The Belgrade Book Fair is a venerable cultural institution that, like so many things in the Balkans, has been tainted by the region's troubled political reality -- and its recent past. However, emerging alternatives are evidence that civil society in Serbia is being rebuilt, too, and it's no longer merely on the defensive.
The main event this year included a booth called "Greater Serbia," where controversial Radical Party leader and convicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj was the center of attention, signing books and having his picture taken with fans.
Given that Seselj has been allowed to resume his political career and is currently a member of the Serbian parliament, his appearance was perhaps unsurprising.
A more worrying feature of the 63rd Belgrade Book Fair that just ended was the official sanctioning of another convicted war criminal.
A controversial memoir written by a former army general, Nebojsa Pavkovic, was being promoted at the fair by the Serbian Defenses Ministry.
Pavkovic was in charge of the Armed Forces of Serbia and Montenegro's (VJ) Third Army Corps during the Kosovo War in the late 1990s and was convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes by The Hague tribunal in 2009. He is currently serving a 22-year sentence in a Finnish prison and could not be in Belgrade to promote his book, intended as a wartime diary.
The state's official endorsement and promotion of Pavkovic's book has drawn protests.
The Serbian Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Ana Brnabic to complain about the official support for Pavkovic's book, published by the Odbrana (Defense) Media Center under the patronage of the Defense Ministry.
The YIHR called it "the most open form of support given by the state to convicted war criminals."
'Endangering The Country's European Future'
In its letter to Brnabic, the group asked whether "this is a government that supports war criminals or not." By promoting Pavkovic's book, it alleged, the government was "endangering the country's European future, as well as the ongoing dialogue on the issue of Kosovo."
In a statement, the Defense Ministry countered that its generals have the right to "present their view of the historic events that they participated in."
At the Belgrade Book Fair itself, Miroslav Toholj, the head of the Serbian Armed Forces' publishing department, was less circumspect.
"There is such a thing as the court of public opinion, the judgment of history. He may have been convicted in one court," Toholj told RFE/RL's Belgrade bureau in a reference to The Hague verdict. He then likened Pavkovic's circumstances to those of another Third Army Corps veteran, Vladimir Lazarevic, who served a 14-year sentence for crimes committed against civilians in Kosovo.
"I sincerely hope that one day Pavkovic will return alive to his people, as a hero, just like Lazarevic," Toholj said.
Bastion Of Critical Thinking
But not everyone in Serbia agrees, and beyond individual voices, an alternative platform has emerged to promote independent publishers who don't want to take part in a book fair that promotes works by war criminals.
A smaller, rival book fair was meanwhile being held in a Belgrade space that traces its origins to the resistance against former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and still bears the name the "Center For Decontamination." Now in its 11th year, it has established itself not only as a major cultural event but as a bastion of critical thinking in Serbian society.
Among the new editions promoted at that alternative fair are works by international authors as well as books by respected Serbian writers and academics writing on ethnicity, nationalism, and war from literary, anthropological, and other perspectives.
Launching this year's alternative book fair was the editor of the cultural magazine Lice Ulice (The Face Of The Street), Miroslav Martinovic, who in his speech joked that "as far as I understand, this is something international, in the Latin alphabet [Serbian is written in Cyrillic] -- in other words, something suspicious!"
'The 20th Century Refuses To End'
Participants included publisher 20th Century Editions (Biblioteka XX Vek), whose managing editor, anthropologist Ivan Colovic, saw a need for such an event even before the controversy over Pavkovic's memoirs.
"I once said that it was not necessary to be part of the big [Belgrade] Book Fair, that there are other ways of bringing emerging authors and new subjects to the wider audience, and I am happy to be vindicated after all these years. There are now more and more people and publishers who feel the need to distance themselves from the main event, which is undoubtedly important, but where quantity is valued rather more than quality and variety of perspectives," Colovic said.
20th Century Editions has been around for more than four decades, but according to Marinovic its editor does not need to update the name just yet, because "the 20th century refuses to end."
"How long we will remain trapped in the 20th century also depends on us to some extent," said Marinovic. "It seems that it will not leave us of its own accord. We will have to chase it away; and in order to do that, we need to understand it better." That is the mission of publishers like 20th Century Editions, according to Colovic.
Marinovic may not have been referring explicitly to the ghosts of the late 20th century hovering around the Belgrade Book Fair, and Pavkovic's book in particular, but a more critical attitude to that recent past might well be a paramount concern of the alternative book fair and its publishers.