Letter from Belgrade

Just outside the flat I am staying in, near the University of Belgrade, I see murals depicting two very different men, right next to each other: Joe Strummer, the late lead singer of punk legends The Clash, and Stefan Dimitrijevic, a 33-year-old Serbian national who died in April this year, while fighting on the Russian side in Luhansk.

Someone else has sprayed green “X”s over Dimitrijevic’s face, as well as over the Serbian double-headed eagle above his right shoulder. According to the law, had Dimitrijevic returned home, he would have been imprisoned, as Serbian citizens are not allowed to fight overseas.

Deceased, he has become a kind of martyr figure for the Serbian nationalists who have long looked to their fellow Orthodox Slavs in Russia for kinship and support.

I have seen these polarised graffiti fights across much of Belgrade’s public space. By the city’s Ottoman-era fortress in Kalemegdan Park, two outdoor exhibitions face each other, only a few steps apart: the Russian Geographers’ Association’s photo show “Russia, the most beautiful country”, celebrating landscapes from the Caspian Sea to Kamchatka, and “Mom, I don’t want war!”, a collection of Ukrainian and Polish children’s drawings of missiles falling over their homes, displayed by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The juxtaposition is unnerving. I cannot imagine seeing it in any other European city in 2022.

A few weeks after my first walk by these shows, I see the spray paint crossfire here as well: a brown X covers the title board of the Russian exhibition, and Zs are written over Ukrainian children’s drawings. Next, someone has crossed the Zs and between a big, fresh “Slava Rosiji” (or glory to Russia in Serbian), a smaller [Slava] “Ukraini” is added. Next to the exhibitions, tourist boutiques continue to sell mugs depicting Vladimir Putin’s face as well as local souvenirs.

Serbs’ sympathy for Russia has deep roots and was reinforced in 1999, when Moscow opposed Nato’s 78-day air campaign against Slobodan Milošević’s regime. The strikes were aimed at halting the killing and forced displacement of Kosovo Albanians. But the Nato strikes also killed and injured hundreds of Serbian civilians.

A person stands next to a letter Z, which has become a symbol of the Russian military, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in Belgrade, Serbia, in June © Reuters

“Missiles fell over my neighbourhood, though there was no military target there — only a water supply company,” journalist Ljubica Gojgić, who hosts a popular political show on the national broadcaster RTV Vojvodina, tells me. “Bombs were falling over my head, despite the fact that in the beginning of the ’90s, I was doing my best to fight against Milošević’s regime as a journalist.” 

She is one of 80 per cent of Serbs who oppose sanctions against Russia. “We are against sanctions because we have lived through them,” she says. Throughout the ’90s, following western sanctions responding to Belgrade’s war crimes in Croatia and Bosnia, Serbia’s economy shrank to a third of its previous size.

“It was not just Milošević’s family, but my own family that saw our economy collapse,” Ljubica says. The journalist argues sanctions are ineffective because tycoons “usually find ways to save or increase their wealth, while ordinary people go to war, go bankrupt, or leave the country”.

Serbia has voted against Russia on all questions in the UN General Assembly, condemning the aggression and annexations in Ukraine, and pleading for the investigation of war crimes. But the Serbian media, the human rights lawyer Milan Antonijevic points out, has largely ignored these votes. Instead, he says, “the whole narrative in the media is whether we are for or against sanctions”. 

“Nato threw bombs on us, on hospitals,” my taxi driver, Nenat, also tells me, his face flushed. He blames the uranium in Nato bombs for the lung cancer that killed his father and five other neighbours. “Russia was the only country that helped us then,” he adds.

In 1999, Moscow sent 200 troops to occupy Pristina airport ahead of a Nato deployment on June 12 — a confrontation that was resolved peacefully. This happened two months before Putin became prime minister and less than a year before he was elected president. Those events skew the way the Serbs perceive the war in Ukraine.

In March, a mural representing Putin popped up on a wall in central Belgrade. Since then, the image has undergone at least 10 versions, as different groups either lauded him as “brat” (brother), or condemned him, removing the “b” and leaving “rat” (meaning war in Serbian), and adding pro-peace messages on his face.

One of the people to deface the mural was Pyotr Nikitin, a 41-year-old Moscow-born translator who has lived in Belgrade since 2016. “I sprayed the Ukrainian flag [over Putin’s eyes] twice,” he admits.

On February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Nikitin protested in front of the Russian embassy in Belgrade, with 50 other people. They joined forces in a Serbian-language Facebook group called Russians, Ukrainians, Belarusians and Serbs Together Against War, organising monthly protests and highlighting Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine and the Kremlin’s repression at home.

“In the beginning, it was impressive for Serbs that Ukrainians and Russians united — they couldn’t imagine Croats and Serbs joining the same antiwar movement during the ’90s,” he recalls.

People walking in the street
T-shirts bearing the face of Vladimir Putin and the letter Z, signifying support for the war in Ukraine, at a souvenir shop in Belgrade in March © New York Times/Redux/eyevine

Nikitin is currently setting up a Russian diaspora NGO, aiming to ask the local authorities to remove pro-war graffiti, add Russia to Serbia’s unsafe country list in order to enable Russians to get political asylum, and continue to inform the Serbian public on the Kremlin. “Serbs don’t know anything about Russia,” he argues.

On the streets of Belgrade, I come across Russians everywhere — young families strolling in the park, professionals working in cafés, or joining cultural events. Given the visa-free requirement for a 30-day stay, about 100,000 Russians have come to Serbia since February.

Web developer Artyom, 33, left St Petersburg for Belgrade with his wife in March. “Here we can help Ukrainians,” he tells me. He says Serbia reminds him of Russia in the 2000s, when there was “some pluralism”. 

Yet, over the past decade, Serbia has veered into autocracy. Aleksandar Vučić of the Serbian Progressive party (SNS) has been in power for eight years, first as prime minister, and since 2017, as president. Last April, his party won 42 per cent of the votes, in an election that opponents deem unfair, including via government control over the media.

Vučić seems to maintain a complex political balancing act. Aleksandar Djokic, a political scientist who has returned to his native Belgrade after studying and working as an academic in Moscow, argues that while the government tries to maintain a “balanced official discourse”, Serbian media “is mostly pro-Russian and these outlets that are pro-Russian are also pro-Vučić ”. Conversely, “the western-owned media [such as Radio Free Europe, CNN’s N1, or Voice of America], which is critical about Russia, is also critical about Vučić.” 

These pro-Kremlin views are also being passed on to the next generations. Aleksandra, a buoyant Serbian jazz musician, shares how her nine-year-old son came home crying from school one day because some boys shouted that “Russia will show America and Ukraine what it can do!”. 

Perhaps some of these old wounds are best illustrated, and healed, through poetry. At the Belgrade Book Fair, I chair an event involving the Serbian poet Radmila Petrović, 26. Her daring recent, third poetry volume, My Mother Knows What Kind of Things Happen in Cities, constituted her coming-out as a lesbian, as well as her ticket to fame.

She reads the poem “I am a Serbian girl, but Kosovo is not in my heart, you are, to enthusiastic applause. The poem starts like this:
Dad first blamed granddad
because granddad neither wanted to join
the chetniks
nor the partisans,
so he ended up being chased by both the one and the other.

Paula Erizanu is a journalist and author

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