Posts Tagged ‘Ex-Yugoslavia’

Creating peace – an underrated achievement of the EU

August 14, 2009

“Sovereignty of the Free Territory belongs to the people living in that territory.” Anodyne words these may seem, but they are loaded. The corollary is that  sovereignty does NOT belong to those not living there … not any more.

The inscription is on a memorial in a fishing village on Slovenia’s Adriatic coast. The village looks Italian: it has a clock tower like St Mark’s in Venice. It WAS in fact earlier Italian. At the end of World War II Tito’s Yugoslav Partisans seized it together with the city of Trieste.

In 1954, an international treaty gave Trieste to Italy and the rest of the coast to the Yugoslavs. The same evening as the treaty was signed, the Italians from the settlements along the coast left their homes, abandoning pots cooking on stoves, and walked over to Italy as refugees.

They were scared for their lives, and for good reason. The Partisans had slaughtered thousand of Italians on the coast in 1945 before U.N. authority was established. It was a reprisal for the cruel, racist occupation of parts of Slovenia and Croatia during WWII, when Italian Fascists burned villages, shot hostages and sent thousands of young men to concentration camps where they starved and died. The Italians were afraid that withdrawal of the U.N. would lead to another bloodbath.

After 1954, tension continued to run high along a border of barbed wire and armed guards. Trieste was packed with thousands of resentful Italian emigrants. The Yugoslavs bristled with Communist militancy.

By 2004, Slovenia and Italy were both in the European Union. The concept  of government by nation states had reached its limits of absurdity. Many inhabitants in the area had had 5 sets of different state identity papers without ever moving from the house where they were born.  And still no real peace.

Now that both Slovenia and Italy are in the EU, people can move freely from one country to another to work, they use the same currency (the euro), and they drive through the old frontier without having to stop (Schengen).

Harmonious co-existence has broken out. A supranational organisation such as the EU may have its drawbacks, but many in the West do not give it the full credit for creating peace where before there was killing and hatred.

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The savage, idyllic Naked Island

July 1, 2009

And so to Goli Otok, the Naked Island. It’s a one day trip for tourists, there and back. In the old days, it was a one-way ticket for several years of penal labour and brainwashing.

Communists tormented Communists on this island. After he led the Yugoslav Partisans to victory in World War II, Tito was determined to remain independent of the Soviet Union. In every other country of Eastern Europe, Stalin exerted absolute power.

Tito knew there was only one language Stalin would understand. He had been brought up in Moscow in the 1930s when Stalin was purging the Soviet Communist Party of potential rivals. When the break came in 1948 therefore, Tito locked up all the pro-Moscow Yugoslav Communists and sent them to a cruel regime on this island in the Adriatic.

It worked. Stalin recognised a ruthless fellow-dictator. His Soviet successors came cap in hand in 1955 to make up with the Yugoslav. The Americans applauded an enemy of the Soviets, and obligingly bought the furniture made by the inmates of the penal colony.

Today one steps off the boat on to a dismally dilapidated site of watch towers, machine gun nests and ruined and pillaged workshops.

Some call it the “Croatian Alcatraz.” Yet it lacks the fearful sense of wickedness of the Alcatraz site off San Francisco. The prisoners planted a few patches of greenery. As one walks away from the man-made settlements, crickets buzz and the early summer sun shines brightly over the white rock. The blue sea around glistens.

Goli Otok symbolises the old Yugoslavia. Oppressive and cruel at times, yet ravishing to the senses. The boat’s siren sounds. My “term” is up after a couple of hours. By nightfall, Goli Otok will be deserted again.

See these pictures taken by a former inmate.

Why swans speak for us

July 1, 2009

My step-daughter has been playing a swan in Swan Lake. She is a demi-soloist in the Slovene National Ballet. I asked her if she had the ambition to play the lead role of Odile/Odette.

“I could perform many of the soloists’ roles, but not this one. It is extremely technical and very hard on the feet. My feet could not do it,” she said.

That is why one of the great pleasures of Swan Lake is watching a corps de ballet of highly-talented dancers who do not quite have the physique to reach the top. In the old days, people came to watch the Kirov or Bolshoi perform Swan Lake  just for the delight of the perfectly harmonised supporting swans.

With one arm raised nobly towards the heavens and the face cast aside and downwards, the swans express the moment in our lives when we humbly accept that we shall never realise a higher ambition. Silently they speak for us all, and we are touched.


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