Tag Archives: Serbia

The Conscience of the Nation was Born in the Lap of a Saint

I have met many great social entrepreneurs on this journey, and will meet many more. Some will achieve greatness, others will make their own difference on a less grand, but no less important scale. Yet very few will have the impact of Veran Matic, the inspiration behind B92, the organisation which is the single most famous and important social business in the entire region. There is no single person I tried harder to meet than Veran–and finally, thanks to Dragana Nikolic Solomon, had the pleasure of meeting him with his interpreter, Vlada Brasanac, on 20 July 2007. What a story!!

I will not bore you with a lengthy history of B92. Interested readers can purchase Matthew Collin’s gripping book, “This is Serbia Calling” and get the full picture of B92, its background and its impact. During the 1990s and all the “troubles” under Milosevic, B92 became nothing short of the conscience of the nation. It was simply a radio station, initially a not-so-popular one; what it became was, in the words of one person I later met, “the single most important thing to me in my whole early life, period”. B92 took on the Government and provided the only independent voice at a time when all other outlets were under strict control. This was not easy. Employees, especially the Directors, were subject to regular personal threats, the station was shut down several times, equipment stolen and destroyed–and they continued to broadcast, and fearlessly remained independent. Critically they did not become the voice of the opposition–and gave a regular opportunity for the Government and other illiberal forces to state their views, as well, on the air. They were unique only in that they gave listeners the full picture–of the war and its atrocities which the Government was perpetrating in their name.

Today, B92 is a successful and diversified media company. It does TV, radio, publishing, produces movies, etc. It is a serious commercial enterprise, broadcasting programmes with a huge following, such as ”Big Brother” (although their version does have a twist) but at the same time, will follow up with a documentary about the tragedy at Vukovar. It is backed by commercial media investors as well as “soft” money, and partly staff-owned.

Yet refusing to rest on its laurels, it now has strayed further into the social side of the business. A year or two ago it tried to raise money on the air for a “safe house” for women who were the victims of domestic violence. It raised so much money, it built three! More recently, it mounted a campaign for mobile blood units, urging people to help replenish Serbia’s depleted summer stocks (Veran himself gives regularly). Its next project will be a Holocaust-based exhibit that will focus on Serbia’s role in the extermination process. In all three cases, B92 highlights an issue most Serbians would prefer to ignore–they raise money and awareness about these topics–and then they make practical suggestions for moving forward. For example, the Holocaust exhibit will primarily be about tolerance in a general sense, and not be limited to the WWII atrocities, a quality not only lacking in Sebia but all over the world!

So the question is, what makes a guy risk life and limb to do all this. Veran offered a wide range of intellectual arguments, the UN Declaration on the Freedom of Speech, etc. I feel a personal anecdote is much more telling. When he was about 7 or 8, his deeply religious and beloved grandfather was losing his eyesight. To help him, young Veran used to sit in his lap and read to his grandfather from the bible. In addition to reading they chatted about the ethical and moral issues contained therein. I am not sure if Veran is religious–I failed to ask him (a mistake no decent journalist would make!), what I am willing to bet on is that there, in the lap of this great man, is where Veran’s ethical compass and moral courage were formed. But for this, there is no telling how things might have ended.

I can think of nothing else to say, but I tell you this. I am going to pay more attention to what I say when my grandchildren sit in my lap as my own sight fades-perhaps the fate of a nation will depend on it?

The Old Man, The Good People of Serbia and Selection Bias

The train is pulling out of Zagreb en route to Belgrade.  It will pass through marvellous sounding places like Slavonski Brod along the way.  Seated next to me are two older men.  As I sit, huffing and puffing from shlepping three heavy suitcases in 36 degree heat the older one asks me, “Greek?”  Since childhood people have been asking me this.  I don’t think I look Greek, but I guess I must otherwise people wouldn’t ask.  I say I have come from England (the full story being far too complicated)—he gestures that he cannot speak any.  We try a half-conversation in German.  He explains that he is Serbian and from Belgrade.  He then commences a lengthy apology—for nearly everything; the condition of the train (which seems fine to me, despite now being in 2nd class!) the surroundings, everything.  He then assures me that Belgrade has really wonderful people—really!  I did not challenge this, needed no such assurances and have met wonderful people so far and surely will in Belgrade as well—so what is going on?

I have no idea but will speculate.  During the conflict in the 1990s, Serbia, in most of the media I read, was cast in a negative light.  Perhaps, as I told him this was my first trip ever to Serbia and Belgrade, he felt he needed to try to “adjust” my view in advance.  This unnecessary promise will, I am sure, work out and the people I meet in Serbia will provide a very similar variety to those I met in Zagreb, or meet every day in London.  In fact, if they are as nice as those I have met in Zagreb they will be much nicer than a random sample from London!  But then I check myself, “is my sample in Zagreb, Belgrade or elsewhere on this journey likely to be random?  They are social entrepreneurs, NGOistas, human rights activists, independent journalists—hardly random.  By their very nature, are they are likely to be some of the most open-minded and public-spirited one meets anywhere?  Is thus my sample not random, but subject to heavy selection bias and therefore not representative of Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian or other people?  Should I not assemble a more “mixed” group of interviewees, so I can tell a more “balanced story?”  Well no, yes, yes and no!

Or to put it differently, I know my sample is biased and I do not care.  I am bored of national stereotypes and characterisations.  From my experience, no country has a monopoly on good people, or on assholes—all nations are a mixture.  I sometimes feel countries are attempting to “corner the market” in jerks, but this is impossible.  Competition is too stiff and barriers to entry are far too low.  But don’t I have a responsibility, as I reflect on what I see, to offer a balanced perspective, not only highlighting the good?  Again no!

Assholes universally receive a disproportionate share of attention and column inches.  If one analysed this over the course of the last 20 years in this region, I have no doubts that corrupt politicians and tyrants received far greater coverage than those many people trying somehow to do good.  I cannot be sure, but this is my hunch, at least based upon my understanding of media in the countries I know best.

So unashamedly I am producing a biased account.  I am searching for, as I made clear right up front, the best part of human endeavour.  Even if I meet people who do not seem so great to me, or just plain piss me off, I will try to find and report on what of the “good”, as philosophers describe it, I think I see.  This blog will be one-sided, subjective and personal and thus perhaps portray a falsely positive picture.  To a degree, I would submit that I am merely going a minute way towards correcting a pervasive negative bias.  People seeking “balance” are free to look elsewhere.