Whether living in exile abroad or in silence at home, former Yugoslav artists, writers and others live in the knowledge that they failed to prevent the breakup of their country and the ensuing war. They have proved unable either to counter nationalist hatred and paranoia or to gather themselves across ethnic lines to build a democratic opposition based on the multicultural ethos of the Yugoslavia they once knew.
In pre-war Yugoslavia, cultural affairs were the exclusive responsibility of the individual republics, but in each one policy was the same - differing only in the zeal with which it was applied by local Communist Party officials. Throughout the Seventies and early Eighties the space for public discourse and dissent was progressively enlarged. Outspoken books, plays and films provided an impetus for eloquent and increasingly provocative criticism of the regime.
On the whole, Yugoslav cultural life was vibrant and dynamic. Artists and intellectuals could take advantage of the inter-republican - even inter-regional - rivalry of Communist Party bureaucrats to limit the effects of the restrictions. A book or play banned in one place would be published or win awards in another.
At the same time, each republic was trying to map out its separate, national cultural boundaries. State finance was spent by local bureaucrats on grandiose projects to bolster their own status vis-a-vis their counterparts in neighbouring republics. Centrally funded 'Yugoslav' cultural festivals became, in all but name, jealously guarded 'national' events. The Dubrovnik Summer Festival, for instance, had become a purely Croatian affair as early as the Seventies.
But it was not the politicians alone who obstructed the pan-Yugoslav cultural flow. A substantial body of intellectuals and creative artists - writers in particular - were also preoccupied exclusively with their own national cultures and languages. Their intellectual roots were in European modernism and they had opposed the official party line. But their opposition to Communism did not make them democrats. It grew instead into a strident and increasingly intolerant nationalism, hostile to other ethnic groups, languages and cultures within Yugoslavia.
After Tito's death in 1980 these nationalist groups fought an internecine war, first to take over, and then to destroy, Yugoslav institutes of learning and professional academic bodies. In what can be seen, with hindsight, as a testing ground for the later breakdown of the Yugoslav federation in 1991, their jockeying to protect their own and their republics' positions against the rest led finally to the disintegration of the Yugoslav Writers Union.
Neither the relatively small dissident movement nor liberals within the Communist Party were able to stop the rot by building a countrywide opposition movement or devising a coherent strategy for reform. Both groups immersed themselves increasingly in national politics and launched acrimonious polemics against critics of the regime in other republics.
With the old order finally deposed in 1990, new parties competing to emerge in the multiparty system were dominated by the nationalist factions in each republic - by now complete with co-opted members of the former ruling Communist elite. Their programmes were extravagant in claims and promises, fanning the flames of suspicion and hostility among other nationalities. The oppression by the Serbs of the Albanians in Kosovo, and the collapse of the economy as well as the political system, fuelled nationalism in Serbia. This, in turn, provoked a reactionary nationalism in Slovenia and Croatia, which was repeated in Macedonia and Montenegro. In Bosnia the delicate balance between Serbs, Croats and Muslims neared breaking point.
The liberalisation of the economy in 1989 and 1990 and the potential benefits of the market system came too late to remedy the worsening economic situation. Unemployment and the threatened loss of social benefits played into the hands of nationalists. The poorer sectors of society voted overwhelmingly for the nationalists, who triumphed in the first multi-party elections in 1990. The elections brought to power representatives of the new political elite in Slovenia and Croatia, the old in Serbia and Montenegro, and unstable alliances in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. Their common features were an inability to negotiate, fanatical nationalism and extravagant promises of salvation.
Many intellectuals had not only failed to prevent the rise of ethnicity as the key value in the republics, but had actively contributed to it. Culture lost its function as critic and became the tool of the new ideology, under the control of ideological commissars worse than any in the bad old days of the Fifties.
Anti-nationalist intellectuals became the silent minority drowned out by the trumpets of nationalism. Cultural traffic between the republics ceased. Artists, writers and intellectuals were suddenly plunged into isolation in a disintegrating country: airlines, railways, road transport and telephones one by one ceased to operate. A hysterical preoccupation and active involvement with the war and its politics was substituted for the development of new works and their public presentation.
All the states that succeeded Yugoslavia saw the arts as a propaganda tool in the service of the nationalism on which they were founded. The purges in cultural institutions were ferocious. Many fled or were driven out of their countries. The space for experiment or debate disappeared.
Independent, unofficial voices are few and their reach limited. Anti-nationalist artists and intellectuals are a silent, scared minority. The lack of access to foreign publications, caused by the UN sanctions, isolates them even further.
Prospects remain bleak until the fighting stops. Then, culture will be a vital tool in a post-war process of healing and reconstruction. Whatever the eventual borders, the need to communicate across them as neighbours, if not as fellow countrymen, will be critical. But the old multiculturalism cannot be reborn as long as ethnicity remains the sole criterion of state and citizenship. The old cultural diversity of many regions has probably gone for ever.
The younger intellectuals who fled, and the children who stayed and were exposed to the war, with all its hatred and intolerance, are a lost generation. It will be a long time before the books that can sum up the pain and loss of this period, or the theatre that can reshape the collective consciousness, can appear.
The author was a professor at the University of the Arts in Belgrade and is now director of the Theater Instituut Nederland in Amsterdam.
A fuller version of this article appears in 'Index on Censorship', published this week (071-329 6434).Reuse content