One of the Belgrade walking tours offered as part of the festival. Flickr/European Alternatives. Some rights reserved.The best and the worst thing about the Transeuropa festival 2015 was that it was in Belgrade. The best because it's a hard place not to adore. Each era of its history has left it with some impressive if crumbling architecture and some bombed-out holes in the skyline. Together they've imprinted on it the party-hard reputation of a post-traumatic city drinking to forget its past. Built on the confluence of the Danube and the Sava and shattered by the conflicts of peoples and nations, the importance of this place to the geography and history to the rest of Europe is hard to ignore.
As a child of the nineties, it was through news about the Western Balkans that I first discovered that there was such a thing as an outside world; that not every kid was as safe as me and my friends. And so the simple fact of peace was fairly striking. For locals, of course, the last bombs fell 16 years ago. But I wasn't watching in the intervening years.
But this isn't meant to be an article about Belgrade, and that's what is most debilitating about staging any event there. It's supposed to be a piece about the Transeuropa conference, which took place last week in the Serbian capital. But I've already got distracted, allowed my mind to wander once more out of the conference venue and around the only city I've ever visited that's as coffee addicted as I am. Fortunately for many of us, the organisers took advantage of being in the former Yugoslav capital, and threaded a series of walking tours through the event, giving attendees the chance to explore.
My favourite such guided wander was an anti-fascist tour, whose intentions were made clear from the first stop. We stood at a street corner by the biggest Orthodox church in the world and were told that is was here that three schoolboys assassinated a Nazi collaborator and brutal torturer outside his house during World War Two. We saw one house where a secret printing press was stored, another where Jews hid in secret enclaves, we learnt about the vital role of communist women in organising against the Nazis, and how the history of resistance was being erased through changed street signs.
One of our crowd was a lecturer at a university in another Serbian city who was speaking the next day on the subject of far right politics in the country today, and told me that Tony Blair was now advising the Serbian Prime Minister and had introduced a new innovation: “delivery units”. Another was a Bosnian and an academic at the University of Toronto in comparative literature. Another, a Berliner involved in welcoming refugees.
Beyond these, the conference took place in a series of venues around the city, the main one being the Centre for Cultural Decontamination whose name apparently only seemed strange to native English speakers. Here, the gathering had started with a “fishbowl” discussion, where audience members surrounded a table of mic'ed-up speakers, but were welcomed to take it in turns to join the conversation; an opportunity I took advantage of to argue that the (otherwise unmentioned) SNP is the most successful left wing party in Europe right now, and that others might learn from their essentially Gramscian strategy.
'New media, new politics panel' with Adam Ramsay (left), Juan Luis Sanchez (centre) and Lorenzo Marsili (right). Flickr/European Alternatives. Some rights reserved.This chat made five themes for the rest of the week pretty clear. First, there was more interest in Jeremy Corbyn than I might have expected to find deep in the Balkans. The fact that one of the two main parties in the neoliberal capital of Europe had rejected capitalist realism and embraced the possibility of alternatives was perhaps the thing which fascinated the speakers most.
“Were you involved in it? It is a wonderful thing!” declared the Serbian woman who was both our host at the Centre and a keystone in the panel. Unlike most British people, it seemed like they considered the UK to be not just in Europe, but a fairly significant player. Who knew?
Secondly, the “party turn” I've written about in the UK as an explanation of Corbynmania is already being widely discussed across the continent: which I suppose is no surprise when we consider Podemos, Syriza, etc.
Thirdly, the radical ideas being discussed across Europe are the same as among those on the left in Britain. No one used the term “fully automated luxury communism” but European Alternatives' co-director Lorenzo Marsili talked up Keynes' 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”, which similarly argues that automation should mean everyone working fewer hours – and, in the same breath, called for a basic income scheme.
Fourthly, the refugee/migrant crisis coloured everything. The main park in central Belgrade is currently a campsite for people passing through the city on their way west. The conference made it clearer than ever that this isn't just a one-off tragedy, but a deep and systemic question for Europe and its stuttering union.
Finally, there was some serious business going down in Belgrade itself. It turns out there's a massive development taking place at the city's waterfront, backed by some folk from the UAE with a whole load of money and forming a front line of European gentrification, carving a chunk out of the city as a ritual sacrifice to global capital and the mega-rich. It’s not only people arriving from the Middle East…
That evening ended in a smoke-filled bar (cough) in which a group of Belgraders were easily dancing perfectly synchronised swing as though no one was watching and we were stood round the sides, wondering if we really had returned to the 1930s.
These were, essentially, the themes for the next few days. Conversations with people who closely follow UK politics (and were very entertained by #piggate). Participants were interested in the rise of political parties, keen to discuss the longer term implications of the utter failure of the EU on migration, investigating ideas like participatory budgeting which don't just socialise power, but bring it closer to the people, excited by the fossil fuel divestment movement and fascinated to find out about contemporary Serbian politics: where, we learnt, the real powers today are the EU ('there is no alternative, we must get in') and the church. Apart from the latter, it felt like a corner of the European left, speaking largely with the same voice.
Never was that feeling stronger than on my penultimate night. We got the bus a few stops out of town, disappeared through a darkened gate in the middle of a fence, and wandered into an old warehouse to find a heaving party: the final celebration in the city's biggest squat. Like every other post-industrial European city, it turned out the best fun was to be found not on the gentrifying waterfront, but in the crack that capital hasn't bothered to fill. Yet.