If we want to respond to the tragedy in ways that will help the victims, and avert still worse catastrophes that loom ahead, it is wise, and necessary, to learn as much as we can about what went wrong and how the course could have been corrected. Heroic gestures may be satisfying. They are not helpful. Noam Chomski, Truthout
“Have you seen any Ukrainian refugees yet?,” a nice older man, a regular guest of a café in Kreuzberg asked the barista while he was waiting for his morning espresso. The barista said “No” and continued to work on his coffee. No, none of us in Kreuzberg have seen Ukrainian refugees yet. They are still mostly somewhere around Hauptbahnhof, from there they go to various parts of the city, mainly to the private accommodations of people willing to accept them. Meanwhile, I’m sitting in a small kitchen in Kreuzberg, in an apartment I’m currently sharing with a friend. There is no room in our apartment even for one extra person, let alone for parts of dissolved Ukrainian families. So we mostly stay alone, with our conversations in the kitchen, analogies and analyzes, sometimes sober, often angry and drunk. We are both from the Balkans and when we hear the word “war” we see images of Yugoslavia falling apart, thousands of refugees leaving their homes, genocide, destruction and siege of cities in the period from 1991 to 1996. We see the bombing of big cities in Serbia in 1999. We feel anger and sadness because Ukrainian men, women, and children are now going through similar horrors, just as, since “our” war, Syrians, Afghans, Libyans, and many others went and still are going.
From that small kitchen of the apartment in Kreuzberg, from my still safe observatory of the world conflicts, I read German and other European comments on the situation, but also comments coming from the Balkans. The duality of my view is something that defines me and something I neither can nor want to resist. And I understand things somehow like this:
War is in the territory where the war is, until it spreads, which is not impossible, at least if you believe the analysts who follow the world conflicts. But outside the war-torn territory, there is a different struggle in today’s hyper-connected world. There are usually two sides that tend to simplify things as much as possible: one that can be reduced to a flag pasted on a social media profile, and the other that believes it is enough to be blindly against mainstream thinking to belong to some deeper, truer truth.
For those of us who have been bypassed by the clumsy and insulting phrase about the first war on European soil since World War II, it is especially important to learn to read the signs of that war in semiosphere (S. Horvat), or at least better texts than those offered in our media space. More and more often, we can hear the analyses trying to present things as simple as possible. One of those is especially popular and goes like this: everything that is currently happening in Ukraine is happening because Russia has been ruled by a lunatic. If something similar happens “to us” in the Balkans, it would be because of another lunatic, who might be controlled by The First Lunatic, and it would all become a conspiracy against the peaceful, civilized Western world that we in the Balkans are so patiently waiting to join. Even though we all know very well that this long-dreamed emperor (the almighty EU) has no clothes and we have not been in his plans for a long time.
The EU and NATO calmly watched as the biggest crimes in the last Yugoslav war took place, the one they skipped when counting wars on European soil. While bombing Serbia and Montenegro in 1999 the EU and NATO violated the international laws, which they now expect others to follow. The EU and the “civilized world,” from their peacemaker positions, took part in many wars in the Middle East, whose refugees were then pushed back from the borders of the European Union. The EU and NATO calmly watched as the city of Grozny (again the European soil) was destroyed by Putin. Even today, despite aid in weapons, despite sanctions against Russia, the EU and NATO are watching Putin from a distance as he possibly prepares for another Grozny, but this time on the territory of the entire state of Ukraine.
These days, Europe is welcoming Ukrainian refugees with open arms and these images are extremely important. They would be even more important if we did not watch recently how the EU stops some other refugees with barbed wire or leaves them to drown in the sea, and then takes to court Europeans who are trying to save those refugees from that sea. One day, when the horrors of this war pass and leave the world changed, the same EU will probably send Ukrainian refugees back home, to a country that will cease to be interesting for the international media as soon as the shocking images of the ruins stop coming in. Then, the Ukrainian flags from social networks will slowly be removed. Apple, IKEA, Zara, and other honorable capitalists will quietly return to the Russian market and try to make up for lost profits. Ukrainians will be left in a devastated country, Russians or domestic nationalists of various profiles in power, and returnees will struggle for survival. On top of that, the “hardline” nationalists will probably accuse them of fleeing when it was the hardest for their country. These experiences are common for many war refugees and it’s a sort of taboo rarely talked about, because the feeling of guilt is one of the hardest to process.
Because of all that everyone – especially the media – should be more careful when analyzing and criticizing the present situation. It is dangerous to build a climate in which criticism of NATO and the West is unequivocally in favor of Putin. As it is equally dangerous in the media and in any public discourse to name Putin’s invasion as “Russian.” In a recent interview for the Croatian magazine “Novosti,” philosopher and co-founder of DiEM25 Srećko Horvat said: “When we read the headlines that start with ‘Russians shelled…’ every time we unknowingly absorb the dangerous identification of Putin’s government and the Russian people, thousands who are already in prison for opposing Putin’s policies, millions who will suffer because of sanctions, and those Russians who are abroad and are already victims of attacks. We must never equate war criminals with the whole nation.”
We, who are lucky that the war has not (yet) affected us, so we are not bombed, killed, or expelled from our cities, should use the comfort of security to read more carefully and engage critically, if we are already interested in world topics – as we should be, since we inhabit one of the “border areas” of the conflicting parties. The new Russophobia is not an answer. The cancelations of Tchaikovsky or the fear of Dostoevsky are among the biggest nonsenses that have leaked into the public sphere from the current crisis, and there have been many. The need for quick, simple explanations is obvious on every level. Turning the entire nation into “hostile” or the entire culture into “genocidal” is far from the “European civilization” we hear a lot about so often. The Ukrainian crisis has also brought to light a white European who does not even try to hide how much easier it is for them to feel empathy for a human being with blond hair and blue eyes, who is running away from a similar life that the average European clings to, hoping that no one (a Syrian refugee?) will ruin it for them.
Instead of digging trenches in public discourse, serious, systemic criticism is much more important. Such criticism might help us not to allow so easily the repetition of what happened to many countries exposed to the interests of the “big players.” The area of the former SFR Yugoslavia had already experienced how persistent the West’s lack of interest in extinguishing the fires of global politics can be. It would be naïve and dangerous to allow all the political and military mistakes of the West to be suddenly forgotten, just because the West is currently on the “right side,” even from a safe distance. While we are predicting how and after how long Putin’s war will end, the words of Ukrainian sociologist and member of the editorial board of the left-wing online magazine Спільне/Commons, Denys Gorbach, remind us of the reality on the field: “In the meantime, the Ukrainians are those who are fighting and dying for the noble Western ideals, and their allies remain safe, away from the conflict.”
In order to at least try to avoid a situation in which one dies for the ideals of those in power, one should first avoid the traps of simplifying things in criticism and analysis. Because it very easily opens the possibility for introducing new “players” in similar conflicts “on European soil.” Especially in that part of the soil that “Europe” always looks at with one eye closed – in the Western Balkans.
Note from LeftEast editors: this text is a longer version of a piece previously published in German in the Berliner.
Ilija Đurović was born in 1990 in Podgorica, Montenegro. He’s been writing stories since 2005. He has published prose (They Do It so Beautifully in Those Great Romantic Novels, 2014; Black Fish, 2016) and poetry (Brink, 2018). Đurović has been living in Berlin since 2013 and working as a versatile freelance author and publicist. In 2019 he was co-winner of the Montenegrin theater award for the best contemporary drama, Sleepers. His first novel, Sampas, was published in Belgrade in 2021 and shortlisted for the prestigious NIN Award.