Remembering the Sarajevo rock show that tried to save Yugoslavia, 25 years later.
The forgotten peace movement in Yugoslavia arguably peaked at a rock concert in Sarajevo’s Zetra Olympic Sports Hall on July 28th, 1991. Due to a bad weather forecast, the concert was relocated to Zetra at the last minute. A Sarajevo taxi company ferried thousands of people from the original outdoor venue for free. An unprecedented 30,000 people amassed inside Zetra, while another 50,000 gathered around the sports hall to hear the show from outside. The concert was organized and broadcast by the Yugoslavia-wide television station Yutel and carried the name Yutel za Mir (Yutel for Peace). Yutel for Peace was the culmination of earlier peace protests in Yugoslavia uniting anti-war activists from all over the country with Yugoslavia’s most popular rock bands in a collective effort to save Yugoslavia from war and dissolution.
At the time of the concert at Zetra, the ten-day war in Slovenia had just ended and the first victims had fallen in the escalating conflict in Croatia. Nine months later, war had engulfed Bosnia and the Zetra Sports Hall was set ablaze by shells from the military positions that besieged Sarajevo. In light of these disastrous events, the crowd that sang for peace in Yugoslavia at the Zetra concert in 1991 might seem naive and irrelevant. However, the sheer number of people at the anti-war concert and the presence of prominent Yugoslav intellectuals and rock stars indicate that Yutel for Peace was anything but marginal.
Exactly 25 years later, the Zetra Project has collected stories from people who were at Yutel for Peace in order to revive and document the memory of the concert that tried to save Yugoslavia. The Zetra Project provides an online space where the spectators, artists and organizers of the 1991 concert can meet once again. Author and journalist Danijel Višević initiated the Zetra Project this summer, prompted by the still-lingering question of how Yugoslavia could have descended into a war that was resisted by so many people. The first 25 interviews published on the Zetra Project’s website provide the first answers to this question and to other questions related to the forgotten movement for peace in Yugoslavia.
The Zetra Project enriches our understanding of Yugoslavia by adding a unique, grassroots perspective that is surprisingly compatible with several of the more persuasive scholarly explanations of Yugoslavia’s dissolution. The movement for peace in Yugoslavia has only recently received academic attention from younger scholars in the region. Their work has broken with the conventional focus on political elites and resisted the tendency to take national identifications for granted. Most of these scholars agree that anti-war activism in Yugoslavia was a widespread, countrywide phenomenon based on cooperation between activist networks from all republics. The movement for peace in Yugoslavia was marginalized and ultimately defeated by belligerent nationalist politics. After the war broke out, peace activists were never included in any of the peace negotiations. However, the failure of the Yugoslav peace movement does not justify its marginalization in explanations for Yugoslavia’s dissolution. Studying the movement for peace in Yugoslavia is essential to gaining insight into the question of how Yugoslavia could have dissolved into a war that the majority of Yugoslav citizens did not want.
Political scientist Chip Gagnon was among the first scholars to address the fact that the outbreak of war in Yugoslavia was not an expression of popular will. Analyzing Yugoslav opinion polls from the 1980s, Gagnon concluded that nationalism was not powerful before the beginning of the wars, and that the majority of Yugoslav citizens supported tolerance and coexistence within Yugoslavia. These findings were later confirmed by Rudi Klanjšek and Sergej Fere, who gathered that the dissolution of Yugoslavia was not the expression of a mass longing for mononational states, but rather the result of manipulation by a small group of political entrepreneurs. Gagnon developed the convincing theory that conservative political elites pursued nationalism and extreme violence as a strategy to sustain their hold on power in the face of popular mobilization for peaceful reform. Eric Gordy similarly characterized nationalism and violence as elite-instigated measures undertaken to destroy alternatives. Violence was deliberately imposed on citizens and mixed populations in order to destroy the alternative of peaceful coexistence in Yugoslavia. Therefore, it was no coincidence that the Sarajevo peace protests and the Zetra Sports Hall were among the first targets of snipers and shells of the Bosnian war.
The Zetra Project reminds us of more than just the concert that tried to save Yugoslavia. The stories of the people who attended and supported the Zetra concert in 1991 demonstrate the importance of peace movements in times of imminent war. The better scholarly explanations for the dissolution of Yugoslavia have taken the Yugoslav peace movement into account. Most of the Zetra Project’s interviews also contain messages relevant to contemporary Europe. The Zetra Project reminds us of the fragility of peace in the face of the destructive forces of nationalism and intolerance.
Above: Belgrade band Ekaterina Velika perform “Ovo je zemlja za nas” (This is the land for us) at the Yutel za Mir concert in Sarajevo, July 1991.
Cover photo credit: Sylvie Gagelmann/The Zetra Project photographer