'Nazi-fied' Serbs May Go Radical
Angry, isolated, and poor, Serbians head to polls Sunday looking for extreme solutions.
BELGRADE, SERBIA — With a college education, and a modest but honest living as a waiter, Djuro Tosic is Serbia's version of middle class. He supports his wife and two-year-old daughter, drives an imported car, and even has money for an occasional night on the town.
But politically, the Tosic family is opting for extremes. And they are not alone.
All over Serbia there are signs that a mass radicalization is under way, one that permeates not just the lowest echelons of society, but otherwise conservative families like the Tosics.
"This country has been Nazi-fied," says Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia.
Mr. Tosic and his wife support the Radical Party of Serbia. In elections Sunday, they will probably vote for Vojislav Seselj, a former paramilitary leader who seems bent on sending Serbia back to war.
Ms. Biserko, who is helping to prepare a book on Serbian radicalism, says the Serbs act as if they are still at war, as if there is more land to fight for in Croatia and Bosnia and the dream of a "greater Serbia" is still alive. She says the best remedy for her country is a temporary occupation by an outside military force, much like what happened in Nazi Germany after World War II.
"How else do you cope with a society that is so nationalistic?" she asks. "How do you defeat that frame of mind?"
The early stages of radicalization are under way. Extremist politicians are gaining strength in all regions, to the point where the Radical Party now has the second-most seats in parliament and Mr. Seselj is a legitimate presidential contender.
Seselj, whom some Western officials call a fascist, once bragged that during the war that tore apart Yugoslavia in the early 1990s his irregular troops mutilated Croatians.
"I will vote for Seselj," says Ljilja Tosic as she watches her baby bounce around their cluttered living room. "Only he can make the situation better. Only he speaks the language that we understand. He's the only one who never lies to the people."
One Western analyst in Serbia, who asked to remain anonymous, says the situation has deteriorated so much that he expects an outbreak of violence on Belgrade's streets. "There's a deep rage inside the average Serb," he says. "People are not happy. Belgrade is like 2 million walking time bombs ready to explode."
Ethnic unrest is on the rise, too, especially in the southern province of Kosovo, where an ethnic Albanian majority calling for independence has been met with sometimes brutal police force.
Belgrade, the capital, has recently seen a rash of skinhead violence against Gypsies, including one incident in which a teenage boy was beaten to death on a Saturday night.
And a few of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's top aides, who were rumored to have become too greedy in swallowing the spoils of privatization, were recently killed in Mafia-style hits.
With no money to travel, and carrying one of the most-shunned passports in the world, Serbians are more and more isolated. They blame America for everything from a recent outbreak of the flu to the splintering of Yugoslavia in 1991.
The radical fires are fueled by leaders like Seselj, who promote territorial conquests and blame the devastated economy on an international conspiracy.
"Seselj knows what the Serbs want," says Vesna Vujic, the political editor of the independent newspaper Nasa Borba. "They are uneducated, they live bad, they have no money. The only idea you can sell them is greater Serbia."
But nothing happens without approval from Mr. Milosevic, who, with his tight control of the electronic media, decides who can speak and what they talk about. Without Milosevic, there is no Seselj.
"People are very primitive here, and they still cannot understand that television is not the voice of God," explains Nenad Canak, the president of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina, a pro-democracy political party that has become obscure in this climate.
At the root of Serbia's slide, Mr. Canak says, are the devastated economy (the result of war), economic sanctions by the West, government corruption, and decades of communism.
The average salary in Serbia, for those who have a job, is about $175 per month. Meanwhile, most prices are comparable to those in Western Europe. Factories don't work, buses don't run on time, heating is sporadic, and retirees, who are getting about $55 a month, can be seen scrounging through trash dumpsters.
Milan Djuric, the president of a Serbian pensioners organization, says 40,000 retirees died last year, many because of inadequate food and medicine. About 700 committed suicide. "Our people have become beggars on the streets," Mr. Djuric says.
But Serbia's economy is not the sole cause of radicalism. This country is still bitter about losing a war in which over half a million ethnic Serbs were displaced from their homes in Bosnia and Croatia.
They are angry at Milosevic, who was full of promises when he led them to war, but who readily surrendered vast territories at the Dayton peace accords in 1995.
Among the refugees is the extended family of Djuro Tosic. Some members were forced to flee Knin, Croatia; others abandoned their homes in Ilijas, a Bosnian town near Sarajevo. "We are bitter at Milosevic and his party," Tosic says. "They had power for nine years and look what happened, only the war and sanctions. We are looking for changes and nothing else. That is why we support Seselj."