How would you write the perfect book? Start with an ever interesting topic - Yugoslavia at war with itself. Continue with finding an unique angle to describe it, and then do that in a way that keeps readers spellbound throughout 278 pages.
That is exactly what Matthew Collin does in the book This is Serbia calling where he tells the story of B92 - the Belgrade underground radio station that became the center
of resistance against the Milosevic regime in the 90's.
The yugoslav wars continue to fascinate readers. The war ended in 1995 and Milosevic fell in 2000, but the topic remains relevant to anyone trying to understand southeastern Europe.
Much has already been written on the subject. Collin's ingenious take is to focus on a well known radio station. It is all about the social history of a country at war, but nothing about it is academic. In some ways it resembles one of Scorsese's rock'n'roll documentaries - easy to read or watch, but dull an interchangeable.But while every band has the same story - the are not famous, they get famous, they get bored with what they do and when they get old enough they miss their youth. A radio station is something else. It has a different dynamic, but the smell of rock'n'roll is still there. At least if you write about a station that commented Milosevic's totalitarian politics with White Riot by the Clash and Fight the power by Public enemy.
Collins is a highly merited journalist, and as a writer he excells in the kind of storytelling that makes my knees soft. It is all about keeping it simple, without keeping it short.
I have only read about one sixth of the book, but so far three things strike me: how little I know, that everything could have been so much different, and how the powers that lead to the yugoslav catastrophe are obvious all over the Balkans.
The wars in former Jugoslavia played a huge role in my personal histoty. They occupied news in the years when my interest in the world arond me awakened - I was 10 years when Ljubljana was bombed, and 19 when NATO bombed Belgrade. It is beyond doubt that these stories affected how I, and many with me, see the world.
In spite of months in front of the TV and weeks of newspaper- and book reading, there is so much I didn't know. As I remember, the war was either explained with the evils of communism, the evil Serbian people or the eternal ethnical hatred on the Balkans. Many people hated Milosevic but very few bothered to describe how he came to power in Serbia - against the will of many citizens.
It could have been so much different. Milosevic was an usurpator, that manoeuvred with skill in a moment of uncertainity. In spite of his communist background, he didn't inherit his power in post-Communist Serbia as did Iliescu in Romania. He took it, but in the spring betweenn 1989 and 1990 many people, at least in Belgrade, thaught that history would push the former Yugoslavia towards democracy. Serbia's history offers many explanation, but Collins constantly remind us about is that Milosevic was not just any politician. He knew very well how to use mass media to achieve his ends, and was not afraid to do so If Milosevic had been just a grey party official, communism could have faded away like elswhere in eastern Europe, and the eternal balcanic hatred could have stayed historical.
B92 represented a formidable threat to Milosevic, because they gradually became the only voice of a group that would never conform to his agenda - the urban, cosmopolitan and highly educated youth. Here the story gets disturbingly relevant - isn't this the same opposition that we still see in any south east european country?
In Moldova the urban youth faced a real dictator (who is not half as witty as was Milosevic). The Bulgarian youth face something quite different - a corrupted establishment that monopolizes power but sees no interest in old fashioned totalitarianism.
This establishment is more or less identical - a highly debatable relation to the country's communist past, a wealth that was more or less openly gathered with criminal means, connections with organised crime, and a kind of watered down nationalism. The young intelligentia is often the only group that can voice any kind of legitimate alternative, but they are not alone in opposing the government.
Collin decribes the happenings of 9th of March 1990, when Milosevic's police fought and ultimaltely defeated its opponents in the streets of Belgrade. He describes an odd coalition of forces that makes no sense at all - liberal youth, hard core nationalists, football hooligans and other professional troublemakers.
I remember when Bulgarian police fought demonstrators 14/1 2009 (PDF link). Also then the government faced the same weird collection of people - the best and the worst people in the country. Environmentalists together with neo-fascists and football hooligans. Maybe this is more than a simple coincidence. Maybe the polticial forces that led Serbia into the abyss are present also in Bulgaria, albeit on a different scale. Or maybe not - I am not qualified to answer that question.
The Balkans is not a white area on the map any more, but very much of what is written still deals with the basic questions, in the west as well as in local productions. Much is still not known about this part of Europe. Like the history of football hooliganism, and its role in society. Or how youth in cities like Novi Sad or Nis responded to Milosevic. Change is under way, but painfully slow. The Bulgarian film Istochni Piesi touches on the topic of football hooliganism in Bulgaria, but the topic deserves books. Much is written about how discriminated roma populations are, but where are the books asking what role roma actually play as political gun fodder and underpayed labour?
We need a new kind of (English) litterature about the balkans. A litterature that dares being unpolite and rude, lookin for answers to the tough questions. Collins book is a fantastic contribution to such a litterature.