Enter the Professor, Putin’s Balkan stooge

The maverick movie director Emir Kusturica backs Russian expansionism in the Balkans  

Emir Kusturica on Joe Strummer Street, Drvengrad, the Serbian village he created (courtesy Gazprom Neft press centre)

Adishevelled man in a saggy blue T-shirt, apparently exhausted to the brink of coma, sits in a windowless room pouring out his visions of horror and apocalypse. “The West will invade Russia . . . We are witnessing the destruction of Europe: the elites create crises in the Middle East, create wars, create an influx of migrants, a future in which the destruction of Europe is their plan . . . migrants will exchange the blood of Europe and destroy nation states . . .” Wow! Who’s up next? David Icke on Rothschilds and lizards?

Actually, it’s not supposed to be that sort of event. Meet the celebrated Serbian film director Emir Kusturica at home in his isolated self-built wooden village,   Drvengrad, near the Bosnian border, hosting an apparently harmless festival devoted to young local and Russian classical-music students. Happily, however, it seems my fantasies of stumbling on a Bond-villain mountain hideout might be gratified. Kusturica, a cinematic visionary of baroque imagination behind such feverishly energetic films as Underground, Black Cat, White Cat and Time of the Gypsies, twice winner of the Cannes Palme d’Or, has in recent years become an avid mouthpiece of the new Russian propaganda, using his position as esteemed rebel of the movie world to spread the Putinian gospel.

Accordingly, a Russian press corps has descended on Serbia to beam out his insights: Tass and Izvestia for the Russian audience, Russia Today (RT) for lucky Western viewers. Somewhere in an underground bunker the competition between teenage musicians goes on — sometimes you see pallid little things emerge blinking into the sunlight — while the main event is evidently the man himself and the interviews he eventually (and with a top-marks-for-style show of reluctance) grants. Because it’s not easy to pin him down: he vanishes for hours on end, his entourage enjoins us “not to approach Emir without an arrangement”, his wife is alert to raise her hand between his face and questing phone-cameras, and interviews are serially deferred as the Professor (as they call him round here) is sleeping, in a bad mood, feeling like shit.

My own presence here, the only Western journalist, is slightly puzzling. But it’s not every day Gazprom, the government-controlled Russian energy company, calls you up and invites you to the festival it is sponsoring, and as a Russian-speaker involved with the country for more than 30 years, with the bait of Kusturica and some great performers (Russian pianist Denis Matsuev, French-Serb superstar violinist Nemanja Radulović, legendary American guitarist Gary Lucas), it was an offer I was unlikely to refuse.

The venue itself is lovely: an “ethno-village” (evidently this doesn’t sound sinister in Serbian) built a decade ago by Kusturica after the local filming of his Life is a Miracle, used since for the annual Küstendorf film festival; it perches amid pine-clad foothills of the Dinaric Alps, its steep chalet rooves feeling very Swiss until you spy the Orthodox church and note the Cyrillic of the street names: Federico Fellini, Joe Strummer, Che Guevara. Stencilled pictures of Dostoyevsky, Yuri Gagarin and Diego Maradona adorn the walls; vintage Trabants and Skodas sprout on street corners. The dungeon where the children are sawing away on their fiddles is named after Noam Chomsky. It’s like an outdoor manifestation of a bolshy teenager’s bedroom — can this be what the inside of Kusturica’s head looks like?

The origins of Serbo-Russian blood-brotherhood go way back, rooted in Orthodoxy, 19th-century wars of liberation, and a peculiar fantasy that they “speak the same language”. In fact the languages (as with English and Friesian) diverged over a thousand years ago, though many Serbian-type words entered Russian via the church language. It is notable, when Kusturica is rhapsodising to the Russian media on this intense and mystic bond, he has to do it in English.

Kusturica was born into a Muslim family in 1954 in Sarajevo, but in the early ’90s he says he discovered ancient Serb roots. He now sports a big Orthodox crucifix — and is being promoted as a figurehead of this axis. As he explains in gnomic English: “If you see how we are understood by Russia, if you see how much the culture of the two countries is important to each other, how much we are deeply into the Orthodox . . .” The West, au contraire, owes its economic success to a pact with the devil: a society where “man is to the man a wolf”: “Serbia and Russia are much more into collective subconscious quality of life and the way that we see history and the future.”

This is familiar stuff: the ineffable Slav soul frequently stands in for more tangible benefits. But on this age-old borderline of Christian and Muslim Europe a major tussle is going on over the future of the Balkans. Serbia still suffers from the pariah status incurred by the Yugoslav wars (of which Serbia certainly lost the PR angle, even if it was only primus inter pares in terms of recherché horror) but is on an uncertain road towards EU membership — something certain parties are extremely keen to prevent.

Serbia is the bridgehead for Russian penetration of the Balkans. There is an ongoing struggle in neighbouring Montenegro, which broke away from the rump Yugoslavia — i.e. Greater Serbia — in 2006, and joined Nato in 2017, which Russia tried to scupper by fomenting an attempted coup in 2016, and clearly believes is reversible. Next door in Macedonia, Russian attempts to disrupt the upcoming referendum (September 30) on EU and Nato membership — which depends on accepting the compromise name of North Macedonia to palliate Greek objections — have irritated Greece, which could previously be relied on (through Orthodox brotherhood) to be sympathetic to the Russian line, and resulted in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Athens in July.

Serb nationalism feeds on a sense of victimhood — a notion that might provoke hollow laughter across former Yugoslavia. There is no mention of the “cleansing” of tracts of Bosnia in the early ’90s: the 1992 events in Višegrad, only ten miles over the Bosnian border from Drvengrad, where hundreds of Muslims were massacred by Bosnian Serbs, many thrown from the 16th-century Ottoman bridge into the River Drina, might never have happened.

Seen from Belgrade, the latest outrage against Serbia was the widespread recognition of the independence of Kosovo (Russia, China, Spain and Greece, inter alia, were hold-outs), regarded as the cradle of the nation, stolen from the motherland and handed over to Albanian bandits by Nato. The 1999 bombing of Belgrade by Nato, a belated reaction to the Kosovo war, is the locus classicus of Western perfidy; it stands in Serb history with the 1389 battle of Kosovo Field, when Serb resistance to the Ottomans finally crumbled with the army’s destruction. In the Russo-Serb narrative, enthusiastically retailed by Kusturica, the Belgrade bombing takes its place alongside the Iraq and Libya interventions as the launchpad of the “new colonialism”.

Kusturica plays a role (as a taxi driver) in a Russian film to be released next year, Balkanski rubezh or The Balkan Line, about the Russia/Nato stand-off in 1999 at Pristina airport remembered (by us) for General Mike Jackson telling US commander Wesley Clark that he wasn’t prepared to start World War III for Clark’s sake. Directed by Andrei Volgin — a director none of the Russians I ask has heard of, but whose previous work looks uncannily similar to the Hollywood trash Kusturica calls “a cinematographic graveyard” — the film shows “how our Russian brothers brought money and talent to show how much we were bombed . . . and where the new colonialism started. It’s very good the Russians made the film — because we [Serbs] didn’t do it; it seems something is not regular in our social life if you don’t make for memory and artistic vision something that is extremely important in our history.” No prizes for guessing how the flick depicts the rapacious Nato gang.

Kusturica’s an old hand on RT, and pops up a lot on intra-Russia media too, one of those foreign showbiz figures (a tatty gang: Gerard Depardieu and Steven Seagal are the other big shots) who can be whistled up to disparage the West, support Russia on Crimea and Ukraine, and so forth. He has called RT “the best example of what a TV station should be — unlike CNN and the BBC, which broadcast one-sided information”; praised President Putin’s “gentle nature”, which is bringing Russia “back from the knees” of the Yeltsin era, and laughingly offered — during what sound like peculiar discussions with Putin about “the establishment of Russian military bases in the Balkans” — to let him put missiles on his balcony.

It is standard RT pap for Western conspiracists, and for a Russian audience increasingly fed a diet of paranoid ravings. Kusturica obviously likes hobnobbing with Putin, enjoys the lavish patronage of Gazprom, and is no doubt flattered to be cast as the “spiritual father of Serbia”, as a Russian journalist tells me (an idea that would flabbergast plenty of Serbs). But the mean-spirited new-Russia tone — familiar from the aggressive, sarcastic scorn we get from the Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov and the Russian ambassador in Britain on the cases of Alexander Litvinenko and the Skripals — sits oddly on Kusturica. When I finally catch him off-duty in the bar he is (as his reputation leads you to expect) expansive, relaxed, warm and likeable in his shaggy, old-reprobate way, and his films are clearly the product of a big-hearted man who strongly believes art transcends pettiness and politics.

It’s easy to see him as the old rebel with standard generational angst as the world again betrays the liberating dreams of youth, though this hardly explains his attachment to the Kremlin’s peevish paranoia. His entertaining shtick about the horror of Hollywood, McDonald’s culture, corporatism and consumerism comes with a dollop of self-parody; but there’s not much humour in the apocalyptic stuff about war and invasion, and indeed his next film project — Lermontov’s classic novel A Hero of Our Time recast in the Syrian war — sounds a lot less fun than his old ones.

As the festival draws to a close, a warm, bohemian atmosphere resurfaces. Happy as anyone must be to walk down a street named after Joe Strummer, I have to ask: why him? “He was the last real rebel in music,” says the Professor, a sentimental nod to the good old days; and I don’t have the heart to disabuse him about fraudulent old Telegraph-reading Joe. On the last night, Gary Lucas (of Captain Beefheart and Gods and Monsters) jams on stage with grizzled veteran Macedonian rocker Vlatko Stefanovski. In the end it is left to Vlatko to sum up the happy retro spirit of things more neatly than anyone: “Use the Stratocaster,” he growls at Gary. “Gibson is a right-wing guitar.”

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