by Seth Thompson:
“I have never spent more time on any other site in my life,” wrote Vyeljko Nyedi on the wall of the Facebook group “Support for Muammar al Gaddafi from the people of Serbia.” Along with 78,000 other members, Vyeljko uses the page as a forum to post videos, comments, and stories supporting the loyalists of the Libyan civil war. The adoration displayed for “Comrade Gaddafi” through the deluge of Facebook activity raises the fundamental question: Why did the despotic Libyan general strike a chord with so many young, Internet-savvy Serbians?
Toni Kuzmanovskim, a college student from Novi Sad, Serbia, was stirred to support Gaddafi after watching a Youtube video clip of Miroslav Lazanskia, a respected Serbian journalist and military analyst. Lazanskia proclaimed that NATO’s involvement in Libya was unwelcome given that the majority of Libyans supported Gaddafi and enjoyed a high standard of living under his rule. Seeking confirmation, Toni asked several Libyan students studying in Belgrade if they agreed with the reporter’s argument. “[They did] and they were supporting Gaddafi,” he said in a Facebook message. Motivated by this first-hand knowledge, Toni returned to Facebook where he discovered a community of Serbian youth discussing the plight of Gaddafi.
While students and young adults generate much of the momentum behind the pro-Gaddafi Internet movement, Serbians of all ages, especially those with far-right political leanings, can be sympathetic to Gaddafi. Mario Milovanovic, an activist from the south-Serbian city of Niš said, “Almost all Serbians I know support Gaddafi but they are not all active in [their] support. Many people don’t have time for that and some are afraid to openly say what they mean.”
Milovanovic likens the recent NATO intervention in Libya to NATO’s presence in Serbia during the Kosovo War in 1999. While Western powers supported the Kosovar independence movement as a legitimate response to Serbian ethnic cleansing, Serbs themselves viewed the struggle as an attempt by Albanian terrorists to separate Kosovo, historically the heart of Serbia, from its native peoples. Gaddafi was one of few Arab rulers to support Serbia during the Kosovo War—an unusual position that aligned Gaddafi with Orthodox Serbs and pitted him against Bosnian and Kosovar Muslims. To this day, many Serbs blame NATO for much of the war’s destruction.
The pro-Gaddafi movement gives voice to Serbian citizens still reeling from the aftermath of the Kosovo War. Stefan Laki Lazi, 18, described the horrors of the war in a Facebook post: “Do you know what [it feels like] when you are six, and it is your birthday, and you are sitting in [a] basement because the American bomb can kill you outside? Gaddafi was the only one who was helping our people… our duty is to support him!”
Facebook may be a hub of pro-Gaddafi activity, but Milovanovic is quick to point out that activism extends beyond the digital realm. In March and April, four anti-Libyan-intervention protests were staged in Belgrade. Throngs of supporters waved protest signs and voiced their mistrust towards NATO, affirming their solidarity for Libya.
By contrast, a Belgrade rally in favor of Libyan rebels drew only eight attendees. Despite his age, Rastko Pocésta, a 15-year-old pro-NATO activist and the organizer of the rally, is perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the Libyan rebels. He contends on his blog that the NATO intervention in Libya prevented the fall of Benghazi and thus saved tens of thousands of lives. His position, however, is so unpopular in Serbia that he has received numerous death threats.
Since Gaddafi’s death in late October, the support movement has maintained momentum; it continues to encompass a broad agenda of political efforts in protest of foreign intervention. The pro-Gaddafi movement has become a multi-faceted crusade, with fronts both online and on the streets of Belgrade. Though each advocate brings his own reasons for supporting the loyalist Libyan cause, one thing is clear. The original source of the movement, the “Support for Gaddafi” Facebook group, is the sounding board of a large contingent of Serbian youth. Burdened by a history of Balkan wars, these college-aged activists have a strong sense of national identity, a desire to learn about their own history, a drive to be involved in global events, and an effective means to motivate political change: their Facebook accounts.
Seth Thompson ’14 is in Saybrook College. Contact him at email@example.com.