REGIONAL REPORT: Serb Extremists Block Atrocities Exhibition

Ultra-nationalists who forced cancellation of war crimes photographic exhibition have little for fear from the authorities.

REGIONAL REPORT: Serb Extremists Block Atrocities Exhibition

Ultra-nationalists who forced cancellation of war crimes photographic exhibition have little for fear from the authorities.

A group of ten or so young men wearing T-shirts with the words "Radovan Karadzic - Serbian hero" written on them prevented the opening an exhibition of photographs documenting wars in former Yugoslavia last week in the central town of Kraguevac.

Displaying placards that read "Faith in God and Homeland", they booed and jeered visitors to the exhibition. Fears of greater disorder prompted the organisers to suspend the August 26 opening, which they said would also be moved to a different location.

It is not the first time the exhibition of the photographer Ron Haviv, entitled Blood and Honey, has come under attack from Serbian nationalists. The exhibition consists of photographs of brutally murdered civilians and their killers and those of prisoners in the Trnopolje prison camp in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The exhibition provoked strong reactions in Belgrade, Uzice and Cacak, where hostile public reaction reached a peak. At the beginning of June, a group of about 40 people disrupted the Uzice event, claiming the photographs were "anti-Serbian". When they removed them from the walls, the police stood idly by and just watched.

In mid-July, Ivan Zlatic, 27, paid a high price for trying to organise the Cacak show: he was beaten up by three members of the local extreme right.

Zlatic ended up with cuts on his face and several broken teeth. His assailants were each fined 5,000 dinar (85 euro), except for the gang leader, Igor Ivanovic, who additionally had to spend 10 days in jail.

Since the extreme right was marginalised as a political force after the fall of Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, it has increasingly tended to settle scores with political opponents by means of physical attacks. Their targets are members of ethnic minorities, non-governmental organisations and individuals who deal with human rights and in any way encourage the process of confronting the recent wars - a taboo subject in Serbia.

The ultra-nationalists are now divided into several groups - Obraz, the Serbian Orthodox Youth, the Ravnogorski Freedom Movement, skinheads and others - totalling several thousand members, mainly young people in their twenties. Their ranks are augmented by several hundred of the most violent fans of the Serbian football teams Rad, Crvena Zvezda (Red Star) and Partizan.

As well as defending the idea of Greater Serbia, members of these groups insist they are followers of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Openly anti-Semitic, they are deeply hostile to homosexuals and racist towards the Roma and Albanians.

A fervent belief in conspiracy theories, according to which the West is trying to destroy both Serbia and Orthodoxy, is one thing all the extreme right groups in Serbia hold in common.

Sometimes backed by extremists among the Serbian Orthodox Church clergy, over the past two years they have organised panel discussions on the above and debates glorifying ultra-nationalist ideology and the wars led by Serbia in the former Yugoslavia.

A few months ago, the organisation Obraz launched a campaign in support of the former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who is indicted by The Hague for war crimes. As a result, all the major cities were covered in posters of Karadzic that read, "Every Serb is Radovan".

The worst incident caused by the extreme right in Serbia so far happened last year. To prevent the holding of the first gay parade in Belgrade, thousands of extremists gathered in the centre of the city and attacked participants in the rally.

They also broke into the Belgrade offices of the youth wing of the Social Democratic Union, SDU, which supports gay rights. Several SDU members were beaten up in this incident.

There is little official condemnation of physical attacks on homosexuals. The authorities are keen to curry favour with a traditionalist electorate, which overwhelmingly sees homosexuality as an illness.

Mirko Djordjevic, editor of the Belgrade paper Republika, says the apparent triumph of a "small town mentality" in Serbia is linked to the growth of populism and a recrudescence of nationalism.

The violence exhibited by the extreme right can also be explained by the soft stance taken by the country's democratic authorities towards their leaders, as well as by the absence of any public debate on the last war and the responsibility for war crimes.

Because of the lack of such debates, the Serbian public still believes other nations and the international community bear most of the responsibility for the wars that took place in the region and that Serbs were the greatest victims of these conflicts.

The country's political leaders, including Serbia's prime minister Zoran Djindjic and the Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica, have shown no desire to tackle the ignorance.

In their struggle for political supremacy, both Djindjic and Kostunica believe their trump card is patriotism. Fearing that their popularity could dip, they offer relativist arguments when addressing the problem of Serbia's responsibility, claiming all the nations of former Yugoslavia committed similar crimes.

Djindjic, an arch-pragmatist, has only ever appeared eager to address the issue of war crimes when international financial aid to Belgrade depended on it. Kostunica publicly questions the credibility of The Hague tribunal, claiming it mainly prosecutes Serbs.

The rights organisation Human Rights Watch has criticised the Serbian government's passivity in the face of repeated attempts by extreme nationalists to disrupt Haviv's exhibition of war photographs.

"By failing to respond to this kind of harassment, the authorities essentially condone it," said Elizabeth Andersen, executive director of the Europe and Central Asia Division of Human Rights Watch. "The problem stems from the government's reluctance to seriously confront the issue of war crimes against non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia."

Bogdan Ivanisevic, a researcher for the organisation working in for former Yugoslavia, said it was obvious the people disrupting Haviv's exhibition felt free to do so. The reason, explained Ivanisevic, lay in the fact that the authorities had made no effort to create an atmosphere in which crimes against non-Serbs in former Yugoslavia would really be legally and morally condemned and punished.

Zelimir Bojovic is a Deutsche Welle journalist based in Cacak.

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