From Serbia with Love

On Kanvassing, Kafanas, and Kosovo

by by Fawzia Mahmood

At a stoplight on the bustling commercial boulevard of Knez Mihailova in downtown Belgrade, a group of Serbian Democratic Party (SDP) legionnaires are planted at a booth, wrapped up to the nines, braving the unusual subzero winter. Doggedly, they hand out party manifestos emblazoned with the uninspired choice of incumbent President Boris Tadic's craggy face and the pan-Slavic blue, red and white tricolor of the Serbian flag.

Just a stone's throw from the canvassing, Ivana, 21, a Serbian citizen who is Montenegrin by birth, sits in the company of university friends in a nearby coffee shop. "Everyone knows no one will speak to Serbia again if Nikolic comes in," she offers matter-of-factly. It's all too apt that she dismisses ultra-nationalist hard-liner Tomislav Nikolic, the Serbian Radical Party (SRP) candidate in this month's presidential election, as she and her chums sip traditional hibiscus tea and chain-smoke.

Having yet to be integrated into the European Union (EU), the country can trust that it is a long way from being subjected to the tobacco-bashing EU directives already championed in Europe. With Serbia as one of the last European bastions of public smoking, hearty smoke-filled Serbian kafanas serve as unlikely barometers of Serbia's international seclusion, especially from EU membership--precisely the issue that dominates this month's election. In typically pussyfooting fashion, the EU has only this week offered to relax its trade and travel relations with Serbia with an agreement to be signed on February 7, just as the Russians have sealed a deal with what's left of the Southern Slavs.

Eurovision meets Tunnelvision
If pro-Russian Euroskeptic Nikolic has his way, the most pan-Euro action Serbia's getting this year will be its hosting, in May, of the annual Eurovision Song Contest--often an unintentionally comical affair famed across Europe for introducing ABBA to the world stage. According to the January 24 issue of The Economist, Nikolic secured a massive 40 percent of the 61 percent voter turnout in the first of two rounds of presidential voting cast on January 20. Fortunately for the pro-Western Tadic lobby, the leading two candidates go through to a second and final round of voting on February 3. If the outcome of the 2004 presidential election is any clue, Mr. Tadic will be pulling out all the stops--although Tadic was burnt by Nikolic in the first round that year, he handily defeated him in the second.

But with Tadic having already pulled a fast one on the Nikolic camp by securing a $500 million deal with Russian energy giant Gazprom in the current inter-round period, the February 3 electoral outcome is still murky. As a demonstration of Russian soft power, the Gazprom agreement now practically guarantees support to Serbia in its fight to prevent the UN protectorate of Kosovo from breaking away. In recent years, a triad of forces have packed a punch for Russo-Serbian affinity: both countries face separatist movements in the respective regions of Chechnya and Kosovo, both are struggling to curb these moves for independence and both believe these movements are backed by regional countries lending their political and financial support.

But for Nikolic supporters such as Nikolas, 22, a student in the Faculty of Law at University of Belgrade, the Gazprom deal is another instance of political theatrics. The deal had been in the pipeline since last year, but only now that stakes are high has it been cemented. "You see that man there, that's our new president," he says, nodding towards a billboard promoting Nikolic's election.

Nikolas, for one, whose story is a familiar one in Belgrade but rarely acknowledged in the Western European press, will be hard-pressed to switch voting gears so easily. As a 10-year-old boy in 1995, he and his family were among the Serbs forced to flee Croatia during the birthing pains of the then-Yugoslavian territory's move for independence from the Serbian-dominated union. While Human Rights Watch has persistently reported human rights abuses committed towards minorities by the Serbian authorities, it has also kept record of the plight of displaced Serbs. According to the organization, Serbian refugees from Croatia between 1991 and 1995 total 350,000 and only 120,000 have returned.
Having lived in Belgrade ever since, Nikolas remains unfazed by the fact that the SRP's official party leader, Vojislav Seselj, currently stands on trial at the International Criminal Court in the Hague for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s. Rather, concerned that a reelection would mean the flight of more Serbs from Kosovo--which has a 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority--Nikolas will be casting his vote decisively for rival Nikolic, the acting head of the SRP.

Kosovo: no man's land?
The hot fuss of this year's balloting is that it is the first Serbian presidential election since all other territories of former Yugoslavia--Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia and Montenegro--broke away from the union. It is also the first since the news, bittersweet for Serbs, of the death of former President Slobodan Milosevic while on trial at the Hague in 2006 for alleged war crimes committed in Kosovo.
The instability of this turbulent political scene, paired with the fact that the Serbian President holds the position of Commander-in-Chief, brought on a motley lineup of candidates in the initial presidential bid. The hurdles in the presidential bid are less than discriminating--a visual artist, a psychologist and an evidently deluded former heroin addict all stepped up to the plate in the first round to unseat Boris Tadic. Moreover, the UN protectorate of Kosovo is set to declare independence from Serbia just as soon as its new Prime Minister, Hashim Thaci, an ethnic Albanian and veteran of the Kosovo Liberation Army, gets a glimpse of the new Serbian premier. In the meantime, Western press reports from The Los Angeles Times to Der Spiegel continue to fuel the fire by reporting that the issue of Kosovo's sovereignty looms over this month's election. In reality, the belief that Kosovo must not secede from Serbia is the only issue that has united the presidential contenders, including the seven eliminated by the results of the first round. When Serbs vote on Sunday, they will be voting for the means through which Serbia can retain Kosovo, not for whether it will.

Rehashing the red, white and blue
In 1999, when NATO bombed Belgrade in response to President Milosevic's crackdown on ethnic Albanian guerillas in Kosovo, The New York Times quoted the ambivalent sentiments of Milanko Zablacanski. Formerly an acclaimed Serbian actor, Zablacanski had previously quit his job on state-owned television to become politically active against Milosevic's domestic policies. "I have to support Milosevic now," he said. "All the protests are now absolutely unimportant because the West is soon to bomb my country... The West has no idea what Kosovo means to the Serbian people... If the Scottish people wanted to separate from the United Kingdom, would the West bomb to help Scotland become independent?"

It is not a coincidence that the most prominent billboards in Belgrade are either presidential campaign ads or those of the Serbian Ministry of Kosovo's enterprising "Kosovo is Serbia!" campaign. The current propaganda inventively uses the singular faces and quotes of prominent dead American and Western European politicians, such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Winston Churchill and Willie Brandt, in support of the notion that Kosovo must not secede. One particular advertisement found on a public transport bus features the bust of Abraham Lincoln with a quotation written in the Cyrillic alphabet set against the American flag. It is polished off with the Serbian Ministry of Kosovo's own clarion call. Translated, it reads: "'In most important things we cannot and must not give in!'--Kosovo is Serbia!"

The billboards can be found the length and breadth of Serbian highways, on buses and in publications. With a suitably nonplussed tone, The International Herald Tribune picked up on the story back in December. Dragoslav Bokan, director of Arts and Crafts, the advertising agency charged by the Serbian government to undertake the campaign, told the Tribune, "We are trying to remind people that there are Western politicians who say it is all right to defend your state." It is peculiar that the campaign targets the very people who don't need proselytizing when it is the international community that the Serbians must convince most.