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Frightening Intolerance Towards Minorities

By: Vesna Vujic

Serbia would like to join Europe as soon as possible, but now that it has chosen to take this course, it might have to pay too big a price for it. Along with all the privileges, the blue badge with golden stars has broadened the jurisdiction of the International Court in Strasbourg to include this space. If one day the court decides in favour on a large number of appeals from this territory for violations of human rights, Serbian state budget will be shorter for millions of dollars. A significant part of the budget would, all things considered, be used to pay fines primarily for violations of ethnic and religious rights.

Although the Government of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) is trying to bring down the interpersonal talks at least to the level of "not daggers drawn", frequent incidents show that ethnic and religious intolerance is still part of the awareness of a large number of people. Recently, a group of "citizens" prevented the priests and the believers of the Anglican Church to attend Christmas service at Belgrade Orthodox Cathedral, although their arrival was organized with the blessing of Patriarch Pavle. The incident turned into a diplomatic scandal, because Charles Crawford, British Ambassador, was among the believers. Although it was present, the police did not react. Almost simultaneously, at a newly opened supermarket in the capital, a Cuban citizen was "welcomed" with the following words: "Gypsies are not allowed to enter!". A dark-skinned Canadian girl had an awful time on New Year's Eve downtown Belgrade when she was attacked by skinheads. Instead to send seasons' greetings, state officials were forced to express deep apologies.

Public prosecutor has not reacted in either case . Indeed, the Public Prosecutor's Office has not had the feeling for such events for years. Local skinheads rarely miss the opportunity to beat up the Roma, but the authorities do not have much mercy either, at least as far as solving their existential problems are concerned, primarily housing. Such cases often end up just as a piece of news in some of the media. Roma organizations are helpless in the struggle for the rights of their members, and often influential non-governmental organizations, Humanitarian Law Fund or Helsinki Committee, are the only ones that react.

Pursuant its Constitution, Serbia is organized as a "democratic state of all its citizens" whose equality is warranted regardless of ethnic affiliation, religion or language. In the end of 2002, federal law on national and ethnic minorities was passed and international standards of respect of the rights of minorities were incorporated into it. The use of national symbols was regulated in detail for the first time, along with the official use of minority languages, representation of minorities in politics, protection of acquired rights and the possibility of the establishment of ethnic councils. A local self-administrating unit shall introduce official use of an ethnic minority's language and script if the percentage of its members in the total number of inhabitants on its territory reaches 15 per cent. For the purpose of preservation of their particularity members of ethnic minorities are entitled to establish their own cultural, artistic and scientific institutions, societies and associations in all spheres of cultural and artistic life.

This is certainly the most significant law in the field of human rights, but in itself it cannot solve everything. Serbia is still far from being an organized state. Spring cleaning of the state is just at the beginning, primarily in the sphere of the judiciary and the police which are expected to ensure the observation of regulations. Therefore, frequent assaults against members of other nations are not surprising, Jews have not been spared either. Although non-governmental organizations are ready to point out to anti-Semitism in Serbia, members of Jewish community deny it.

According to the data of 2002 population census, the Serbs form 66 per cent of the population, and the others are members of 37 nations. There are 17 per cent of the Albanians, 3.2 are Hungarians, then follow the Roma, Bosniacs, Romanians, Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, Turks, Ruthenians, Backa Croats, Tzintzars, Czechs, Goranians, Jews, Macedonians, Germans, Slovenes, Ukrainians, Vlachs, Askali/Egyptians and others. On the eve of the census, the Government of Serbia estimated that the number of inhabitants increased by about half a million due to the immigration of the Serbs mostly from Bosnia and Kosovo, and that about 200 thousand people had left Serbia.

The vehemence of nationalism in Serbia in the beginning of the nineties of the last century forced the members of minority nations to fight for their rights by political means, organized in political parties. The Hungarian, Bosniacs, Albanians, Yugoslavs, Croats, Roma, formed a few parties each. Jozsef Kasa, President of the Union of Voivodina Hungarians, is nowadays one of the deputy Prime Ministers of Serbia. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic invited the Albanians from the south of Serbia to take part in the work of the Government. But, after the armed conflict of two years ago that ended peacefully by their participation in local administration, they still are not ready to intensify cooperation with the state. Rasim Ljajic, federal Minister of national and ethnic minorities and President of Sandzak Democratic Party, stresses peaceful resolution of the conflict in the south of Serbia as one of the most significant achievements of DOS' rule acknowledged by NATO and the European Union.

Having this example in view, the Government is trying to prevent the possibility of a serious incident between the Serbs and the Bosniacs in Sandzak, where a university was opened recently. However, the war crimes committed in 1992 against the Muslims remain unresolved to this day. In Sjeverin near Priboj, seventeen Muslims were kidnapped from a bus, and then killed. Public Prosecutor raised charges against a few suspects only last year, but just one was arrested. In Bijelo Polje, Nebojsa Ranisavljevic is on trial, accused of having attacked, as a member of a Serb military unit, a passenger train on Belgrade-Bar railroad, in Strpci, at the border with Republika Srpska. This group kidnapped 19 passengers from the train, who were Yugoslav citizens, mostly Bosniacs, robbed and then probably killed them.

On the occasion of Human Rights' Day, Humanitarian Law Fund acknowledged the efforts of the authorities to introduce order into the status of ethnic minorities according to international standards, along with releasing from Serbian prisons all the Albanians indicted for crimes. But, this organization simultaneously demanded re-employment of all the people who were sacked just because they were not Serbs at the time of Milosevic's regime. The Fund explicitly demanded from the Ministry of Internal Affairs that the Bosniacs be returned to their former posts.

When speaking of the position of the Croats in Serbia, it is, among other, regulated by signing of the Agreement on Normalization of Relations between Croatia and Yugoslavia, which mutually guarantees minority rights according to international standards. The authorities in Serbia expressed readiness to resolve the question of compensation for damage and reclaiming of property to the Germans expropriated after World War 2. According to 1991 census there were 5,700 of them, while between two world wars more than three hundred thousand of members of this nation had lived in Voivodina. Experts say that at their time German Chancellor Villie Brandt and the then president of SFRY Josip Broz Tito agreed to settle accounts by an agreement annex. This Annex shall be opened in 2004 and if the experts are rights, all the Germans have to do is wait for compensation of damage after eventual passing of the law on denationalization of property in Serbia.

Reacting to racial discrimination is still mostly left to non-governmental organization. That is why Rasim Ljajic believes it is a good sign that politicians publicly condemned the New Year incidents. The disposition of the majority of the people in Serbia shows that diassociation from intolerance is not popular, especially not at the time of elections. The latest public opinion poll organized by this Ministry shows that almost 90 per cent of the citizens of Serbia have an "ethnic distance" (3.3 per cent extremist, 28 per cent considerable, and 58 per cent moderate) to members of other ethnic groups. According to mutual intolerance, the Serbs and the Albanians who live in three south Serbian municipalities (Bujanovac, Presevo and Medvedja) rank the first. Higher ethnic tolerance is characteristic for Voivodina where members of more than twenty nations and ethnic groups live. Similar is the case with Central Serbia where homogeneous Serb population lives. Unlike Sumadija, Belgrade is not at all as tame.

At the Convention of Psychologists held in Subotica in the end of last year, it was stressed that public opinion polls in Serbia point out that ethnic intolerance towards ethnic minorities is - frightening. By far the greatest intolerance among the Serbs is towards the Albanians, and that is going on for more than 20 years. The Macedonians, traditionally the favourite people among the Serbs, are not desirable for marriage for more than one quarter of the subjects, 60 per cent would not marry a Muslim, and 48 per cent would not marry a Croat.

After the fall of Milosevic in 2000, the public expected that an end was put to extremist nationalism. For a short time it seemed that it was true, but the latest data show that ethnic intolerance is still a heavy burden Serbia is carrying on its back. Rasim Ljajic explains that this disease flared up again primarily due to the live coverage of Slobodan Milosevic's trial in the Hague, because he is still perceived as a hero by a majority, as well as due to slow economic reforms. The Serbs still are not ready to face the past, and Minister Ljajic hopes that once they become better off, the people will overcome this problem, at least partly. According to his words, when economics grows, nationalism recedes, at least to a tolerable level.