Writes: Svetlana Slapšak
The most prominent issue regarding the responsibility of the Slovenian state in the Yugoslav war is still the unresolved status of the “erased” – some 26,000 of them They do not receive just compensation, their appeals are not processed in time, and while some cases are still before the Strasbourg Court, the rulings of the Court are not applied by the Slovenian government, certainly not within the time-frame laid down. The administration seems just to be waiting for biology to eventually solve the problem, and for the erased simply to disappear in accordance with the laws of nature. The consequences of such an attitude could be observed at the celebrations commemorating the declaration of independence: to put it euphemistically, there was total confusion regarding the “values” that had inspired the independence of the state and the ensuing positive outcomes.
Clearly, art best reflects such problems of great social impact. In the case of Slovenia, a brilliant example of this has been shown with the theater performances that have maintained the relation with social and political realities, making the topic even more explosive, along the lines of the play on Slovenia’s erased staged by Oliver Frljić some two years ago.
A look at the printed playbill of the Republika Slovenija performance at the Youth Theater of Ljubljana (premiere in Spring 2016), reveals a simple and predictable project, though one never before realized, mainly because of the barriers in people’s minds. What you get in your hands is a revolutionary newspaper of only a few pages, mostly in red colour and on cheap paper, and designed to circulate fresh relevant documents. It looks as if it is just coming out of a “gestetner”, the almost forgotten mechanical copying machine in use in the 60’s and 70’s. Then follows the performance, in three parts: first a personal story by an actual witness; then the reenactment of an important meeting, word by word, based on a recently released secret document; and finally, multiple reconstructions of an event of crucial importance for Slovenian political developments, rendered in opposing versions according to different witnesses. The piece has been composed by anonymous authors – (only the names of the performers and stage crew are listed in the programme); any curiosity regarding the authorship is out of place, because the citizens (the audience) are expected to make their own choices, they have to weigh the level of persuasiveness of each individual story, and judge the events on their own. And so they do. With a number of elements still remaining to be fully recognized, the minimalism of the performance, supported by the theatrical illusion, enables the citizen-viewer to develop his own vision of the history. Outside the theater, history is being written by those involved for all citizens in function of conflicting ideas and ideologies, or just of various self-interested and greedy projects, all of them contaminated by lies and individual ambitions, some of them unfortunately already realized, and others threatening our lives in the future.
The first act sounds like a professionally written comedy, not the story of a witness who agreed to appear on the stage, instead of some session of parliamentary committee. For instance, the hilarious story of how money (from some shady arms deal) was counted and then sent to an unknown address: the clerks were just doing their job, honestly, unaware of the message being discreetly communicated only to the privileged, and that it was open season for theft… The man explains how he did it, in full detail – counting the millions of DM, putting them into a suitcase, dispatching them. The proofs are there, the arms were sold to the rest of the country in the war – a much longer and bloodier war than in Slovenia. Why, then, did somebody in Slovenia, who had the necessary access, means and authority, take part in such an arms deals, expressly forbidden by both international bodies and the Slovenian government? There can be no other explanation here than personal profit, be it political power or just material gain. The story told by the state security clerk candidly exposes his personal experience sorting the money bills by their value, counting and packing them in a perfectly relaxed way, without any flicker of doubt, but also without any clear perspective. His coming out is a citizen’s gesture of the highest level: when approached and asked to tell the truth – curiously enough, not by a state institution, but a theater group – he responded, because he saw some common good in this, maybe for many, maybe for even all the citizens of Slovenia. And just like in a real comedy, which uses “low” topics and situations to reveal things concerning the “high” and untouchable social spheres of power, the circles of powerful and immoral individuals, the simple description of the technicalities in this play opens for the citizen immense spaces for free, liberated reason, the most effective weapon against alienated power.
The second act is a simple reenactment based on a document – the transcript of a meeting, dated January 6th 1993, of the President of the Republic, Milan Kučan, and the five other highest political representatives of the state. The document has been available for some two years now, following the lifting of the classification of “secret”. Well, dramatists, eat your hearts out – what a perfect study of characters, streams of ideas, transparent politics, unexpected sincerity, almost philosophical plunges into questions of truth, public interest, humanity…! In their innermost circle, politicians can speak free of the constrained language they use on a daily base. Their sincerity is sometimes quite endearing, and much more visible among those who wish to lie less than among those who wish to lie always. In this case, we do regret that the citizens never could witness or even participate in a conversation like this, where all masks have been removed, and for once, exceptionally, a topic was debated that should always be in the forefront of politics – namely, the common good. The core of the debate revolves around the question of whether it would be in the common interest to get to the bottom of things and reveal the truth, or just to do something that would be immediately useful to the public. As usually happens, the politics stopped early along the road. The link between the first and the second acts becomes frighteningly clear, a strong warning to the citizens that they have to demand ever more and more truth in order to obtain at least a few crumbs. In this way, theater makes good use here of part of our long forgotten cultural practice of reading all texts out loud, as in antiquity.
The third act is a performative presentation of several versions of the same incident, as based on the testimonies of the parties involved – an incident which was a consequence of the practices described in the first act, and the response of the politics described in the second act. The minister in charge, who did not allow even an internal investigation to reveal the truth and responsibility concerning the incident, was clearly driving the country towards a situation where truth and responsibility would not matter any more – that is, towards what is in fact tyranny. Luckily, the incident which could have triggered such developments did not evolve further, but in the unbelievable judicial and administrative farce that ensued, the case was dismissed. However, the minister was forced to step down, and since then, he has been torturing the public for almost a quarter of a century with his frustration. Worse than this farcical personal political destiny, there is the frightening readiness of corrupt individuals boldly to pursue, unpunished and beyond all limits of decency and reason, the ideas of a leader, for which they are even eventually rewarded. How is it possible that a citizen, no matter how high in the power structure, can despise so openly his fellows-citizens, the state and the laws, all of which he is supposed to protect and serve? This is where even carefully handled documents and objectivity from all possible angles cannot explain things – which is to say, this is where we need a play, a performance, a lived-through mimesis, the theater in its full glory, a professional, empathical, perfectly staged representation of something other, in order to snatch a glimpse of reality. Only then, at the peak of its performative credibility, can the theater “serve the people”, which is something that for decades, maybe much longer, we have not required from the theater. The distance that we have created and got used to, the high-brow blank spot and cultural alienation, are coming back to us as a slap in the face. Yes, the theater that speaks up about matters important, deliberately hidden, scandalous, necessary to be known by all, has a sense and a meaning. Yes, a direct message, like in Aeschylus’ Persians, has a sense and a meaning. Yes, there is a sense and a meaning in looking in the eyes of the person sitting next to you in the theater and have the same feeling of sense and meaning. At least, there was that evening.
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When at the end of June this year the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of the independence of Slovenia started, it became clear that the “theatrical” had left the theater and was being openly abused by the “political”: besides the official state celebration, which has been repeatedly and amusingly marked by the “poetics” of the ruling party or coalition, another celebration was held, attended by the right-wing parties. The main organizer was the party of the former minister referred to in the stories above, who was later the PM Janez Janša; and the exalted crowd not only hailed their eternal leader, but also openly humiliated the leaders of the other parties present. The “alternative” celebration of the independence of Slovenia was heavily backed up by the TV channel founded by Janša’s party, serving us such “pearls” as the argument that anyone has the right to celebrate state holidays anywhere and anytime (what about state holidays as regulated by law?), and the repeated announcement of the “spontaneous appearance” of “the youth” – who turned up as a vocally poor and pathetically untrained performing choir wearing pale Vatican yellow dresses. At this celebration, the main speaker, Janša, was the star, given the (wise) absence of the Archbishop of Ljubljana, who withdrew his participation at the last moment. So it was Janša who was introduced by the choir chanting Te Deum… apparently planned in the scenario for the archbishop’s speech. In his usual style, he predicted that the state and the citizens would eventually wake up from this nightmare – this is a structural element in any military coup imaginary: change happening overnight. His main metaphor was the withering of the quasi-sacrosanct linden, which was planted during the celebrations of the proclamation of independence back in 1991. Obviously, the tree could not grow in the narrow concrete box there, so the Mayor of Ljubljana decided to transfer it to the park across the street between the National Museum and the Parliament, and next to the memorial of the famous communist leader Edvard Kardelj and other national heroes, where it merrily continues to grow into a magnificent tree. Well, for the speaker, this relocation of the endangered tree to the vicinity of the “so-called national heroes” was a clear sign that the linden had withered because it could not hear the words of the then bishop, since somebody had snatched the mike or cut the cable during His Grace’s speech. This vernacular story, which involves a deaf linden, a denied mike, and a blatant neglect of the same linden, now prospering among national heroes, was obviously easily gulped down by the 1500 participants at the celebration. Such a miserable use of a metaphor would certainly be underlined three times in red by any primary school teacher.
The lesson to be learned from the story of the celebration of independence is that there is always a way to respond immediately to a manipulative and stupid lie. The whole region has too often witnessed manipulative and stupid lies that have changed the destinies of millions of people, to our massive and collective detriment. This is a seriously threatening matter, because such changes based on manipulation and lies, could cost more human lives in the future.
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On the other hand, the media, even in Slovenia and on ever-awake sub-Yugoslav Facebook pages, did not register and comment upon the appearance of Milan Kučan, the first president of independent Slovenia for two mandates. On June 22, in the industrial city of Velenje, he addressed the topic of independence and spoke about the greatest danger for Europe and the EU. He said that Europe should urgently establish an anti-fascist pact, and revise the main reasons that led to the foundation of the EU after WW II. Because of insensibility and the loss of historical memory, such a pact would be the proper answer to self-deception, and at the same time a sign of respect to all who had died defending humanity and freedom. The pact would require zero tolerance for any clear signs of fascistization in European societies…
The situation in which Kučan uttered these unexpected, visionary and not at all celebrational words is extraordinary, and says much about the context. Kučan said what we would expect to hear from many European political leaders, members of parliaments and retired politicians of high reputation. The silence as regards Kučan’s speech in the local and European media was to be expected: but history has better ears.
Translator: Božidar Slapšak
The author was Full Professor of the Anthropology of Ancient Worlds, Anthropology of Gender and Balkanology, and the Dean of the former Graduate School of Humanities (ISH) in Ljubljana. She retired in 2014, when the ISH lost its independence. She has published more than 60 books.