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How Serbian street art is using the past to shape the future

A new mural of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladić has sparked both outrage and approval in Belgrade. But as Aleks Eror explains, the veneration of historical, wartime figures through modern-day art is no new phenomenon in the former Yugoslavia — and in most cases is firmly focused on the future, rather than retelling the past.

14 December 2021

Belgrade’s Njegoševa Street is one of the most affluent areas of the Serbian capital. Lined with upscale boutiques and premium ice cream shops, it wouldn’t look out of place in Milan or Rome. But despite being one of the Balkans’ most desirable stretches of real estate, Njegoševa is blanketed in graffiti. Most can be traced back to Grobari Vračar, a local gang of football ultras. Tags spelling out the letters “GV” in Cyrillic can be found scrawled across each façade, while a mural dedicated to legendary FK Partizan striker, Stjepan Bobek, stands proudly at the intersection with Smiljanićeva Street.

But one piece of graffiti in particular has captured Serbia’s attention. In July 2021, a mural depicting General Ratko Mladić, a convicted war criminal and the military leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the Yugoslav Wars, appeared on a wall on the corner of Njegoševa and Aleksa Nenadović Street. It came accompanied with the words: “general, many thanks to your mother”.

The mural Ratko Mladić of on Belgrade’s Njegoševa Street. Image: Aleks Eror

The mural Ratko Mladić of on Belgrade’s Njegoševa Street. Image: Aleks Eror

To some, the mural might look like an attempt to rewrite the past, by glorifying a convicted war criminal as a hero. In truth, in this case the past matters less than the future. Across the Balkans, political actors are using art alongside other means to reframe history. In the process, they hope to construct narratives that can be used to shape the future.

For Serbian progressives, Mladić is a source of shame and a stain on the national conscience. The mural has been vandalised multiple times in recent months. Yet for nationalists, Mladić is a hero who defended Serbian civilians from slaughter during the Bosnian War. Any damage is quickly scrubbed away by menacing young men in hoodies and Air Max trainers, who now take shifts guarding the artwork for almost 24 hours a day.

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In an attempt to end this game of political ping-pong, activist group Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR) allegedly made several fruitless requests to state bodies to have the mural removed. In November, they finally lost patience and announced that its activists would take down the mural themselves. This, predictably, enraged local nationalists, who declared that they would protect it by any means necessary. On the night of 9 November, there was a standoff between the two sides in front of the mural. Riot police surrounded YIHR activists, both preventing them from vandalising the mural, and saving them from having their heads kicked in by rightwingers.

But this isn’t the only mural devoted to Mladić in Belgrade. There’s at least a handful in the capital, and many more across Serbia and the ethnic Serbian enclave of Republika Srpska in Bosnia. Songs and banners celebrating Mladić can be spotted at football matches.

Many in Belgrade find his veneration painful and insupportable. “Symbols that depict convicted war criminals favourably are intolerable in any civilised society. Ratko Mladić disgraced both Serbia and its army by committing crimes against a civilian population,” says 28 year-old Marko Mihailović. He attended protests in solidarity with two women who were forcefully arrested after throwing eggs at the Mladic mural.

He attended the protest because “it was important to me to witness firsthand yet another symptom of the collapse of rule of law in Serbia,” he says. “[That] could be seen in the hundreds of cops that were mobilised to protect a single graffiti – which is in itself an offence [vandalism]. There would’ve been no need for a protest had the municipality, city or state performed its legal duty, which is to remove the graffiti and other hate symbols.”

But images of Mladic do still draw support from a wide segment of Serbian society, including many young people. “We’re overdoing it when we have, I don’t know, ten Ratko Mladić murals and want to paint a million more,” says Aleksandar Aleksić, a 22-year-old political science student from Belgrade who describes himself as a hard-right nationalist. He asserts that even though Serbian forces did commit atrocities during the Yugoslav Wars, these were the crimes of rogue soldiers and paramilitaries over which Mladić had no control. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia disagreed. They sentenced Mladić to life imprisonment on charges of genocide, and crimes against humanity in 2017.

“I get that it’s excessive and extreme, but on the other hand it’s necessary to show and educate future generations [who Mladić was], so that one day my son or daughter asks: ‘dad, dad, who’s that? Why is he there?’. That man achieved something for this country, so I think that he deserves some kind of tribute,” says Aleksić. “So, this [mural] is in some way a tribute to Ratko Mladić and an expression of gratitude. It’s the most that those who celebrate him can do at a time when he’s imprisoned.”

Across the Balkans, political actors are using art alongside other means to reframe history. In the process, they hope to construct narratives that can be used to shape the future

The veneration of war criminals through art isn’t an exclusively Serbian phenomenon. Across the former Yugoslavia — as elsewhere in the world — art is a tool of ideology. But the public nature of artworks such as murals means that they have been seized upon throughout the region to push historical narratives about the Yugoslav Wars, litigating upon who were the victims, and who were the aggressors.

In Croatia, murals commemorate General Ante Gotovina, who is widely regarded by Serbs as a war criminal. On 28 November 2021, ethnic Croat supporters of Bosnian football club NK Široki Brijeg unfurled a banner decorated with the face of Mladić’s Bosnian-Croat counterpart, Slobodan Praljak, who theatrically killed himself by drinking poison when he was convicted of crimes against humanity in an ICTY courtroom. Another mural in Belgrade depicting former Serbian prime minister Zoran Djindjić, who led the resistance against Slobodan Milošević in the 1990s before being assassinated in 2003, has been repeatedly defaced.

Most outsiders describe this modern-day glorification of wartime figures as historical revisionism: the act of contesting the facts or data from past events. In reality, all of these narratives, many of which negate or play down wartime atrocities, are very much tied to the present.

Unlike physics or biology, history is a human science, not a natural one. Optimistic Westerners looking in at the Balkans from the outside often mistakenly believe that history has been settled, and that the region should “look towards the future instead”. But what they often fail to comprehend is that the past is not a withered limb that has been amputated from the present, preserved in a glass box to be inspected and analysed by objective eyes.

History is as malleable as memories themselves, and it is often moulded by political actors in order to shape society into their desired form. After the Second World War, the purpose of Germany’s vergangenheitsbewältigung [overcoming the past] culture wasn’t to construct a mental Holocaust museum, but to create a new society fundamentally different to the one that came before it.

Similarly, by glorifying the past and cementing the nationalistic status quo that emerged during the disintegration of Yugoslavia, Belgrade’s Mladić mural uses the past to shape a very certain vision of the future. Many of the same actors who were in government during the 1990s are in power in Serbia today. Although they may project a more polished image in 2021, their core ideological values remain unchanged.

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“This isn’t historical revisionism; what we’re actually now witnessing is the formation of history,” says Vladimir Miladinović, a visual artist and illustrator whose work addresses the politics of remembering, media manipulation and the creation and reinterpretation of history in modern Serbia. “We now have a situation where these official statements about what happened during the 1990s are becoming the official narratives for the future”.

Art is an effective tool for sharing these ideas and stories, because it’s far more engaging than any election leaflet or campaign ad. But murals aren’t the only artform being used to contest collective memory in post-Yugoslav states. Progressives have frequently used film and theatre to raise questions about the war and drive public debate about the present-day societies shaped by those conflicts. There’s also a growing number of historical dramas and biopics that are largely backed by state funding and serve to retell the suffering of particular ethnic groups. Dara of Jasenovac tells the story of a World War II-era concentration camp, where Croatian fascists exterminated tens of thousands of Serbs and Roma. Quo Vadis, Aida? is a Bosnian account of the Srebrenica massacre. Meanwhile, Croatian production The General celebrates the life of the aforementioned Ante Gotovina.

“These are actually state projects. If we look at funding concourses and observe which productions get the most cash and resources, that clearly shows us what the narrative is and what needs to be reinforced,” says Miladinović. “These states that emerged out of the collapse of Yugoslavia are all struggling to form new national identities. What’s common among all these identities is that everybody insists on portraying themselves as the victims. There’s this general sense of victimisation that exists and seeks to position every side as the biggest victim [of the wars].”

A still from Dara of Jasenovac (2020), dir. by Predrag Antonijević

A still from Dara of Jasenovac (2020), dir. by Predrag Antonijević

Honourable victimhood has always been central to Serbian national identity. The founding myth of Serbian nationalism centres around the Battle of Kosovo Field in 1389, where the Serbian army fought a valiant but doomed battle against an incoming Ottoman invasion, which ended in a costly draw that robbed both sides of their respective leaders: Prince Lazar and Sultan Murad. Despite temporarily halting the invaders, Serb forces were so decimated that they lacked the manpower to fend off the next offensive and were subsequently colonised by the Ottomans. This noble defeat is celebrated with immense pride because it depicts Serbia as a nation of fearless underdogs who will defend their faith, land and culture even if it destroys them.

Victimhood can help wash the conscience of culpability. Even a victim with blood on their hands can claim that they acted in self-defense. If Serbs are the real victims of the Yugoslav Wars, then the likes of Ratko Mladić are modern-day Prince Lazars, sacrificing everything to defend Serbian interests against powerful foreign aggressors. Similarly, the lionisation of Gotovina in Croatia and Naser Orić in Bosnia seeks to negate the atrocities they committed against ethnic Serbs by painting them as righteous freedom fighters.

History is as malleable as memories themselves, and it is often moulded by political actors shape society

But for this to work, crimes such as those committed by Mladić must be downplayed. “There’s this constant negation of these unsavoury aspects of the past for which there simply isn’t space for in public discourse and in history,” says Miladinović.

The image of Mladić may be a piece of nationalist propaganda. But it is also designed to preserve the cause that Mladić fought for — and ensure that it lives on well into the future.

As a result, Mladić’s image has since taken on a life of its own. On the morning of 9 December, residents in Belgrade woke to find that the mural had been painted over. Groups defending the mural said that the local municipality had tried to cover the painting for good. But by the end of the day, Mladić’s face was visible again. The general’s local protectors had coated the mural in a special protective gloss, allowing them to simply wipe away the paint.

“The past isn’t merely something that happened,” says Miladinović. “There are so many ways to keep a particular past alive or to try to push it under the rug. And it’s ideology that determines what gets pushed under the rug and what gets brought to the fore”.

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