The Venice Academy of Human Rights is an international and interdisciplinary programme of excellence for human rights education, research and debate. It provides an enriching forum for emerging ideas, practices...
Sofija Todorović is an activist of Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), as well as a passionate advocate of connecting young people in the region. She has been working on peace-building on the Balkans since 2015, having went through a couple of educational courses on the subject of conflict in these territories:
The first step towards this was my activism as part of the movement “My initiative”. It was with the Initiative that I saw Kosovo for the first time, of which I knew so much and nothing at the same time. It was then that I realized how much I don’t know, so my first trip to Kosovo was actually a realization of what Kosovo really is and what it’s like to live there – that there’s a line there, a border, then I go to some “northern” Kosovska Mitrovica (how so? Isn’t there just one Kosovska Mitrovica, what’s “northern” and what’s “southern”?), and then you pay in dinars when you cross the bridge, and when you’re going back you use euros. An Alban is no alien. Only when you “go down there” you realize that you have all these things in your head, and you don’t really know where you got them from. Then you start rewinding – what I was listening to, what was I reading and what I was told in school about the war during the nineties. The central event of the nineties is the NATO bombardment, there’s nothing before or after that – let alone Srebrenica. There’s constantly the approach that we had it the worst, but when you start digging you realize that it wasn’t quite so, which confuses and scares you. I always had an extra question, always noticing some sort of flaw to that logic – “We’re always the victim, we did nothing wrong”. Thinking about this led me to believe that maybe that’s where the catch is. Maybe that was where all the answers to my questions were, who we are, who they are, why they are the “bad guys” and down there they consider us the bad guys – what’s going on? I was lacking context.
What purpose does nationalism serve, a nation as a value?
A nation as a value serves no purpose because we don’t know what a nation is. We don’t know what the national interest is, yet those who call themselves nationalist link these words with some very problematic content. If we look at their actions, what they did during their “great love for the country and the nation” somehow I get the impression that that nation didn’t really have a great time (nor some other nations bordering us). There’s this tendency, especially in Serbia, to equalize nationalism and patriotism. Everybody interprets these terms in whichever way suits them because they’re susceptible to it, those are undeveloped theoretical terms used by people who want to achieve a goal, giving the masses what they want. It all comes down to them positioning themselves as leaders, and I think we’ve seen enough of those.
Why to the masses “fall” for nationalism?
It’s going to sound like I’m calling the citizens of Serbia a “mass”. I don’t think that inhabitants of Serbia – or any country, for that matter – are “masses”, but I do think that if you treat them like masses in need of a leader, they will start believing that themselves. Nationalism generally appears when there are big economic crises in a country, when the rule of law is not enforced, when there’s room for manipulation, when a country doesn’t have all the elements of statehood (and do we even have our territory firmly established?). Nationalism appeared when Yugoslavia was already falling apart. Then there’s panic that follows – “Where am I now, where do I belong”. People like to know, at the very least, where and what they are. Nationalism presupposes the existence of an enemy that threatens you, that want’s to harm you in whatever way… someone working against you. Now, the problem is that these people “working against us” are our neighbours, countries that we were together with for years. That’s a problem, especially when regional cooperation is one of the most unused potentials. Lack of information also aids nationalism. Citizens of Serbia are not aware of their rights and obligations, the media that is most accessible don’t serve the function that they should, which is to keep citizens informed. When citizens are uninformed it’s very easy to manipulate information and fulfill someone’s agenda.
Whose agenda is nationalism today?
It suits the same people it suited during the nineties, seeing as our political scene didn’t significantly change since then. The same people have been on power for years now. All those that were nationalists then are nationalists today, they just have a bit more of a European demeanour because that’s the trend. Actually, calling it a trend is simplifying things. It’s not a trend, it’s the fact that Europe is giving the most money, the one financing the work of our institutions. Nationalism today differs from the nineties only by the methods it is promoted. Back then it was much more bare and raw.
What’s standing in the way of confronting the past?
A lot of things. Politics, for one, and not just politics in Serbia. Firstly, there are myths that we been passing on since the famed 14th century. Secondly, there’s uninformedness – we are not informed about what happened during the nineties. What we watched back then was carefully picked out, selective and focus was intentionally put on some things instead of others. Standing in the way of our past is not accepting responsibility – The Hague tribunal, according to us, is “there to judge Serbs and rewrite our history”, as an alternative to dealing with people who commited serious crimes, who are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. There’s also the fact that the current political structure was directly involved in the events during the nineties. We have a dysfunctional War Crimes Department in Belgrade, judical proceedings regarding Srebrenica that haven’t even been opened yet. We have a bad cooperation with the Hague tribunal – for a long time we had no cooperation with them whatsoever, and then we’re surprised how everyone else was cleared and our people convicted – because while everyone else was collecting material for the proceedings Serbia was glorifying nationalism and it’s “heroes” in Hague and sending them support over the media. We’re trapped in a thousand and one prejudice that we have towards Bosnians, Croatians and Albanians. All of that stands in the way of confronting the past, and our idea of dealing with that is pretending that it never happened.
How do young people fall victim to the nationalist ideology?
It’s a natural course for them, they don’t “fall victim”. I don’t even think it’s a free choice for them. It’s much simpler to become a nationalist than anything else because you have a good base for it. They do, however, realise that “nationalism” isn’t a nice word, so let’s come up with a “good version” of nationalism. “We just want foreign forces out, gay is okay but they can do it in the confines of their own four walls and they don’t really have to waltz around, Albanians are super but Kosovo is Serbia”. When that’s the only information they have available and when they lack a context in which things happened, that choice is made for them.
How do we solve nationalism, if solving is what it needs?
You can’t “solve” it, it’s not a disease. We shouldn’t cure nationalism, we should offer a different option. Accepting differences, realizing that differences are a great treasure, something to be proud of, that it enriches a society and gives it beauty. You should love Kosovo but understand what Kosovo is first, if you love it, regardless of whether or not it’s part of your territory. A state is its people, you can’t love the idea of a state – you can, but you’re not helping anything. I strongly believe in those people, in the energy they carry, their enthusiasm. I don’t think any young person should be deprived of that kind of life. They deserve more than “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia”. I work with wonderful people. Kids that go through seminars and exchanges are the greatest indicator that there’s hope. They’re the heart of Serbia. Whatever young people are like, all they need is attention, they just want their voice to be heard. It’s just that sometimes they don’t know how to articulate that need.
This text was written as a part of Divided Past – Joint Future project and it does not represent nor reflects attitudes and viewpoints of the European Union, its institutions and bodies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the text lies entirely with the author.