Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…Election day in Serbia…May 11, 2008…

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“This wine is like giggles in my mouth,” Mia says.

She looks around. “I haven’t drunk wine in a park for ages.” She laughs with the tips of her fingers pressed against her lips and seems to have a thought, but does not voice it. She sighs and we begin.

“If I had the power to change anything? I would close the borders to all foreign journalists. They are so boring. I’m kidding. Actually I would put a condition that they had to have a special visa. So they could understand our frustration. We have to buy our airplane tickets without knowing if we have the visa to go somewhere. Most of the people that are making the big decisions in the world have no why to relate to the rest of it. The people that are defining the final status of Kosovo are doing it without ever having been to Kosovo. That bothers me.”

Party members await election results outside the offices of the Democratic Party (DS) in Belgrade, Serbia on May 11, 2008.

It is election day in Serbia again.

The day Serbia will (again) choose between EU integration and nationalism. All the polls, all the experts, they say a vote for EU integration at this point is a lost hope. The Radicals will win the most seats and join in a coalition with DSS, gaining the majority necessary to form a government. Tadic will still be president, but powerless. Serbia will have chosen everything that does not seem to be best for its future.

Mia and I are sitting on a bench outside the old parliament building in the center of Belgrade. It was here that Mia stood alongside thousands of other Serbs, demanding the end of the Milosevic regime, hoping to better their country, ultimately succeeding. Yet now again the country is caught up in the throes of nationalism.

Stefani, the Albanian journalist walks by with his new Serbian girlfriend.

Their relationship is secret. Her parents and friends are nationalist. He has often complained to me how hard it is to be an Albanian in Serbia. It has at times driven him to panic. A few weeks before, Dominic and I were arguing about the need to buy groceries when Stefani called, asking us to help him move. With the nationalist victory approaching he felt unsafe at the apartment he was certain Serbian security services knew he lived in.

We helped him move into a temporary apartment. Trying to placate his demands not to be alone, I sleep on the couch.

“If you look up masochist in the dictionary you will find a photo of an Albanian in Belgrade,” he says. “I like these people. They don’t like me though. I tell them I am Albanian and everything changes. The war was that bad. The Serbs hit us with everything they had. Like we were nothing to them. My brother was tall. They paid special attention to him. He lived, but they beat him. They stopped us at every checkpoint from Peja to the Montenegrin border.”

With his girlfriend, a cheerful Serb film student, Stefani seems happier. But the future of their happiness has come into question with the day.

I ask Mia to tell me about herself.

“My mother writes a municipal newsletter. My father is a lawyer and painter. I never planned to join a political party. At twenty I never had any clue that DSS had a youth party. I joined because of my belief in Kostunica and what he had accomplished.”

Beyond politics she likes French literature. Intricate prose. She’d like to translate books into Serbian. She laughs, “I never expected this outcome. I am so deeply involved in politics. Not that I want to escape. I like politics. They are something I really like. I am committed to international affairs and cooperation with other parties.

“There is an other hand. I lost things. My social life. Maybe I can’t be proud of it. I used to paint a lot too. My hobbies are almost gone. I’ve gained a lot too though. The possibility to travel. I never thought I’d get to visit places like Cyprus, Estonia, and Finland. All the people I have met. That is something priceless. Something to be very thankful for. Only eleven percent of Serbs have passports. Yes, I am very lucky.”

“Why has Serbia been unable to bring the war criminals to justice?”*

“It is not just Serbia. We are fulfilling all other criteria for the EU from an economic standpoint. The EU is holding Serbia hostage. You cannot blame Serbia for not finding Mladic and Karadzic. It is not a hard thing to do. Western agencies know where they are. Why don’t they capture them? It would be a very unpopular thing for a politician to do that here. And how would you measure their crimes? What is the criteria? And who will be the one to say who the victims are? My grandfather was a Serb who lost his leg to another Serb because he was trying to help a Muslim. How many victims are there? There are heavy crimes on all sides. I don’t understand why I should be punished for something Mladic did when I was against it and my parents were against it.”

“Why will the Radicals win today?”

“The people who vote for the Radicals have never seen anything better in their lives. DS is very patronizing towards Serbia. So the natural reaction towards them is opposing that. That is what will happen today. I cannot judge that. I understand it.”


Igor is standing next to his motorcycle outside his office.

“I’ve found a buyer. Let’s use this a last time. First I want to vote. Then we’ll go shoot.”

Igor is so often carrying around a camera that I have almost forgotten that he will want to vote today.

fterwards, I ask who he voted for.

“LDP,” he says. The Liberal Democratic Party. A new party that is growing in popularity, LDP does not oppose Kosovo’s independence declaration and demands that Serbia immediately make all the necessary steps to join the EU. Though there are only a few members of LDP in parliament Igor says, “They’ll be popular someday. Like in twenty years. OK, maybe ten.”

He laughs.

“Fucking Serbia.”

Arranging our cameras we mount the motorcycle and drive to Gavrilo Princip primary school deep in Radical controlled Zemun. Several of the school’s floors have been closed for the voting. Ballots are filled out and inserted into cardboard boxes.

This is Serbia voting.

The great act of democracy and self-determination that is granted to populations amid the speeches and propaganda, both true and false, to choose the individuals that seek to lead.

After photographing the voting we return to downtown and watch the local news.

When the voting is over and the ballots are nearly finished being counted we drive to the Radical Party office.

Again, there are the plates of pork and plastic glasses of whiskey.

We insert ourselves into the group of photographers who are already hunched between the tables and wait for the announcement to be made.

Igor and I thought we could photograph the Radical’s victory press conference, transmit the pictures, and then grouse over Serbian non-integration and the slow pace of societal change.

The announcement that the Radicals have won is not coming, however.

I get an SMS from Dominic. He is watching the results come in at the Democrat’s office.

The voting is much closer than expected.

A red haired TV reporter who I remember from the election in January as always having the most up to the minute information begins thumbing over her phone.

I text to Dominic: What is happening at the Dems?

His reply comes amid the buzzing of dozens of cell phones being clutched in the room.

The photographers stand up.

“Follow me,” says Gremlin, the chubby Associated Press photographer. “I know the way.”

Gremlin gets up onto one of the surrounding tables and clamors over it, pushing his way through the crowd of Radicals who are staring at their cell phones and speaking in low voices in the smokey packed hallway.

Igor and I follow Gremlin over the table and out onto the street. He, too, has a motorcycle and we go… speeding through Zemun… across the Brancov bridge to Terazie…where a group of supporters is quickly gathering outside the Democrat’s office.

Members of the youth brigade light off flares in the middle of the road. They press the Serbian and EU flag together and cheer.

Fucking Serbia,” Igor says. “I want to see what is happening at the main office.”

At DS headquarters on Krunska Street there is a crowd of satisfied looking older supporters and government ministers on the steps and balcony. They are holding glasses of wine. A woman raises up her arms, looks up at the night sky, and yells joyfully…silently…with her entire body.

It is almost too much to believe. This is against everything…everyone…has predicted.

Somehow, DS has won.

Only later it will become clear.

The nationalists received the most votes, but by making a coalition with the Socialists, ironically Milosevic’s former party, DS takes control of parliament.

Tadic and the top members of DS appear before the cameras and toast their victory with champagne.

I hold down the shutter of my camera through the toast. Tadic’s eyes are huge. As if he is thinking of the colossal next phase that awaits.

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Written by Justin Vela

October 4, 2011 at 11:16 am

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