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The war in Ukraine looks paradoxical and rather obscure from a Croatian perspective

Interview with Miljenko Jergović, an award-winning writer based in Zagreb. Interviewer: Nikodem Szczygłowski.

May 22, 2023 - Miljenko Jergović Nikodem Szczygłowski - Interviews

Miljenko Jergović

NIKODEM SZCZYGŁOWSKI: The last time we spoke face-to-face in Zagreb at the end of January 2020 you expressed the hope that it would become increasingly difficult to do evil in a world without borders. The pandemic came a month later. Borders were shut and we were all closed off in our homes. At the end of February last year, a real war began in Europe. Russia invaded Ukraine and the world was reminded of the images from Vukovar or Sarajevo 30 years prior. I will repeat the same question I asked you in January 2020 – what is a source of optimism for you today?

MILJENKO JERGOVIĆ: Well, perhaps the fact that it is becoming harder to concentrate evil in just one location. It is becoming ever more difficult to maintain a world where thousands can be killed, displaced, and their homes burnt down in one location, while there is peace and prosperity just a hundred or thousand kilometres away. This was possible during the destruction of Vukovar and the siege of Sarajevo, but not today during the war in Ukraine. Today the war in Ukraine is present in Berlin, Warsaw and every other European city. This doesn’t mean that the sensation of war in those cities is comparable to that in Ukraine, but it is not possible to live there without paying attention to it. This is different from how it was like during the war in Bosnia or Croatia. Most importantly, it is not possible for Ukraine to suffer in solitude, or lose the war, without Europe suffering and the West losing the war as well. Even if it sounds tragic, there are possible sources of optimism. Containing crimes within local borders has become quite impossible.

I read your text last year on the experience of travelling to Zagreb from the Viennese Schwechat airport. You had some interesting observations on the civilisational divides stemming from the fact that the flight took off from the non-Schengen part, where you could see passengers leaving for Belgrade, Tirana, Skopje, Bucharest and Croatian cities among other ‘Balkan’ destinations. Border checks in the Schengen area will be removed for Croatians in May of this year, [which means] the flights to Zagreb and other Croatian airports will be separated from those going to Belgrade and Skopje. Is the Schwechat airport still helpful with regards to your deliberations on Croatian identity?

I returned from Berlin a few days ago. Although Croatia is already in Schengen, I still have to show my identification to the German border guards. This will last until May as you said. I would like to know what the difference will be? The flights to Belgrade, Skopje and Sarajevo will depart from terminals farther away from those leaving for Zagreb. Again, what will be the difference? Maybe there will be a better offer in the duty-free shops? If that is the case, I doubt I will be emotional. I must admit that I love airports, because there are so many things to see and observe. Airports are a reflection of European identity.

When it comes to the situation in Croatia with regards to joining Schengen, I have observed how the Croatian border guards that harassed migrants on the borders earlier, now plague them on the entire territory of the country. In the end it is a yet another sad example of how delayed the next steps of the euro-integration process are in Croatia. If the citizens of the countries that joined the Union in the early 2000s received any real benefits, then it is clear that the majority of the citizens in Croatia do not have the same impression.

January 1st, the border controls with Slovenia were removed from what was in effect one of the oldest borders in Europe, as the frontier of the Holy Roman Empire separated the lands of the Slovenes that had been for over 700 years on the Austrian side, from the Croat lands on the Hungarian side. At the same time, many observers claim that the most tactile and real border there stood from 1991 until today. The currently disappearing boundary divided rather than connected the societies of Slovenia and Croatia. What do you think is the reason behind the mutual interest of Slovenes and Croats?

First of all, there was no full-scale war in Slovenia in 1991 [The Ten-Day War in Slovenia lasted between June 27th until July 6th, 1991, claiming 68 lives. NS. ED]. This is a huge and generally understandable difference between Slovenia and all the other remaining southern and eastern countries of Yugoslavia. The same difference exists between Switzerland from one side, and Germany or France from the other. It is still noticeable until today. Switzerland did not have any experience of war during Second World War, therefore its history took another direction. In our context it means that Slovenia is much less mired in this entire stupid Balkan national chauvinism compared to the other countries that once made up Yugoslavia. It less clericalized and the Catholic Church does not have the same influence as in Croatia. All this makes Slovenia radically different, removing it farther away from Croatia. Simultaneously, it must be added that the Slovenes did not find a valuable reason to look for any common interests and identification with Croatians or other Yugoslavs. I am talking about the Slovenian political elites naturally. They looked and found the roots of their identity in Austria, Italy and earlier in Hungary to a certain degree. Maybe they were right, or maybe not. History will show us.

You can hear Russian and Ukrainian on the streets of Zagreb much more these days. Croatia has accepted quite a number of refugees from Ukraine. Meanwhile, Russians have also been moving in looking for better opportunities than at home, because of sanctions, repressions, etc. The war in Ukraine, the rhetoric of the Kremlin on “Nazism” in Ukraine and the need to “defend” the rights of the Russian-speaking population somehow remind one of the war in Croatia in the 1990s and the narrative of the Milošević regime. A large part of society still does not have a clear position – who is the aggressor, who is the victim in this conflict. What is the reason?

There are not that many Russians in Croatia yet. The ones who are there are not too vocal about their presence. There are definitely more Ukrainians. The attitude towards them is quite strange. At this point, I have to make it clear that I do not like such references to our history with regards to this example. Namely, even if the primitive and banal Russian aggression against Ukraine does find a reflection in “our” Croatian case, it is only because of the standard of ethno-chauvinistic stereotypes. In such a setting the Russians are viewed as some kind of mega-Serbs and the Ukrainians are identified as Croats. However, not only with the Croats of 1991, but also with the Ustaše from 1941. All of this is done so that the Second World War can be somehow recoded, a twisted perception with the Soviet Union suddenly standing on the side of the bad guys, fighting with some imagined “good” at Stalingrad, alongside both Ukrainians and Croats. Other than this view being exceptionally toxic, it does not examine what today’s Ukrainians really face, not is it an expression of solidarity with their real suffering. Finally, it is also a point of view that is historically false, as the Red Army that fought the soldiers of Hitler in Ukraine in 1941, 1942 or 1943 was made up in large [part] by Ukrainians exactly. This wrong perspective creates another typical Croat and Eastern-European patriotic right-wing paradox: local nationalists support the Ukrainians viewing them as Croats fighting the Serbs, while holding special feelings for Vladimir Putin, in secret or more publicly, seeing him as someone that could destroy the legacy of parliamentary democracy, liberal capitalism and a world based on human rights. That he would be someone that could create a “new order”, with all the possible visions as imagined by our local nationalisms and fascisms. I admit that this war is quite paradoxical and obscure as seen from Croatia. The Croatian nationalist would prefer the war to end in a twisted way where the Ukrainians, led by Vladimir Putin, defeated both Russia and America together, pushing the Russians somewhere beyond the Urals, while creating a new European and global order, where the results of the Second World War would be decided anew. This is obviously absurd.

“Crimea will never belong to Ukraine and Kosovo was taken from Serbia unlawfully”, said Croatian President Zoran Milanović, in a recent interview. According to a poll made by the popular web portal Index.hr, some 54 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement. Meanwhile, 8 per cent claimed he is a “Putinist” and 38 per cent said he is a budala (Croatian for “fool”). Are these statements from the Croat president only part of his political argument with Prime Minister Andrej Plenković, or is there something more to this?

I have no idea, really! The way Milanović refers to the war in Ukraine and the Russian aggression is a big question for me personally from the very beginning. If he really thinks everything he says, if he really believes that this is a war “the Americans and the West” wage against Russia and that the Ukrainians themselves “do not have subjectivity” it could mean that Milanović really is dangerous and a personification of evil. On the other hand, if he uses the war in Ukraine as a tool to fight Plenković and the HDZ (Croatian Democratic Union), then he does something politically dangerous and morally problematic. It would be something like supporting Hitler in 1943 because you did not like Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill, or that this coalition seemed without principles. The fact of the matter is that Plenković and those similar to him treat Brussels and Washington [in a way] quite typical of client positions, ready to sacrifice the interests of their country and citizens at any moment if they can gain something for themselves. But in this case, it seems to me that even from this point of view, it is nevertheless unequivocally better, safer and more useful to “serve Brussels and Washington” than to serve Vladimir Putin. Whether you need to be someone’s “servant” is another matter.

This conversation took place in January 2023

Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht

Miljenko Jergović is an award-winning writer, whose books have been translated into many languages, including English, French, Italian, Polish and German. He was born in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and currently lives and writes in Zagreb, Croatia.

Nikodem Szczygłowski is a traveller, writer and reporter. He studied Mediterranean archeology at the University of Łódź and at CEMI in Prague. He is fluent in Lithuanian and Slovenian. He received an award from the Lithuanian Ministry of Culture for his publications in 2020.

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