LETTER FROM SERBIA: In this city, yes, they can all just get along

SUBOTICA, Serbia—Serbia is not a place that has been known for its ethnic tolerance.

Tomislav Nikolic, the candidate of the Serbian Radical Party, which espouses the kind of ultra-nationalism that devoured the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, won the first round of last month’s presidential elections, and many in Europe are concerned about the country’s direction should he prevail in Sunday’s run-off.

But Subotica, a city of frayed elegance and fading charm on the northern border, is one place that had been immune to Belgrade’s nationalistic fevers. Voters here rejected Nikolic by a 2-1 margin in favor of his more moderate rival, incumbent President Boris Tadic.

Sitting on the faultline of several civilizations, Subotica is a place where Serbs seem quite content to live as an ethnic and linguistic minority, where they don’t feel threatened by sharing space with Hungarians, Croats, Montenegrins, Bunjevcis, Ruthenians and more than a dozen other obscure nationalities that last flourished during the golden age of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Subotica also is the rare place in Europe where the indigenous Muslim community is building a new mosque complete with minaret and dome—and nobody seems to mind.

And where a minuscule Jewish community—about 260 strong—is restoring the city’s monumental synagogue. The synagogue, a truly extraordinary example of sacred architecture in the art nouveau style, was built in 1902, but fell into disrepair after the once-thriving community was all but wiped out in the Holocaust.

“Subotica is a special place,” said Fetis Kurdali, leader of the city’s Muslim community. “I tell people about the good relationship we have with the Jewish community, and they look at me like this cannot be true. But it is true.”

Hungarians, who make up 38 percent of the municipality’s population of 150,000, are the largest ethnic group, followed by Serbs (24 percent) and Croats (11 percent).

Mayor Geza Kucsera, an ethnic Hungarian whose surname hints at Slovak origins, suggested that one of the keys to Subotica’s ethnic harmony is that all city business is simultaneously translated into the three predominant languages: Serbian, Croatian and Hungarian.

“We are forced to listen to each other,” he said. “But I think people understand that the only way we can survive is if we listen to each other.”

Another theory that is popular here links Subotica’s get-along-go-along tolerance with the flatness of its geography. Subotica (pronounced su-boh-TEE-tsa) sits on the vast Pannonian plain that stretches across Europe from Austria to Ukraine. The city’s tourism department is promoting a new slogan: “Feel the Harmony, Flatlands with No Border.”

“We are a flatland people; we tend not to be as aggressive as mountain people,” explained Slavica Dakic, news editor of the local radio station, which broadcasts in the three main languages and German.

Thomas Sujic, an activist in the Croat community, agreed:

“If you look at the faces, I think you will see that the people around here have softer, rounder facial features than people from the mountain regions. The people from the mountains have strong features and strong personalities. They seem less relaxed,” he said.

Others suggest that perhaps history, not genes or geography, offers the best explanation. Over the centuries, the inhabitants of Subotica have been ruled by an ever-changing cast of potentates from Constantinople, Budapest, Vienna and now Belgrade. The experience seems to have left them with a strong sense of local autonomy and a healthy disdain for central authority.

“They come and go,” Mayor Kucsera said of Europe’s ruling powers. “We stay. We have to get along.”

Despite their knack for co-existence, identity is profoundly important to people here.

“During communism, we were more Yugoslavs than Jews. Then when communism collapsed, it seemed that everyone returned to his tribe,” said Judita Skanderovic, a retired teacher who said that until recently her only bond to the religion was the stories her parents told of surviving Auschwitz.

Before World War II, Subotica had a Jewish community of about 6,000. During three months in the spring of 1944, most of community was deported to Auschwitz. After the war, about 800 survivors returned to the city, but within a few years three-quarters of them emigrated to Israel.

The violent breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s put new stresses on Subotica’s fragile social fabric. Thousands of refugees, mainly Serbs fleeing from Croatia and Bosnia, poured into Subotica. At the same time, many Croats left the city.

“It changed the balance of the ethnic communities. These people were angry and bitter and they brought that with them,” said Sujic, who as a Croat felt the pressure acutely, but decided to stay.

“I wouldn’t say it is back to normal, but it’s still much better than any other place in Serbia,” he said.

For Tatiana Bjelosevic, a Serb, and her partner Admir Delic, a Muslim, Subotica has been a safe haven. Both are refugees from Bosnia.

“This is the only place we could survive,” said Bjelosevic.

Although slightly better off economically than most of the rest of Serbia, Subotica is burdened by a 19 percent unemployment rate and the steady flight of the city’s best and brightest. Mayor Kucsera fears this will upset the demographic balance of the city as much as the wars of the 1990s.

“We are losing quality. Look at who’s leaving—the smartest ones, the ones who speak European languages, the ones who know how to use the Internet,” he said.

The unwillingness of Belgrade politicians to bend on the question of Kosovo has left Serbia on Europe’s doorstep and deeply frustrated most people in Subotica, including many Serbs who say they would trade Kosovo—reluctantly—for a seat at the European Union table.

Kucsera undoubtedly speaks for the majority of his constituents when he says “The EU is our only alternative. The EU is our dream.”

If Nikolic, an extreme hardliner on Kosovo, wins Sunday’s presidential runoff, that dream will be put on hold. The Radical Party candidate has made clear his disdain for the EU; he favors an alliance with Russia.

thundley@tribune.com

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