Category Archives: Belgrade

Hooligan violence as a challenge to Serbia’s European Integration ambitions

Yesterday evening, the football match between Italy and Serbia, for the European Championship qualifiers, had to be suspended due to the violent behaviour of Serbian hooligans. This happened two days after the Gay Pride Parade in Belgrade, which was marked by the violence of the attack against the Serbian police protecting the parade.

All of this happened a few days after the tenth anniversary of the fall of Slobodan Milošević. The strength of the extreme-right movements in Serbia is a sobering reminder that, although it is undeniable that Serbia has significantly changed since 2000, the legacy of the nationalist goals which helped bring Milošević to power and hold it for 13 years (since 1987), and the culture of violence through which these nationalistic goals were expressed are a serious threat to democracy and Serbia.

During the Pride Parade, unable to reach the LGTB activists, the crowd of 6000 members of extreme-right movements and hooligans supporters of Belgrade’s football clubs targeted the police instead. At least 124 policemen were injured. Such violence is much more than an expression of homophobic hatred. It is, above all, a direct attack to the state institutions of Serbia as a democracy. Although the level of violence in Genoa Yesterday didn’t by far reached the one in Belgrade tow days before, it represents yet another step on the challenge to Serbia as a democratic state, as the violence was exported to a country of Western Europe, to which the Serbian government is so much trying to portray its country as worthy of becoming a member of the European Union.

While in Belgrade the pretext behind the violence was the defence of traditional Serbian Christian values against the decadent and degrading values imposed by western liberalism, in Genoa there was no apparent  pretext. It was rioting for the sake of rioting, as a pure demonstration of might. An Albanian flag was burnt, producing thus an eye catching image. But it was not Albania or the Albanians that came under attack in this football match. It was Serbia’s image as a civilized country.

The Italian police is now under criticism for the failure of the security control at the entrance of the stadium, to which it responds that the Serbian authorities failed to inform them about the level of risk, and failed also to take preventive measures in Serbia before the departure of the supporters. According to the Italian officials, quoted by the Italian newspaper La Repubblicca:

“There was a critical moment at the influx phase (to the stadium): the control was not implemented due to the fact that we had to made them enter in order to avoid them devastating the city”

(“C’è stato un momento di criticità nella fase di afflusso: il controllo è stato vanificato dal fatto che abbiamo dovuto farli entrare per non far devastare la città”.)

Earlier in the day, Red Star supporters attacked the goalkeeper of the Serbian team, Vladimir Stojković. As Belgrade’s website B92 reports:

Stojaković recently joined city rivals Partizan FC and has since been the subject of verbal abuse of Red Star fans.
According to reports, a group of some 30 hooligans approached the team bus, while half a dozen of them entered the vehicle, throwing in a lit flare and “attempting to lynch Stojković”.

This is revealing of the sense of empowerment that these extremists feel. This sense of empowerment is justified. Once in the stadium, the Serbian players tried to cool down the hooligans by saluting them with the traditional three-fingers salute, which has a well-known nationalist connotation. A display of patriotism or a display of submission?

It can be argued that extremist far right violent movements exist all over Europe, and it’s true. This is a very serious European problem, and, at least in this regard, Serbia is quite well integrated in the wider European trends. Indeed a simple google search will make the readers aware of the extent of this integration. Serbia is regularly visited by neo-nazi activists from Western Europe, Russia and the USA, and has become one of the most promising countries for the flourishing on these movements.

What makes this phenomenon particularly worrying in the case of Serbia is that Serbia is not like the other European countries where these movements also have strong roots. Serbia is still a country in transition, which lacks a strong civil society, in which the concept of tolerance is often misunderstood if not simply dismissed, in which the alternative forces to the coalition now in power is composed of hard-line nationalists.

Two years ago I wrote a paper about this phenomenon (recently published as a book chapter here), which by then was already quite visible, but had not yet acquired the vigour it now seems to have. Since then, extremist movements in Serbia have clearly gained ground and became much more violent. Last year, extremists humiliated  the Serbian government by forcing it to cancel last year’s Gay Pride Parade. The credibility of their threats was asserted through the random attack by Partizan hooligans against a young French citizen, Brice Taton, who had travelled to Serbia to watch a football match. He was attacked while seating at a café and horribly beaten,  and died some weeks later of the injuries.

Afterwards, the Serbian government announced the intention to take measures to curb violence in sports events, and even to ban neo-nazi activities. But, as is evident now, whatever measures may have been taking, they failed to achieve their goal. Today the Serbian Minister of Justice, Slobodan Homem, declared that he believes that these incidents are not merely done by “kids who wish to protest against authorities”, but that they are “organized groups that have financial support”. This is just the same as inventing the wheel, of course, but it is, at least, the first time a member of the Serbian government acknowledges the political significance of these movements.

The Minister points to interest groups who which to undermine the process of EU accession in order to preserve their monopoles; to organized crime; but also to the interest of the opposition parties in weakening the government in order to force early elections. I believe this is a realistic accusation, which highlights how far is Serbia from being a stable consolidated democracy.

The Minister fails, however, to tackle the deeper sources from which these movements spring. Presenting them as mere tools of vested interests, overlooks the fact that these groups have agency of their own. They are ideologically inspired by the tradition of Serbian expansionist nationalism, or, at least, skilfully invoke Serbian nationalism in order to justify their actions. Such invocation successful resonates in the Serbian society. Thus, while the tribute to Brice Taton, last year, gathered 5000  people, the protest against this year’s Gay Parade, organized on the eve of the event, had 10 000 participants. The use of religious symbols and the presence of Orthodox priests in the protests is also revealing. Indeed, sectors of the Serbian Orthodox Church have been consistently, over the years, supported and stimulated clero-fascist groups like Obraz, or Dveri, important elements in this multitude of extremist right-wing groups.

The judiciary system is particularly complicit in the failure to deter these groups, by systematically failing to trial and convict its members, in particular football supporters’ groups, of  a number of violent crimes committed over the last decade, as the courageous investigation led by B92 journalist Brankica Stankovic demonstrated. The level of tolerance of the judiciary was further exposed by the aquittal of the Partizan holligans who threatened the journalist to death after her investigation was broadcast.

But, although the current government is now openly challenged by informal groups resorting to violence which appeal to the Serb nationalist or, as they put it, traditional values, as a way to attract supporters and benefit from the tolerance of the larger sectors of society, the government still fails to tackle the primary source of strength these groups have, which is the enduring presence of of nationalism in Post-Milosevic’s Serbia, a legacy which has meanwhile been transmitted to a new generation among which extremism is finding fertile ground.

This, of course, not an easy task, but is one that is not being taken with enough energy by the government, because amidst its own ranks resistance to such an endeavour is great, as was clear by the difficulties faced to approve the resolution condemning the Massacre of Srebrenica. And this is, even more than the strength of extremist movements, the real obstacle towards Serbia’s European integration. Or, at least, it should be.

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Filed under Belgrade, EU, Nationalism, Serbia, Uncategorized, Violence

Serbia through the eyes of a train traveller (me)

Yesterday the train connection between Belgrade and Sarajevo was re-established, 18 years after being interrupted. This is great news to me, in a very selfish way. Soon I will be moving to Sarajevo and visiting Belgrade often and trains are by far my favourite transport.

It was by train that I first came to Belgrade, in May 2006. When I climbed down from the train, I saw that the station was packed with police. They were looking for Ratko Mladic. In the frontier between Hungary and Serbia, the train had already been searched by military. The idea that I might have travelled with Mladic amused me, absurd as it was. Later my friend Jelena and I tried to guess how he might be disguised, with me imagining Mladic conducting the train himself, while rather saw him dressed as an Hungarian peasant women, sitting quietly next to a bag of potatoes.

This was the 6th of May. Three days earlier, the EU Commission had suspended negotiations with Serbia for a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first step towards EU accession (I remember watching the news on television while I waited for a connection to Budapest at Milan airport) over the fact that Serbia failed to fulfil its commitment to fully co-operate with the ICTY. On the following days, several police actions were undertaken, including this one at the Belgrade train station. My friend Dusan, who picked me up, grabbed my bag and rushed me out of there, saying that one never knows when thinks may heat up- I though he was joking. And that was my first impression of Serbia.

Some people were arrested, but the operations didn’t convince anyone, a mere show for outsiders. This was Kostunica’s rule. After the assassination of Zoran Djindjic in 2003, Kostunica was very very successful in exploiting the West’s sense of guilt for having put so much pressure for reforms. Presenting himself as a ‘moderate nationalist’, he received international support, and the EU opened, in November 2005, negotiations for the signature of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, despite the fact that the government was making a mockery of Serbia’s obligation to cooperate with the ICTY by replacing the policy of deporting those indicted by a policy of ‘voluntary surrender’.

Less than 2 years latter, I returned to Belgrade by train once again, this time from Zagreb (I went to Belgrade in the year in between, but not by train) . I was on my way to Pristina, where I had the chance to participate in the party of Independence. Back from Pristina, I could observe the frenzy of nationalism and violence to which Kostunica was leading the country. On the night that I left, I had to cross Belgrade from Vracar, where the Temple of Saint Sava is located to the train station. This was the epicentre of the riots following the government-organized ‘Kosovo je Srbija’ rally. The Embassy of the United States had just been arsoned and as  I walked among the crowd, I could see the McDonnalds in Slavija Square being ransacked and vandalized, people being beaten, public property, such as bus stations, rubbish containers, etc, being destroyed, people carrying stolen goods. At a certain moment, I was also threatened by one of the rioters, who saw that I had a camera and wanted to seize it. An older man ordered him to let me go after I said I was spanish. “Let her go, she’s on our side”, he said in English, and he obeyed immediately. The man had been following me and Jelena for a while, we had noticed him already (I was later told that he was most likely from the intelligence services). He was very polite when he asked us what were we doing there. We just said I was there just by chance, while he walked with us until we got to a calmer area.

Finally I got to the train. It was full of rioters, mostly young people who had travelled for free to Belgrade to participate in the rally. In my compartment, there was also an old man with an accordion. When a group of young boys and girls got in, carrying looted goods in plastic bags- Reebok trainers, clothes, wristwatches, cellphones, call cards- they told him to play ‘Tamo Daleko’ and sang with patriotic fervour. The old man was happy to be given such attention. They were 4 boys and 2 girls. One of them, the most bullish, then turned at me and ask me where did I come for. I thought of saying Spain, but then in case I needed to show any documents I would be uncovered. When I said Portugal, two others shouted ‘Cristiano Ronaldo’ and then I felt a bit less insecure. It goes without saying that they were drunk. They generously shared with me their cheap alcohol, something like a brandee, very bad, which I accepted not to upset them. One of the boys sat next to me and began chatting. He was the kind of guy that turns nostalgic when drunk, unlike the bullish, whose aggressiveness was hardly contained by the leader of the group, a quiet guy. I played dumb, an accidental tourist caught in an unfortunate situation. I never gave the slightest indication that I knew (a litlle bit of) Serbian or anything about Serbia, so very quickly the conversation with the ‘nice guy’ shifted to his personal life. I wasn’t scared, just angry to see how a generation had been corrupted by Serb nationalism, first under Milosevic as children, then under Kostunica as adolescents. Not everybody in the train were kids, tough, many were mature men dressed in military-stile camouflage clothing, and there was one totally dressed as chetnik, including the hat and the beard. When the train crossed the frontier the Croatian ticket collector was surprised to find me in the otherwise totally empty train. I’ll never forget the way he looked at me. He just looked and bounced his head and then I felt an enormous relief.

When I returned once again the following July, I was happy to see that something had changed in Belgrade. Serbia had a new government, after  having gone through general elections, which resulted in what I called the defeat of the intimidation strategy of Vojislav Kostunica and the radicals. The prospect of isolation that was offered by the nationalists was rejected  by the voters. The EU played a very important role in supporting democratic change in Serbia. It offered Serbia the Stabilization and Association Agreement and diplomats pushed the Socialist party to join the pro-EU block.

Everything was different in Belgrade. It was Summer, there was a warm environment, a feeling of hope for a new cicle, which was reinforced when, a few days after I left again, Radovan Karadzic was arrested and sent to the Hague. On my way back, I once again took the night train to Zagreb. In the station, Jelena and I were moved by the romantic scene of a very young couple running to each other and kissing. The girl had gone there to say goodbye, but the boy was getting late and she was getting anxious. It was a movie-like scene. I asked Jelena please when you make a film, you must find a way to include this scene, but then we agreed that it was a unique moment which we were fortunate to witness, ephemeral maybe but deeply emotional. On the train also everything was different. Instead of drunk rioters, in my compartment travelled an old Serb and a Croat in his 30s, who were very keen to explain me that they both spoke the same language, except that one called bread ‘hleb’ and the other ‘kruh’. Only the Croatian ticket collector was the same. He didn’t remember my face, of course, but I could never forget his moustache. I got back from Belgrade that Summer feeling that change was possible, and not only in Serbia. I feel nostalgic when I think of that trip, the warmth of Belgrade’s summer touched me deeply.

When I came back once again in the beginning of Autumn, the real Belgrade was back in place. Changes had happened, no doubt. The question then was would they take roots or would the enemies of a peaceful, democratic Serbia manage to undermine them. And how far would the new holders of power be willing and able to go?

It became very clear to me that there was no political will nor popular support for addressing the core problem of the persistence of nationalism in Serbia. Such problem could only be addressed by facing the past, that is, by looking at Serbia’s role in the destruction of Yugoslavia, because that’s the spring well from where ultra-nationalism drinks nowadays.

Situations like the threats against the Belgrade Pride parade and the murder of Frech citizen Brice Taton by nationalist extremists reveal how fragile are the basis of pro-european Serbia. The State was challenged and failed.

Now the B92 TV report ‘Insider’ reveals how the judiciary repeatedly, systematically failed to deal with the threat of extremist violence by youth groups, mostly organized around football clubs. The journalist who made this investigation, Brankica Stankovic and B92 were then the target of a number of serious threats, including rape and murder threats. Seven people were arrested in connection to these threats, but the fact is that the legitimate authorities of Serbia seem to be unable or unwilling to take vigorous action, restricting itself to reacting to open challenges in incidents that are likely to be repeated.

Nonetheless, Serbia seems is getting closer to EU accession.  Its citizens were granted a visa-free regime for the Schengen area and the Netherlands dropped its veto over the full implementation of the Stabilization and Association Agreement, following a favourable report about Serbia’s cooperation withe the ICTY, despite the fact that Mladic is still to be found.

While Bosnia is immersed in a political deadlock which nobody really knows how to overcome, Serbia seems to be evolving on the right direction, but there are many contradictory signs that indicate how precarious change is in Serbia.

The fact that the connection between Belgrade and Sarajevo was re-established now is one of the many contradictory signs of change in the region. The opening of this rail connection is a sign of hope, because trains bring common people closer. For me, it will be an additional opportunity to sense the pulse of both Serbian and Bosnian society.

The photo on top was taken by my friend Jelena Markovic and originaly published here.

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Filed under Belgrade, EU, Europe, Serbia

Danilo Kiš, the last Yugoslav writer.

Thanks to Richard Byrne at Balkans via Bohemia, I came to know that today we are commemorating twenty years over the death of the great Yugoslav writer Danilo Kiš.

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One of the things that keeps me attracted to Yugoslavia and its successor countries is the quality of writers and intellectuals, which by contrast, make the dominant narrow minded nationalism even more appalling. In Serbia and in Bosnia I was able to meet vibrant people, cultivated cosmopolitans trapped in societies dominated by parochial concepts of national interest.  Meeting such people was always produced in me a contradictory feeling of being intellectually stimulated by them and at the same time absorbing a certain sense of hopelessness, the feeling of frustration of realizing how difficult it is to promote one’s cosmopolitan perspective agains the narrow mindness of parochialism.

On his short story “A man with No Country”, published in Balkan Blues: Writing out of Yugoslavia, such feeling is, I think, clearly expressed in the final paragraph:

The great idea of the community entered drawing rooms and market-places, and under its banner rallied the wise and the stupid, noble souls and rabble, people linked by no affinity whatsoever, by no spiritual kinship, except for that banal, kitsh and dangerous theory of race and social origin.

Danilo Kiš is considered to be the last Yugoslav writer. As Richard Byrne highlights, the conflicts that tore Yugoslavia apart were rooted in the paranoia and ignorance belittled by Kiš, and the cultural artifacts of that era trafficked in the banality and kitsch that he so savagely ridiculed.

This is not to say that Yugoslavia was a cosmopolitan paradise, but just to remember how its potential was destroyed. Every time I go to Belgrade, a city that I love and where I feel almost as much at home as in my own native Lisbon, I have the impression that, had the dissolution of Yugoslavia been conducted through non-violent means, Belgrade would be by now one of the great cities of Europe, probably the cultural and economic centre of South Eastern Europe. Of course, this is nothing comparing to the damage cause to a city like Sarajevo, a city where more than ten thousand people were killed, a city which had to endure the longest siege in modern History and whose identity was severely damaged.

Unfortunatelly, looking around in contemporary Europe, I see too often, at least too often for my taste, the same narrow mindness, the same ‘repli identitaire’, to use the french expression, the same kitsch that so much appalled Kiš. For that reason, I think that Danilo Kiš is mandatory reading to anyone who appreciates subtety and values an open commitment against totalitarian mentality.

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Filed under Art, Belgrade, Nationalism, Non-conformism, Serbia

Democratic Serbia defeated once again: Belgrade Pride cancelled.

The decision to call off the Belgrade Pride Parade represents a serious set-back for the liberal sector in Serbia and a significant victory for the darkest nationalist forces.

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Only once has a LGTB Pride Parade been organized in Serbia, in 2001. The Milosevic regime had been overthrown some months earlier, in October 2000, and, led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Serbia seemed to be experiencing, for the first time, an environment allowing the full expression of the liberal ambitions of one part of its society. The Parade was violently disrupted by extreme right youth groups, led by the clero-fascist organization Obraz. The violent attack and the failure of the state to garantee the security of the event, held only two days after Milosevic’s deportation to the Hague, revealed the height of the challenges that those committed into building a civic society in Serbia would have to face. It didn’t take long until hope in positive change started to be replaced by increasing scepticism.

For the LGTB community, the event highlighted the need to return to the semi-clandesitne status in which it had previously been living. To say semi-clandestine statues when refering to Serbia’s gays and lesbians is to mention only the small minority of gays and lesbians organized in NGO’s or informal associations. For most, being homosexual means to live in total clandestinity, hiding and denying one’s identity even from the closest friends, not to mention the family, and in the case of many men, to make a serious effort to look as macho as possible. Homophobia in Serbia is so widespread and homophobes feel so free to express their contempt towards those who don’t share their brutish way of being men that it is very frequent for heterossexual young men to be harrassed for not looking macho enough (this is not to say that all homophobes are men, but usually physical assaults are perpretrated by men). It’s also quite common to find civic-minded individuals being labeled as gay or lesbians as an attempt to discredit them, independently of their real sexual orientation.

Many people (and here I am not restricting myself to Serbia, but speaking generally) tend to dismiss the importance of Pride Parades, viewing them basically as gatherings of excentric people and even qualifying the participants as ‘freaks’ and exhibitionists. But the fact that such events get sucessfully organized all over the developed world reveals the level of adheasion towards the idea of tolerance and civic values more generally, and the fact that such events have been attracting an increasing number of participants, to the point that in some cities they are becoming valuable touristic attractions, reveals not only the level of tolerance, but above all, an important shift in mentalities in which differences no longer bother ‘normal’ people. Usually led and organized by LGTB activists as a way to claim their right to be different, the sucess of such events gives a clear signal to all homossexuals about their status in society, thus allowing them to claim also the right to indifference, meaning not only the right to be tolerated but the duty of society not to act in a discriminatory way.

Thus, Pride Parades and similar are nowadays a valuable measure of the level of autenticity of a given society towards civic values and a very important contribution to reinforce the freedom of expression of each of us, independently of our sexual orientation and of how we wish our sexual orientation to be known by others. This is a recent development, which has taken momentum in the last two decades. Since 2001, Serbia has been lagging behind, while in most european countries we have been witnessing the increasing recognition of equal rights for homossexuals.

The victory of the pro-european option in the elections in May 2008 provided a new opportunity for the civic sector to advance their causes. I had the opportunity to spend time in Belgrade last year in three different moments (February, July and September-October) and could observe how the political environment changed in a positive way once the new government was formed, but also how the reactionary nationalist forces were realigning themselves to face an unfavorable environment.

Clearly, it was in the interest of the government to project the image of positive change in Serbia. As I was told by a member of the NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights while conducting a research on extreme right youth groups, everytime they thought of organizing any event, they had to bear in mind that there was a chance that it would be disrupted by extremists, but since the current government took office, the attitude of the authorities had changed completely, with real measures being taken to guarantee the security of such events.

The same message was given to LGTB activists, and, while homophobic incidents continued to be frequent, the approval, last March, of a law on non-discrimination which prohibited discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity gave strenght to the idea that Serbia was on the right track. Approved in face of strong opposition of the Serbian ortodox Church and other religious organizations, which unsuccessfully lobbied to have any mention to sexual orientation withdrawn, this law was crutial to meet the requirements of the European Union in order to fulfill the government goal of EU integration. This is a very relevant point. If Serbian citizens have been granted a Visa-free regime, it is, among other things, because the state committed itself to the fight against sexual discrimination. Minority rights don’t benefit only the minorities, they benefit society as a whole, including the sectors that oppose such rights.

During the last two weeks, I had been waiting with excitment for this event to happen. Everyday, Sladjana, my Serbian colleague, and I would engage in discussions about the importance of the Parade for Serbia’s european ambitions. Last week, a series of personalities had publicly given their support to the Pride Parade, and the serbian Ombudsmen declared he would be personally attending the event. While not openly supporting the Parade, the government declared, last Friday, “that state authorities should ensure the free expression of equality and diversity“, and President Boris Tadic reinforced this statement by saying that “the state will do everything to protect all its citizens regardless of their religious, sexual or political affiliation“.

Despite such statements, yesterday the government tried to relocate the Parade, due to be held today at the centre of Belgrade, to the area of Usce, on the periphery of the city, considering that it didn’t have the means to guarantee security otherwise. The organization refused this and instead preferred to cancel the Parade. Apparently, the government failed to grasp the meaning of relocating the Parade from the centre to the periphery of Belgrade. If the Parade aims to fight the marginalization to which the LGTB community is relegated, to have it on the periphery of Belgrade would completely undermine its goal.

The way the government in the end widrew its support reveals its essencial weakness and is paradigmatic of the commitment of the pro-european government towards the civic values that form the core of the european integration project.

The threat to disrupt the Pride parade had been publicly stated by the leaders of extremist groups like Obraz and ‘1389’. As one of  ‘1389’ leaders, Misa Vasic, declared to Osservatorio sui Balcani, “We all will be there, us, other patriotic movements like Obraz, the Red Star ‘Delije’, the Partizan ‘Grobari’, even the supporters of the smallest teams in the city (…) We’ll make a front of the ‘sane and normal’ decided to stop the gay parade in Serbia“.  Belgrade’s walls were covered by graffittis and posters with threatening messages such as ‘cekamo vas’ (we are waiting for you).cekamo-vas-v(Photo: Blic)

The extremist are not completely dumb and know, unlike the Serbian government that deterrence lies upon the credibility of the will to use force. So, to make sure the message was heard, nothing better than a ‘small’ demonstration. Thus, last Thursday, a group of French supporters of the football club Toulouse were violently attacked by a group of hooligans supporters of Partizan. One of the victims, 28 year old Brice Taton, was seriously wounded and is in critical condition.

The failure of the police to garantee security in the Pride Parade would undoubtedly represent a serious blow in Serbia’s image, and it was better to recognize the state’s powerlessness upon such a threat than to allow violence to happen and people to get injured or killed. But the question is, why preventive measures were not taken?

Furthermore, why is it that a democratic government does not take measures against individuals, groups and organizations that openly threaten to use violence? B92 reports today that calls reemerge for banning extremist organizations, including by Belgrade’s mayor Dragan Djilas. But why haven’t these organizations been banned already?

If Serbia’s pro-european government is to take a meaningful lesson from this episode is that Serbia cannot progress into the european path as long it doesn’t tackle the roots of intolerance, and that means openly adressing and refuting the heavy legacy of nationalism upon which these groups build their strenght.

UPDATE: 28 year old french citizen Brice Taton died today from his injuries.

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Filed under Belgrade, Freedom, Nationalism, Serbia, Violence

Belgrade today

Belgrade is packed with police, just like the Interior Minister Ivica Dacic promised.

It is impressive how many of them there are in the streets, but besides that, everything seems normal. This atmosfere of tense normality is puzzling, because it is a false normality. People here seem to be used to such environment, but for me it seems very oppressive. Earlier today I was speaking to a young man who was telling me how he doesnt feel free at all because he is not allowed to travel, due to visa policies. The fact is that it is the serbian politicians themselves, in this case the Serbian Radical Party, that are curtailing his freedom, by disrupting the work in the parliament.

This reminds me of a debate that was held in February in Belgrade, where a nationalist academic said that the serbs didnt need visas at all and that they could very well turn their back on the West. Then someone from the audience reminded him that he had had his PhD in Oxford…

I have met some of the chidren of the serbian conservative elite. They all travel abroad, they manage to get grants to study in Western Europe, and they look modern and sofisticated, but in fact they all live in Heavenly Serbia. They dont care at all for the average citizens who hardly know how to speak english because the shcooll system is so bad and who cannot afford a passport and visa. In fact, keeping their co-citizens in darkness and isolation is what makes them look modern and sofisticated.

The more I hang around in Belgrade, the more I meet normal people (and not only priviledge people) the more I get the feeling of how deeply isolated this society is and how dificult it will be to break this pattern. The signals send by the current government are mixed. A certain degree of openess exists, especially if compared to Kostunica governments, but not real signs of a strong commitment for change.

Today at 16h an anti-fascist rally is being held. I think I prefer to watch it on TV later… I am just an observer and I have to remember that. I could go and observe, but after having observed the riots in February, I think I can bypass this. The day is beautiful and I am feeling more like going to a nice place and take some sun. My friends tell me that they dont consider me an outsider anymore… maybe they are right, maybe I am starting to think this opressive environment of fake normality is normal…(Belgrade fascinates me and depresses me at the same time. I miss Lisbon).

Updates later…

Update:

So, the regretable incidents of last year in Novi Sad were not repeated in Belgrade this year. I took lots of photos, of course. I had never seen so many police in my life, and if you bear in mind that I was in Belgrade when the riots after the independence of Kosovo happened (21th February 2008), I think that gives the measure of how much police there was on the streets. It is very strange to see how that didn’t disrupt at all what was for most people nothing more than a sunny Saturday. Here is a photo of the rally. I find it particularly interesting how the Cyrillic letters are used in this context because it is a good way to remind everyone that nationalists don’t have the monopole over nationhood, in this case over serbdom. Here the moment when the anti-fascist rally passed through Republic Square where the rally in support of Radovan Karadzic was being held. The moment they passed, a group of war-crimes supporters started waving their arms and shouting “Volimo Srbiju!” (We love Serbia). What kind of love is this that can only be expressed through hatred? So, there were provocations, and some arrests, but no disruption at all.

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Extremists and self-isolation: the case of the daily rallies in Trg Republike, Belgrade.

It’s been more than two weeks now since I arrived in Belgrade. This is my sixt trip to Belgrade, which makes Belgrade the city I know best other than my home city Lisbon.

When I am in Belgrade I try as much as possible to live like the belgraders do. I stay at my friend Jelena Markovic, I go to the market and to the supermarket, I watch TV, read the newspaper, go to the caffee, take the bus, have family dinners (Jelena’s family adopted me, and Jelena’s mother is a fantastic cook), hang around with friends.

The only differences between my life in Lisbon and my life in Belgrade is that my husband stays in Lisbon when I come to Belgrade and that the car stays with him, so I don’t drive in Belgrade.

Not driving in Belgrade, I failed to grasp to which extent the daily rally in support of Radovan Karadzic is disrupting the routine of Belgrade citizens. That is, until yesterday…

Yesterday, about 6h p.m. as I was walking to the centre, I was surprised to see that Terazije, Belgrade’s main square, was blocked to traffic. Although I already knew about this, I haden’t yet realized what it meant to be stuck in traffic because a few dozens of people decide to make a marca during rush hour, to protest against the fact that their government, the serbian government, arrested and extradited war-crimes indictee Radovan Karadzic, something that the government was legaly bounded to do.

The rally is organized by the extremist nationalist movement 1389. Besides the daily meeting in Trg Republike, the 1389 members ‘visit’ anti-nationalist organizations, that they identify as traitors to the nation, in order to intimidate them. Last week, they visited the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, where they daubed a swastica. Some time before, they had also been at the Humanitarian Law Fund, I was informed, and I also saw on a website the photos that they took themselves of their visit to NUNS, the serbian independent association of journalists.

The traffic on Terazije was cut by the police itself, who escourted the ‘crowd’ of no more than a hundred people (I counted them myself) until Republic Square. Then, when the ‘croud’ arrived, the Soviet Union Russian anthem was played. There were participants waving the flags of Venezuela and Cuba. All of this took at least 40 minutes, if not more.

My point then is: why is it that 1389 is treated by the competent autorities as a legitimate organization? Why is it authorized to daily disrupt the routine of the heart of Belgrade in order to protest against the arrest and extradition of Karadzic, something which, it’s important to stress this, the serbian government is legally bounded to do.

Not only the rallies, which fail to attract more than one hundred participants, disrupt the routine of the city, but, above all, serve as a legal cover to acts of harrassement and intimidation against persons and organization who promote Human Rights and Democracy.

I have posted on this blog that a neo-nazi rally had been called to be held in Belgrade this saturday (11 October). Well, the rally was not authorized. That is good news.

However, the fact is that, every day, a fascist rally is held in Belgrade. It is so because it is allowed. They are allowed because they fulfil a useful function. When they ‘visit’ civic-minded organizations, they are ‘confirming’  the idea that civic minded organizations and people are really the mirror of neo-nazis and extremists nationalists. This then allows the ‘moderate’ sectors to comfortably denounce the civic-minded organizations activities as extremists and to discredit their perspective. It is important to stress that this serves the interests not only of the conservative elites, but also a part of the pro-european elite.

In fact, this is the measure of the degree of self-isolation in which the serbian elite lives. A substantial part of the political elite of the pro-european sector supports the idea that there is no need for confrontation with the past. For them the problem is not that problems exist, but that they become visible when someone decides to talk about them.

This becomes particularly clear when attacks such as the recent campaign against Sonja Biserko, which Marko Hoare analizes here, fail to provoke a strong reaction within the pro-european ranks.

Final remark:

for those who claim that 1389 has nothing to do with neo-nazis, i would be glad to show them the photos of skin-heads in their rallies, photos that I took myself. I just don’t publish them because I think there are limits to bad taste and don’t want my blog to look repelent.

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Filed under Belgrade, Serbia

Daily protests againts Karadzic arrest in Belgrade.

Please, don’t missinterpret the image. Most of the people in Trg Republike (Republic Square) are passers-by…

Here the announcement of the great demonstrations… Obviously the Belgraders couldn’t care less!

(click on the photos to enlarge)

However, the activities of the supporters of radovan Karadzic don’t satisfy themselvas with orderly demonstrations. Thus, they have been visiting various organizations that publicly call for Serbia t face its past… these are not frieldly visits. Although no incidents have ocured, these are in fact acts of intimidation directed against their liberal oponents.

Yesterday, a group of about 70 went to the office of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.

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Filed under Belgrade, Genocide, Nationalism

A Neo-Nazi March is being planned to be held in Belgrade

Interestingly, the english version of B92 doesn’t show the news, only the serbian version does.

This is an important test for the current government. The Liberal Democratic Party, headed by Ceda Jovanovic, is asking the authorities to forbide it. Let’s see how this will be handled.

The current government is staring to face different kinds of preasures by the nationalist sectors, and it seems that these pressures are likely to increase. This march should be read within this dynamics.

This image was taken from a blog on B92. It says “Lets not give them our streets”.

More  here.

For a contextualization of the outcome of the May general elections, read ‘The failure of the intimidation strategy‘. In the upcoming weeks I will be able to better measure to wich point is the intimidation strategy still being enforced or, otherwise, defeated in Serbia.

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Filed under Belgrade, Nationalism, Serbia, Violence

INVISIBLE SIGHTS: Café Turco sister blog!

I still keep the card that Jelena Markovic gave me when we first met. It says:

Jelena Marković

Film and TV Director


I understand that in such a small piece of paper we can only write the essential informations that we want others to remember, but as I got to know her I realized that her artistic skills go much further than her chosen profession (although Film and TV Director does sound glamourous). Jelena expresses her perspective about the society in which she lives as well as her impressions on everyday life using all forms of art that she can reach. She writes, not only her scripts, but also poetry, prose and essays, both in her mother tongue, serbian, and english; she photographs, she also draws and recently she started developing the technique of collage, with impressive visual effects. For her, art has no boundaries, and she is not afraid to dive into the unknown. That’s one of the features I most appreciate in her, because i particularly dislike boundaries, frontiers and all physical or mental devices designed to keep people apart and diminish their freedom of movement and expression.
A committed artist, Jelena works with the purpose to reach an audience, but she does so in a very subtle way, so that we, her audience, may immediately feel attracted by her art productions, but only slowly will realize our their deeper meaning. I remember that, the second time that I watched her documentary Connections, I was amazed with the amount of details that had escaped me the first time. The same happened with some of her poems, and then with her collages.
I consider myself extremely lucky to have a person like Jelena Markovic as my friend. Jelena always welcomes me to her home when I go to Belgrade, and the first time I ever drank turkish coffee it was Jelena who prepared it for me. It is also a privilege and a pleasure to observe her work progressing and to discuss mine with her.
On my last stay in Belgrade, after we concluded our deep research on our favorite saint, Sveti Sloba, I invited her to join me on my blog. We then decided that it made more sense that each of us should have its own blog. Friendship allows intimacy, but also requires a certain distance, and anyway blogs are nowadays our best presentation cards so it’s better that they are individual. This is how Café Turco’s sister blog, Invisible Sights, was born.
I believe Invisible Sights is a blog worth visiting, not because Jelena is my friend, but because there we can find a cosmopolitan, uncompromising perspective on serbian society and life in Belgrade that may be very helpful to help deconstruct the prevalent stereotypes about Serbia. It is not only an artist’s blog, but really a citizen’s blog. Serbia being a country where culture was and still is so widely exploited by nationalism, I am sure that those people who think it is worth supporting the development of a civic culture in Serbia will find her blog appealing.

On the photo: Jelena drinking turkish coffee (my photo).

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Filed under Art, Belgrade, Brave Women, Non-conformism, Serbia

LETTER FROM BELGRADE

This is a letter I have just received from a colleague from Belgrade:
Dear all,
I would like to share with you one information that made me very happy!
Radovan Karadzic, leader of Bosnian Serbs during the war in Bosnia, indicted before the ICTY for variety of serious crimes, among other for the Srebrenica genocide, fugitive from justice for 12 years, has been arrested in Belgrade yesterday night.
During the press conference that was held a minute ago the high state officials of Serbia have stated that he was hiding in Belgrade, his identity was well hidden, he was working as the alternative medicine doctor in one Belgrade’s small doctor’s surgery (he was healing people ?!?). He was arrested in a bus when he was going to work.
I know that this all sounds a bit crazy, but it is true.
This story has 2 points:
1) Be careful in the future if you want to seek the advice from the alternative medicine doctor 🙂
2) Most important thing – the law enforcement bodies are usually very capable to do their work – it is the political will that is needed to confront the problem! That could equally be applied in the case of combating trafficking in human beings.
Warmest regards to everyone from Belgrade!

Andjelka

Andjelka, it’s just great to have friend like you. In the end it is people like you that will rescue Serbia’s lost dignity!

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Filed under Belgrade, Bosnia, Freedom, Genocide, Hope, International Law, Justice, Nationalism, Non-conformism, Serbia, Srebrenica