On Friday we got out of Belgrade and traveled by bus to Novi Sad for the day. The second largest sity in Serbia, Novi Sad is situated in the autonomous province of Vojvodina in the north. The city (and the province in general) is easily the most ethnically heterogeneous place in the whole of the Balkans. While home to a Serb majority, substantial numbers of Hungarians, Roma, Slovaks, and Croats have lived there for nearly as long. Also uncharacteristic for a Serbian city, a large Catholic church sits in the central square in the place of an Orthodox one.
When we arrived, the city was also kicking off the first day of the tenth annual Exit Festival, the largest rock music festival in all of Eastern and Central Europe. Originally organized in part as a youth protest against the Milosevic regime, the festival has taken on a decidedly more commercial character shortening from the original eight days to three and is sponsored by many of Serbia’s domestic beer companies. This has in no way hurt the popularity of the event, however, with people coming from all across Europe to enjoy a rowdy weekend enclosed within the walls of Novi Sad’s Petrovaradin fortress, often called the Gibraltar of the Danube. For better or for worse, we were not there for the concert, so we did not get a chance to tour its huge hilltop expanse.
We did, however, take in the city’s elegant architecture, enjoy lunch on the main square, and visited Novi Sad’s own Jevrejska Street. Unlike its counterpart in Belgrade, the old Jewish quarter ran along one of the city’s main arteries and still has very visible signs of its past. The old synagogue (pictured above) is particularly impressive. While it now serves as a concert hall owned and operated by the city due to Novi Sad’s now much diminished Jewish population, the building is still very much intact and well used. The front wall of the shul bears a small plaque memorializing the deportation of the city’s Jewish population to concentration camps on the very late date of 1944. The building next door, according to the guidebook, used to be a Jewish school and is now home to a large ballet studio.
Between our walk from the synagogue to the fortress, we stopped to interview a number of locals about their thoughts on Kosovo. My expectation was that people living in Vojvodina would be much more likely than those living in Belgrade to be dismissive of the importance of Kosovo to Serbian national identity. Unlike Belgrade, the graffiti in Novi Sad is much more likely to be supporting football clubs than advancing political agendas. We did not see any “1389” banners here. The closest we came to nationalist sentiment on the buildings and pavement was the occasionally repeated stencil in Cyrillic reading “Give Back to us our Cyrillic”. My hunch, assuming we had a representative sample, proved to be only weakly sustained.
The first woman we spoke with was adamant that “everyone” in Novi Sad feels precisely as those in Belgrade do about the southern province; that it is an integral part of Serbia. Of greatest importance for her was Kosovo’s role as the Serbian historical homeland. Yet she admitted that she was originally from Belgrade, so we should speak to others. The next young couple with whom we spoke was originally from Novi Sad and fit the mold of most other 20 and 30 somethings I have met here in Serbia. They began by claiming they had no interest in politics and Kosovo, and that their first priority was to live well. As the conversation progressed, they then said that Kosovo is indeed Serbia, but they just do not want to fight another war to repossess it. Besides, they asked, what are they to do with an Albanian majority that resents Serbian rule? They also differentiated between the importance of Serbian majority territories like Republika Srpska and Montenegro and Kosovo, saying that the latter was much more important to them, even if they could not imagine it again returning to Serbian control.
The next couple was in their 70s and could not speak more than a few words of English. Fortunately, they were quite fluent in Russian. Thanks to Lina, we were able to talk at length about Serbian history, the importance they ascribed to Kosovo, and their resentment at having lost effective sovereignty over it. The husband was originally from Montenegro, and when we asked what he thought about that country’s secession from Yugoslavia in 2005, he felt that it was an unfair outcome that did not express the will of the majority. He was, though, much more interested in the reintegration of Kosovo into Serbia than the land of his birth. Our next conversation was with a Hungarian woman working at an open air ice cream shop. Born in Novi Sad, she stated unequivocally that she had no interest in Kosovo and no interest in politics.
Our final conversation was with a group of pamphleteers from the Radical Party who were handing out materials on how to avoid contracting swine flu. While we spoke to a few people in the crowd, the leader of the group stuck with us the longest. He was insistent not only that Kosovo is Serbia but, it seemed, that all of Dusan’s medieval empire is rightfully Serbia. In making these claims, I am fairly certain he is at odds with his party’s official platform. No matter how nationalist the Radicals may be, as the country’s second largest political party, to claim the whole of the Balkans as Serbia would be international political suicide. In any event, he was clearly very conversant in Serbian history, the role of the Orthodox church in sustaining Serbian national identity during Ottoman domination of the Balkans, and the problems of positing historical continuity between the ancient Illyrians and the modern Albanians.
After wandering the city and conducting these on-the-spot interviews, we made our way back to the bus station to return to Belgrade for Shabbat. Much to our dismay, the company on which we had purchased a return ticket had no buses driving to Belgrade that day. Cutting our losses, we bought a new set of tickets and got on the first available bus on a different line. This bus definitely took the scenic route home, stopping at every minor town and village along the way. We got in barely before Shabbat giving us just enough time to hike up the hill to the synagogue to arrive 45 minutes late for davening. Although the Rabbi had invited us for dinner, we were just too wiped. We thanked him for his generosity and went back to the hotel to sleep.