IPS Blog

High Times in Yugoslavia

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Branko Franceschi

Branko Franceschi

In 1968, protests erupted around the world: Chicago, Mexico City, Paris, Warsaw, Tokyo. The protestors, most of them part of a new generation untouched by World War II, demanded an end to war, dictatorships, economic follies, and the culture of death promoted by sclerotic leaders in the East, the West, the North and the South.

Yugoslavia participated in the global events of 1968 from a different vantage point. It was not in the Soviet bloc, nor was it an American client state. It was north of the equator, but it also sought common cause with the South through the Non-Aligned Movement. It promoted a third path — of worker self-management and a limited private sector — between communism and capitalism. But it also generated the same communist elite that Milovan Djilas decried in his 1957 book, The New Class.

Yugoslavia experienced youth protests in 1968 as well, though they too proceeded along a different trajectory. In Belgrade, as in Warsaw, the protests began around a theater production. Students at the university were incensed that the administration booked a popular theater group at a small venue, with seats reserved for the Communist youth elite, instead of at an open-air amphitheater. The demands eventually grew to encompass a larger critique of Communist privileges and economic inequalities, and 10,000 students occupied the philosophy and sociology faculty at the New Belgrade campus for a full week. The Yugoslav leader Tito, addressing the nation on television, supported the student demands and temporarily resolved the crisis (he would later mitigate his enthusiasm).

What also made the student protests in Yugoslavia different was that they took place in an atmosphere of relative cultural freedom. Through music, movies, theater, and visual art, artists in Yugoslavia operated with fewer constraints and greater access to Western culture than their counterparts elsewhere in the region. It wasn’t quite a situation of “anything goes.” In 1963, Tito dismissed abstract art as quasi-art and a waste of money, and Yugoslav films attracted the close scrutiny of censors in the first half of the 1960s. But by 1968, Yugoslavia was a haven for the avant-garde: the Black Wave film directors, the Music Biennale in Zagreb, the International Theater Festival in Belgrade. And Rock music was everywhere.

I’ve drawn this information on the Yugoslav avant-garde from the essay “High Times” by curator Branko Franceschi that accompanied his recent exhibition at the Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in New York. In Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, Franceschi pulled together examples of the psychedelic films produced in Yugoslavia in the 1960s. The Village Voice picked the exhibit as one of the year’s best.

The title was a good marketing idea since it combined psychedelia, socialism, and Yugoslavia, but it was also very interesting intellectually,” Branko Franceschi told me in an interview in his apartment in Zagreb in October. “These experimental films were inspired by the music coming from West, like for instance The Rolling Stones and similar bands. In the essay I made a point of mentioning the famous song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, who recently died. This was a huge hit here. In the rest of the Eastern Europe it was sort of a hymn, which they were singing in the demonstrations. Here in Yugoslavia, it immediately became the first hit for the young, up-and-coming pop star Miso Kovac. The verses were translated so that he sang it in Croatian. Thus it was stripped of any political power. It became just another hippyish song. I guess this is a metaphor for what happened to Yugoslavia.”

Franceschi has curated some of the most provocative art from ex-Yugoslavia. He and multimedia artist Kata Mijatovic were recently selected to represent Croatia at the 55th Venice Biennale. You can go to their page on Facebook, Arhiv Snova (Dream Archive), and contribute your own dream. In this project, “a large number of participants will create a global ‘pool’ of dreams; open a space to explore what it is that people dream about today, and ask questions to which we still don’t have the answers – why do people dream, and what is the function of the unconscious in the construction of reality.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, we talked about his early experiences with music in Yugoslavia, his memories of war, and the state of the art world.

The Interview

Do you remember where you were when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

I was in Zagreb watching it on the television. We were thinking, “Okay, now that’s done we’ll be able to do what we want to do.” Which is basically what happened. I guess we all shared the same feeling of celebration of liberty, that the world will become an easier and better place for everyone. Since our society here in Yugoslavia was much easier, much softer, and much more open than the rest of the socialist bloc, my friends and I really believed that we could all go our separate ways peacefully. During those 40 years, we thought we’d created a more peaceful and more reasonable society. The level of violence that occurred – really, it was something no one thought possible. Now when you look backwards, you see that it could not have happened any other way.

I recently read a review of a book by Dushko Bilandzic, the historian, and he claimed that already as early as the beginning of the 1950s, Tito and Edvard Kardelj – the key Party leaders — believed that Yugoslavia had no future as a state and a society. I don’t know if that’s true…

They created a constitution in 1974, which…

That actually established the democratic right for the each republic to decide whether to stay or leave the federation, which was exercised in the 1990s.

I recall from my history lessons this Croatian concept, from the great revolutionary time of the mid-19th century, that all the Slavic peoples throughout Europe who were ruled by someone else should create a super state from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea – imagine that! And that these people, who had been oppressed for so long by other people and shared this painful history, would be able to understand what brotherhood – and later they added unity – really meant. Then, Yugoslavia was formed in 1919, and it proved the opposite. The problems almost immediately became obvious.

So, we have this strange and beautiful dynamic here. We are very similar and yet very different. Every little difference counts, which sharpens you intellectually. You have to find your standpoint among all these conflicting ideas that surrounded you and you’ve been aware of it from a very early age, whether or not you were politically active during the socialist period, whether or not you were a member of a political party. The other option was dissent.

I was not overtly political, and neither was my family at the time. Not having been involved in politics, you didn’t have the perks of membership in the Communist party. But you also didn’t have those difficulties. So basically, you were engaged in a bit of opposition by not accepting membership when you were invited, and you were invited of course if you were good in school or at your job or when you went into the army. For my generation it was easy to say something just so that you didn’t get drawn into the Party.

I actually just made an exhibition in New York about the decade from 1966-1976. It was called Tune in Screening: Psychedelic Moving Images from Socialist Yugoslavia, and it was a great success. The title was a good marketing idea since it combined psychedelia, socialism, and Yugoslavia, but it was also very interesting intellectually. These experimental films were inspired by the music coming from West, like for instance The Rolling Stones and similar bands.

In the essay I made a point of mentioning the famous song San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Some Flowers in Your Hair) by Scott McKenzie, who recently died. This was a huge hit here. In the rest of the Eastern Europe it was sort of a hymn, which they were singing in the demonstrations. Here in Yugoslavia, it immediately became the first hit for the young, up-and-coming pop star Miso Kovac. The verses were translated so that he sang it in Croatian. Thus it was stripped of any political power. It became just another hippyish song. I guess this is a metaphor for what happened to Yugoslavia.

What was exciting for me about the exhibition was to see how an American audience that knows the songs would react to these moving images made in a different system at the same time, 50 years ago on the other side of the world. And it went great actually. There’s always a chance that the films we think are great will look stupid to people from a different culture. But they didn’t. One critic from the Village Voice even called the exhibit one of the five best exhibits of the year.

Where was the exhibition?

The Stephan Stoyanov Gallery. It’s our Bulgarian connection. You should talk to that guy. He’s funny. He has a very interesting exhibition space. It’s a commercial gallery, but having this kind of program where you can’t sell anything, it’s almost suicidal

It’s a public service.

Maybe since he was brought up in Bulgaria, he is still in the hold of this idea of “the public.”

Between 1966 and 1976, the period of time covered in the exhibition, was also the rise of nationalism in all these republics.

Yugoslavia was never actually as cohesive as it seemed. So for instance the artists in Vojvodina were prosecuted for promoting change in society, and they ended up in jail. In 1971, Lazar Stojanovic was thrown in jail because of his film Plastic Jesus [which looked at ethnic hatreds among south Slavs]. In Croatia, the Croatian Spring raised nationalism as an issue. In the beginning of the 1960s, Slovenian artists were arrested. Then in the 1980s, there was the Slovenian industrial music group Laibach. They would be banned in one republic, so then they’d go to another republic. They’d be banned there, so they’d go to a third republic. They were masters of playing the system, the federal system of Yugoslavia.

Laibach parodied the system, with their brown shirts and over-the-top propaganda rhetoric.

They have recently had a retrospective, so I had a chance to relive it while I was watching it. Today it looks much crazier than it looked then. They really knew how to put out these totalitarian, bureaucratic statements, and their appearance was so remote. Back then, as I recall it, it was a new wave, punk type of angry attitude. But today it really looks surreal and scary.

So, this political period was marked by the introduction of elements of the free world and economy into our system, and it ends with the constitution in 1974. This could have been a step toward the peaceful dissolution of Yugoslavia, which unfortunately did not happen.

Did you see that documentary about musicals in the Soviet bloc?

No.

East Side Story. It’s a great documentary. There are a couple of East German musicals, a Romanian one, something from Bulgaria. They were made in that brief period of time when a musical was possible. They look like Beach Party Bingo from the United States, but of course the content is very different.

This is very curious stuff. People were trying to think of ways to manifest what they were thinking about. I remember when I was a teenager in the 1970s and I heard about these Slovenians living in a commune promoting a back-to-nature movement. It was legendary. For the film program I used one of the sayings of the Slovenian artist Marko Pogacnik, who was a leader of the group. I asked him why they made their films with the Rolling Stones music, which was Marko’s favorite band. He said, “When you build a fire you need matches. And the Rolling Stones were the matches that started our fire.” They were aware that it was a tricky line. They knew that this freedom through pop music could be swallowed by the system, which actually happened very fast. If you’ve never come across this group, the OHO Group, you should really look into them. They were really amazing.

I interviewed a member of the Bulgarian rock group Tangra, from the late 1970s, early 1980s. They started out as heavy metal then they turned to new wave. But they were very influenced by Yugoslav rock, and they looked wistfully at what was going on here.

I am from the coastal city of Zadar. I went to a grammar school with a very general type of program, but still you had to learn Latin and ancient Greek. At the end of school, there was a tradition to go to Greece. I was 18 years old. I remember the discotheques and clubs. During the daytime we were sleeping at the ruins, at Delphi, at the Acropolis. We were spaced out most of the time. So I remember this from the photographs we took! Anyway, on the way, we went to Belgrade, which was the first time for me. We took a bus to Nis, which was completely exotic for me. Then we switched buses for Bulgaria, which to us looked like a place where time stood still. It was grey. Well, we weren’t very bright. We were 18 years old, we were just trying to find where the fun was, and we ended up having to make our own fun. Then we went to Greece. When we crossed the border it was as if the leaves started to move again. We were joking, but I remember that vividly.

We were young and carefree. We really realized at the time how lucky we were to live in Yugoslavia. But we received our bill in the 1990s. You always pay. That is a huge lesson in life.

Our avant-garde artists at the time were not inspired by the local rock music that existed from the 1960s onward here. They said that they didn’t feel that anything made here had any revolutionary potential compared to the music created in the West.

Was there a point in the 1980s or earlier when in the art world you realized that Yugoslavia was not going to last as a unit?

I was an outgoing party person. I had a great time throughout the 1980s. In the 1970s there were shortages, and then of course when Tito died in 1980, that was the first thing. We were already aware of the tensions. Every 10 years there was some sort of upheaval here. So there were these centrifugal forces in the society. But then somehow you always believed that humans would find a way out, would negotiate their future in a logical and reasonable way. Unlike what history has told us, of course.

You could feel this neurosis in society. It got tough here with the troubles in Kosovo, which became such a big issue, and the different republics felt differently about how it should be handled. From the Slovenian and Croatians standpoint, we had this constant frustration that we were bringing the most economically to Yugoslavia. Basically our interests here were more to the west than to the east. So, for instance, I went to Belgrade for the first time on that trip to Greece, and I even had relatives there! That was also the first time I went through Macedonia. I had been maybe once in Sarajevo. In the 1980s, I went for the first time to Montenegro, to Budva. In the 1980s, I was a sort of film fan, so I went to Belgrade for the huge international film festival, which I believe is still happening there. There was also a very lively rock scene, so I used my relatives to go to see that stuff. Other than that, I didn’t have any interest in going there.

In the 1980s, the explosion of new wave music and pop culture was actually really amazing. We had such a powerful scene. It was really international and you could love this music even more than something coming from England or the United States. Especially the new wave bands from Belgrade. They rocked much more than the bands from Zagreb, which were mellower. We were very concentrated on what was going on here and in the West.

And then came the magical moment with [Yugoslav President] Ante Markovic, one year before the war, when there was the international attempt to save Yugoslavia. They equalized our wages, dinar for deutschmark. Before that we went through the stages of hyperinflation. Then, one year our living standard improved dramatically overnight. That’s when we realized that it doesn’t really mean anything. We went from eating at the diner to eating at the restaurant. We went from smoking local brands to smoking international brands. We quit drinking rakia and switched to whiskey. It wasn’t about the quality but about the branding.

You know the expression “swan song.” So that was it: our swan song. We were young and reckless. We were just joking that this was the end of it all. There was no actual authority. At that moment, in terms of the level of democracy, you could do anything. There was no control. It would have been great if it could have remained that way. There were all these new radio stations starting up. There were lots of initiatives from a young generation full of vision. We felt that we had already become part of the so-called democratic free world. But of course we weren’t.

This was 1990-1991?

This was 1989, as I recall. The best was when Miles Davis had a concert in Ljubljana, which I believe was his last tour. And the cost of the tickets was for the first time probably on the international level. It was a lot of money, but I wanted to see him, so what the hell. In the 1980s and 1990s, Ljubljana was much more exciting than today in terms of culture. And it was always beautiful to travel from Zagreb to Ljubljana. Sometimes you had more fun in the car, of course, than in the concert! For many reasons, this concert was sort of a cosmic experience for me. And in the middle of the concert, I was thinking, “My god, if I had been a little stingier, I wouldn’t be having this experience.” I realized that this is something that no money can buy. You cannot name the value of that experience.

I saw Ravi Shankar in Moscow in 1985. I had that same experience.

Despite all these hardships that we lived through, especially the economic changes like the shortages and hyperinflation, actually the social life was better in a way because we still didn’t have any concept of the value of money. On a personal level, I believe it is good. But unfortunately without that concept, society has a lot of problems!

We used to go to restaurants with piles of bills in order to pay for the food. We were young and we were very cocky in comparison to the rest of the Eastern bloc. Everything was cheap for us whenever we would go to Budapest, to Brno. We would, of course, get drunk, insult people, throw money around. Now I’m a bit ashamed of this.

But as I told you, we really got it in the 1990s. That was payback time.

Zagreb experienced the war. And a huge number of refugees went to Zadar.

In Zadar, my parents were under siege for two years. This is actually an untold story. Internationally, people know about Dubrovnik and Vukovar. But they don’t know about cities like Zadar and Karlovac, which were bombed daily. They were left without water and electricity for two years. Zadar is a city with 100,000 inhabitants including its suburbs.

The Serbs were masters of psychological warfare. Zadar was a city without electricity, on a constant general alert. Then, as the sun went down, they would drop a bomb or two. It was a good night type of thing. For my parents, this was the second war they experienced after World War II. Once, when my father needed surgery, they came to Zagreb for three weeks. They couldn’t wait to go back to Zadar! They had bonded so much with all their neighbors. They were constantly phoning them. I remember before the war, they would always talk about their experiences from the Second World War, and these were always hilarious, funny stories. This is again the optimism of memory. And this is what I remember now from the war: their stories of Zadar and how they dealt with the hardship.

During the war Croatia was completely schizophrenic because parts of the country were not affected by the war since they were not included in the area that the Serbs wanted to cut away — like Zagreb and Istria and the northern islands. In these places, tourism and everyday life was going on like everything was normal.

Thanks to culture, I did not have experience of the front. Two times I received a notification to report. Then they asked me what I do and I was running the gallery. In a war, there is always this political goal to create the pretense of normality. So everything has to be running like normal. But you had one half of the country under siege, which you could watch on television. You would be watching a program and it would say underneath, “General alert proclaimed for the city of Zadar.” Or: “There was an air raid on the city of Zadar.” This news was basically for us, because the people in Zadar didn’t have electricity so they couldn’t see this information.

My parents didn’t have a shelter to go to, so they would stay home during the air raids. They didn’t have electricity, so they would go early to bed during the winter and keep each other warm. Then I would give them a phone call because I knew that most everyone else was in the shelters so I could get a free line. And we would talk and talk. Then I would hear something like “fffhh” and I thought, “Who is sighing like that?” And they said, “No, no, it’s just a bomb that fell nearby.” The street below my house was basically the only road that connected Croatia and the rest of Dalmatia. So sometimes they were hit pretty hard.

In a way, I’m one of the lucky ones who actually didn’t have any losses in my family. Of course, this is probably why I am able to talk calmly about it.

I still vividly remember when during the summer I would go to Zadar. We had a summer house a few kilometers north. I would go there and see how nature recovered from the tourism. There were more fish in the sea, and the sea was clear. There was no electricity, so you had these starry, starry nights. Beautiful. And then occasionally you’d hear the sound of machine guns in this quiet, in this endless darkness, or remote artillery fire like “doon doon doon.”

I was curating an exhibition by an artist from Zadar on the island of Losinj, which is close to Istria. We went there by boat and passed by the island of Silba where there were boats and tourism, everything was normal. At Losinj, we did the show, and there were lots of Italian tourists there. Everything went great. We stayed one more day and then we sailed back to Zadar. And at a certain point, near the islands of Silba, it was as if we had passed some invisible line. Suddenly we were alone at sea. There was no one. And then in the direction of Zadar, which we still couldn’t see, against the clear blue August sky were two enormous plumes of black smoke. We just looked at each other and said, “We’re going there?”

There was a concert of Siouxsie and the Banshees that I wanted to see in Ljubljana. The war was already on. It had ended in Slovenia and moved to Croatia. There were alerts in Zagreb of air raids, and there was a curfew. We were thinking, “Okay, there are people being killed. Is it ethically wrong to go to a concert in Ljubljana?” And then someone said, “Okay guys, we can be shot down any day. What do they care?” So we went to the concert, and it was a beautiful experience. But we were late because we forgot that there were new borders, and it was very slow because everything was still getting organized. The concert was great. We were going back to Zagreb and again traveling back through Slovenia. And there were fewer and fewer lights, and it’s getting darker and darker. And you feel like a lid is coming down on you. The only lighted spot was on the frontier. Then we asked whether there were any air raids in Zagreb, and they said, “No, everything is fine tonight.” And so, this was the normal situation and we went all the way home.

I recall my cousin telling me about what she was doing during the Second World War. She talked about these travels: “We went from Split to Osijek. And then we went from Osijek to Zagreb.” And I said, “You were traveling, but wasn’t there a war going on?” And she said, “War isn’t like how you would imagine. War does not happen all the time, everywhere. There is a fight here, a fight there, and then you try to live normally.”

So, that’s what it exactly was like. Of course, in Zagreb, there were no shortages. There was plenty of everything. But I also remember, near the end of the war, when Zagreb was hit by these long-range missiles from Banija, the part occupied by Serbs. I was installing an exhibition. I was just running around like crazy to get the stuff that I needed to install by the next day. And then I heard this boom that was actually five blocks away from the gallery where I was working. But you just don’t pay attention. Later, in the evening, I watched it on television.

Did artists at that time produce art that reflected on the war?

Yes, that’s the usual question. Yes and no. There is this sort of pathetic art that is normal to understand. As a professional in the field, you always feel like it should be something better than that. But then you can maybe think of it like the Americans have great movies about the Vietnam War that were also completely pathetic. It was this sort of situation where emotions take over. People were organizing exhibitions all over the place, and there were a lot of auctions to help the people I was involved with.

In certain ways the artists have been criticized for not creating a great piece of art. No one created a Guernica. No one wrote a Naked and the Dead. Where is the greatness, they asked? I believe this tells you a lot about the Croatian mentality in general.

I made an exhibition that first opened in Sarajevo about the ambient art of the 90s. They were such sad art pieces, art pieces about crying, huge black cocoons, escapist paintings. People were so sad and disillusioned. So, in that sense, my answer would be yes, the art reflected what was going on. The art was more subtle and refined, which of course didn’t mean much to the people that voted in favor of imposing figures and flags and all this bravado. So I made this exhibition of Croatian artists in a Sarajevo gallery, thanks to the Center of Contemporary Art and Dunja Blazevic. We actually met at a conference about the wars and the galleries and museums after the war.

Then I organized basically the first exhibition of the great new Bosnian art in Croatia. Dunja managed to create an internationally significant scene there during the late 1990s, an explosion of video art and neo-conceptual art. We exhibited artists like Maja Bajevic and Danica Dakic, who both later became internationally important and famous. I presented the program in the gallery in Zagreb and later brought it to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Rijeka.

Before that I remember being in Graz, in Austria, for a manifestation on the topic of transgender, and after that I was heading to a conference in Sarajevo. In the tower of Graz, there’s a brass plate showing the distance in kilometers to Belgrade, to Athens, to Sarajevo. It was a completely different world. Here I am in Graz and the topic is transgender and tomorrow I’ll be in Sarajevo and the topic will be museums and art after the war.

By the way, did you know that they closed the museum in Sarajevo last week, Zemaljski Muzej, the National Museum of Bosnia Herzegovina?

Why’d they close it?

They closed it because they were working without wages for one and a half years. The financing was not organized. There are supposed to be seven institutions of national importance that should be supported by all the political entities in Bosnia. But I understand that the Republika Srpska doesn’t want to support this accord and has been blocking it forever. The museum staff made the point that museum was not closed even during the war. But they as professionals cannot take responsibility for the art that’s displayed there because they cannot protect it. It is very, very, very sad.

There is a character in Dubravka Ugresic’s novel who says that, before the war, she read all sorts of critical works and avant-garde novels and very interesting things. But during the wars she only read the most sentimental things like fairy tales. Her ability and her interest – whoosh — went like that. I’m curious whether you encountered that phenomenon as well, not in your life but in society in general.

In a certain way it reflects what I told you about good art production. It was basically about this very personal sense of grief. You felt helpless and frustrated, and you wondered how it could happen and why. And then you also realize, as I guess this person in the novel realized, the futility of any knowledge of history. Because that knowledge actually didn’t prevent anything. It was just a repetition of what happened in the 20th century. We had three wars and three revolutions. That’s a little bit too much for a small society! So you got disillusioned about progress and humanism and the evolution of human society, about the avant-garde thinking and intellectuals. They are always making these mental constructions that don’t get realized, and it’s usually because of the weakness of those same intellectuals.

So I kept myself busy working. In Croatia the fighting went on for six months and then it was the dreading of the war. This dread actually had a much bigger impact on society than the fighting itself. This seven years of dread was like a limbo: no war, no peace. And then there was all this killing going on in Bosnia, this bleeding in our backyard all the time. You just watched it, and part of you was thankful that our destiny was not as hard as theirs. But it is so close, only half an hour away.

This created the space in our society for all the things that we are now trying to get away from, this horrible economic and political transition. Everyone was focused on the war and on survival, and then some smart guys used the situation to get ahead. It is pretty universal, not just a Croatian thing. If we had been capable — or been allowed, some might say — to liberate ourselves sooner, we would be in much better shape today. The prolongation of the war, the extension of hatred and frustration, prepared a fertile ground for all those negative aspects we are fighting today.

Have you encountered this phenomenon of Yugonostalgia?

Of course. It is a part of nostalgia for being young: the chemistry, the hormones, the feeling of being more vivid and alive. Everything was more intense in a way. Even now when we are swamped with consumerism you sometimes think, “I just want to buy a pair of jeans. Don’t fuck me with these 60 varieties! I don’t have the time, I don’t care.” That’s when you recall the simplicity of socialism.

Of course, it is easy now to idolize Tito. I curated one exhibition in Rijeka on his yacht, Galeb. It was on avant-garde art that fought the system and we installed it in the symbol of his rule. Because Galeb was not just the symbol of Tito, it was equally the symbol of Yugoslavia, of its hedonism, and elitism. Yugoslavia’s leadership in the movement of non-aligned countries gave us the feeling that even though we’re this tiny population, we have international impact. We always have to be the most important in the world: first in football, first in tennis, first in skiing, first in culture. We had to uphold a certain standard. Tito gave to the people here this sense that we are important internationally, that we are different, smarter. Though it was proved, even in his time, that this was not so. But we believed it for a long time.

Personally apart from being generally nostalgic about my youth, I am not nostalgic about Yugoslavia. Now, thanks to contemporary technology, we can have all the perks of being able to follow the media from our different neighbors because we are familiar with the mentality and we can understand the languages. That’s something that comes with any satellite package, with cable TV. So, that’s something we can work on, how to collaborate together, and I think it’s for the better. Then again, there is the Yugonostalgia, but I wouldn’t treat it like my grandma used to think that the Austro-Hungarian Empire was the best empire in the world. There are people who tend to think that life was easier during Yugoslavia. But now when you look at the photographs from the socialist period and see how low the standards were at that time…

As I told you before, even during Yugoslav times, my interests were much more inclined toward the West. We were more Western in a way than the others. Basically there was this element of the Bosnian, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Serbian culture and mentality that for us was exotic in a way. It was exotic folk music, exotic food. Even their way of partying – it was more passionate. We were much more reserved.

When I talk to people in Serbia, they view Croatia very positively form a political sense because they believe that basically political parties here, HDZ and others, engaged in a kind of auto-lustracja, a kind of political self-cleansing. That hasn’t happened in Serbia or in Bulgaria either. I’m curious whether you think that really is the case in Croatia?

Yes, definitely, Croatia is dynamic in that sense. It’s what happened with HDZ as one of the strongest parities. They moved to the center and now they are leaning again more to the right with the new leadership. But it is also the part of the natural political life of the parties. There was a strange conversion of politics here. The social democrats were promoting liberal capitalism and the conservative parties were promoting a softer, more populist approach toward the current crisis. Though, of course, we are living in a perpetual crisis here. Maybe they say the same thing in Serbia: that nothing ever functioned here so the crises wouldn’t either.

The new developments in Serbia are scary in a way, a throwback to the past. We’re interdependent: if their parties are tougher, it will make our parties tougher. We still feel this sense of danger. And this is one reason why we want to finally enter the European Union: to feel safer. And also maybe even in psychological terms to separate ourselves from this sort of mentality that we believe is destructive but that is also a part of our own mentality.

In fact this is why I believe we don’t like that Croatia is connected with the term “Balkan.” Because, for us, “Balkan” has a very negative connotation in psychological terms: aggressive, destructive, non-creative, non-constructive. The “Balkan” mentality is all about the most basic hedonism, what we call “in yourself, on yourself, and under yourself.” In other words, the big three: food, clothes, and fucking. We feel that this is the Balkan mentality: it’s all about this and nothing else. This sort of worldview is of course not intellectual. It’s about corruption. It’s about cheating. Everyone wants to distance themselves from this Balkan mentality. For the Austrians, it starts in Slovenia. For the Slovenians, it starts with Croatia. For the Croatians, it starts south of the River Sava in Bosnia. For the Serbians and so on and so on.

But we also like the pleasures of it too. We like the food and the drinking and the mindless hedonism, which is very appealing especially to the young.

Croatia has been on the list to be a member of the European Union for God knows how long and you are supposed to enter in six months or so.

But of course we are not yet sure.

Of course, the EU is in an economic crisis. But you could say that Croatia will be the first country to enter the European Union with a realistic understanding of what it means to be a member. Bulgaria and Romania had widely unrealistic expectations….

We were disillusioned a lot, but we still believed in the EU. And we still promote that idea. Our politicians warn, “It’s going to be hard.” But it’s still believed to be part of the solution, which creates unrealistic expectations among the people. So, the people believed that all the problems of Yugoslavia would be resolved once we claimed our independence. Now basically Croatia has the same problems that Yugoslavia had: unemployment, huge debts, a not very functional state. For really understandable reasons, we are not very good at administrating: because we didn’t have an independent state for 700 years and our elite was wiped out lots of times during our history. But by some miracle we managed.

I believe that some politician here should use the public media to soothe Croatians. The politician should say on television, “People of Croatia! Touch the screen. Relax. You are doing fine. You are good. You managed. You have to believe in yourself. And you can make it better.” Of course no one is doing that. The media is always about negativism. And today all the Croatians treat their country like it’s their stepmother: “Bitch, she’s not giving us enough! But ya, give me more.” It’s insane.

With the European Union, we need to realize that it’s all about how we manage ourselves. In the long run, I’m optimistic, but it will be very hard. There are so many things that we can improve! Starting with my room.

People ask me many times why didn’t I go overseas. But I like it here. It is full of possibilities. You just have to deal with it and fight and do, do, do and everything can be done. You can say that about everywhere, I guess, but with our goals, our ideas, and our ambitions we can really make this a great place for four and a half million people.

I believe it was Heidegger who said that where there’s danger, there’s also the possibility of salvation. You just have to focus on it. The difficulties actually bring out the best in you. We have had, in terms of democratic politics, a few critical moments that were dependent on the general vote. And no matter what you think, especially if you are an intellectual and you despise everyone else and you tend to perceive the majority of Croatians as illiterate, lazy, stupid, ignorant, and passive bastards, they voted for the best option. So this gives me confidence in how it’s going to end up.

When you look back to 1989 and everything that has changed or not changed since then until today how would you evaluate that on a scale from one to ten with one being most disappointed and ten being most satisfied. What number would you give it?

7

And in your own personal life from that same period of time?

12

12? Excellent

I did a lot, I really did.

And then when you look into the near future how would you evaluate the prospects for the country on a scale to 1 to 10 with one being most pessimistic and ten being most optimistic?

I would say 10, but I am a sort of optimist by nature. I feel very energized. I went through a lot of professional changes and crises. But that gave me optimism regarding myself and this country.

Zagreb, October 11, 2012

Next Step for Assad — Exile to a Rump State?

“A Syrian official called an attack Sunday on the nation’s military research facility a ‘declaration of war’ by Israel,’” reports CNN.

In an interview with CNN, Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al Mekdad said the attack represented an alliance between Islamic terrorists and Israel.

He added that Syria would retaliate against Israel in its own time and way. [Emphasis added.]

Yeah, like it did when Israel bombed its alleged nuclear reactor that Israel bombed. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but after a certain point it’s just frostbitten. Needless to say, Syria is in no position to wage war on another front besides the domestic against rebels.

This latest attack came on the heels of, an airstrike, reports the New York Times:

… that Israeli warplanes carried out in Syria overnight on Thursday … directed at a shipment of advanced surface-to-surface missiles from Iran that Israel believed was intended for Hezbollah, American officials said Saturday

Meanwhile, reports the Times:

Iran and Hezbollah have both backed President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war [but] they also have a powerful interest in expediting the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in case Mr. Assad loses his grip on power.

On the other hand

… some analysts said they believed that a strong Hezbollah could also emerge as a powerful ally for Mr. Assad if he is forced to abandon Damascus, the Syrian capital, and take refuge in a rump Iranian-backed state on the Syrian coast, a region that abuts the Hezbollah-controlled northern Bekaa Valley.

“The relationship between Hezbollah and the Assad regime is stronger now,” said Talal Atrissi, a professor at Lebanese University in Beirut who has good relations with Hezbollah. If Mr. Assad falls, Hezbollah knows the axis of Syria, Hezbollah and Iran will be greatly weakened, he said.

But what use is Assad to Iran, not to mention Hezbollah, if he’s exiled to a “rump state”?

Venezuela’s Presidential Elections: The Battle Continues

Increasingly violent challenges to the legitimacy of the recent Venezuelan presidential elections have resulted in 7 deaths and 61 injuries since the April 14th election.

The “stolen votes” claimed by narrowly defeated opposition leader Henrique Capriles and his supporters as the reason behind (and excuse for) their encouragement of the deadly protests have no discernible factual basis, yet the United States continues to back Capriles in hopes that he will unseat Maduro and put an end to Chavismo.

Event panelistsOn April 22, 2013, at the Institute for Policy Studies, official election observers Alex Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research and Dan Kovalik of the National Lawyers Guild described their personal encounters with the reliability of the sophisticated Venezuelan election system – and with the persistence of anti-leftist U.S. interference in Latin America. The discussion between Main, Kovalik, and a diverse 30-person audience composed of community members, government officials, policy analysts, and students produced several key insights, all of which are conspicuously absent from the narrative constructed by Capriles-leaning mainstream U.S. news sources:

Venezuela’s election system is excellent.

Last year, Jimmy Carter described the Venezuelan election system as “the best in the world” for its multiple layers of safeguards against error and election-rigging. Venezuelan voters register at polling stations by thumbprint, cast their ballots electronically, and then receive a paper receipt listing the name of the candidate for whom they voted. Before leaving the polling station, voters must leave the paper receipt in a designated box.

54% of polling stations then undergo an auditing process, during which these paper receipts are separated by candidate, counted by hand, re-counted, and then checked against the electronic polling results. This 54% audit has already been completed for the April 14th elections.

Further legitimizing the results produced by the well-honed election process is the remarkably high voter turnout: an impressive 79% of the eligible voting population cast ballots in the 2013 Venezuelan presidential election.

The oppositions’ claims of fraud are blatantly fictitious.

During the IPS presentation, Main described how Capriles supporters have published pictures Audienceof sealed ballot-receipt boxes from past elections being destroyed, claiming they are un-audited boxes from this election.

Main also noted the sudden spurt of destructive attacks on health clinics by the opposition after false but widely circulated rumors suggested ballot-receipt boxes were being horded in the buildings to prevent the completion of a 100% audit.

A report released Saturday by Venezuela’s National Electoral Council dismisses all of Capriles’ claims as false, and notes that “there is no single record of irregularities in the signed records that were endorsed by all witnesses.”

The U.S. call for a re-count builds upon decades of anti-leftist U.S. meddling in Latin American affairs.

Maduro’s victory represents a continuation of Chavez’s leftist administration – and chavismo represents the liberation of Venezuela from U.S. dominance. The United States’ support for Capriles, and its refusal to recognize the reliability of Venezuela’s lauded election system, is a bold-faced display of its willingness to re-establish American influence in the United States’ “backyard”, as Secretary John Kerry recently – and tellingly – referred to Latin America.

The slim margin by which Maduro won the Venezuelan presidency highlights intensifying ideological divisions within the country. But whether Maduro will be able to maintain political continuity as Chavez’s standard-bearer is a question to be decided within Venezuela’s own borders, by its own highly reliable electoral system – and not by U.S. interference.

Listen to the opening presentations.

Rock the Regime: The Velvet Revolution

Cross-posted from JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989.

Tanga

Tanga

In Bratislava, as the Velvet Revolution unfolded in November 1989, musicians played a key role in the Czechoslovak opposition movement. Yes, they participated in the demonstrations and spoke out against the communist authorities. But their main contribution was more prosaic: amps. The dissident community, which had been silenced for decades, needed to get their voices heard by the hundreds of thousands of people crowding the public squares. And the musicians provided that amplification.

In Bulgaria, during the 1970s, oppositional voices were even rarer. The country never experienced a “socialism with a human face” experiment, as Czechoslovakia did in 1968 under Alexander Dubcek. There was no student movement. There wasn’t a lot of samizdat.

But there was rock ‘n roll.

Konstantin Markov was a leading figure in the Bulgarian rock scene in the 1970s and 1980s with the band Tangra. Bulgaria was no Yugoslavia. It wasn’t easy to form a band and tour the country, especially if you were playing Western-style heavy metal and New Wave. But youth culture was irrepressible.

“All these institutions — management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned)—they had very strict regulations,” he told me in Sofia back in October. “They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.”

Tangra circled the country, doing gigs even when the audiences were miniscule. They gradually built up their reputation until they were doing two concerts a day. There was censorship and harassment from the secret police. But they managed to get their message across.

“There was no way to get on stage and say that all this is bullshit, that this system is nothing,” Konstantin Markov continued. “Unless you wanted to commit suicide! But actually our biggest success came when we started singing in Bulgarian. At the beginning it was Deep Purple, hard rock stuff. But then, we started singing in Bulgarian and we had a very strong message. It wasn’t completely clear at the beginning, but if you read the text several times and if you thought about it, then you could figure out what we wanted to say. And that was our biggest reward.”

Tangra left Bulgaria before the changes in 1989, but Konstantin Markov returned to Sofia in time to see the regime change. He created a radio station called Tangra and continues to be involved in the music scene. And he remains upbeat.

“I haven’t lost my hope—which is very important,” he concluded. “I wish that most people could keep their hope for the future in the same way they had it 20 years ago. When you see pictures of rallies of that time, it was absolutely unbelievable.”

The Interview

When you think back to 1989, and what has changed from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate those changes here in Bulgaria on a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being the most satisfied?

According to your scale, I’d say 7. During this period many things happened and many didn’t. Actually people hoped that all this would happen in a very short time, in a few years. And nobody believed it when somebody said, “You know, this will take 10 years, 20 years.” That looked like an incredibly long period of time. During all these years I’d say the bottom line is: it’s all been positive. There are some people who think that “in the good old days” it was much better for them. But I think most of the changes that happened to this country during these years are positive. No doubt about it. And there is nothing to compare Bulgaria in 1989 and 2012. Nothing, absolutely nothing.

Over the same period of time, 1989 to today, how would evaluate what’s happened to you personally, on the same scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 being the most satisfied?

Above all, I was 20 years younger at that time, and everything was new. But I’d say 7 again. At least 7, even more maybe. At that time nobody ever believed that such change could happen to the country and to him, to himself, personally.

When you look into the near future, the next couple of years here in Bulgaria, how do you feel about the prospects for the country? And the scale again is 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 being most optimistic?

I’m afraid to be most optimistic, but I’d say 9.

Do you remember where you were when the Berlin Wall fell: what you were doing, what you were thinking when you heard the news, and whether you thought it would have major impact here in Bulgaria?

First of all, I couldn’t believe my ears. I used to listen to Radio Free Europe, BBC, Voice of America, all these stations. And when I heard the news on the radio, it was so incredible and unexpected, honestly I couldn’t believe it.

You were here is Sofia

Yes. At the beginning the official statement, it was kind of unclear. It wasn’t very clear because I think it wasn’t only unexpected to me but it was to everybody—the government included. But it was very exciting news, no doubt about it. And it was the beginning. Everybody felt that it was the beginning of a new era for these countries, for this world.

And you were a musician?

Yes, I’ve been a musician for many years. Actually, I’m an engineer, but I’ve never worked as an engineer. I used to be a musician in a very popular band here, a rock band, a touring band. I was the founder of the band. The name was Tangra, the old Bulgarian god of the Sun. The band was very popular and we used to tour a lot in the country and outside the country.

When was the band put together?

The late 1970s.

How would you describe the music?

At the beginning it was typical heavy metal. Then we started playing a kind of pop rock. Actually, this was the second period of the band. And then we changed to post-punk — new rock alternative, New Wave, new romantic — and this was the most successful. It was vey risky because people used to know us as kind of pop rock band. Suddenly we changed everything: look, style, stage performance, everything. But it was worth it.

And you founded the band when you were in school or…?

I’d just finished high school and I was quite lucky because I started playing with probably the most successful singer at the time in Bulgaria. I went to this audition and they liked me, so I started playing with their band. Emil Dimitrov. He was like Johnny Halliday in France. It was incredibly popular here in Bulgaria. At that time there was Emil Dimitrov and a very popular lady singer Lili Ivanova—she’s still performing. I started playing with her band, and this was for probably 5 or 6 years. And then I started my own band. It was 1976.

What was it like to have a rock band here in Bulgaria? Did you get a sense pretty early on that it was an entirely different experience having a rock band in Bulgaria compared to, say, France?

Yes, because I think there are two things that really affected that generation in Bulgaria. Number one is western music, and number two is jeans. For this generation, you can’t imagine what it used to look like to have a pair of jeans. It might sound funny, but it’s true.

Were there any obstacles to creating a hard rock band in Bulgaria?

Yes, lots. You know I could write a book about that.

You should write a book!

I don’t have time, to be honest. But it was really difficult, because officially you were not allowed to create a band. At the same time, all these institutions — management, cultural institutions, media (at that time we had only one TV program and two radio channels, state-owned)—they had very strict regulations. They tried to keep all these kinds of music out of their programs. But at the same time there was a huge demand. People really liked this music, and it was a symbol of freedom to them. It was very difficult to completely suppress it. We were quite clever in going around the institutions and all these obstacles.

And were you able to actually record music?

It was very difficult. At that time there were only two places to record, one was the national radio, which had quite a good facility by the way, and the other one was the state record plant. It was called Balkanton. And when you went there they told you, “Okay, but in order to record the whole record you have to take, let’s say, eight songs that belong to famous Bulgarian composers.” One of their first questions was “Are you a composer?” You needed to have a diploma to be a composer, which was very stupid. It’s very difficult to explain the difference between a composer and a songwriter. As you know, most of the bands had songwriters, not composers. So they told you, “You should take this, this, this, and this.” And most of these songs were very stupid. We had to redo them, completely in some cases, so that the original so-called composers didn’t recognize their songs. But this was one of the ways to get around the obstacles.

And there were so many other things. I’ll tell you something funny. Before you signed a contract with the management—there was one management, state-owned—you went to a kind of audition. They had to give you a grade. When we first went to this audition we were a four-piece band without keyboards: two guitars, drums, and a singer.

They said, “Where is your keyboard player? Why don’t you have a keyboard player?”

I said, “This is the band, this is the style.”

They said, “No. No way, you can’t perform without a keyboard player.”

So we recorded everything on a tape recorder, and we went back again. And they said, “Okay, it sounds very interesting, but where is the keyboard player? We hear some keyboard parts and synthesizers.

And we lied. We said that we had special pedals that change the sound of the guitars, blah, blah, blah.

This is funny, but some are very sad stories. For instance, you could get arrested. One morning you just got arrested. And it happened to me and to us several times.

You got arrested for…

For instance, one morning we got arrested by a special group of secret police—not the regular police. They started questioning us, “What did you do three months ago?” How could we remember? Every day we were in a different town. We said, “We don’t remember.” And then, it turned out that they had people that recorded everything on tape recorders, sometimes on video cameras: the reaction of the audience, what we said on stage. Sometimes it was very very stupid. I even don’t want to think about this. It was like 1984, George Orwell.

Were there accusations that you were spreading Western influence?

Oh yeah! This was the biggest threat, and this was the thing that they were most afraid of. That Western influence was coming through the music and the performances—which was true. And they knew that.

But how did you respond?

At a certain point they accused us of being neo-Fascists because we changed the look of the band. We had white shirts, black ties, and black pants. And suddenly they saw neo-Fascists on the stage. At the beginning we had very long hair, and the funny thing was that you were not allowed to have long hair. It was the middle of the 1980s when we completely changed the look of the band. We had short hair, and they didn’t know what to say. And most of the bands used to play with jeans, t-shirts, and all the typical accessories for rock bands. Suddenly we changed, and they didn’t know what to say.

How in those days did you get audiences?

It was word of mouth. The interesting thing is at the beginning, for instance, the halls were half empty. It was very difficult because in order to perform, you have to bring a certain amount of money to the management. There were cases where we played and it was absolutely clear we wouldn’t get any money from this concert—or barely any money, only enough for sandwiches. But we played, played, and played, and we circled around touring the country. All over the country. And no matter how many people were in the hall, we played as if it was full. And then the next time, the second time around we started, there were more, more, and more. A year later, we started doing two concerts a day. We had enough audience for two concerts. The halls were overcrowded! This was the biggest reward for what we’d done.

You said you also started touring outside of Bulgaria. Did you go to Yugoslavia? In those days, Yugoslavia had a pretty big rock scene.

Yugoslavia was a completely different country. At that time, Yugoslavia was from some points of view even better than in the West. It was a huge scene there: very talented musicians and very good bands. But they were free. Rock n’ roll equals freedom. At that time, in certain neighborhoods of Sofia, it was possible to watch Yugoslav television.

Really, just certain neighborhoods?

Certain neighborhoods because the signal came from quite far away. Theoretically, it was not possible. But the reality was that in certain neighborhoods it was possible to watch. You can’t imagine: we started making huge antennas. And then the police came and told us to take off the antenna. But it was like a window to the world. At that time Yugoslavia had really good TV programs: concerts, movies, theatre, news programs. This was one of the ways besides BBC, VOA, and Free Europe to get informed, to be connected to the outside world.

Do you remember the first concert you did outside of Bulgaria?

I started touring with Emil Dimitrov and Lili Ivanova, and they used to play a lot abroad. They used to do three concerts a day. I’m not talking about club performances, but real concerts. And with my band, we used to make between 250 and 350 concerts a year. Yes, it was really intensive, and this went on for years. So you see many things. You see actually the backside of the coin, because you cannot see this kind of stuff if you are, let’s say, a tourist.

What was the most interesting experience you had in this part of the world?

We used to go, at that time, to East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia. We toured Russia a lot. Then because the band was very good, we were invited to Switzerland for one rock festival. Then we went to Canada. Then, after the middle of the 1980s, we decided we should leave the country, because it was very difficult to play. We started having problems with the officials.

It became more difficult than between 1979 and 1983.

Yes, because they realized the power of the music and the message, especially the new trends. As I told you the post-punk and new rock alternative, it was different music than Deep Purple. At a certain point, they kind of accepted Deep Purple. But after that it was beyond their imagination, and they decided it was too dangerous.

And there were some ridiculous things. They accused us of taking drugs and doing some wild things on the stage. It absolutely wasn’t true. Actually we were banned several times. And they erased all of our recordings on the radio and on national TV. That’s why we don’t have very many recordings now.

I’ll tell you something that might sound unbelievable, but it’s true. We had a concert in one town, and the roadies were doing the sound check. We were in the hotel cafe, and we wanted to have a cup of coffee. The whole band was there, and suddenly we realized that they served the other tables next to us and not ours. And it probably took more than 45 minutes to wait for the coffee, which was ridiculous and we were late, so we decided to go. A few months later, I found out through some people that we were quite lucky because they decided to put something in our coffee in order to make it look like we were drugged. And they could use this to cut relations with the band. It was only a question of a few minutes that they were late in organizing this.

There were several things like this, and we decided to leave Bulgaria. And there was another reason: the “revival process,” which is a very stupid phrase. This was when they changed the names of the Turks. And there were the first signs of economical difficulties for the country, for instance, shortages of electricity and fuel, especially in these areas with the Turks. It was very sad. They were not allowed to go from one place to another. There were many restrictions.. People couldn’t come to our concerts. Or, if they came, suddenly in the middle of the concert the electricity stopped and they’d have to leave the concert in full darkness. So we decided to quit, and we started again from zero in Scandinavia.

In which country?

In the beginning it was in Norway, at a restaurant. We were very popular here, and suddenly we started playing in restaurants. But it was also very exciting because we decided to do everything possible to get out of the restaurant scene, and to move to clubs and discotheques. And actually we managed to do this in four years. We toured a lot, all over Scandinavia. The band was really good and we invested a lot in our business. Because this is a business, no doubt about it. We bought the latest instruments, we bought a big van with beds, and we started from zero.

And you were singing in English?

Yes, in English. You know, the management company that we used to work with, they put “Tangra England” on the posters. They didn’t announce us as a Bulgarian band. At the end we used to tour clubs in the Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium, all of these countries.

And were there folks from the Bulgarian diaspora who came to the concerts as well?

Not very many. Only a few. You play for the locals, and this is interesting because nobody knows you. Here in this country, if you ask somebody from these generations if they know Tangra, you will see their reaction. Everybody used to know us here, but there we were completely unknown.

Did you change your music at all?

Yes, of course, at the beginning we started playing covers and evergreens. This was for the restaurant scene. It was an incredible experience as a musician because you discover completely different kinds of music. But then we started playing our own stuff in English, plus covers for the clubs.

Covers of what kind of music?

Duran Duran, Dire Straits, U2, this kind of stuff. At that time, New Wave rock was very popular.

And you came back to Bulgaria…

It was the end of the 1990s. In those first years in Scandinavia, they asked for a contract and work permit for six months. That’s how it used to work. But a few years later they start asking you at each place for a particular contract and work permit. These were the first signs of Schengen, and it was very difficult to play clubs, because you were playing a different place every night. And when the owner or the manager came and said, “We like you, can you come in a month, on this date?” you didn’t know what to say because you were not sure whether by then you would have a signed contract. It became very difficult.

So the only way out was to go back to the restaurants in Norway—which was too much. And this is how the band split. They decided to stay there, and I came back here. It was 1989, right when the change happened. The big change, the so-called change.

You have good timing! Do you remember when you came back?

It was right before November. Must have been, let’s say, September or October, or something.

Things were already beginning to change a little bit of course, but not here necessarily.

Not here, no. There were some signs, but nobody believed it. It was like, you know, a total shock. One morning when there was a program on the radio, and it was the first time they said bad things about Todor Zhivkov, it was incredible: you couldn’t believe what you were hearing. I still remember, we used to live in a different place at that time in the center of Sofia. And there was some graffiti against Zhivkov that appeared overnight—at that time we didn’t think that it was suspicious, but actually it was part of the whole thing. It was unbelievable. He was on top for maybe 35 years and then suddenly his comrades took him down.

Do you think music played ultimately played a role in the transformations that took place in this region?

You might not believe this but yes. This was our biggest reward. Because there was no way to get on stage and say that all this is bullshit, that this system is nothing. Unless you wanted to commit suicide! But actually our biggest success came when we started singing in Bulgarian. At the beginning it was Deep Purple, hard rock stuff. But then, we started singing in Bulgarian and we had a very strong message. It wasn’t completely clear at the beginning, but if you read the text several times and if you thought about it, then you could figure out what we wanted to say. And that was our biggest reward.

We had such strong fans. They used to follow the band. You’d see them one day, and suddenly there they were the next day in the first rows of the hall. They got the message. And they started dressing our way. At that time it was very new and unexpected, and very provocative. At certain points I wonder how we managed to do that, to be honest. Maybe we were just such strong believers in all this. Talking now, it’s only touching the surface. But deep under the surface it was a very difficult life, not only because we were traveling musicians, but because of the circumstances, the whole environment. You had to have a really strong will to go through with all this and to be at the same time a good performer. But the people got the message. They used to sing our songs, not only because of the music but because of the text. Many of our texts were censored, many times.

Can you give me an example of what your text was, and what happened to it?

For instance, there was a song with the name “Be what you are, be who you are.” Originally it was like this: I wanted to go to university, but instead of me they accepted somebody else. It’s very difficult to translate this, because it was the typical Communist idiocy. There were some rules that the sons and daughters of so-called anti-Fascist fighters were accepted in the university without competition, and we said this in our song. It was immediately censored. We managed to change the words and keep the meaning the same: you might be very talented, but in reality somebody else could take your place in life.

Were you ever tempted to change the lyrics in concert?

We tried that. But as I told you we realized that there were people in the audience recording and writing reports after each concert. So it was very dangerous. But there were many other ways to get the message across. And I think people got the message. You know, the most powerful message was freedom. Freedom of mind. That’s why the audience liked us. Otherwise it was not possible. I want to declare this clearly: it was not possible. Absolutely not possible.

Were there other rock bands at that time?

There were a lot of very popular bands: Shturtsite (The Crickets), for instance. They were very popular too, and had some good songs, and they were fans of ours. And they had problems, but maybe not as many as we used to have. Especially in the 1980s, we were something new, with this post-punk. And we created a new message. There were some others, but not more than four or five professional touring bands. Other bands played in clubs, discotheques, and restaurants.

You came back to Bulgaria just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of Todor Zhivkov. What were you thinking when you came back and your band mates stayed behind in Norway, and suddenly there were different possibilities?

Number one was the feeling of freedom. I think this is the most important. It was everywhere, in the air, freedom after all these years of suppression and restrictions. Suddenly, you could feel it and see it in people’s eyes.

The country was completely destroyed. It was corrupt. The worst time was the fall and the winter of 1990. Suddenly there was nothing in the shops, no electricity, no fuel, no bread, no milk, nothing. But there was hope, and this is the most important. Hope for the future. Probably it wasn’t really realistic. As I told you, when somebody said it would take ages to become a normal state, nobody wanted to believe that. At that time, there were several big rallies and meetings in the center of Sofia. And it was clearly visible that people didn’t have anything to eat, but you could see hope for the future in their eyes. And it was really exciting because suddenly it was up to you to decide what to do. It wasn’t up to somebody else or the Party. This was the most important thing in those years.

Those first years weren’t very good for Bulgarian music, especially for rock. Which was kind of strange, because there was freedom everywhere, in all directions. I was surprised because I expected some new bands to emerge. But this actually didn’t happen. My explanation is that, first of all, rock music and popular music are like mirrors of life that reflect whatever happens. At that time people were more concerned about food than music. Everything was destroyed. All social life was destroyed. All the structures during these years, like management companies, were suddenly gone. It was not possible, for instance, to organize tours, and there were no bands. Many people left, especially young people, because they didn’t see any possibilities here. Some succeeded, some didn’t, but many people left. At the same time others decided to stay.

And I decided to come back here. Most of my friends thought I was crazy. They thought, you know, this guy is either really crazy or he is a loser. And I got married. I met my wife, Laura, in Paris, and from Paris we decided to come here in 1990 — instead of 99.9% of my friends who went to the States. We didn’t have any problems to go there, but for some reason I didn’t. Actually Bulgaria is my country. No matter what happens, it’s my country. So I was quite lucky that my wife accepted this crazy proposal to move here, but I don’t regret it. I think we both don’t regret it.

What did you do musically when you returned?

Nothing. There was no music, no music scene, nothing. Of course, we tried many things. Most of them failed. But in 1992, we started the first private radio station. Me and a friend of mine, Kiril Maritchkov, who is a bass player, the leader of Shturtsite, the other band I told you about. It was very exciting. The name of the radio station was Tangra, the same name as our band. It was a kind of smooth transition away from the band. It was actually a rock station. It was our dream. This time we played for many people on the air. We played whatever we wanted, and we again sent a very strong message. This time it was possible to say whatever you think. It was up to you. So the station was very successful for about eight years.

But two years later, some things started happening here—like a lack of regulations. By the way, I used to be the chairman of the Association for Bulgarian Broadcasters for seven years, and before that I was a member of the board. So for almost 10 years I used to be in the union of the broadcasters. And in 10 years, the law changed 11 times. We used to meet lots of broadcasters from the West that wanted to invest money in the media here in Bulgaria. But when they saw the regulations and the law, they said, “No, forget it!” For instance, it is very strange to have a media outfit, an advertising agency, and a research firm all in the same company. So, guess who is first in the ratings, and guess how the money goes from the budgets of the advertising agencies? It was not possible to compete in a normal way.

The other thing was it suddenly became overcrowded. We warned the authorities that, for instance, in London there are 12 stations. In Sofia there were suddenly 33 or 35. And the market in Sofia is a very small fraction of the market in London. It’s not possible to sustain a business like this, and a radio station is a business. This was a period when media became part of other businesses. For instance, a radio station might become part of a company that deals with gas or oil. It was part of a larger process: the concentration of power, money, media.

I’ve seen a lot in the media. We used to negotiate all these laws and regulations with the parliament, with the authorities. And it was clear that they wanted to keep control. Different forces — political forces, parties, and businesses — wanted to have control. And they managed to establish this control. Now media is concentrated among only a few owners, or groups, and I think it’s used to manipulate peoples’ minds. The level of content in the newspapers is very low, full of rumors and celebrities. On the television there are shows like Big Brotherand shows with everybody singing. This is a very powerful tool to manipulate people’s minds.

Are you still involved in that world?

Not at all, and I don’t want to be. I don’t want to go back there. First of all, it’s very difficult to be independent, and throughout my whole life I was independent. Even throughout the worst years of Communism, I was independent. Somehow I managed to maintain my own situation – through friends, family. Now it’s very difficult to be independent. It’s almost impossible.

Are you still involved in music in any way?

That’s how I make my living actually. I have a studio. I went back to the roots. I record a lot of soundtracks: for movies, for theater, for advertising. I do a lot of what’s called sound imaging for TV and radio. I do music for sound libraries. Probably half of my work is for companies in the West. And this is how I make my living. I don’t feel regrets about anything, to be honest. I have enjoyed my life. No matter in what circumstances and environment. The most important is to be in balance with yourself, and this is how you have enough strength to survive.

What’s your impression of the music scene today in Bulgaria?

I think there are two tendencies in today’s Bulgarian music. There are some examples of good music, which is quite competitive with Western music: very well-produced songs with good messages. Unfortunately there are not very many. In the middle is popcorn. This is pop music with no message, no personal attitude, that’s only copy and paste. At the same time there is an overwhelming amount of so-called pop folk.

Like turbo-folk in Serbia?

There you go. Serbia is a relatively good example. But also music from Turkey, India, Pakistan that’s very low quality. They’re everywhere in the media, because they follow the recipes of music from American or British pop music. But it’s a kind of distorted image of this music, and it’s very simple, for simple people. And it’s popular. I don’t care about this music. It’s not my music. But you cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist. It’s here, and it’s successful.

In Bulgaria there are two groups of people. One group follows turbo-pop folk. The other group are fans of rock music. Surprisingly there aren’t many new Bulgarian rock bands. But you can see these people at the concerts of the big stars. The halls are full. They have extremely intelligent reactions. And most of the artists who come once here, want to come back again. They really enjoy the reaction of the audience. You can see families at these concerts. Normally you would only see only youngsters, but in these concerts you can see fathers and sons.

We went to a Lady Gaga concert, which was incredible. There were, I think, 16,000 people. It was full! And people were singing with her, and she got really excited.

You talked about the concentration of power and ownership. Do you think any of that has changed over the last 10 years? Have you seen any improvement in either the conduct of government or in the political-economic infrastructure?

We have regulations here, but the point is to implement them. In another country, when you see a one-way street, it’s one-way street. But in our case it’s not a one-way street. Somebody could go against the sign. This is very frustrating. There is also quite a high level of corruption, which is another big problem for this country.

And I think that one of the most important things that was supposed to happen, but never happened in full, was to open the archives of the former secret service. The whole social, political, and economic way of life used to be dominated by the secret service and the Communist party. The whole so-called change was to change ownership and to change the power. And this was the reason of the whole thing. At a certain point it became clear to the Communist elite that the whole country wasn’t going in the right direction, and it was inevitable that this was the end. The most important thing for them was to transfer the power from political power into financial power. For normal people it became very difficult to start a serious business. I know only a few people who are not connected to the former elite who managed to start successful businesses. Most of these businesses actually belong to people from the past, in one way or another. Or to their sons, or daughters. And this was their goal.

The other thing is the court system. Every day you see people get arrested for something. I’m talking about criminals, obvious criminals. And a few days later, they are released. It’s really frustrating, and it sends the wrong message. It says that I can do whatever I want, but I won’t be punished for it.

A culture of impunity.

Yes. That’s why it’s frustrating that the archives were never really opened. Germany did it the right way. The Czech Republic and Hungary, they also did it, and it was very important for society to know who is who and why suddenly some people became millionaires or billionaires. If this had happened, I’m sure the whole country would have gone in quite a different way, or many changes would have happened a lot earlier than now.

But now, and probably you see this too, there are quite many changes, especially in the past few years. I think there is some hope for the country. I know some hard-working people who managed to succeed as businessmen – in a honest way. Which is quite different, and a lot more difficult.

Can you identify other hopeful signs?

Yes, there are many. Some of them are very simple. For instance, only a few hundred meters away from here there is a big construction on the road going on. And they are working hard for 24 hours. It might look simple, but it has never happened so far. And there are, I think, maybe even seven road construction projects going on at the same time all over in the city.

The other interesting thing is you see some young people who decided to stay here, and they are different. Their faces are different. Some of them are very intelligent young people — hardworking, innovative — and this is the future generation.

Another thing is when you go, for instance, to some small towns in Bulgaria, everybody is talking about the lack of money, the lack of this and that, but at the same time you see nice new houses, small enterprises. For instance, I was in Plovdiv a few weeks ago, and you can see many relatively small enterprises that are modern enterprises. Some of them are probably owned by businessmen from the West, but it doesn’t matter, they’re here and Bulgarians are working in them. You can see many things happening in the cities, especially with European money used in the right way. You can see the streets are changing, which is very important, the infrastructure. And gradually, the whole look of the town changes, and this is what gives me hope for the future.

I’m talking about simple things. I’m not talking about the nuclear power plant, which is a big thing. I’m talking about, for instance, a place called, Better House, which is a very interesting way of connecting young people, innovative people. It’s this big place that offers rooms for business meetings, for working individuals with their laptops, and this is the new young generation. Things like this started happening in the past few years. It wasn’t like that between, let’s say, 2000 and 2005. So some of these people are coming back to Bulgaria, and they are bringing new culture, new ways of thinking and working.

At the end of the day Bulgaria is a nice country. It has beautiful nature, the climate is really good, agriculture could be a very important part of the economy if developed in the right way (and if this had started 20 years ago, we would be in a completely different situation today).

I think the current government—despite many mistakes—is from this point of view the best so far. Up until recently we saw only few results, and this time we can see many things happening. I’m not politically involved in any party, but I would like to be as objective as possible. And there is no doubt that you can see many changes: in the metro system, the public transportation.

So, I haven’t lost my hope—which is very important. I wish that most people could keep their hope for the future in the same way they had it 20 years ago. When you see pictures of rallies of that time, it was absolutely unbelievable. There was one rally, when you see the people’s faces, when you look at people’s faces at that time, you almost want to cry. Because you see tears in in their eyes. Happy faces, despite all they’ve gone through.

Sofia, September 26, 2012

Emphasis Added: The Foreign Policy Week in Pieces (5/2)

As if Iran Isn’t Noticing

[Philip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation] worries that the overall effect of the White House’s about-face on nuclear weapons policy could prove counterproductive. “We don’t want more nuclear weapons in the world,” he says. “We’re asking North Korea to stop its program. We’re asking Iran to stop its program. And in the same breath we’re gutting our nuclear nonproliferation by 15 or 20 percent. That would send a confusing message to the rest of the world.”

How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb, Erika Eichelberger and Dana Liebelson, Mother Jones

Arms Race Gives Way to Network Race

The fundamental dynamic of the Cold War was an arms race to build nuclear weapons; conflict today is primarily driven by an “organizational race” to build networks. Terrorists, insurgents, and other militants focus on the creation of dispersed cells. … Intelligence, law enforcement, and military organizations strive to network their information flows, the aim being to mine “big data” to illuminate enemy cells, then to use this knowledge to eliminate them. In Boston last week, both aspects of this organizational race were evident – the small cell and big data – and both had their innings.

Small Cells vs. Big Data, John Arquilla, Foreign Policy

NORK: We’re Not Chumps

[North Korea] is well aware of the fate of the “axis of evil”: Iraq was invaded and occupied, and Iran is suffocating under the weight of economic sanctions and facing a possible Israeli or U.S. attack. From North Korea’s point of view, the only thing that Iraq and Iran have in common is that neither of them developed nuclear weapons.

Breaking Out the Bush Playbook on Korea, Conn Hallinan, Foreign Policy in Focus

Nuclear Energy: Just a Few Degrees of Separation From Nuclear Weapons

… the Western approach toward Iran is that it does not make the necessary conceptual distinction between an indirect or latent nuclear capability and a drive to create nuclear weapons. Like other countries that possess a nuclear fuel cycle, such as Japan, Iran today has a latent nuclear capability that is a byproduct of its NPT-based nuclear progress, rather than a deliberate (i.e., illegal and clandestine) proliferation march. The mere suspicion that Iran’s capability will be misused in the future and bring Iran to the weaponization threshold cannot be the basis to deprive a country of its nuclear rights. … the West should focus on … on persuading Iran, through incentives and lack of security threats, to keep its indirect nuclear capability dormant indefinitely.

A proposed endgame for the Iranian nuclear crisis, Kaveh Afrasiabi, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists

The Word Terrorism Increasingly Applied to Muslims Only

… preconceived notions [hold] that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred — cannot be described as terrorism.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality, Ali Younes, Focal Points

Did It Arrive on Pallets Like in Iraq?

All told, tens of millions of dollars have flowed from the C.I.A. to the office of President Hamid Karzai, according to current and former advisers to the Afghan leader. … Moreover, there is little evidence that the payments bought the influence the C.I.A. sought. Instead, some American officials said, the cash has fueled corruption and empowered warlords. … “The biggest source of corruption in Afghanistan,” one American official said, “was the United States.”

With Bags of Cash, C.I.A. Seeks Influence in Afghanistan, Matthew Rosenberg, the New York Times

Americans Will Never Fear Everyday Gun Violence Like They Do Terrorism

Cross-posted from Scholars & Rogues.

“Not that the events weren’t shocking and brutal,” concedes Scott Atran at Foreign Policy about the Boston Marathon bombing. But

… this law enforcement and media response, of course, is part of the overall U.S. reaction to terrorism since 9/11, when perhaps never in history have so few, armed with so few means, caused so much fear in so many. Indeed, as with the anarchists a century ago, last week’s response is precisely the outsized reaction that sponsors of terrorism have always counted on in order to terrorize. … Yet, despite the fact that the probability of [anyone] in the United States … being killed by a terrorist bomb is vastly smaller than being killed by an unregistered handgun … U.S. politicians and the public seem likely to continue to support uncritically the extravagant measures associated with an irrational policy of “zero tolerance” for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence. Given the millions of dollars already spent on the Boston bombing investigation and the trillions that the national response to terrorism has cost in little more than a decade, the public deserves a more reasoned response.

The author’s points are indisputable. But he misses the point. Why exactly do we demonstrate “‘zero tolerance’ for terrorism, as opposed to much-more-than-zero tolerance for nearly all other threats of violence”? In fact, it’s a false equivalency. A terrorist act wreaked on American soil by a foreign faction is essentially an act of war seen as a threat to the sovereignty of the state. Indeed, in light of the number killed on 9/11, it was the equivalent of a one-day battle — if a wildly successful surprise attack — like the days of yore.

It’s true that “nearly all other threats of violence” comprise a broad range of events from domestic terrorism, such as the Oklahoma City bombing, to mass shootings, such as Virginia Tech, Newtown, et al, ad nauseam, to everyday murder. (American gun deaths are projected to outnumber traffic fatalities by 2015.) Needless to say, they vastly outnumber those killed by foreign terrorism in the United States. But they don’t threaten the “American way of life” except to the extent to which they provide a rationale for inroads into civil liberties, though arguably much less of one than foreign terrorist acts.

In fact, to many Americans, domestic killing affects their way of life only to the extent that especially outrageous examples such as Sandy Hook Elementary School threaten Americans’ “gun rights.”

In the end, one can’t help but wonder if it’s a perverse point of pride to many Americans that, in recent years, foreign forces, on domestic soil or overseas, kill less of us than we do ourselves. In other words, if we want to kill our own, it’s our business.

This Week in OtherWords: May 1, 2013

This week in OtherWords, Jo Comerford and Donald Kaul weigh in on the government’s reversal of sequester-driven cuts that inconvenienced air travelers as other budget woes hurt children, the elderly, and the unemployed.

Below, you’ll find a clickable summary of all our latest commentaries and a link to our new cartoon. Be sure to visit our blog, where we’ve been running bonus Jim Hightower commentaries. This week, you can catch his views on George W. Bush’s shiny new library.

If you haven’t already subscribed to our weekly newsletter, please do.

  1. The Internet Racket / Timothy Karr
    Phone and cable providers are reaping obscene profit margins from their dominance of the Internet market.
  2. The Path We Should Follow after Syria Crosses the Red Line / Don Kraus
    Working closely with the United Nations could help Obama avoid the horrendous mistakes Bush and Clinton made.
  3. Banking on the Poor / Andrew Korfhage
    Payday borrowers are trapped in a spiral of revolving loans and compounding penalties.
  4. Useless Baggage / Jo Comerford
    With their big fuss over aviation punctuality, lawmakers make it clear that they’re not feeling the pain felt by the majority of Americans.
  5. Flying Over an Act of Monumental Stupidity / Donald Kaul
    The great victims of this sequester will be our children, the unemployed, the poor and the elderly — all groups with feeble lobbies or no lobbies at all.
  6. Austerity Will Leave Us Crying ’96 Tears’ / Sam Pizzigati
    But America’s wealthy don’t seem to mind.
  7. A Parenting Priority / Jill Richardson
    Even when the kids complain, you’re doing right by them when you cook dinner and eat together.
  8. Narco-State Building / Jim Hightower
    After 11 years of U.S. military operations, Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world’s poppies and 75 percent of the planet’s heroin.
  9. The War on Sex / William A. Collins
    Despite declines in teen pregnancy and abortion rates, some conservatives aren’t ready to celebrate.
  10. Obama and the Red Line / Khalil Bendib Cartoon
    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

    Obama and the Red Line, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

U.S. Explores Military Engagement With Burma’s Brutal Military

“The European Union revoked its economic and political sanctions against Burma on Monday,” reports Erica Kinetz for the Associated Press. She continues:

Australia revoked its travel and financial sanctions in June 2012. . . . The US has moved more slowly than the European Union and Australia in normalizing relations, which some business groups argue puts US investors at a competitive disadvantage.

Even more disturbing (emphasis added) . . .

Acting Assistant Secretary of State Joseph Yun told Congress Thursday that the US is “looking at ways to support nascent military engagement” with Burma, as way of encouraging “further political reforms.”

Military “engagement” with the army behind Burma’s brutal junta that officially lasted 49 years (until 2011)? Besides, isn’t that sort of putting the cart before the horse? In response, writes Ms. Kinetz, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division said

… military engagement was “clearly premature.” Human Rights Watch says the military continues to target civilians and engage in torture, sexual slavery and extrajudicial killings.

“Why is there a presumption the Burmese military wants to reform?” he said. “What’s the evidentiary basis for that? Is this the US government and international community just seeing what they want to see?”

Burma as Capable of Scapegoating Muslims as Anybody

In a New York Times op-ed titled Are Myanmar’s Hopes Fading?, Aung Zaw, founder of Irrawaddy, reminded us about clashes last year “between Buddhists and Muslims in western Myanm [that] killed at least 180 people and displaced more than 120,000, mostly Rohingyas. Last month, violence spread to central Myanmar, killing dozens and leaving more than 13,000 homeless.” Many, he adds, “fear that the deadly anti-Muslim riots are no accident but the product of an effort led by army hard-liners to thwart both the reforms and Myanmar’s opening to the world.”

… I have no doubt that national officials bear some responsibility, and that the violence suggests a power struggle within the elite. Infighting between hard-line and moderate forces in the government, which took power two summers ago under the moderate general Thein Sein, is no secret. His cabinet, Parliament and the army remain dominated by holdovers from the regime of the former dictator Gen. Than Shwe. Many are resisting President Thein Sein’s reforms.

The generals who ruled the country for five decades control much of the nation’s wealth, and some are close to Chinese interests that stand to be eclipsed if Myanmar deepens economic ties to the West. The anti-Muslim violence is a useful distraction from Burmese grievances against China, whose heavy-handed economic activities have bred resentments across much of Southeast Asia.

Muslims, long a convenient scapegoat and exponentially more so since the advent of the likes of Al Qaeda, have become a casualty of hidebound forces attempting to retain power and their share of what China invests in Burma.

Try Boston Marathon Bomber for His Crimes, Not His Religion or Nationality

In the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing, the American political environment is increasingly moving toward placing Islam itself on public trial, not the actions of those who committed the crime. Mainstream American media outlets are increasingly focusing on the suspect’s faith and whether he was radicalized here at home or abroad in Russia. Fox News’ Sean Hannity criticized the Obama administration on his show for not using the term “war on terror” as he placed the “rise of radical Islamists” as the main threat to America’s national security. His guest conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan warned that “what we see is the rise or the resurrection of Islam.” He also added that the “great objective of Islam in that part of the world is to drive out the foreigners, the Jews, the Christians, Americans and imperialists.” Buchanan continued in an angry accusatory tone that “they have one God but Allah whom they are following to create the great Islamic world.”

Needless to say that the statements made by Hannity and Buchanan regarding Islam and Muslims are false, derogatory and are dangerous.

The mainstream American news media has then shifted its attention from the criminal act itself to the ethnicity and the religion of the suspects, in trying to find answers as to what pushed the bombers to commit their crimes. That might appear to be “logical” from the perspective of those who think that the “terrorist “designation is reserved for Muslims only.

But this type of logic is at best racist because it seeks to find evidence to support preconceived notions that terrorists or “jihadists,” a term often used interchangeably with the word “terrorist,” can only be Muslim. This is also akin to saying that other criminals or terrorists who are of other faiths cannot be true terrorists or that their criminal acts — such as mass shooting in a movie theater, or in a school, or a in a Sikh Temple, where scores of innocent people were massacred –cannot be described as terrorism.

Spin-off stories also emerged about concepts that are hardly understood by the average American about “Jihad” or “Radical Jihadists” or “Sharia law.” They feed the American stereotype of a beast — its new evil empire — that it should seek to destroy. Such public discussions have enhanced the public misconception about the foreignness of Islam or Muslims.

The public treatment of Muslims who commit crimes or terrorism acts is often different from those who are charged with the same or even worse crimes and happen to be Christian. The religions of the shooters in Sandy Hook massacre or the mass killing in the Colorado movie theater or the Sikh temple was never a public issue. None of those voices that try to vilify Islam attempted to ask the same questions about Christianity, the religion of those who committed those crimes, which at any event should not be the issue to start with.

Meanwhile some members of Congress, along with conservative pundits, objected to the Obama administration decision to charge the surviving suspect of the Marathon bombing, Dzhokhar Tasarnaev, in US civilian courts. They also objected to reading the suspect his Miranda warning, which gives him the right to remain silent and the right to an attorney. Instead, they wanted him to be charged with terrorism as a military combatant and in a military tribunal citing public safety concerns or the “ticking bomb scenario.”

The statement also cited the US Supreme Court decision Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld in support of their argument

What the statement neglected to mention, however, is that Hamdi Vs. Rumsfeld was a sound defeat for the Bush administration, in which the Supreme Court ruled that government has no right to detain an American citizen without meaningful due process of the law. The Boston Marathon suspect, moreover, is an American citizen and arrested on American soil, not on a foreign battlefield. The government ended up not charging Yaser Esam Hamdi with any crime and was released to Saudi Arabia on the condition that he renounce his American citizenship. It is clear therefore that there are people here in America who feel that when it comes to crimes or acts of terrorism that have been committed by Muslims, we should be changing the US constitution around — as if the United States is a third-world banana republic — so they can be convicted regardless of their constitutional rights.

Ali Younes is a writer and analyst based in Washington D.C. He can be reached at: [email protected] and on Twitter at @clearali.

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