Serbia Under Milosevic


On February 19, 1995, two thousand well-wishers lined the streets outside a Serbian Orthodox Church in an exclusive suburb of Belgrade to witness the "Wedding of the Decade." The groom, state-sponsored paramilitarist and mob kingpin Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, arrived at the ceremony in a maroon stretch Jaguar limousine, part of a forty-car convoy of luxury automobiles. He was dressed in a stylized World War I uniform with leather boots, epaulettes and a pill-box hat, and carrying a machine gun. His bride, singing star Svetlana Velickovic-Ceca, was swathed in layers of diaphanous white, her dress inspired by "Gone With the Wind." A brass band played, but it was drowned out by submachine gun fire from Arkan's entourage.

Best man Borislav Pelevic, the leader of the Party of Serbian Unity (SSJ), tosses coins at the wedding of Serbian warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan and turbofolk Star Svetlana Velickovic-Ceca on February 19, 1995.

This lurid spectacle, broadcast live on state television and later sold on videotape, might seem out of place in a country where war and hyperinflation had pushed the standard of living to one of the lowest in Europe. But the marriage of one of Interpol's most wanted criminals to the queen of turbofolk — a tacky blend of nationalistic folk tunes and techno dance music — was also the consummation of another relationship: a complex symbiosis among pop culture, state-controlled media, and the new criminal elite.

The resulting melange of nationalist propaganda, kitschy dance music, explicit sexuality and deliberate sensory overload became one of Slobodan Milosevic's most important methods of retaining power. His saturation of the airwaves with this "Balkan Hardcore" was part of a coordinated campaign to "eliminate alternatives" within the infosphere, a tactic that took advantage of the habituated passivity of the Serbian population.

Official manipulation of pop culture in Yugoslavia did not begin with Milosevic, but evolved from Tito's encouragement of "Yugorock." Unlike other Communist states, domestic rock bands were not only tolerated, but actively encouraged, as long as they remained within "safe" political limits. In return, many bands recorded songs praising the leader. Tito bought the compliance of the people by permitting greater access to, and production of, pop culture than any other Warsaw Pact state.

When Milosevic came to power, he quickly realized that urban youth was the segment of the population least likely to cooperate with his Serb nationalist agenda, and the rock 'n' roll culture that defined this group soon found itself marginalized. The new nationalist elite identified novokomponovana narodna muzika ("newly-composed folk music," or "neofolk") as a genre more appropriate to the new social order and appealing to its more rural base of support.

Neofolk fused musical styles borrowed from traditional, or "authentic" folk music ("isvorna narodna muzika"), with new lyrics and modern arrangements, a sort of Slavic country-and-western. Like American country music, neofolk existed squarely within the mainstream social order, and songs expressing patriotism and national pride were common. Before long, overtly nationalistic and agitprop neofolk songs were being written and recorded to promote Milosevic's nationalist mobilization.

Neofolk received tremendous publicity in state-controlled media just as the rock 'n' roll market was being eliminated. This shift prompted the acceleration of a trend that had been occuring in folk for years — the adaptation of commercial forms, values and techniques. The result, called turbofolk, combined neofolk with "images of the consumer high life, synthesized and amplified sounds, beats borrowed from western commercial dance music, and styles of presentation borrowed from MTV."

Unlike the agitprop branch of neofolk, most turbofolk lyrics were not overtly political. As in much other popular music, the dominant lyrical themes were romance and love, and treacly optimism. Turbofolk videos, the core programming of new television stations TV Pink and TV Palma, celebrated the glamour and luxury of the new criminal elite, with most featuring beautiful, scantily-clad, provocatively dancing women. In the world of turbofolk, "harmony always overcomes all difference and no space is left for doubt — in yourself, your lover or your nation."

Even without overtly nationalist lyrics, turbofolk was hardcore ethnic music. Ironically, the melding of Serbian ethnic music with Western forms only served to strengthen nationalistic fervor in the target audience, producing "a siege mentality and constant antagonism combined with militant optimism and nostalgia," a mixture that served Milosevic's needs perfectly.