He has been publishing written works in numerous magazines since 1967. He writes poetry, prose, plays, essays, and literary criticism. He has published the following books: Djetinjstvo [Childhood] (poetry, 1972), Sad znades sve [Now you know everything] (poetry, 1979), Daleka zvona [Distant bells] (a novel, 1983), 23 kritike [23 critical essays] (literary criticism, 1988), Poljubac izdaje [Kiss of betrayal] (poetry, 1989), Ric fali [Missing word] (poetry, 1991).
In 1984 he founded the biweekly Zig [Stamp] in Subotica. He has been editor-in-chief of the magazine until today. Zig is a magazine of liberal civic orientation. It is one of three publications (besides the Catholic monthly Zvonik [Belfry] published by the Subotica bishopric, and the monthly Glas Ravnice [Voice of the Plains] published by the Democratic Association of Vojvodina Croats) published in Croatian language in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
Vijenac: Is this your first interview, after a long time, for the Croatian public?
Sekelj: Not really. There are always opportunities to speak. And if they are missing, they should be created. Opportunities are in the sphere of possible. Nevertheless, I do not see the difficulty of your question in opportunities and images but in something else. Namely, it is not a problem that I or someone else rarely address the Croatian public. It is dangerous that certain and always the same people address not only the Croatian public but also Croatian state and other institutions, on behalf of Croats from FR Yugoslavia. It wouldn't hurt to check several books!
Are you saying that representatives of one political organization, the Democratic Association of Vojvodina Croats (DSHV), are speaking exclusively on behalf of the Croats from FR Yugoslavia with institutions in the Republic of Croatia?
I have to correct you. The communication with the republic of Croatia about our fate and status does not go via certain representatives of DSHV, which would be a better option, but exclusively via a single person, the president of the party, Bela Tonkovic. I can't with confidence claim that a certain delegation, including Tonkovic, does not appear from time to time, but the remaining members of the delegation usually find out about the agenda for the visit based on what they can read on a menu in a restaurant. In that manner, a murky image about Croats-Bunjevci continues. After the "Croatian Spring" in Croatia the awareness about our existence was equal to the awareness of the song "Hey Farms on the North of Backa" and the present awareness ends with the name of Bela Tonkovic.
True, in the recent past Bela Tonkovic and DSHV demonstrated certain courage, but that courage did not have a clearly defined goal, but was self-serving and used more like a weapon on the international stage than as a tool to improve our organization in FRY.
Your explanation for that?
The political organization of Croats in Vojvodina is a dire need and necessity. At first, DSHV found wide acceptance, but then the war and hard times came along. At that time it was very hard to be a Croat. DSHV played an honorable role and managed to internationalize our problem. However, while that was dictated by foreign factors, on the other hand cracks appeared within DSHV. People cooled down and turned away from the policy advocated by DSHV, above all because it never established its strategy: everything was subordinated to daily tactical games. Some problems were addressed only on a declarative level; maximalist goals, unachievable in short term, were espoused so that there were no tangible results at all. Apart from the negative ones. Then, several big mistakes were made at the very beginning: demagogic anti-communism, then the attitude of rejection and non-acceptance of any dialogue with Bunjevci who, for several reasons, do not today consider themselves to be Croats; all of that was crowned with some moronic declaration about the "Croatiandom of Bunjevci". As if someone's ethnic character can be determined by declarations! From the start, the party veered towards a type of nepotism, and was continuously suspicious of independent intellectuals. In this environment, DSHV has been an extended arm of HDZ. They continuously led some sort of state policy rather than fighting for the interests of Croats in Vojvodina. Soon, as a consequence of internal impotence, the party was distorted. DSHV is neither democratic, nor an association, nor is it for Croats, nor in Vojvodina. It has turned into a typical authoritarian political party with a leader who imposes the scheme "I am the party and the party is all Croats". Such a scheme does not tolerate any criticism, neither from within nor from without; it cannot function and has no legality and legitimacy. Thereby, the party has been released from the feeling of responsibility for its actions. It is clear that all of that is far from good. However, it appears that the present situation suits current state policies of FR Yugoslavia and Croatia with respect to ethnic minorities. It suits them in the sense that ethnic minorities in their status, shape and content are between a micro-community and macro-society and are bearers of democratic processes on the line an individual-society-state. Having in mind that DSHV failed to transform into a modern political party or adapt to the new situation, its policy failed in that respect as well.
What is the current state, the level of organization and political and national situation of Croats in Vojvodina?
There is no coordination between the existing institutions. There is no common plan, everyone works on their own. Because of that, we must devise new methods for organization and representation. It is encouraging that the necessary critical and creative energy for the creation of new quality does exist.
In the 56th issue of Zig (September 7 1996) you published an open letter to Bela Tonkovic, accusing him of alienating many prominent Croats who could have contributed to the improvement of the status of the Croatian community in FRY, by introducing the cult of his personality. In the issue before that one (August 24) on the whole third page you published an essay by sociologist Zlatko Sram (later reprinted by Vijenac), under the headline "Narcissism of leaders as a reason for intra-party conflict"; it is pretty obvious what that essay was about. Is the open letter only the last straw? Or, is it perhaps an impetus for a search for a new policy?
I have nothing to add to or take away from the letter. I regret that it was understood as an attack on DSHV. However, that letter was "for" DSHV, but "against" the policy and working methods of its president. I believe that without a sense of self-criticism one should not be active in politics or culture but leave everything to populism.
The letter is an expression of resistance to the policy of Bela Tonkovic. My civic attitude and moral obligation is to as a public worker express my opinion and my assessment of public pronouncements. I am not a member of DSHV and the policy of Bela Tonkovic is really an internal matter of the party. They should discuss it and make decisions about it. I reacted because of consequences of that that policy for the status of Croats as a whole. That is my democratic right. No one can count on my vote in an election and expect me to be silent and tolerate everything between the elections.
Maybe that is a beginning of the realization of an alternative. Many are already searching for new ways of organizing and a way out of the present situation.
Lazo Vojnic Hajduk, at the time a vice-president and now the administrator of the Croatian Cultural Center "Bunjevacko Kolo" in Subotica also questioned the policy of DSHV by stating that the presidency of one of the largest institutions of Croats in FRY, of which you are a member, disagrees with some of the actions of the Alliance. What is actually the matter in this case?
That case, also, because of political reasons and typical methods, was an attempt to discredit and label people. The Presidency of "Bunjevacko Kolo" publicly distanced itself from some problematic statement by some members of DSHV that implied support by all Croats in Vojvodina. Lazo Vojnic Hajduk simply read the statement issued by the Presidency, and not his personal opinion, as the later accusations claimed. However, DSHV formed some sort of a committee to investigate the accusations and they are serious: that Lazo Vojnic Hajduk introduced disquiet and disunity into the Croat people. All of that is a clear indication of the internal state in DSHV.
Soon after your open letter, and immediately before the elections, a meeting of representatives of all Croat political, cultural and religious institutions took place. At that meeting, it was proposed to make a decision about reconciliation and to refrain from public attacks on other Croat representatives.
That meeting was not adequately prepared and carried no weight. It ended on a conciliatory note because of impending elections, rather than by a significant decision of some sort. All of that was very tense.
However, that did not help prevent a huge defeat [of DSHV] in the recent elections?
They suffered a catastrophic defeat in the elections. DSHV has three representatives in the local assembly in Subotica, out of 67, no representatives in the Vojvodina provincial assembly and no representatives in the Federal Parliament. With just a little political intelligence, they could have done much better.
Various polls conducted before the elections indicated that kind of an outcome. Unlike DSHV, Bela Tonkovic had a very low rating among the voters. DSHV held its previous position, which promised better results. However, as Bela Tonkovic was the first name on the list of candidates for the Federal Parliament (by the way, DSHV should not have contested these elections alone; it could have negotiated and traded with other parties), the party was identified with him. That certainly led to the loss of some votes.
By the way, there are about twenty ethnic Croat-Bunjevac representatives in the local assembly in Subotica. However, they are members of as many as seven different parties and it is unlikely to expect any sort of coordinated activity from them. The real consequences of the electoral loss are yet to be felt. DSHV lost the post of the vice-president of the local assembly, it will loose the post of the vice-president in the local government; the party will have almost no representation in the local government and some projects and programs can easily become problematic. Now, however, DSHV tells us that all of that is a success. All of that is irresponsible and lacks seriousness. It would be normal that the president of a party which suffered a catastrophic defeat in an election resigns or at least offers a resignation. However, in this case we see just the opposite. DSHV manipulates with the public and tries to present a failure as a great success. That is a joke, a humiliation of the public. Nevertheless, all that is an internal matter for the party. Maybe that's how it should be. However, as long as the situation remains unchanged, I shall keep criticizing it.
My impression, although impressions are unreliable in politics, is that DSHV was not especially motivated to try and achieve a bigger success. The very core of the party is paralyzed and divided. The failure of DSHV in the elections also makes it difficult for the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians to form a local government. Had DSHV won at least seven representatives, which was possible with more work, the local assembly in Subotica wouldn't be evenly split.
In the past you actively participated in the work of DSHV and even edited the publication of the party, Glas Ravnice. Why did you stop being active within the party?
At the very beginning, although I was not a member of the party, I gave my small contribution. I was not the editor of the publication but its administrator for a short period of time; although Bela Tonkovic denies it, that can clearly be seen in the masthead of the paper. But that's his style. We parted our ways exactly because of such methods, not because of the program of DSHV. The then editor-in-chief of Glas Ravnice, Ivan Poljakovic, quickly politically matured and spotted internal weaknesses of the party, but his ideas were not accepted. A good team gathered around that publication, even a few young individuals, who were very promising. However, most of them quickly left.
Is that why Zig was founded?
Glas Ravnice and Zig should not be compared. The idea about the founding of a newspaper of Zig's type is old and it wasn't envisaged as a competition to Glas Ravnice. I wanted a local Subotica newspaper reflecting all the complexity of this city. I think that at the time that was a daring move. We have entered our third year and if someone were to ask me how we manage, I'd have to say "I don't know". But, a man is led towards a goal, if it is clearly defined, by his faith in the correctness of that goal.
Who are the readers and collaborators of Zig?
Zig is read mostly by Croats, but its readership also includes many Serbs and Hungarians. Most of our readers come from Subotica. Our collaborators come from very different backgrounds and so far more than eighty of them have participated in the preparation of the paper. They have various ethnic backgrounds. The paper has an open policy and the core of our collaborators are young people.
In the open letter you clearly claimed that since the beginning of its publication Zig has done more to promote Croats from Subotica than the president of DSHV with his policy. What exactly were you referring to?
Zig practices critical journalism. Many intellectuals from Subotica have published their first newspaper articles on the pages of Zig. We treat the paper as a project. It is impossible to talk about the concept and results of Zig, as well as any other paper, based on only a few issues. Years are needed to profile the basic idea and develop the real intention and essence. After three years of publication it is possible to spot differences in the read material. We have recovered from the childhood diseases but, unfortunately, haven't made much progress in some respects. We are aware of weaknesses and mistakes; however, we are powerless because we are limited by the lack of funding. However, I can openly say that if Zig stops with publication, with all of its problems and imperfections, that will still be the end of an attempt to affirm a liberal-civic outlook on the contemporary world among the Croats in Vojvodina. And resignation has been knocking at the door already. It this team falls apart, I cannot see who and how, with what promises, would be able to gather them again. Since, all of us are increasingly thinking with our bellies instead of with our heads.
Zig has an editorial policy, but I do not have a political platform that I may try to implement in some organizational form. At this moment it is important to preserve the autonomy of the biweekly, and some other kids will make something out of it in the future. Clearly, I will be on their side, decidedly "against".
In these times an artist must not keep quiet... Thus, I opted for a critical attitude - I'm decidedly "against".
Is the controversial Croatian National Council a part of the policy that you support?
The initiative for the founding of the Croat National Council came from young and capable people, most of them members of DSHV. The council was envisaged as a body representing all Croats in FRY. Any member of the Croat community would be able to vote for the members of the Croat National Council or run for an office on the Council regardless of his or her political affiliation, unlike in DSHV. The Council would have the legal right and legitimacy to represent all Croats in FRY. However, some people assessed that something like that cannot even be contemplated without them, since these individuals still keep saying that "the time is not ripe". Signatories of the petition calling for the founding of the Croat National Council were expelled from DSHV. I wonder what would have happened if they were not also among the original founders of the party. Perhaps, a new declaration, stating that the expelled individuals are not really Croats but were "planted" by those who wish to harm Croats, would be issued.
What kind of links are maintained between Croat institutions in FRY and the motherland? Is general information about problems of local Croats available in Croatia?
Only the information that suits certain circles reaches Croatia. Last year, I took upon myself to openly discuss our problems and sent a letter with my thoughts to several addresses in Croatia. Last year, a delegation visited the representative office of Croatia [new the Croatian embassy] in Belgrade. We talked about our vision of the current situation and our suggestions regarding the further work and possible improvements. However, I do not know what happened with the letters and whether anything came out of our discussion in the Office.
For example, does Zig receive any support?
Zig does not receive any support from Croatia. As far as I know, some circles and individuals took it upon themselves to present the magazine in negative light, so that now we do not expect any assistance. At first we hoped to be able to work as correspondents for newspapers and other media from Croatia, especially since I used to be a correspondent for HINA [official Croatian news agency] and the Croatian Radio, during very difficult times and with very definite consequences. I believed that we should get that job because of our past experience. However, we keep encountering "buts". Decisions are made elsewhere.
Why hasn't a branch of Matica Hrvatska [mail Croatian cultural organization; the published of Vijenac] yet been founded in Subotica?
Why? I wonder myself. The last initiative for the founding of a branch of Matica Hrvatska in Subotica came in 1991, but the initiators themselves, out of fear and because of their keen memory of "the Croatian spring" and suffering of intellectuals and artists from Subotica, soon split into the persistent ones and those who believed that it was too early for something like that. There were a few meetings with representatives of Matica Hrvatska. A delegation from Subotica attended the meeting at which the branch in Valpovo was refounded. However, well known events followed. On the other hand, Bunjevacka Matica was reformed here, I am not sure why myself. Now, there's again talk about the founding of a branch of Matica Hrvatska, since it is believed that that is the best way for cultural cooperation with the motherland. I hope that something will happen in that sense.
Our impression is that Vojvodina Croats are loosing hope that they can organize cultural and political life at a decent level. Is there a future for Croats in FRY? Are the only alternatives for those who decide to stay on the one hand membership in a folklore group, as they are in any case seen in Croatia, and assimilation on the other hand?
The future of Croats in FRY, preservation of our national identity, together with a constructive policy, based on recognition of our true needs, should not be in doubt. Especially not in Vojvodina, a multinational environment with rich experience of common life. Using democratic means we must first achieve wide autonomy for Vojvodina and put an end to pillaging; because Vojvodina has been pillaged not only materially, but also impoverished spiritually and culturally. Under the influence from Belgrade, the mental attitude of the inhabitants of Vojvodina has been changed violently. If the pillaging of Vojvodina from Belgrade continues there is no perspective for anyone. The partial struggle of ethnic minorities for cultural, territorial or personal autonomy, without free and truly autonomous Vojvodina, is a short-term policy because it does not deal with crucial national interests of any of these minorities, but actually reduces them to pure folklore. Then, national culture becomes a part of the policy of a minority organization instead of serving as a guide for that policy. For me, the question of the preservation of national identity is neither a political nor a philosophical problem, but an aesthetic problem in Hegelian sense: highest interests of the spirit should be brought to consciousness. It is a difficult task, since in that case aesthetics is not a science about beauty, but a science about being, and very few people care about ontological aesthetics, about critical consciousness, conscience and ethics.
There are some political and cultural organizations of Croats in FRY, especially in Vojvodina. The fact that we are not satisfied with them does not mean that they do not exist at all. It is necessary to reach best solutions through dialogue and always keep the future in mind. We should initiate the founding of some working body that would include representatives of all cultural, political, and even religious institutions. I believe that the Croatian Cultural center Bunjevacko Kolo could have that role. Nevertheless, that is the question of technique, the essence is elsewhere.
Namely, there is no survival without true content and understanding of true needs of the community taht wants to develop in local conditions and develop new cultural and spiritual values. Croatia should have more understanding for our cultural needs and help establish conditions for their fulfillment, supporting above all inclusion of a wider circle of persons in the creation of the present of Croats in FRY. If we care about culture, than future is not something that may hit us like a tram, but rather something that will be created by us.
However, there is resignation. That is a danger which proves that those who claim that "the future has already happened" are right. Nevertheless, let us recall that future, and past, and we can see that it was never very good to us and that we are still here. We should not surrender. Because the struggle for the full emancipation of the culture of any nation, in our case Croats in Vojvodina, is at the same time the struggle of an individual for the true coexistence with others.