OPINION: Music still connects a divided region

OPINION: Music still connects a divided region
Dino Merlin is one of a handful of popular musicians with appeal across the former Yugoslavia region, decades after its fragmentation into separate countries. / Dino Merlin via Facebook
By Ana Simic in Wiesbaden November 29, 2023

Around 72,000 people attended Dino Merlin concerts in Belgrade last week despite a negative campaign on pro-Kremlin platforms. The pop singer and songwriter has been popular for the last 40 years, resulting in sold out concerts in the Serbia capital between November 18 and 22. 

When tickets went on sale back in July, this angered among Serbia’s far-right population and all those who believe that hating a different religion or nationality (Merlin is a Bosniak) is a sign of patriotism. The huge demand for tickets for Merlin’s concerts thus represents a small victory over hate, divisions and antagonism in the region. Merlin is one of a handful of popular musicians with appeal across the former Yugoslavia region, decades after its fragmentation into separate countries. 

The concerts went ahead despite aggressive campaigning on social media and other channels. Hatred of other nations and religions is strongly promoted in Serbia by pro-Kremlin politicians, analysts, academics, media (mainly Telegram channels) and social networks. Besides the goal of sparking tensions in the region, it also aims to create a feeling of similarity between Serbs and Russians, who both practice Orthodox Christianity and follow the Julian calendar. Such individuals and outlets also like to remind citizens of the ex-Yugoslavia area of the wars of the 1990s (that ended a quarter of a century ago) to make it harder for people to live together and in peace. 

Hate speech accusations

In the run-up to the concerts, Merlin’s identity as a Bosnian Muslim became the centre of negative attention, instead of his music. Just a few days after concerts were announced on July 21, a petition on banning Merlin from coming to Belgrade went viral in local media and on Facebook, with a so-called ‘pro-Serbian’ narrative as well as an affirmative one toward current regime in Moscow

The petition was posted on the website peticije.com on July 27. It was signed by about 60,000 people over ten days, daily Danas reported on August 8. However, according to the daily, the petition was then deleted from the website peticije.com. “We are responsible for content that our customers publish on our web page. This petition has strong accusations and we don’t have resources to check if claims are correct,” peticije.com website stated, as quoted by Danas.  

The petition was based on alleged claims that Merlin had made insulting and anti-Serbian statements during wars in Bosnia & Herzegovina in the 1990s. According to the accusations, he fought on the Bosnian side against Bosnian Serbs. “I am signing this petition to ban entrance to Serbia to former mujaheddin soldier of paramilitary formation ‘Patriotic League’ and proven hater of Serbia — Edin Dervishalidovic (formal name) —Dino Merlin (stage name).” The text was accompanied with a picture of the singer crossed out with the word ‘unwanted’ written in Cyrillic font (again highlighting Serbia’s links with Russia, even though Serbs equally use the Cyrillic and Latin alphabets). 

Merlin is one of many artistes and celebrities from the former Yugoslavia whose wartime record was picked over for decades afterwards. His post-war first concerts in Belgrade took place in 2011, when he talked about the claim that he was anti-Serbian. He told the ‘An evening with Ivan Ivanovic' TV show: “I’ve never said I hate someone. That verb doesn’t exist for me. That’s a notorious lie.” 

Still welcome because Merlin sings ‘about us’

Just like the concerts in November 2023, Merlin’s concerts in 2011 and 2015 were accompanied by the same negative campaigns. However, those attempts failed and Merlin is still welcome in Serbia. 

During the days Merlin performed in the Serbian capital Instagram and Facebook were burning up with likes from the Belgrade arena. "Peace, freedom, love and happiness to all good people in the world! Dino Merlin, 21.11.2023,” read one post. 

Merlin started out as part of a popular band, also called Merlin, but has been a solo artist since 1991. He is one of the singers who is welcomed across the region by all generations because everyone with roots “From Vardar to Triglav” (the rivers bordering ex-Yugoslavia in the south and north, and the lyrics of popular song) can identify with the words in his songs.

Some of them are about happy days, breakups, nostalgia, life abroad or patriotism. Even children born after the breakup of Yugoslavia know some of his songs because there is no party without some of them, songs like ‘Something nice should happen tonight, ‘Lilacs’, ‘My life is Switzerland’ or ‘Go ahead, kiddo’. 

Merlin’s music can be defined as pop, but what makes it different and authentic is its emotion. Many of his songs are about Bosnia and the hard days the country went through during the 1990s. He is also author of the lyrics of the first Bosnian anthem. After devastating floods hit the region in 2014, Merlin released an album with the title ‘Hotel Nacional’. Video covers of the new songs had segments from flooded areas and were part of the campaign to help those affected. 

Bringing the region together 

There are some other artistes from former Yugoslavia who also bring people from the troubled region back together again. Another big name is Djordje Balasevic, a singer, songwriter and author from Serbia's Novi Sad. He was one of very first celebrities that loudly opposed the wars of the 1990s and was equally welcome in Sarajevo, Zagreb or Ljubljana until his death in 2021. Zdravko Colic, who was at one of the Merlin concerts last week, also brings people together across the region and from the diaspora. 

Folk singer Lepa Brena, born in Bosnia's Brcko but living in Belgrade, erases differences, especially when she sings for 'Yugos' abroad. From the younger generation, her daughter-in-law, Aleksandra Prijovic, produces a mix of turbo folk and modern ethno, and has just finished a series of concerts in Belgrade, Zagreb and Sarajevo. 

The popularity of all of these artistes show how music connects people when politics tends to disconnect them. 

There is a reason why politics can’t win over music and unity because, at the end of a ballad, Balkan people still understand each other without a translator and often even without words. While no longer part of the same country, they still face same everyday issues — never enough money to pay all the bills, never enough time to work, sleep and drink coffee, nepotism, corruption, the bulky bureaucratic system, how to obtain residency in Germany, fake hate of their neighbours and on top of that Russian malign influence, because the only one who benefits from tensions in the Balkans is the Kremlin.