The past week has been disorienting. There were moments that looked and felt like a memory drawn from the last century. Others unintentionally echoed more recent events. Some of the spectacles we witnessed over the last few days were engineered to be provocative. Here’s a look back at some of the images that characterized what will undoubtedly be remembered as a “historic” week in the Balkans, along with some of our own visual associations and comments.
Belgrade, Yugoslavia 1985 vs Belgrade, Serbia 2014
The massive military parade in Belgrade last week looked visually transformed the city back into a Cold War capital. At times, it was almost indistinguishable from Belgrade, Yugoslavia on Victory Day in 1985, the last year the country held a major military procession. Thursday’s parade was billed as a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade from Nazi occupiers, but it was just as much about reasserting Serbia’s strength and militarism, as well as showcasing the new government’s close relationship with a popular foreign statesman, Vladimir Putin. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic uses early Putin as a reference point for constructing his own new political persona. Many Russians say Putin is popular because he is believed to have “restored honor” to a country emerging from the tumult of the 1990s, that languished under the leadership of a corrupt lightweight named Boris, and was forced to endure the international humiliation of losing the Cold War. This scenario mirrors Serbia’s in some respects, and Vucic is likely hoping that the military parade will both boost his own popularity, and be viewed by the Serbian public as a return to lost glory following the defeats of the 1990s wars. The fact that four convicted war criminals were VIPs at the parade is telling.
The May 9, 1985 Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) parade was so big, it looked as if half of the country took part in it. Many of the vehicles, weapons, and other types of military equipment on display Thursday were likely used in the 1985 parade as well. But generally, the retrograde feel of the whole performance was likely also very intentional and meant to invoke memories of internationally-respected statesmen like Tito and their massive armies.
Tuesday’s Albania-Serbia UEFA Championship qualifier was abandoned 40 minutes into the game when a drone bearing a flag of Greater Albania entered the stadium and landed on the field, setting off the series of events that led to a riot. Serbian police originally arrested Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama’s brother, Orsi Rama, as the orchestrator of the drone stunt, saying that he had been caught in the stands with a remote control in his hands. Orsi Rama denied any involvement, and said he was “disgusted” by the drone allegations. He was subsequently released. Serbian authorities called the drone affair a “planned terrorist action”. Strangely, both Albania and Serbia’s reactions to the controversy surrounding the unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) were far more appropriate than those offered by most US officials asked to comment on the American government’s own secretive drone program used for “targeted killings”.
Two days after the football riot, Serbia held its massive military parade. As Vladimir Putin looked on, paratroopers from the VS Special Brigade parachuted down from several helicopters, “touching the ground at the Eternal Flame monument in Usce park“, which was built to commemorate the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia. The 27-meter white obelisk where the Russian and Serbian-flag bearing paratroopers landed was the work of Slobodan Milosevic’s wife Mira Markovic, who has managed to avoid an Interpol-circulated arrest warrant for many years by hiding in Moscow.
Everyone knew that there was a very real risk that clashes might break out at a sporting event like the Albania-Serbia UEFA Championship qualifying match in Belgrade. Strangely, the airtight security that kept the controversial Belgrade Pride Parade so eerily quiet just a few weeks before was lacking at the football game. A drone was able to fly into the crowded stadium. Some in Serbia speculate that this means the authorities may have encouraged the nationalist hooligans to engage in certain behaviors, or perhaps just did not care that much about the appearance of serious tensions with Albania. This year’s Pride Parade was successful but strange; there was a curious absence of hooligan violence. Previous Pride events had been attacked by scores of far-right thugs who clashed with riot police, resulting in hundreds of injuries. But nothing like that happened this year, and Vucic received a lot of praise from Western governments and LGBT organizations for putting on a peaceful Pride Parade. But somehow, there were still plenty of violent hooligans at the Albania-Serbia football game last week.
In Putin’s Russia, “homosexual propaganda” is banned, which is why when a rainbow emerged in the cloudy grey sky over Belgrade on the day of the military procession held largely in his honor, it was the highlight of the parade for some spectators.
Prime Ministers on Twitter
Smoke and Fire
In recent days, Albanian-owned businesses in Serbia have been targeted in a string of arson and vandalism attacks. Several bakeries in Novi Sad, the second-largest city in Serbia, have been damaged or destroyed. One was burned to the ground after a Molotov cocktail was thrown inside. A group of activists in Novi Sad is organizing a large rally against the attacks on Albanian businesses on October 23rd, to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation from Nazi occupation. Organizers have issued a statement criticizing the “hooligan government of Serbia”, noting that if authorities fail to contain the sudden spike in ethnically-motivated violence that “it will be clear that [the government] is somehow behind it.” Far-right hooligans were so conspicuous in their absence at Belgrade’s Pride Parade last month that many now believe that they are at least partially controlled by the state. If that is indeed the case, the hooligans have clearly not been given any “orders” to refrain from attacks on Albanians at organized sporting events or anywhere else.
In a September 2013 review of the truly awful but surprisingly popular film The Parade by Serbian director Srdjan Dragojevic, I wrote: “The Parade merely instructs us to shift more of our collective disdain and charges of perversion from gays to [Albanians].” The current wave of crime against Albanians in Serbia has escalated so quickly that police issued a public pledge to protect the Albanian Embassy during Saturday’s Eternal Derby, a bitter football rivalry played between the two most popular Serbian teams.
Red Star Belgrade and Partizan faced off in the same stadium where the drone incident and subsequent rioting occurred earlier in the week. Partizan won the match 1-0, but the game had to be stopped twice because there was so much smoke inside the stadium that no one could see what was going on right in front of them.