Two activists on opposing sides mirror divisions in Serbia

Two female activists Milica Djurdjevic and Anita Mitic, who were born the same year and studied together, now represent opposite ends of the political spectrum, reflecting Serbia’s deep divisions over EU membership and relations with Russia.

Djurdjevic and Mitic are two high-profile young activists in their generation, but the 27-year-olds hold political beliefs that are poles apart.

Djurdjevic is fiercely pro-Russia while Mitic resolutely promotes EU values. They know each other, but perhaps unsurprisingly, they have not spoken for a couple of years.

Both are highly outspoken on some of the most important – and sensitive – issues facing Serbia today: Kosovo’s status as an independent country, Russian and Western influence over Belgrade, NATO and EU membership.

Both Djurdjevic and Mitic are convinced that Serbs must face these issues head on in order to move on. This sets them apart in a country where there is little debate on EU membership versus strengthening ties with Russia.

This is partly because of the government’s public policy of maintaining diplomatic ties with Russia while also seeking EU membership. Serbia is one of the few European states that has not imposed sanctions on Russia since its annexation of Crimea.

This lack of meaningful analysis and debate over Serbia’s delicate Russia-West balancing act is also noticeable in parliament and the local media – despite the fact the EU sees Belgrade’s ties to Russia as an obstacle to membership.

Little wonder that Djurdjevic and Mitic have attracted attention.

Both Belgrade born, the pair graduated from Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Sciences, Mitic in 2013, Djurdjevic in 2015. Both are highly critical of mainstream politicians.

Progressive values versus patriotism?

Djurdjevic is a spokesperson and member of the far-right political group Zavetnici. Formed in 2012, the group opposes Kosovo’s independence from Serbia, is against joining NATO and the EU, and supports forging closer ties with Russia.

Zavetnici has also called for Serbia’s unification with Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska – something that would be strongly resisted by Bosnia and much of the international community. Zavetnici members describe their policies as patriotic.

Mitic, on the other hand, is director of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights – an NGO network that operates in former Yugoslav republics.

The group was formed to involve young people in the process of democratisation and transitional justice following the collapse of communism and the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The network endorses progressive values and seeks to confront difficult post-conflict issues such as war crimes.

So while Djurdjevic contests Kosovo’s independence, claiming it is the cradle of Serbian culture and civilisation, Mitic lambasts her for perpetuating dangerous propaganda that could be used to lead the state into war.

Likewise, Djurdjevic opposes Mitic’s call for the Serbian government to admit the 1995 massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniaks was an act of genocide.

Djurdjevic says that this would not be in the national interest, and is an example of the West trying to stigmatise Serbs.

“The EU, Great Britain and the US want keep the Balkans unstable and problematic, and aim to proclaim that Republika Srpska is genocidal,” she told BIRN.

Mitic said that Serbs who committed war crimes during the conflicts that marked the fall of Yugoslavia should not be celebrated. “I don’t believe in any real progress in the future if war criminals are being presented as heroes,” she told BIRN.

Djurdjevic argued however that Serb victims of the conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina are being overlooked. “I pointed out that if one wants to commemorate the victims of war, it should be done for both sides,” she said.

Both intend to launch political careers in the future but say they are too young to do so now. While Mitic and Djurdjevic may mirror the country’s political divide, it’s fair to say that pro-Russian sentiment has been gaining more traction for some time.

Given years of economic crisis, it is perhaps unsurprising that a sizeable number of young Serbs in particular have grown increasingly tired of waiting for EU membership to improve their lot.

IPSOS polled 615 Serbs aged between 18 and 35 in February 2016 and found 77 per cent of respondents would accept the Russian political system and 80 per cent would support having Russian military bases in Serbia.

Dialogue ‘would bolster democracy’

Zoran Stojiljkovic, a professor at the Faculty of Political Science at Belgrade University, said that Serbian society as a whole has failed to find common ground on the EU-Russia and Kosovo issues.

“In Serbia everyone agrees that there is a huge need to fight corruption but once you start the discussion over Kosovo, the EU and Russia, the [unofficial] debates have no end,” Stojiljkovic told BIRN.

He said that a dialogue between Mitic and Djurdjevic could potentially be positive for Serbian society.

“Contrasting right-wing convictions – if not promoting nationalism, fascism, or other extremes and does not justify war crimes – to European values and liberalism in dialogue between these two ladies could bring a lot of good for democracy in Serbia, especially now political offers are completely shallow,” he explained.

Stojiljkovic said that that no ruling or opposition politicians have ever really started a serious debate on the identity issue or on the EU, NATO and Russian affairs.

“Values are the most disputed issues in Serbian society. Both Milica and Anita could represent a deep, grounded female voice on this matter in Serbian politics,” he added.

Both woman told BIRN that they would be prepared to meet and hold an open, public debate on the issues, but it remains to be seen whether or not this could stir up wider discussion about which direction their country should take in the future.

By Natalia Zaba

(Balkan Insight, 17.03.2017)

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