Quo Vadis, Serbia?

How did the defenders of Serbia’s shameful past get the right to paint murals of war criminals?How did we get to the point of considering activists as rioters and arresting them?

This article was originally published on Reporting Diversity 2.0

By Snežana Miletić

In commemoration of the International Day against Fascism on November 9, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights in Serbia announced that it would paint over a Belgrade mural dedicated to General Ratko Mladic, whom the International Court of Justice in The Hague found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica and crimes against humanity. The mural appeared in Vracar (an area in Belgrade) last July, on the corner of Njegoseva Street and Aleksa Nenadovic Street. It stood on the building despite the decision of the municipal authorities, which, based on the request of the tenants, ordered it to be removed. In those few months, the citizens drew on and painted over it, but it would always be restored to its original state.

In the meantime, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights canceled this gathering, because the police, under the pretext that there could be a conflict between supporters and opponents of the mural, did not give them permission to hold it. Despite that, anti-war and anti-fascist activists, journalists, cameramen, but also defenders of the character and work of Ratko Mladic, appeared at the scene of the canceled event. Among them were activists Aida Corovic (Belgrade Circle, Women in Black, Center for Anti-War Action and Organization, Urban In …) and Jelena Jacimovic (illustrator and designer) who at one point threw eggs at the mural. After that, unknown young men in civilian clothes rushed at them. However, it is not known whether they were supporters of the mural or police officers in civilian clothes because they did not present themselves. With a lot of pushing, squeezing and pressing, the two activists were taken to the Vracar police station. They were released a few hours later, and Corović said that the police behaved decently there.

From that moment on, in Belgrade, in Serbian and regional media, and on social networks, tensions between people have not stopped. On the one side there are those who think that convicted war criminals should be only in prison and not on murals. On the other, there are those who leave flowers in front of Ratko Mladic’s mural , “cleaning it of activist eggs” and from the paint that Djordjo Zujović, an official of the Social Democratic Party of Serbia, threw on it.

After that, there was a series of announcements, actions, and reactions of anti-fascist organizations, but also pro-government tabloid media, which, as usual, dangerously manipulate the facts. One of them blamed their favorite target – LGBT organizations – for trying to remove the mural. Protests were organized: one because of the arrest of activists, another because of the refusal of the authorities to remove the mural. In addition to everything that was happening, members of right-wing groups guarded the mural for days, and organized rallies in support of Ratko Mladic.

After the events in Njegoseva street, Aida Corović gave an interview. She pointed out that Serbia is her country and that she is ashamed that a war criminal adorns the wall of a building in her Belgrade. She said that the state must not take the side of war criminals. She warned that the citizens of Serbia have two choices: either to be a society of hatred, or to become responsible for their actions, and thus the future.

State reinterpretations

The Minister of Internal Affairs of Serbia, Aleksandar Vulin, also spoke about the “mural case”. He said that “Belgrade is a city of anti-fascists and victors” and that on the International Day against Fascism “no one in Belgrade will clash in the streets and spoil the lives of our citizens”, and that “no one will make Serbian enemies happy with bloody heads.”

The President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, also reacted, saying that the activists were making a circus in the streets. The president claimed that police officers were protecting public order and peace, not a mural which could have been removed by the activists much sooner. They only did it now to show Serbia in a bad light and prevent it from getting an important “point abroad”. If the police had not reacted, everyone would have asked why the police did not react, Vucic said; and then asked why activists against the mural did not tear down the plaque dedicated to Acif Efendi in Novi Pazar on the same principle. Acif Efendi was an Albanian politician and manager of Novi Pazar during World War II who was executed by Partisans for cooperation with the Germans.

Due to all these events, the European Parliament also reacted. In their statement, they opined that it is unacceptable for a mural of a convicted war criminal to be protected by the police in a EU membership candidate country. They added that the event is a sign of what the Serbian government thinks about reconciliation, the rule of law, democracy and regional cooperation. The parliamentarians, of course, forget that Vucic’s attitude towards the Hague Tribunal and its decisions varied depending on the position he held. The President of Serbia reacted to their statement, saying that the parliamentarians did not react to the fact that a mural of war criminal Slobodan Praljak was standing in one EU member state (Croatia).

The defeat of all values

Ratko Mladic’s mural and everything that happened around him as a person divides and creates dilemmas for the Serbian society that has not reconciliated with its past. Fortunately, there are also voices of common sense.

Activist Jelena Jacimovic, who was arrested along with Aida Corovic, believes that the wrong ideals in our society are a systemic mistake, primarily of education, upbringing and patriarchy. In an interview for autonomija.info, Jacimovic said that “generations are being created and uncared for, and they are being told that their value lies only in the army or labor force.” She added that “A woman is only valid when she gives birth and when it is the eighth of March.” She thinks that what is valued is “not learning while in school, not thinking critically in college and not making your own conclusions in life”, and that it is logical for a person in such circumstances, when they have nothing else, to yield to public opinion and sink into anger.”

Retired law professor Vesna Rakic Vodinelic reminded on the TV network N1 that “fascism is no longer a marginal phenomenon here” and that “the situation in the country is radicalizing people because right-wing groups are growing, and they are more extreme because they are now more organized.” She pointed out that this did not begin yesterday, but quite a while back. As a trigger for additional aggravation, the professor considers the passage of migrants through Serbia. It caused the creation of some groups that took police powers and authority upon themselves. “We can consider them parapolice groups that stifle democracy,” said Vesna Rakic Vodinelic.

The best answer to what citizens can do and how they can try to prevent the Serbian people from turning “big right”, was given by playwright Minja Bogavac. Reacting to the event, Bogavac said that she was embarrassed because she was not with Aida Corovic that day. In the conversation, however, she tells RDN that there is no optimism at the moment: she thinks that the citizens will not do anything in the end. Neither on the occasion of this, as she calls it, disgusting case, nor on the occasion of 10 others, equally disgusting, which shake our society with equal intensity:

“In such situations, nothing ever happens. The topic is just cluttered with a bunch of other topics. The social chaos in which we live is so great that we do not know where to start tidying up, ” says Bogavac, before asking herself: “Maybe we should not tidy up, maybe we should be left to attack each other in front of that wall. Maybe we should just be left to rot there, as individuals and as a society. ”

“I’m terribly sad about everything,” continues the playwright, who has shown exceptional social responsibility so far, “For the first time in my life, it seems to me that it’s not worth fighting for. It is clear that the genocide in Srebrenica was not a random accident. It was a well-thought-out and planned policy for which a part of the people in Serbia would still vote today, which they still glorify and support, they paint it on the walls that they then defend with their bodies. If we have not been able to face the past in 30 years, should we have a future at all? Should we try at all or is it time to give up on what we once considered our country and our society? The fight has never seemed more futile to me. Fascism is everywhere.  It is growing up. It is being nurtured. The state is directing it, and its top figures are more and more openly putting their signatures on the scribbles on the walls. To my great regret, I accept the complete defeat of all the values I have ever believed in “, Milena Bogavac concludes.

The streets of Belgrade in the 1990s

Snjezana Milivojevic, a full-time professor at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade, believes that the civil resistance, although seemingly not considerable, is still visible, which is encouraging. Regarding the whole case, she says:

“At this moment, I am least interested in that juggling, the story of whether something is being covered up or the topics are changing. I am interested in the essence – that a conflict appeared on the streets of Belgrade, which indicates a scar that deeply tears the fabric of this society, a conflict around which there are very opposing views in society. And it is unfortunate that the views are opposing on this topic. And so many years after the war, as soon as you scratch the surface, every problem of this society turns into a problem of an unresolved relationship with the past and the fact that the wars of the 1990s, unfortunately, came to the streets of Belgrade a quarter of a century later. It is now apparent that this society has been torn apart on that basis. It is inexplicable and strange to me that these pro-fascist, militant, pro-war, radical groups that are defenders of the criminal past, were given the right to paint a mural and take to the streets. In the first decade after the war or in the short decade when Serbia was still democratized, it never occurred to anyone that this would happen. I see this now as a big step backwards. It is a restoration of reading history in a way that supports the current authorities,” Milivojevic tells RDN.

Milivojević also points out that the fact that the civilian public, the Serbian society, still opposes all this is encouraging, although it seems that the resistance is not massive. She says that she would have liked for the citizens on the streets to make more of an effort to show that this cannot be done in Belgrade, or Serbia for that matter.

“The fact is, however, that these militant right-wingers and pro-fascist groups must now watch and guard the mural day and night. It would be comical if there were no serious crimes behind that image, that symbol. Now, therefore, the most angry right-wingers must organize themselves to protect the images in order to oppose the eggs. I am not trivializing the event, because, both on the occasion of this case and on the occasion of Captain Dragan’s petition, it is clear that these radical and pro-fascist groups are set on their way. They have the support of the government, but society opposes them. Unfortunately, the government is on their side, and not on the side of the society, and that is one of the historical side roads on which Serbia was in the 1990s as well. Back then, the same people participated in the government as they do today. However, there are parts of society that understand that we paid too much for that lesson, and that the same thing will not be possible this time around”, concludes Snjezana Milivojevic.

The latest case of Ratko Mladic’s mural in Belgrade, as well as many previous outbursts of fascism in the Serbian society that is taking form through regime media, tabloids, stadiums, pop events, quasi-patriotic events show that Serbian society is not up to democracy.

Photo Credits: Aulone Kadriu