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The Image of Ratko Mladic in Downtown Belgrade: Conflicts over murals, or conflicts over morals?

Each year, November 9 marks the ‘World Day Against Fascism and Anti-Semitism.’ That date was taken to commemorate November 9, 1938, when Kristallnacht took place, in which several hundred synagogues and Jewish shops throughout Germany were destroyed, and about 20,000 Jews were interned in camps. This act is often considered the beginning of the Holocaust. 

Source: Fond za humanitarno pravo facebook page

The observation of this day in Belgrade was very tumultuous this year. Several liberal and anti-fascist NGOs wanted to symbolically mark the event by removing the mural of Ratko Mladic, a Republika Srpska Army general who was convicted in The Hague for war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, including responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide. Throughout the day, uniformed members of the police and members of several nationalist organizations guarded the mural in Njegoseva Street so that it would not be destroyed (under the pretext of ‘protecting public order and peace’). Tensions culminated when activists Aida Ćorović and Jelena Jaćimović hit the mural with eggs. Then, members of the nationalist organizations present and the police approached them, brutally dragging them from the scene and arresting them.  That same evening, Ćorović and Jaćimović were released, but the arrests caused a revolt of other citizens who gathered on one side, while the admirers of Ratko Mladić gathered on the other side. They were separated from each other by a police cordon. The next day, a member of the Social Democratic Party, Đorđo Žujović, covered the mural with lime; afterward,  nationalists gathered here again and proceeded with cleaning the mural and threatening anyone who approached the scene, aiming to protect it from repeated damage. Thus, this yearly anniversary marking the fight against fascism and anti-Semitism became a flashpoint of local social divisions. 

In Serbian society,  the persisting cleavage between nationalists and liberals has been present in public life for the past 30 years. The beginnings of these divisions coincide with the beginning of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, but are also traceable to the interwar divisions among Serbia’s bourgeois classes prior to the socialist victory in WWII. Given the global growth of far-right politics following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the local context of interethnic warfare in the former Yugoslavia, the Balkan far-right was emboldened by fusing together extreme nationalism, clericalism, and xenophobia. In opposition to this nationalist wave, in opposition to Serbia’s war-making against its neighbors, and in an eagerness to support the liberalization of Serbian society away from its communist legacy, a local Anti-War Movement emerged in the 1990s (with many of its factions later developing into NGOs for the  promotion of human rights, equality, and democratic freedoms)

A key problem in Serbia is that the state apparatus, regardless of the political changes over the past 30 years, has largely tended to side with the nationalists – or, at best, ignore the existing cleavages within society. The example of the police’s recent defense of Ratko Mladic’s mural illustrates this point clearly. On a symbolic level, this can mean that the state apparatus maintains an interest in siding with Ratko Mladić’s defenders, doing so under the pretense of protecting public order. Indeed, this much is evidenced by the fact that the Minister of Police, Aleksandar Vulin, felt compelled to personally visit the mural. In other words, these divisions in Serbian society are promoted and maintained “from above” by the state, and ‘from below’ by nationalist organizations. 

Regardless of the political changes in government, it seems that in Serbia, even 25 years after the end of the wars, there has been little confrontation with the past, nor a social catharsis. The nationalist narrative that was imposed 30 years ago is still taken as dogma. Anyone who tries to question it becomes an enemy of the state and a target of various nationalist organizations. For sure, there were opportunities to change the narrative. After the overthrow of Slobodan Milošević on October 5, 2000, there was a real chance for change. But, unfortunately, the basic elements of his reign were not dismantled after his fall.  Instead of reckoning with the ugly past, the new democratic authorities proved unprepared for the task at hand. Parts of the state apparatus inherited from the former regime continued to promote the same political narratives that had become dominant in Serbia during the last decade of the 20th century (building on the dissident nationalist narratives of the 1980s). Furthermore, the new authorities did their part in nurturing nationalist tendencies – namely: by abolishing the celebration of July 7, the ‘Day of the Uprising Against Fascism,’ as a national holiday; by equating the Chetnik and Partisan movements with each other (rebranding the former as another anti-fascist current in World War II, in spite of its extant collaboration with the Nazis), while also reintroducing religious education in schools. 

By nurturing the development of the far-right, the ruling structures that came to power in Serbia after 2000 not only refused to deal with the crimes of the past, but created the context within which today’s youth are being educated and socialized. The post-2000 authorities long refused to arrest Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadzić, who were often hiding out in Serbia while evading international warrants for their arrest. Strong international pressures eventually bore fruit and resulted in their arrests, which in both cases sparked nationalist riots in Belgrade, with rioters removing flags from Western European embassies and setting fire to their premises. Among the participants in these events were members of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), headed by Vojislav Šešelj, who was also tried in The Hague. At that time, the party’s Secretary-General was the current President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić, who, after the arrest of Ratko Mladić, protested by pasting the inscription “Ratko Mladic Boulevard” in Zoran Djindjić Boulevard, indicating whose policy he held responsible for Mladić’s capture.  

Regardless of the changing party, his alleged turn away from nationalist politics, and his emergence as the county’s president, it seems that Aleksandar Vučić has not completely changed the political principles that guided him in his youth. However, he’s now expressing these principles in a more specific way, because now he holds the entire apparatus of state power behind which he can skillfully hide. He now uses nationalism as a political tool for mobilizing potential voters and as a cover for corruption scandals that he would rather hide from the public. To this end, he instrumentalizes various marginal nationalist youth organizations, which he activates, if necessary, to demonstrate to the public the potential risks to society if he ever leaves office. Nationalist organizations such as the currently most popular Leviathan (Levijatan) and the Serbian Right (Srpska desnica), but also youth fan groups of the two largest sports clubs in Belgrade, Partizan and Crvena Zvezda, and the Rad Football Club, known for their extreme nationalist views, certainly pose a danger to social and political action, if there is no state control or regulation. 

With so many nationalist youth organizations, we’re left with a key question: How is Ratko Mladić a hero for a significant portion of Serbia’s youth, most of whom were born after 1995, or even after 2000? One of the explanations could be that these young people were socialized during a period in which there was no radical confrontation with the past – on the contrary, the past was mostly portrayed as a period of victimhood and struggle in defense of national interests. The avoidance of radical political moves to confront the past has left enough space for the further political emboldening of those who propagate the nationalist rhetoric of the 1990s. Thus, many young people in Serbia turn to such organizations and tend to embrace the old nationalist political narratives. This is the starting point for the adoption of the image of Mladić as a symbol of ‘resistance’ to the great powers who, as the narrative goes,  ‘singled-out’ Serbia with the guilt for the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The nationalist narrative also gains sustenance from the growth of the far-right across Europe, emboldened by economic crises, anti-migrant sentiments, extreme nationalism, xenophobia and Islamophobia. Ratko Mladić, as the commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS), was indicted and convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for war crimes and genocide in Srebrenica committed against Bosnian Muslims. Thus, the local context of already existing intolerance fits in easily with the global resurgence of the far-right and elevates Mladić even further as a hero in the eyes of nationalists in Serbia and Islamophobic movements globally.

Finally, one interesting sociological phenomenon should be noted. The case of Ratko Mladić’s mural, including his attackers and defenders, shows the inability of Serbia’s younger generations to move beyond the ‘nationalist’/’liberal’ cleavages of the past 30 years. They appear unable to construct new worldviews, narratives, and social values which would be rooted in their own needs and prospects, and which would reject the narratives of the past.  What could these new narratives be – that is, what different approaches could lead to overcoming the division between the nationalists and liberals? First of all, it is necessary to confront and question the very character of the Yugoslav wars and their causes and consequences, in the context of which Ratko Mladić is a hero for the former and a war criminal for the latter. Neither side seems to be thinking more deeply about the damaging consequences of these wars. This author is inclined to think that the wars in former Yugoslavia had two important, far-reaching political consequences: one is the trend of stronger ethnicization of newly formed political entities, which results in permanent denial of minority rights in these new territories. Minorities, most often by ethnic or religious differentiation, are presented as “the evil others”, inferior to “the dominant us”. In this context, nationalism gains fertile ground for further development and action; hence, the war and the post-war period have served to consolidate extreme nationalist narratives.

The other consequence has been the conversion of what was formerly known as ‘social (common) property’ under Yugoslav self-management into private property. The original accumulation of capital in Serbia’s transition to capitalism was accomplished by the private capture of the wealth produced by the socialist economic system to create a new class of large private owners of capital. The wars in the former Yugoslavia gave rise to many political and economic converts, who accumulated their first millions in very suspicious ways. This new social class, which concentrated capital ownership in its hands (often by illicit means), would depend upon the state to secure its wealth moving forward. Thus, the political and economic elites formed a special bond: political elites provided economic elites with advantages in the privatization of social property, while in return economic elites used their large capital to support the political elites and keep them in power. It should also be noted here that it was not only domestic but also foreign capital that entered the new countries under the guise of social transition. In that sense, the war became a tool with which the impoverished working and agricultural strata of the former Yugoslavia were redirected from defending the class position they occupied as workers under socialism to acting as ‘nationalists’ defending their new homelands on the battlefield.

In what sense are these two consequences related to the conflict between nationalists and liberals? In the sense that the former embrace the first consequence, while ignoring the second consequence. That is, the nationalists will understand the first consequence as something ‘natural’ because, from a nationalist perspective, an ethnically pure nation-state dominated by the strongest ethnic group is the ideal. They will remain silent about the second consequence because the nationalists usually have nothing against big capital as long as it serves their interest – and in the local context, it usually did.

The liberals will also completely agree with the first consequence (but contest it), while also ignoring the second. It seems that they often avoid condemning capitalism as a socio-economic system (and one that also denies human rights and democratic freedoms). The human rights and the equality they advocate in the formal and legal sense are often not de facto available. It is the same with democratic freedoms. In these controlled political games, directly dependent on those who control big capital, parliamentarism and true democratic freedoms are not realistically possible. No less important is to note that liberals are often anti-socialist; to justify the attitudes aimed at demonizing the socialist system, they are not nearly as loud in condemning capitalism as the socio-economic system that opposes it.

What, then, would be the starting point of a new narrative? The basis would have to be in identifying the causes and facing the consequences of savage capitalism, which has largely produced and accelerated the growth of extreme nationalism on the ruins of Yugoslavia. The nature of capitalism as a system implies competition to reap greater profits and achieve market dominance. Similarities with the nature of nationalism are obvious: ethnic competition and the emphasis on “uniqueness”, aiming to achieve the domination of one ethnic group over the “inferiors”.

One should interpret the case of Ratko Mladić in this context. Ratko Mladić is also a convert who belonged to one system and converted to another. From a member of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to whom he swore allegiance and promised to protect all Yugoslav peoples, due to the new circumstances, he turned into a general of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) and became an idol of  Serbian nationalists. It is necessary to problematize his conversion and the fact that he did not respond to the new challenges by following the oath he took. This would open the possibility for criticizing his character and his deeds from a completely new perspective: a general who, once the extreme right started gaining strength, gave up the established supranational principles to achieve particular nationalist goals and to destroy those he swore to defend. It’s not just a matter of murals. It is, first and foremost, a matter of morals.

And as for the murals: one month after the incident in Njegoseva Street, the Municipality of Vračar ordered for the mural to be removed. Soon after it was painted over, the paint was washed away by nationalist groups and the mural became visible again. This symbolizes the inefficacy of Serbian institutions: they should propose, adopt and implement their own decisions and be able to sanction those who don’t comply with regulations, but they have entirely lost the ability to do so. The next day, on December 10, new drawings of Mladić started appearing on other walls all around Belgrade. They were soon covered by Malevich’s symbols – the square, the cross, and the circle – in an anonymous act of protest. The symbols were accompanied by the inscription: “antimizerabilistic avant-art interventionism”. Obviously, Malevich was not a random choice for this interesting act. When he first presented his Black Square in 1915, critics called it the “dead square” and the “personification of the night”, even though the idea of ​​Suprematism was something else entirely: to reduce abstract art forms to simple geometric shapes. Although not applicable to Malevich, that critique might stand in the context of contemporary Serbian society. Perhaps the Black Square across Mladić’s face is actually a symbol of a numb society which, even after 30 years, cannot get rid of the evil spirits of the past and wake from the deep sleep in a dark night that cannot seem to pass. We live in a hope that the day will dawn.

Nemanja Drobnjak is a sociologist. He graduated and obtained his master’s degree at the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. His areas of interest are sociology of politics, analysis of nationalisms, ethnic groups, and identity determinants that shape different nationalisms, as well as mutual relations of countries in the post-Yugoslav space. He is a member of the editorial board of Novi plamen and Politički pregled