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Serbian Radicals Elicit Church Sympathy
Serbs traditionally associate the word 'obraz' or 'cheek' with honour, but an eponymously named right-wing group, claiming to champion Orthodox values, is being dismissed by its detractors as little more than a bunch of fascists.
The symbol Obraz - a six-pointed cross - can now be found on walls and shop windows around the capital. The group has rapidly gathered momentum over the past two years - garnering the support of disaffected youths, intellectuals and professionals.
Ten years of the Milosevic regime, a crushed economy and a roster of lost wars has left Serbia weak, defensive and a breeding ground for extremists.
Obraz was founded four years ago, with a supporter base of around 200. Some now estimate that its ranks have swelled to around 30,000, with chapters in Serbia, Montenegro and Republika Srpska.
Members have inherited the former regime's paranoid-nationalist stance. They claim Serbs are the only Europeans without their own national state and that their enemies are out to destroy them. Foes include the usual suspects: Zionists, Croats, Albanians, Bosniaks, democrats, bogus peace-brokers, religious sects, homosexuals, drug addicts and criminals etc.
Their website makes no bones about the movement's hatred of Croats and Bosniaks, accusing the former of stealing their culture and language as well as being responsible for "killing, expelling and forcibly assimilating three million Serbs" in the last two hundred years alone. The latter are charged with being spiritually "even more worthless than the Croats".
Albanians are maligned and warned that they will endure "the justifiable ire of the Serbian people".
This sort of vitriol has, not unsurprisingly, attracted the attention of the Humanitarian Law Fund, FHP. Headed by Natasa Kandic, it has asked the state authorities to use legislation which bars incitement to ethnic and religious hatred.
Yet, one of Obraz's leading figures Nebojsa Krstic claims that they are in no way an extreme organization - and are actually the victim of libel propagated by the ruling coalition and anti-Serbian NGOs.
Krstic, a sociologist by training, first appeared as a writer and critic in the early nineties, launching the slick Obraz magazine in 1993. He was one of the most vocal critics of the NATO bombing, which he claimed was targeting "pregnant women, babies, children and the infirm who are guilty only because they are alive, more precisely, only because they are Serbs".
But, even at that time, the group had limited support. That was not the case one year later, when on the feast-day of the movement's patron saint King Milutin, it was next to impossible to get to the Obraz offices on account of the crowd of burly, crop-headed youths outside.
These people were not entirely representative of the organization according to Krstic. He says it also counts among its supporters university professors, doctors, lawyers and engineers. But, it seems, well-known members are keen to guard their anonymity.
"I think that Obraz is the only genuine, authentic Serbian organisation that has a sincere Serbian orientation," said Milan, a Belgrade university student who recently signed up. "I believe that it is most important for us Serbs to return to ourselves and God."
With stock messages pushing "Orthodox nationalism instead of godless internationalism" and "faithful statesmen instead of godless traitors", Obraz has won over the sympathy of many in the Orthodox Church.
" This is an honourable and honest movement whose goal is to turn the Serbs who have been in the spiritual and moral dump for a long time into the people to be admired by the entire Europe and the world," said senior Church figure Dragan Terzic.
Liberals beg to differ, asserting that the movement is merely a slicker version of radical elements who once supported extremist figures like Vojislav Seselj. Their purpose, say observers, is to divert attention away from Serbia's fundamental economic problems by looking for foreign scapegoats for the country's very real woes.
Branislav Jelic of the Civic Alliance of Serbia sees the group as a hangover from the former regime which fomented religious and ethnic divisions, hatred and xenophobia.
The FHP has so far refrained from bringing charges against Obraz for inciting ethnic and religious hatred, preferring to wait to see if the public prosecutor moves against the group.
FHP lawyer Igor Olujic insists, however, that Obraz is not the only extremist group in Serbia. Radicals not necessarily connected to the organisation have desecrated Jewish graves and daubed anti-Roma graffiti - featuring slogans such as "Out with Roma, Serbia for the Serbs" - on the walls of a Belgrade theatre and cinema.
For Olujic, Obraz is symptomatic of a growing tide of extremist right-wing sympathisers. He is urging the issue be brought to the fore and debated openly before the movements attract even more support.
Suzana Sudar is a journalist for Belgrade weekly Oko
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