Serbia quashing influence of nationalists

The citizen video went viral: a Serbian police officer berating an ultranationalist rioter caught trying to set fire to a building in the capital.

"So, you came here to demolish my Belgrade," the officer says ominously before the man is hauled away — a startling image for people accustomed to tacit government support for rightist demonstrators. Sasa Cordic never raised his baton in the October video, but his tough talk turned him into a national hero, giving security forces an instant public relations makeover.

Serbia's pro-Western government has been cracking down on ultranationalists, fearful that their violent demonstrations have threatened a state striving to join mainstream Europe. The weakening of the groups has been particularly evident since Thursday, when former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic was arrested on war-crimes charges after 16 years on the run.

The only sizable outpouring of support came Sunday, when thousands of his supporters gathered for a rally in Belgrade. The turnout was a far cry from the days when hundreds of thousands would pack the city to express their nationalist pride, and a shadow of the daily demonstrations that accompanied the arrest of Mladic's wartime political counterpart, Radovan Karadzic.

"I think their power is definitely on the wane," said political analyst Dejan Anastasijevic, a well known government critic and reporter for the weekly, Vreme. "The government has sent a very clear message this sort of destructive behavior will not be tolerated."

The crackdown started slowly about three years ago with tougher laws and longer jail sentences for rioters. Since then, the authorities have been moving incrementally to dismantle the apparatus of extremism that kept the likes of the late autocrat Slobodan Milosevic in power.

The ultranationalists have long insisted on keeping alive Milosevic's dream of a "Greater Serbia," which would unite all Serb minorities in neighboring Croatia and Bosnia with the motherland. Many Serbs believe that philosophy was discredited during the wars in the Balkans, when the idea collapsed in flames.

Mladic, a 69-year-old former general, is their hero. He is accused of laying a medieval-style siege on Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, and masterminding the massacre at Srebrenica, where soldiers rounded up Muslim men and boys and slaughtered them — often by machine gun fire to the back of the head. Some 8,000 died and were buried in mass graves over a few days in July 1995.

Serbs have long dismissed the charges as propaganda, and Mladic remains beloved in some corners of this nation of 7.5 million. Still, the relatively quiet reaction to Mladic's arrest is a clear sign that President Boris Tadic's government has had some success ridding itself of the remnants of former Milosevic's warmongering nationalist regime.

Also undermining the extremists is a faltering economy. Mladic's arrest is considered critical to Serbia's efforts to join the European Union — and hopes that it will lead to prosperity.

Though the ultranationalist parties have long been losing steam, the process was accelerated after riots that began over a gay pride march in October. Anti-gay demonstrators turned the city into a battleground and directed attacks against all the parties in the government — attempting to burn down even the headquarters of the ruling party.

Among politicians, there was genuine alarm, said Srdjan Djeric, Balkans analyst for the International Crisis Group.

"It was a very political sort of message," Djeric said. "That's why the government got so serious."

The rioters included many young people angry at the system — the disenfranchised who had little hope for their future, together with a mishmash of soccer toughs and organized crime elements.

But demonstrators with a pro-Serbia message normally would have gotten a slap on the wrist and at most a night in jail. Now they found themselves facing sentences of two to three years. Courts faced no pressure to be lenient.

Dozens of people, including at least two key leaders, went to prison. By contrast, only one person was charged following the riots in 2008 protesting Kosovo's declaration of independence. This despite the fact this riot over the sensitive issue of ownership of the former Yugoslav province was much more serious — the U.S. Embassy was set on fire and one person died.

"Security measures have been raised, but the situation in Serbia is stable," police chief Ivica Dacic said confidently.

Some say it was about time. Some 20 years after Milosevic's regime incited the wars throughout the Balkans, the people seem to have gotten fed up with grandiose ideas, focusing instead on their own destinies.

"People are so bleak and so disappointed with their own lives that nothing can get their blood pumping anymore," Djeric said. "They can't even be bothered to react."


Jovana Gec contributed to this report.