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Serbian ultranationalists struggle against a changing homeland

Serbian ultranationalists who recently sparked football match riots in Italy are trying to destabilize Serbia, analysts say. However, their voices are not representative of a country moving increasingly towards Europe.

A Serbia man climbs a fence at the football match between Italy and Serbia in Genoa

The football match was later called off because of the riots

It was more than brute violence: the recent heavy rioting at a European football match between Italy and Serbia in Genoa on Tuesday could not be put down solely to the actions of a few hooligans.

This tainting of the Serbian national team was the result of ultranationalist groups who were bent on venting their discontent with the direction their country is taking, say experts from the Brussels think-tank the Centre for European Policy Studies (CEPS).

This small part of the Serbian population feels unfairly treated and betrayed by the new orientation taken by their country towards Europe. This underlying anger has used as its trigger the difficult economic conditions currently affecting Serbia, as well as the high levels of unemployment - which stands at around 20 percent - and the still-raw memories of the breakup of Yugoslavia.

The ringleader of the Serbian riots is arrested

Police detained 17 people after the riots

The ultranationalists have seemingly set themselves the goal of making as much noise as possible, but, according to the CEPS, this does not mean the movement enjoys support from the broader Serbian community.

"Serbia was and still is a traditional and orthodox country, where the influence of the church and history is big," explains Georg Dura, an analyst with CEPS. "But above all, Serbia must make peace with the past in order to move on with the future. The majority of Serbs agree with this."

Eye to Europe

Dura says that only one minority within Serbia was represented by the ultranationalists, who, he adds, are increasingly "losing ground."

"They have now realized this and are reacting this way as a result," Dura says. "They feel their leaders have sold them out by, for example, taking a more moderate approach towards [the breakaway region of] Kosovo in recent months."

Anti-gay protestors clash with Serbian riot police

Anti-gay protestors clashed with Serbian riot police

The CEPS analyst says the government in Belgrade has actively been trying to show the European Union that it values the fundamental tenants of a free society such as tolerance and democracy through cooperation over Kosovo, and by publicly supporting a recent gay Pride Parade.

Traditionalist and nationalist groups in Serbia have rejected both these overtures categorically.

According to CEPS, the story of Serbia over recent years has been unique, and has left the country deeply divided into backward-orientated and forward-looking factions. For this reason, it is difficult to compare the country of around seven million with other European states.

"As time has passed opposition has disappeared, and the population has become more open and tolerant. These have all been lessons learned on the way to the EU. A society must be open, the citizens must have the freedom of speech," he says, adding that social changes take time, especially when dealing with post-communist states like Serbia.

EU support 'integral'

The Serbian and Kosovo flags

Serbia has not yet recognized Kosovo as an independent state

Dura says that the European Union has supported Serbia in the days following the football riots in Italy, and must continue to help the country on its path towards EU integration.

"The good relations with the EU have not been clouded by these events. But the EU must give Serbia membership candidate status to immediately shore up their support for democratic change in the country," Dura says.

"The EU must now support Serbia politically and economically," says the analyst, adding that this will provide Serbian youth with a brighter future, and encourage the government to continue to make progress on social and political reforms.

Author: Marina Maksimovic, Mirjana Dikic (dfm)
Editor: Rob Turner

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