Политика) is Boris Malagurski, director of The Weight of Chains.

Malagurski’s sweeping subject matter makes for an incredibly dense film, difficult to unpack.  But the history of the region is his starting point:  the significance of Yugoslavia as a united, multi-ethnic polity is punctuated by its success in building bridging social capital between Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim Southern Slavs.  A market-socialist economy with significant social safety nets and publicly-owned enterprises, Josip Broz Tito’s Yugoslavia was at one point the single European Communist state where people actually wanted to live.  Malagurski narrates his own experiences as a young child in Yugoslavia, and contrasts this with the poverty, division and violence which was to follow, and which preceded Broz.

The Ottoman invasion of the region and the defeat of Principality of Serbia at the Battle of Kosovo resulted in mass forced conversions (on pain of impalement) to Sunni Islam; whilst the occupation of Slovenia and Croatia by the Holy Roman Empire resulted in significant Roman Catholic populations.  These populations were then pitted against each other in a number of conflicts:  the assassination of Erzherzog Franz Ferdinand by a young Yugoslav nationalist named Gavrilo Prinzip was used as a pretext for Germany and Austria to attack Russia, beginning World War I.  In World War II, the Allied and Axis powers used proxies (the fascist Ustase regime in Croatia, the monarchist Chetniks in Serbia and the radical Partizans throughout Yugoslavia) against each other in the Balkans.  The Partizans, being the party backed by the Allies in the end, won the day, and their young, charistmatic Croatian leader Josip Broz took command of Yugoslavia - and immediately embarked on a very Qazaq-like policy of playing the great powers off of each other through the Non-Aligned Movement.  Malagurski does treat Tito with more than a bit of scepticism, particularly his self-aggrandisement and motivations for building a multi-ethnic state and the extent to which he was willing to pursue it (for example, attempting to win favour over Hoxha’s Albania by allowing Albanians to colonise Kosovo), but for the most part, he is fairly sympathetic to the project of Yugoslavia.

The outpouring of grief from every part of Yugoslavia when Tito died was unprecedented, but - and this is where Malagurski’s tragedy really begins to unfold - there was no friction between Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Albanians through this time.  That friction was manufactured by a group of experts from an organisation called the NED (the self-styled National Endowment for Democracy - you may remember them from the discussions of Chen Guangcheng and the White Ribboners previously), which began handing out copious amounts of money to journalists, to radical nationalist and anti-union movements, and to private companies and economic advisors wishing to implement the neoliberal model in Yugoslavia.  This had several effects:  Yugoslavia’s traditional safety net was destroyed, and its economic regulations were re-written to the detriment of all of its domestic enterprises, which were then sold off at rock-bottom prices to foreign interest groups.  As a result of the economic decline and the growing despair of the Yugoslav population, the radical nationalist groups began to gain broader hearings.  Each splinter state was soon host to self-serving politicians spreading messages of victimisation and revenge:  not just Slobodan Milosevic, but also Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman and Bosnia’s Alija Izetbegovic.

Street violence and paramilitary groups popped up in each of these splinter states, often supported, armed and egged on by NATO, whose member states could then jump in on the pretext of keeping the peace (as was the case in the Bosnia conflict and in the Kosovo conflict during the Clinton Administration).  The film explores the chicanery of the Western powers - particularly the United States and Germany - in hyping up Serbian war crimes and downplaying those of Bosnians and Albanians in order to make a case for unilateral intervention.  But it also uses effective interludes - stories of ordinary men and women (Croatian policeman Josip Kir, Croatian activist Milan Levic, Serbian paramilitary Srdjan Aleksic, the Serbian and Bosnian residents of Vrhbarje who were separated unwillingly by the Dayton Peace Accords, Blasko Gabric of the ‘Fourth Yugoslavia’) who gave their lives and their freedom for speaking the truth to their own ethnic interests and for defending minorities in their own lands - in order to present the case that these ethnic conflicts were not inevitable, and that there were real prospects and opportunities for peace which were left unexplored.

The military interventions in Yugoslavia, instead, were aimed at turning Yugoslavia into a colony of the United States and Western Europe:  supplying cheap resources, cheap labour and cheap manufactures for the benefit of large multinational corporations.  During the Kosovo War, as well as the infamous bombings of the Nis hospital and the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, NATO bombed a cigarette factory (later sold to Philip Morris), routinely bombed civilian infrastructure in Serbia in order to starve the civilian population into submission (and to be rebuilt by Western developers) and occupied a coal mine in Trepca (later sold to the American concern Washington Group International). To add insult to injury, the IMF would step in with unrepayable loans and the EU would dangle the carrot of membership in front of the noses of the politicians in each of these smaller states, the better to undercut their domestic economies with subsidised consumer goods and buy up the remains at bargain-bin prices.

Malagurski, far from a pessimist, reminds his audience continuously that a better solution does exist and that peace and reconciliation are not only possible now, they always have been.  But the temptations of extreme ethnic nationalism, scapegoating, greed and servility to the hollow promises of the EU must be overcome.

Many thanks to Vuk Stefanovic for recommending this movie; it is a must-watch!

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