Sunday 16 October 2016

Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise (Part 1 of 2)

The still-visible damage from the NATO bombing of Belgrade. (Photo: David Orlovic)

Last August I had the good fortune to be a member of a study trip river cruise along the Danube that sailed from the port town of Vidin (after two days in Sophia, Bulgaria) to Passau in Germany that concluded with a two-day trip to Prague, Czech Republic. It was an exhilarating experience because of the significant ports of call at which we stopped and the stimulating conversations with fellow passengers. But my lasting impressions were more about what was imparted or omitted by the local guest lecturers and tour guides, and their often selective or subjective remarks. This review is also informed by my exchanges with others about those experiences, as well as my supplemental reading. Part 1 of this piece appears below. Part 2 will be published here in two weeks.
– Bob Douglas
The first sentence of Alan Furst’s wonderfully crafted novel, Night Soldiers, reads: “In Bulgaria, in 1934 on a muddy street in the river town of Vidin, Khristo Stoianev saw his brother kicked to death.” Although a powerful sentence, it did not originally leap off the page until I reread large sections of the novel when I returned home from the Danube cruise. Nor did I initially give Furst’s map of the Danube from 1934-1945, that graces the beginning of the book, more than a cursory glance until recently. Only the first thirty-five pages and the last section of Night Soldiers are about his activities along the Danube, but those pages more deeply resonate. They also provide striking insights that I thought were sometimes missing when I listened to the Bulgarian lecturer and guide.

The Danube region of Central Europe is drenched in repression and bloodshed from military conquest, war, totalitarian rule, paramilitary militias and violent ethnic cleansing but that history was infrequently referenced during the trip. However, those conditions are vividly embedded in Night Soldiers. In Vidin, we visited a flat-level church and our guide pointed out that under the Turkish Ottomans no building could be higher than a Turk on horseback – an interesting detail, no doubt – but only when Furst relays the same fact through one of his characters does it reverberate because we are encouraged to feel his utter disdain for the Turks and the malevolent influence they still exert over the minds of Bulgarians even though the Ottomans have long departed: the Turk “has taken off the fez and put on a crown.” The king “is the toy of the army and the fascist officers.” Furst has made a direct link between the Turks and the fascist militias in 1930s Bulgaria.

An Ottoman-era church in Vidin. (Photo: Bob Douglas)
I would have liked lecturers and guides to offer similar insights. They might have done so by scrambling the chronology (from the Romans to the present) and offering a more thematic approach so that we could make more connections with the historical past. For example, throughout the Danube, it would have been salutary to hear from the lecturers and guides about the Turkish legacy. Did it leave a deep distrust of Muslims that might explain their resistance to accepting Syrian refugees? If so, does it carry the same weight as current considerations: their fear of terrorism or their inability to accommodate refugees because of limited resources?

The Bulgarian and Romanian guides made a more powerful impression when they reflected on the Communist experience in their respective countries, given that it happened more recently and certainly in their lifetime. Integrating their own experiences into their historical overview rendered their presentations more compelling. The Bulgarian guide underscored the stupidity of the rulers and how people invoked humour and jokes to mock them. She also recalled in 1989 hearing on the radio that a Communist leader had resigned; she was stunned by that announcement but she had to go out in the street to ask another woman whether she heard the same news report before she felt safe to express her joyful feelings.

The Romanian guide focused more on the terror living under the brutal regime of Nicolae Ceaușescu, perhaps the most Stalinist regime after the death of Stalin, and with a security police, the Securitate, that could rival Stalin’s NKVD in its power and omniscient surveillance. Ceaușescu decided to pay off the foreign debt, requiring the Romanian people to bear the cost through severe food rationing and restricted energy supplies limiting them to use 40-watt bulbs for only two hours a day. Our guide remembers her grandmother reading her forbidden children’s stories by candlelight. In rural areas, half the villages, usually inhabited by minorities, were razed and their residents forcibly transferred to agro-towns.

We saw the huge hydroelectric power station built in one of the Danube gorges in the Romanian and Serbian sector known as the Iron Gate that increased the water level, submerged entire villages and severely damaged the city of Orsova. When the city was rebuilt on higher ground, local authorities allowed the reconstruction of the Roman Catholic cathedral, the only one built in Romania during the communist era and unexpected since Ceaușescu usually ordered the destruction of churches and the arrest of priests. The cathedral’s most distinctive and iconoclastic feature is watercolour murals of Jesus carrying the Cross accompanied by Vladimir Lenin, John Lennon and the Romanian gymnast, Nadia Comăneci. Although the guide’s presentation was filtered through her own personal experience, it was integrated into the larger verifiable recent history in Romania.

In Belgrade, a local professor addressed us about what was billed as "modern Serbia." He started with a historical overview from 1878 when the Great Powers recognized the state of Serbia and then pivoted to briefly mentioning Kosovo, pointing out that Serbia does not have definable boundaries. This was code for the unwillingness of Serbia to recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Most telling in his survey was how he completely ignored the Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian wars from 1991-95. This egregious omission enabled him to evade discussing the responsibility of the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milošević, who played a major role in igniting the violent ethnic cleansing and attack upon Bosnian civilians. Nothing was said about Serbian sniping at Sarajevo or about the massacre of 7,000 Bosnians at Srebrenica, a horror that seared the West and, according to journalist, Tim Judah (Kosovo: What Everyone Should Know, Oxford, 2005), was instrumental in the NATO decision to bomb Serbia and Kosovo in 1999 in order to end the war there and prevent another massacre. Instead, our speaker focused on the annual brain drain of young people from Serbia owing to unemployment, limited career opportunities and poor pay, a legitimate economic concern that seemed disconnected from the political overview that opened his talk.

The view from the Belgrade fortress. (Photo: Bob Douglas)

When we disembarked, our tour guide took us to the Belgrade fortress where the city’s history began, a stark reminder that the city, and by extension the country, has been burdened with history. Although the present site dates from the early eighteenth century when the Austrians rebuilt it, the fortress, on the high ground overlooking the marvelous view of the confluence of the Sava and Danube, has witnessed waves of conquests ranging from the Romans, the Austrians and the Ottomans. The latter largely controlled it for over three centuries only ending their rule in 1867 whereby the Hapsburgs of Austria-Hungary took control. The seeds of conflict simmered between this empire and the kingdom of Serbia. One can see in the distance a tower that the Hungarians used to spy upon the Serbs. That roiling tension boiled over in June 1914 after a Bosnian Serb in Sarajevo assassinated the Archduke Ferdinand, the heir of the emperor, Franz Joseph, the spark that ignited the carnage of World War I.

Leaving the fortress and the beautiful Kalemegdan Park – a name derived from the Turkish – we toured through modern Belgrade. What was most noticeable and pointed out was the NATO bombing of the city in 1999, particularly the Army Headquarters that has not been rebuilt. Is it to remind tourists of NATO “aggression,” particularly that of U.S. President Bill Clinton, for “taking Kosovo away from us” – a still widespread perception. Although our tour guide was generally successful in keeping his emotions under tight control, I was told that another guide was convinced that the Americans bombed Serbia and killed two thousand civilians because the Serbians were opposed to the U.S. building a military base in Kosovo. It is true that the Americans built the largest base outside of America since Vietnam in Kosovo without consulting the Serbs, but they built it after the bombing of Serbia when the region fell under the control of the NATO peacekeeping mission. Glossed over was the violent ethnic cleansing and murder of ethnic Albanians before 1999 resulting, according to Judah, in the displacement of 1.45 million Kosovo Albanians. And to be fair, once the war ended and before NATO troops arrived, the Kosovan victims engaged in acts of revenge by kidnapping and murdering Serbians living in Kosovo. Pointedly, Judah reminds us that in this country, “it is what people believe rather than what is true that matters.” Leaving Belgrade my strongest impression was that it is exceedingly difficult to be objective and fair-minded if an individual belongs to an ethnic group that has committed atrocities, particularly if they have occurred in recent history.

The second and concluding part of Bob Douglas' Politics along the Danube: Reflections of a Study Trip River Cruise will appear here on Sunday, October 30.

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