The Myth of Serbian Unity Flies to Pieces


When Zeljko Corak answered a newspaper ad to rent an apartment, the prospective landlord had only to hear his accent. Suddenly, the apartment was unavailable.

Corak is a Bosnian Serb, and he is used to being treated as a second-class citizen, unable to own property in his name and ridiculed for his tastes in music and clothing. But these days, his tormentors are not Muslims or Croats, the people he has been told are his enemies. His persecutors are fellow Serbs--Serbian Serbs of Belgrade.

In four years of war over the disintegration of the former Yugoslav federation, the rallying cry of Serbian nationalists was one of ethnic unity. The slogan inscribed on the coat of arms and on flags revered by Serbs everywhere is “Only unity can save the Serbs.” It was the reason, the world was told, that the war was being waged.


But now that many Serbs from Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia have joined their Serbian brothers here in the capital of the motherland, the myth of Serbian unity is exploding.

Bosnian Serbs living in Belgrade have developed their own subculture, like a foreign immigrant community. Easily identifiable by their accents, they frequent their own cafes and marry among themselves. Many find they are victims of discrimination, from being denied citizenship rights to being forced to work menial jobs at all hours and for the lowest wages.

Few have been able to integrate into Belgrade’s social and economic mainstream. Most live in poverty. And even those who succeed financially are routinely viewed as outsiders, left on the fringes, typecast as war profiteers or loud nouveaux riches in a nation that feels inundated by the refugees it once welcomed.

Regional distinctions are proving stronger than ethnic ties. “You can feel the difference,” said Corak, 35, a native of the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, who came to Belgrade when war erupted in Bosnia five years ago. “We are the same religion, but we are not the same people.”

Most of the estimated 700,000 Bosnian and Croatian Serbs who have come to the rump Yugoslavia, made up of Serbia and Montenegro, are not entitled to Yugoslav citizenship. They have no right to vote and cannot enter into legal agreements, meaning they cannot own homes or cars. In many respects, they have even fewer rights than a resident foreigner, such as an Italian or American.

Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, once the Serbs’ chief nationalist, has limited the political clout of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs. Most who moved to Serbia during the war are disillusioned refugees angry at Milosevic for abandoning them. He cannot afford their potential votes against him.


Even babies born in Belgrade to people such as Corak are denied Serbian citizenship. “At the hospital, they asked me whether I wanted my child to be a Bosnian or a Croat. I’ve lived here five years--my child can be Bosnian or Croat but not Serbian,” Corak said. “I am a man without an identity.”

By other standards, Corak has done well in Belgrade. When he fled Sarajevo in April 1992, he left behind a thriving furniture business and a nice house. In Belgrade, he married a Bosnian Serb from Sarajevo and now manages and co-owns Agatha Coffee. The business is registered in his Serbian partner’s name.

Bars and Coffeehouses as Ethnic Redoubts

Belgrade revolves around its cafe society. And in it, sharp lines are drawn between Serbian and Bosnian Serbs. Agatha’s is clearly a Bosnian Serb place--a fact that can be seen in the familiarity among the patrons, most of whom are from Sarajevo, and heard in the music that is played. Some Belgraders say even the drinks that are ordered, such as cognac and Coke on the rocks, are a giveaway.

A cool Belgrade Serb would not be caught dead in a Bosnian Serb hangout, and a Bosnian Serb would probably be shunned in a Belgrade Serb place.

The differences may not be discernible to an outsider. Many of the perceptions are based on bias, stereotypes and old-fashioned snobbery. But to people in Belgrade who adhere to a strict social code, prejudice dictates real segregation.

So the Bosnian Serbs gather at bars and cafes where they know one another, or where everyone comes from the same cities and towns. The Bosnians call these places “enclaves,” a play on the United Nations word for havens designated to protect minorities, usually Muslims, during the Bosnian war.


Many Bosnian Serbs here live a kind of ghetto existence, residing or working in clusters. A boom in 24-hour hamburger stands, for example, is linked to the arrival of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs willing to work around the clock for low wages--work that Serbian Serbs won’t do.

Nenad Petrovic, a Serbian Serb and native of Belgrade, runs a coffee bar in a fashionable section of the city. Bosnian Serbs, he said, are definitely unwelcome.

“The waiters have instructions not to be polite to any Bosnians who come in,” he said. “And it’s important not to play the music they like. . . . Before the war, we liked the way they joked. We liked their music. But then things changed. Those of us who know a lot of Bosnians have reduced to the minimum level our contact with them, except for longtime friends.”

The segregation takes odd twists. Petrovic said that when Mexican beer was first imported to the rump Yugoslavia in 1995, it happened that a Bosnian Serb acquired the Corona franchise, while the Sol brand went to a Serbian Serb. Now, Corona is regarded as a “Bosnian beer” sold at Bosnian Serb bars, he said; Sol is a staple at Serbian establishments.

Petrovic also said he will not employ a Bosnian Serb as a waiter because that would “irritate” his customers, who regard the Bosnians as gruff and unmannered.

Yet, he said, when he places an ad for a waiter, almost 80% of those who reply are Bosnian or Croatian Serbs. The police once rushed to the coffee bar when dozens of Bosnian Serbs were milling about; they had come in response to an employment ad, but neighbors were alarmed at seeing a crowd of “those people.”


Prejudice That Cuts Both Ways

A particularly industrious newcomer is often greeted with jealousy. And the prejudice can cut both ways.

Ratko Dmitrovic, a Croatian Serb who left the Croatian capital, Zagreb, for Belgrade shortly after Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, was a prominent journalist in Zagreb. He eased into a high-profile on-camera job with state television in Belgrade. Competition with Croatian Croats sharpened his work ethic, he said.

“I had to be two times better than a Croat in Croatia,” he said. “So when I came to Belgrade, it was normal to excel. It was natural that I’d be a winner. . . . We in Croatia come from a completely different cultural milieu. We have sharper working habits and are more responsible in our jobs. These are not habits in Serbia.”

Belgrade Serbs tend to be lazy, he said. They will sleep the day away and watch television while the Croatian and Bosnian Serbs toil. “Some who came from Bosnia and Croatia earned more in three years than a Serbian Serb does in 30 years,” said Dmitrovic, who now edits his own newspaper, Argument. “This is the source of some of the conflicts and misunderstandings.”

The first Bosnian and Croatian Serbs to flock to Serbia, fleeing the fighting that spread across the former Yugoslav federation in 1991-92, were welcomed like heroes. They fit into the political schemes of nationalists, who exploited the refugees as evidence of Muslim and Croatian aggression and abuse.

But the war that the Serbs were supposed to win easily dragged on for years. The refugees kept coming. The heroes were increasingly seen as burdens. While the earliest waves of Bosnian and Croatian Serbs were generally educated and urban, the later arrivals included more farmers and peasants. Sympathy faded to disdain.


The rump Yugoslavia’s own economy began to tumble, due in part to international sanctions imposed because of Belgrade’s warmongering. Many resentful Serbian Serbs blamed the refugees.

The final turning point probably came after the fall of the Krajina, a strip of Croatia seized by the Serbs in 1991 but recaptured by a newly invigorated Croatian army in August 1995. About 200,000 Croatian Serbs fled toward Serbia in just a few days’ time. Those refugees symbolized defeat.

Antipathy toward them was manipulated and fomented by Milosevic, for whom the fleeing refugees were a catastrophic political liability, according to analysts and human rights experts who have studied their plight. His government inflated the notion that the refugees would sap the treasury; he deflected blame from himself to the victims his policies had created.

Meanwhile, the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs--in contrast to the protection and safety they expected--fell victim to violent roundups by Serbian police. Young men were press-ganged into the military, and in the forced conscriptions, official complicity only emphasized the betrayal. The Serbian government’s refugee agency and the Serbian Red Cross handed to police lists with the names and addresses of refugees, making it easy to find them and haul them away, human rights monitors say.

A ‘Motherland’ That Really Isn’t

“The war,” said human rights attorney Biljana Vuco, “was a war for territory.” Despite the rhetoric and propaganda claims, “the war was not about protecting Serbs and Serbia but to gain territory.”

Vuco, an associate with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, which works with refugees, said most Bosnian and Croatian Serbs here never really wanted to come to Serbia. “They were really closer to Croatia or Bosnia than to Serbia,” she said. “Serbia was never a ‘motherland’ for them in that sense.”


Unable or unwilling to go home, many Bosnian and Croatian Serbs are increasingly disillusioned and depressed, Vuco said. There have been reports of suicides, and psychological counseling has not been made available to this community, she said.

A government census taken last year found that 10% of Belgrade’s population, or about 170,000 people, were refugees from Bosnia or Croatia. The actual number is probably higher, since many refugees were afraid to be counted by a government they do not trust.

Cut Adrift, Wedded and Resigned

Ratka Crkvenjas and her three best friends were young Bosnian Serb women in Sarajevo when war broke out. She and two friends fled, “to escape that madness,” while the fourth remained behind.

Surprisingly, and despite what the woman who stayed in Sarajevo endured, her life today is probably superior to that of Crkvenjas in Belgrade.

First, Crkvenjas, 26, could not complete her university studies in Belgrade and instead began work as a waitress and in other odd jobs. Through other Bosnian Serbs, she eventually landed a position with a printing firm, where she works long days and many weekends at low pay.

Home is a one-room apartment where the kitchen occupies the entry and a bare bulb provides the light. The apartment is neat and clean, decorated with essential furniture such as a sectional sofa that doubles as the bed.


Crkvenjas shares the place with Ljubisa Vujic, her husband, a Serb from Croatia whom she met in Belgrade two years ago and who works up to three shifts a day in the kitchen of a nearby restaurant. They have a blond baby, Nina.

“What connected us was the situation,” she said one night over coffee in her apartment. “We had the same problems. We understood each other. For material reasons, I don’t think it’s for the best that refugees hook up. It would be better to marry a Belgrade guy. But that is terribly difficult.”

Crkvenjas confides something that many fellow Serbs from Bosnia only reluctantly admit. She felt closer to the Muslims and Croats, not to mention the Serbs, of Sarajevo than she does to the Serbs of Serbia. “I think the place for those of us who left Sarajevo is far, far, far away from here,” she said.