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Serbia: Skinhead Violence Against Roma Increases

Prague, 30 October 1997 (RFE/RL)--An RFE/RL correspondent reported from Belgrade on October 29 that incidents of violence between skinheads and Roma are continuing unabated, and that police have stepped up patrols of a working-class district in an attempt to prevent further clashes.

On October 27, group of skinheads severely beat Dragan and Dragica Sisic, a Romani brother and sister, in Belgrade. Later that same day, groups of Roma assaulted skinheads, two of whom had to be taken to hospital. The preceding days also witnessed several incidents between Romani and Serbian teenagers.

Romani spokesmen told RFE/RL on October 28 that police agreed to cancel a rock concert slated for November 1 because of Romani fears that the bands' lyrics could incite teenagers to violence against Roma. The spokesmen added, however, that many members of the Romani community are anxious for revenge against skinheads. They warned there might be more violence in Belgrade in the near future.

The attack on the Sisices came ten days after Belgrade skinheads killed Dusan Jovanovic, a Romani teenager, in what observers called the first murder of a Rom by Serbian skinheads in a hate-crime. On October 20, some 2,500 people turned out for a silent march through Belgrade and Jovanovic's funeral. Leading clergy of the Serbian Orthodox Church were present and strongly condemned skinhead violence against Roma.

Romani spokesmen say that skinheads have harassed Roma in Yugoslavia for years. The spokesmen charge that skinheads regularly taunt or beat up Roma, and sometimes set fire to their victims' hair. Romani organizations estimate the number of Roma in federal Yugoslavia at 140,000, and other observers say there are 2,000 skinheads in the country.

Political opposition groups and non-governmental organizations condemned the attacks on Jovanovic and the Sisices and blamed the government of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for creating what they called a growing atmosphere of intolerance. They called on the government to take a clear stand against racism and hate crimes.

Janja Bec, a Serbian sociologist from Novi Sad, told RFE/RL on October 28 that she agreed that the government could do more to combat intolerance. She noted that no major figure from the Serbian government was present at Jovanovic's funeral, while similar anti-racism demonstrations in France draw top government personalities. Bec added that Serbian society as a whole showed little solidarity with the Roma, and that most of the people at the funeral were themselves Roma.

The sociologist stressed, however, that the skinhead attacks are the result of what she called the radicalization of society and the conditioning of the population to accept violence and racism as normal. This process has been going on for some ten years, i.e. since the rise to power of President Slobodan Milosevic. Many Serbs have thus become socialized to believe that problems can be solved through violence and that there is no need for discussion or compromise.

Bec added that Serbia's wars against its neighbors and its eventual defeat have intensified these trends. The war not only led to the impoverishment of most of the population, but it also "taught" young people in particular that violence is normal. Serbia's defeat, moreover, fostered feelings of inferiority, especially among young people.

Such inferiority complexes in turn can lead to aggression, particularly against those whom the aggressors regard as weak and as somehow different. For this reason, Bec concluded, the Roma have been a target group of the skinheads.

Another sociologist agreed with her observations. He told RFE/RL, moreover, that Serbian society under Milosevic has come to be a society in which there is no clear distinction between right and wrong, or between that which is permissible and that which is not. Skinheads are a typical product of such an environment, he concluded.

A spokesman for an NGO stressed that the skinheads are not the only manifestation of aggressive intolerance in Serbian society. He argued that the impressive showing of the ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj in the recent Serbian presidential election is evidence of the widespread acceptance of nationalist bigotry.

A statement by the opposition Serbian Renewal Movement, moreover, warned that the violence that is now directed against ethnic minorities may soon be directed against anyone who opposes intolerance.