Elections held on 6 May appear to have confirmed Serbia’s aim of joining the European Union, despite the victory of the Serbian Progressive Party. While the new government will be led by the Progressives, a four-year-old offshoot of the anti-EU Serbian Radical Party, the victors have positioned themselves as center-rightists and formed a coalition with the Socialists, with both governing parties affirming the country’s EU course.
But it would mistaken to conclude that Serbia is over past dramas. No other European country has been so imprinted by ethnic conflict in the past 20 years. Kosovar Albanians have a favorite joke: “Srbija kao Nokia,” or “Serbia is like Nokia” – a smaller model every year. Montenegro is gone. Kosovo’s independence, even if still not accepted by Russia, China, and five EU member states, is now a topic of open discussion among brave Serbian politicians and intellectuals like Liberal Democrat Cedomir Jovanovic, one of the leaders of the protests that toppled Slobodan Milosevic, and the former radical Vuk Draskovic. There is breakaway talk from some politicians in Vojvodina, the autonomous, prosperous northern district that is home to 26 nationalities, including many ethnic Hungarians and Slovaks. And the southern Presevo Valley, inhabited mostly by ethnic Albanians, is in turmoil – eight alleged organized crime bosses were arrested there two days before the election, prompting talk in Tirana and Pristina of “Serbian repression,” reviving the vocabulary of the 1990s.
Ivica Dacic, former Interior Minister and head of the Socialists, emerged as the real winner of the parliamentary voting. With neither the Progressives of Tomislav Nikolic nor Boris Tadic’s Democrats winning an outright majority, the third-place Socialists could play kingmaker, which Dacic parlayed into an appointment as prime minister.
Tadic, whose presidency saw the last war crimes suspect extradited to The Hague, lost his office on 20 May to Nikolic; even Tadic’s biggest supporters complained of the country’s worsening economic conditions. This is fertile soil for false illusions and Socialist hallucinations about the Serbian dilemma: to focus on the EU or on Russia, which has signed a free-trade agreement with Serbia? There is talk of of the big Slavic brother, “Putin the messiah” – more popular here than any Serbian politician. Nenad Popovic, vice-president of Vojislav Kostunic’s Democratic Party of Serbia (distinct from Tadic’s Democratic Party), dreams about attaining power and securing billions in direct investment from Russia. He does not say what kind of an investment, though. Dejan Mirovic of the Radical Party talks of war reparations from NATO and orienting Serbia toward countries that did not bomb it.
Miroslav Prokopijevic, an economic analyst in Belgrade, smiles at such statements. Serbian exports less to Russia than to Kosovo. “Russia represents only 6 percent of our trade exchange and therefore is not an alternative for Serbia over the EU countries, as they make up 60 percent,” he says.
Here is a taste of how Serbia’s present and future look looks from three different ethnic, economic, and geographic perspectives.
Success story: Kragujevac
Even if multiethnic Vojvodina in the north and Muslim Sandzak and Albanian Presevo Valley in the south branched off from Serbia – and that is sheer fiction – there would remain an important region (besides Belgrade) in the middle: industrial Kragujevac and the fertile surrounding region of Sumadija, populated by 2 million inhabitants.
Founded in the 16th century when area was under Turkish domination, Kragujevac served as the capital of Serbia from 1818 to 1841 at the behest of Prince Milos Obrenovic. The first Serbian Constitution was proclaimed in Kragujevac in 1835; the city was also home to Serbia’s first printing plant, theater, newspapers, and military academy. There was a revolt in the barracks in 1918, when mostly Slovak soldiers stood against Austro-Hungarian rule. A memorial stone with surnames like Hudec, Danis, Salaga, Gal, and Jesensky reminds visitors of the 44 fatalities from the suppressed rebellion.
Kragujevac has suffered several such blows. The Nazis killed 7,000 men in the city in response to guerilla attacks, shooting 50 Serbs for each German wounded and 100 for each German killed. During the socialist era the popular Yugo cars were made in the Zastava factory; it also produced guns, and thanks to the Milosevic-era sanctions it went bankrupt in the 1990s. NATO air strikes during the Kosovo war sealed its fate – there were no deaths, but 38,000 people lost their jobs in a day.
But Italian car maker Fiat rescued Zastava in 2008, taking majority ownership. The new Fiat model 500L has begun production there. In recent years Kragujevac has changed its look, from forlorn ghost town to modern metropolis. As Italian and other foreign managers streamed in, property prices tripled, and restaurants and cafes are thriving.
“The Italians are kind and they enjoy our Serbian cuisine: cevapi, pleskavica, kajmak,” a waitress at the Prestonica restaurant in Kragujevac says. “At first they looked at us like we lived in trees, but now they feel at home here.” Despite the arrival of well-paid businessmen, the restaurant has not raised its prices; one can eat there for a few euros.
Veroljub Stevanovic, the mayor of Kragujevac, is an energetic fellow given to superlatives. “I grew up in the Zastava factory and led the assembly hall as an engineer. I can tell you, to compare the Yugo and today’s Fiat is like comparing New York with a small African town. It is possibly the most modern car factory in Europe. Super, great, the best!”
A leader of the United Regions of Serbia, a political coalition formed in 2010, Stevanovic looks beyond his own region for models for success. Kragujevac’s recipe is “similar to that of Kia in Slovakia or Hyundai in the Czech Republic. Global investors are lured in by a cheap and qualified workforce, state grants for workplaces, tax breaks, and, as a bonus, low prices for places to build.” Kragujevac was also the first city in Serbia to send a representative to the EU to prepare pre-admission matters, in 2010.
At home in Backi Petrovac
While the mayor boasts that Kragujevac has the “biggest shopping center in the Balkans” (called Plaza), Backi Petrovac, a municipality of 14,000, mostly ethnic Slovak inhabitants in Vojvodina, has the largest water park in Europe, according to co-owner Jan Brtka. AquaPark Petroland was built in 2009 by the Aqua Term Invest with nine investors from Slovakia and one from Serbia, the aforementioned Brtka. Its pools have hot thermal water that flows in volume of 19 cubic meters per second at a temperature of 47 degrees Celsius.
“It would be a sin not to use this natural treasure,” said Brtka, whose ancestors from Terchova in Slovakia came to Vojvodina amid a wave of Slovak emigrants in the 18th century. “We even have visitors from Ukraine now.”
Brtka, a member of the Democratic Party, supported Tadic. He is optimistic about Serbia’s future; otherwise he would have left, like many of ethnic brethren, who go to study in Slovakia and do not return. Three hundred empty houses create one of the biggest problems in Backi Petrovac town proper, where half the the 6,500 inhabitants earn their living through agriculture.
“The ethnic composition is changing as, instead of Slovaks, Serbs move into those empty houses,” says mayor Vladimir Turan, also of the Democrats. “What do we expect from elections? A better life, new investors, the establishment of industrial parks. We have no other option, as we are a state in transition. We had the biggest factory for brooms in Europe. It’s bankrupt. Two new ones have been started, but they employ only half [the workers] from the former factory.”
Serbian Orient: Novi Pazar
Seven children, two wives, and a degree from the Islamic University in Algeria: not the usual profile for a Serbian presidential candidate. Muamer Zukorlic received only 1.1 percent of votes in the first round of balloting on 6 May, and he could hardly have expected more. But the 42-year-old religious leader, a native of the village of Orlje in Sandzak, knows what he is doing (see interview below). If nothing else, his presidential run is a great marketing move for him and his tribesmen.
Serbia might need more time to accept a Muslim president, but Zukorlic is not humbly waiting. “In a situation when we do not have very visible candidates, it would be selfish to hide my quality program from voters,” the mufti says. He keeps journalists cooling their heels while assistance take him his traditional outfit, a black caftan and white head cover; during the campaign, he appears in public only so attired.
Zukorlic’s program has two main points: historical reconciliation of Serbs and surrounding nations, and vast investments from the Muslim world. Such a vision, promulgated by the founder and first rector of the Muslim university in Novi Pazar, no doubt terrifies Orthodox Serbs. But the reality of discrimination here is long-lived and runs in the other direction. Muslims account for more than 90 percent of the regional population, but state offices, hospitals, and police departments employ mostly Serbs. The Muslims are politically divided, with support split among three parties.
Located in southwestern Serbia near the Kosovo border, Novi Pazar is a town with an oriental atmosphere. What can you find there? Many mosques, minarets, stylish tearooms, cafes, and craft shops in small, narrow streets lined with crumbling wooden houses. What spoils the image is the giant hotel Vrbak in the center of the town, built during the 1980s in a style that could be described as Islamo-Socialist Realism.
As in Transylvania, where ethnic Hungarians and Romanians argued about the inscription on a statue of 15th-century king Matthias Corvinus, the biggest quarrel in Novi Pazar is about an emblem: what to call the city’s main square. It is officially called Town Square, because the Serbian state does not agree with the name favored by locals. They want the square to carry the name of the Ottoman general Gazi Isa-beg Isakovic, who established the city in 1461 and built its first mosque and madrasa.
Mufti Zukorlic’s native Orlje lies over the mountains, about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) southwest of Novi Pazar, and the city’s political quarrels do not reach there. Orlje has about 60 houses, and a quarter of them are empty. At noontime, you are likely to meet only pensioners.
One of them is Smajo Zukorlic, a relative of the mufti. He supported his kinsman in the presidential race, but he is laconic about the political situation: “Mufti is my man, but I know he will never become the Serbian president. He can only get votes which he will pass to Nikolic.”
Smajo has remained in Orlje with his wife, but his four sisters, his two sons and their wives, and his three grandsons all live in Germany. They return to Sandzak only twice a year, for holidays. “I would go too, but what would I do there except stare at the walls of their empty flat?” the old man says, looking at the mosque in the valley.
This article was originally published in the Slovak magazine .týždeň
“A Breeze of Freedom”
An interview with Kragujevac journalist Gordana Mitrovic
What is characteristic of this town?
I have been working here as a news reporter for 20 years. Now I work for local TV as well as the nationwide agency Beta. When the opposition won in 1997, Kragujevac was free and quite independent from Milosevic and his power. Today’s mayor, who has been in a faction since 2005, has always been a step forward. He used to lead the party Together for Sumadija and supported Tadic in national elections in 2008. Now he is a deputy of Mladjan Dinkic, chairman of United Regions of Serbia (URS). Dinkic used to be in power but after the reconstruction he parted from President Tadic, gathered regional mayors [and] ex-radicals, and established his own party.
How does URS differ from other parties?
They emphasize decentralization, thus finances do not go just to Belgrade but are divided equally among regions.
Is Serbia strongly centralized?
You might say so. The government withheld some money last year but after pressure from towns it was changed.
What is Tadic’s attitude towards centralization?
Whenever he visits Kragujevac he has a “dogfight” with the mayor. Serbia somehow cannot form regions. We have an “as if” region because Sumadija’s executive branch has no real power or jurisdiction.
How did it happen that during the Socialist Milosevic era, Kragujevac came to favor the opposition.
The town has always had a spirit of change. Kragujevac is a former capital city and people still respect this fact. During the wars of the 1990s the reserve soldiers refused to go to Bosnia – the healthy core always protested.
Were you here during NATO bombing in spring 1999?
Yes. The worst was the bombing of Zastava. It woke us up at 2 a.m. We were hiding. On 24 March, the first day of firing, bombs were falling on barracks but nobody was killed. People stayed together with their families. I stayed at work – back then in radio – but colleagues were sent home for their protection. Companies did the same thing.
Who did you blame more: NATO or Milosevic?
Milosevic, naturally. Here people saw into what was happening – we were listening to Radio Free Europe, and the media were more open to the opinions of the opposition than in Belgrade.
What is it like to be a journalist [in Kragujevac]?
Since the new mayor stepped in, one can feel a breeze of freedom. Ironically, as the new democratic power got stronger, it displayed the same behavior as the one that we wanted to overthrow. I felt the greatest pressure when the [Democratic Party] mayor, Vladko Rajkovic, also a change agent, stepped into office. I left my work in radio within a year. A much less critical attitude was expected, and the time allotted for opposition [views] was measured in minutes.
So I see it like this: as democracy gets stronger, journalism falls deeper. It is good that new investors come, but it is nonsense that the daily news starts with the same line – about the Plaza shopping center. The local TV is under control here – investors need publicity.
Belgrade journalists say that Tadic’s Democratic Party has manipulated the media. How is it here?
The local government imposes a certain level of control. The Beta agency offers me freedom, as local TV is a form of ghetto. A local government director called Beta, saying I am supposedly sending out “incorrect information” from Kragujevac. URS politicians are similar to Tadic, but they see themselves as irreplaceable and are sure they can bring new investments. They hardly “climbed” over 5 percent and got into parliament.
Take a Chance on Me
What kind of local or international media interest did your candidacy raise?
Incredible interest. Serbian media were shocked at first. Then those under the control of the Serbian regime started an organized chase after me. It bothered me, but then I understood that my candidacy was a threat for important political factors.
Mostly Tadic and his partners.
Did you have an opportunity to talk to him or Nikolic during the campaign?
No. This was the weirdest campaign so far. The regime led it in a certain way to avoid all possible confrontations with the serious candidates.
You ran to be president of all Serbian citizens. What do you want to say to the Orthodox majority?
This is why I called my program “United Word.” Serbia has been stigmatized by getting into conflict with neighboring nations for the past hundred years. The title “United Word” personifies the challenge for all inhabitants, but mostly the majority, to come together around our collective fundamental values. I deliberately dress in this traditional outfit – with this image I aim to show that it is possible to be a rigorous Muslim, a religious leader, even while accepting the rules of democracy. We will see whether Europe is able to perceive it as a chance or as a threat.
Have you talked to voters outside your region? What has been their reaction ?
While elections were underway I was in the United Arab Emirates and there was little time left after my return to Serbia. I had a big gathering at the Sava Center in Belgrade on 27 April. But I received about 100 letters from people of different ideological and social orientation from all over Serbia. That was a rather positive discovery.
Did the Serbs express fear about your candidacy?
Serbian media claimed that Sandzak, a mostly Muslim region, is a center of radicalism, Wahhabism. Numerous police raids used to happen here. My answer is that Serbia lost its ordinary chances for rescue. Only uncommon ways are left, and I introduce them.
What about fearing you?
The fear is present but is smaller. Voting for me feels hazardous for the Serbian nation and I understand that. But the Serbian nation is historically notable or liking to take risks. I said: “You took a risk when you fought with the Turks on the Kosovo plain 600 years ago and you lost. You took a risk when you were in conflict with NATO 13 years ago, and you also lost. Now you can take a risk with me, and you will win.”
Do you seek autonomy or some special status for Sandzak, like Vojvodina has or Kosovo had during Tito’s reign?
Sandzak should become an autonomous region. Naturally, we are talking about autonomy in the scope of the Serbian constitutional framework and respect for the borders and sovereignty of Serbia. I believe that it could contribute to stability. One of the seven principles of my program is to reconcile relationships with our neighbors. I mean mostly the historic reconciliation between the Albanian and Serbian nations, also between the Bosnian and Serbian nations. There will be no stability without this.
How do you imagine doing so?
The only way to speed up the historic reconciliation is to elect me president of Serbia. Then Sarajevo, Pristina, and Tirana would not perceive Belgrade as their enemy. My program anticipates the creation of a mini-Balkan union among Serbia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro.
Are you afraid of anti-Islam sentiment if the radicals win?
No. I am more prepared to accept Nikolic’s honest conservatism.
Photos by Andrej Ban