Interview with Lazar Petkovic from the student movement in Novi Sad

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Lazar Petkovic is a student in Philosophy and part of a student movement in Novi Sad, the second largest city of  Serbia. He makes a broad analysis of the today’s social and political landscape in Serbia, of the capitalist and political undercurrent influencing major systems, such as the educational system, and of how social media creates a false feeling of public space.

 

“You know that Serbia was once part of this great state of Yugoslavia, which was formally a socialist state. In the nineties it fell apart and this is important because we are still very much determined by this process. Currently, we’re going through a restoration of capitalism in all these countries that were once part of Yugoslavia. This is an important starting point for me because it says a lot about where we are going and what our social, political and economical frustrations are nowadays.

 

“In some sense the fall of Yugoslavia is for young generations still an abstract event, an unexplained, unknown event that is again and again masked by nationalism and all kind of narratives.”

 

A lot of people miss the Yugoslavian state. Not the young generation, because since twenty years we’re being influenced by strong anti-communist propaganda. Young generations are not really familiar with what happened here. In some sense the fall of Yugoslavia is for young generations still an abstract event, an unexplained, unknown event that is again and again masked by nationalism and all kind of narratives, which are really harmful and from which we are suffering right now in many senses.

 

We still don’t have any theoretical framework about how to think about this fall. We still don’t have any theoretical orientation that will explain this fall of this state apparatus that once was very strong and very important. It was a great state. Of course, today, we can say in this classical Marxist interpretation that this was a state capitalism and that it had nothing to do with socialism. But still if you analyse empirically, if you analyse the social status and if you analyse for example how the education was handled back then, you can really see that it was a big and important project. Many of these things were forgotten and many things were pushed aside and now, every state that once belonged to this large big state is corrupted by nationalism and it has nationalist leaders.

 

The anti-communist rhetoric was first established by the people who were once part of the communist nomenclature. The old nomenclature, when Yugoslavia fell apart, wanted to stay and remain in power, so they pushed this nationalist narrative. Because of this narrative of regaining national identity, they managed to stay in power. The fall means that we have to restore and re-evaluate our national identity. This is still going on and is a big problem in some sense. On social symbolic level, we fight against all this kind of national and racial hatred. This really determines a lot of aspects.

 

“[The explosion of nationalism] was a way for the old communists to stay in power, to push this narrative to the end and to say to the people that we should restore our national identity and we should fight for it.”

 

There is absolutely a relationship between the nostalgia for communism and the rise of nationalism. I think that in communist Yugoslavia there was also nationalism, but somehow, Tito found a way to keep all this together. I wouldn’t say that this nationalism is some kind of a new event. Back then, it was also present sometimes even very  strongly, but it exploded with the fall. This was a way for the old communists to stay in power, to push this narrative to the end and to say to the people that we should restore our national identity and we should fight for it.

 

Now there are people riding this wave and it isn’t stopping. Those new people are, for example, Aleksandar Vučić, who was recently elected as President of Serbia. His party is the Serbian Progressive Party. But his political biography begins in a strong right-wing nationalist context. He was a member of the Serbian Radical Party (‘Srpska radikalna stranka’) and back in the day, this was lead by Šešelj, who was recently found not guilty in court of charges that had to do with support of ethnic cleansing and was released. He came back, but now there are no real opponents. Because Aleksandar Vučić, who should be the left opposition to him, changed his rhetoric and became a manager. He became something that is for me part of the general, neo-liberal framework. But we should not forget that he was once member of the party of Šešelj. Maybe he changed his rhetoric, but he still is what he is.

 

“We have this central power in Belgrade and the lawmakers there tend to forget there are other parts of Serbia.”

 

I come from the southern part of Serbia and this was once, during the Yugoslavian period, a really prosperous part of Serbia. It had many industrial centres and there was a developed textile industry. We had the first hydro-electrical production in 1902. Today this is the most destroyed and poor part of Serbia. All those firms, all those companies that were national, now are privatised or disappeared. There are only collapsed buildings in that part of Serbia now. It’s horrifying.

 

There is a huge inequality in Serbian society on a lot of levels. First of all, we have this central power in Belgrade and the lawmakers there tend to forget there are other parts of Serbia. Vojvodina, for example, is different in a historical way: our southern part was under the Turkish occupation for 500 years and this historical inequality is visible. If you travel there, you will see that some of the architecture and infrastructure is visibly different. Also, there’s a lot more unemployment and poverty there. In Vojvodina, we have this historical legacy of multiculturalism, but I’m more and more doubtful about this legacy, since I can see that it’s not really practised anymore. There are Hungarian people here, a Russian minority, other minorities and lots of people of different backgrounds living there together. In this sense this is a difference between the south and the capital, where there are a lot more conflicts with people all over the country moving to Belgrade in recent years to find work.

 

“We have a really terrible situation with the left parties and left organisations here, because
they mainly function on the basis of the principal of competition.”

 

We have a really terrible situation with the left parties and left organisations here, because they mainly function on the basis of the principal of competition. This is a catastrophic situation between all those organisations. There are five bigger and ten smaller organisations and movements – not political parties. We have a summit trying to unite all these left organisations, but there are many contradictions from inside. We had one left political party that participated in the elections a few years ago. It was a failure, unfortunately.

 

“They are trying to reduce the fields of study that are not profitable and that can’t be implemented into the market.”

 

Not a lot of young people have socialist aspirations. Mostly, there are a lot of young people who don’t even think about our political situation, let alone whether socialism is the best idea to solve things. Unfortunately, I can see that every day. Young people are mostly orientated to the IT sector and really want to succeed in this field, so they’re not really interested in anything else. They need some kind of confirmation that they will succeed and that’s it. I can tell you a lot more about education, how it is structured and how it will be restructured in this neo-liberal idea because I have analysed some aspects of it. You know that the Bologna reform all over Europe is a five page abstract document that doesn’t say much about implementation or about context and how it should be implemented in each country. Here we have reformations that have been going on for a few years, but do people actually know in what sense? They are trying to reduce the fields of study that are not profitable and that can’t be implemented into the market, like philosophy and cultural studies. These fields of study will fit precisely into the strategy they wrote. They encourage people to get involved in the sectors that are profitable and so on. But in the same time they say that they will some how work on discouraging people to be involved in these other studies that not directly can be capitalised.

 

There are a lot more dangerous ideas about this reformation of education, for example, how education is financed. They now use a trick that private companies can go to a university and propose them a deal: “We can open one study group for our purpose. You educate those students and they come and work for us. When we don’t need those students, we will close this group and it will no longer exist.” Then you get this paradoxical situation, where people work and study, and companies can decide to finish the study even without your permission. This kind of dual financing, part of companies, part of the state, is one idea that is part of the strategy to reform education. Another example is that the scholarship system: if you want to study philosophy for one year, you have to pay 6500 dinar (55,11 euro), which is the cheapest. If you want to study architecture in Belgrade you have to pay 200.000 dinar (1695 euro). But if you want to start to study medicine and you don’t score so high in the tests that you will be on the list that will be financed by the state, you will have to pay at least 2.500.000 dinar (21.200 euro). They will probably change that because it’s cheaper now to study something that isn’t interesting for the market. We’re also fighting this and demand to analyse this because some analyses show that these prices are not economically necessary.

 

“There are no real politicians, only managers and marketing people, but they are not doing politics. I mean there is no political horizon in general. This is the biggest issue for me.”

 

Student protest movements started to operate since two years and we already organised protests against Aleksandar Vučić and against these elections we had. Novi Sad had a movement first and then we went to Belgrade and we proposed to them to organise their own movement because in Belgrade the situation and context is more complex than in Novi Sad, since Belgrade has many issues with neo-fascist groups and people that are so involved with obscure right-wing projects. I use the word ‘obscure’ because I don’t think that they know what they are doing, they are trying to do things that they don’t really understand. There were a few incidents that they caused, like a few individual incidents on seminars. They are not organised and can’t do much, I think. Maybe there are some groups that are well organised, but they are not visible.

 

In Belgrade it was much harder to organise a movement because they had this fear that they would make a wrong discussion. Here in Novi Sad, we did it really easily: we just put people together and organised a meeting day. Firstly, we met and we talked and had some division of labour: some groups for media, analyses, education, etcetera. We then started to plan a protest against school policy and to demand free education. When it became clear that Aleksandar Vučić would win the elections, we got involved in the protests all over the country. We organised the protest here and also went to Belgrade.

 

In Serbia nobody is really doing politics and that bothers me. This is a terrifying statement. There are no real politicians, only managers and marketing people, but they are not doing politics. I mean there is no political horizon in general. This is the biggest issue for me. We lack the conditions of possibilities for politics. We lack this basic, elementary general orientation: what is what? Who is left? Who is right? Who is here and there? In some sense having only managers and marketing people instead of politicians as heads of state is an ideology. Because to be a politician for me, it implies some kind of deeper vision of how societies should function. In Serbia, we don’t have politicians or public persons with this vision. We have some good analysts, some good intellectuals, but they are really marginalised. Or they are university professors and they are staying within their universities’ walls, satisfied and without any desire to get involved in any project. They don’t want to support the students, they don’t want to support anyone. Or they do support it and they fail, they can’t really do anything.

 

I also see this in other countries from the former Yugoslavia, because when Yugoslavia fell, the only thing that was left was some right-wing nationalism. Besides that there is no political project at all. The powerful Aleksandar Vučić is taking advantage of this and rules with the worst kind of pragmatism. He is making all the agreements with the European Union, brings in the investors and presents this as the best thing that can happen to Serbian people, but that is not true. Because these investors are from Korea, China, Germany, etcetera. They come here, they open factories and then they give the workers diapers, so they don’t have to go to the toilet.  They weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom while working. And this was called ‘an investment’, as something ‘good’ for the Serbian people.

 

“We had a tradition in Yugoslavia where there was a left-orientated Marxist education in University. People were generally more familiar with this European tradition of emancipation. Today it is gone.”

 

I would not say that we are living in a post-politics era, however. For me, the biggest problem in these post-socialist countries that are now in this period of transition, is the disappearance of the customs and background, that regulated every day life. With globalisation, these countries were not really adopted into this framework and when it was forced on them, all these things started to collapse and we somehow now really live in some kind of destroyed society, in some kind of atomized mode. And people have no longer a general orientation.

 

We had a tradition in Yugoslavia where there was a left-orientated Marxist education in University. People were generally more familiar with this European tradition of emancipation. Today it is gone. All we have is some programs in universities, which barely allow these ideas. In the literature department, for example. As a philosopher we are taught the tradition of continental philosophy, mostly German idealism, French theory from the 20th century and, I really feel at home there, psychoanalysis. Freud, Lacan and Hegel are also my field of study. Yesterday I spoke about Derrida in a seminar. I can discuss these problems and more and more I see openings here and there that I can use in everyday life. In this city particularly we had some projects to organise young people and learn about these things in reading sessions and on other moments.

 

“I don’t really consider [social media] a public space, because you can’t see anything and you don’t expect impact.”

 

I don’t know whether social media plays a big role in any possible revival. I’m becoming more and more sick of social media. I have a problem with them. I don’t really consider them a public space, because you can’t see anything and you don’t expect impact. We can use them as a tool, to organise all the people, that is really an affirmative aspect, but I don’t really see it as a space into which we can intervene. This is another problem for us because if we are trying to think about political action, we have also to question how we should act, in which sense we should act, so that we can have some effect. Because we don’t really know anymore what the proper public space is. In some sense, this disappeared. This kind of public general political intervention is not possible anymore.

 

“There is a hidden repression of the state. This kind of repression is more dangerous because it is on a micro level and not openly.”

 

In Ljubljana there are autonomous places such as Metelkova and in Serbia we have these as well in some sense. There were some squads here in Novi Sad, but immediately the authorities reacted and there were problems. There is a hidden repression of the state. This kind of repression is more dangerous because it is on a micro level and not openly. If you have a real state repression you can show “Here it is’. You can describe it, you can recognise it and you can tell the people, so they can see what is happening. But here, we have a kind of mystification all the time. This is a problem.

 

We organise however through Facebook. We have a Facebook page and we post there, we invite people. When they first visit our organisation, we explain our basic orientation of the moment and we propose to choose what they want to do. Maybe they want to be in the media sector or in the education group and organise lectures or the propaganda movement. For me the Indignados are a very important reference: we have no official leaders at all and that is really great. The advantages of this are that the people can choose what they want to do and be more productive, because they have knowledge in this field. It is great to organise small groups.

 

“Our answer is that we have to avoid this temptation of wanting concrete results. My idea for these protests is to organise the people first on the local level.”

 

I think that future leaders of the Serbian society can rise from the student protest movement, but a lot more work should be done for that, because we lack the basic conditions. In order to have an alternative – any social political alternative – we have to have this basic horizon and we should fight for that first and then try to articulate the alternative. When we start to fight against the government, all the time the journalists are asking us what we want, what our solution is. Our answer is that we have to avoid this temptation of wanting concrete results. My idea for these protests is to organise the people first on the local level. To give them some kind of autonomy and opportunity to decide for their own local environment: should we build this school here? Create a park there? These basic everyday questions for a local community. Then we can slowly build and articulate these movements and we can unite them at some point. I don’t see a possibility for something big to happen and to transform the society at once.
I don’t think that is possible right now, because we lack basic orientation and we should build this orientation and movements starting from the local levels. This idea is a product of consideration and conversations and all kinds of theoretical backgrounds of the people discussing all this. But it is tough to organise, people at first don’t want to decide. This is some kind of the basic impulse of people. Only a minority of the people protested, the other sat in the pub, took pictures and didn’t give a shit about what happened in the streets.

 

In Serbia, ecology is not something that raises awareness. We don’t have this frame yet, we don’t have discussions about this. We have university programs that deal with these issues, but we don’t have any discussions about this in the public space, unfortunately. But with these Trump events, the whole world is becoming aware. In some perverted sense, he might help.

 

“Europe is a project in big crisis and big changes should be made.”

 

For me being a part of Europe is being a part of European tradition of philosophy, social study and theory. I don’t see myself as being a part of Europe in any other sense than that because for me in some unreflected sense, Europe is a project in big crisis and big changes should be made. This big project had its historical limit and we should accept that. I don’t know which choices should be made. I don’t pretend that I can think on that level. I think that the immigration crisis will somehow form the choices that should be made, but I don’t think at this level right now. The people in the streets see Europe in a positive light, but also most of the people see Europe and the west as the ones who bombarded us, who invaded us, who have done harm to us. In some sense they are still angry and sometimes you can find both opinions, pro and con, in one person.

 

“The easiest way to process this confusion is to be a nationalist, the easiest way to avoid the critical and crucial judgement of all these events and to really confront the horror that happened in these areas.”

 

The bombings by NATO is a personal issue for me too, because my father worked for the Serbian army and he was in the south of Serbia when all these bombings happened. There were civil targets and that is a fact that can’t be overseen. We shouldn’t even debate this and it is horrible. The general feeling about this in Serbia is anger and disillusion. We still have a trauma about what happened here in the nineties and is still an abstract historical event for us. Because we don’t have a general frame of thinking about this in the post-Yugoslavian countries. Of course, the right-wing people try to give an answer to this in a clearly chauvinistic way, saying that we were attacked and defended ourselves, that we didn’t do any ethnic cleansing, that we are not guilty, that others are. That is the general orientation in these countries. The easiest way to process this confusion is to be a nationalist, the easiest way to avoid the critical and crucial judgement of all these events and to really confront the horror that happened in these areas.

 

There were many intellectuals who were involved in this nationalistic propaganda and this is really tragic. Because all this former Yugoslavian intellectuals were all supportive of these communist ideas. But when the nationalistic leaders appeared, they immediately followed them. This was really strange. We had this philosophical movement, which is called ‘Praxis’ and they were all Marxists and we are now still reading their books, but immediately when Yugoslavia fell apart they went to join the nationalist leaders and that is a tragedy to me. I cannot explain why, because they actually had some hope for this to work. Today, we have this project ‘Professors in every country’ that are focused on the Serbian tradition of philosophy, we have these accents and this is again part of this resurrection of national identity.

 

If we are able to reflect on this lack of orientation, this lack of conditions of possibilities and if we understand that this is a main issue and if we understand that we are in this margin of European capitalism, if we understand our position and if we understand what we can do at this moment and what we cannot do, because we are de facto determined by this general liberal framework and if we can analyse all this, we can maybe begin the fight for this horizon to appear in the future eventually. Only there we will be able to find hope for young Serbians. To have an authority right here, right now, that is not possible.

 

“My friend who is a theoretician and economist says: “I come to protests to see that society still exists.””

 

In my opinion we should reinvent all these forms of writing: manifests, poetry, arts, since the media are in the possession of Aleksandar Vučić and his party. There is no space for anything in the general media except for his propaganda and his marketing. Nothing can be done in this field. We should include everything in this new reinvented story and use all the means. To me this is totally an open field of possibilities. At the first moment I see this as an articulation of some kind of communal work, communal practice and addressing this issue in the most basic form. My friend who is a theoretician and economist says: “I come to protests to see that society still exists.” Because we go on the streets, we walk, we talk, we drink a coffee or two, nothing really special, but here we can really address something. The protests are still some kind of hope. At least for now. In some sense the community is not totally destroyed. We still have these impulses that it can go in the good direction.”

Interview by Victoria Deluxe and Sonderland
Photos by Sonderland

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