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This is Serbia Calling: Rock 'N' Roll Radio and Belgrade's Underground Resistance

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There has been a clear tendency towards celebrating the myth of a supposedly vibrant protest culture within and outside Belgrade. This book might lend support to that position, although such is not its project. When Moslems are being massacred by the thousands down the road, however, it is difficult to credit pounding techno club cellars in Belgrade as an effective location for protest.

Matthew Collin

Reviewed by Joe Lockard

Wednesday, September 5 2001, 3:00 PM


Authoritarianism in Serbia under Milosevic was a peculiar amalgam of gangsterism and formal constitutionalism. An official rhetoric built itself atop the Communist Party's old lexicon re-tasked first into delusions of Greater Serbia, then into anti-European xenophobia. The public sphere turned into little more than a parade ground for extreme ethnocentric nationalism. Even the most coherent opposition bloc, led by Vuk Draskovic, played footsie with Serbia-first nationalism.

It was authoritarianism perfect for beefcake photos of nude crewcut fighters, glistening and flexing oiled muscles, with machine guns on display. Serbian politics overdosed on testosterone and the heroism of charismatic death squad leaders cum gangsters like Arkan, head of the Tigers militia. On the other side, as Semezdin Mehmedinovic describes in Sarajevo Blues, the Moslem victims in Bosnia were hiding away from shrapnel in shelters made of library books. Serbia's official self-portrait was as the front line of Western civilization against Moslem invasion, but the barbarism lay within.

The coercive violence that accompanied this deep-seated civic willfulness did not take long in arriving after Milosevic enunciated his vision of Greater Serbia, beginning in 1989. Even though the current Kostunica government has sent Milosevic to the Hague, a sacrificial figure for a non-atonement, there is every reason to believe that those same nationalist forces are awaiting their first opportunity to re-emerge.

Defeat does not mean disappearance; it is a prelude to violence. Serb nationalists who believe that only NATO prevented their triumph are now sitting at home unemployed, embittered and enraged. There is no magic wand that New World Order-makers can wave to calm angry ethnocentrism that waits for another, more favorable day.

This alone is a good reason to read Matthew Collin's This is Serbia Calling, which provides interleaved histories of the Milosevic government, the Balkan wars, and the alternative station Radio B92. The book tells the joint stories of rock broadcasting and political activism, one that concludes triumphantly with Milosevic's electoral overthrow in October 2000.

There are two problems with Collin's narrative. The first is that he remains deeply invested in the notion of rock-as-liberation. The second problem is that the triumphal conclusion Collin supplies for the book sets readers up to believe that the ideas and ethos of the Milosevic era have been defeated and permanently marginalized.

The history Collin provides suggests that retrograde Serb nationalism reached its termination with the end of Milosevic, and that afterwards the resistance culture that Radio B92 exemplified helped Serbia transit into a national renaissance. Collin describes a slow collapse, a dark nadir, and a triumphant return to democratic sanity with rock-blasting speakers at joyous full volume. Matters are rarely so simple. The Balkans, no less than other regions, do not fit neat narratives. In this case, neither was ethnic ultra-nationalism defeated nor was there any economic subordination to Euro-capitalism.

Collin does a good job historicizing Radio B92's inadvertent birth in 1989 from a Communist Party effort to achieve hip-ness by sponsoring a temporary youth radio station and providing transmitter access. Party apparatchniks wanted to endorse youth rebellion without underwriting rebellion against themselves. Their two-weeks-and-gone plan did not work. The new station stayed on the air and in tune with European pirate radio, broadcasting grunge and punk together with provocative radical talk shows. Its early anarchic tendencies and organizational splits faded behind a need to confront the growing power of the Milosevic forces, which emphasized control of the state broadcast media in order to obtain electoral support.

When B92 began broadcasting in support of anti-Milosevic demonstrations on March 9, 1991, it suffered the first of its police-enforced shut-downs. The station opened the next day under a no-newscasting ban, to which it responded by playing The Clash's "White Riot", Thin Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town," and many repetitions of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power." Part of the reason the station came back on the air and started news broadcasts again lay in the streets, where the ban on Radio B92 had become a protest issue among demonstrators. As Croatia and Slovenia declared independence in 1991 and Yugoslavia slid into war, Radio B92 became one of the few Serbian antiwar media voices.

Radio B92 was the Serbian representative within a larger broadcasting network that emerged as Yugoslavia broke up, an indie media network whose messages centered on witness, resistance and peaceful democracy. Studio 99 operated in besieged Sarajevo and Radio 101 in Zagreb. The Internet made it possible to read electronic dispatches from Sarajevo in 1993 via ZaMirNet from halfway around the world, despite terrific technical problems. But whereas ZaMirNet faded into Bosnia's cultural landscape, surrounded as it was by a supportive political environment, Radio B92 grew atop adversity. Serbian musical culture slipped into nationalistic turbo-folk, a tacky musical pastiche of Balkan disco and pop. Turbo-folk was the music of cultural isolationism. Ceca, the leading turbo-folk performer, carried her musical stardom to its logical political end by marrying Arkan. Arkan was indicted at the Hague for war crimes, but his career as right-wing cultural hero ended when he was gunned down last year in Belgrade by underworld forces.

With ugly trend-setters like these, the internationalism of rock and techno was salvation with amps. Radio B92 kept the airwaves full of good music and counter-news. Still, the Milosevic regime controlled Serbia even as the war disasters and global opprobrium piled high. When the government closed down B92 in December 1996 during protests over its rigged elections, the station's status had risen to the point that BBC and Voice of America kept its programming on-air by broadcasting B92 Real Audio files downloaded via the Net. Ironically, in 1995, the government had approved B92 opening the first ISP in Belgrade. Two days later the station was back on the air and its listenership soared.

Only in March 1999, when NATO bombing raids began in response to the Kosovo crisis, did the Milosevic government finally find sufficient grounds to move in, close the station, and later open with a new management. B92 continued reporting via its website, which was running at a million hits daily, but this medium meant the station was serving a global rather than a Serbian audience. Radio B92 found itself in the difficult middle position of opposing the NATO bombing while opposing the war in Kosovo. What was clearer than B92's politics at this point was that the Internet had replaced the easy-to-control single-tower radio antenna with a far less governable multiplicity of online broadcasting sites. The broadcasting paradigm under which Radio B92 first spoke to its audiences was declining in importance. A new Internet-based broadcasting paradigm was speaking now.

In August 1999 the old Radio B92 staff assembled to re-open as Radio B2-92, their old station still remaining in government hands under a feeble directorate. They faced government harassment and violence, including one destructive raid on the new studio premises. In May 2000, the Milosevic government closed B2-92, accusing it of advocating subversion and acting as a NATO tool. B2-92 once again established a new studio to re-start radio and Internet broadcasting. This cycle of closure and re-opening finally came to an end six months later with the electoral defeat of Milosevic, a victory spearheaded by the student-led OTPOR opposition movement. In the midst of the confusion of the final hours of the Milosevic government, Radio B92's staff liberated the original studios and began broadcasting on its old frequency.

There are some American leftists, like Michael Parenti, who in their zeal to oppose the New World Order and its imposition of free-market dogma, ramp up their political distorters in order to praise Milosevic as a figure of resistance against global capitalism. Parenti's capacity for political self-delusion appears endless, apparently fueled by an incapacity to accept contradictions that interfere with a neat either-or selection of sides. Bad capitalism in the US means good whatever in Serbia as long as it is anti-American, since the US represents rampant global aggression and Serbia must therefore represent valiant local resistance. So runs this nonsense logic that demands consistent role-playing and cannot accommodate complexity. Radio B92 was such a contradiction. It was an anti-Milosevic voice that broadcast products of the global music industry and received collaborative assistance from Western governments, and yet unquestionably represented an oppositional voice against internal and external hegemonies in the Balkans. Rock music culture, free-market capitalism, and NATO bombing campaigns all share the adjective 'international', but it took the deliberate self-isolation of the Serbian ultra-right to arrange these terms as a false tautology.

Matthew Collin wears his sympathies on his sleeve, the sympathies of an anti-Milosevic writer who is deeply attached to progressive and democratic Serbian political forces. The sympathies of more distant observers -- like myself -- who remain appalled at Serb genocide against the Moslems of Bosnia and Kosovo, come from behind much harder eyes. Is it a sufficient politics to play some great rock albums when Srebrenica is being butchered and we all know it? Was B92's counter-news sufficient to fuel Serbia's internal opposition?

Among those searching post facto for alternatives to NATO air strikes, there has been a clear tendency towards celebrating the myth of a supposedly vibrant protest culture within and outside Belgrade. This book might lend support to that position, although such is not its project. When Moslems are being massacred by the thousands down the road, however, it is difficult to credit pounding techno club cellars in Belgrade as an effective location for protest. Confusing protest within a music culture for the entirety of protest is too easy a mistake, even though the former Yugoslavia produced an extremely vibrant, oppositional rock culture in the form of Frankfurt School-inspired bands like Laibach. In the middle of the Bosnian War, Laibach produced extremely popular concept albums about the western alliance, NATO, and global capitalism, Kapital. The problem, however, is that Laibach was producing these statements in Slovenia, not Serbia.

This returns to the initial point of criticism concerning Collin's narrative of Radio B92's history. There is no necessary identity between any music genre and liberation. Freedom arrives along many avenues, of which music is only one; free expression is the antithesis of genre-specific, since it encompasses and expands the totality of genres. Cultural freedoms are relative and need continual re-inventions; music is a means for such re-inventions rather than a liberational politics sufficient of itself for change.

Political change came to Serbia because it rejected Milosevic as a loser and because of economic sanctions, not due to the spread of musical humanism or because Radio B92 broadcast enough John Lennon-style pacificism. Abie Natan, of sainted memory, played "All we are saying is give peace a chance," from his Voice of Peace pirate radio ship off the eastern Mediterranean coast for twenty-one years, and the Israeli-Palestinian fire exchange rate is faster than ever these days. There is a secondary problem here of identifying freedom with a particular broadcast technology. At its best, a radio station is a collective voice, but even a collective voice is one among many. To separate and privilege one medium as a means of resistance to authoritarianism, as this story does, is to overlook a diversity of jointly influential media. But Collin is by no means alone in taking this position; indeed, one of the most popular myths about the fall of communism in the former Czechoslvakia was that it was delegitimized by a "Velvet Revolution," led by a rock and roll inspired cultural vanguard raised on the "democratic" sounds of the Velvet Underground and Frank Zappa.

Radio B92 was not, as the book's title suggests, an underground resistance in the sense that Algerian underground radio constituted a resistance. In the "This is the Voice of Algeria" chapter of A Dying Colonialism, Franz Fanon describes the frequently jammed Voice of Free Algeria, established underground by the FLN in 1956, as a radio voice "that speaks for the djebels." This station transformed a European-governed technology, one represented by the official French-language Radio-Alger, into a meaningful revolutionary source that "produced a fundamental change in the people." Did Radio B92 constitute a source of fundamental national self-awareness? Not even Collin would advance that claim, and there is no reason to believe that Serbia has undergone any massive shift of consciousness. More accurately, B92 was an overt center and symbol of political opposition, one that eventually helped generate democratic change within a corrupt but constitutional paradigm. The difference between these two political positions and use of the term "underground resistance" describes an exercise in social romanticization. But then, like this book's premises, much of the best rock music has been about romantic transcendence over the mundane.

The book is marred by the publisher's unwise decision to avoid the minimal expense of an index. Readers who want to remind themselves of an individual's first appearance or a specific event will have to rely on their own memories. On the other hand, there is an appendix with a great play-list of Top Ten Albums on Radio B92 from 1991-1999 to keep you company as you read.

This is Serbia Calling is available from Serpents' Tail  

Copyright © 2001 by Joe Lockard. All rights reserved.
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