Summer of 2015 in Vienna. I could tell you about the beautiful metropolis that reminds me of both war and peace at the same time, but that has nothing to do with my story since I didn’t get to see Vienna during the five days we were there. The only time I left the hotel was to take a bus ride to the government offices. I was attending a Civil Society Conference with a whole bunch of other activists not just from Bosnia but also from other neighbouring countries in the Balkan.
We had all kinds of meetings, but they were all either inside the hotel or within walking distance from the hotel. Most of those meetings were about social issues in the region; activists come forward to talk about their daily struggles. Everyone had so much to say about our politicians and how wrong they are, how greedy, delusional, selfish and self-centred.
Journalists from all over Europe also came to talk to us. I remember a number of recording devices being held next to my face while I answered questions. We were all more than happy to talk to anyone who would listen, especially if they were willing to help spread the word.
We spoke about all kinds of issues and how they affected different members of our societies – the elderly, the children, the students, the unemployed, the employed, the self-employed, the women, the men, each group faced the same problems in different ways and we felt it was important to represent all those ways.
While the chaos of going from one conference room to another, speaking to one group then another, focusing on one issue then another was exhausting, the real event of the whole trip was yet to come – a debate between activists and the leaders. This was going to be filmed.
Before the big event, in the hotel restaurant, we had a meeting with the moderator; a guy in his late fifties, with beady little eyes wondering about from behind his glasses as if he didn’t need them but wore them to hide the truth. I didn’t like the guy from the moment I laid eyes on him. He looked like a personification of fear and self-importance rolled into one. This may be fine in some circles, but not among activists.
The moderator, I honestly no longer remember his name, I want to say Igor, but I’m not sure. I’ll just call him Igor. Well, Igor explained how we will all be seated in a circle, politicians and activists, on a podium surrounded by an audience. The cameras will go between us and the spectators. And we’ll have one mic between two people.
“We have one activist and one politician from each country, so please speak to the politician from your own country,” Igor said in almost a whisper.
To be honest, I was there to encourage changes in Bosnia, so, initially, I didn’t mind this, though I couldn’t understand why. All the countries represented were still so connected that they brought us all to Vienna at the same time, to talk about our issues. Clearly, we were connected. But, hey, fine. Right? I agreed just like everyone else did.
We took our places and as luck would have it I sat next to Igor to my right. On my left was a young activist from Serbia, clearly more concerned with himself and his reputation than anything else. Fair enough. He was a nice kid.
The politicians had opening statements. They all spoke about our economies like we were at the top of the world and it could hardly get any better. Except for the politician who came from Bosnia – Igor Crnadak. Everyone was shocked to hear him speak. In fact, when the debate ended, I had a number of people ask me if he too was an activist. He openly contradicted all his colleagues and told them how he doesn’t know why we speak about our economies as if they were a Ferrari when they were more like a bus from a famous regional film called ‘Ko to tamo peva’; the bus in the film is like an old bucket on wheels.
Since I had to agree with the politician from Bosnia and didn’t have much to say to him, I looked around at all the other politicians wondering which one I should focus on. I decided to go for the biggest fish, the president of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, even before the kid to my left spoke. Once the kid to my left spoke, almost apologising that we have some problems we’d like to bring to his attention, if he’s alright with it, I knew that Vucic was the guy for me.
I no longer remember everything I said. I know I started by addressing the politician from Bosnia and thanking him for his honesty, and then I turned to Vucic. I spoke about the problems I heard people from Serbia speak about, but then made them general because I’ve heard people from other countries of the region talk about the same issues. The kid on my left should have mentioned the issues, but since he didn’t, I decided I would, not only because it was important to bring it to the attention of the president, but also because those were the problems we were all facing and I wanted all the other politicians to hear it, as well as those in the audience.
I was impressed by my self-control. My tone did not go up even though I really wanted to scream at them, especially Vucic, a president who once, during the war in Bosnia, said that for every Serb that the international community kills, they will kill 100 Muslims. I do believe I deserve some kind of a medal for that level of self-control. I was so polite.
Unfortunately, I was rudely interrupted by the beady-eyed moderator. Clearly, he had a different kind of debate in mind. Also, it seems he had a different system in mind – I’m pretty sure he was still in the communist state of mind and believed that we all MUST behave the way we’re told to behave. I grew up in a democracy, and we all have a democracy now. It is time for our officials to board that train. Or at least that’s what I thought.
As it turns out, they have no desire to board the democracy train that takes away their power. They would very much like to be dictators and have the citizens as their subjects.
The main organiser, a guy from Montenegro, was devastated by the way the debate went. While he was apologising to me, I felt sorry for him. I tried to make him feel better by saying that that was only the beginning, that we can organise it better the following year – plans to organise those meetings annually were already in place, in fact, the following year we met in Paris, then in Trieste, then in London, that was the last one. Unfortunately, I was wrong and he was right. All the future meetings were bad; activists met to exchange views and they were taken sightseeing.
I am not sorry that I did what I did, but I am sorry for the way it turned out. I don’t know if the rumours about Vucic complaining are true, but the fact is that we never had another chance to put our politicians on the spot. They always found activists who would behave as they are told, who wouldn’t say too much, who would be subdued, afraid and submissive. This way the organisers could write in their report that representatives of the Civil Society were present, yet we really weren’t. In fact, we’ve been left behind, unable to raise funds for any project or carry on working as we did before. We’re being squeezed out to make room for the sort of activists that politicians agree to.
If I had known that that would be my one chance to speak on behalf of the people of Bosnia and other countries of the region, if I had known that the decision-makers were so inclined to obey our politicians, I would not have been so polite, and I would not have let the moderator interrupt me. But I honestly thought that the decision-makers in Europe had more dignity than to let a bunch of whiny politicians from the Balkan dictate. It seems one of their complaints is worth more than a million of our complaints.
But... We live and learn. I’m not going to give up.
About the author
I'm an activist and a writer, born in Bosnia, grew up in the UK - yes, I know, another war-child who grew up a little too brave. I'm also a bit of a meverick. Please feel free to get in touch.