“Us people from the Balkans are afflicted with an illness, the obsession with change”, said in his time Jovan Ćirilov, dramatist and member of the first Committee for the change of street names in 1991. Between 1991, while Vojislav Šešelj and his supporters were holding performances in front of the House of Flowers, brandishing a wooden stake they would drive through the heart of Josip Broz Tito, and 1996, while the Mayors of Belgrade were Milorad Unković, Slobodanka Gruden and Nebojša Čović of the Socialist Party of Serbia, 70 streets were reassigned and 110 were given new names.
The most prominent decision during this period was the decision that Belgrade refuses to keep the memory of the former President of Yugoslavia in the names of its streets and squares. The main street in Belgrade, once called Marshal Tito Street, got its new name in 1992 – Serbian Rulers Street. (Tito’s street no longer exists in downtown Belgrade, but there are still eight streets on the outskirts of the city bearing his name, in Grocka, Barajevo, Boleč…)
The next Committee for the change of street names comes in 1997, following the change in power. As one of its first moves, the five-point star was removed from the City Council building after 50 years there. “This is the first symbolic act to demonstrate that symbols of ideologies belong in museums and that Belgrade belongs to no ideology, but only to itself and its inhabitants”, said Đinđić in Naša borba. Near the end of the year, Socialist Party of Serbia, Serbian Renewal Movement and the Serbian Radical Party would replace Đinđić in the city administration, followed by a period of unquestioned Serbian Renewal Movement rule in Belgrade.
The newly elected Committee for the change of street names, headed by writer Svetlana Velmar Janković, has adopted the “Proposal of criteria for determining street and square names in Belgrade” in April of 1997. Soon after the criteria were adopted, a Committee session followed, resulting in 12 streets in central city neighbourhoods having their names changed according to the criteria, mostly by having the pre-WWII names restored. The streets were no longer bore names such as Ivo Lola Ribar, Ivan Milutinović, Marshal Tolbuhin, Sima Milošević, Filip Filipović, Proletarian Brigades, Red Army Boulevard, General Ždanov, Božidar Adžija, Boris Kidrič or Revolution Boulevard, and the Serbian Rulers Street was renamed King Milan Street.
In October 2014, on the occasion of marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade, Koča Popović and Peko Dapčević had received streets with their names. This decision was criticized in a part of the public, leading historian Čedomir Antić to assess this renaming as controversial and political: “Although both have credit in the victory over Fascism and the liberation of the City, I cannot endorse the initiative for at least two reasons. First of all, they were both recognized during their lifetimes: Popović, for instance, was the longest-standing Foreign Minister in the history of Serbia. More importantly, both were prominent members of the Communist regime which in effect, by virtue of condemning their crimes and rehabilitating their victims, the state has admitted had brought much wrongdoing upon the Serbian people”.
When a Četnik vojvoda celebrates the victory over Fascism with Putin
Ratko Dmitrović, editor-in-chief of Večernje novosti, has also commented the naming of streets after Peko Dapčević and Koča Popović: “Belgrade has today and in this way celebrated and acknowledged those who killed more than 30,000 Serbs in the city in 1944-45, mostly those from the middle class; those who enacted a law to prohibit several hundred thousand exiled Serbs and Montenegrins from returning to Kosovo; those who had attached two autonomous provinces to Serbia (Kosovo and Vojvodina) and none to Croatia, although there was every justification to do so (Dalmatia, Istria, Krajina); who in 1974 wrote a Constitution that was already meant to enable the dissolution of Yugoslavia into six states. Has all of this been done out of ignorance or are the conclusions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, held in Dresden in 1928, still in power? That is when the plan to topple Yugoslavia was made and all subsequent events, to this day, are part of that plan”.
Within the celebration of 70 years since the liberation of Belgrade from Fascism on October 16, 2014, a military parade was organized, attended by the President of Russia, Vladimir Putin. The main impression of the parade is that it was organized specifically for Putin, four days ahead of date because of his previous obligations, and not for the occasion of 70 years since the liberation. The President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić said of the occasion: “I invited President Putin to Serbia so that we could celebrate 70 years since the liberation of Belgrade by the combined forces of the Yugoslav Army and the Red Army. He, in turn, invited me to the celebration of 70 years since the victory over Fascism next year”.
On the occasion of the military parade and celebration, historian Radina Vučetić commented: “I believe that, in the end, the parade will include Partisan songs in Serbian, just as Peko Dapčević and Koča Popović had received streets named after them, but in the wrong way. I think Koča Popović himself would have felt defeat by the fact that Belgrade had “abolished its Zagreb Street to have it named after him. The whole nonsense with Antifascism, especially on the eve of celebrating 70 years since the liberation of Belgrade, shows how disoriented the state is.
The President of our state is a Četnik vojvoda who is now, due to Vladimir Putin, forced to organize a military parade under the hammer and sickle. We have the statement by Minister of Defence Branislav Gašić that there would be no Četnik insignia in the parade. First I wondered who would even think of doing such a thing, but then suggestions to include Četnik insignia started showing up. Neither of it is surprising, however, considering the fact that we, as a state, have been ignoring the legacy of Antifascism for years and when rehabilitations of Draža Mihailović and Milan Nedić are taking place.
The collaboration of the Četnik movement with the Fascists is a well-known fact. Stories about Nedić as “the mother of Serbia” are in bad taste, primarily in the context of Jewish casualties in Serbia, but for all the other reasons as well. We now have the completely paradoxical situation of anti-Europeans being pro-EU, homophobes being in favour of Belgrade Pride, Četnik commanders being in favour of European Antifascism instead of the local quasi-Antifascism that is attempting to equate the Partisan and Četnik movements. The same people who spoke of October 20, 1944 for years as the start of an occupation are now celebrating the occasion. I can already see them, dejected on October 16, forced to look upon Partisan and Yugoslav symbols, listening to Partisan songs while firmly gripping a rusty spoon in one pocket and a Četnik badge in the other”.
“Don’t touch my neigbour”
Two days before Vladimir Putin’s visit and the military parade, a football match between Serbia and Albania was played in Belgrade. The match was interrupted in the 42nd minute due to conflicts between players and a drone carrying the flag of so-called Greater Albania appearing over the stadium. Among the fans entering the field was also Ivan Bogdanov, known to the public for the interruption of the match between Serbia and Italy in Genova in 2010. Bogdanov and several others had then set fire to an Albanian flag, calling to “kill the Šiptars” and giving the Nazi salute.
In October 2013, the media published a photograph of Bogdanov taken from Facebook, displaying him raising his hand high in a Nazi salute and wearing a shirt saying “Auschwitzland – Arbeit macht frei”, obviously referring to the most infamous Nazi concentration camp for mass executions during WWII. The photograph was published in one of the Facebook pages dedicated to supporters of football club Crvena zvezda and was commented on mostly positively. Bogdanov probably used the photograph to send out a response to the supporters of Maccabi who had behaved inappropriately at the basketball match against Zvezda in Tel Aviv.
The incident at the Serbia-Albania match inflamed hooligans across Serbia, leading to the burning and vandalizing of many Albanian-owned stores. In Novi Sad, an Antifascist rally was held on October 23, 2014 in order to express revolt over the vandalism. “Lately, Fascism is coming from the front pages of newspapers and from the heads of various politicians and now it has poured out against our neighbours’ businesses. That is why today, I am wearing a shirt that says ‘Don’t touch my neighbour’, my main message from this rally”, said Željko Stanetić of the Vojvodina Civic Centre.
Almost a year before the military parade and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Belgrade, another polemic appeared in the Serbian public and media – the one about the Ravna gora TV-series. “We have kept our eyes closed for long enough. Seventy years ago in Serbia, brothers pulled triggers and drew knives against each other. We have been hurt as a people. We must open our eyes, get rid of our cataracts and clearly see what happened to us then. Because, we are still lost, wandering and trying to find our way. We drew no lessons from the great tragedy” – these are the words used by Radoš Bajić, Serbian actor, screenwriter and director in an interview for Novosti, announcing the filming of a drama trilogy entitled “1941 – 1945”, with Ravna gora being the first part of the trilogy.
“For 70 years we have been listening to only one, forged version of the war, served to us by the winners. The story of the patriotic, freedom-loving Serbian people dying in the Thessaloniki Front with vojvoda Mišić needs to be heard as well. The story of Serbs who firmly decided not to fall into German hands when Hitler struck in 1941 – not to leave their forests and hills, not to surrender, not to lay down their arms. It is a story with piety towards a Colonel of the Yugoslav Royal Army named Dragoljub Mihailović and his group of officers and patriots who, in the Spring of 1941 in the house of vojvoda Mišić in Struganik, made the decision to defend themselves and to climb the Ravna gora”, said Radoš Bajić.
The first episode of the Ravna gora series was broadcast on the first channel of the public service of Serbian Radio-Television (RTS) on September 10, 2013. RTS, who had also co-produced the series, announced after the broadcast that the first episode was the most viewed broadcast in Serbia. Its rating was 19.9 per cent, with 2,270,000 viewers. The total share in viewing was 42.6 per cent.
Even early in the filming process, this series had divided the public. The Federation of Veterans Associations of the People’s Liberation War of Yugoslavia (SUBNOR) claimed that the filming needed to stop since the series was a forgery of history. Along with the series, photographs from a lost album of Draža Mihailović had showed up, showing him celebrating the slava and that he loved children. Media started to give more and more space to the Četnik movement and “new historic facts”, with for instance the Telegraf online portal stating that the series is starting to “dismantle the myths and make public facts that belie the history taught to generations of students in Yugoslavia after WWII”. Telegraf also says that that the Partisan Valter who had defended Sarajevo in WWII was actually a Četnik and that the “Written Off” had actually existed and were Četnik illegals instead of Communists.
After 15 episodes of the series were aired, the filming of the “1941 – 1945” trilogy was cancelled due to a lack of funds. In its report on the media, the Council for countering corruption published the information that RTS had expended 900,000 Euro on the filming and only made 276,877 back.
Holidays observed in the previous state are no longer marked. The Day of the uprising against Fascism (July 7) was a state holiday up until 2001. On that date in 1941, at a fair in Bela Crkva, Communists led by Žikica Jovanović Španac killed two gendarmes, marking the beginning of the Antifascist uprising in WWII.
Last year, May 9, the Day of victory over Fascism in Serbia was marked by the usual laying of wreaths. At the central state ceremony at the Graveyard of Belgrade liberators, the Minister of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy Aleksandar Vulin said on behalf of the Government: “There is not a single person in Serbia who does not feel this day as their own and cannot recall at least one of their ancestor who gave their life, youth or at least effort to make this day possible”. On the same day, several civil society organizations gathered at the Monument to Hung Patriots to send out their message with an Antifascist performance entitled “I demand”. “I demand Antifascist values to be observed and the legacy of Antifascism to be respected; I demand the recall of laws that enable equating Fascism and Antifascism and the rehabilitation of Draža Mihailović; I demand that organizations and individuals who persecute others and those who are different to be punished; I demand the prohibition of Fascist groups”, were some of the demands of the performance.
The division of the Serbian public is evident in the procedure to rehabilitate Draža Mihailović. Every hearing was marked by rallies of two groups – the proponents of Draža Mihailović bearing placards and singing Četnik songs on one side, and Antifascists opposing the former Yugoslav Royal Army commander and his rehabilitation. The images of rallies in front of the Palace of Justice are the best display of the revision of history being committed for the purposes of daily politics, seventy years on after the victory over Fascism.
This article was published thanks to co-funding from the Europe for Citizens Programme.