In 2011, Roberto Benigni, the Oscar winning Italian comedian, took the stage of the San Remo musical festival while riding a live horse.
Benigni then gave a majestic speech about the Unity of Italy, during the year of Italy’s 150th anniversary. At that time, Silvio Berlusconi was in power and many of his party members and other right wingers were loud supporters of secessionism.
The ideal of the Italian Northern League was, and is, to free northern Italy from the poverty and corruption of the nation’s South. This notion made more sense before the Northern League was itself was found corrupt, and when Northern Italy still had some money.
Benigni’s voice trembled with emotion while he sang the anthem “Fratelli d’Italia,” admonishing the audience of millions that a martyred young poet wrote that song, and gave his own life for the unity of Italy. How could the poet’s countrymen undo that deed and confound the nation’s martyrs on a whim?
That phrase made tears come to my own eyes. I remembered my dying mother who told me with passion: You cannot give away Kosovo just because you are a dissident against Milosevic. Kosovo is the heart of Serbia, you didn’t fight for it, like we did, and your grandparents too!
I thought she was raving. I was jealous of her attention going to some province, Kosovo, instead of to me, her only daughter. In the final minutes of life, people are supposed to tell their last will about the
issues they care most about.
But as I write this now, 13 years after my mother died during yet another war about a Balkan province, that Kosovo issue is not yet resolved. Kosovo has de facto split, and unilaterally proclaimed its independence from Serbia, but de jure Serbia does not want to admit the loss of the territory. As a consequence, Serbia has been put on the blacklist for joining the EU.
This maneuvering may seem less important, since the EU itself is in big trouble over its finances, and the rich and poor members of Europe are wrapped in a north-south struggle very similar to that of the Northern League and Southern Italy.
Yet it is a major issue for Serbia, a small country with a dreadful record of human rights and democratic processes. Given its ramshackle politics, Italy probably wouldn’t be allowed into the
European Union now, but Serbia has most of Italy’s political vices,without even the cozy blanket of European standards to cling to.
Thirteen years after Milosevic was toppled over the war in Kosovo, his party and his allies were re-elected by Serbian voters. They’re still the champions of the same nationalist ideas which have already cost the region thousands of lives. Every time these Greater Serbians seek to expand their dominance, the Serbian nation gets pruned away, and the nation suffers floods of refugees in from areas where Serbs once lived in peace, and out toward distant nations where Serbs canfind work as aliens, or a living of any kind.
I don’t know much about Catalonia. I do know that Catalonians are having recent big rallies in favor of the independence of their region. I haven’t lived there, I didn’t speak to people on the ground or hear their voices and frustrations.
However, I do know a lot about secession and the breakup of destabilized nations. I had an unpleasant experience some years ago in Barcelona where I was attending a cultural event. A local intellectual told me, with disgust, of how other parts of Spain are less cultured than Catalonia.
She was convinced that Catalonia would thrive when freed of the unsought companionship of these backward areas.
That’s not how a culture actually works. Culture doesn’t emerge from sitting in fancy restaurants, talking to rich and famous. That may be enjoyable, but a national culture arises from the fields and the streets and is lived anonymously. A nation’s culture is not the product of relative wealth, it emerges from interactions, in trouble, in emotions, in differences.
Furthermore, it’s boring and narrow-minded to cling to the exclusivity of some single language, religion, ethnicity and cuisine. That’s the blood-and-soil culture of small rural villages, and it’s certainly not the attractive and persuasive culture of a major city like Barcelona.
When my former country fell apart in the early nineties, it all started with the secession of Slovenia, the richest area of the former Yugoslavia. Today Slovenia is one of the smallest nations in the world, and by the jostling, swaggering standards of the EU, Slovenia is far from rich.
Croatia followed Slovenia’s path to secession, then Bosnia, Kosovo? Everyone found good reasons not to stay together in a larger state: political, economic, religious, ethnic; once the house is on fire it’s
easy to justify reasons to flee. But while everyone was busy finding sacrosanct reasons to praise their new micro-nationalities, the usual realpolitik reasons of loot and power still applied, and the
usual authoritarian cruelty that afflicted Yugoslavia was still maintained, it was just better-armed.
Nobody’s politics was improved by being spattered with the blood of their neighbors. Furthermore, many good cultural and political aspirations were briskly crushed by war. Quite a large part of the
population came from mixed marriages. When it came to religion they were atheists, when it came to nationality they were cosmopolitan.
They had to watch in horror as vital aspects of their own personalities were sawn off by new, cramped, nationalist ideologies — they had to change alphabets, speak differently, rewrite history, tear down monuments, deny members of their own families, abandon and sell homes that were now in alien territories.
And, when it came to implementing human rights and democratic issues, these new states were barren ground. They were amateurs in power, making every effort to compel the allegiance of battered locals to a new iconography of flags, symbols, uniforms, currency. That national
liberation wasn’t a personal liberation. New power elites emerged in new statehouses, but for the individual, repression abounded. Because only where differences clash can a free space of true democracy exist.
When this homogenization is committed, in whatever name, the abolition of differences becomes the same state of affairs. In that suffocating, mirror-like society, one need not get out of bed; everything is already said, done, seen and predictable.
Many citizens in former Yugoslavia thought in my way: I called us the political idiots, since we trusted in the good faith of the everyday people. We imagined that were the majority at the time, but the nationalist minorities were louder, not to mention far more violent and more daring. Yugoslavia could have joined the EU rather than balkanizing into small duchies. After the rampant suffering of the region, we had neither the wealth nor the command over our own destiny.
These micro-states are independent in theory, today, but in practice they’re powerless client states of the EU, Russia, or NATO. They’re run by small cliques of extravagantly corrupt people, who tend
to ship the loot offshore in a classic Third World fashion.
Populist ideas and armed guys often win because they are aggressive. They are loud and passionate, and they promise simple securities, denouncing any better life as utopian. The last thing they deliver is a thriving culture; about they best they can offer is a home-cooked family dish, grown from the back yard.
I don’t know how many ex Yugoslav political idiots still mourn for the fallen federation. I personally am not Yugo nostalgic: I don’t enjoy living with anybody who does not want to live along with me.
However, my heart still bleeds when I go to parts of a region that once I considered my homeland, where they have banished my accent, where they forbid me to speak. I still have family there, of course; nobody is ethnically pure in a country which lived together for centuries. Peoples do share a historical and cultural background, especially compared to those of more distant peoples, who know little about them, and care less.
Culture does not mean becoming rich and famous, culture is a much more dangerous word. It’s beyond cosy languages and home dishes: it is a state of mind, it’s like riding a wild horse which may live in your stable but will take you on uncharted roads.
As a person who wrote and collected war stories, I noticed that they are senseless and amoral. Goodness, badness, heroism, triumph, they rarely surface in these narratives. They do make a bigger picture very simple: real people, still with all their needs and contradictions, stripped down to conditions of survival.
Where is the good in the atomization of the world? In building walls, constructing differences, implementing ideologies, confronting religions, imposing control through language? We have plenty of experience of that.
It seems that the Nobel prize committee heard me this year. The EU federation won the Nobel Prize for Peace. A rather small reward for the large task of keeping the wars out of Europe for 60 years. Of course, that award sidelines and elides the ex-Yugoslav wars, which were not out of Europe, just out of Europe’s Union.
The cracks of Balkanization in Europe are the new crevasses stretching across southern Europe today, the new faultlines of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal. Rather than praise the disintegration of states, that Balkanization of nations, I give my voice to the Europeanization of the Balkans. I hope that Europe –the part that clutches the Nobel Prize — does not cease to exist before Serbia and Kosovo both manage to join it.
Yes, it would make a difference. At last, my mother and I would be reconciled.