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The Belgrade Book Fair has been a cultural institution in the Serbian capital for more than six decades. (file photo)

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.

Nebojsa Pavkovic's controversial new memoir on display at this year's Belgrade Book Fair.
Nebojsa Pavkovic's controversial new memoir on display at this year's Belgrade Book Fair.

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.

Over the past 11 years, the book fair held in Belgrade's Center for Decontamination has carved out its own niche in Serbia's cultural milieu.
Over the past 11 years, the book fair held in Belgrade's Center for Decontamination has carved out its own niche in Serbia's cultural milieu.

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
Protests in Mostar on October 11 against the election of a moderate Croat in Bosnia's tripartite presidency.

Despite long-shot hopes of a breakthrough in this month's elections, it looks more like Bosnians have to settle for familiar tribal politics and a tense calm.

Nationalist parties who agreed to end hostilities in 1995, with the signing of the Dayton Accords, have in some ways continued the war by other means. Ahead of the October 7 elections, their common approach appeared to be to spread fear that "their" respective ethnic group would be overrun by one or both of the others.

It is tempting to conclude, as a result, that this strategy is regarded as the one sure path to staying in power for the self-appointed “protectors of the 'national' interest,” whether the "nation" in question is Serbs, Muslims, or Croats.

Since the election, the fear level has remained high despite gains made by non-nationalist parties and politicians -- insufficient to upset the status quo, perhaps, but worrying for those who thrive on mutual distrust and sharp dividing lines between Bosnia’s main ethnic groups.

Here are some of the problems as embodied in the newly elected members of the tripartite Bosnian Presidency.

Zeljko Komsic

A case in point is the election of Zeljko Komsic as the designated Croat within the Bosnian Presidency. During the conflict in the 1990s, Komsic had fought in the ranks of the Bosnian Army, which defended the unitary state against ethnic division. Although he has been a member of the presidency on two previous occasions, his election has outraged the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) party; its leader, Dragan Covic, is threatening to block the formation of the new government in response to this “scandalous” election result.

The HDZ has rallied its supporters in the city of Mostar, who have come out to protest Komsic’s election triumph over a more nationalist candidate. Komsic is a Croat, but many HDZ supporters appear to regard him as "not Croat enough" and overly fond of the idea of Bosnia as a country of citizens, not ethnic groups.

Nationalist Croats are suggesting that Komsic was elected thanks to votes from Bosniaks (Muslims). But if that were true, it is unlikely that Sefik Dzaferovic, the candidate of the largest Bosniak party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), would have fared so well in the voting. A more likely explanation is that some Bosnians -- including ethnic Croats -- are choosing an alternative to more nationalist impulses.

But anxious Croat nationalists are demanding that a "real" Croat be installed in the presidency in Sarajevo, elected only by Croats.

Sarajevo-based analyst Emir Habul has suggested that the roots of the current political crisis lie in 2006, the last time there was any real prospect of constitutional change, when there was an unsuccessful movement afoot to make parliament responsible for selecting the central presidency's members.

Meanwhile, some Bosnian municipalities with ethnic Croat majorities have been busy announcing that the newly elected Komsic is persona non grata in their eyes.

Among those who have voiced postelection fears are Cardinal Vinko Puljic, who was long considered a moderate Catholic religious leader. After the election, Puljic implied that Komsic was a harbinger of trouble.

In a seemingly confused historical reference, Puljic appeared to compare Komsic's victory to the postwar imposition of communism and the rise of Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party.

"In 1945 there was a law to take our property away and destroy all that was Croatian and intelligent. Under that law we were expelled -- and Hitler came to power in a lawful way. But the question is: What kind of law is it if it takes away the rights of one ethnic group and that group is to be erased like it never existed, as is happening now to Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina?"

The apparent emphasis on ethnicity rather than citizenship risked sounding like a marked shift from his statements prior to the vote, when he argued that "a political party cannot be more important than people. It is unacceptable that after we are done with a one-party system and the single-mindedness of that system, we now have a triple-mindless system. We have to unite in our differences and think of those differences as our advantage in this God-given country of Bosnia-Herzegovina."

Komsic was asked in a recent TV interview to respond to Puljic's statement.

“Since he has expressed an interest in criminal figures like Hitler and the history of that period, I suggest that he lose no time in planning a visit to Jasenovac" -- a reference to the site of a notorious concentration camp run by the Croatian Ustase regime that was installed by the Nazis -- "and to pay his respects to the souls of the innocent, brutally murdered victims of Hitler’s comrade [Ustase leader Ante] Pavelic and offer a prayer for them,” Komsic told TV1.

“It would be a way for [Puljic] to take a truly historic step in distancing himself from the Ustase and their crimes, which is expected from him as a cardinal."

Milorad Dodik

The perceived panic among Bosnian Croat nationalists over Komsic’s victory has overshadowed the election of Milorad Dodik as one of the other two members of the presidency.

Before the vote, Dodik's statements and successes were seen as one of the biggest sources of tension in the country.

He was running for membership of the central executive body while openly declaring that he wants independence for Bosnia's predominantly Serb entity, Republika Srpska.

His elevation to the Bosnian Presidency also means one of the country’s chief representatives is the subject of sanctions by the U.S. Treasury.

His first postelection demand, prior to taking up his duties, was that the Republika Srpska flag be displayed at the Bosnian Presidency's building in Sarajevo. Until that happens, Dodik vowed, he will refuse to attend official meetings and functions there, although he will contact his counterparts via video-link.

Even before the election, Dodik pledged that he would not sit in the presidency's offices in downtown Sarajevo at all. Rather, he intended to make use of an office reserved for Serb politicians in East Sarajevo -- suburban sections of Sarajevo that lie in Republika Srpska -- pending the construction of a new security barrier to ensure Dodik's safety.

Radio Sarajevo also reported that Dodik planned to appoint as one of his advisers film director Emir Kusturica, another divisive figure.

It is hard to discern Dodik’s motives, but he has already said he will block Bosnia's bid for NATO membership.

Bakir Izetbegovic

Finally, a term limit meant SDA party leader Bakir Izetbegovic could not stand for reelection to a third term as the Bosniak member of the presidency.

But the victory of Sefik Dzaferovic to represent Bosniaks appears to ensure that Izetbegovic will maintain considerable influence in Bosnian politics.

“Izetbegovic has done good things for Bosnia, and I will continue on the same path," Dzaferovic said. "I will be happy to be like him.”

One of the implications is that, like Izetbegovic, Dzaferovic might welcome Turkish influence in the country and lobby for investment from wealthy Arab states.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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