Although the winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize won't be announced until October, the recent nomination of Serbian human rights activist Natasa Kandic and her Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center has brought the issues of postwar justice and ethnic tensions to the fore in Serbia.
Kandic was nominated recently by two U.S. lawmakers -- Senator Roger Wicker (Republican, Mississippi) and Congressman Eliot Engel (Democrat, New York). In the nomination, they say Kandic "remains an inspiration to a new generation of young professionals who now lead the Humanitarian Law Center as it exposes those who have evaded justice and takes on the extreme nationalism and strained ethnic tensions that linger in the Western Balkans."
They add, "We can think of no person or organization more deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize than Natasa Kandic and the Humanitarian Law Center and are confident that such recognition would further the cause of peace and reconciliation in this and other troubled regions of our world."
The government and state media in Serbia said nothing publicly about the nomination.
But a nationalist political group called Zavetnici, which is committed to preventing Serbia from joining the European Union and calls for closer ties to Russia, responded by organizing a protest and decking out the city in photos of Kandic accompanied by the accusation: "A Nobel Prize for the betrayal of the Serbian people!"
Kandic herself took the controversy in stride, noting that it proved that her work is far from done.
"It is a good thing it is just a nomination," she told VOA's Serbian Service. "Nothing has changed in this region over the past 25 years. [There has been] no progress, no improvement that shows we have become a better, civilized society. I think even just a nomination might be too much."
A few others have noticed the controversy around Kandic and spoken out in her favor.
"Do people think that they can intimidate Natasa Kandic? Nobody has succeeded in that yet," Eric Gordy, a sociologist at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies, tweeted.
'An Honest Look At The Past'
Kandic has received more than 20 international awards, but at home she is under constant fire from nationalists. Critics frequently question her patriotism and accuse her of ignoring Serbian victims of Balkan atrocities.
If not for Kandic and her center, evidence about the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995 might never have been uncovered. If not for Kandic, many crimes committed during the 1999 war in Kosovo would never have been documented and the number of people killed during the NATO air campaign against Serbia would probably never have been known. Her Humanitarian Law Center also documented crimes committed against Serbian civilians across the region by Serbian paramilitary units commanded by the infamous warlord and crime boss Arkan.
At the same time, Kandic works tirelessly for Balkan peace and reconciliation. Last year, she launched the Regional Commission for Truth and Reconciliation (RECOM), a fact-finding body aiming to name every single person killed, missing, imprisoned, or tortured during the region's 1990s wars -- regardless of ethnicity or religion.
In order for RECOM to succeed, Kandic needs the governments of all the former Yugoslav countries on board. If she can get the leaders to sign an agreement to institutionalize RECOM at a regional summit set for July, "that would be a big win for civil society across the whole region," she told VOA.
"If Serbia wants to build a promising future, it must start by taking an honest look at its past," Kandic said in a 2012 profile by RFE/RL.