A Euro vision

Observations on Serbia

Belgrade is gearing up to host the Eurovision Song Contest on 24 May. If ever there was a moment for Serbian opponents of all-singing, all-dancing European integration to make their point, this was surely it.

All polls in the run-up to the parliamentary elections on 11 May had suggested that the hardline nationalists had been making headway, fuelled by resentment towards the west over Kosovo's declaration of independence. Liberal opinion-formers talked with trepidation of a return to the bleak isolation of the 1990s and the dangers of their country sliding towards a Belarus-style authoritarianism.

Instead, Serbs woke up on 12 May to a bright new European dawn which few had dared believe their troubled country would ever see. Victory for the Democratic Party marked a clear endorsement for the pro-western vision of president Boris Tadic.

"This is a great day for Serbia," said Tadic, as fireworks lit the skies over Belgrade on Sunday night. "Serbia will be in the European Union. We have promised that and we will fulfil that."

Leaders of Serbia's Radical Party were left grasping at straws, claiming they could still form a coalition with the anti-EU Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian socialists. But the vote reflected a backlash against the muscular politics of the past. One analyst described the nationalists' defeat as the "political death of Milosevic's Serbia".

The Radicals - who served under Milosevic and whose president, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial for war crimes at the Hague - had put xenophobia at the heart of their campaign, telling villagers the EU would ban them from keeping pigs and chickens in their gardens and stop them brewing slivovica, a plum brandy, of dizzying alcoholic content, and a Serbian passion.

"The nationalists are stuck in the past," Ljuban Panic, a 23-year-old student told me. "They believe in fear. They want to build walls. We want to knock them down."

The Radicals staked all on their belief that Serbs' sense of injustice over Kosovo was so strong that they were ready to fight for the territory at all costs.

The EU can claim a part in helping Serbs reject that scenario. By rushing through the signing of a pre-membership deal and measures to liberalise the visa regime for Serbian citizens, Brussels gave Tadic the ammunition he needed to keep the nationalists at bay.

Yet many Serbs will privately admit that Kosovo is already gone. While expressing their concerns for their compatriots still living there, they accept that the territory's status is likely to be in dispute for decades.

Standing on the banks of the wide Sava river at Sabac, outside Belgrade, on the old frontier between Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, reminds you that the dismemberment of Yugoslavia is merely the latest in a series of geopolitical shifts that have reconfigured this region over the centuries and left inhabitants with an instinctive stoicism.

"Who cares?" said a 78-year-old man, sitting on a bench in the sun with two companions, when I asked him if he had voted. "We are old men. We remember everything. Communism and capitalism. Tito and Milosevic. The good times and the bad. The Germans bombed this town and so did the Americans. All I am worried about is my own funeral."

I dare not ask him what he thinks of Eurovision.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Secret Israel