Belgrade: Conflict of two (and a half) worlds

When strolling the streets of Belgrade, it is impossible to avoid reflection about the absurdity of war and the different paths this part of Europe could have taken. Romanticising the past comes instinctively. On the one hand because the same nationalist, patriarchal, divisive discourse, aesthetics and symbols are still used by the same shadowy elites that have ruled the country through war and destruction for the past thirty years, at best dressing themselves in new clothes. On the other hand, because the prospect of EU accession is as far as ever and the prospect of reuniting the former conflicting sides is obstructed both on the level of regional cooperation and on the level of European integration. 

In appearance, Belgrade has recovered from the 90s. It is a normal European capital whose dark and bright heritage are effortlessly identified. Even under the current authoritarian regime the city buzzes with cultural life. A big part of it is centred around the wars and Yugoslavia, creating a web that informs, stimulates and inspires, celebrating collective memory and remembrance. At least partially, this relates to the willingness of international donors to wash away their responsibility for the debacle of the 90s. Obviously, this tendency towards critical reflection and introspection is neither universal nor supported by the state. The city also enthusiastically embraces a luben, turbo-folk culture and the roles and aesthetics that come with it while schools either disregard or consciously distort history, maintaining a discourse of nationalism, division and otherness.

This cultural division is clearly reflected in politics. A part of the Serbian society endorses nationalist discourses or tolerates authoritarianism provided it comes along with access to state resources through clientelist networks or benefits from macroeconomic stability or growth. Another part consistently shows resilience against authoritarianism fostering a human-centred, value-based discourse and pursues a critical view of the past. Finally, a third part – with blurry and wavering borders with the other two – appears to be disengaged, apathetic and ignorant about history and politics. This younger and most diverse group woke up in shock and despair after two mass shootings that took place at Vladislav Ribnikar Model Elementary School and in Mladenovac and Smederevo in early May 2023. Massive demonstrations in Belgrade and all other big Serbian cities show that there is common ground for democratically thinking, justice-seeking citizens to explore and that an exit from the labyrinth of the 1990s is there to be fought over.

These were the main topics of Inter Alia’s talk with Igor Stiks at the margins of the exhibition “Labyrinth of the 90s” that he co-authored. 

Labyrinth of the 1990s – Igor Stiks, writer, political theorist and co-author of the exhibition, talks to Nikos Papakostas, co-founder of Inter Alia

As a co-author of the exhibition, you decided to call it “Labyrinth”. The exhibition looks indeed like a labyrinth but I guess there is a conceptual part as well. Would you care to explain it?

We have impressions right now, in 2023, in the Balkans that we live the long 1990s, and that the 1990s did not stop when this decade was supposed to stop, chronologically but also politically after the fall of nationalist regimes in Croatia and Serbia. What happened was a constant repetition, a constant déjà-vu of the same ideas, ideologies, iconographies, and similar or exactly the same personalities from the 90s that still dominate society and politics. So, it seems that we fell into a labyrinth at the beginning of the 90s and we haven’t found the way out. Therefore, this metaphor of the labyrinth came to us as the guiding principle of how to present this decade which is still with us, which keeps returning, and how to simply confront people with this almost existential question of finding a way out of this labyrinth. 

Do you think that the ongoing protest movement in Serbia might be a way out of the labyrinth?

It is certainly a cry of desperation, a cry of protest and also a cry of hope that it is possible to find a way out. But we have to fight for it on the streets against those forces that keep dragging us back to the 90s, dragging us back to nationalist conflicts over territories and dragging us to a period defined by the establishment of nationalist oligarchies that control society by violent and criminal means. This is all an inheritance from the 1990s. Thus, I cannot allow myself to be too hopeful and optimistic. This protest movement came under specific circumstances and spilled over to the streets as an attempt to change the Serbian society. But, everyone knows that change first needs to happen at the top. The personality of the current president belongs to the story of our “museum of the 90s”. He was formed in the 90s and had important political functions then; since the 90s he has been promoting his nationalist political ideology, and 30 years later he is still here and governs the place. Currently, it seems that people are putting the dots together. It appears that after these mass shootings, the society has come to ask itself the crucial question: “what do we want from this society”, and “how do we organise our society”. So, after 30 years, what is positive about this protest movement, is that we went back to fundamental questions of every society, and not to nationalist mythology of blood and soil and territory and the almost constant struggles against “enemies”. Of course, when we were organising this exhibition we could have not even imagined that this protest movement would happen. You can call it a “lucky coincidence” because there is much resonance between the exhibition on the 1990s and what is happening now on the streets of Serbia.

I have been asking a lot of people our age from former Yugoslavia: do you have resolved feelings, have you made conclusions on your sentimental and intellectual connection to Yugoslavia?   

I think it is still a process for those of us who lived in Yugoslavia until its dissolution in 1991/1992 but also to those people who did not have an experience of Yugoslavia, and for kids born these days. The heritage of Yugoslavia, the construction of its existence and especially its violent breakup, is part of everyday life. There are various strategies one can employ; like negating it, marginalising or being ironic about it, or embracing it enthusiastically, sometimes nostalgically or sentimentally. But, it is there: in the buildings, the iconography, in the music that you listen to when you take a cab, which in Serbia would certainly be Croatian pop music, in the references we have when we speak that very often go back to Yugoslav films, or to the events that marked Yugoslavian personalities, the partisan struggle, the personality of Tito. Just this day, at Krokodil festival we saw a group of youngsters who were members of a football team; 12-year-olds from Slovenia whom their coache brought to the House of Flowers which, you know, is the tomb of Tito. The young Slovenians, they came to Belgrade and the one thing they go to see is the tomb of Tito. And they feel somehow connected it to it all.

The coach for sure is a dissident…

I found it very touching and interesting. Certainly, you will have two camps. Everywhere you have two camps: the nationalistic camp, that negates Yugoslavia and negates socialism for nationalist causes. And then you have people who are on the left anti-fascist spectrum who are trying to understand what was that enigmatic thing which was socialist Yugoslavia. What system that was? What were its problems? What are the things that are worth preserving, and what were the things that had to be changed… We suddenly discovered the architectural heritage of Yugoslavia when the MoMA in New York organised a very popular exhibition on Yugoslav architecture. So, the centre had to give you a seal of approval and then suddenly, here in this region, people changed their opinions. Yesterday, they thought it was all ugly, socialist, concrete, grey, now they think it is beautiful and they are proud of it. So, you see… things do change.

My second to last question is related to the European Union and the very difficult relation of Serbia with the EU. Where do you find yourself in this debate about Serbia’s role/position/place in Europe and on what terms?

My position is very tricky because I am at the same time an EU citizen and a non-EU citizen. Namely, a Croatian citizen and a Bosnian citizen… Who lives in Serbia! You see, that my viewpoint is quite specific. I’m angry at the same towards the European Union for letting the Balkans be stuck in a limbo for way too long. If the European Union – a 500 million strong block – the richest block in the world cannot integrate a zone that has barely 18 million people and a GDP that is at the level of Slovakia today, then obviously there is a problem. You show that you don’t have political strength or will or vision of a united continent. Only now, with the Russian aggression against Ukraine, we’ve got a new dynamic. Suddenly the so-called Western Balkans must be integrated. Obviously, before two other countries to whom the EU promised membership, that is Moldova and Ukraine. There is a new dynamic for integration but, in the meantime, people here are not enthusiastic about it any longer, they lost hope or simply left. Hundreds of thousands of people leave every year for Germany, Austria, Ireland and go to work and live in the European Union. Very false ideas prevented the European Union from successfully integrating this area, such as stabilocracy, the idea of having stable systems… and this nurtured little dictators such as the ones that we have here. They certainly have their own particular interests, and certainly those interests are not to be part of the EU and to have EU inspectors in their country like you have in Croatia where they arrest ministers for corruption. The oligarchy has absolutely no interest in EU accession. While the EU was procrastinating, countries like Serbia started opening up to other actors, especially China, Russia but also the Emirates, and Turkey. You’ve got a number of new players here and the European Union is no longer the single reference point for everything. This is obviously problematic. So, as you can understand I have mixed feelings. I’m a Europeanist who believes in socially just supranational democracy in Europe. I believe that the Balkan states should be a part of a justly organised political union where prosperity would be shared. It is a long struggle to get there, and I would like to see my Balkans as part of this process but as an actor, not as a colonised zone where your European partners are only interested in minerals, woods, rivers and beaches, and not in people.

One last thing is about Outcast Europe; we met back in 2018 when we had the exhibition in Athens on memories of displacement and movement and we could not think of anyone more appropriate to come and talk at our conference than you, Igor. And, this is where we met. Outcast Europe lives on and we are currently organising exhibitions in different parts of Europe. I also saw in the Labyrinth that you are using items a lot. What is it that make us connect so closely to items and make us want to exhibit them?

Objects have stories, they are storytellers themselves; and, placed in a certain context they tell us a new story. This Labyrinth of the 90s was done in close cooperation with the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb, a great initiative of two local artists. There, the main element is the object left after a relationship ended, and they got thousands and thousands of objects that people sent them from all over the world that reminded them of ex-partners, lovers and so on. We are in a region where there is obviously one huge broken relationship and the hangover is still here, and we don’t know how to actually deal with it. Therefore, I think it was important to show objects that constituted our everyday life in Yugoslavia which were the objects from telephone, to TVs, to radios produced in Yugoslavia, produced by a sophisticated industry that was employing millions of people and that was destroyed in the privatisation crusades. Suddenly, our homes disappeared but also certain objects that have a symbolic value like that five-pointed star that was taken by the a city government building in Belgrade with a huge pomp of removing symbols of communism. When we got it from the museum, I thought it was as big as the one in the Kremlin, you know… It turned out to be so small and so insignificant that I could carry in my own hands. It was simply something that we inscribed too much meaning to. Now, that fallen star has a different meaning. We are reflecting on those symbols in a different way. In this exhibition, we want to tell those stories that are half-forgotten or are completely unknown. People often ask us: “who is the target audience of this exhibition”… Well, everyone 14+! For us who lived through this period to check aspects that we didn’t know or forgot. For those who didn’t, to simply have an idea about what constituted and formed us, and for the youngest be able to understand their parents better. This is our modest goal.

Thank you, Igor! The exhibition will be ongoing till…

Mid-July, but hopefully longer, until September, October.

We definitely hope so… and now LET’S GO TO THE PROTEST!


Winning shorts of PDSFF23 were screened in the context of KROKODIL festival in front of the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade. KROKODIL is one of the largest literary events of the Balkan region. They called PDSFF to diversify their channels of addressing their audience and reinforce their programme with a contemporary, intersectional cinematographic view. The screening took place in the context of a networking meeting in Belgrade that led us to interaction with artists, activists and the intense cultural life of the city and joining the protest movement that has been sweeping the country in recent months.