Predrag Matvejevic’s “Borders and frontiers”: what is the price paid by the participant observer?

As promised, here you can find the book review published (in Italian) on DADA (click here to download the Italian version).


Predrag Matvejevic’s “Borders and frontiers”: what is the price paid by the participant observer? 

140 pg
2008, Asterios Editore, Trieste.

Predrag Matvejević, one of the most controversial and internationally renowned experts on the Balkans, in “Borders and frontiers” draws a personal and peculiar picture of the political experiences in the region, before and after the violent implosion of former Jugoslavia. His work contains a variety of concepts and ideas worth analyzing from an anthropological perspective, especially in the field of political and juridical anthropology. At a first glance, the book would not be enlisted on the vast anthropological bibliography regarding the Balkans. Although, as for his famous “Mediterranean Breviary”(1), the poetic and dreaming style of Matvejević hides a more vigorous and deep message, the structure and objective of which are typical of the anthropological method.

Matvejević:“poethical prose” with anthropological message
In order to fully understand the value of this production, it should be placed on a timeline: the book gathers articles and memories converted into a written testimony between 1990 and 2002. The articles can be found in chronological order; each article is inspired by a concrete event, but goes beyond the pure analysis of this event, mixing the memories of the author with the history of the region marked by a series of milestones. However, Matvejević manages to compress in these 140 pages even a longer period of time, characterized not only by his personal experience, but especially by the societal changes of the Balkan communities, well-known by the author.

It would be of no anthropological interest to compare “Borders and frontiers” with previous ethnographical oeuvres on the Balkans(2). Nevertheless, general awareness of the ethnic composition of the Balkans is necessary to comprehend the inner and perceptive anthropological value of this book. The oeuvre lacks clear and notable ethnographical description of the groups: the author frequently uses quotation marks referring to Serbs, Croats and other ethnical groups. In spite of the phenomenal practical value of such approach, the proper meaning of this wording is clear for the reader initiated to the Balkan specifities.

“Between asylum and exile”: Matvejević as participant observer
Philip Bock describes the responsibilities of the anthropologist as following:

“l’antropologo ha certe responsabilità nei confronti della sua professione. Come scienziato sociale, egli è tenuto a usare la sua intelligenza critica, a scegliere argomenti sociali autentici per la sua ricerca, e a portare avanti tale ricerca con energia e immaginazione. […] L’antropologo, inoltre, ha la responsabilità di lavorare per una scienza integrata dell’uomo.”.(3)

Following these enlightening words, Matvejević work can be considered free from any political, ideological or historical “pollution”. He uses a very descriptive and “poetic prose”(4), depicting the reality of the current Balkan society from the perspective of the pure participant observer, as derived from Malinowski’s(5) work.

Before any further content analysis, it is worth to focus on the fundamental and unique situation in which the author finds himself. By the frequently repeated periphrasis “between asylum and exile”(6), the writer describes the peculiar position from which he analyses the Balkans: born in Mostar from a Jew Russian father, Matvejević fully lives the socialist dream of modern Jugoslavia. This will clearly leave its footprint on his life. The violent implosion of the Jugoslavian dream brought the seeds of a cultural and personal “renaissance” for Matvejević, forced to move from Croatia to France and then Italy. Here he refines his role of “conscience of the Balkans”, cubing his importance: if the Balkans are the superego of Europe, Matvejevic can easily be addressed as the superego of the Balkans. The Balkan “dark hole” gets discovered, almost violated by the simplicity of Matvejevic’s message, who is able to transpose his deep knowledge of the region in the mind of the Western reader, demonstrating also wide awareness of Western culture and values. For this reason, Matvejevic is a perfect example of participant observer, since his status of exiled/asylum applicant makes him detached enough from the political contingency of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, from the dark chronicles of the last years. On the other hand, his cultural knowledge and deep interest in political issues, enable him to produce a perfect political anthropological perspective of the present situation in the Balkans, saving years of ethnographic research, indispensable for any other political anthropologist. His state of being attached/detached to the region, his fresh, succint and expressive style make us the gift ofthis insightful, sharp and concentrated anthro-political analysis of the most controversial years of the Balkans.

Responsibilities of historical mistakes: the role of the literate
Matvejević’s deep knowledge of the functioning of Balkan societies clearly emerges in his harsh and merciless critic of the Jugoslavian inteligencija after the passing of Drug Tito. The ultra-nationalist wave endorsed by several politicians back then is unconceivable for the uncompromising moral of the author. However, while the struggle of power leads(especially in the Balkans) to fight and clashes far beyond community values, the behaviour of the “sage”, of the poet, of the artist should be free from any political influence or, rather, should find its roots in an authentic and shared common cultural background, endorsed by the society or by a minority of it. Matvejević attacks those manneristic artists who passively served the several regimes responsible for the surge of violence and chaos in the ’90. Nevertheless, his pitiless judgement moves from an interesting, although hidden comparison between the responsibility of the intellectual towards the society with the traditional political structure of the Jugoslavian tribes.

According to our interpretations of Matvejević’s condemnations, the role of the literate resembles that of the kneža, of the vojvoda, of the serdar in traditional Balkan societies. It is possible, in fact, to make a comparison between segmentary societies existing in the region till the late ’70(7) and the way culture is administered in the Balkans. An excellent description of the leadership role is the one by Sahlins:

“ The typical leader of a tribal society is nothing but the distinguished copy of the authoritative elder […]. Here [in the tribal societies], is an interpersonal relationship based on charisma.”(8)

In the same line of argument, the artist, as the cultural and intellectual leader of the community, has the responsibility, along with Matvejević, to guide the members of the group, although considering their common background, working to find the compromise between stillness and changes, homeostasis and transistasis(9) in that society.

However, the slavish alignment of the same intellectual with Milošević, Izbegović, Tuđman, Karađić induces a fight between those responsible literates, aware of the roots of their culture and able to contribute to the common good, and those exploiting the gap between their culture and the general perception of the same culture, plagiarizing, raping, bending the traditions for the sake of political power and fake consensus.

When will the Balkans look themselves in the mirror?
Matvejević’s bitter criticism of the Balkan societies costed him 5-month imprisonment sentence by the Zagreb Court. An EU membership candidate country, demonstrated the lack of self-criticism and perceptibility towards what should be its own  voice of consciousness. However, Matvejević addresses problems too big and involving the totality of the Balkans beyond his person. In his most interesting articles “On the Danube”(10), and “Our Talibans”(11) he touches upon fundamental hot topics of international law andinternational relations such as the issue of global justice (ICTY mandate) and international economic cooperation. Furthermore, the criticism of the author towards his homeland can be interpreted as a feeling of closeness, of involvement, of care and missing, nostalgia and a hope for a better future.

In the end, however, it’s not Matvejević who is putting the Balkans on a trial, it is the rest of the international community who is asking uneasy questions. Matvejević’s questions to the reader are,  the ones that many countries posed when the madness of the ’90s Balkan wars exploded. In fact, regarding Milosević’s trial, the author asks:

“Perché Milošević deve essere giudicato all’estero, da giudici che non parlano la sua lingua, in una città olandese scelta dalle Nazioni Unite, dentro una prigione sterilizzata, automatizzata, ultramoderna, invece che da giudici serbi, dentro un carcere belgradese dove i rumori e gli odori della vita balcanica scavalcano le porte e le finestre e arrivano fino alla cella dell’imputato? […] Veramente la giustizia serba è inferiore a quella di altri paesi sparsi in Europa e nel resto del mondo?”(12)

Today Serbia, together with the other former Jugoslavian republics, is facing the utmost difficult obstacle of overcoming their past. “Ghost that we weren’t able to bury”, as Matvejević says in a subtitle of his oeuvre. Although a part of the world is currently speaking instead (and in the name of the Balkans), the fundamental question is when will the Balkan themselves find the ability to take the constructive criticism and act. That day, probably, people like Karađić and Mladić would have already been judged and sentenced by foreign tribunals supporting the non-genuine nationalism. That same nationalism so brilliantly criticized by Matvejević in his current work. And then, hopefully, he will be remembered as one of the first grasping and naming the core of the problem from such an internal/external perspective.

[1]P. MATVEJEVIĆ, Breviario Mediterraneo, Zagreb, 1987.
[2]Among the others, we mention the estimable effort made by the local author CVIJĆ, Peninsule Balcanique, Paris, 1918, whose compoeuvre inspired and resuted as a fundamental basis for further research.
[3]P. BOCK, Modern cultural anthropology, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1969; Italian edition: Antropologia culturale moderna, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino, 1978, pg.476. Translation: “the anthropologist has certain responsibilities towards his profession. As a social scientist, he has to use his critical intelligence, to chose authentic and origianl social topics worth to be research upon, and to continue the research with energy and imagination. […] Moreover, the anthropologist has the responsibility to work for an integrated science of mankind”.
[4]C. MAGRIS, Matvejević, triste farsa di una condanna, Corriere della Sera, Milan, 8.XI.2005.
[5] B. MALINOWSKI, Argonauts of the Western Pacific, Routledge, London, 1999.
[6]P. MATVEJEVIĆ, Confini e frontiere, p.79 Trieste, 2008.
[7]It is well known that C. BOEHM produces one of its most appreciated oeuvres on the Montenegrin society based on research held yet at the end of the ’60: C. BOHEM, Montenegrin Social Organization and Values, political ethnography of a refuge area tribal adaptation, New York, 1983.
[8]M.D. SAHLINS, The Segmentary Lineage: an Organization of Predatory Expansion, in American Anthropologist, vol. LXII, 1961, pg. 327.
[9]Homeostasis (from Greek: ὅμοιος, hómoios, “similar” and στάσις, stásis, “standing still”; defined by Claude Bernard and later by W.B. CANON in 1926,1929 and 1932) is the property of a system, either open or closed, that regulates its internal environment and tends to maintain a stable, constant condition.W.B CANON, Organization For Physiological Homeostasis. Physiol Rev. 1929; 9: 399-431.
[10] MATVEJEVIĆ, ibid, pg.43-100.
[11]MATVEJEVIĆ, ibid, pg 113-133.
[12]MATVEJEVIC, ibid,  pg 96-97. Translation: “Why Milošević has to be judged abroad, by judges who don’t speak his language, in a Dutch city chosen by the UN, in a sterilized, automatized, ultramodern prison, instead of being judged by Serbian judges, inside a Belgrade prison, where sounds and smells of Balkan life overwhelm doors and windows and arrive till the accused’s cell? […] Is Serbian justice inferior compared to the ones of other countries in Europe and in the rest of the world?”

Log on the idiot nationalist


F.: Younger i suppose

J.: Yes
He’s very positive, very sunny person
And I was talking to him and my aunt
They’re going on sea vacation for the first time in 20 years alone, without the kids 

F.: Sounds like a revolution

J.: Yes, the moment when the kids fly out of the family

F.: Check this out!
That’s what I am doing while talking with you 😛
Check the comments 

J.: Saw them
Thats what I call online debate
Ma bravo dear

F.: The guy is an *****

J.: He is

F.: But is nice to talk with those guys from time to time

J.: Typical ignorant nationalist

F.: And you know what? There is really a lot of people thinking like this!
And their beliefs are no less “real” then others
Which makes people like him a “factor”, to be studied and took in consideration
Can you understand now the huge damage made by people like Karadzic, Milosevic, Cosic and other “theoreticians”?
It’s something that will last generations, and influence far too many Serbians for long…

J.: Oh yes, the memories are too fresh and too vivid yet
And very painful, even
So, extreme positions are frequent

F.: It’s not just about memories
This guy most probably is a 30-something
For how vivid his memories can be, he can’t have been a protagonist of the war
Which makes him exactly the example of the situation I am talking about: you don’t need to have lived under Milosevic or Karadzic to be a nationalist.
Their constructions are so rooted in people that the rotten fruits are still growing

J.: Yes, because its transmitted and multiplied in family, school, neighborhood, in books etc etc etc
You cant cut it at once

F.: Exactly
But even worst, you can’t de-legitimize the beliefs of people following the nationalist path, since it is sincere, in a way…
The only way to undermine their legitimacy is by condemning the creators of the fake believes.
But condemn them AT HOME…

J.: Exactly! You can tell them they feel something wrong….
You as an outsider

F.: By so the Serbian society would be forced to entertain a serious analysis of its past.

“Improved situation”: Serbia

Along with the International Crisis Group monthly report “Crisis Watch” (the same bulletin which caused an immense warning over Bosnian referendum situation a month ago, without taking in consideration the fact that the referendum was simply a new phenomenon of a situation that thew Dayton Agreements didn’t managed to resolve in 15 years…), after the capture of Gen. Mladic, the situation in Serbia has improved.

What does “improved” means?
ICG monitors the situation in several world countries afflicted by any kind of conflict, both at the military or political level. To cut it short, the good part of this analysis is that it provides a quick an up-to-date panorama of the last events and also a (very) general history of the whole crisis.
However, the analysis is focused on merely political/economical/military aspects, lacking of any social analysis, thus mis-interprets the actual situation in Serbia, which, by my modest point of view, it is not so clearly and incontrovertibly “increased”.

As demonstrated by the protest against Mladic extradition, a huge portion of Serbia’s public opinion it is still linked to the idea of nationalism carried by the former political elite, of which Mladic was, in the end, the “armed arm”. This idea of nation, as carried by Karadzic, Milosevic and some well known Serbian literates, it is still strong and hard to eradicate. Most of Western actors refers to this nationalism as “sick”, against history flow, or simply fake. Although the products of such nationalism could be surely condemned as violent, the same nationalism, as a genuine believe of part of the population, can’t be referred as sick by foreign actors. The judgement over those matters remains an exclusive of Serbians.

The reactions after the capture of Gen. Mladic were extremely strong by every international actor, especially by the European Union. DG Enlargement’s Commissioner Fuele welcomed the capture far before the President of the Commission Barroso. The strong engagement demonstrated towards the Balkans in the last month by Ashton also resulted in a very welcoming reaction towards Serbia. Such a warm welcome is “The Welcome” Serbia is waiting since years? I don’t think so.

Goran Hadzic is still absconder. Along with the last reports made public by the Commission, Serbian juridical system has several systemical problems that has to be solved before joining the EU. The path seems to be longer then expected. However the political pressure put on Serbian public opinion by the international reactions to Mladic capture may lead to a “huge misunderstanding”: Serbia seems not to be ready yet, but the EU is “welcoming” every step made by the actual government towards Brussels.

Brammertz’s last words on Serbian collaboration with the UN established tribunal were highly critical. Days ago the UNSC discussed, together with Brammertz, how Serbian authorities collaborated with the UN Chief prosecutor. Despite the capture of Mladic, Brammertz analysis won’t be of any good for Serbia…

Is the EU is satisfied?
Also days ago, UN News service reported that the war crimes tribunal are facing stuffing crisis as the end of their mandate is approaching. Along with this information, the two tribunals does not have enough personnel in order to decently continue their work untill their mandate is supposed to expire, in 2014, fulfilling UNSC Resolutions. The same tribunal is demanding direct and immediate support from member states, in order to stop this institutional crisis. But why this situation is taking place? Will this represent an obstacle for the prosecution of further suspected war criminals? Would this situation lead to a slow, never ending trial against the old Mladic? Is the UNSC trying to disengage from the tribunal, since the most of the job has been done?

Those amount of question arose also thinking at the last reports made by the EU towards Serbian accession to the Union. Will the European Union be satisfied with the “mere” capture of Mladic or it will take a look also the outcome of the trial (and the further collaboration of Serbian authorities with the tribunal)? Taking in consideration the news about the current crisis within the ICTY, the second scenario looks like the nth frustration factor the Serbian government will be forced to face in order to comply with its international duties…

Linkage theory – Serbian style
A Kosovar Albanian political analyst smartly affirmed that after Mladic capture Tadic will likely put more pressure on Kosovo, pushing for a solution of the controversy in favor of Serbia. Moreover, certain international campaigns and independent researches (like Carla Del Ponte attempt to organize an independent task force investigating the possible traficking of organs and people in Kosovo) are creating a general mistrust towards Kosovo leadership. Yesterday EU established its own task force with purposes similar to the Del Ponte’s proposition, thus investigating on possible organ trafficking, which could involve also Thaci.
More pressure on Pristina means by definition a more active and aggressive role of Belgrade.

How this can be referred as an “increased” situation by the ICG remains unclear.