3/8/18, 4:07 AM CETGRAČANICA, Kosovo — For one night only in Kosovo’s Serb enclave of Gračanica, the 1990s were back: tracksuits, rave music — and Slobodan Milošević.
Not far from where Serbia’s then-president delivered a
1989 speech that was a harbinger of the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart, a troupe of actors staged the premiere of “Lift: The Slobodan Show” — a musical based on the life of Milošević and his family.
The story of a strongman charged with 66 counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes at a U.N. tribunal for his central role in wars that killed some 130,000 people and drove millions from their homes is not the most obvious subject for a piece of musical theater. But the show’s creators say it represents a kind of Serb reckoning with Milošević.
Almost two decades after the last of those wars, Milošević’s legacy is still felt across the Balkans. Relations between Serbia and neighboring nations remain strained, officials who served under him hold senior positions in Belgrade, victims of the war are still missing and the different peoples of the region hold very different views of recent history.
In the play, the Milošević family’s superficial travails are contrasted with those of the cast, most of whom lived in Kosovo in the 1990s and experienced the consequences of the 1998-1999 Kosovo war — displacement, poverty and discrimination. After a war that left 13,000 people dead, most of them ethnic Albanians, two-thirds of Kosovo’s Serb population — 200,000 people — fled.
“Our motive in dealing with Milošević and his family was dealing with our own personal demons — not only the demons of the 1990s but also with the demons of our national identity,” said Nenad Todorović, the director of the play, which will open at the National Theater in Belgrade on March 18.
“Our people never got to judge him. This was our version of a Serbian Hague,” he said, referring to the U.N. war crimes tribunal that also never had a chance to pass judgment on Milošević. The former Serbian and Yugoslav president died 12 years ago in his cell of a heart attack before his trial was over.
However, the decision of the Belgrade-based playwright Jelena Bogavac to focus on the Milošević family and the fate of Serbs while glossing over much of the violence perpetrated by Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo has drawn heavy criticism.
Jeton Neziraj, an ethnic Albanian playwright from Kosovo’s capital Pristina who was in the audience for Tuesday night’s premiere, said the play was full of “well-known Serbian nationalistic and idiotic narration of the 90s,” in which Serbs portray themselves as victims of foreign enemies, American imperialism and Western media.
The cast of “Slobodan Show” during the premiere | Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images
“Milošević’s responsibility is reduced to almost zero,” said Neziraj, who has worked with Serb theater professionals in
“I am almost sure that if he had lived, Milošević would have been proud to see himself portrayed this way,” he said. “I feel sorry for the Serbian audience who will be watching this play, especially for the young audience, who will be poisoned with this stupid nationalistic propaganda show.”
Based on a true story
In choosing to focus on the Milošević family, the play is not short of vivid characters: not just Milošević himself, a communist apparatchik turned nationalist, but also his influential wife Mira Marković — often portrayed in media accounts as a Balkan Lady Macbeth — and their playboy son, Marko.
The script is based on hours of transcripts of Milošević’s phone calls and his wife’s diaries. Marković, wearing a trademark flower in her hair, delivers monologues about moving into increasingly larger apartments and finally freeing the decor from the kitsch that dominated her young life. Milošević chides Marko for keeping the swimming pool at jacuzzi-high temperatures and consoling his daughter Marija about problems with her radio station.
The music is a mixture of 1990s club music and turbofolk — a blend of traditional, pop and dance styles popular across the Balkans.
In a section dramatizing NATO’s 1999 bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war, synth-generated sound effects blasted out from the stage as Western and domestic media coverage critical of Milošević and Serbia is recited.
Actor Dejan Cicmilović, who plays Milošević, said he had protested against the Serb leader throughout the 1990s. But he said he tried to separate his political views from his portrayal of the former president.
“We are not justiyfing Milošević, nor are we judging him in a political way,” he said. “Milošević in our play is not a man who is placed on a pedestal as someone we must judge. We are just presenting some specific segments of his life, more private than political. For us he is neither a butcher of the Balkans nor a national hero. He is an ordinary man who did ordinary things, worried about his family, and ended up how he ended up.”
The script is based on hours of transcripts of Milošević’s phone calls and his wife’s diaries. | Andrej Isakovic/AFP via Getty Images
Nenad Maksimović, director of the Gračanica-based Center for Peace and Tolerance, a local NGO, said the play was a positive step toward a fuller understanding of Milošević’s life because it did not take an overt position for or against him.
“It was very popular to be against Milošević, and if you weren’t, then you were seen as a fascist or a nationalist,” Maksimović said after the premiere. “At this moment we cannot assess him, we need to wait until the secret files are open, so that we can find out whether his actions are the product of his will or if he was a product of circumstances, like all of us. Only in 20 or 30 years can we really assess him.”
Although Serbia’s leadership now advocates close ties with the West and EU membership, Milošević has
left his mark on national politics. President Aleksandar Vučić is a former ultranationalist who served Milošević as information minister. Foreign Minister Ivica Dačić was Milošević’s protégé and leads the party he founded. Defense Minister Aleksandar Vulin, a former high official in Mira Marković’s Jugoslav Left party, laid a wreath last year with a convicted war criminal at Milošević’s grave.
In another sign of the long shadow cast by the past, Belgrade has refused to recognize Kosovo’s 2008 declaration of independence and continues to regard the majority ethnic Albanian territory as its province.
The venue that staged Tuesday’s premiere is called the “National Theater of Pristina Temporarily Relocated in Gračanica.” It is funded by the Serbian, rather than the Kosovan, government.
“We are still living with the consequences of the Milošević era,” said Predrag Radonjić, the theater’s director. He said the play was “neither a caricature nor a glorification” of the former strongman.
“He is guilty for a lot, but not for everything,” he said.
Read the story on Politico Europe’s website.