Mark W Hopkins
Mark Hopkins

Fellowship Title:

Yugoslavia – The Politics of Culture

Mark Hopkins
December 29, 1969

Fellowship Year

Belgrade, Yugoslavia

 

December 20, 1969

 
Dushan Ludvig in Borba
 

These have been trying months for freedom in Yugoslavia. Many liberals fear, not without reason, that the political establishment is retrenching and that subtly and surely devices will be found to quell the most outspoken critics of the League of Communists and to mold the press into a more “responsible” instrument. The.League, on the other hand, is conducting a two theme campaign. It remarks at every turn that, of course, there can be no return to “administrative measures”—the euphemism for totalitarian rule. And, then, in tight conjunction, it proclaims against any-forum for the ideas of nationalists, anti-socialists, chauvinists, Cominformists and other assorted deviants.

The controversy is likely to linger on, rather than mount to one of those reverberating crescendos that everyone can understand as the finish of the score. To the outside observer, the debate over free expression may thus be the duller. But it is the more significant precisely because it continues, for that in itself testifies to an authentic, though undeveloped public opinion at work.

Granted that the minority view or the unorthodox idea are not readily snatched up by the mass media and popularized as in the United States. Moving from west to east into Yugoslavia, the atmosphere thickens. Unwritten taboos against provocative comment on the country’s foreign policy, the political leadership (specifically President Josip Broz Tito) and the secret police are instantly apparent. Editors and journalists, even the most independently inclined, tread carefully when handling the question of nationalism. The successful ones know how to read signals flashed in the political apparatus. Their vocabulary is laced with code words and formulated phrases that permit communication without arousing popular passions.

But against this sketchy picture of a managed public opinion, there is another impression if one moves from east to west. Yugoslavia then, by comparison, seems embroiled in free wheeling exchange of ideas. The press roams the country reporting the ills of the economy, the culture and politics with a candor that sets it apart from the stereotype of mass communications in other Communist countries. The citizenry dissents, and with increasing conviction that no reprisals will flow from “them.”

That is to say, the current problem is not so simple a matter as whether the mass media should be free to judge and criticize, or whether the individual Yugoslav should have the right to voice his thoughts. The issue is over the benefits of free expression, weighed against unfavorable effects. It is not an unfamiliar issue to Americans. Their own mass media and free speech are under fire for allegedly creating more turmoil and unrest than tranquility. In Yugoslavia, which has its own version of the racial conflict and which is proceeding through its own, tenuous social revolution, there is also concern over the role of the press and public opinion. And to this, one must add a recent history that denied all, or almost all, save the politically approved thought.

Even now, in conditions of “democratic self-management,” the political leadership shows little tolerance for a press that feeds disunity or negative popular sentiment. Indeed, the political assessment seems to be that the press and public opinion have achieved too much autonomy. This may be partly a reaction of the older cadre that recalls a more disciplined society. But it also reflects the universal political mind beset by problems of feeding, clothing and housing a population, of maintaining order and of protecting national interests. The politicians yearn, if not strive after a “positive” press and public opinion.

And not only the politicians, an editor of a leading Yugoslav newspaper, in a private conversation, argued in words that would have brought an ovation from the American Society of Newspaper Editors for free speech and independence of the mass media. Then, in the next thought, he declared that he never would allow the pages of his newspaper to be the vehicle of Serbian nationalism or of pro-Soviet sentiment.

The Trial of Zoran Gluseevic

 

To put the current general discussion over free expression into concrete terms, one might best begin with the case of Knjizevne Novine. It has fueled both the fears and wrath of liberals who saw in this and several other events a cultural repression on the move.

Until last August, Knjizevne Novine was a rather uninspiring tabloid size newspaper concerned mostly with literary affairs. A couple years ago it had gotten into difficulty with the politicians over its editorial tone and Zoran Gluseevic, a serious, but not a major writer, was brought in as editor. To a number of people, this seemed proof enough that he was politically “safe.”

The uproar began on August 30, when Knjizevne Novine went on the stands with an article by Gluseevic titled “Five Variations on the Theme of the Hot 1968 Spring in Prague” and illustrated with a half page photograph of Soviet troops sightseeing in the Czechoslovak capital. In his essay, Gluseevic set down his thoughts on the photograph, some of them universal comments about the military occupier—a few word summary does not do justice to the style and feeling of the essay. But some lines were biting and direct-universal “The soldiers who have grabbed the freedom of the citizens of Prague play the role of tourists while off duty, while the citizens of Prague spend their time lamenting for their lost freedom.”

As Gluseevic argued at his trial, he was no more critical of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia than the Yugoslav press, indeed, then Yugoslav political leaders had been; perhaps he was even less critical. Gluseevic might not have been called to account at all had not his article appeared two days before Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko arrived in Belgrade to reach a modus vivendi with the Yugoslavs on the Czechoslovak issue. On September 3, the Belgrade public prosecutor moved to ban Knjizevne Novine under article 52 of the Yugoslav press law as a “threat to equal international relations (that) disturbs the maintenance and fostering of friendly relations between Yugoslavia and other countries”-that is, the Soviet Union. On September 5, the Belgrade regional court approved the ban, Knjizevne Novine was temporarily closed down and it became a crime under Yugoslav law to possess or transmit the allegedly offending issue of August 30. As well, Gluseevic was removed as editor, and on October 15 it was reported that he would be tried under article 175 of the Yugoslav criminal code for “damaging” the reputation of a foreign state!

Zoran Gluseevic, foreground, was tried before a three man tribunal. Belgrade Judge Dragoslav Lukic, center, read the verdict of guilty.

Whether or not the Russians agitated for reprisal against Gluseevic—which is what some informed persons believe—the political machinery was set into motion. The trial, on October 28, was a two hour affair in a courtroom crowded with Gluseevic sympathizers. It became clear soon enough that the prosecution had no intention of trying to prove legally that Gluseevic had “insulted” a foreign state. Nor, it was apparent, despite a forceful defense by Gluseevic himself and by his attorney, would there be any other verdict but guilty.

The show trial netted Gluscevie a sentence of iix m months in jail, pending an appeal to the Serbian republic supreme court. Judge Dragoslav Lukic contended in the verdict that Gluseevic had not been tried for his “political beliefs, for the fact that he condemns occupation in principle, or for his humanitarianism for which he speaks. He is tried for having insulted a foreign state.” The decision might have been more convincing had the prosecution and the court done more than assert the crime. In lieu of that, it was evident that Knjisevne Novine and Gluseevic were offered up to the Russians.

Public reaction was slow in coming. A good deal of private denouncement of the trial ei’roulated, though Gluseevic himself was not a popular figure-among many liberals. The coffee house talk finally erupted at the end of November and early December at two free swinging discussions at the University of Belgrade sponsored by the Serbian Philosophers Society. The sessions on “Culture in Socialism” turned into a forum for intellectuals who charged that democratization had stalled in Yugoslavia and that the Yugoslav cultural scene was reminiscent of the Soviet Union in the dark purge years of 1935-37. The trial of Gluseevic was cited as an example. Politika, the leading Belgrade daily, which had chimed in with condemnation of Gluseevic, allowed parenthetically in its report on the “Culture in Socialism” session a remark on the “clumsy intervention of the court” in the Knjizevne ,Novine case. By midDecember, informed opinion was betting that Gluseevic would be given a suspended sentence by the Serbian supreme court.

Nonetheless, the political establishment had demonstrated its power, however ineptly, and its action contradicted a good many words about the value and right of free expression in Yugoslavia.

The Case of “Pumpkins”

 

Concurrent with the Gluseevic affair, a storm broke over a new play at the Yugoslav Drama Theatre. “When Pumpkins Bloom” was written by Dragoslav Mihailovic, a 39 year old author whose book of the same title had been published without incident and whose play script had appeared in a literary magazine, similarly without commotion. The play focused on the year 1948, after Tito’s break with Stalin, and when arrests of persons sympathetic to the Soviet Union (now generically “Cominformism”) were underway. It was, as everyone knew, a delicate subject to be treated on the stage.

Mihailovic, who himself had been arrested and sent to Goli Otok, an island political prison, traveled two roads in his drama. Along one, he walked the moral that violence breeds violence. The audience witnessed a gang rape, police brutalizing street toughs, a family destroyed by political arrests, all finally culminating in a vindictive murder by a young man. Placed in another time or place—other than Belgrade, Yugoslavia in 1948-the play would have yielded complimentary reviews here.

But Mihailovic was also moving along a political road. For he addressed himself to the injustice of purges of Russian sympathizers after 1948. And when a young man—the one finally driven to murder-confronted a Yugoslav colonel after his father and brother have been arrested for harboring pro-Soviet sentiments, and cried: “You are just like the Germans!”—with that equation of the Yugoslav regime and the Nazis, the storm broke.

The first step was a convocation of the Yugoslav Dtama Theatre “collective” and some quick editing of the script, to remove that particular line. Then, on October 22, the fifth performance of “Pumpkins” was presented to an overflow house, including not only foreign correspondents, but Latinka Perovic, secretary of the Serbian League of Communists, and Slobodan Glumae, editor of Borba, quasi-official party organ.

V. Obradovich in Yezh

Thereafter, events moved to a resolution. On October 25, Glumae published a review of “Pumpkins” in Borba under the pen name P. Krstich. He granted that the Drama Theatre “collective” had attempted to revise the play and to more accurately portray the “historical significance of the resistance of the people and the party against the Informburo attack on Yugoslavia.” But, Glumae- Krstich continued, it was a superficial attempt and he wondered if “Pumpkins” should remain in the repertoire—although, of course, that was a decision that only the “collective” could make.

That same day, Tito was speaking in the provinces about various problems, which included besides strikes and livestock, the play.”Pumpkins.11 After noting that the “playright is a former convict from Goli Otok” (and therefore suspect immediately), Tito declaredol.., “We are not going to resort to any administrative measures. I do not think that the author should now be arrested, but it is the duty of communists to prevent individuals dealing with that sort of business from doing it. The voice of our public should be strong and resolute in relation to this kind of trend.” Even before Tito’s words were published (in the following morning papers), the Yugoslav Drama Theatre “collective” had convened once more and decided that “Pumpkins” should be removed from the repertoire. The action was reported two days later in a brief, back page item in Borba. It was not a very subtle display of manipulation.

What aroused the politicians, of course,was not the theme of violence begetting violence (nor, for that matter, was anyone else drawn to the play for that reason). It was the intimation that the purges of Soviet sympathizers after 1948 had been a gross miscarriage of justiceg and that, vaguely, “Cominformism” was not so outrageous. An American parallel would be a drama whose sub-theme was the political pLarsecution of American Communists in the 1950s. In any event, the objections to “Pumpkins” were transformed into an allegation that Cominformism was being revived, an allegation that was by no means unappealing to many liberals.

As a blatant instance of political meddling in cultural affairs, the suppression of “Pumpkins” prompted a critical article within a few weeks in the University of Belgrade newspaper Student. And during the “Culture in Socialism” discussions, the incident was added to the Gluseevic case,as further documentation of heavy handed authority. It was, of course. However one interpreted the intent and thought of Mihailovic, the fact remained that he had been gagged, The “voice of our public” had not closed “Pumpkins” obviously enough, but the sellect audience of political leaders.

The Press and Politics

 

Along wdMthe “Pumpkins” and Gluseevic episodes, there have been several less sensational events, all concerned with the press, that have demonstrated to some people a less permissive cultural policy. To take them one by one, there was first the controversy over NINI a weekly newspaper of commentary, analysis and translations from the foreign press. NIN$s difficulties began about a year ago with publication of responses from readers to the general query: “The Yugoslav—Who Is He?” The purpose was courageous enough—to sample public opinion on the most serious internal social problem of the country, that is, the nationalities issue. What came out in print were opinions that, however authentic, were seized upon as NINis attempt to foster nationalism, specifically Serbian nationalism.

The consequence was a public uproar. In September, the journalists’ chapter of the League of Communists in the Politika Publishing House (the “mother” organization of NIN) met twice to discusa the affair. And a report of Palitikals “publishing council,” ostensibly a civic board representing society’s interests in the newspaper combineg recommended a change of personnel. The sum total of these events was the resignation of NIN’s editor, Djordje R6denkovic, and a long, involved article in NIN, the import of which was that NIN did indeed favor equality af nationalities in Yugoslavia.

The reaffirmation by NIN of conventional truth, under obvious pressure, was damaging commentary on the power of the press to air controversial and sensitive issues. It showed the persistent inclination of the political establishment to shove the hard questions behind a screen of happy, positive sounding platitudes.

The same inclination has brought trouble—to cite a second hassle over the press—to the vociferous Student, student newspaper of the University of Belgrade. Its recent history is enmeshed in the June, 1968 demonstrations at the university when pent up, youthful discontent poured out in unqualified opposition to the League of Communists. Since then the League has attempted a house cleaning at the university. But Student resisted and continued to publish provocative articles on the state of politics and culture in Yugoslavia. As a student newspaper with a restricted circulation, it could be and was grantdd margin for indiscretioti4 whereas themajor press would have been called to account for publishing some of the same material.

Above and at right: Studentos reaction after it was denounced by the University Committee

However, in mid-November the University Committee of the Student Union began what Borba described as a “marathon discussion” of Studentis editorial content. The result, as revealed on November 271 was a condemnation of the newspaper on eight counts. The most important ones concerned Studentis alleged indifference to the League of Communists and the ideological struggle at the university, to the point, it was said, of expressing opinions opposed to those af the League. The University Committee thereupon called for a new editorial board for the newspaper.

But Student refused to recant or confess. In the December 9 issue, the editorial board offered a rebuttal to the University Committee. Point by point, it rejected each criticism of the Committee and offered a few of its own. In essence, the editors of Student (i aimed autonomy in the name of truth. The University Committee demanded conformity in the name of social progress.. At mid-Ddeember the controversy remained alive and the staying power of Student’s editors remained uncertain.

The third, and probably most important event to draw public attention to the press was a White Paper issued by the executive bureau of the League of Communists. In the formative stage for two years, the document (massively titled: “Current Questions of the Social Position and the Role of Information Activity and Media of Public Information at the Present Stage of the Development of the System of Socialist Self-Management”) was discussed by the presidium of the League on November 17 and finally issued with revisions on November 27. It exists now as one of those timeless proclamations to be reprinted and referred to as polemics over the press advance.

In fairness, it is not a thoughtless tract9 however much some liberals may believe that its intent is to put the squeeze on the mass media. It addresses itself to legitimate issues—responsibility of the press in society; the role of the mass media as critic; financing of the press; and responsiveness of the press to public opinion. It is also true that the document grew not from a relatively powerless citizens’ commissiong but from the prime political machine in Yugoslavia.

The context, is neither a privately owned nor a state controlled mass media. The Yugoslav press system is closer to the American publicly financed educational television than anything else, with an extra share of government guidance. Newspapers, magazines, radio and television function as commercial enterprises, whose boards of directors are responsible to their own employes, their audiences, the political establishment and society at large. They exercise what might be described as socially conscious autonomy—neither independent of nor subservient to the government, neither fully committed nor wholly indifferent to the public interest.

The League of Communists White Paper asserts at once that the mass media have been “freed from political guidance and administrative relations” and therefore have become increasingly accurate channels of public information. “The purpose and the objective of the system of information in our selfmanaging socialist society,” the White Paper advocates, “is to convey and explain truth. Objective information must be the only recognized form of information.”

The mass media are not, however, independent of society. They “cannot be a mere mirror of everything that is happening and of all trends of thought in various sectors of our society, but must be active socialist forums of self-managers, forums which, with their clear-cut, ideological-political orientation, have a place in the forefront of the struggle for socialist progress of society.”

Several “negative features” are said to characterize the contemporary Yugoslav press. As a commercial enterprise, there is evidence of a “race for sensation, unjustified dramatization and alarming presentation of conflicts…unverified information, half-truths and misinformation.$ Some criticism in the press is “directly opposedto the democratic and self-managing course of the socialist development of our society. Indeed, some editorial boards are attempting an “emancipation from society.”

The mass media, the White Paper emphasizes, should be participants in social development. They should not be “turned into instruments of individual interest groups, political cliques, associations or pressure groups,” nor be vehicles of “anti-socialist, antidemocratic and anti-self-managing forces.” In present circumstances, the White Paper Continues, editorial councils, the Socialist Alliance and the League of Communists—all ostensibly representing the public interests—should exercise a greater influence over the broad editori.,,illdirection of the mass media. The wi media, therefore,/be more expressive of the public will and socialist progress.

A dispassionate reading of the nearly 10,000 word White Paper leads to the conclusion that the League of Communists wants a more managed or more manageable press. The talk of social responsibility of the mass media may be sound enough doctrine. But when the White Paper reaches the point of how one guarantees or provides for social responsibility, it turns to such manipulative agencies as the Socialist Alliance and “editorial councils.” The experience of Yugoslav journalists with such agencies (let alone the League of Communists) has been confining,to say the least.

D. Rumenchic in Yezh

But the experience of the political leadership so far with a “self-managed” press has not been wholly to its liking. This is clear not only from the White Paper, but from recent comments of politicians, including Tito himself. They inveigh now against the I’monopolyll of the press in public information, that being the code word for the exercise of too much autonomy. Yet, the Yugoslav press has acquired considerable authority in recent years and (with the exception of certain publications) it is unwilling to be simply a mouthpiece of the politicians. The same can be said for Yugoslav liberal intellectuals presently caught up in the controversy over free expression. There is no assurance that they can advance their cause very far at the moment. But the political leadership, caught between its own promises of democracy and its reluctance to allow the full consequences of the promises, faces the problem of what to do with popular opposition. It has yet to discover a formula between the ballot box and “administrative measures” and in the absence of that there remains room for maneuver and experiment.

Received in New York on December 29, 1969.

Mark W. Hopkins is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from The Milwaukee Journal. This article may be published with credit to Mark W. Hopkins, The Milwaukee Journal, and the Alicia Patterson Fund.