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The Sounds of Silence

The Culture of Power in Serbia: Nationalism and the Destruction of Alternatives • By Eric D. Gordy
Penn State Press • 230 pp • $19.95 • September 1999

In the years before nato demolished Belgrade's government buildings and power plants, visitors often remarked on the city's unremarkable architecture. A twentieth-century metropolis, Belgrade's historical significance is negligible, even to the Serbs. Rebecca West, surely the century's foremost Serbophile, found little to recommend this town at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers; and even the last Blue Guide to Yugoslavia, published in 1989, devotes barely eight of its four hundred pages to the nation's capital.

But at century's end, Belgrade, has gripped the public imagination: Journalists have fashioned it as a modern-day Sodom, a darkly fascinating city of the damned. From the cover of The New York Times Magazine to the pages of The New Yorker and even in new Serbian films like Cabaret Balkan and The Wounds, Belgrade's mean streets have become metaphors for violence, careless cruelty, and moral debasement. As for the Serb people, according to The New Republic, they are nothing more or less than Milosevic's willing executioners, collectively responsible for the rape of Kosovo. Scholars like Branimir Anzulovic, the author of Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide(NYU 1999), argue that this murderous pathology is in fact the inevitable outcome of Serbian culture--a culture that has also, by the by, produced generations of peaceable pig farmers.

The notion of Serbian collective guilt did not have this sort of currency when Clark University sociologist Eric D. Gordy researched The Culture of Power in Serbia, a study of politics, media, music, and material conditions under Milosevic from 1994 to 1995. Although Gordy did the bulk of his fieldwork five years ago (during the Bosnian war), the book appears at a fortuitous time: Against the sanctimoniousness of the voyeurs and the determinists, Gordy poses a complex portrait of a shattered society. It is not that Serbs have offered no resistance to the politics of nationalist authoritarianism. Rather, the political and cultural resistance some Serbs have mustered has been suffocated by the regime's strong-arm tactics, as well as by international isolation, a twilight-zone economy, and a reckless and unprincipled political opposition.

The Belgrade that emerges from Gordy's study is a less diabolically glamorous city than the one the American media love to hate. It is also more profoundly depressing. Gordy's favorite metaphor--one he heard from many of his research subjects--is of darkness: not just moral darkness but the darkness of a stagnated and stifled culture, of enforced ignorance of global and even local events, of isolation, and of a city subject to frequent power outages. The Serbs in Gordy's book are a world-weary bunch. Many of them resist the encroaching darkness with street protests, independent newspapers, wry humor, and pacifist rock music, only to be paralyzed and defeated by tear gas, censorship, and the ubiquitous regime-sponsored "neofolk" and "turbofolk" music.

What, then, of the electorate that supports the Milosevic regime? Gordy reminds us that Milosevic's party has never won more than a bare plurality of the Serbian vote--in 1993, this amounted to only 36.7 percent. A credible, united opposition might have defeated Milosevic years ago, but Serbian politics has spawned no such thing. According to Gordy's research, Milosevic's voters are mostly middle-aged, rural, poorly educated, and resistant to change. Back in 1987, Milosevic seized power not through an election but through "an intraparty coup" within the communist bureaucracy. In a country with an uninterrupted history of authoritarian rule, the illusion of continuity can be comforting. Gordy finds that many Serbs uphold the regime "from habit rather than from belief--paradoxically justifying support for Milosevic on the ground that 'we lived well under Tito.'" He cites a famous anecdote in which the opposition candidate Vuk Draskovic explains his views to a very amenable peasant. But the peasant does not say he will vote for Draskovic. "But you agreed with me about everything," says a confused Draskovic. "'Yes, I did,' the peasant answers, 'and when you are in power, I will vote for you.'"

If the Serbian electorate suffers from self-defeating inertia, social and economic turmoil has not helped matters. Gordy's research period covers a spell of surreal hyperinflation. By January of 1994, the monthly inflation rate reached 313,563,558 percent, sending the price of a kilogram of potatoes up to eight trillion dinars. That year, 82 percent of Serbs spent more than half their incomes on food. Virtually the entire population was plunged into poverty. Most citizens sold off their hard-currency savings; previously prosperous Serbs found themselves without basic goods. At the same time, a glamorous life opened up to a small criminal elite that had profited from war, disruption, and the black market.


Laura Secor mentions Eric Gordy's list of Balkan links in her review, but also recommends a few other sites, including the Ex-YU Press guide to Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian/Montengran media; the website for the banned B92 radio station; this site for the sounds of Ceca's turbofolk (requires RealAudio player); and the international watchdog group, Human Rights Watch.

Gordy's strongest and most original material is about the role of music in this culture of chaos, decadence, and defeat. In the 1980s, he recounts, Yugoslavia produced a homegrown rock scene comparable to that of western European countries. Indeed, its denizens, known locally as rokeri, saw themselves as participants in an international youth culture. But the rokeri were mostly educated urbanites from Zagreb, Sarajevo, and Belgrade. When Yugoslavia splintered, so did the rock-and-roll market. Most Serbian rock bands and their listeners remained staunchly antiwar and anti-Milosevic; one band adopted the name Parti brejkers to express its opposition to the ruling party, and Belgrade's three most popular rock bands together recorded an antiwar song called "Listen Here (Peace, Brother, Peace)." But as cosmopolitan urbanites, the rokeri were precisely the demographic group that interested Milosevic least. The regime's task was simply to keep them quarantined from its power base, which consisted mostly of peasants and recent rural migrants into Belgrade.

Conveniently, many of Milosevic's supporters shared a taste for neofolk music, a hybrid of traditional Serbian folk sounds, contemporary (often nationalist) lyrics, and, sometimes, pop instrumentation. Gordy compares neofolk to country-and-western in the United States: A clear class boundary divides its listeners from the rokeri, who view neofolk as embarrassing lowbrow kitsch. Courting rural supporters, regime-controlled television and radio stations pumped neofolk over the airwaves as the country prepared for war.

With the regime's support, neofolk evolved a faddish variant for younger listeners: turbo folk. Performed by scantily clad young women, this techno-dance version of neofolk preserves a minimal resemblance to traditional Serbian folk music (it actually sounds considerably more like Turkish techno-pop). Its lyrics are not overtly nationalist or even political. Rather, the turbasi, as they are called, concern themselves with tragic love affairs and material bounty. Nonetheless, their association with the criminal elite is obvious. At a time when international sanctions, hyperinflation, and fiscal mismanagement had wrecked the Serbian economy, one turbofolk tune exclaimed, "Coca-Cola, Marlboro, Suzuki / Discotheques, guitars, and bouzouki / That's life, that's not an ad / Nobody has it better than us." Turbofolk stars even performed benefit programs for the paramilitary groups pillaging Bosnia. If any doubts remained about the turbasi's allegiances, they were dispelled when the turbofolk star Svetlana Velickovic-Ceca married the notorious gangster and paramilitary commander known as Arkan in a lavish public celebration that the regime televised, hyped, and later marketed on videotape.

Belgrade's rokeri disdain neofolk, but they positively revile turbofolk. Said one of Gordy's respondents, "It hurts my soul to hear that kind of music." Another went so far as to call it "the symbol of all the evil in this society." And the rokeri are not alone: Serbia's nationalist intellectuals see turbofolk as a bastardization of true folk traditions. Worse, they deplore its unmistakably Middle Eastern sound. The opposition representative Pavle Aksentijevic played for the Serbian parliament a tape of an Iranian pop song and a tape of a Serbian turbofolk facsimile. "We Serbs sometimes behave as if we were begotten by drunken Turks," he lamented. Gordy counterposes a quip from the Serbian cultural critic Ivan Colovic: "We are all a little bit Turkish. But I am not sure that is the worst thing about us."

At the time of the Dayton Accords in 1995, the Milosevic regime was eager to distance itself from the Bosnian Serbs and their supporters. The turbasi the government had once supported "suddenly became embarrassing and perhaps even threatening" to Milosevic as he repositioned himself as the key to peace in the Balkans. The regime launched a laughable ad campaign for high culture: "It's nicer with culture," the commercials proclaimed, without intimating how the viewer should act on this advice. For its own reasons, the political opposition welcomed the regime's rejection of neofolk. But in the end, the government was unable to slay the beast it had created: Turbofolk culture persists without regime sponsorship, just as rock and roll did before it. The Serbian regime, writes Gordy, "has acted--twice--to destroy cultural alternatives in the field of music. Instead it has produced resentful remnants."

"Resentful remnants" are in some respects the theme of Gordy's book. His discussion of the "destruction of information alternatives" ends with a severely constrained independent media that the regime cannot squelch but that smolders in near isolation. Unfortunately, Gordy's observation period predated the Internet revolution (although Gordy himself maintains an impressive array of Serbian links on his faculty Web page). Serbs have made extensive and ingenious use of the Web--to disseminate propaganda during the war with NATO; to protect and nurture independent journalistic voices; to distribute short Serbian films, war diaries, radio broadcasts, video clips, and music despite the international blockade; and to access foreign news sources. The availability of information on the Internet underscores a question that Gordy raises in his discussion of television and newspapers: Why does a significant proportion of the Serbian public still choose to trust government media over other accessible sources, including their own independent media?

Unfortunately for scholars, there is so much breaking news in the Balkans that studies of the area are almost instantly dated. For instance, the Belgrade independent press has recently caught wind of a rumor that Milosevic plans to appoint neofolk star Zorica Brunclik minister of culture. Needless to say, the urbanites are outraged. One well-known Serbian film director, Srdjan Karanovic, jokes that although he was initially shocked by the news, he now suspects Brunclik has been in charge of Serbian culture all along.

The Culture of Power in Serbia is a somewhat misleading title for Gordy's book, which deals almost exclusively with one city (Belgrade) over a period of two years (1994--1995). But Gordy has found a great wealth of material in that place at that time, and his analysis is not only shrewd but scrupulously nuanced. Gordy's Belgrade is perhaps best described by a rock critic who reviews a concert delayed for hours by one of the city's frequent blackouts: "We are here and now, things do not come easily for us, but that is the way it is. Belgrade is a dark forest with no end. You are in it. Pay attention to yourself and to those near you because all kinds of things happen in the dark."

Laura Secor is senior editor of Lingua Franca. Her article "Testaments Betrayed: Yugo slavian Intellectuals and the Road to War" appeared in the September issue.

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