BELGRADE, Serbia — Aware of the angry and still unhealed wounds left by NATO’s bombardment of Serbia more than 20 years ago, Ukraine’s ambassador appeared on Serbian television after Russia invaded and bombed his country in the hope of arousing sympathy.
Instead of having time to explain Ukraine’s misery, however, the ambassador, Oleksandr Aleksandrovych, had to watch rants from pro-Russian Serbian commentators and lengthy videos of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, denouncing Ukraine as a nest of Nazis. The show, broadcast by pro-government channel Happy TV, lasted three hours, more than half of which featured Mr Putin.
Angry at the on-air ambush, the ambassador complained to the producer about the pro-Kremlin propaganda exercise, but was told not to take it personally and that Mr Putin “is good for our audiences”.
That the Russian leader, considered by many in the West, including President Biden, to be a war criminal, is serving as TV bait in Serbia is a reminder that the Kremlin still has admirers in Europe.
As Germany, Poland and several other EU countries show their solidarity with Ukraine by raising its flag outside their embassies in Belgrade, a nearby street pays tribute to Mr Putin. A mural painted on the wall features an image of the Russian leader next to the Serbian word for “brother”.
Part of Mr Putin’s appeal is his strongman image, an attractive role model for President Aleksandr Vucic, Serbia’s increasingly authoritarian ruler, and Prime Minister Viktor Orban, the belligerent illiberal leader from Hungary. Facing Sunday’s elections, Serbian and Hungarian leaders also see Russia as a reliable source of energy to satisfy their voters. Opinion polls suggest both will win.
Then there is history, or at least a mythologized version of the past, which in the case of Serbia presents Russia, another Slavic and Orthodox Christian nation, as an unwavering friend and protector over the centuries. .
But perhaps most important is Mr Putin’s role as a guide for nations who, whatever their past crimes, see themselves as victims, not aggressors, and whose politics and psyches revolve around cults of victimhood fueled by resentment and grievances against the West.
Arijan Djan, a Belgrade-based psychotherapist, said she was shocked by the lack of empathy many Serbs had for the suffering of Ukrainians, but realized many still bore the scars of past trauma that erased any feeling for the pain of others.
“People who suffer from trauma they’ve never faced can’t feel empathy,” she said. Societies, like traumatized individuals, she added, “simply repeat the same stories of their own suffering over and over again”, a broken record that “removes all responsibility” for what they have done to others.
A sense of victimhood runs deep in Serbia, viewing the crimes committed by ethnic relatives during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s as a defensive response to the suffering inflicted on Serbs, just as Mr Putin portrays his bloody invasion of Ukraine as a just effort to protect the persecuted. Ethnic Russians who belong to the “Russky mir” or “Russian world”.
“Putin’s ‘Russian world’ is an exact copy of what our nationalists call Greater Serbia,” said pro-Western columnist Bosko Jaksic. Both, he added, feed on partially remembered stories of past injustices and erased memories of their own sins.
The victim narrative is so strong among some in Serbia that Informer, a raucous tabloid that often mirrors the thinking of Mr. Vucic, the president, last month reported on Russia’s preparations for its invasion of Ukraine with a headline on the front page recasting Moscow as an irreproachable innocent: “Ukraine is attacking Russia! it screamed.
The Serbian government, keen to cut ties with the West but sensitive to widespread public sympathy for Russia as an equally wronged victim, has since pushed the media to adopt a more neutral stance, said Zoran Gavrilovic, executive director of Birodi, an independent media. monitoring group in Serbia. Russia is almost never criticized, he said, but abuse of Ukraine has decreased.
Mr Aleksandrovych, Ukraine’s ambassador to Serbia, said he welcomed the change in tone but still struggled to get Serbs to look beyond their own suffering at the hands of the government. NATO in 1999. “Because of the trauma of what happened 23 years ago, the evil happening in the world is seen as America’s fault,” he said.
Hungary, an ally on the losing side in two world wars, also harbors a bloated victim complex rooted in the loss of large swaths of its territory. Mr Orban has stoked those resentments eagerly for years, often siding with Russia over Ukraine, which controls a slice of Hungary’s former land and has figured prominently in its efforts to run. as an advocate for ethnic Hungarians living beyond the country’s border.
In neighboring Serbia, Vucic, keen to avoid alienating pro-Russian voters ahead of Sunday’s election, has been reluctant to impose sanctions on Russia and suspend flights between Belgrade and Moscow. But Serbia voted in favor of a United Nations resolution on March 2 condemning the Russian invasion.
That was enough to earn Mr. Vucic praise from Victoria Nuland, a US undersecretary of state, who thanked Serbia “for his support of Ukraine.” But that didn’t stop Russian Foreign Minister Sergei V. Lavrov from suggesting on Monday that Belgrade was a good place to hold peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv.
Serbs who want their country to join the European Union and stop dancing between East and West accuse Mr Vucic of playing a double game. “There are tectonic changes going on and we are trying to sleep through them,” said Vladimir Medjak, vice-president of European Movement Serbia, a lobby group pushing for EU membership.
Serbia, he said, “is not so much pro-Russian as it is NATO-hating.”
Instead of heading to Europe, he added: “We’re still talking about what happened in the 1990s. It’s an endless loop. We’re stuck talking about the same things over and over again.
More than two decades after the end of fighting in the Balkans, many Serbs still reject war crimes in Srebrenica, where Serb soldiers massacred more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in 1995, and in Kosovo, where the brutal persecution of Albanians ethnic Serbs triggered the NATO bombing campaign in 1999, as the reverse of the suffering inflicted on ethnic Serbs.
Asked if she approved of the war started by Mr Putin as she passed the Belgrade mural in his honor, Milica Zuric, a 25-year-old bank worker, responded by asking why the Western media focused on the agonies of Ukraine when “you had no interest in the Serbian pain” caused by NATO warplanes in 1999. “No one cried over what happened to us” , she said.
While much of the world’s media focused last week on Russia’s destruction of Mariupol, the Ukrainian port city, Serbia commemorated the start of NATO’s bombing campaign. The front pages were covered with photos of buildings and railway lines destroyed by NATO. “We cannot forget. We know what it’s like to live under bombardment,” read the headline of Kurir, a pro-government tabloid.
A small group of protesters gathered outside the US Embassy, then joined a much larger pro-Russian demonstration, with protesters waving Russian flags and banners emblazoned with the letter Z, which became a emblem of support for the Russian invasion.
Damnjan Knezevic, the leader of People’s Patrol, a far-right group that organized the rally, said he felt solidarity with Russia because it had been portrayed as an aggressor in the West, just like Serbia l It was in the 1990s, when, according to him, “Serbia was actually the biggest victim.” Russia has a duty to protect ethnic relatives in Ukraine, just as Serbia did in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, Knezevic said.
Bosko Obradovic, the leader of Dveri, a conservative party, said he deplored the civilian casualties in Ukraine but insisted “NATO has a huge responsibility” for their fate.
Mr. Obradovic gathered enthusiastic supporters for a pre-election rally at a Belgrade movie theater on Sunday. A stall outside the entrance sold Serbian paratrooper berets, military caps and large Russian flags.
Predrag Markovic, director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Belgrade, said history serves as the foundation of the nation but, distorted by political agendas, “still offers the wrong lessons”. The only case of a country in Europe fully acknowledging its past crimes, he added, was Germany after World War II.
“Everyone has a story of victimization.” said Mr. Markovic.