“Serbia is Up for Grabs”: An Interview with Playwright Aleksandar Novaković

We caught up with Aleksandar Novaković, a Serbian playwright and writer from  Društveni pokret Plamen (Social movement Flame) to discuss the political situation in Serbia, imperialism and a new path forward for the Serbian left.


How would you describe the political situation in Serbia today? Is Serbia an authoritarian dictatorship?

Serbia is a Thatcherite wet dream come true. Indeed, society as we know it is practically nonexistent and privatization-wise, everything is up for grabs. In reality, we have a one-party Parliament and a one-party state and a regime that is obsessed with absolute control. The opposition is mostly small and disunited, and has neither the vision nor any serious intention to send Vučić and his party to the recycling bin of history.

There is one problem that is bigger than Vučić himself: the neoliberal course and flirtation with nationalism were the cause and Vučić is the effect. Let’s say that tomorrow, the centrist, neoliberal opposition wins. The narrative would change; there would be a bit more freedom of the press and I have no doubt that many people who support Vučić today would simply change sides and continue on with business as usual: privatizing, exploiting, and selling out our natural resources with total disregard for the working people of Serbia. It happened in 2000 when Milošević stepped down, and it happened when Vučić started his ascent to power in 2012. It can happen again.


I’ve noticed that some liberal critics of Aleksandar Vučić describe his supporters as “cattle” (stoka) in what seem to me to be very auto-Orientalist terms. They denigrate the “level of consciousness” of “ordinary” people. Is this a winning political strategy in Serbia and how would you frame the discussion differently?

LIVESTOCK! What an idiotic thing to say to impoverished, abused, exploited people, spitting in the face of those who are underprivileged and often blackmailed. Of course, narcissistic elitism can bring you ten percent of middle and upper middle class voters tops, but it can never give you the support of the majority. I resent any kind of snobbery or elitism in politics and consider it oppressive and, from humanistic point of view, disgusting.  What we need is a new narrative which is neither center nor right but left. This narrative is not just waving the red flag; it is a true and honest approach to working people from all areas of life, showing empathy, concern and giving solutions for a very particular set of problems: free healthcare, social security and education for all. It involves respecting the rights of working people, decent wages, deprivatization, decolonization in all aspects of life, and bringing the resources and riches of this country back to its true owners, the citizens of Serbia. It is about building an ecologically responsible society, a secular society and, because of all that, a socialist society. This is the vision of Serbia outside of NATO and the collapsing EU. I see both of aforementioned institutions as instruments of economic and political empires and see no reason why we should serve either of them, or the IMF, as a matter of fact.


You recently formed a new party. Can you tell me a bit about the party and its program?

First of all, it is a movement and it is still in formation. Its name is Društveni pokret Plamen (Social movement Flame) and I believe that my answer to the previous question pretty much describes its basic ideas. We are trying to rise above the leftist sectarianism that is ever present in many leftist parties and movements and make this movement a people‘s movement, creating bonds between people regardless of class, nationality, race, religion, sex or way of life. The pandemic and recent clashes within parties and movements of the Serbian left have slowed the process of formation but I am optimistic. I believe that we have learned something from these painful situations and that we will intensify our activities very soon.


Will Društveni pokret Plamen become a regional movement? How do you envision cooperation with neighboring countries?

Our members are from Serbia and, of course, we are part of the Serbian political scene. However, if we want our vision to be realized, we need to cooperate with similar political organizations in the region. It is not just a practical thing to do but a logical one, since Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, etc. pretty much all have the same problems. Together we stand, divided we fall.


I want to ask you about regional reconciliation, and the idea of “coming to terms with the past”. One criticism I have of all that is that the “memorialization agenda” seems to have been set – and imposed – by the US and its allies, who certainly benefit from sustaining the illusion that war crimes only happen in places like the Balkans. However, I also think that there is a danger of getting “stuck” on Western hypocrisy. It’s a very seductive trap because it’s true. What does a regional reconciliation program that centers people from the Balkans, in the interest of people from the Balkans, look like? And how does one prevent all the discussions of the past from encroaching on the necessary work of building a common future?

I think that the US treats us like simpletons: make peace and reconciliation right now! Be happy! Remember when Donald Trump said that he made peace between Serbs and Kosovar Albanians like within 15 minutes and “they have had a conflict that has lasted for centuries!” Ha, good one! We live in separate but not independent states. None of the Balkan countries is truly free.

First and foremost we have a problem that no one acknowledges. The Yugoslav Wars were, at their essence, class wars more than ethnic wars. The motives of ruling elites were not so much about territories, national states, or the eradication of other nations as much as they were about money and power. Plus, they were all eager to create companies, corporations, and to sell their lands to foreigners. They won and we, the people, lost. Why? Because the majority chose to have an empty belly and wave the national flag while losing all the rest. These wars proved what we knew all along: nationalism and xenophobia are ardent serfs of capitalism. Furthermore, almost none of those nationalists wanted to fight until the bitter end. They were hiding, living on stolen money, quivering in far-off mansions and guarded by mercenaries. None of them were brave. They were cowards, liars, homicidal maniacs, and thieves. When we all understand this and that we, the peoples of the Balkans, need to cooperate and not annihilate each other, the process of healing will begin, in another socialist (or some other leftist) society.


Serbia is China’s closest ally in Europe. Is China an imperialist power? How has China made its presence felt in Serbia and the Balkans in recent years?

China is one of the empires but we know that it is not the biggest one. It is increasing its military presence in several countries (so is Germany but who cares about that, right?) yet it does not represent the biggest threat to security in the modern world. Nor does Russia, which is, of course, also an empire and imperial politics are always abhorrent for me. The biggest empire is the USA with its NATO allies. Also, China is not the closest ally of Serbia or vice versa. It just so happens that China is one of several who want a piece of the Serbian cake. China is having it and eating it too simply because Serbia is, at the moment, up for grabs, so Chinese companies can buy whatever they want and pollute wherever they want. But, hey, so can Rio Tinto, so can South Korean, Japanese, American, British or Emirati companies. Vučić is sitting on many different chairs at the same time, but sooner or later, all those chairs will be pulled aside. Once again, the biggest problem for regional stability here is the USA backed by NATO, then three empty places, then Russia and then China.


There are currently environmental protests happening in Serbia. Why? Is the future of Serbian politics “green”?

Once more, I need to stress that many people do not understand the difference between cause and effect. Or they do not want to. For example, they know that what is making people in Serbia go beserk is the high level of pollution in the air, the privatization of water springs and spas, the uncontrolled lumber works, mini hydro powerplants, and dirty technologies of foreign companies and Rio Tinto. But they do not see that capitalism is the cause and pollution is the effect. Of course, everyone who fights against pollution and exploitation needs to be supported and it is good that this country is turning green but if we want true change, it must turn red too. The only way to stop companies and corporations from producing ecological carnage is to use strict laws against the very same companies and corporations, and this can be only done within a different social and political system. Its name can be socialism, anarchism or communism, but it is definitely not capitalism.


You’re a playwright. How have you and others in theater adapted to the Covid era?

TBH, we did not. Theatre represents direct contact, live contact, not Skype chat. But I had more time to write plays which is sorta a paradox because – where are the actors, sire? Have they arrived, finally? Luckily, I am not an actor or director (and I am also a novelist) but, even though I dare not praise isolation, I would say that I have adjusted easily, being more productive than before.


I must ask you about Russia because people reading this will want to know. What do you think about Russia’s role in the Balkans today?

AN: Just like China, Russia has its piece of Serbia today, and I do not mean just Gazprom. Yet, I know that Russia has its lobby and political support within Serbia (SPS or the Socialist Party of Serbia and smaller right-wing parties) but I do not see them establishing active, functional military bases here. Serbia is surrounded by NATO countries and this is much more dangerous. Russia can finance some parties and organizations or it can, for example, make some people say something anti-American here and there but this is as far as it goes. I have no illusions – if Putin could press us like Stalin in 1948 he would do that. But this is not the case.  I think “Russophiles” in Serbia need Putin much more than Putin needs them, and since I know who these people are, I think he has made the right assessment, by the way, this is the only thing about which Putin and I could possibly agree.


Is “Europeanization” an imperialist project? It seems to me that for many observers, the US and EU are viewed as a neutral good. How has the West shaped this country and this region and has it been a positive force?

I am an internationalist and I do not believe that someone from outside should come to me and, believing he is morally and culturally superior, tell me what to do. Europeanisation! What does it mean, really? I am a European from the Balkans and you want to make me more European because I am not European enough? Go to other peninsulas — Iberian or Scandinavian – and tell them that. Or go to the British Isles. Of course, Lily, I am not addressing you, but those who want to Euro- this and Euro- that. There are some cultural and political influences that came to us from the West that I appreciate very much: the French Revolution, Marxism, Socialist, Communist and Anarchist thinkers, rock music, avant-garde films, etc. But a lot of bad stuff (some if it I already mentioned) came here too: eurocentrism, consumerism, a colonial worldview, self-centered individualism… On the other hand, what about other brave examples that inspired many hearts? What about the Chilean left, the brave battle of Bolivians against the oppression, the reforms of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, and the lessons of anti-colonialist struggle in Indochina? And let us not forget that we Europeans are living in just one small corner of the vast continent called Eurasia (or is it the other way around?). There you go, I said it.


Some leftists in Serbia are very pro-US and pro-NATO, as they see the West as opposing nationalism and conservativism. Many nationalists, on the other hand, are pro-China. I think this can be confusing for some outside observers on the left. Is this an accurate description?

Not really. Those pro-NATO and pro-USA leftists are just deceiving themselves. They are usually Bidenesque or Tony Blairesque liberals that do not have anything in common with the essence of the left. And the essence of the left is: anti-imperialism. As Bob Dylan put it, It may be the Devil, or it may be the Lord but you gotta serve somebody. I cannot be politically correct in this case: a “socialist” that supports NATO is like a person who has sex with multiple partners expecting that this promiscuous behavior will make them a virgin again. I think that Serbian right-wingers have less confusion in their heads: “China is the enemy of the USA and therefore an ally. It is not Slavic or Orthodox like Mother Russia but boy, do they have strongmen over there in Beijing, one party ruling them all plus capitalism of a sort! That‘s impressive!”


What do you think about the role of Yugonostalgia in regional left politics? Is it important to move beyond the politics of nostalgia?

Nostalgia is not a good basis for healthy relations. Actions speak louder than words when it comes to local cooperation, and I think that we ex-Yugoslavs are quite aware of the many similarities we share, such as common history and parts of our cultural heritage. But let’s not stick to that. Let’s stick to internationalism. Working people, unemployed or employed, need to connect wherever we live, whether it’s Iceland or Zanzibar. Regional and international movements are very much needed indeed. I mean sincere leftist movements, not the chic-left we see today, particularly in Europe and the US.


What are you working on at the moment? Any new exciting writing projects or plays?

Short stories and poetry mostly. I am also working on my music. A few months ago, I finished my short novel Dobro nam došle drugarice iz trikotaže! (“We welcome you, comradesses* from the sportswear factory”) about the history of one textile factory’s decay. Of course, the history of that factory is a metaphor for my countries’ (Yugoslavia and Serbia) histories during the turbulent 1991-2021 period. Here’s to hoping I will publish it soon.

*”Comradess” as in female comrade. I know it is an odd and rare form…


Cover photo credit: Lauras Eye/flickr/some rights reserved

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