Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

REGIONAL REPORT: Milosevic Trial Inflames Serbs

The Milosevic trial is helping to fuel a revival of ethnic hatred in Serbia
By Milanka Saponja-Hadzic

The opening of Slobodan Milosevic's trial at The Hague has stirred a new wave of extreme nationalism in Serbia, bringing a revival of hate speech in the media and death threats against liberals.


The outburst dismayed moderates who had hoped revelations about Milosevic at the war crimes tribunal would encourage Serbs to turn their backs on the old ethnic hostility which flourished when he was president of Yugoslavia. But so far The Hague courtroom proceedings appear to have had a completely opposite effect.


After a live broadcast of the trial and a series of public debates on the case, Borka Pavicevic, director of the Belgrade Centre for Cultural Decontamination - a non-government organisation devoted to countering Serbian nationalism - received a barrage of anonymous phone calls threatening her with "liquidation" if she did not stop "barking".


Callers appeared to be infuriated with remarks Pavicevic made on Radio Television Serbia during a trial recess, in which she backed the international community's pursuit of war criminals.


The attacks on Pavicevic reflect the views of people who denounce the trial as "anti-Serbian" and legally flawed. This is what Milosevic's propaganda claimed for years, and his supporters have now gone to new extremes.


The new radical nationalism is embraced by many politicians, journalists and members of the old regime and by forces close to Vojislav Kostunica who took over as Yugoslav president after the fall of Milosevic. At the same time, nearly all the media share this anti-tribunal view, even the more objective ones.


Running against the radical current are the views of the Serbian government led by Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic who is Kostunica's rival on the Serb political stage. Djindjic's administration encourages cooperation with The Hague for very practical reasons - they know that foreign aid depends on it.


Backing the government are human rights activists who, from an increasingly isolated base, warn of the need for people to distance themselves from war crimes, to study the evidence produced in court and find out the truth of what happened during the Balkan conflict.


It could become increasingly dangerous to hold these views. Like Pavicevic, activists from the Helsinki board for human rights in Serbia have had threatening phone calls. Back in December when the board's director Sonja Biserko said the Bosnian war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic was in Belgrade, she was bombarded with threats for days. "By New Year all your heads (a reference to Biserko and other Helsinki activisits) will be where they should be, in plastic bags," said one message.


After police started tapping the board's telephones, the calls stopped. But the invective went on. Biserko received a flow of invitations to appear on television shows where she was pilloried for her pro-tribunal views. The director of the Humanitarian Law Centre, Natasa Kandic, met with similar media hostility. So did Veran Matic, editor-in-chief of RTV B92, which had broadcast programmes seeking to get to grips with Serbia's past.


Alongside all this arose a strong current of anti-Semitism, much of it linked to the Obraz movement and the Student Association Sv. Justin Filosof at the Belgrade university philosophy faculty. Panel discussions run by these organisations have been attended by prelates of the Serbian Orthodox Church, SPC, who turn a deaf ear to anti-Jewish sentiments.


It was about a year ago that anti-Semitism came to the surface. Jewish buildings in Belgrade were daubed with swastikas and slogans like, "Jews, get out of Serbia", "Death to Zionism", "Stop racial mixing".


In an interview with IWPR, Professor Vladimir Ilic of the Belgrade School of Philosophy said, "As a cohesive force, anti-Semitism in Serbia brings together a range of conservative protagonists, including Milosevic's supporters, the extreme right, parts of the Church and groups that wish to rehabilitate classical fascist anti-Semites such as Nikolaj Velimirovic and Dimitrije Ljotic from the time of the Second World War."


In his day, Bishop Velimirovic sang the praises of Hitler. His books are now being printed along with other anti-Semitic literature in defiance of anti-discrimination laws.


Significantly, a Belgrade district prosecutor rejected criminal charges brought by the Alliance of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia against local publishers of the Protocols of Zion. Lawyer Nebojsa Samardzic told IWPR the "decision is worrying because the authorities do no consider the book a threat to society".


Liberals also complained about the second edition of One Hundred Prominent Serbs published last year. This included the name of Milan Nedic, Serbian prime minister during the German occupation when Serbia was labelled the first "Judean frei" (cleansed of Jews) country in Europe.


The emergence of extreme nationalism is not confined to the old radical groups. The language much used during Milosevic's era is coming back among politicians and some media. Serbia's deputy prime minister designate, Velimir Ilic, recently accused the government of failing its duty because not all its ministers were Serbian. "One minister is a Croat and the Mayor of Belgrade is married to a Muslim," Ilic said. He added that he was tired of liberals like Sonja Biserko and Natasa Kandic who were "working against Serbia".


All this deeply troubles moderate sections of public opinion, especially as inflammatory outbursts are rarely rebuffed by the government. Many fear that if this trend continues it could not only boost the anti-Hague mood but lead to violence against liberal dissenters.


Milanka Saponja is an IWPR contributor from Belgrade