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

Serbia Faces Right-Wing Dilemma

The Serb government fears curbing activities of Belgrade's extremist gangs may lead to it losing the nationalist vote.
By Milanka Saponja

The Serbian authorities are coming under increasing pressure to take action against right-wing groups following a recent spate of nationalist violence.


Local non-governmental organisations, NGOs, and international groups are holding a conference in Belgrade on February 2 to highlight the threat posed by extremism.


Analysts believe that the government is too afraid of losing the nationalist vote to punish groups such as Obraz (Face) and The Society of St Justin the Philosopher - which date from the time of Slobodan Milosevic and have been linked to a number of recent attacks.


Vesna Rakic-Vodinelic, of the University of Belgrade's law faculty, told IWPR that action is needed. "The authorities must show some sign that they want to stand up to the right-wing," she said.


Prosecutors are yet to press charges for inciting national or religious hatred - even though the appropriate legislation is already on the statute books. "It is their duty according to the law to do so," continued Rakic-Vodinelic.


In the latest incident, nationalist youths broke up an Anglican Church service in Belgrade on December 24, claiming that the worshippers - including the British ambassador Charles Crawford - were "anti-Orthodox proselytisers".


Around 30 men, carrying Serbian icons, stopped Belgrade's Anglican chaplain Philip Warner from holding the traditional service in the chapel of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate. Journalists who were present reported recognising members of St Justin and Obraz among the gang, as well as students from the university's theology department.


Although the police were present throughout they took no action, claiming that the safety of the congregation and the ambassador was never in danger and that use of force may have exacerbated the situation.


While the incident provoked a flurry of comment in the media and the capital, there was very little reaction from the authorities.


The speaker of the Yugoslav parliament, Dragoljub Micunovic, apologised to Ambassador Crawford for the disruption of the service, but did not condemn those responsible with any conviction. Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjic did not speak out at all.


While Yugoslav president Vojislav Kostunica described the protest "an affront to the Church and its faithful, as much as to the state and the nation", he has been criticised by liberals for not using his powers to act against the perpetrators.


"The president acts as if he were a member of a NGO, issuing statements instead of using his competencies as head of state," said Dusan Janjic, head of the Forum For Inter-Ethnic Relations.


The harassment of the Anglican churchgoers follows a wave of disturbing acts of violence perpetrated against foreign nationals and non-whites in Belgrade and other towns.


Towards the end of December, a security employee stopped Jenny Grant, a dark-skinned Cuban language instructor at the university's faculty of languages, from entering a Greek hypermarket store in the capital. Gesturing towards a nearby flea market, he allegedly told her, "Gypsies buy over there."


The same month, a group of Belgrade skinheads assaulted the husband of a dark-skinned Canadian when he tried to stop them harassing his wife. The police intervened, but charges were never brought.


In Kragujevac, also in December, unknown arsonists burned down two Chinese-owned businesses.


At the same time, a few km away in Cacak, the house of a well-known Jewish doctor was daubed with slogans referring to "Kristalnacht" - the Night of Broken Glass, when thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed in 1938 Berlin. Similar anti-Semitic slogans were painted all over the town - most bearing the symbol of Obraz.


Obraz is the most notorious extremist group in Serbia, and boasts around 35,000 members - although that number is often disputed - while the Society of St Justin the Philosopher was formed in 2000 by the university's philosophy and theology faculties.


Milanka Saponja Hadzic is a regular IWPR contributor