On Thursday, 26 May, the Serbian police arrested the most wanted war crimes fugitive, Bosnian Serb wartime general Ratko Mladic. Mladic, charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes perpetrated during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, was apprehended in the village of Lazarevo near the northern town of Zrenjanin in Vojvodina. Mladic is believed to be responsible for the worst massacre in Europe after World War II – the murder of at least 7,500 Muslim boys and men in Srebrenica in July 1995 – and for killings during the 43-month siege of Sarajevo.
The arrest of Mladic was a key condition set by the European Union for Serbia to fulfil if it was to gain candidate status and get closer to the bloc in its membership bid. It follows up on the arrest of Mladic’s political boss Radovan Karadzic in 2008. Both arrests demonstrate the political will of the Democratic Party (DS)-led government of Serbia to deal with the past and become part of the European mainstream of democratic nations. It also reflects a general trend in Serbia, most expressed in large cities and among young people, to abandon the nationalist sentiments of the 1990s in favour of moving forward with reform and democratic development. This trend is shared by Serbia’s neighbours in the Western Balkans, too. Bosnians, Croats and Serbs and their political representatives have set a tone of reconciliation and been active in upholding it with concrete actions over the last several years. The common mood is that the horrors of the 1990s, the hatred and intolerance should be left behind. The common goal of EU membership seems to have visibly replaced the destructive nostalgia for the national grandeurs during the conflicts 15 years ago. And it is only normal in the second decade of the 21st century, when individuals are more important than nationalities and borders. The arrest of Ratko Mladic is just the next step in this irreversible process.
Just 400 km southeast of Belgrade, however, in the EU member state Bulgaria's capital Sofia, the trends seem to be the opposite. While neighbouring Serbs and Croats have started to confess their mistakes, which brought so much suffering in the 1990s in the false name of patriotism, and are trying to rectify them on their path to a prosperous, democratic future in the EU – a low-down, crappy crowd of losers organised by the far-right Ataka party disrupted on 20 May the Friday prayer at Sofia’s mosque Banyabasi with anti-Turkish and anti-Muslim slogans. The crowd was to officially demonstrate against the loud sound coming from the mosque’s loudspeakers during prayer, but soon this ‘demonstration’ burst into attacks against the praying, torching of prayer rugs and shouting out loud nationalist and fascist insults, which of course caused reciprocal actions.
All this is ridiculous. First, the muezzin’s voice at Banyabasi is no louder than the nearby bell-ringing of Orthodox Church Sveta Nedelya. Second, Ataka is a party represented in the national parliament and in Sofia’s city council, yet it forsakes its legislative opportunity when it pursues a policy change and resorts to provocative protests such as the one on 20 May. Third, the Sofia municipality allowed the Ataka protest just during Friday prayer time and just in front of the mosque, without any consideration for a potential conflict situation.
What is more worrying is that the Bulgarian society allowed this dirty provocation to take place and taint Bulgaria’s image as a tolerant nation respecting difference and cherishing human rights. While in the 1990s Bulgaria’s neighbours in the west were killing each other in the bloody Yugoslav wars of succession, the transition here went smooth and with a general air of tolerance. Now, two decades later, when Serbs and Croats are proving themselves as worthy members of the European family of nations by denouncing the hatreds of the past, Bulgarians seem to let the plague of nationalism and discrimination sneak in and push society back there from where Bosnians, Serbs and Croats are trying to escape. The boorish actions of Ataka are no representative sample. The party lost its over 10% support down to some 3% and is now trying to boost it by radical and desperate moves. But anti-Turkish sentiments can be increasingly observed throughout internet forums and in comments below newspaper articles. Is the Bulgarian society mature enough to silence the hate speech and show its true essence based on tolerance, respect and friendship? All major political parties condemned Ataka’s actions, and the Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation against the organisers of the 20 May events. But it is up to the civil society and public opinion to prevent Bulgaria from ‘progressing’ steadily backwards toward the 1990s.