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The old man and the cats of Korcula.

Today the Catholic tradition has celebrated Saint Francis’ day. It was also Animal’s day. This was no coincidence. Francis of Assisi is the Patron Saint and protector of animals, and Animal is indeed than the secular version of the religious holiday that celebrates his life and legacy.

Within the Western Christian tradition, Saint Francis was the first person to acknowledge in all living creatures, indeed in Nature itself God’s creation, not a gift from God to men, but creatures equal in dignity to the human kind, as is clear in one of his best known prayers, in which he called the Moon his sister and the Sun his brother. His contemplation of Nature was much more than a form of mysticism. As part of his call for a simpler life, he also preached kindness to animals and tried to teach his followers to overcome fear and prejudice and recognize animals as their companions rather than as their servants whom men are free to exploit. One of his most famous miracles was the domestication of a wild wolf, who had been attacking flocks and people around the town of Gubbio. Still, the message of Saint Francis went mostly unheard, and wolves remained in Europe one of the most vilified animals.

Although wolves kept being seen as a threat and chased to the edge of extinction, no animal has been so mistreated within the Catholic tradition as the cat. Cats were seen as evil and identified in the popular tradition with dark forces and even with the devil itself, with black cats as a preferential target for cruelty. This attitude persists even nowadays among many people, mostly due to prejudice and lack of education about how best to deal with these sensible creatures who do not bow to a master and love their freedom more than anything else. Sadly, as it is well-known, the South of Europe has a particularly negative record in what regards mistreatment of animals, in particularly dogs and cats.

But during my holiday in Dalmatia this Summer, I was able to observe how in the Island of Korcula cats receive the dignified treatment they deserve. The town of Korcula is full of cats, lingering around taking sun, indifferent to the tourists and displaying no sign of fear or distrust towards humans, but healthy and well-fed enough not to degrade themselves begging for food. This is the result of a old, well-preserved tradition going back to the Middle Ages, when Korcula was part of the Republic of Venice. The story of the cats of Korcula was told to me by an old man whom I randomly met while I was walking around the old town. He introduced me to his cats, whom readers can see on the photo. The yellow one is the son of the white cat with brown and black spots. There was also another one, a black one, from a previous litter. I met him yesterday, I told the old man, and showed him the photos I had taken of him. He told me then how the people of Korcula are grateful to the cats, whom  the Venicians brought from the East to preserve the island from diseases propagated by rats. This is not a myth, he said, it is all written on the town’s historical records. For this reason every day the man feeds the town’s stray cats, as a sign of gratitude, as a duty he assumes. Through his love for the cats, it was also the memory of Korcula itself that is being expressed, and its historical identity preserved.

Korcula is known as an architectural pearl, plenty of beautiful medieval buildings and delicate masonry, and as the home town of Marco/Marko Polo, but it is the cats, and people like this man, who keep the character of Korcula and make it worth visiting and coming back to.

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Sarajevo from Ramazan to Bajram

This week the most important holiday of the Islamic calendar, Eid, which marks the end of the month of Ramadan, was celebrated.

During Ramadan Sarajevo had a very particular atmosphere, pleasant in a different way. During the day the city was a bit quieter than usual. Many people were fasting, and other who didn’t, nevertheless restrained themselves from sitting in the cafés and restaurants. But as the night came it regained its buzz, as the Sarajevans went out to enjoy the cool Summer nights. Indeed, after a hot day, usually with temperatures above 30ºC, which makes fasting particularly challenging, in Sarajevo the night always comes as a liberation, as the fresh air from the mountains descends into the city. Many restaurants had special menus for Iftar, which compensated for the lower movement during lunch time, and in the streets ice cream parlours and vendors of grilled and boiled corn had more costumers than ever.

                                                                Photo: Husreg begova dzamija, Sarajevo.

There are many misunderstandings among non-Muslims in the West about the meaning and experience of fasting during Ramadan. Many people believe it to be something equivalent to the Lent period for the Christians, while others consider that the Iftar meal, in which people break the fast, to be a proof of the hypocrisy of the Islamic values, as it is often believed that Muslims stuff themselves with food as soon as the sun disappears from the horizon, as if Iftar was some kind of potlatch (in the pejorative sense of the word).

Both of these beliefs are ill-conceived.

Fasting during Ramadan is above all an act of discipline, through which believers strengthen their will for submission to God, but it is not perceived by the Muslims as an act of sacrifice as we Christians conceive Lent. This is because while Islam focuses basically in self-discipline and acceptance of the community values, Christianity focuses on sacrifice and punishment, with the Catholics placing a particular emphasis on sin and repentance. So misunderstandings about Islam are not only a consequence of ignorance, but also of the fact that we tend to look at different cultures with the lenses of our own.

As for the Iftar, it is a meal richer than a normal dinner, but anyone who has experienced spending a whole day without eating or drinking knows that one cannot stuff itself with food when the night comes, simply because the body cannot tolerate it. Iftar is the occasion to compensate the body from the daily fasting, and to prepare it to endure another day of fasting, but it is also an important social event. The whole day is in a way lived as an anticipation of these happy encounters in the evening, which reinforce the feeling of community. Families get together and friends are invited over, and the hosts make their best to honour their presence.

As I spent part of Ramadan in Sarajevo, I had the opportunity to join some friends for Iftar. In this period, although I was not fasting, which would not make sense being myself a Christian, I realized soon that I should to eat as little as possible during the day, just a glass of milk and a slice of bread at breakfast, and some fruit at lunch time, to be in condition to adequately enjoy the experience of Iftar.

Just like Ramadan isn’t Lent, so Bajram isn’t Christmas, although some similarities do exist. The first day of Bajram is celebrated especially among family, and relatives visit each other, paying tribute in particular to their older members. The sense of accomplishment for the fasting creates a particularly pleasant feeling, as people indulge themselves with their first morning coffee over one month. House wives prepare their best specialities, home made pita, traditional sweets like baklava, hurmasica, kadajf, etc. The second day of Bajram is dedicated to the Shehidi, the martirs, which in Bosnia makes particular sense bearing in mind the death toll of the last war. And the last day provides a final opportunity to celebrate with friends, before normal life resumes its course.

Any religion is practised differently in different places by different peoples, and it is common to highlight that Islam in Bosnia has a very particular brand. That is truth, but it is an argument that places the emphasis on Bosnian Islam in a way gives the idea that there is a homogeneous way to live one’s religion. I remember how my old friend Emir criticized the title of Tone Bringa’s book “Being Muslim the Bosnian way”, stating that it was not the Bosnian way but the particular way of a particular village. In Sarajevo alone I’ve came across very different ways to be Muslim, and became particularly fascinated by the stories of religion sincretism that I heard from older women in the mahala of Vratnik, who over Iftar, upon knowing that I am a Catholic, told me that they used to visit the Catholic church of Sveti Ante, in Bistrik, and light candles there, a habit that they never felt to be in contradiction to their attachment to Islam. Such habits seem to have died out with the changes of generations, as nationalism increasingly came to influence the expression of religiosity, and the women spoke of those times with nostalgia for a Sarajevo that still exists, but mostly in their hearts.

Still, the generosity of the Sarajevan Muslims keeps that old Sarajevo alive and allows us, outsiders, to get a glimpse of it when they invite us to share their celebration.

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WALKING BACK TO SREBRENICA: the March for Peace and the memory of genocide in Bosnia.

This year I attended the annual commemoration of the Genocide in Srebrenica, in which 613 victims were laid to rest in their graves at the Cemetery in Potocari . It was the third time that I attended this commemoration (here my post on my first visit to Potocari). A few days earlier I joined the March of Peace (Mars mira), and walked for 100 kilometres alongside more than 6 thousand people in tribute to the victims of genocide in Bosnia.

The path of the march, which was organised for the first time in 2006, coincides with the one taken in July 1995 by thousands of people who tried to escape certain death when the the enclave of Srebrenica was taken over by the army of Republika Srpska, by  fleeing through the woods and then walking across the hills to reach free territory. Many died in this attempt. Those who survived started to arrive 6 days later at the village of Nezuk, the first settlement under control of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and through which now passes the inter-entity line which divides Bosnia. The Peace March is done on the opposite direction, from Nezuk to Potocari, a symbolic return to Srebrenica.

I arrived in Nezuk on the eve of the departure and stayed with a friend at the home of a local family. The warmth of their reception was moving.We were welcomed with hugs and kisses, although we hadn’t met before. Our hostess explained us the meaning of the march. She said it was a holy thing, like a pilgrimage, like the hadj.  Her daughter, Elvira, then commented on how beautiful it is in the morning to see from the balcony of their house the column walking away, a column that extends itself for kilometres. The following morning I would be in that column.

My hostesses, the Brzovic family

I’ve never been on a pilgrimage, but this did feel like one. The march was very demanding for the body and the mind of any healthy adult, but on the march there weren’t only healthy adults. There were plenty of small children as well, some as old as four, whom their parents carried on their shoulders or walked with hand in hand. There were also a lot of older people, and many many teenagers. This year’s march was particularly demanding because the temperature reached as much as 42ºC during the day, more when we walked on asphalt, the organisation had not enough funds to provide some food, and there weren’t many places to get water. Many were poorly prepared, had no appropriate shoes, carried bags that were too heavy, not enough water. But nobody complained and their effort was no more for them than a call for modesty, a reminder that this was not even remotely comparable to what those who took part on the original march had to endure.

This was for everyone a personal challenge, but our will was strengthened by the warmth of the Bosniak population along the way. Clearly for them this was a major event, one which reminded them that they, so called minority returnees, were not alone. The villagers prepared coffee for the marchers, gave us fresh water, invited us to take some rest in their gardens. Few things impressed me as much as the dignity and the courage of these people.  Going through the mountains and the hills in a region that is now part of Republika Srpska, I had the opportunity both to observe the level of destruction during the war and the level of return of the Bosniak population. All the houses belonging to non-Serbs had been systematically destroyed, not a single house was spared. Those who returned had to build them again, and live with the sense of uncertainty about their own security. Among the returnees there were many young couples, and many many children. This contradicted the dominant perception, which I also shared, that returnees are mostly older people, who benefit from state pensions. That may be the case elsewhere, but it is certainly not in the villages in those hills. Why did so many people return ? There are many reasons, but as my friend Peter Lippman, who has been since the end of the war a very close observer of the return movement, once told me, deep love and attachment for their piece of land is one of the most important.

The beauty of this region is overwhelming, and as the evening came and liberated me from the oppressive heat and sun, I could enjoy the sun setting behind the mountains far away and the night slowly falling until the sky became totally dark and the stars appeared in its full splendour, no city lights anywhere near, and feel fortunate to be there.

The environment among the participants on the march was largely positive. There were many young people, many teenage boys, who behaved as is proper to their age. They laughed, made jokes and played tricks on their friends, and that contributed to a lighter environment. But they kept on their mind what was the purpose of this trip. A young man joined the march because his father in 1995 didn’t make it. Who could judge what was the motivation of each one of them? In this country almost everybody has a story to tell about the war, but not all feel the need to share it. “Where are you from?”, I asked a group of girls who were resting by my side under the shade. One of them said “we were born in Srebrenica but live in Zivinice.” Teenage girls born in Srebrenica, there was nothing more to ask, anyone can do the maths. “We need more girls on the March”, I said. “I agree” she replied proudly, and then her group got up and started walking.

There were, of course, problems among the crowd. Alcohol was forbidden and there was as strict set of rules to follow, but it was not easy to make people fully comply. Many were as irresponsible as getting to the woods in heavily mined areas; some behaved in a less respectful way towards the female participants, flirting a bit around; a lot of people abandoned their rubbish and empty bottles of water along the way. But the biggest problem was the attempt of subversion of the peaceful environment by a small (no more than 100 people) but very loud group of people who, displaying Islamic flags, shouted ‘Allah Akbar’ every time they passed trough Serb policemen and even louder when then knew they were passing through areas inhabited by Serbs. Most of them were Turks, members of the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), the Islamic fundamentalist organisation that behind the Gaza flotilla last year. It is deplorable that genocide in Bosnia is abused in such a way. Such attitude only reinforces the mental barriers against coexistence among different nationalities. And unpleasant as it may be for a Serb peasant or an RS policemant to hear this, this hurts above all the Bosniak minority returnees. I could observe how upset those returnees who participated on the march, some of them survivors from 1995, were. I asked a few about this, and they all were angry that these trouble makers, who lived either abroad or in the Federation, Bosnia’s other ‘entity’, came to this region only to reinforce the negative stereotypes about Muslims and Islam and thus the mental barriers against coexistence among different nationalities in Bosnia.

The third day was full of emotions. The march passed through mainly Serb-inhabited areas, through many mass graves. Around noon, the march was halted, and my friend and I walked up a hill to eat and get some rest at the shade. When we came back to the road most of the participants had already departed. By coincidence, one of our friends, who had hosted us in his house the night before, was just passing. “That hill”, he said, “was where the Serbs attacked the column which then split into two”. He made a pause, then said, “in an instant, a thousand people were dead”. It took our friend 62 days to reach free territory.

The mood was quieter on the third day, as if we were all mentally preparing ourselves for the commemoration we were to attend the following day. But in the afternoon, when our sight reached our destination, Potocari, for a moment we all felt proud, and happy, and the heat and the thirst and everything else was quickly forgotten, and people congratulated each other for having got there. In the matter of three days, a community had been forged, the community of those who did the march. Like a pilgrimage.

In Potocari, I joined a local friend, who gave us shelter for that night. When she presented me to two of her friends and said that we had just done the march, one of them said she was on that same march in 1995. “I made it through”, she said. Then a pause. “But my husband didn’t”. Silence fell for a moment and only then it really came to us what it was all about, and why it was important, this pilgrimage. She couldn’t remember the place where her column was attacked. We guessed it was the same place where we had had our nice nap a few hours earlier, but we didn’t dare say it. “I will ask those policemen”, she said, and so she did. They looked at her with surprised and asked “Where are you from?”. Serbia, she replied.

There is no place like Bosnia and Herzegovina to shatter all our certainties.

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Mladic arrested !

I am in Kozarac now,  a place in the municipality of Prijedor in North-west Bosnia which was razed to the ground in May 1992, and the totality of its non-Serb population deported, imprisoned or killed. I went today for a commemoration at  one of the concentration camps set up at the time to ‘receive’ the non-Serb population of this area, Trnopolje. There I could see in people’s faces the pain. i’ve seen that pain elsewhere in Bosnia, but today it struck me more than it usually does, I don’t know why.

But then I came back to Kozarac and got the news. Tears in everyone’s eyes, not so much of joy, but of surprise…a feeling of disbelief, that a moment in which nobody believed has come.

We turn on the tv, and there is Boris Tadic, President of Serbia, confirming the arrest live, first in Serbian, then in English. There, it’s truth! Now we can believe it. We feel happy, my friend and I, both outsiders, both foreigners. We feel happy and excited, but our excitement is shared by the people here only for a brief moment.

Photo, this morning, commemoration organized in front of the concentration camp of Trnopolje, in the municipality of Prijedor, by the Victims’ Associations  of Kozarac and Prijedor, and the ngo’s Izvor and Srecem do mira…

Update:

After the initial disbelief, then the joy that came with the confirmation of the news, the people of Kozarac simply got on with their lives as they do everyday. As if none of this was actually real. The contrast with the frenzy this arrest is causing in the media, on Facebook, on Twitter, could not be more striking. The contrast is such that I get confused. What is the real world, what is the virtual world, why do I seem more excited about this than these people who were once deported, whose homes were destroyed, their family members and friends killed, or themselves mistreated, abused, who knows what each of them went through… My excitement went away now. What does it mean, this quietude? It means at the very least that the arrest of one of the major responsibles for the tragedy that befell on Bosnia 19 years ago is not a matter for rejoicing.

What is there to expect then? I am told meanwhile that the same reaction was observed here when Karadzic was arrested. What is there to expect? The facts about what happened in the municipality of Prijedor 19 years ago are clear enough. The ICTY and the war crimes chamber in the State court in Sarajevo have produced enough convictions for people not to have many illusions about the benefits of justice in their lives.

This is not to mean that justice is not important. It is, for every single person I spoke to in this community. That is why many of them made the sacrifice of witnessing at the different courts, thus offering their contribution to the discovery of the truth.

But still, despite everything that everybody knows, since in August 6th 1992 Ed Vulliamy, Penny Marshall and Ian Williams came here and the whole world heard for the first time this almost unpronounceable word, Trnopolje, Tr-no-po-lje (yes even now, 6 years after I started to learn this language once known as serbo-croatian and which I now call Bosnian, I still find it hard to pronounce it, and cannot avoid putting the accent on the wrong syllable)… despite what we all saw then, despite the UN Prijedor Report, despite the convictions at the Hague and in Sarajevo, despite the ITN versus LM libel case in the UK, despite all of this, despite the fact that the truth is established and accessible, there isn’t even a memorial plaque in Trnopolje acknowledging that non-Serbs were imprisoned there, mistreated there, raped there, and then all of those who were not killed there were sent other camps, or to exile.

In this place, where a school was turned into a concentration camp and then once again into a school, there is, however, a monument to the fallen soldiers of Trnopolje. Yes, a memorial to Mladic’s soldiers stands there, through which the children pass everyday on their way to school. It goes without saying that this monument is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in this region.

So, in the end, maybe this is one of the reasons why there is no more than a quiet satisfaction here in Kozarac, this place that stands as a rare example of success on the minority return movement. Whatever justice could promise them, it has already been delivered. Now it is up to politics to do the rest. It is for political responsibles to acknowledge the truth that justice has already revealed, and in Prijedor that is a long way from happening. This is is clear not only through the case of the logor Trnopolje, but also through the case of the concentration camp of Omarska. which was set up on a complex of buildings belonging to an iron mining company, which was reverted to its prior use after the war ended and is now property of the greatest multinational of steel and iron, Mittal Arcelor.

And this leads us to the political impact of this arrest. But that will wait for another post.

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Jovan Divjak arrested in Austria.

General Jovan Divjak was arrested tonight in Austria, in compliance with an arrest warrant issued by Serbia.

Here’s the news report on the website  of Radio Sarajevo (in Bosnian).

This is episode two of the ‘Dobrovoljacka ulica’ case. One year ago (1 March 2010) Ejup Ganic was arrested in London at the demand of Serbia, on grounds of his role on  the attack of the JNA column (see about this here). His extradition to Serbia was contested in court, and in the end he was released.

If the arrest of Ejup Ganic caused outrage, it was nothing compared with the shock with which the news of Jovan Divjak’s arrest was received in Sarajevo. Jovan Divjak is not only considered a hero for his role in the defence of Sarajevo, he is also loved and respected by everyone for his commitment towards Bosnia as a multinational country and by his post-war philanthropic activities, promoting the access to education of disadvantaged children.

This arrest thus follows a pattern. It comes not only after Ganic’s case, but also after the case of Ilija Jurisic, and the case against a member of the defence forces of Vukovar, Tihomir Purda.That the persons in question were prosecuted for actions taken in defence of their countries against the JNA, the Yugoslav army (and effectively a Serb army since 1991) represents an inversion of the value of justice.

All these cases ended up as an embarrassment for the Serbian judiciary, but still the trend continues. While the Serbian state is unable or unwilling to arrest the greatest war criminal of the Balkans, Ratko Mladic, known to be hiding in Serbia,  the Special Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, has called upon himself the mission of investigating and prosecuting alleged war crimes committed outside Serbia’s borders. This paradox can only be explained not by a commitment towards Justice, but by the importance of Justice as an instrument to mould the memory of the war.

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Christmas in Sarajevo

 Christmas in Sarajevo as a Catholic holiday.

I have been living in Bosnia and Herzegovina for  the last six months. Since I first arrived here in June, I have travelled a lot, both in the country and in the neighbouring countries. This was a very intense period, and as the holiday season approached I found myself with no energy left to travel away for Christmas, and decided to spend this period in Sarajevo instead. That proved to be a very fortunate decision, not so much because of the airport chaos in Europe, but because it gave me the chance to be part of a very special environment in a city which, despite being now overwhelming populated by Muslims, is nevertheless determined to preserve its multicultural character and traditions. It also allowed me to better understand how religion as a cultural phenomenon works in Bosnia as a marker of difference among the Bosnians.

When I first told one of my closest friends in Sarajevo that instead of joining my family I would would spend Christmas alone in Sarajevo, he immediately offered to accompany me to the Midnight mass in one of Sarajevo’s Catholic churches. What I first thought was an act of hospitality based on friendship turned out to be a very old practice among the Muslims of Sarajevo. “We always go, every year. In Sarajevo everyone goes to the ‘ponocka’, not only the Catholics.” And his mother added that it has always been like that, even during communist rule.

When I asked around, this was confirmed by everyone. People even seemed to be surprised when I replied that I had never heard of such a thing, believers of a different religion celebrating in this way a holiday that they acknowledge not to belong to their own religious practice. For the Muslims with whom I spoke this is an established tradition that has become part of their own identity, while not at all diminishing their attachment and respect to their own religious tradition.

I chose to go to the Midnight mass at the Cathedral, in the centre of Sarajevo. When I got there, around 22h 30, the doors were still closed, but there was already a small crowd outside waiting. Much more people were walking along the main streets, between Bascarcija and the Marshall Tito street, killing time before the mass. The crowd gathered in front of the doors was composed by Catholics, who were keen on getting a good seat and rather anxious for the doors to open, although the night was not particularly cold, while the apparently more relaxed attitude of the Muslims reflected in fact their concern not to deprive the Catholics of the best available places, as that would not be a respectful thing to do.

When the doors finally opened I was very lucky to find myself a seat. In a matter of a few minutes the church was totally full, with people standing even on the main way, something I had never seen before, and many people remained outside, and followed the mass thanks to the loudspeakers installed at the square. On the front, in the seats reserved for representatives of other religions, the presence of Orthodox priests indicated that this tradition of attending the ‘Ponocka’ was not exclusive to the Muslims.  The Cardinal Vinko Pujic, who celebrated the mass, on his homily acknowledged and made a note of appreciation for the presence of non-Catholics at the Mass, before addressing the Catholics, in a speech that extorted them to recognise Bosnia as their homeland, concluding that ‘Ova je nasa zemlja’. That this is also the land of the Catholics (that is of the Bosnian Croats) is also stated by the non-Catholics, nowadays mostly Muslims, that attend the midnight mass.

This is not to suggest that the coexistence between Bosniaks and Croats is devoid of tension in Sarajevo. Tensions do exist, and are revealed, on the one hand,  by the Croats’ anxiety about becoming a residual minority in the city, and on the other by some Bosniaks’ resentment against the system of quotas in access to public jobs which grants the Croats a larger share than their demographic proportion. I will deal with these tensions in another post, but for now it is important to highlight that in any healthy society the coexistence among different groups (whatever may be the criteria of differentiation) is marked by occasional conflicts and very often by persistent latent tensions. The level of cohesion of a society is most accurately measured not by the presence of absence of tension, but by the consensual mechanisms that help manage difference on people’s every day lives. One of such mechanisms has just been described in this post.

The ‘Ponocka’ is lived by the inhabitants of Sarajevo as an event that is part of their identity as Sarajevans, an identity that transcends the barrier of religion, while at the same time framing Christmas as a specifically Catholic commemoration (I heard a foreign of protestant faith complaining about feeling discriminated by the fact that before 24th December people greet only the believers of Catholic faith).

The Christmas holiday season is marked marked in Sarajevo by a surprisingly successful juxtaposition of different traditions that goes beyond the Catholic dimension. However, the coexistence of different traditions is not always devoid of controversy. The main focus of this controversy has been, in recent years, the figure of Djeda Mraza, a controversy which I will elaborate upon on my next post, the second of a series of three posts dedicated to the holiday season in Sarajevo.

(A photographic coverage of this event can be seen here)

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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