Thursday, January 17, 2008

Rallying with the Serbian nationalists

  • Mark Mardell
  • 16 Jan 08, 09:05 PM

The streets of Belgrade are still brightened by Christmas decorations.

Twisted ropes of lights adorn every tree down the main roads; a parade of miniature Christmas trees in bright white light paves the way to the city hall and, especially impressive, four big ones lit up in shimmering purple stand in one of the main squares.

The Orthodox Christmas was on January 7 and Serbia is only slowly shaking its head free of holidays.

Serbian nationalist rally

Perhaps that is why campaigning has been so sluggish in the presidential elections.

Yet they could hardly be more important: looming over them is the all but inevitable declaration of independence by Kosovo, shortly after the election of a Serbian president.

Kosovo politicians have been persuaded to delay their long planned announcement until after the vote for fear of inflaming and swelling nationalist sentiment.

East or West?

And behind this question lurks another. Does Serbia turn east or west?

Does it snuggle up to Mother Russia, which is fighting Serbia's fight over Kosovo on the international stage?

And then does Serbia become the first of the post-communist countries of eastern Europe to reject the lure of the European Union? Reject joining an organisation that, however derided in Britain, is seen by most such countries as a symbol of civilisation, modernity and wealth.

Like many crunch-points it may turn out to be a little mushier than that, not quite so crunchy, but in crude terms and over years that is what is at stake.

Nine candidates battle it out this weekend but most expect that the two left standing for the big fight in February will be the current President Boris Tadic and radical, that is right-wing nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic.

But the radical party certainly tried to make up for lost time during Christmas with a rally in the city's central stadium. In many ways it was like many high octane political rallies I've been to both in Britain and throughout Europe. But it had certain, shall we say, unusual features?

It certainly wasn't speaker after speaker punching the air and making very vague promises.

It wasn't the huge Serbian flag taking up one side of the auditorium.

Patriotic melody

The patriotic melody sung by a girl of 12 or 13 was striking. Dressed in black and white costume-dress, her pure voice soared about the accompanying choir of women in evening dresses, miners in blue hard-hats and matching overalls and, for some reason, a couple of men in chef's tall, white hats.

"Far away from the sea is my village where the lemon blossoms,
Along the way that was the only road for the army …
Did that awful night have to come when you my darling went to the bloody battle?
Far away, the white flower blooms.
That is where a father and a son gave their lives…I am living in my sorrow but still happily calling out Long Live Serbia."

It perhaps loses a little in translation but it is a song that the audience knows is about Kosovo, just as this election is about Kosovo and how Serbia reacts to its almost inevitable loss.

Kosovo, for which Nato bombed this European country less than a decade ago.
Tomislav Nicolic

Kosovo which looms over this election. Kosovo, so often called the cradle of Serbian civilisation, the Serbian Jerusalem.

Kosovo, which speaker after speaker declared must remain part of Serbia.

Much more unusual than this emotive melody was the speech that boomed out, powerful and eerie because no one stood at the lectern to deliver it.

Their master's voice

Some recorded voice delivered the words in a letter written by the radical party's leader. He couldn't be at this rally or any other because he is imprisoned in the Hague awaiting trial for war crimes, encouraging murder and massacre during Yugoslavia's civil war.

But in the end that wasn't what made me sit up. We had been tipped off that the widow of the notorious Arkan , the murdered mobster and paramilitary, might sing.

How would we spot her?

The intellectual who had just given me a lengthy and erudite run down of the election issues was succinct: breasts like torpedoes, he said.

But it wasn't she who roused the crowd before Tomislav Nicolic's big speech.

Getting the winner of last year's Eurovision song contest to perform before the big speech certainly was a coup.
Marija Serifovic

Marija Serifovic looks pretty normal for a pop star. Shortish, slightly plump with short, dark hair, dressed in grey check trousers and a black tee shirt, she's a million miles from the high heels, caked-on make-up and bags of bling favoured by most Serbian pop stars.

In any other European country she'd have been campaigning for civic partnerships or more cycle lanes but here she was bouncing around the stage, egging on the crowd on behalf of a party where some supporters come dressed in paramilitary uniform and see men accused of mass murder as heroes.

I caught up with her by the side of the stage, as nice and as ordinary as I had guessed.

Returning a favour

What did she like about the party?

Well really she was just returning a favour. They'd been good to her. She knew nothing about politics.

What about Kosovo?

She started on a complex analogy about somebody being in your flat and saying they liked your TV set.

"It's been stolen from you?" I interrupted.

No, she didn't say that: "What do I know, I've never even been there?"

Of course neither had most in the hall or indeed most Serbs. Nor, I would guess, have most of the presidential candidates.

To many Serbs, Kosovo is like the garden of Eden, a place of enormous mythical significance but not somewhere you go for the weekend. And that was what WAS striking in a rally designed to raise emotions, banish doubt and unite everyone around the unquestioning belief that Kosovo must remain Serbian.

A moment of more than hesitation. Of genuine indifference… from the star guest.

Remaining oblivious to the claims of a whole political class that the loss of Kosovo is a hurt that can't be borne is quite a feat.

In the coming weeks, Serbia as a whole might be more comfortable if it imitated the pop star, not the politicians.

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