Miki and Kiki: an epistolary novel

Heloise-Abelard.jpgIf you read this blog, then you already know about the interesting post-election political developments in Croatia. Following on a result that saw the two largest parties more or less tied, with a surprisingly large vote going to a protest party composed of dilettantes and small-scale egomaniacs, a presidential attempt to stage a coup and impose a “non-party” government under her control was avoided, and the protest party eventually decided, after several feints left and right, to form a coalition with the right-wing HDZ, a party that has spent the last several years systematically undoing the small steps to respectability that it took after the death of its founder, Franjo Tudjman. HDZ proceeded to form a government of the type that an extremist party that won an overwhelming majority would form, with its leader, “deputy” prime minister Tomislav Karamarko, taking every opportunity to promise a large-scale revolution that encompasses policing of political orientation, private thoughts, culture, and the tendency of people to be critical toward his party.

The illusion of coalition was maintained by naming as prime minister a pharmaceuticals marketer who carries no political weight whatsoever and lacks as much in political support and experience as he does in political skills. Tim “Tihomir” Orešković lost no time in demonstrating that the members of his government ask him about nothing and that his level of proficiency in his native language would not allow him to understand them if they did. He may or may not have known that he appointed a minister of veterans’ affairs who promised to maintain a “registry of traitors” and a minister of culture with the most interesting ideas about fascist martyrdom. But has there ever been a reaction against the people who did know and had no fear of saying so. To get a taste of how the supporters of Croatian Kulturkampf respond to being criticised, have a look at the messages of support they get at sites like the Facebook page dedicated to loyalty to Zlatko Hasanbegović, the very minor historian with fascinating sympathies who has become minister of culture.

Aware that they are surrounded by critics, the politicians on the right have decided to behave as though they were surrounded by enemies. As a result, over the course of a few weeks it has been easy to observe an escalation of tension and intolerance not seen since the war period, when a multicultural cartel of ex-Communists discovered that hatred and far-right populism could be a very profitable career indeed.

Among the people who noticed this was Milorad Pupovac, the mild-mannered linguist who is president of the minority party the Serbian National Council (SNV). Pupovac has been as “loyal” a minority as it is possible to be, representing the interests of Serbs to the government in a non-militant way during the conflict years, and lending his party’s support to form governments both left and right in the period of free elections after 2000. His party and the party’s magazine Novosti  maintain a consistently critical stance toward the behaviour of the state, balanced by a commitment to its institutions and to their democratic character. As a reward for this he is regularly the object of attacks like this one, where he is labelled “a fifth columnist of philochetnik provenance.” People in public life become accustomed to this kind of marginalising rhetoric, but it is another matter when the target is expanded well beyond them. So Pupovac expressed his concerns in a letter to the president of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović (it was intended to be a private letter, but when news of it leaked then Novosti published the full text).

In his letter Pupovac notes that “in the past few weeks I have followed the growing atmosphere of intolerance and messages of hatred directed at political, ethnic and other minorities in our country.” He goes on to say that “the tolerance and recognition of differences in politics and identity that has taken years, even decades to build, is being destroyed before our eyes and threatens to endanger the basic achievements of democracy, political stability and social security in our country.”

He then details a series of attacks in which several people, himself included, have been recently threatened, verbally abused, subject to acts of vandalism, and targeted by racist language, observing that “the objects of this language are not the people who lied continually and still lie, nor the people who stole continually and still steal, or the people who actually did kill or encourage people to kill, but rather people who in a variety of ways have dedicated their activity and a good part of their lives to a struggle against all that.”

And he goes on to develop his political argument: “I am writing to ask – what political or party-based reason is there that can justify the renewed production of enmity, intolerance, hatred and possibly violence in the places that we live and in the country in general? […] What good can this bring to any individual or to the country?” Perhaps not expecting a reply, he adds, “Nobody’s failure to respond to the need to answer these questions and to address them openly will be respected, now or in the future, as corresponding to the obligations of people like us who have pledged fealty to the constitution and have the duty to preserve the best of what we have inherited and also to protect our society from the worst things that come from the same inheritance.”

Following a series of negative responses to news reports about Pupovac’s letter, the Croatian Journalists’ Association (HND) sent its own letter asking, “Dear President of the Republic, what has HND done to deserve to be attacked with fascist methods?”

As it turns out, the president responded very quickly – and publicly, with the text made available, letterhead and all, at the presidency web site. The letter is detailed and fascinating for a number of reasons, but not least because of the psychological portrait it offers of the group of people exercising political power. Let me try to break down the main themes for you, although for reasons that will become apparent I will have to do so without using any ‘journalistic’ or ‘artistic’ freedom, or ‘satire.’

  1. Your social frustrations are like my personal frustrations. In responding to Pupovac’s description of people attacked for their ethnic identity or political stance, Grabar-Kitarović notes that she has been opposed by her political opponents. Or as she puts it in her letter, “I largely agree with your contention that intolerance has grown in Croatian society. I felt this especially strongly immediately after my return to Croatia in September 2014 [in order to be a candidate for the presidency — EDG] … returning to Zagreb, I felt a great disappointment and concern because Croatia had obviously gone backward with respect to mutual recognition and respect. I was very unpleasantly surprised by the overall pessimism and low level of political communication, as by the inappropriate and irresponsible ways in which people were labelled. I felt the need to say so openly even then. Unfortunately, I experienced that atmosphere of intolerance right on the night of the first round of elections when the former prime minister uttered the sentence, ‘It’s us or them’.” The former prime minister, now (still) head of the opposition Social Democratic Party (SDP) makes another appearance in the letter, raising a question whether the president is certain about who she is writing to.
  2. Whatever happens to you is your fault, or your former coalition partner’s, whatever. The letter continues with an effort to kick the ball down the court, tracing intolerance in the present to the intensity of political opposition in the past, and once more, apparently, telling Pupovac that the (original) source of his misery is the former prime minister Zoran Milanović. Or as the president puts it, “So, if we want to talk about the causes that have led to the ‘the growth of intolerance and the strengthening of hate speech,’ we cannot avoid radicalizing messages and we have to ask how much they have lent courage to people who think alike, and to people who do not, to act similarly. Because of that, my dear Mr Pupovac, while agreeing with you that intolerance has grown in Croatia, I nonetheless have to say that this process did not begin ‘after the formation and confirmation of the new government,’ but much earlier. Unfortunately that rhetoric has a long history, so the president of what is now the largest opposition party displays arrogance and insolence as, he says, the only language that ‘some people’ understand, and promises that he will ‘give us hell.’ In that regard it is necessary to ask whether your personal negative experiences might not be, after all, at least in part a consequence of the production of ideological and orientational tension that has been going on, intentionally or not, for years?”
  3. The victims of intolerance are more intolerant than we are. The president moves on to the cases that Pupovac has offered as instances of intolerant attacks, and finds them to be unworthy victims. An objective analysis would reveal that they have been asking to be attacked for a long time. Or in the president’s words, “In your letter you mention as victims of ‘threats and outbreaks of hate speech’ several public figures and organisations. I condemn these acts along with you. But I am nonetheless obligated to point out that among the people you have mentioned there are several who have for years, through their public activity, provoked, irritated, and insulted the greater part of Croatian public opinion, who have inaccurately portrayed and even ridiculed the Homeland War and, fundamentally, deny reality, and implicitly the very idea of the Croatian state, creating around themselves an atmosphere of tension, exclusivity, and intolerance. I do not say this in order to justify insults and threats toward those people, which I consider unacceptable. But nonetheless I believe that in judging undesirable phenomena, taking into account in particular that in the past years the bodies of state authority have not once reacted to their ridicule and provocation, it is necessary to be objective.”
  4. There are victims that have not been mentioned, such as fascists and women. The president continues by bringing forward examples in which she and the members of her family have been victims of intolerance. To wit: “How would you categorise, for example, what happened to a member of my immediate family recently in the middle of Rijeka, when a passerby spat at him and called him an ‘ustaša’? I am certain that you will agree with me that this act is not an expression of tolerance. Somebody negatively radicalised the person who did that. Is it possible that that person is hiding behind the words ‘tolerance’ and ‘coexistence’? But that is not the only form of intolerance. Personally, I have the unfortunate everyday experience that people discriminate against me in their statements and comments simply because I am a woman.” Here it becomes difficult to follow the president’s reasoning. There is one statement that is undoubtedly true – that she is frequently the object of demeaning rhetoric because of her gender – and one statement that is nebulous, involving somebody else being attacked for something they are most likely not, and attributing a set of motives to another person who is unknown. Let’s split the difference and figure that she is arguing that not all hatred is ethnic.
  5. What is with you minorities, why do you keep threatening us? There follows a set of arguments indicating that minorities of all types need to exercise greater self-control, and to be sensitive to the fact that members of the majority feel threatened by them. In this section the president argues for balance, declaring that “in the same way we have to condemn acts that are directed against the equality, security, and dignity of political, ethnic, and other minorities in Croatia, we also have to condemn all acts that insult the Croatian people or any other majority community.” In a stranger turn, she goes on to dismiss in advance a number of the cultural covers under which provocation may travel, arguing that “obvious provocation and abuse of the national feelings of the Croatian people and the large majority of Croatian citizens who love their country cannot be called ‘performance,’ defended as expressions of ‘journalistic’ or ‘artistic’ freedom, or labeled as ‘satire’.” It is not clear what brought this on, though it could be a response to Pupovac raising in his letter attacks against Oliver Frljić, the politically engaged theatre director who is quite taken with Brecht’s alienation effect. But she groups him together with more traditional political activists as she continues, condemning “organisations and individuals who consider themselves to be the protectors of democracy and tolerance.”

The president’s letter concludes with a strange polemical point, a tendentious demand, and a concession. First she poses a rhetorical question: “I am obligated ask whether ‘totalitarian methods’ are exclusively Fascist? Why do we always avoid condemning Communism?” Then she declares that she expects “from everybody, but especially the people mentioned here, to oppose provocation and irritation of all kinds.” Finally she offers to engage in a discussion on intolerance if the representatives of minority political parties will organise it.

The exchange is currently high on the list of tabloid headlines in Croatia, but it is especially interesting for what it reveals about the thinking processes of people who are exercising political power based on a conception of national representativeness and are consumed by the view that majorities are threatened. Meanwhile, it seems that Pupovac is now intending to send another letter to the president. In it we presume that he will be neither provocative nor irritating, and will keep in mind that she is not fond of overly ambitious satire.