Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

SERBIA: ‘Hail the Young, and Un-European’

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Mar 6 2008 (IPS) - It is not often that the torching of a foreign embassy is praised by government officials, but this is exactly what happened after hundreds of enraged young men set the U.S. and Croatian embassies in Belgrade on fire two weeks ago after a protest rally against the independence proclaimed by Kosovo.

Kosovo, the long disputed, ethnic Albanian-dominated southern Serb province, finally declared independence last month, and swiftly won recognition from the U.S. and several European governments. Russia, China and many other countries have withheld recognition.

Serbia itself is divided over Kosovo, and many youths came out to express their anger, in line with the government’s opposition to Kosovo as an independent nation.

Conservative Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said that “it was the Serbian youth above all that showed how Serbia stands for justice, law and freedom in rejection of the policy of Western countries.”

The rally, organised by the government, attracted mostly middle-aged and elderly people, but nationalist media put aside their 150,000-strong participation to praise “the new Serb youth.”

The once liberal but now nationalist weekly NIN admired the emergence “of new proud young Serbs, immune to tricks and humiliation by the European Union (EU), aware of the true interests of the nation.”

The prominent conservative New Serbian Political Thought (NSPM) magazine wrote that “finally, there is a new generation of young Serbs, ready not to turn their eyes to the EU, ready not to be the speechless dwarfs of Euro-integrations who would walk into Europe with a poor man’s backpack on their shoulders and a consumers’ basket in their hands.”

But if the nationalist media have had a field day for a while, some experts say things are not really as that media describes them to be. They see Serbia deeply divided between the isolationist option of return to the 1990s, and the EU option. EU membership has been the top political priority of all governments since the ousting of former leader Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.

“It would be wrong to say that all the youth is ‘nationally aware’ or ready to sacrifice its future for vague goals,” sociology professor Ratko Bozovic told IPS. “Despite all the unease in the times they grew up in, young people are more sophisticated than usually thought.”

Researchers from the Belgrade Philosophy Faculty, who have surveyed Serbian youth on several occasions since 2000, say a large number of youths aged between 15 and 24 are “ethno-centric” rather than “nationalist”.

“Substantial nationalism stands at tolerable levels and can be defined by political and economic insecurity, rather than as ‘national awareness’,” says a study titled ‘The Young, Lost in Transition’, conducted by the faculty in 2006.

Some 85 percent of more than 3,000 surveyed said joining the EU would be positive. Only 8.1 percent said they were against it.

“What bothered us more (than nationalism) was the fact that our research last year showed that young people are unable to manage their spare time,” Serbian Minister for Sports and Youth Snezana Samardzic Markovic said last week. She was presenting the ‘Strategy for the Young’, a long-term plan due to be adopted by government in April.

According to a study by ministry, television, computers and mobile phones are the best friends of more than half of Serbian youth. Sports and books are at the bottom of the list.

“As for the hooliganism, which we saw in front of the embassies, there are two ways to deal with it – one is punitive measures, which must be taken. The other is re-integration of frustrated youth into the society; to see what they are interested in, and what it is really that makes them dissatisfied,” the minister told reporters.

But Serbia is not the only nation in the Balkans where youngsters take to violence and senseless hooliganism.

Buses carrying 150 Bosnian Serb students who came to Sarajevo Feb. 12 to watch a basketball game were stoned by angry young Muslims from the capital shouting “Kill Serbs”. No injuries were reported. Police spokesman Jusuf Zornic told Bosnian media that “the group of hooligans dispersed before the police could intervene.”

But just days before that, 16-year-old Croat Denis Mrnjavac was killed in a Sarajevo tram. The killers were three young Muslims aged 17, 18 and 19.

In neighbouring Croatia, football hooligans are mostly teenagers who get regularly into fights after popular matches. Some football fans have taken to Nazi salutes or insignia.

“Hooligans and delinquents exist everywhere in the world,” Croatian commentator Jovan Dragisic wrote on the popular Croatian site. “But it is only in the Balkans that such things are described as normal, ‘kids games’.”

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