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Former Serbian Nationalist Minister, With Eye On Political Future, Acknowledges Muslim Heritage

Vuk Jeremic, who spent five years as Serbia's foreign minister before becoming president of the UN General Assembly in September 2012, is known for using his diplomatic muscle to fight recognition of Kosovo.
Vuk Jeremic, who spent five years as Serbia's foreign minister before becoming president of the UN General Assembly in September 2012, is known for using his diplomatic muscle to fight recognition of Kosovo.
Nurija Pozderac and his wife, Devleta, were the kind of forebears that many people would be eager to claim as their kin: Bosnian Muslims who risked their lives to shelter Balkan Jews destined for near-certain extermination during World War II.

But one of the Pozderacs' most prominent descendants has kept largely silent about his blood link to the heroic Bosniak couple -- perhaps because his political career has, until now, been grounded in his image as an unapologetic Serbian nationalist.

All that appeared to change on March 18 when Vuk Jeremic, the former Serbian foreign minister and current president of the UN General Assembly, attended a ceremony in Belgrade posthumously granting his great-grandparents the Righteous Among the Nations medal, Israel's highest award honoring non-Jews for brave conduct during the Holocaust.

Flanked by his grandmother, Sadeta Pozderac Buljubasic, the 37-year-old Jeremic said he was "grateful and excited" to honor his great-grandparents' role in saving Jews and others from the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where an estimated 700,000 people were killed.

"I want to say that I am immeasurably proud of my ancestry and of my ancestors who, during World War II, courageously stood up against crimes whose ferocity is unmatched in history, against their Jewish and Serb fellow citizens," Jeremic said.

Fighting For Serbia

The nod to his Bosniak relatives marks a subtle shift for Jeremic, a high-energy, Harvard- and Cambridge-educated wunderkind who has doggedly pursued a pro-Serbia agenda in both Belgrade and the UN despite efforts to brand himself as a progressive alternative from the worst extremes of his country's Milosevic-era past.

Jeremic, who spent five years as foreign minister before assuming the rotating UN post in September 2012, is best known for using his diplomatic muscle to fight recognition of Kosovo, whose independence he rejects and which he has referred to as Serbia's "Jerusalem."

But he has also angered much of the region by taking a critical stance on the role of international courts like the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

Could Vuk Jeremic be angling for the UN's top spot?
Could Vuk Jeremic be angling for the UN's top spot?
Many Serbs accuse the ICTY of harboring an anti-Belgrade bias by focusing on high-profile incidents like the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, while acquitting Kosovar and Croatian authorities accused of crimes against Serbs.

At the urging of Belgrade, Jeremic has used his current UN post to schedule a General Assembly debate next month on the merits of the ICTY that will include Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic -- who has described the Srebrenica massacre as less than genocide -- as a featured speaker.

Jeremic also recently drew fire after organizing a performance at the UN of "March on the Drina," a World War I-era Serbian patriotic song that was adopted by Serbian paramilitary units during the Bosnian Wars in the mid-1990s.

The UN was forced to issue an apology after the performance received an ovation from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other audience members who were unaware of its historic connotations.

Some political observers in Belgrade have suggested that Jeremic, who lobbied aggressively for the General Assembly presidency, may be embracing his Bosniak heritage in order to generate Muslim support for a possible bid for the UN's top post in 2016, when Ban's second five-year term expires.

But Bosko Jaksic, a columnist for Belgrade's "Politika" newspaper, says he believes Jeremic has proved too divisive a figure during his time in New York and is likely instead to return home to pursue a career in Belgrade. (In a separate development, Jeremic is now an eligible political bachelor after being ousted from his longtime base in Serbia's Democratic Party this weekend amid a power struggle with party leaders.)

"It is true that the next secretary-general of the UN has to come from Eastern Europe, but I don't think he's the right person for the post," Jaksic says. "Especially having in mind that, in the meantime, there have been some things he did that a number of other countries considered a provocation, or at least inappropriate behavior."

'Not The Same Values'

It is unclear how far, if at all, the commemoration of Nurija and Devleta Pozderac will go toward burnishing Jeremic's multicultural credentials. But in Bosnia, many Pozderac descendants have expressed hope the couple's remarkable accomplishments will not become a forgotten footnote in Jeremic's political resume.

The couple, prosperous landowners, came from a distinguished Muslim family in Cazin, a town in the mountainous Una-Sana Canton of northwest Bosnia, near the Croatian border.

Nurija, the son of Cazin's Ottoman-era ruler, became a local political leader and liberation fighter in 1939, as Croatia's Nazi-allied Ustase regime, in pursuit of a racially "pure" Croatia, began to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Jews, Serbs, and Roma at the Jasenovac camp.

According to survivor accounts, the Pozderacs and other Cazin residents provided shelter to Jews and others who had escaped from transport convoys en route to Jasenovac.

Belgrade's Israeli ambassador, Yossef Levy, on March 18 credited the Pozderac family and other Cazin locals with personally saving "a few thousand" European Jews. (Nurija Pozderac was killed in 1943 while fighting alongside anti-Nazi partisans.)

The family has produced several prominent politicians in addition to Jeremic, including Bosnian communist-era President Hamdija Pozderac and 36-year-old Hamdija Lipovaca, who has served as mayor of Bihac, the center of the Una-Sana Canton where his great-grandparents once lived.

Lipovaca chose not to travel to Belgrade, saying he preferred to wait until a similar ceremony is held in Bosnia. (Israel has no embassy in Bosnia but has promised to hold a second commemoration of the Pozderacs there.)

Lipovaca also did little to hide his disappointment that Jeremic, his uncompromising Serbian cousin, played such a prominent role in celebrating their forebears' heroism. "I'm not happy with his performance as the head of Serbian diplomacy, either before or now as president of the UN General Assembly. Especially after the most recent incident, with 'March On the Drina' being played at the UN," he said. "I think the values that our great-grandfather Nurija Pozderac fought for aren't the same ones that Vuk Jeremic is supporting today."

With additional reporting from Ludmila Cvetkovic in Belgrade and Dzenana Karabegovic in Sarajevo

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