“Our Political Frankenstein Constitution” – The Dayton Agreements Twenty Years Later

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords.


President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords. 14 December 1995

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords – 14 December 1995 – Picture taken by: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm


By Marieke Zoodsma


This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which ended the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It was November 1995 when the peace conference took place in Dayton, Ohio, and where the representatives of the parties to the conflict (see the image above) were coerced by mediators to participate. Coerced, because none of the parties really wanted to participate nor really got what they wanted. The Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, fought for a unified state, while the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats both fought to annex those parts of the Bosnian territory that respectively were believed to belong to Serbia or Croatia. The compromise that was made decided that 49 % of the Bosnian territory remained Serbian (the Republika Srpska) and 51% would belong to the Bosniak-Croat federation – thereby cementing the country’s divisions among ethnic lines, as this infographic shows.


Although Dayton did put an end to the fighting in Bosnia, an ‘uneasy cease-fire’ is perhaps a more apt description of the circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. It is ‘a truce’, enforced at a crucial moment by the international community – and the military power of NATO. Or, as Ɖermana Šeta – one of my research respondents in Bosnia – firmly stated, “our main problem is our political Frankenstein constitution”. When I was doing fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, many of my respondents would refer to this problematic political constitution as being a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Bosnian society and the reconciliation process. Dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation was often voiced by my respondents. This discontent was exemplified during last year’s protests in many of Bosnia’s greater cities. The official unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is around forty percent, with over 57% youth unemployment. Shady privatization schemes have left thousands of workers jobless and pensions have dropped while the wages of Bosnia’s many bureaucrats have grown.


One of the most obvious explanations for this general dismay with the current state of affairs in Bosnia is the overly bureaucratic political system that is implemented through Dayton. To begin with, Bosnia has a tripartite presidency with each of the three members being from the constituent nations. They are in charge of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military affairs and the budget of state-level institutions. However,  many important subjects such as the educational system, healthcare or police affairs are being decided on at the entity level. Since competing memories of the war and a profound lack of trust still run strong between the three ethnic groups, an elaborate system of political control ensures that each ethnic group has a veto. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ten cantonal governments were created under which 142 municipalities were established. The 3,8 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are thereby governed by 168 ministries consisting of 70,000 employees on four governing-levels. Time has shown that this system is not only highly expensive but also completely ineffective for governing.


The ineffectiveness of this system for governing is exemplified country’s educational system. In the Republika Srpska, school curricula is decided on at the entity-level and in the Federation, the courses and content offered differ per canton. Which classes are offered, what the content of these classes is, or how it is being taught can therefore vary on one’s geographical location within the country. One of the most devastating effects of this policy, as this article fittingly describes, is the “two schools under one roof” system in the Bosnian-Croat Federation, whereby students of different ethnicity are kept completely separate during their education. Bosniaks enter the school through a different door than the Bosnian Croats, they are taught in different classrooms and receive different curricula – particularly with regards to the wars of the 1990s.


For my research into the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I interviewed a high-school teacher at his school in Sanski Most, northeast Bosnia. During this meeting with him, I asked if he ever talks about the war during his classes. He firmly responded: “No, I do not talk about the war in class. That topic is too sensitive. … You never know how people are going to react”. Since he had just told me that ‘dialogue is the future’ and that it is the only way to ‘give up weapons and avoid violence’, I was confused with his answer. Recognizing his contradictory answers and thus having trouble to find words, the teacher tells me that he does not feel comfortable speaking about the war since he is afraid the students will misunderstand him:


Unfortunately the problem is, maybe even in the West, school is not the same as life. So within the walls of the school, some things are losing because you cannot express them as you wish. Maybe outside the school in some sessions, when you do not have to think about some things because there are some laws or some rules. … I had a situation that when you speak about something, that children misinterpreted it. It is too early I think. You speak about something, but every child accepts that a little differently.


Commentators praise Dayton for its effectiveness of creating peace in the violent political stalemate that the countries of the former Yugoslavia ended up in. According to British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative of Bosnia; “Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model for that war-torn country.” Dayton, in the end, has left Bosnia and Herzegovina in a political, economic and socially divisive malaise. And now, twenty years later, Bosnians want more. After the first steps towards rebuilding their livelihood have been taken, the Bosnians want a functioning country. And yes, European Union membership.



The Land of Blood and Honey – Western Media and the Framing of the Western Balkans

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.
Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly build mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.

Srebrenica, the sight of one of the worst crimes since the Second World War on European soil, with left the Orthodox church and to the right the newly built mosque. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma, 2015.


By Koen Kluessien -


It has often been stated that the history of the western Balkans is “written in blood”. With the assassination of archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo igniting the First World War, the occupation and resistance during the Second World War, and wars and genocide in the 90s, many people would agree with this statement. However, constantly portraying the region as a barbaric and bloody region has created the notion that war could break out again at any moment in time. Especially with the refugee crisis currently culminating in the western Balkans, many media outlets are connecting real problems in the region with the unrealistic idea of an immediate outbreak of armed conflict.

At a conference in Darmstadt earlier this month German chancellor Angela Merkel warned that closing borders within Europe could lead to military conflict in the western Balkans. “It will lead to a backlash,” she said. Referencing to the wars that raged in the region in the 90s, she added: “I do not want military conflicts to become necessary there again.” As a result many renowned online and print media outlets used clickbait-like headlines such as Foreign Policy’s article “Is War Going to Break Out in the Balkans?”. The Guardian contributed to the discussion with an opinion piece titled “We should heed Angela Merkel’s warning of a new Balkans war”. However, the bold title was immediately followed by a statement indicating that it would be an exaggeration to speak of a lingering armed conflict already..

Fed up with all the Balkan stereotypes, online platform Balkanist posted a poignant blog that does not explain what one should not write about the Balkans, but mockingly stating what you should write as a “Balkans expert”: “you should mention that this “friendly” and “vibrant” atmosphere makes it difficult to imagine that so much “barbarity” or “bloodshed” was visited upon the region so recently”. Where does this urge to frame the western Balkans as a region in which the imminent threat of armed conflict is ever present stem from? Because needless to say, this current journalistic trend that Balkanist is referring to is not new. Popular belief that was propagated by many journalists during the wars of the 1990s saw the cultural differences within Yugoslavia and the ancient animosities between the republics as the root cause of the dissolution of Yugoslavia and the ethnic conflict that followed. The 45 years of communism in Yugoslavia were seen as merely a hiatus in which the history and memory of the different people were suppressed. The idea of “ancient hatreds” among the Yugoslav people was promoted, with the dissolution of the communist state as the event that triggered the suppressed hatred and latent emotions.

Even Bill Clinton, at the time President of the United States of America, adopted this view: “how long has the war been going on? Since 1991, in essence. That’s 4 years. It’s tragic; it’s terrible. But their enmities go back 500 years, some would say almost a thousand years.” However, this explanation is problematic. There have for example never been any repressive measures initiated by the Yugoslav government against the ethnic groups. This was not needed as there was no violence or interethnic confrontation to repress. Granted, there were still memories of the Ustaše, the Croatian fascists who killed a large number of Serbs. However, there is an important gap between collective memories and open conflict. The suppressed memories will not be disruptive until they are, for instance, directed by an extremist leader. In the case of Serbia, that leader was Slobodan Milošević.

Milošević reconstructed the collective identity of the Serbs and in this reconstruction he added a collective sense of victimhood. This sense of victimhood would eventually direct the collective memories to the political goal and it would contribute to the outbreak of interethnic conflict. A speech given by Milošević to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the military victory of the Turks over the Serbians at the Battle of Kosovo on June 28, 1989 clearly showed how this idea of victimhood could feed the outbreak of conflict. At the time the other Yugoslav republics were already shocked by the messages Milošević tried to convey and it would later be seen as a warning signal of the violence that would later come:


Today, six centuries later, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past.


This lost Battle of Kosovo was a chosen trauma, that had been passed on each generation. The memory of the Battle of Kosovo clearly shows how trauma can feed ethnic pride and eventually incite a group to avenge its ancestors. This becomes clear when the narrative is seen in the context of the war and massacres of the 1990s. For example, the Srebrenica genocide was put in this narrative of victimhood. According to Serbian politicians, the Srebrenica massacre had a symbolic purpose, the genocide was seen as an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge. Various strands of national history became a source of inspiration for Serbian nationalists. General Ratko Mladić even mentioned this historical importance when he entered the empty streets of Srebrenica:


Here we are, on 11 July 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday, we give this town to the Serb people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion against the Dahis, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region [emphasis KK].


This victimhood-centered propaganda continued when Milošević forcefully portrayed the Croats as Ustaše and Bosniaks as Islamist fundamentalists. Any opponent of a Yugoslavia where Serbia dominated was put down as a threat to Serbia.

The nationalist and radical rhetoric still echoes through the politics in the western Balkans. Indeed, one should not downplay the problems that are still very much present in the region and are a direct consequence of the wars of the 90s. As Dr. Jochen Töpfer, expert in South European politics at Berlin’s Freie Universität, stated: the wars of the 1990s are ‘dormant rather than solved.’ But especially because of this lingering nationalism it is unwise to dramatize current events and consequently alienate the western Balkans from the rest of Europe. Merkel is clearly trying to create fear among the politicians and stop them from closing their borders for refugees. However, it is dangerous to create fear among politicians in countries in which there is already widespread poverty and a struggle over the already few resources with half a million refugees added to these already existing problems. Both politicians and media outlets should refrain from these oversimplified statements as it clearly does more harm than good.









In Search of a Solution to the Syrian Refugee Crisis: Local Integration in Turkey will Relieve Mounting Tensions



By Arja Oomkens -

With the conflict in Syria entering its fifth year of ongoing atrocities and destruction, it has come to epitomize one of the most challenging humanitarian crises of our era. Nearly 4 million Syrians have sought refuge in neighboring countries and North Africa, and over 200,000 Syrian refugees have sought asylum in Europe. Consequently, the need to address issues of unprecedented displacement and refugee protection has become ever more pressing.

Across Syria’s borders, the mass influx of refugees imposes a heavy burden on mainly Turkey, but also Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. Of these countries, Turkey has received by far the most refugees. According to UNHCR estimates, more than 1,7 million Syrians are believed to have crossed Turkey’s borders. While some of them are accommodated in refugee camps, most of the refugees are currently living in urban areas in the southeast provinces of Turkey such as Hatay, Gaziantep, and Kilis.

In host communities, cultural and religious differences between locals and Syrian refugees, combined with competition for healthcare, shelter, water, jobs, and school placements are causing serious social tensions. The violent anti-Syrian protests in the Turkish city Gaziantep in August 2014 have undoubtedly demonstrated that such tensions can easily deteriorate. These protests were triggered by the responsibility of a Syrian tenant for the murder of a Turkish landlord. After the murder, protesters gathered and started shouting anti-Syrian slogans all over the city, attacked Syrians whom they encountered in the streets, destroyed workplaces owned by Syrians, and set cars on fire with Syrian license plates. In the same month, more violent outbreaks against Syrians were reported elsewhere in Turkey.

It is evident that there is no easy answer to such a complex and fragile situation. Yet, bearing in mind that Syrian displacement will most likely become protracted (since there is no prospect for the conflict in Syria to abate in the near future), it is of the utmost importance to address the increased social tensions and seek a clear, future-oriented, and durable solution to ensure safe living conditions for both locals and Syrian refugees.

In searching for solutions to refugeehood, reference is often made to the possibility of local integration. The UNHCR has also identified the practice of voluntary return and resettlement as possible durable solutions. However, since the possibility of repatriation is remote and resettlement into a third country is an option only available to a small minority, integration into host communities is the most viable option with regard to the Syrian refugee crisis. Local integration essentially means that the host state grants a refugee a durable legal status that would allow him or her to remain in the country of first asylum and participate in the social, economic, and cultural life of the host community. The UNHCR has indicated that this form of integration would require a preparedness of the refugee to adapt to the host community without having to forego his or her own cultural identity. This formulation thus requires both a social and legal form of integration before it becomes a durable solution.

In light of the social tensions between locals of Turkish host communities and Syrians, adequate local integration would directly support the protection of both groups. In order to create a stable social order (in the form of equal participation of Syrians and locals), the goodwill of local residents of the host communities will be a prerequisite. Turkey therefore needs to find an effective way to mitigate the fear towards refugees that is present in host communities. Strains of fear, in the form of competition, can be alleviated through the construction of new schools or health clinics for the local population and refugees. Furthermore, to move beyond the status of Syrians as refugees and to show Turkey’s acceptance of Syrians, integration through naturalization (acquisition of citizenship) must be made available. To do so, Turkey needs the cooperation of the international community to ensure effective burden-sharing methods. Without sharing the burden of local integration, to which international assistance and funding are imperative, Turkey would be confronted with an impossible task.

Even though social and legal integration into Turkish host communities can be an effective solution to the ever-increasing tensions in the country, the option to do so remains left to the discretion of the government of Turkey. Unfortunately, the fact of the matter remains that neither general international law nor treaty obliges states to grant durable solutions.

Still, since Turkey is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention (CRSR), it is relevant to shortly discuss the state’s obligation under article 34 CSCR. This article does provide access to citizenship through integration (formulated as naturalization) and is predicated on a recognition that a refugee required to remain outside his or her country of origin should be able to benefit from “a series of privileges, including political rights.” However, as renowned academic and refugee lawyer James Hathaway has rightly indicated, article 34 cannot be deemed a strong obligation as it does not require state parties to grant citizenship to refugees. Moreover, the already weak obligation of article 34 towards Syrians is further undermined by the geographical limitation Turkey has retained to its ratification of the 1951 Refugee Convention – which means that only those fleeing as a consequence of “events occurring in Europe” will be regarded as “refugees” for the purposes of the Convention. For this reason, Turkey can uphold that it has no obligations under the 1951 Convention to grant privileges towards Syrian refugees.

Consequently, Turkey is under no obligation to accord local integration to Syrian refugees. However, for the protection of Syrians and residents of host communities – and therefore Turkey’s national security – it is essential to take into account that increased social tensions may have a deteriorating effect. As prominent sociologist Abram de Swaan has phrased in his latest book, mounting tensions in the form of strong identification with one’s own group combined with eminent disidentification towards another group over a longer period of time may evoke murderous hatred. As disidentifying sentiments in Turkish host communities regarding cultural and religious differences (and various forms of competition) are rising towards Syrians, the likelihood for hostilities to erupt increases. What must be stressed is that even though there is no legal obligation for Turkey to integrate Syrians into their host communities, the government – in cooperation with the international community – should feel the responsibility to work towards local integration. This may be the only durable solution to the Syrian refugee crisis in their country.


See for more information: Hathaway J.C., The Rights of Refugees under International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.


“No one before me, history is written after me” – The destruction of cultural heritage as a tactic of war

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010


Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia-Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

By Marieke Zoodsma -


The destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq by the Islamic State has generated great international uproar these past weeks. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, released a public statement condemning these acts by framing that they constitute a war crime. The BBC called the buildings and artworks ‘irreplaceable’ and the destruction a huge loss for the world. For Joanna Farshakh, a Lebanese archeologist, these actions should be considered a “cultural genocide”. Sadly and despite the consternation, these acts of cultural violence by IS were not their first and will most probably not be their last (there is even a Wikipedia-page dedicated to it). The following YouTube video, for example, shows the tragic destruction of statutes in the Niniveh-museum in Mosul, Iraq.


The destruction of heritage as a tactic of war is not new to mankind. It can be traced back to the first Christians in Egypt and their destruction of pharaonic monuments, and is an almost inseparable part of violent conflict. Take the destruction of multiple Tibetan monasteries during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) by the Taliban in 2001, or the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo during the current protracted Syrian civil war. The annihilation of ancient sites by Islamic State are reminiscent of the deliberate attacks on cultural and religious heritage during the Bosnian war, a tactic widely used by the Bosniak (Muslim), Croat and Serb side in the conflict. For example, on the 25th of august 1992, the National Library of Sarajevo was bombed with phosphorus shells by Orthodox Serb nationalists during the siege of Sarajevo. Over a million volumes and a hundred thousand rare books were destroyed in the largest book burning in modern history. Or the destruction of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, in the city of Mostar in Herzegovina. This graceful, stone arch bridge (Mostar’s defining landmark) was constructed by the Ottomans in 1566. In 1993, it was destroyed by Croat Catholic nationalists. The Stari Most has been reconstructed in 2004 and listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.


Heritage is a peoples connection to the past, it distils this past into icons of identity. Heritage is that with which we all individually or collectively identify. The difference between heritage and history lies in the fact that heritage has to be widely accepted by insiders but inaccessible to outsiders; only then can it serve as a collective symbol for its possessors. It is this intangible feature of heritage, the mystique, fantasy and invention of it, that makes it distinct to each people. The uniqueness and exclusiveness of heritage is what makes it important for national identity, since, like our past, the heritage we possess differentiates us from other people.


Exactly the above characteristics of heritage make them justifiable to destroy by foreign invaders. Heritage is often used by previous political leaders to build up a national identity that will cross over boundaries of cultural, ethnic, national or religious groups. Such a national, heterogenic identity is exactly what the perpetrators of cultural destruction, such as IS or the nationalists during the Bosnian war, are fighting against. By eliminating every trace of material evidence, future generations cannot be reminded that people of different ethnic and religious traditions used to share a common heritage and space in that area. It is the denial of a community’s historical roots that is done by the destruction of its religious or cultural shrines. Conveniently, the perpetrators are thereby also ensured against the possibility that the expelled and dispossessed people would one day return and reclaim their homes and property.


Yale-professor in Assyriology Eckart Frahm states: “What is however quite unique in the case of ISIS, is that the destruction is directed against images that are thousands of years old, often damaged, and no longer worshipped by anyone, and that there is a concerted effort to use these acts of vandalism as propaganda by broadcasting them through videos.” However, as argued above, I would not frame the case of IS as unique. It is an attitude labelled as “no one before me, history is written after me” that is propagated by these perpetrators, even if these predecessors have been gone for over thousands of years. Islamic State is vigorously rewriting the past by destructing these cultural and religious sites. Similar tactics were used during the Bosnian war. In Zvornik, a town in the current Republika Srpska, there were once a dozen mosques. In the Yugoslav census of 1991, 60 percent of the residents called themselves Muslims. By the end of the war, the town was 100 percent Serb and Branko Grujić, the Serb-appointed mayor, was telling foreign visitors: “There never were any mosques in Zvornik.”


The use of internet and social media as propaganda for these terror tactics, as also previously discussed by Koen, is however indeed quite unique for Islamic State. Dr. Neville Bolt, teaching fellow at King’s College London, referred to this strategy as the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). To use Bolt’s phrasing, POTD is a well-planned ‘act of political violence’ which aims to create a shocking media event ‘capable of energizing populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation’. As we have seen in the case of destruction of Nimrud, global outrage leads to international condemnation. The opposite effect is that it also instigates the group’s enemies to overreact forcefully, which then helps legitimize IS’s revolutionary agenda. To use the destruction of cultural and religious heritage not only as a tactic of ethnic cleansing or even genocide, but also to utilize it for the justification of the conflict is indeed a new phenomenon in the context of warfare.


Where does this leave us? Will the past then be rewritten and those ancient treasures forever be lost? Which vision will eventually prevail out of the ashes may depend in part upon the world community – in this case human rights workers, international development officials, historians, policy makers – to see through these provoking acts of violence and propaganda. Unfortunately, it does leave these riches of the world to the violent vagaries of Islamic State.



Further reading:
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity – John R. Gillis (ed.), 1994. Princeton: Princeton University Press

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries – Neville Bolt, 2012. Hurst and Columbia University Press

Cultural Resistance: How Artistic Expression can Hold a People Together

Photo: Year Zero/Wikipedia (CC-BY-NC)
Photo: Year Zero/Wikipedia (CC-BY-NC)

Photo: Year Zero/Wikipedia (CC-BY-NC)

By: Kari van der Ploeg -

Estonia is a small country bordering the Baltic sea in Eastern Europe that has known waves of occupiers. German, Danish and Swedish occupations preceded the occupation by the Soviets that started in the Second World War. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact divided Europe between Germany and the Soviet Union. In one night, the Soviets deported 10.000 Estonians to slave labour camps in Siberia. In 1941 the Germans broke the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and took over Estonia. Only four years later, the Soviets won it back and started a period of Russification; nothing could remember Estonians of their pre-Soviet lives. The Estonian identity had to be destroyed. Intelligentsia and politicians were arrested, deported and executed.  Soldiers had quota’s, which meant that arrests were made randomly. Fear ruled the country.

To hold on to their past, culture and identity, the Estonians turned to one of their oldest traditions. Music had been a vital part in Estonia for thousands of years. The country has one of the largest collection of folk songs in the world. The oldest of Estonia’s folk songs, called ‘regilaulud’ (runic songs) evolved during 700 years of German rule, starting in 1208. As they were working the fields in slave labour, Estonians started singing. It was during the German repression that a song festival emerged in 1869. The festivals were as much about nationality as about music. During Soviet rule, the song festivals continued as a means of propaganda. However, it also became an opportunity for protest. The festival was one of the only remaining traditions in Estonia. Conductor Gustav Ernesaks composed a new piece of music that somehow slipped past the Soviet censorship and became part of the national song festival. The song, Mu isamaa on minu arm (“Land of my father, land that I love”), became Estonia’s unofficial national anthem. Soon, the song was forbidden as the Soviets noticed that it enflamed a national spirit among Estonians. In 1969, as the 100th anniversary of the song festival reached its end, an spontaneous protest arose. The national song festival came to its end, but people refused to leave the stage. They started singing their anthem, Mu isamaa on minu arm, showing the Soviets, that they might have tried to destroy their culture and identity, but that the Estonian spirit was still alive.

Regardless of the events of 1969, the 1970s continued with little hope for freedom. However, when Gorbatsjov came to power in 1985, introducing the Glasnost and Perestrojka, he gave the Estonians an opportunity for change. In 1987, youngsters in Tartuu began to protest political issues for the first time. They addressed the legality of the Molotov Ribbentrop Pact, requesting an honest look at their history and putting ‘Stalin’s butchers’ to trial. No one got arrested; it was the first successful political protest, fuelling activist spirit. Two months after the protest in Tartuu, a summer celebration evolved into a patriotic song festival. Crowds moved towards the grounds of the national song festival and sang. As one man passed by on a motorcycle, waving an Estonian flag (the Estonian flag was forbidden), more flags came out. The continuing days, more and more people came to the grounds, singing and carrying their flags. A revolution had started and singing was its fuel. The songs ignited the passions in people and bound the Estonians as a people.

The singing revolution in Estonia is one example of how artistic expression can bind a people as they are faced with repression and annihilation. The role that singing played in their revolution is mirrored in many other uprisings. One example is the Syrian Uprising, which has been influenced by the creative expressions of its partakers. Free expression had been controlled in Syria for nearly 40 years by its government. The Arab Spring had however created a crack in the ruling powers of the Middle East, which posed the Syrians with an opportunity to mobilize and create their revolutionary identity. Rebels connected through posters, performances, songs, comics, theatre, literature, photography, video and social media. One example is shown below. The finger puppet series ‘Top Goon: Diaries of a Little Dictator’ by Masasit Mati, show president Bashar Al-Assad as ‘Beeshu’, a lisping and beak-nosed man terrorized by nightmares about the uprisings in his country. The humorous series gives harsh critique against the regime in a light-hearted way, taking the edge of the subject and taking the fear away from its viewers. It currently has 1 million viewers on Facebook and 180.000 on YouTube. It has created a safe haven during a storm which had created a lot of fear among Syrians. 

Creativity gave Syrians a voice; it was a way of expressing their views that had been silenced for so many years. Creativity was not only a way of mentally surviving the violence, but also of challenging it. With humour, aesthetics and bravery, rebels denounced the Syrian dictatorial government. As Malu Halasa and Zaher Omareen stated in their book ‘Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Frontline’:

Meeting violence with violence is never successful. The artistic response to the Syrian uprising is far more than a litany of turmoil; it illustrates the accelerated experiences of a people, many of whom have been fighting for their survival. It shows their innate ability to overcome, and their dreams for the future of their country. For Syrians and non-Syrians alike, there are many reasons to wake up every morning and reach for the pen, easel, the camcorder or the laptop – instead of a gun.”

The internet played an important role in distributing Syria’s creative dissident expressions. It became a new public space in which dissent was voiced and resistance mobilised. It allowed the protesters to reach a broader public. Videos, music and graphic art bonded the people of Syria in their fight against oppression and sparked a feeling of collective dissent. The creative outpourings demanded the restoration of civil rights and broke the chains that had produced a culture of fear. The revolutionaries were reclaiming their citizenship as, according to Halasa and Omareen, art is in its essence emblematic for a life that is shared, not destroyed.

The Syrian government has tried to break the civil spirit that has been created and has united the Syrians. They tried to divide them by focussing on their diversity through sectarian rhetoric in media outlets. The fact that so many artists have been imprisoned, tortured and executed shows the power of art to unsettle, to speak truth and to question existing norms. According to Stephen Duncombe, professor at NYU and co-director of the Center of Artistic Activism, art and activism have many things in common. Its purposes include to foster dialogue, built community, reveal reality, alter perception, inspire dreaming, invite participation, transform environment and maintain hegemony. This allows activist art to be such a powerful tool to unify resistance. The power of art and culture to connect and change minds explains why it is feared by oppressive regimes, such as the Syrian and Soviet governments. It creates a civil society in which everyone is invited to participate and question existing norms. It gives power to the people and consequently undermines the power of the state and its violence. No matter how hard the Syrian and Soviet governments have tried to destroy civil identity, creative resistance had connected the Syrians, like the Estonians got connected through their songs.


Further reading/listing/watching: