Where there’s muck there’s brass

Culture seems to be flourishing in Serbia whilst its politics still stumbles

The arrest last week of the former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was rightly welcomed by Europeans from across the continent. Overall, European foreign ministers have quietly agreed that Serbia has ticked one of the boxes required to join the EU. Other boxes do still need to be ticked though, including ‘capture Goran Hadzic’, another man wanted in the Netherlands on charges of war crimes. But generally the news was well received.

Serbia’s strides to present a cleaner and fairer face of itself on the international cultural stage have also been applauded. Its sports sides have enjoyed recent success: the national football side made last year’s World Cup Finals and the men’s tennis team won the 2010 Davis Cup. Tourists are starting to look past the beaches of Croatia to Serbia.

And Serbian gypsy bands such as the Boban and Marko Markovic Orchestra are at the heart of the ‘Balkan Brass’ music that is gaining popularity across Europe, with Romanian band Fanfare Ciocarlia a big rival to Markovic. ‘Balkan Brass’ calls on gypsy rhythms, Latin beats, acid jazz and big-band brass. It typifies co-ordination between different movements and feelings as bands regularly gather a dozen or more musicians on stage playing many different instruments at once. This harmony would be welcome in Serbia’s political world.

The arrest of Mr Mladic stirred large protests by right-wing Serb nationalists, a worrying sight for moderate and expansionist European politicians, and not exactly what president Boris Tadic would like to see, bearing in mind his desire to achieve full EU membership by 2018. But the rise of the right has been under way for a while now in Europe, with the success of the True Finns in the recent Finnish general election and the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France the two main examples of this pan-continent electoral shift.

So how worried should EU expansion officials be by the reaction of Serb nationalists? The whole Balkan issue is of changing concern. Certainly, the Bin Laden-esque nature of Mladic’s capture (quiet village in remote countryside; politicians’ complicity and secrecy surrounding his location) is cause for concern. The open politics of Tadic seem friendly to outsiders but to other Balkaners, (for example Kosovars, whose independence Serbia, amongst others doesn’t recognise), it is nationalist and intimidating.

Ethnicity, language and religion have divided the Balkans for centuries but perhaps Serbia can now lead a Balkan turn to a new future post-Mladic and post-genocide. It must not be forgotten; but nor should Serbia’s history automatically preclude it from European modernisation. The government in Belgrade could do worse than calling to mind its rising cultural power and the harmony and respect inherent in ‘Balkan Brass’ to sort out political disputes. The music is gaining Serbia lots of friends on YouTube at the moment and it seems that now a few more are starting to shake hands with Belgrade on the diplomatic as well as on the musical stage.

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