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||Narcissus Publications and Central Europe Review
||Feb 28 2001
Barnes & Noble.com
Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited
After the Rain - How the West Lost the East
World in Conflict and Transition
An anthology of articles and essays regarding the societies, politics, economics, geopolitics and history of countries in Central Eastern Europe
and South Eastern Europe (Balkan).
"How the West lost the East. The economics, the politics, the geopolitics, the history, the conspiracies, the corruption, the old and the new, the plough and the internet—it is all here, in prose, as provocative and vitriolic and loving and longing as I could make it. Reading this book, I wish upon the reader the joy and the revulsion, the dark fascination of this region and its surrealist dreams and nightmares. This is what I experience daily here and it is my hope that I succeeded to convey the siren's song, the honeyed trap, the lure and the allure of this tortured corner of the earth."
If you live in Central, Eastern, or South Europe (Balkan)
If you are a Political Scientist, a Columnist, a Decision-maker
If you want to know the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth
about Events, Personalities, Institutions,
the Politics, the Geopolitics, the Money, the Power, the Crime
If you want to understand Why the West Lost the East
From The Mind of Darkness:
"'The Balkans' - I say - 'is the unconscious of the world'. People stop to digest this metaphor and then they nod enthusiastically. It is here that the repressed memories of history, its traumas and fears and images reside. It is here that the psychodynamics of humanity - the tectonic clash between Rome and Byzantium, West and East, Judeo-Christianity and Islam - is still easily discernible. We are seated at a New Year's dining table, loaded with a roasted pig and exotic salads.
I, the Jew, only half foreign to this cradle of Slavonics. Four Serbs, five Macedonians. It is in the Balkans that all ethnic distinctions fail and it is here that they prevail anachronistically and atavistically. Contradiction and change the only two fixtures of this tormented region.
The women of the Balkan - buried under provocative mask-like make up, retro hairstyles and too narrow dresses. The men, clad in sepia colours, old fashioned suits and turn of the century moustaches. In the background there is the crying game that is Balkanian music: liturgy and folk and elegy combined. The smells are heavy with musk-ular perfumes. It is like time travel. It is like revisiting one's childhood."
Life Is Cheap, History Is Dear
For us in the West, the Balkans are a kind of condensed Russia, dark, knotted, unknowable. Macedonia, where author Sam Vaknin is an economics advisor to the government, is the fulcrum of the Balkans, historically the most polarized and violent of the Balkan mini-states; Macedonian terrorists fomented a guerilla war in the eerily beautiful country south of Serbia in 1912 and set in motion the events which culminated in the assassination of Archduke Franz-Josef and his wife in Sarajevo in July 1914.
The roundrobin Bosnian wars and the recent Kosovo campaign created a number of subgenres of writing about the Balkans: the exegesis of war crimes; deconstructions of the blood imperative expressed in ancient enmities still on the boil; propaganda by all sides. Most Western journalism on the Balkans is well-intentioned but often dangerously narrow in compass. In the media surrounding the bombing campaigns against the Serbs in 1993 and again in 1999, the West's reportage was often dismally biased, largely through ignorance, lack of real access, and the consequent temptation to scoop at all costs.
This opened the doors to the likes of the KLA, an avowed terrorist organization (now, it seems, armed and bankrolled by a multinational narcotics web) metamorphosed into a romantic army of liberation. That's but one example. Since 1993, one Pultizer Prize winner has openly questioned the objectivity of his own prize-winning (and policy-changing) work in Sarajevo, and a senior BBC-TV assignment editor has likewise questioned that esteemed newsgathering organization's failures - such as failing to balance reports of Serb atrocities at Sarajevo with Croat atrocities at Mostar - during the Bosnian wars.
No, the Balkans are not a place where one can simply parachute in and start writing and filming and hope to be relaying to an uncomprehending, comfortable audience at home something like the truth. But then what is journalism to be in a region so marinated in internecine conflict that there may well be no single reportable truth?
I first met a Macedonian in a Toronto parking garage late one winter's night after an evening at the theatre. He had maps and flags on his grimy wall and spoke at once poetically and brutally about his lifelong enemies so far away. He was in his late forties, a grandfather-to-be, who, when he discovered I had been to Serbia and Montenegro in 1993, wanted to know what I thought of the women there, rather as if I'd been to a new wing of some distant human zoo. He proceeded, in an easy, conversational way, to detail for some long minutes his hatred of these women, who had done nothing to him that he chose to mention. His rant was as chilling as it was base. I am by no means singling out Macedonians in this: I have been subjected to this off-hand barbarism dozens of times in the Balkans, as has many a writer. A Croat professor told me that Muslims are best set against one another, to save Christians the trouble of killing them off - and then served coffee on superb bone china, in a bizarre setpiece of hospitality. One effusive Serb priest told me much the same thing at a famous Montenegrin shrine one fine afternoon and a moment later invited me to lunch with his bishop. "A very cultured man," he told me, as if he himself knew what civilization is. I mention this because, in a profound way that Vaknin understands, life is very cheap in the Balkans because history is so dear. We in North America fail to understand this in a realistic way, because our own history is shrink-wrapped and diluted by the immigrant experience and vast geographic isolation. Rather, as Vaknin so rightly underlines in his dissections of the West's failure via the IMF to do very little correct in Russia but a great deal that's pernicious, we persist in believing in a culpably ignorant way that Balkan peacekeeping will be a finite commitment, or that streamlined neoliberal economics can be grafted onto deeply crippled societies and resurrect them in an eyeblink.
I agree with Vaknin that most of the Balkan diseases are not those of the heart, but rather stem from corruption and - much the same thing - prolonged economic idiocy. Tito has a great deal to answer for in the Balkans, not least the avalanche of paper debt he allowed the West to sell his kludged-together country in the name of keeping first Stalin and then Khrushchev and finally Brezhnev out. The average guy, as Vaknin well knows, does not go hunting for his neighbour with an AK-47 unless the wheels have well and truly come off his world. When, eleven years after Tito died, the fiscal fiction that was Yugoslavia disemboweled itself, the bloodthirstiness was rooted in religious bigotry, that's true, but hate was the symptom, not the disease. One should never forget that the first war in Yugoslavia was a short and sharp one, fought for the Slovenian customs posts on the Austrian frontier, fitting metaphor for the economic disaster suppurating under the Yugoslav skin.
What distinguishes Vaknin's writings on the Balkans from those before him? He is an Israeli, trained in physics, with supplemental degree work in financial theory. His technical mindset and skeptical but humane Jewish ethos permeate his writing. Both are exceedingly useful in deconstructing the mess the pseudoscience of Communism left behind in the countries where he's worked, and the mess that Western pseudoscience of the New World Order/IMF sort is currently brewing.
Most writers who have taken on the Balkans with some proficiency have been English or English-educated: Rebecca West, Nora Beloff, Neal Ascherson, Misha Glenny. Vaknin's considerable intellectual armory reminds me of that of the ex-MOSSAD people I met in Poland in the early 1990s, retired spooks now running trading houses: utterly realistic, Talmudically concise in their opinions, and damn relentless. Vaknin is living in a political hothouse in Macedonia; his fertile output for Central Europe Review is fired by the urgency I recall when I first worked in post-communist Poland: events demand recording, but the sheer rate of change of the society itself is as draining as it is exhilarating. I admire Vaknin's ability to keep his intellectual balance, no mean feat in the circumstances. He is in the right place at the right time, because when Milosevic falls, there will be a reckoning that will shake Europe from Berlin to the Bosporus to Moscow. What will the West do if there is a Serb civil war? Or a Serb incursion in Montenegro, Serbia's last link to the Adriatic - a mobilization requiring only that the barracks gate be open for the tanks to roll into Podgorica and Cetinje?
My father urged me to prefer small books over thick tomes, arguing that small books meant the author saw clearly enough to write precisely. It's advice I have rarely had cause to regret. After the Rain is the title of the most famous Macedonian film of the past decade, a circular parable of memory and blood feud and journalism that many film people of my acquaintance swore was a new kind of storytelling. I am not so sure, but I do know it lived on in my imagination for days after I saw it. I have the same memory of Vaknin's small and beautifully produced book.
After the Rain is that rarest of reading experiences: principled and thoughtful and irritating and prescient, all at once. Vaknin will be proved right or wrong as history grinds on in the Balkans, but his is a book I will return to.
Moments of Frenzy
John Harris - Blue Iris Journal
The essays in the second part, "Economy," stand better on their own feet. Vaknin is on his scholarly turf here, apparently. His unusually lengthy analysis of the International Monetary Fund is highly informative. Still, I must say that I find the moments of frenzy to be the book's most fascinating feature. In any state of advanced social decay, such as a civil war, there comes a point when more "facts" merely move one to impatience. What does it matter how many dozens were assassinated yesterday, or which banker transferred how many millions to his private account? Names and dates become irrelevant when such facts designate a daily routine. I can see that Vaknin is quite capable of reporting a scandal in detail; I think I can see why he doesn't. There's just too much of it. The relevant datum is the great cloud of stench obscuring the heavens, not the location of isolated fires. What we ought to learn--but won't--from the Balkans is that (to use Vaknin's recurrent metaphor) an infection is sometimes best left to spread until it activates sufficient antibodies. The Western solution of treating symptoms and amputating limbs has condemned these people to a hopeless decline. The Foreward is right: the book's sub-title misses the point. I suspect that Vaknin was being diplomatic here, for he might well have written Why the East Detests the West After Attempting an Embrace.
Subar Ghosh -
When a man writes with his pen dipped in vitriol, a compilation of his articles are foreordained to make the reader react. Or they might even leave her/him numb, for Israel-born Sam Vaknin is hard-hitting. He does not mince his words, calls a spade a spade and has a sardonic-laconic way of putting things across. The subtitle of After the Rain says it all: the West has, for all practical purposes, lost the East. Vaknin landed in Macedonia in 1996. Between then and 2000, he was a prolific writer who penned down his thoughts mostly in The New Presence and Central Europe Review. The essays in the book in question were published mainly in these journals during the period.
Vaknin is severely critical of the West's duplicity. He quotes Edward Thompson, managing editor of Life from 1949 to 1961, as saying, "Life must be curious, alert, erudite and moral, but it must achieve this without being holier-than-thou, a cynic, a know-it-all or a Peeping Tom." The West has violated Thompson's edict and drive Europe to the verge of war and the region it "adopted" to the verge of economic and social upheaval. Vaknin says, "The Wst lost Eastern and Southeast Europe not when it lied egregiously, not when it pretended to know for sure when it surely did not know, not when it manipulated and coaxed and coerced -- but when it failed." The panacea of free marketry cum democracy that was shoved down the throat of the countries that had just broken free from Communism could not have worked.
The West was naïve to believe that the masses who were waiting all these years to be liberated from the Communists, would one fine day revert to capitalism and onwards to development and prosperity. The West never understood how lethargic the Rip van Winkle institutions could render people. Vaknin asserts Communism "was a collaborative effort - a symbiotic co-existence of the rulers and the ruled, a mutual understanding and an all-pervasive pathology." The West failed to see through this incestuous relationship, just as they were fooled by the appearance of law and order. The courts, the police and the media were ossified skeletons that had been drained of any real power. What happened in the bargain was that one criminal association was substituted by another. More often than not these comprised the same people. "Post communist societies are sick and their institutions are a travesty." The kernel of good people here, a stifled, suppressed and mocked lot, should be the ones who must be given voices.
The socialist/communist professors of yesterday cannot be teachers of capitalism today. Intelligence and knowledge do not matter since capitalism is not a theoretical construct merely, but a way of life. Inefficiency, corruption and pathological economic thinking has castrated them emotionally and intellectually. Workers and managers of the communist era cannot function efficiently in a capitalist system for the same reason. Vaknin scoffs at Balkan intellectuals too insisting that they have no fire in them.
Vaknin derides instant education in a society where everything is up for sale; where students of economics have not heard of Kenneth Arrow and students of medicine offer sex or money or both to their professors to graduate. He delves into linguistics and semantics and argues that this is a solipsistic world where communication is permitted only with oneself and the aim of language is to throw others off the track. Vaknin examines the issue closely since he believes language is a leading indicator of the psychological and institutional health of social units.
He stresses on the imperative need to bell the cat in a system where graft and fear rule. But then the West, particularly the United States, is in a morbid habit of "creating pairs of villains and heroes, monsters and saints where there are none". He believes the wars in Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia were nothing short of gangland warfare. These were skirmishes between gangs of criminals, disguised as politicians etc. Crime prevails since free market flourishes. Criminals, after all, are private entrepreneurs.
Vaknin also writes about his impressions on the economy (or, whatever is left of it) in these liberated countries. It is, however, the essays classified under the head "The People" that are more acerbic and provocative than the ones categorised under "The Economy". Maybe, because it is finally the people who matter.
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