Six years ago, a weekly called Nedeljnik was launched and it shook the complacent world of investigative, argumented, polemic journalism in Serbia at its core. We are talking to the editor-in-chief of this one-of-a-kind magazine, Veljko Lalić.
It’s been a century since the World War I and the immersion of the extended Kingdom of Serbia into first the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and later Yugoslavia from which Serbia emerged shrunk, ended. Was Yugoslavia a smart or a suicidal move on Serbia’s part, considering that these are two predominant views these days?
First of all, I don’t think we had a choice. This was more the case of superpowers deciding to make a buffer zone, in an effort to prevent Germany from having access to warmer seas. Our interests matched those of winning countries, which was a rarity in this part of the world where East and West, a sometimes the Orient, clash. Secondly, I don’t think that Yugoslavia was a poor choice by any stretch of imagination, especially in 1918. Look, today we attack a king that created a country for us that was bigger than Dušan’s empire, and yet we are not critical of us for failing to preserve it. The Kingdom lasted for 22 years, which is equal to the period from the Dayton Agreement to date. During that period, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes created the Little Entente, was first to warn about Hitler, had two and a half times bigger economy than Romania, recorded a 14.3% GDP growth in 1936, and had the largest capital city along the Istanbul-Vienna stretch. If you ask me what the most significant legacy of Yugoslavia is, I will have to say it’s Belgrade which, today, is one of the biggest and most important European cities, and yet, in 1914, it was smaller than Subotica. The only problem with Belgrade, and this also goes for FC Red Star, is that it was created for a bigger state. What exactly did we make in these last 22 years!? And let’s not even go into what we had done before that… When we were given an opportunity to join the EU first and have all the investments that later on ended up in the Czech Republic and Poland, we decided to go to war. Ante Marković offered liberal democracy and a high living standard to the Yugoslav people, and yet they rejected him with disgust. He was beaten by Karadžić, Izetbegović and HDZ. In our country, Šešelj ‘crushed’ Borislav Pekić. And we have the audacity to complain about King Aleksandar I?
Do you think that the pronounced dislike of King Aleksandar Karadjordjević I is because Serbs, despite all the accomplishments, still have a collective perception that it was him that “ushered a nation into a country in 1918 which then, in 1991, gave birth to four nations and four languages”? How is his role perceived today?
Sometime in the 1930s, a British emissary sent a following dispatch: “There are two Yugoslavs in this country. One is King Aleksandar, and another one is me”. As far as I understood, the King was no Utopian. He did negotiate with the Croats. If there hadn’t been a world war, that would have never happened. And if he didn’t negotiate with the Croats and just signed the Concordant, today we would have Serbs that are Eastern Orthodox, Serbs that are Catholics and Serbs that are Muslims. And yet there is no street in Belgrade named after him. Paris, of all cities, has a beautiful monument of King Aleksandar in the city centre. But, before I go any further, I would just like to underline that I am not a monarchist. I only think that, given our situation, the return of monarchy would be like the biggest world party because nobody, in this modern world, has ever done it. We already live in a system that is sufficiently peculiar – we have a king living in his court, an heir to the throne who attends all national functions, a crown and a coat of arms on our flag, and a monarchist anthem. On top of that, we have a president who has the last say in all of this. Where, on earth, would you find that?! Historically speaking, King Aleksandar made a huge mistake about Montenegro. He grew up in Cetinje, was raised by the Petrović family, and he simply had to be more observant towards them. I think that this was the root of the split between a nation of one name, which Serbs and Montenegrins once were. A fallout between two nations has bigger consequences than a fallout between three nations. As far as Yugoslavia goes, if you go back to 1914 and compare it to what we have today, you can see that Serbia expanded the most. We exchanged the south of the country, where our monuments and cemeteries are, for the exceptionally fertile and wealthy land that is Vojvodina. Today, Serbia has a government in Banja Luka, west of Sarajevo. Imagine if someone offered this to us in 1914?! It was actually Serbs and Croats that profited the most from Yugoslavia. OK, Croats profited a bit more than Serbs. After all, it was their idea all along, and it was them who provided a ‘bankruptcy trustee’, so to speak. Can you imagine what would Slovenia be like today if it had its independence in 1918? Maybe it would be like Switzerland. However, we should not accuse Serbs of being instrumental in breaking up Yugoslavia, because they were not. If Yugoslavia was good for everyone else apart from us, why didn’t they create it without us? If you are in a company of people and someone goes on your nerve, you will not stop hanging out with everybody in that group, but rather throw the annoying person out.
Considering that it has been a century since the October Revolution, how much do we still resemble socialism? Is this true for every Eastern European nation, and especially for us?
I was in Las Vegas recently, more than 40 years after my grandfather visited it. I was thinking of how shocked he was by the city which had its first hotel being built in 1946, particularly when the city left such a deep impression on me. What kind of ideas did our fathers and grandfathers spend their lives on? Today, we can watch Netflix at the same time as Barack Obama, but could you imagine how much did they miss out on by not growing up in the West. I can liken that to growing up in the two Koreas. Or something like that…. I had relatives in the US, and I clearly remember my friends coming over to see a tin of Coke in which I kept my pencils. We had more luck than Romania, but less than Greece. Yugoslavia had good sides too, like culture and a bon-vivant lifestyle which Tito also liked to live. The stupidest reason for liking the life in Yugoslavia is when someone says “oh, we could sleep peacefully in a park”. You could have done that in fascism too. It all boils down to what kind of dictatorship you live in. In Rome, under Mussolini’s rule, trains were never late, and Hitler turned Germany into a global superpower in just few years, but you will never hear people saying that these were good systems. What is good in not being allowed to talk freely? How is that good?! The tragedy of this country is that it has never tasted true democracy. We were just a step away from it, when Milosevic happened. He is the most tragic figure in our history, and, unfortunately, he was also a capable man. Imagine if Stambolić won, which could have happened easily just like it did with Honecker. However, what did transpire is that we destroyed a country. What’s done is done! Communism is a blind alley anyway, to quote Putin.
What do you think of media in Serbia?
They are in a critical condition, to use a medical term.
Are we moving towards a sinister age resembling the 1930s when the solution to everything was closing off and being nationalistic?
I don’t think so. I was reading last week a book by John Mearsheimer, the creator of offensive neo-realism, who talks about the inevitable conflict between China and the US. Two days later, I attended a talk and later had dinner with Richard Haass, who is one of the creators of the US foreign policy and one of the most important political figures in the world after Henry Kissinger. He is optimistic. He says that the conflict between China and the US is highly unlikely to happen since their economies are so intertwined. America needs China just as much as China needs America. You probably know that, in the last 100 years, no liberal economies went to war against each other. If we did what the French had done in Algeria, we would have all been killed. Instead, we were engrossed in nationalism and nationalism is overrated. You cannot be nationalistic in the world. Nationalism is for home use only. As far as populists go, their time is coming. And that’s normal too. We live in a world that resembles a reality show, therefore the time has come for populists to have their say.
What role does Nedeljnik play on the media scene in Serbia, and how do you manage to keep on ‘swimming’ amongst all ‘the sharks’ that have encircled you?
I cannot give you an objective answer to that, but I do think that Nedeljnik has resuscitated weekly journalism which was on its deathbed six years ago. Today, everyone thinks that they can put a weekly magazine together. We are different in a way that most of our staff was raised in journalistic families. We often joke about our marketing director, who was the best sociology student in her generation, being married to a journalist and that you can clearly see that. There is nothing we enjoy more than putting a magazine together. This is also how our cooperation with The New York Times started. At first, it seemed there was no economic logic in launching a magazine, but we all knew that we had to try it as journalists. And it worked! Let me tell you how. The business model is very simple in the world of newspapers. In order to succeed, your product has to sell at five time higher price than what it costs in production. Distributers take about 30% and there is 30% of copy returns. So, the math is pretty simple. We were quite mindful of the price since we were the youngest magazine in the market. Today, our magazine’s price is 8 to 9 times higher to what it costs in production. And that’s our secret! Our readership is what sustains us, and they are the only ones who can hold us accountable.
You wrote a lot about Milan Stojadinovic and Prince Pavle Karadjordjevic. How should we view these two Serbian politicians from the time distance, and their role in the events of the 1930s and 1940s?
Prince Pavle was the most educated man to ever run this country, while Stojadinovic was the most capable. When the two of them worked together, this country recorded an annual growth of 14.3%. However, vanity and gossip, the two characteristics of our nation, destroyed them both, and subsequently destroyed the country they were leading. Stojadinović was declared war criminal, even though he was interned before the World War started, while the Prince was condemned as someone who signed the Tripartite Pact, although no one mentions the fact that he was the only signatory to sign the Pact without a military clause. In other words, he banned the Germans from using our territory to transport weapons to be used in attacking Greece although, at that time, nobody was at war with the Germans apart from England. Nobody today knows that, only a day later, the people who carried out the coup d‘état, announced that they were siding with the Tripartite Pact and that that was only an internal coup d‘état. Does anybody even know that the Communist Party was in favour of the signing of the Tripartite Pact, as ordered from Moscow which, at the time, let me remind you, was chopping up Poland together with Hitler? After all, what were the consequences of the coup d‘état which the British financed with half a million pounds? The consequences were a million killed Serbs, Communism, dictatorship, genocide in the NDH (the Independent State of Croatia), and the permanent hatred between the people living in this part of the world. I don’t know how did the Prince foresee all of this, but he did foresee it. When he was informed about the coup d‘état during his train ride, he turned to a military priest Milutin Arsic and said: “Poor Serbs! What will become of them?”
WHAT DIFFERENCE DOES IT MAKE?
You have been a journalist for many years and in a way, that is your family destiny. How would you describe the treatment that the media got from various political regimes, namely those under Slobodan Milošević, Zoran Đinđić, Vojislav Koštunica, Boris Tadić and Aleksandar Vučić?
As each dog resembles its master, so our media resemble all these people that you have mentioned and their epochs. Have a look at “The Post,” a new film by Steven Spielberg. Serious nations solved this issue half a century ago, because the role of the press is to serve the governed, not the governors. That’s the problem.