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Former General Ante Gotovina waves as he arrives at Zagreb's airport in November 2012.

Croatian director Antun Vrdoljak finds himself in a bind.

His current project, called The General, deals with Croatia's recent past; it is meant to be a blockbuster about the exploits of Croatian wartime commander Ante Gotovina. Vrdoljak and his crew are currently shooting the film in the vicinity of the Croatian coastal city Split, recreating the final battle of the Croatian war of independence in 1995.

But he is having trouble finding actors willing to play "the enemy."

Vrdoljak's dilemma is that even in the filmmaker's world of make-believe, Croatian actors refuse to put on the uniform of "Chetniks" -- as rebel Serb fighters were dubbed to evoke the nationalist Serbian units that collaborated with the Nazis during World War II -- while Serbs refuse to take part in a Croatian movie about General Gotovina.

There are efforts afoot in Serbia to rehabilitate the Chetniks as part of a nationalist-inspired movement for historical revisionism, but their specter is still enough to inspire revulsion and fear in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. (Chetniks' Croatian counterparts are "Ustashe," by the way, similarly a reference to World War II-era fascists.)

In a grim reminder of the fragility of peace in the Balkans and the freshness of wartime wounds for many, a commentator on the Banja Luka-based web portal Buka deadpanned that if live ammunition were provided for the filming of The General, the feature could easily become a documentary.

Vrdoljak contacted a private agency in Belgrade to help him cast his movie and, to sweeten the deal, he is offering 1,000 euros ($1,050) per day of shooting, according to B92.

Even though that's around 10 times what actors usually get when they're hired locally, it is unclear whether any Serbian actors are prepared to take Vrdoljak up on his offer. In the Croatian narrative of the 1991-95 war, Gotovina is a hero; but among Serbs, he is a war criminal.

Mihailo Laptosevic, a Serbian actor who was cast for a minor role in the movie, was quoted as saying in a reference to the pay for five days of filming: "Five thousand euros is not a lot of money if tomorrow you cannot look at yourself in the mirror."

Antun Vrdoljak is also producing a documentary series on Gotovina.
Antun Vrdoljak is also producing a documentary series on Gotovina.

For Vrdoljak, this is a minor setback, as there is otherwise considerable support for his project in Croatia.

Vrdoljak's son-in-law, Goran Visnjic, plays the title role in The General. Visnjic is a talented actor who is currently among Croatia's most prominent actors, and has made a name for himself in Hollywood.

But he also has some direct experience with the events being portrayed. He was performing his military service in the Yugoslav Peple's Army on the eve of the war in Croatia (1991), and on his return home joined the Croatian Army.

Apart from the movie, Vrdoljak is also producing an eight-part miniseries about Gotovina that should be completed in 2018.

Gotovina's life has certainly taken many twists and turns.

He served in the French Foreign Legion before war broke out in Croatia. He was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague for his role in the final Croatian offensive that ended the war, code-named Operation Storm (Oluja). During that operation, in addition to many hundreds of civilian deaths, some 200,000 Serbs were forced to flee their homes in what was described as the war's largest exodus of Serbs.

After spending five years in hiding, Gotovina was eventually apprehended in the Canary Islands and handed over to the ICTY. At the time, his arrest and trial opened the way for Croatia to become a full member of the European Union. Gotovina was sentenced to 24 years in prison "for participating in a joint criminal enterprise to expel Croatian Serbs from the Krajina during the 1995 Operation Storm."

Yet on appeal, Gotovina was acquitted of all charges. When he came home a free man, supporters in Croatia organized a spectacular welcome reception at Zagreb's main square, expecting the general to take up the Croatian nationalist banner.

They were to be disappointed. Instead of the warmongering rhetoric that his audience expected, Gotovina addressed the crowd with a short message: "The war is behind us; let us turn to the future."

In an interview with the Serbian tabloid Kurir in November 2012, Gotovina struck a conciliatory tone and invited Croatian Serbs to return to Croatia. "Croatia is no more my home than it is theirs," he said.

Such a statement coming from a man celebrated as a war hero by one side and reviled as a criminal by the other was widely thought to have been made up -- until the audio recording of the interview surfaced.

Nationalists on both sides cling to misimpressions of Gotovina, and the same can arguably be said of narratives of the war on both sides.

And while it might be hard-pressed for actors, there's no shortage of materiel; the Croatian and Bosnian armed forces have each agreed to provide tanks and other weapons for the filming.

* This blog has been edited to remove a description of Gotovina's reception in Zagreb being organized by "anti-European and pro-Ustashe circles."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Despite facing 10 rivals, Aleksandar Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round. 

Less than two weeks ahead of the Serbian presidential election, polls show a solid lead for Aleksandar Vucic over the rest of the field.

Such numbers suggest that if there are no major surprises between now and election day, Vucic's transition from prime minister to president may well be a smooth one.

And Serbia's presidency may never be the same again.

"If the leader of the largest party, which has formed a government while enjoying a parliamentary majority, is elected president, the government will answer to him personally and not to parliament, even if that is not currently the case," Vladimir Gligorov, a professor at the Vienna Institute for International Economic Studies, warned in a recent post to independent portal Pescanik.

Gligorov hinted that such a development could ultimately spell "the end of parliamentary democracy" in Serbia, although he dialed that back by adding that such a move would require "a change to the [2006] constitution, or a change of government."

By his reckoning, Serbs are set not only to choose a new president but also to decide on a switch to a presidential system of government.

Skeptics would be right to point out that such substantial changes are a long shot. Until now, the power of the Serbian presidency has been largely symbolic. But Vucic also has a uniquely strong personal hold on power.

Belgrade-based pollster Faktor Plus went so far as to suggest Vucic could win an outright majority on April 2 and thus avoid a second round of voting. The same poll -- conducted in early March among 1,200 respondents -- suggested that around half of eligible voters would turn out for the election.

Despite facing 10 rivals, Vucic is said to be determined to win the presidency in the first round.

"[Vucic] would consider having to face a second round of voting as an unprecedented public humiliation for a supreme leader of his ilk," Zarko Korac, an independent Serbian parliamentarian, told the Montenegrin newspaper Pobjeda.

"The greatest paradox of contemporary Serbian politics is that the only pro-European leader on the scene, while at the same time, to make the paradox even greater, he disseminates distinctly pro-Russian propaganda through his tabloids," Korac said in a reference to newspapers that some believe are kindly disposed toward the prime minister and his Serbian Progressive Party.

It is indeed an irony of Serbian politics that support for membership in the European Union has slipped to its current lows under a man whom many regard as among Serbia's most "pro-EU" leaders. Serbian support for EU accession peaked in 2003, at just over 70 percent, or twice the current figure of 35 percent.

The Faktor Plus poll, published on March 12, put support for opposition candidate and former National Ombudsman Sasa Jankovic at around 14.5 percent, placing him second in the presidential race. Jankovic's campaign has thus far avoided heated rhetoric or unequivocal stances, particularly on some of the hot-button issues of the Serbian political landscape.

"A presidential candidate who admits that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, or that Kosovo should be independent, cannot hope for more than 10 percent of the vote in Serbia," Korac said.

Vuk Jeremic, a former Serbian foreign minister who is running as an independent, was in third place with 11.1 percent.

The candidate in fourth position according to Faktor Plus was Vojislav Seselj, a man suspected of war crimes who spent 11 years in detention in the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Seselj was acquitted a year ago, although his acquittal is under appeal by MICT, a United Nations Security Council agency that has taken over some of the functions of the ICTY.

Despite the cloud hanging over him, Seselj returned to lead the Serbian Radical Party in 2016 to win 23 seats in parliament. Seselj's campaign appears to be banking on Russia once again asserting its influence in the Balkans and no one standing in its way. He offers a closer alliance with the Russian Federation as an alternative to EU membership.

Vucic is the undisputed front-runner, and an expected meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the eve of the election could improve his chances. He might receive a further boost -- in a country with bitter memories of NATO bombardment in 1999 -- with the delivery of Russian MiG-29 warplanes, as now appears likely. The warplanes are routinely referred to as a "gift" in Serbian media, although the refurbishment of the fighter jets could cost upward of 185 million euros.

"Elections are not fun and games," Vucic said recently in reference to the presidential candidature of a 25-year-old communications student named Luka Maksimovic, who campaigns under the comical name Ljubisa Preletacevic-Beli, evoking the contradictory notions of a party chameleon and the purity of white. (Ljubisa's movement can be translated as "You Haven't Tried The Stuffed Cabbage," a reference to a stereotypical dish.)

"For [fun and games], you can play chess or go dancing at a club," Vucic added. "You don't have to vote for me; [go ahead and] vote for others. But [keep in mind] that elections are not a game."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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