Nationalism Fading From Serbia’s Political Stage
By MATTHEW BRUNWASSER
BELGRADE — In a country that nurtures a grudge about an event that occurred more than 600 years ago, once-fiery Serbian nationalism now seems strangely muted.
With the 68-year-old General Ratko Mladic settling into his prison cell in The Hague, the relative silence with which Serbs greeted his arrest and extradition speaks volumes about the turnaround taken by the country’s leadership and the fading of nationalism as an issue from the political stage.
A Belgrade street protest on May 29 against the arrest of Mr. Mladic drew an estimated 10,000 people, smaller than the crowds that typically gather after important soccer matches. The major political parties accepted the extradition, after 15 years of mounting international pressure, as the price of getting closer to Europe.
“Serbia has never had a well-defined nationalist agenda,” said Srdjan Bogosavljevic, a pollster and director at Ipsos Strategic Marketing in Belgrade. Mr. Bogosavljevic noted that the other Yugoslav republics built their nationalism on freedom from the Yugoslav federation, with its capital here in Belgrade. The Serbs, by contrast, mostly express disappointment at having failed to prevent them from leaving.
The mood reflects the country’s tormented post-communist history. Serbia has changed its political structure, territory, currency and name so often since the wars of the early 1990s that only 20 percent of Serbs can name their national day.
(Photo: Matt Lutton)
Mr. Bogosavljevic said that one presidential candidate displayed the wrong flag of his country on his campaign advertisement.
The nationalism associated with Serbia — anti-Western, chauvinist, homophobic and violent — still exists among the same small portion of the population but now with one important difference.
“The political elite is not provoking it,” Mr. Bogosavljevic said.
Mr. Mladic is considered a hero by 51 percent of Serbs, according to a poll taken by the Ipsos agency the day after the arrest, but 45 percent think the arrest was in Serbia’s national interest while only 36 percent say it was damaging.
A little more than half of all Serbs would vote for European Union membership, Mr. Bogosavljevic estimated, but the major parties supporting E.U. membership represent 88 percent of the Serbian electorate.
And while polls show Serbs significantly more pro-Russian than pro-European, few Serbs would choose to send their children to study in Moscow rather than Paris or London.
In contrast to the previous weekend’s anemic protest, some 150,000 joined a demonstration after Kosovo declared independence in 2008.
Extreme nationalists among them stormed and burned the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade and attacked foreign-owned shops.
The protest was organized by the nationalist government of Vojislav Kostunica, who analysts said loosened security to allow crowds to let off steam.
The protests last week were organized by the tiny Serbian Radical Party, whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently in The Hague facing charges.
One of the major domestic political moves that has marginalized nationalism as a political force was the split within the Radicals, leading Mr. Seselj’s former deputy, Tomislav Nikolic, to form the new pro-E.U. Serbian Progressive Party.
“People are not jubilant about the European Union,” Aleksandar Vucic, the deputy party leader, said in an interview in the Progressives’ new office. “But they realize we need to go that way and there is nowhere else to go.”
“We still need to have our own policy, but of course we’ll have to make many compromises,” he added.
While the European Union has not made recognition of Kosovo a requirement — many E.U. members also refuse to recognize it — there is growing international pressure for an agreement between Serbia and Kosovo to foster regional stability.
“Kosovo is not easy for us but we’ll have to live with it,” Mr. Vucic said.
Kosovo remains a powerful touchstone here, even for Boris Tadic, the solidly pro-European president of Serbia, who boycotted a summit meeting of Central and East European leaders in Warsaw on May 27 because of the presence of President Atifete Jahjaga of Kosovo.
The meeting would have included talks with President Barack Obama.
The legend of Serbia’s defeat on the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 and the current situation of a Serb minority and Orthodox churches in a predominantly Muslim country continue to stoke genuine passions among Serbs.
The former Serbian province occupies a powerful place in the Serbian psyche and provides an eternal source of nationalism for political leaders to tap into.
Extreme nationalists, like the Serbian National Movement 1389, view Mr. Tadic as a traitor.
“Tadic is a dictator,” said Igor Marinkovic, 29, from the leadership of the movement, arguing that the president controls the media and uses the police to crush nationalists.
But Mr. Marinkovic’s movement counts only 2,000 active members. It is collecting signatures to register as a political party to contest the 2012 general elections and has merged with a Serbian franchise of the Russian nationalist youth organization “Nashi.”
“The end of this regime will be in the street, not in elections,” insists Mr. Marinkovic, who says the public will rise up as the government’s alleged economic mismanagement and corruption becomes more evident.
A group called Obraz is a larger extremist nationalist group, dedicated to a Serbian Orthodox Christian agenda and the Serbian monarchy.
It was especially vocal in opposing a Belgrade gay pride march in October, putting up posters warning that “We Wait for You” in the week before the parade.
Western embassies in Belgrade endorsed the march, and E.U. officials called on the Serbian government to uphold equal rights for all.
After being canceled by the authorities in 2009, the march went ahead in 2010 with a heavy police presence and passed through practically empty streets. Violence, which was mainly directed at the police, left 127 officers injured.
During the era of Mr. Kostunica, who led the revolution to remove President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 before leaving power in 2008, young street protesters were widely believed to receive support from nationalist parties for doing their dirty work. No direct evidence, like bank transfers, was ever found, though.
“For the moment, they are in retreat,” said Marko Mamuzic, who has directed a documentary film about Serbian youth nationalist groups. “They are not so present in the political scene as they were five years ago.”
He expects the retreat to continue as Serbia gets closer to the European Union and says the only chance for their political comeback would be a Greece-style economic meltdown.
One of the sharpest voices to speak out against virulent nationalism has been an unusual cultural institution located in the former East German Embassy: the Center for Cultural Decontamination.
Founded in 1994 by Borka Pavicevic, a steely dramaturg with a voice made gravelly by cigarettes, the center is dedicated to countering the use of culture in pumping up Serbian nationalism.
Ms. Pavicevic is cautiously optimistic after the arrest of Mr. Mladic. “It’s better now than ever,” she said. “It was a last-minute rescue, of course.”
But she is afraid that the government still has no clear strategy for cleansing virulent nationalism from Serbian society.
The public needs to deal with the crimes committed by Mr. Mladic and accept responsibility, she said, but instead it is told nothing more than “we need to be in the European Union in order to get the money.”
“You can’t solve all the problems of this state just by changing the image,” Ms. Pavicevic added.