History Never Repeats Itself – An interview

An interview with Ana Vujanović by Olia Sosnovskaya
Berlin, November 2020

pARTisankA, A magazine for contemporary Belarusian culture, No. 35 ‘Your past — our future?’, 2021

In the midst of the ongoing political crisis and uprising in Belarus, which brings many hopes and desires, there is an urge to think about the complex temporalities and geographies of political struggles. Olia Sosnovskaya talks to Ana Vujanović, a cultural worker in the fields of contemporary performing arts and culture: researcher, dramaturge, writer and lecturer, based in Berlin and Belgrade. The interview turns to the not so distant turbulent history of Yugoslavia and Serbia, the political change and its aftermaths. Given the differences in the Soviet and Yugoslav systems, moving across geographies and histories might be crucial for understanding the present moment and for articulation of the demands and political imaginaries of the common futures. It addresses the relation between cultural and political practices and the power of performance art and theory in approaching the complex, multiple and fluid forms of civil resistance.


Olia Sosnovskaya: During the protests and political events which eventually led to the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, did anti-Milošević critique have a particular political agenda or there was rather a strong general discontent with and rejection of the current regime, without a clear program? Was there any space and time for reflection of the ongoing resistance? If so, what were those spaces and how they became possible? I am interested in that in the context of the current uprising in Belarus, where it is hard to formulate any detailed political program for the period after Lukashenko, and there are of course certain reasons for that.

Ana Vujanović: During the 1990s I lived in Belgrade and was attending high school and then university, so it was time of my own political awakening. It started quite early in my life, as a political and social shock, since the change in former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s was so radical and brutal that it shook the whole world in which we lived. What started as a modernization in the form of the transition towards a multi-party political system and a series of negotiations about the Yugoslav federation, soon after turned into nationalist hysteria and civil wars, bloody dissolution of the country with the death of 140,000 people, displacement of 2.4 million refugees, criminal privatization of the state and social property, impoverishment of people, media blockage, and on top of all that, the sanctions of the international community with caused a physical and mental isolation. It was impossible to stay neutral or politically indifferent. However, although I was myself ‘against the regime of Milošević’ and took part in all demonstrations in Belgrade, I was pretty young and only during the 2000s I retrospectively started understanding the whole chaos of the previous decade. Given that, what I will answer to this and the following questions is colored with my own indignation and politicization, which in the 2010s crystalized as democratic socialist and feminist standpoints.

So, speaking about anti-Milošević critique in general, I would agree that in the 1990s it was predicated on the discontent and resistance towards his regime, rather than on a unique political program. This however doesn’t mean that the individual political groups gathered around that critique were not clear and from this vantage point I can identify: an enlightened social-democratic critique, a nationalist critique, and a neoliberal-democratic critique. Since Slobodan Milošević himself was a miserable and unsuccessful politician, whose regime humiliated and devastated the country and the people they ruled, he provoked discontent in divergent oppositional parties as well as among politically disinterested, so-called ordinary people and youngsters, who just wanted a better life. Only socialists were not among them. But not because Milošević was a socialist!

OS: In Belarus, most of the people who criticise Lukashenko see him to incarnate the Soviet system, which they equate to everything negative in any sphere. Which is obviously not accurate. If we could say that Slobodan Milošević was a head of Yugoslavia and then Serbia in its transition from socialism to capitalism, was there a similar attitude in the society? Could one say that his politics discredited socialism?

AV: Absolutely! That regime totally dismissed it from the political scene in Serbia for twenty years. But it has been a multifaceted process. The socialist regime of Yugoslavia was already in the late 1980s criticized by various social, political, and intellectual groups, for difficult economic situation, lack of democratic processes and civil involvement in the governing structures, privileges of the top-ranked functioners, and for its inability to resolve national tensions between constituting nations and republics, especially Albanian population at Kosovo. In addition, Milošević himself came from a socialist political milieu and at the beginning of his political career, before becoming the president of Serbia (1989) and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (1997), he was the president of the presidency of the Serbian League of Communists (SKS) (1986) and then its descendent, Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) (1990). Its coalition partner, Yugoslav United Left (JUL), in which Mirjana Marković, Milošević’s wife was involved, was also of a left-wing orientation. At least – declaratively. But although both parties claimed to be left-wing and gather socialists, social democrats, democratic socialists, and communists, in reality their politics was nationalist, statist, and ‘warist’, all along non-transparent and criminal privatization of the state and social property by the ‘tycoons’ who were close to the parties or their members. Since the politics of SPS and JUL was so detrimental and unsuccessful, but still using socialist and communist rhetoric, if and when needed, it discarded socialist political agenda as a serious social perspective.
In that light, it is for instance interesting to recall the alternative cultural and artistic scene in the 1990s, which was clearly anti-regime, which means anti-war, anti-nationalism, anti-repression and a lack of democracy, anti-censorship, etc. However, the alternative was commonly predicated on a soft and enlightened liberalism concerned with individual freedoms, human rights, and global perspectives, and to a large extent neglected the devastation of the social property and criminal privatization, which belong to common socialist concerns. An aesthetician from Serbia, Miško Šuvaković, invented a cynical name for that type of art – ‘Soros-realism’, pointing to the fact that it was systematically financed by The Open Society Foundation founded by George Soros and thus supposedly also advancing Soros’s neoliberal social-political and economic agenda. Artists themselves would probably never agree with that, but structurally – I’m speaking of the societal structure or the basis – they might have contributed to this agenda.

OS: How such militant nationalism became possible in the internationalist socialist state, which Yugoslavia used to be? Do you see any anti-nationalist alternatives in the post-socialisms? Are any legacies of the non-aligned movement, for example, still relevant in the present?

AV: It was so-called nationalism of ‘small differences’, meaning that the nationalist tensions and conflicts existed within the state, among the constituting nations and their religions, to a greater extent than towards other nations worldwide. Probably many external factors influenced that wave of nationalism, but at the same time, the social climate in the late 1980s in Serbia already became nationalist, and apart from Milošević I need to mention here a big role played by writers, philosophers, and intellectuals, such as Dobrica Ćosić, who made a long passage from being a socialist politician to being a dissident in a socialist state towards being a Serbian nationalist.
In any case, it is a long and complex history and I am not capable of giving an overarching answer here, so I would just add that anti-nationalist alternatives certainly exist in the post-socialist countries and the most powerful one is the democratic and internationalist socialist movement. In former Yugoslavia and Southeast Europe it has grown prominent especially after the economic crisis in 2008. It operates in different forms, such as political parties (The Left in Slovenia, the Bulgarian Left, The Party of the Radical Left in Serbia, Workers’ Front and New Left in Croatia, etc.), Internet portals (Critic Atac in Romania, Mašina / Machine in Serbia), activist movements (Pravo na grad / Right to the city in Zagreb, Lenka and Solidarnost / Solidarity in Macedonia, Krov nad glavom / The Roof Over Our Heads in Serbia, Crna kuća / Black House CK 13 in Novi Sad, etc.), cultural-artistic initiatives (like BLOK and WHW in Zagreb), artists (among others, Adela Jušić, Darinka Pop-Mitić, Filip Jovanovski, Kurs, Marta Popivoda, Milica Ružičić, Nika Autor, Želimir Žilnik, etc.), as well as regional initiatives (such as left-wing declaration “Regional Solidarity” at the territory of former Yugoslavia). These forces and practices are still marginal in our societies but their prominence will only grow in the future, along with growing class differences and capitalist exploitation, that traverse national borders.

OS: In your texts, in particular the article “The ‘Black Wave’ in the Yugoslav Slet: The 1987 and 1988 Day of Youth“ (TkH no. 21, 2013) and the book Public Sphere by Performance (written with Bojana Cvejic, b_books: Berlin, 2015 [2012]) you study the concept of social choreography, introduced by Andrew Hewitt, and use it to speak about ideology and its embodiment in late Yugoslavia through the tradition and practice of mass performances at sport stadiums (“slets”). You also note, referring to Hewitt, that the operation of a certain social choreography only becomes visible, and available for the critique, retroactively or in the moment of ruptures. However, is it possible to register a specific social choreography of post-socialism?

AV: In my research I am interested in the ‘social drama’ (a Victor Turner’s notion), rather than Hewitt’s ‘social choreography’ and Siegfred Kracauer’s ‘mass ornaments’. In the research projects on the public sphere today, which I carried out together with Bojana Cvejic and Marta Popivoda, we merged these two phenomena – and analytical tools – into what we call ‘social dramaturgy’. So, theoretically speaking, while social choreography instills an order and patterns (modes, models, and ‘ornaments’) of behavior in the public sphere, at the workplace, and in private life as well (for instance, shopping in the malls, sunbathing at beaches, even dinning rituals), social drama (public protests, big social crises, revolutions, massive strikes, etc.) disrupts that order and in the moment of disruptions the society becomes aware of the patterns of that order as embodiment of certain ideology. But for a scholar or an artist with a good political perception and intuition, the patterns should have been visible even in the period of their operation. So if we take the analytical perspective of the social dramaturgy on post-socialism, we can notice street protests and occupations of the universities as a predominant way of expressing political discontent with neoliberal capitalist governments and policies, which indicates a distrust in the representative democracy and its institutions. We can also notice a lack of massive strikes, which speaks to a weakness of today’s unions and a general individualist ideology that is not easy to beat with old socialist methods. And I would add here a polarization of the public sphere between new, leftist and liberal-leftist groups, including green and LBGTIQ+ activists, on the one hand and, on the other, neo-conservative groups, which try to restore a patriarchal, national and often nationalist, and Christian community, that is imagined as a lost root of the society which had existed before the malady of socialism and communism. Polish artist Artur Żmijewski depicted these phenomena in several of his works, especially Democracies (2009) and Them (2007). Although I think that social choreographies of post-socialism are similar to many others in today’s globalized neoliberal capitalist world, here we see that there are still some specificities, coming from divergent histories and a disrupted history of socialism in particular.

OS: In the introduction to the volume which you co-edited with Livia Andrea Piazza A Live Gathering: Performance and politics in contemporary Europe, you write that in Western representative democracies, “public space is not the main site of politics” and that “live gathering of people in public is irrelevant”. Many in Belarus, which is obviously not a democracy, believed that as soon as a great mass of people gathers on the streets to protest — the government will resign. But it didn’t happen so far. Do you think that in the post-socialist non-democratic regimes public demonstrations also don’t have political power anymore? Are there perhaps any other more significant and effective forms of public assemblies, collective gestures or choreographies, which are able to bring political change?

AV: I agree with you, but non-democratic societies are not my theoretical focus in that book. My concern is democracy and I try to understand what is performance to democracy and vice versa. It is so because I believe in democracy and, at the same time, I see that it often malfunctions. Therefore, my claim that in Western representative democracies, “public space is not the main site of politics” and that “live gathering of people in public is irrelevant”, doesn’t imply that in other political regimes public space and gathering do matter. In Belarus they certainly don’t, but I don’t even have that expectation, while I expect it from democracy; it is a promise that the people govern their society and because of that their gatherings, where they discuss and imagine their society must matter. Richard Sennett illustratively explained that through the theatre in democratic Athens and the circus in ancient Rome. Belarus is here like Rome: people can gather and do whatever they want in public, it doesn’t affect the country’s politics because the power structure is hidden far from the people and the public sphere. It is out of their reach. While in democracy, for instance in the European Union today, it shouldn’t be like that, because those people who gather, they should be the power, the power over themselves. However, representative democracy seems to be so much professionalized, procedural, and bureaucratic that in its process of representation the voices of people get lost. That is why the political weakness and irrelevance of theatre today can be a place where we can address that democracy and ask: What does matter to our democracy if people don’t?

OS: In the light of the ongoing protests in Belarus, I have a feeling that maybe in the spaces like this gathering of people in public doesn’t matter for the state institutes to the extent of having an immediate effect or brining groundbreaking changes, but in the political sense on the level of society and subjects, they seem to me even more meaningful and powerful than in the demoscratic societies.

AV: I understand and empathize with your standpoint and belief; however, in my experience, what we – people of Serbia protesting for democracy – did at the street was consolidation of a democratic social community, which, when it got institutionalized in the early 2000s turned out to be a standard representative democratic and neoliberal capitalist society, for which gatherings of people doesn’t mean much. Given that, I find it important to contextualize our deeds and historicize the very present moment, in order to understand the surrounding framework, which determines our actions and deeds. Relying on Turner’s notion of communitas here, I would say that in the modern society an open and rudimentary democracy seems to exist only in the periods of crisis, in-between old and new order, while it is a part of a historical and global phenomenon which is called neoliberal capitalism and representative democracy – unless! you deliberately reflect on it and opt for another direction. Paradoxically, Lukashenko has stayed in power for so long, that you have learnt a lot by doing about your protests, your needs and hopes, and your democracy. Since I believe that history never repeats itself since the world is always at least a little bit different, I keep a tiny space in my political imagination that you are building a democracy which in the future won’t forget you.