The Rise of Nationalism: Serbia

Even as the Western Balkan’s second largest economy, Serbia is still struggling to promote neoliberal reforms as pressure mounts to join the European Union.  Since transitioning with the rest of the Balkans to a market economy in the 1990s, Serbia has dealt with a slow growth rate, high unemployment, and a recession from 2013 to 2015 (Arsić, 2015).  Although the economy has begun to recover, growth still remains at a low 0.5-1% annually (Arsić, 2015).  Since the elections on April 24, 2016, the new government is expected to “pursue reforms under the IMF programme for 2015-18, which focuses on fiscal consolidation, public-sector reform and reform of the business environment” (The Economist, 2016).  Clearly, Serbia still has a lot of work to do to strengthen the economy and make it an attractive candidate for EU membership.  Growth has been slow, and the recent recession ended only one year ago—further exacerbated by major flooding in 2014. 

While Serbia is doing well in relation to the rest of the region, compared to Europe, it is still a very poor country.  With a current GDP per capita of $13,700, Serbia is ranked 116th in the world (World Factbook, 2016), and citizens are increasingly withdrawing support for EU accession.  In October 2009 76% of Serbians polled were in support of membership in the EU, but as of November 2015 this percentage has plummeted to 49% (IRI, 2015).  Respondents mainly saw membership in the EU as costly (51%) and a loss of sovereignty or independence (41%) (IRI, 2015).  Though Serbia operates in a market economy and is pressured to maintain neoliberal policies, its relationship with Russia and China is problematic for the EU.  Currently, “the significance of these strategic partnerships is mostly symbolic, primarily showing goodwill towards economic cooperation on both sides” (Teokarevic, 2016).  Yet “China’s Silk Road initiative (OBOR) and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) have raised hopes in Serbia that the country might soon get much-needed infrastructure investment, strengthen its energy security, and increase its exports” putting it at odds with the EU as Serbia’s “most important economic partner, accounting for two thirds of the country’s total imports and exports” (Teokarevic, 2016). 

In late 2015 the International Republican Institute conducted a poll on Serbian public opinion of refugees, the European Union, and relations with Russia.  The poll interviewed 1,449 citizens across all regions of Serbia, both urban and rural.  Respondents were asked to rank on a scale of 1 (“No Threat at All”) to 5 (“Very Big Threat”) a list of issues in the order of how threatening they were to the stability of Europe.  The issues included: ethnic relations, financial issues, military conflict, crime and corruption, migrants from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), and terrorism.  Migrants from MENA, when ranked as “Very Big Threat”, were seen as the second largest threat only after terrorism.  When rated at the level of 4, migrants were seen as the largest threat (IRI, 2015). The poll also clearly indicated Serbians wish to maintain close relations with Russia.  When asked if Serbia’s interests were best served by maintaining strong relations with Russia, 94% agreed (IRI, 2015).

In an environment with slow economic growth, worsening public opinions of the EU, and the arrival of refugees, the increasing support of far-right, nationalist parties in Serbia is to be expected.  The Serbian Radical Party—founded in 1991 and a major supporter of the ‘Greater Serbia’ movement that led to two wars—currently holds 22 seats (8%) in parliament, the third largest group (National Assembly, 2016).  Their support of the notion of a Greater Serbia is especially important in terms of explaining nationalist sentiment.

“The boundaries of nations and national states may be determined by military, economic and political factors, but their significance for their inhabitants derives from the joys and sufferings associated with particular ethnoscapes.  Nationalist regimes have subsequently made use of a mass public education system to inculcate the sense that the homeland has been ‘ours’ for generations, even where it was ruled by foreigners, through a picture of poetic landscapes filled with the resonances of great events and exploits in the ethnic past” (Smith, 1996).

The manipulation of mass public education has been particularly powerful in Serbia; as official government policy is that Serbia was never involved in any war.  The younger generations, born during or after the wars, are not taught about Serbia’s war with Croatia and Bosnia from 1992-1995 or with Kosovo from 1996-1999 (YIHR, 2016).  This has allowed Serbia to attach false memories to its ethnic and national identity, as there are few mechanisms in society for reconciliation.  The Serbian Radical Party has encouraged this platform, which has allowed them to “remain constant in their nationalistic discourse, firmly opposing Kosovo’s independence and Serbia’s progress towards the European Union” (Barlovac, 2012). 

The far-right movements in Serbia are extremely well mobilized for inclusiveness of youth, reaching them through both church groups and football clubs and further manipulated by the government (YIHR, 2016).  Territory is of particular importance to Serbia as well, claiming sovereignty in areas of Bosnia—known as the Republic of Srpska--, and all of Kosovo.  “To become national, shared memories much attach themselves to specific places and define territories.  The process by which certain kinds of shared memories are attached to particular territories so that the former become ethnic landscapes (or ethnoscapes) and the latter become historic homelands, can be called the ‘territorialization of memory” (Smith, 1996).

The legacy of the Balkan Wars is clearly still a powerful driver of nationalistic sentiment.  While Serbian culture shares many attributes with Croatian and Bosnian culture, “there are, it is true, signs of partial ‘hybridization’ of national cultures, which were of course never monolithic in reality.  At the same time, immigration and cultural mixing can produce powerful ethnic reactions on the part of indigenous cultures, as has occurred in some western societies” (Smith, 1990).  A lack of education about the wars—or the complete ignorance of it—means that “being a nationalist in the Balkans is the easiest thing to do” (YIHR, 2016).  War criminals are cast as war heroes, and identity as a Serb therefore comes with a certain amount of pride.  The Serbian media perpetuates these views, which has kept Serbia ethnically divided and anti-refugee in perspective since the wars.

Growing up in this environment, either as a witness to the war or blind to it, it is no wonder that Serbians feel particularly negative towards the refugee crisis.  Besides a weak economy, Serbians are distrustful of all ‘others,’ and support a homogenous community.  Not surprisingly, Serbia closed its borders with the rest of South Eastern Europe in late 2015 in order to escape dealing with the crisis.  Yet with smugglers and traffickers, refugees have still made their way to Belgrade and the Hungarian border, where they are often met with violent retaliation.  While Serbia may be better positioned financially to deal with the crisis than countries such as Bulgaria or Macedonia, it also struggles with stronger nationalistic sentiment, due to the presence of a well-mobilized, zealous youth and tensions from the previous wars that still threaten to spiral out of control.

Written by: Kaitlyn Lynes