In Serbia, Putin is a “brother” and Russia a friendly victim of the West

BELGRADE.- aware of the unhealed wounds left by the NATO bombing of Serbia more than 20 years agoUkraine’s ambassador appeared on Serbian television after Russia invaded and bombed his country in hopes of arousing sympathy.

Instead of having time to explain Ukraine’s misery, however, Ambassador Oleksandr Aleksandrovych has had to endure invectives from pro-Russian Serbian commentators and long videos of Russian President Vladimir Putin denouncing Ukraine as a nest of Nazis. The program, broadcast by the pro-government Happy TV, lasted three hours, more than half with the participation of Putin.

Angered by the aired ambush, the ambassador complained to the producer of the pro-Kremlin propaganda exercise, but was told not to take it personally and that Putin “is good for our audience”.

The fact that the Russian leader, seen by many in the West as a war criminal, serves as a decoy for onlookers in Serbia reminds us that the Kremlin still has admirers in Europe.

Depictions of Russian President Vladimir Putin on coffee mugs for sale in a souvenir shop in Belgrade
Depictions of Russian President Vladimir Putin on coffee mugs for sale in a souvenir shop in BelgradeSergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

While Germany, Poland and many other European Union countries show their solidarity with Ukraine by waving their flag in front of their embassies in Belgrade, a nearby street pays homage to Putin. The mural painted on the wall features an image of the Russian leader along with the Serbian word for “brother”.

Part of Putin’s appeal lies in his image as a strong man.an attractive role model for the president Aleksandar Vucic, the increasingly authoritarian leader of Serbia, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the warlike and illiberal leader of Hungary. Serbian and Hungarian leaders also see Russia as a reliable source of energy to make their constituents happy, who on Sunday they voted massively in favor of both re-elections.

Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic on an advertising hoarding in the country's capital, Belgrade.
Serbian President Aleksandr Vucic on an advertising hoarding in the country’s capital, Belgrade.Sergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

Then there is the story, or at least a mythologized version of the pastwhich, in the case of Serbia, presents Russia, a Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation, has been an unshakable friend and protector over the centuries.

But perhaps the most important thing is Putin’s role as the North Star for nations who, regardless of their past crimes, consider themselves victims, not as attackersand whose politics and psyche revolve around cults of victimization fueled by resentment and resentment against the West.

Arijan Djan, a psychotherapist from Belgrade, said she was surprised at the lack of empathy among many Serbs for the suffering of Ukrainians, but she realized that many still bear the scars of past trauma which has erased all feelings for the pain of others.

A memorial to a girl who died in the 1999 NATO bombing in Belgrade, Serbia
A memorial to a girl who died in the 1999 NATO bombing in Belgrade, SerbiaSergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

“People who go through trauma that they have never dealt with cannot empathize,” she said. Societies, like people with traumatic scars, he added, “simply repeat the same stories of their own suffering over and over,” a broken record that “takes away all responsibility” for what they have done to others.

A feeling of victimhood runs deep in Serbiaconsidering the crimes committed by ethnic relatives during the Balkan wars of the 1990s as a defensive response to the suffering inflicted on the Serbs, just as Putin presents his bloody invasion of Ukraine as a just effort to protect the ethnic persecuted Russians who belong to “Russky mir”, or the “Russian world”.

“Putin’s Russian world is an exact copy of what our nationalists call it Great Serbia”Said Bosko Jaksic, a columnist for a pro-Western newspaper. Both, he added, feed on partially remembered stories of past injustices and erased memories of their sins.

Supporters of the pro-Russian political party Dveri during an election rally in Belgrade
Supporters of the pro-Russian political party Dveri during an election rally in BelgradeSergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

The victim narrative is so strong among some in Serbia that the Informer, a jarring tabloid that often reflects the thinking of Vucic, the president, reported last month on Russia’s preparations for its invasion of Ukraine with a flat headline. front page presenting Moscow as an innocent victim: “Ukraine attacks Russia!” he shouted.

The Serbian government is wary of burning bridges with the West but sensitive to the widespread public sympathy for Russia as another offended victim, it has since pushed the media to take a more neutral stancesaid Zoran Gavrilovic, executive director of Birodi, an independent media group that monitors in Serbia. Russia is hardly ever criticized, he said, but Ukraine’s abuses have subsided.

Aleksandrovych, the ambassador to Serbia, said he welcomed the change of tone, but was still fighting for Ukrainians to look beyond their own Serbia by suffering at the hands of NATO in 1999. “Because of the trauma of what happened 23 years ago, years, whatever The evil that happens in the world is considered the fault of the United States, “he said.

Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, left, ambassador of Ukraine to Serbia, and helps Dalina Harib with donations collected for Ukrainian refugees, in Belgrade, Serbia, on March 26, 2022. While Germany, Poland and many other EU countries show solidarity with Ukraine by waving its flag outside their embassies in Belgrade, a mural in a nearby street pays tribute to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)
Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, left, ambassador of Ukraine to Serbia, and helps Dalina Harib with donations collected for Ukrainian refugees, in Belgrade, Serbia, on March 26, 2022. While Germany, Poland and many other EU countries show solidarity with Ukraine by waving its flag outside their embassies in Belgrade, a mural in a nearby street pays tribute to Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Sergey Ponomarev / The New York Times)Sergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

Hungary, allied to the losing side in two world wars, is also home to a huge victim complex, rooted in the loss of large portions of its territory.. Orban has enthusiastically fueled such resentments for years, often siding with Russia over Ukraine, which controls a piece of the former Hungarian land, and has been prominent in his efforts to present himself as an advocate of ethnic Hungarians living on the border of the country. village.

In neighboring Serbia, Vucic, anxious to avoid alienating pro-Russian voters ahead of Sunday’s elections, refused to impose sanctions on Russia and the suspension of flights between Belgrade and Moscow. But on March 2, Serbia voted in favor of a UN resolution condemning the Russian invasion.

A mural depicting the Russian forces he reads
A mural depicting Russian forces reading “Wagner Group – Russian Knights”, in a residential area of ​​BelgradeSergey Ponomarev-NYTNS

More than two decades after the end of the fighting in the Balkans, many Serbs still deny war crimes in Srebrenicawhere Serbian soldiers massacred more than 8,000 Bosnians in 1995, and in Kosovo, where the brutal Serbian persecution of Albanians resulted in the 1999 NATO bombing campaign, as the flip side of the suffering inflicted on ethnic Serbs.

Asked if he approved of the war unleashed by Putin as he passed the Belgrade mural in his honor, Milica Zuric, a 25-year-old bank employee, replied by asking why the Western media focused on Ukraine’s agonies when “you weren’t concern for Serbian pain ”caused by NATO warplanes in 1999. “Nobody cried for what happened to us”She said.

Predrag Markovic, director of the Belgrade Institute of Contemporary History, said that history has been the foundation of the nation but, distorted by political agendas, “always offers the wrong lessons”. The only case of a country in Europe that fully recognized its past crimes, he added, was Germany after World War II.

By Andrew Higgins

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