Teofil Pančić, journalist: East Europe lives in pre-French Revolution times – It is always convenient to hate your neighbour

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Text: Žikica Milošević

Teofil Pančić has long been one of the journalist superstars in Serbia and the region, due to his sharp and witty tongue and his ability to stay firm under any circumstances. His columns are always a good sign of the times and we spoke with him about the current situation in our ever-turbulent region, and in the world.

One of the columnists from Croatia said that the ideal for modern European society in Croatia, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, was franquismo. The Francisco Franco’s variety of society but with no anti-Semitism, a humane version of Nation-State-Religion-Family society, conservative to the bone. It was “good” but historically “with a wrong alliance with Fascism”, but now “it is the time to revive it”. Do you think it is true, a new idea counterbalancing the Western liberalism?

You cannot ignore this constant disbalance between the dominant feeling in the Western Europe, which is predominantly liberal-leftist, and the conservative Eastern Europe. It is all a consequence of what came prior to that. Many decades of so-called Communism. We spent it in a relaxed and permissive Communism, but others did not. People here don’t have political identity, but instead a national identity. You don’t have here people who vote for Tories or Labour for generations. Or Christian Democrats or Social Democrats etc. There the people know what is left or right. Here you had an ideological monism. When it fell apart, the only alternative identity was national. If you are not a Communist, what am I? Serb, Croat. And the national identity produced as a consequence the corresponding political identity. If I am a Serb, Russian, Albanian… it means that politically… Religious and national identities led to political. It is what our colleague called “the inclination towards franquismo”. Ideological empty field, tabula rasa. After 1989 we skipped the opportunity to be something that is neither Communist nor nationalist. Maybe some exceptions were Czechia or Slovenia. But if you had war included disintegration, it got even worse.

But Poland is pretty conservative, although they had no wars.

Poland has its extreme Catholicism, which marks the identity. Just compare Czechia and Poland. Czechs are the most liberal, non-religious, they have the highest amount of agnostics and atheists, and Poland, although it is very similar in every aspect, and has tremendous culture, is very religious. Their clerical establishment is among the most conservatives in the world, and thus their right wing is very conservative. They support European values, but not the modern ones. They are values from the 19th century.

But are these values really European? I think that the so-called European values are not pan-European at all. As they were defined in 1989 or 1995 or 2001 they were Western European values. Cannot be applied easily to Eastern EU-members, save Serbia, Ukraine, Turkey, Russia. Should we re-negotiate the European values, as a consensus and the least common denominator for all European countries?

It is a long story, what are European values? You have utopian and idealist version of it. It is like thinking that Belgrade and Babušnica can equally create the dominant narrative of the EU. France and Belarus, Italy and Estonia, will never be equal in that matter.

Is that just at all? Should not the EU be the club of equals?

The EU was something created in the West. The Eastern countries joined them, not vice versa. It is not that the Western countries are joining Warsaw Pact or SEV. It is perfectly normal to respect the club rules if you want to become a member. And if you don’t want to accept the rules, you are entitled to it, but don’t be a member. It is pathological patriotism. It is like “I’m not gonna accept these values since I don’t like them.” Not gonna work. Some values are simply good or bad, no matter where they originated from. Beer or electricity or internet are not from here, but we use it. Including the Estonian or Russian nationalists who will use the internet to say that they dislike some values. It is like nationalists who want to drive Western cars and not Zhiguli. There is a perpetual moaning how bad we live. But there is far more people moving from Serbia to Belgium than vice versa. It means something, not just material. If the people accustom to Western European or North American society, it is because their citizen’s freedoms are far wider than those left behind at home. Some might say, I don’t care for these freedoms. It is OK, you are free to say you don’t care for freedoms. It a dictatorship you cannot say that. You cannot say in theocracy that you don’t care about religion. I understand it as an Easter European. I hate the culture-racism towards the Easterners. But I think there are far more culture-racist prejudices in the East against the West. We would like their money, to drive Audis or Mercedes and to have the same mental concept we had before. Where is the connection between the welfare and ideas?

Like the graffiti in Budapest, “Sorry Europe, we don’t like you but we still like your money.” I have an idea that the East wanted to get back to the western values left in 1946, and not the values from 2017. To go to church again and be socially conservative.

Yes, but the Western values from 1946 or 1926 or 1886 were different. In 1789 there was a French revolution. With all possible regressions, the Western Europe went forward, towards liberalisation of lifestyle, sexual freedoms. But the Eastern Europe is stuck in pre-French Revolution times. It is not about the October Revolution, it is all about the French Revolution in the East. Can we accept the results of that?

Are you sure that it is the root of all differences? I think that there is a big difference between the countries that had colonies and those which did not. Maybe they did atrocities there and used them economically, but it transformed their societies. The first Black, Indian, Chinese or Arab people came to live in London, Amsterdam. Lisbon and France very early. In Poland and Hungary you had almost all white people at the time. Maybe it is the root of the nationalism and liberalism. Even Moscow is flooded with people of all races and religions and it is far more tolerant.

The enemy has to be visible. For a Serb nationalist, there is no chance that the Blacks could be enemies. Simply they are not here, they are invisible. And we are set against an available enemy: neighbouring nations, religions. Croats, Albanians, Bosniaks. Here you have a situation where you silence your voice in the city bus if you don’t speak with the accent of the majority.

Is anti-Islamism new anti-Semitism? There are few Jews left here and the Muslims are growing in numbers and the nationalists are full of rage against the immigrants?

It is far more complex a topic. But let me point out that until recently the immigrants from colonies were not that numerous even in Britain. Until the 60s, there were few. The first high profile case was Brixton riots in London. Here we have all-White society where you have problems to say “kruh” or “hleb” or “belo” or “bijelo”. In Vojvodina especially in the 90s you could have problems for speaking Hungarian, and it did not happen in the 80s. Our micro-racisms are provincial. How will someone react to our licence plates? Our anti-Islamism is not about Pakistanis or Arabs. We are bothered by Bosniaks or Albanians. In Bosnia you have three nations and religions with 95% the same language, customs and they can easily hate each other.

You mean, you have Muhamed Filipović, Ante Filipović and Stojan Filipović and they kill each other even if they had the common grand-grand-grandfather?

Exactly. 300 years ago they were from the same family. The only things that differ them are religious, even they are not religious at all sometimes. A Pakistani in England has different face, language, habits, food. Here – no. Like in Vojvodina, Hungarians, Bunjevac, Croats, Serbs, Slovaks – all eating the same food etc. Even religious taboos are the same. Fascism, nationalism, franqismo, they all seek enemy who is near. It is easy to be friend with someone who is not your neighbour. A myth of Serbian-Greek friendship, Hungarian-Polish friendship. Yeah, but there is Slovakia and Czechia in between. They don’t get along quite well. We and Russians are cool, since they are far away and they did not get us in 1948 so it is easy to be romantic. But with neighbours, it is not.

You know which is the longest surviving alliance? England and Portugal. And at the same time, England had fierce wars with France, the Netherlands and Spain, who were actually neighbours. Romania has “two good neighbours, Serbia and the Black Sea”, the proverb says.

Yes, like in this song. You just be far enough. And the focus shifts. In the 19th century Serbs were kissing and hugging with Croats, it was romantic Yugoslavism, and the main enemy was Bulgaria. Now Bulgaria is almost unnoticed, who cares? And the enemy were Hungarians too. Now we have Croats and Albanians as new enemies.

Ana Brnabić is a new Prime Minister. Do you think that she is a nice facade to have a lesbian Croat woman as a PM, and the changes will be… which?

She cannot be more liberal at the first sight. But the government members directly oppose that. You have in the Ministry of Defence Aleksandar Vulin. It says it all, a man of such political profile. The message clearly contradicts liberal image of Mrs Brnabić. And a new member is Nenad Popović, a man who does not even hide he is a pro-Russian man. SPS is stronger in a new government. It is a hardliner government, fiercer than the last one. The Minister of Culture is fierce in promoting Cyrillic up to the point of punishing the opponents. It is a kind of “liberal washing”: the facade is painted. That is all. Ana Brnabić is absolutely non-independent. We cannot fool ourselves that she is independent, but even her speeches are not hiding that. She will be in all important issues a transmission of president Vučić. She wants a mentorship. Can you imagine that any PM says that? Theresa May saying that David Cameron should be her mentor? No way.

We as children of the 90s protests have awaken. The idea was to make a paradigm shift after Milošević, not turbofolk but Britpop and rock. And it did not change, the turbo-culture is stronger than ever. Is it the greatest failure? There is Kardashian and Geordie Shore, but it seems we have lost it.

Me as a teenager in Zagreb, during the new wave, I was frowned upon because of my looks. We were always minority, maybe not like today. It was not Pericles’ times. Not everyone was listening to Pankrti. The Police mistreated me. The majority was listening to proto-folk. No illusions that we could change it. The rural paradigm was always here, the urban paradigm was always weak here. We can be auto-racists and say we are primitive Balkanians. But so as Bulgarians, but they managed not to have genocide against the Turks, no civil war. They changed governments, they entered the EU. We here voted for the people who used the prevalent feeling to make wars, here in Serbia and Bosnia and Croatia. That is the main difference.

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