Sunday, April 29, 2012

Join the European Family: Importing Racism into Serbia

If you’ve heard of Resnik, you’d think of Serbs as violent racists. If you actually go to Resnik, you’d find Serbs and non-Serbs alike trying to protect their community from a tycoon-sponsored government intrusion.
Resnik is a southern suburb of Belgrade, a village on the slopes of Mt. Avala. In the recent weeks it gained notoriety when Belgrade’s mayor Dragan Đilas accused its residents of being racist for opposing the forceful resettlement of Roma from New Belgrade into their town. In the street protest tens of individuals were injured, both among the Resnik residents and the police. Fourteen residents were charged with enticing racial hatred.
Resnik, with a diverse demographic picture, home to autochtonous Serbs and Roma and reportedly a large number of former Serb refugees from Croatia, opposed the move for several reasons, neither one being racist. Namely, the move was opposed by Serbs and Roma alike, and at the core of the opposition was the fact that reportedly no one asked the Resnik residents whether they agreed to have an informal settlement built in their community for an outside group. They rejected the accusations of racism, citing the fact that Roma and Serbs already peacefully coexist in Resnik and that many Roma joined the protests as well. In turn, they charged Dragan Đilas, the Vice-President of the ruling Democratic Party, with racism, since the underlying motive for forcefully resettling these Roma was to move them away from the exclusive residential complex of Belville in New Belgrade, owned by Serbia's shadiest businessman and its wealthiest man, Miroslav Mišković. Apparently, due to negative effects of the aesthetic inadequacy and the high propensity for crime that the Roma slums adjacent to Belville had on the sales numbers of the exclusive condo complex, the Roma had to be resettled. In other words, Mišković the real estate magnate couldn't make money with the Gypsies as next door neighbors, so they had to go.
It's the election season in Serbia and party financiers like Mišković had to have their way. Dragan Đilas, the mayor and the VP of the incumbent Democratic Party, put on his third hat, that of Serbia's dominant media mogul, and significantly supressed the media reporting of the issue, while he dealt with it politically. Despite daily peaceful protests by the Resnik townspeople, both Serbs and Roma, the moguls had their way and the apartheid policy continued. Neither should the Roma be forcibly moved, nor should the Resnik residents be denied the rights to manage their own local affairs pertaining to zoning and land distribution. Đilas needed a political cry, so he cried racism. In fact, if there was any racism here, it came from him.
I'm not actually trying to portray Đilas and Mišković as racist. Their actions speak loudly enough. They merely conducted the business as usual, trumpling the rights of Serbia's citizens indiscriminately. In this instance, they violated the rights of the Belville Roma as well as the rights of the Resnik residents. But the deals between the government officials  and the domestic and foreign shady business interests that brought Serbia to its knees would make one's head spin in disbelief. Just like in the United States, the moneyed interests have the direct access to your president, a senator or a mayor and they'll tell the mercenary politician what to do. Nothing new or unusual. When it comes to racism, however, Serbia and the Western societies like the United States are incomparable. The racial segregation in harsher or milder forms has gone on in the United States since its inception and in many forms it still goes on, however informally. Just drive down the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn or go to Camden, New Jersey. In the South, it is still institutional in many places. But hey, this is the United States where the founding principle of nationalist exceptionalism that governs the introspection of the political culture blurs that view and things do not get honestly described and understood for what they most obviously are. Unlike in the United States, racism is not an element of the cultural tradition of Serbia.
However, I'd be in denial to claim that there is no racism in Serbia, regardless of the fact that the Resnik case had very little to do with it. Yes, there are skinhead soccer fan groups declaratively racist. Just like many Italian soccer fan groups are neofascist, or like Paris Saint Germain fans kill one of their own just because he was a North African and not a white Frenchman like themselves, the racism in Serbia is limited to small groups of youths radicalized by poverty and, in what separates them from their Western European counterparts, the notion of racism is foreign to their culture.
Other than Roma, or Cigani, as Serbs and the neighboring peoples have traditionally call them, the region had no races other than white. Serbs have traditionally fought with their neighbors and amongst themselves, like every other European nation, over the land, or religion, but race was not a factor, since the racial differences did not exist. The Roma have been a part of the Serbian society since before the liberation in the 19th century and their place in that society has never been denied. Serbia, unlike some Western European countries, had no exclusionary policies against Roma. It was Germans and Croats that systematically exterminated Serbs, Jews and Roma in the Second World War. There have never been pogroms of Roma perpetrated by the Serbs in any such fashion. Expulsion of Roma, happening in the European Union, have never been perpetrated in Serbia. France, to be fair, pays its Roma several hundred euro a person to leave the country, and the Roma, of course, take the money, leave, and come back after several months for more. Some non-Nazi Western European countries also took it to the extreme in the past; Sweden of all places had a law on the books until 1976 that allowed for forced sterilization of the Roma women. This has never been a case in Serbia.
Yet, the Serbs, especially the young ones, have been methodically accused of racism of the kind Đilas shamelessly pointed the finger at in Resnik. Even more alarming than Đilas' use of disturbing and false paradigms for personal ends is the pattern of portrayals of Serbs as racists coming from the very Western Europe that invented all kinds of intolerance, from racism to religious persecution and institutionalized inequality. Whether it comes as a form of low-level political pressure on Serbia or as a way to dehumanize the Serbs and bring them down to the low moral ground the Western European societies have historically been at, such a portrayal definitely serves a political purpose, a purpose without a doubt damaging to the Serb national reputation and psyche. The fact that Dragan Đilas, in the public manifestation of his underhanded maneuvering, reached for racism where racism did not really exist tells how the notion, imported from and imposed by the European Union societies has penetrated the Serbian public life even if racism itself is hardly ever felt in the Serbian society. It is of a special concern that Serbian politicians and other public personalities have been using such artificial notions for their own ends, thus accepting fallacies projected as social problems and helping impose them on the Serbian public where they do not belong.
I guess if Serbia wants to be a member of the European family of nations, it has to be made to act like one and at least pretend to exercise racism and intolerance in the best Western European tradition. Nothing less than that will be accepted or forgiven. 

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