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Region: Balkans, Europe
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Subject: Victory Day
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Alexander Pivovarenko

Ph.D. in History, Senior Research Associate, RAS Institute of Slavonic Studies, RIAC Expert

The attitude to Victory Day in the Balkans can at best be described as positive to neutral. This date certainly exists in the public and media space. Remembrance events are held, and speeches are made. Local news feeds feature reports of the “grand military parade in Moscow”, and yet in most cases it is shown as a kind of spectacle, in recognition of modern Russia’s geopolitical might.

The attitude to Victory Day in the Balkans can at best be described as positive to neutral. This date certainly exists in the public and media space. Remembrance events are held, and speeches are made. Local news feeds feature reports of the “grand military parade in Moscow”, and yet in most cases it is shown as a kind of spectacle, in recognition of modern Russia’s geopolitical might.

The most significant events are held in Belgrade. The country’s top military brass and leading politicians lay wreaths at the Monument to the Unknown Hero (erected to commemorate those killed in World War I) and the Monument to the Soviet War Veterans, both on Mount Avala. Ceremonies are held at the Monument to the Liberators of Belgrade and the Fallen Soldiers Memorial. In the evening, modest yet festive fireworks are held at Kalemegdan, an ancient fortress at the heart of the Serbian capital.

However, across almost the entire Balkan Peninsula, the May 9 holiday does not occupy an important place in the calendar. It is a working day in all Balkan nations (except the Republic of Serbia), and a recognized public holiday in Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina only. It is, thus, no surprise that the leaders of these Balkan nations (Tomislav Nikolić, Milorad Dodik, Bosnia’s Muslim leader Bakir Izetbegović and Macedonian President Gjorge Ivanov) stated their unequivocal desire to attend the May 9 celebrations in Moscow, unlike their Montenegrin, Croatian and Bulgarian counterparts.

Thus, what this author has witnessed (and this has been confirmed by his Serbian colleagues) is that even the most ceremonial events do not have the same significance for Serbia as Victory Day has for Russia. There are several reasons for this:

  • The complex nature of military operations in the Balkans, especially Yugoslavia. [1]
  • The fact that there are other memorable dates and events from World War II.
  • The importance of other historic events that form a public consensus.
  • The importance of religious celebrations and other national holidays.
  • Attempts by the nation’s leaders to impose a neutral, politically correct nature to the May 9 celebrations.
  • Close historic and cultural ties with Russia.

Ideological complexity

www.novosti.rs
Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation
of Yugoslavia

First and foremost, it should be noted that there was no clear frontline in the Balkans during World War II, and no sense of who was right and who was wrong in the classical sense. This is because the War was a complicated affair politically, ideologically and from ethnic and religious points of view.

The Kingdom of Yugoslavia entered the War on April 6, 1941. And by the time it was over, that country no longer existed, being replaced by the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The German, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian occupation forces were active in the region. The parties to the conflict included the royal government that turned into a government-in-exile, and the civil administrations of occupied Serbia and Slovenia, whose leaders chose collaboration as the only way to alleviate the situation for the people. The Ustaše-ruled Independent State of Croatia is well known [2]. There was also Draža Mihailović’s Serbian nationalist Chetnik movement (the Ravna Gora Movement) and the international partisan movement led by Tito [3]. In addition, there existed so-called “tactical collaborationism”, when this or that party fighting for liberation resorted to agreements with the occupation forces to win tactical advantages in the given area [4].

There was no clear frontline in the Balkans during World War II, and no sense of who was right and who was wrong in the classical sense. This is because the War was a complicated affair politically, ideologically and from ethnic and religious points of view.

The war was thus complex in nature, taking on the features of both the national liberation movement and civil conflict. As a result of the Communist partisan movement’s victory, the ideological enemies who had managed to escape political repression were forced to leave the country. After more than 40 years in emigration, they only were able to return home following the collapse of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the emergence of national states in its place, where they were accepted by the new elites. Objectively, this implied a revision of the Socialist concept of victory and the need for a new public debate. However, the collapse of the single state and the formation of the young republics, as well as the emergence of the powerful buffer of democracy separating the right and the left, have led to a freeze of the old ideological dispute “until better days come”. All this has served to complicate public attitude towards the May 9 holiday and downplay its significance.

Memorable Dates

The war was thus complex in nature, taking on the features of both the national liberation movement and civil conflict.

It is important to note that there are certain events in the history of World War II in Yugoslavia that are no less significant – or perhaps even more important – than those of May 9, 1945. There is thus no logical reason for celebrating this date. Such events include the liberation of large cities such as Belgrade (October 12–20 1944), Sarajevo (April 5, 1945, in Bosnian), Ljubljana and Zagreb (May 8–9). Another memorable date is the breaking of the Syrmian frontline (April 12, 1945). In addition, the Socialist Yugoslavia also marked the emergence of the Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Yugoslavia (AVNOJ) and the republican councils: the State Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Croatia (ZAVNOH), the Anti-Fascist Assembly for the National Liberation of Serbia (ASNOS), the Montenegrin Anti-Fascist Assembly of National Liberation (CASNO), and others. These dates were of major importance because it is the republican councils that served as the prototype of the republics that joined the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945. These events were of such importance that even today many see them as a pretext to fly a red-star flag and put on the famous Titovka cap, as well as May 4, the birthday of the Yugoslavian leader.

Looking at the calendars of the countries that emerged after the breakup of Yugoslavia, we see that they contain completely different holiday dates. For example, the beginning of the anti-Fascist uprising is remembered (June 22 is Anti-Fascist Struggle Day in Croatia, with the same holiday being celebrated on October 11 in Macedonia), while Slovenia celebrates the Day of Uprising Against Occupation (April 27). Another memorable date is May 15, the real end of military operations in Yugoslavia. However, as all these dates are associated with the Socialist concept of Victory, they are not shared by the members of other ideological camps. For example, Croats have remembrance days to commemorate the victims of “Communist repression”. And in Serbia, the descendants of the Chetniks who fought against occupants as well as Tito’s Partisans, have their own celebration in May, marching in the places where the movement emerged in the spring of 1941.


www.radioposavina.com
Vladimir Putin attends celebratory events in
Belgrad, October, 16th

As for the May 9 military parades, we should remember that they were only held on round-number anniversaries in the USSR and the SFRY (in 1965, 1975, 1985 and 1990 in the USSR, and in 1965, 1970, 1975 and 1985 in the SFRY). There were also other celebration dates (May 1 and November 7 in the USSR, and October 20 in the SFRY). The annual Victory Parade tradition in May was established in the new Russia, where it has obtained a meaning of its own over the 20 years of relative political stability since the fall of the Soviet Union. Setting up such a celebration has proved impossible in Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, another reason for downplaying the importance of this celebration.

The People’s Memory and “National Reconciliation”

Finally, the history of the Balkan nations contains dates and events that are objectively more important for shaping the public consensus. First of all, these are the days of statehood and autonomy associated with the recently obtained independence (for most former Yugoslavia republics), and the national liberation struggle in the 19th century (for Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, the Republika Srpska and Macedonia). In Serbia, World War I is included among such events. Another memorable and unifying date is the anniversary of the beginning of NATO aggression (March 24, 1999), despite increasingly frank attempts by the country’s political leadership to alleviate the negative attitude of the Serbs to the NATO bombings.

The most convenient solution for the Balkan elites may be to give a more neutral status to the event.

In this respect, it is necessary to mention the “Step towards Victory” military parade in Belgrade held on October 16, 2014, the first in 29 years. The parade was timed to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the city’s liberation and the 100th anniversary of World War I. Not only does this look like a one-time action to boost the prestige of Serbia’s current leadership, but it is also as an attempt to assert its own day of military glory comparable to Russia’s May 9 celebrations. The presence of the Russian President at the parade, as well as the participation of Serbian military officers in the Moscow parade, is an important step in this direction.


The Liberation of Zagreb, 1945

Meanwhile, the same thing is happening in the other republics. A good example of such an attitude to the military memory is Croatia. This country has its own Patriotic War – the Croatian War of Independence (Donovinski Rat in Croatian) fought in 1991–1995. Victory in this war served to cement the ideology of the modern Croatian state, and the dates May 1–3 and August 4–7 are celebrated as the “Croatian Victory Days” in commemoration of the Croatian army’s decisive operations to “restore the country’s territorial integrity” (Operation Lightening and Operation Storm) [5]. Incidentally, it is in May (May 28, 1991 and May 30, 1995), both in Croatian) that two most important reviews of the Croatian army took place.

The events of 1991–1995 inevitably raise the topic of the general attitude towards World War II in Croatia. The radical national activities of the Ustaše movement served to significantly compromise Croatia’s state project that re-emerged in the 1990s. To avoid accusations of restoring radical nationalism, a formula was invented that depicted the war as “a tragedy of the Croatian people” split between “the left and right totalitarian ideologies”, and the establishment of democracy in 1991 paved the way for the reconciliation and unification of society. All this helped avoid the negative historical associations, while also justifying the country’s right to independence and territorial integrity; a convenient explanation was found to rationalize collaborationism, which was important in terms of finding the support of the financially and politically powerful Croatian diaspora abroad. What matters is that by revising the importance of the past for the purposes of the present, Zagreb never abandoned official continuity with Socialist Croatia and the glory of “Victory over Fascism”. What is more, with time, the war of 1941–1945 came to be overshadowed by the war of 1991–1995, about which Croatians have no major disagreements.

It should be noted that attitudes to May 9 have acquired a geopolitical meaning this year in Montenegro. In late April.


www.telegraf.rs
The last military parade in Yugoslavia, 1985

Today, amid discussions over which world leaders will come to Moscow on May 9, I am reminded of how then Croatian President Franjo Tuđman was invited to attend the 1995 Victory Parade, held just a few days after the beginning of the Lightening Operation in West Slavonia. The decision of the Russian leadership, which ultimately facilitated the development of diplomatic ties between Russia and Croatia, was criticized by many Russians who sympathized with the Serbs and saw the military campaign as the echo of the anti-Serb repression during World War II. For the Croatian leader himself (he fought on the side of Tito and became a general in the Yugoslav People’s Army), the invitation to Moscow was very important because, in his view, it meant that the country which had made the greatest contribution to the fight against fascism officially recognized the Croatian concept of World War II. The invitation carried an element of recognition that was important for the whole of Croatia. These nuances are significant not only in the context of the decision by Tuđman’s successor Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović to decline Moscow’s invitation 20 years later, but also for the understanding why the events of May 1945 cannot have an unambiguous and primary significance for Croatians.

In the meantime, Zagreb is preparing to stage its own military parade on August 5, 2015 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Croatia’s victory in 1995. No doubt the organizers want to outdo the parade in Belgrade.

Rethinking

This most striking example shows that celebrating the events of May 8–9, 1945 in the Balkans is too complex to impart a universal ideological imperative and insufficiently noticeable compared to other events of national importance. For this reason, the most convenient solution for the Balkan elites may be to give a more neutral status to the event, a day of European reconciliation and unity, timed to coincide with the Schuman Declaration of 1950. And this is already happening: Slovenia is celebrating the anniversary of joining the European Union.


www.in4s.net
In late Apri a banner was installed in the city of
Bar by the movement “Against war – Against
NATO”

In Serbia, events held under the European flag have thus far been modest in scale, yet local politicians are showing increasing confidence in the correctness of the Euro-Atlantic course. In Skopje (Macedonia), national orchestras play on the central square. In Montenegro, youth and student festivals as well as sports events are held under European flags. It should be noted that attitudes to May 9 have acquired a geopolitical meaning this year in Montenegro. In late April, for example, a banner was installed in the city of Bar by the movement “Against war – Against NATO” featuring a Russian soldier stamping on a swastika and the NATO logo. Another banner, with the order of the Patriotic War, was set up on the road between Budva and Tivat, sponsored by a private company. This action was a kind of response to the anti-Russian and pro-NATO posters that appeared in late 2014. Apparently, it is not particularly convenient for a Montenegrin leadership that has chosen a Euro-Atlantic course to give importance to such incidents.

Thus, while Victory Day in Russia signifies glory and national unity, it has no such meaning in the Balkans. World War II split Balkan society, and celebrating May 8–9 is a reminder of this, especially given that significant efforts have been taken since 1991 to mend the gap. Hence the spirit of anti-fascism, national and, in recent times, European reconciliation that can be observed in all the Balkan countries. And there are other celebrations associated with both recent events and World War I that serve to glorify the struggle for liberation and cultivate national memory.

The author would like to thank Momir Nankovic (Institute of Contemporary History, Belgrade, Serbia) for his comments and assistance in preparing this article.

1. See: Gibiansky, L. Y. Yugoslavia During World War II // Yugoslavia in the 20th Century. Studies in Political History. Moscow, 2011, pp. 305–523 (in Russian).

2. The Independent State of Croatia was a puppet state created by the Croatian Ustaše movement, with the support of the Axis nations, on April 10, 1941. As a result of the terror regime pursued by the Ustaše movement against ethnic minorities (Serbs, Jews and Gypsies), an estimated 200,000 to 1.3 million people were killed or forcibly dislocated. For more detail see: Belyakov, S.S. The Ustašes: Between Fascism and Ethnic Nationalism. Yekaterinburg, 2009; Freidzon, V.I. History of Croatia. Moscow, 2001 (both in Russian); Djilas, A. The Contested Country: Yugoslav Unity and Communist Revolution. 1919–1953. Cambridge, London, 1991.

3. The Chetniks (Chetnik Detachments of the Yugoslav Army) was a national Serb movement that emerged in the period of struggle for independence from the Ottoman Empire. In the Kingdom of Serbia and the first Yugoslavia, the Chetniks included military officers and war veterans. Mihailović himself served as a colonel in the king’s army. In the early 1990s, the Chetnik movement reemerged as a conservative Orthodox movement of a distinctly anti-Western character. – A.P.

4. Yugoslavia in the 20th Century. Studies in Political History. Moscow, 2011, p. 425 (in Russian).

5. It should be remembered that a direct consequence of these events was the mass exodus of the Serb population (over 250,000 people) from Croatia, as a result of which the republic took shape as a unitary mono-national state. For more detail see: Guskova, Y.Y. Independent Croatia with Independent Serbs // Yugoslavia in the 20th century. Studies in Political History. Moscow, 2011, pp. 780–801 (in Russian).

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