International Writers Magazine:
Tadic Re-Elected in Serbia Elections Feb 3rd
has straddled the border between East and West since the 4th century,
when the Roman Empire was torn apart by a schism that would last
over a thousand years. Today the city's fume-choked streets are
bearing witness to another clash between Europe and Asia, as two
opposing visions of Serbia's future are placed before a volatile
electorate. The outcome will have decisive ramifications, both local
This, at least,
is the angle taken by much of the Western media as Serbia went to the
polls Feb 3rd to elect its next president. Incumbent Boris Tadic, a
pro-Western moderate feted as a progressive democrat by the West, is
facing the hardline Serb nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who is standing
in for his party's official leader, currently on trial for alleged war
crimes in The Hague. Overshadowing the two contenders is the question
of Kosovo's independence, due to be announced unilaterally by the territory's
ethnic Albanian leadership within the next few weeks. Tadic preaches
moderation and negotiation on this sensitive topic; Nikolic has promised
not to "sit back" and let it happen and has threatened military
intervention. No less important is the question of European integration,
which has led to the EU and the USA virtually bankrolling Tadic's campaign.
On the ground in the nation's capital, where every inch of barren concrete
is plastered with the candidates' smiling faces, it is hard to argue
with the notion that a fundamentally divided Serbian society is preparing
to cast its ballot. But speak to those that will make the crucial decision
evening shoppers on Republic Square, students eating their lunch
outside the university campus, or party activists cheering at the final
rallies and the picture becomes far more confused.
Take Alexandra Bozic. Four days before the poll, she found herself on
the fringes of one of Tadic's meticulously-planned, dramatically-executed
public meetings at the heart of the city centre. A 19 year old, English-speaking
student who dreams of hassle-free trips to Paris and London, she is
the archetypal Democratic Party supporter, rejecting the narrow nationalism
of the past and embracing a peaceful, neo-liberal Western future. But
Alexandra hadn't planned to be at this rally; she stumbled across it
whilst shopping for shoes and is slightly nonplussed by the thunderous
speakers and garish floodlights. "I don't support anyone,"
she declared stubbornly, wrinkling her nose at the East vs. West paradigm
that is being tirelessly imposed on this country. "I will vote
for Tadic on Sunday because I want easy travel to Europe, nothing more."
Those nearby echoed her apathy; Tadic is seen by many young people as
tired and corrupt, but he represents their passport to modernity. Hence
this reluctant band of democrats will back him on Sunday, not out of
any deep-seated alignment with West over East, but rather out of self-centred
The same contradictions were on display a few miles across town, at
the Belgrade Arena. In the city's biggest venue, the Serbian Radical
Party pulled out all the stops at the Nikolic rally. With folksongs
celebrating Serbian Kosovo, thunderous chants of "Serbia, Serbia,"
shaved heads aplenty, and beer flowing freely, it is easy to dismiss
Nikolic support as a backwards-looking longing for 'Greater Serbia'.
Yet for many people present, Nikolic is first and foremost the non-Tadic:
a promise of change and a break with a president perceived as crooked
and unconcerned by the economic troubles of the 'common man'. "Who
doesn't," in the words of one anti-Tadic demonstrator "care
about the Serbian woman, who is reduced to begging?" Some, like
54 year old, small-time entrepreneur Boris Ristic, stressed their admiration
for Europe and their opposition to Milosevic, only to declare their
support for Nikolic as the lesser of two evils.
Beyond the cynics and the sceptics, gloriously sandwiched in the middle
of this bitter contest, lie the opportunists as baffled by the
militia-cap sporting Nikolic supporters and the bohemian-looking Tadic
enthusiasts as they are excited by the financial possibilities these
figures represent. One such character patrolled the corridors of the
Belgrade Arena, flogging large clocks adorned with the hand-painted
likeness of Nikolic set against the immutable borders of Greater Serbia.
When these correspondents enquired as to whether the hands of the clock
set dramatically to five minutes before midnight were
a symbolic expression of the final hour of Serbian consciousness as
election day looms, they were assured that, on the contrary, the batteries
on the clock had merely run out and would be replaced shortly.
A far cry from the stereotypes proffered by many observers of this election,
the real choice lies in the hands of the largely apathetic majority,
concerned not with a fundamental struggle between East and West, but
rather with the day to day minutiae of jobs and travel. The people of
Belgrade are not divided into two irreconcilable camps; a vote for Nikolic
is not a rejection of the West, nor is a vote for Tadic an unreserved
endorsement of 'modern' European values. Whilst the rest of the world
looks on, Serbians see this as primarily a vote about domestic politics;
mundane or not, the world will have to live with the result.
Shenker Feb 4th 2008
*With thanks to Joshua Rogers
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