As Muammar Qaddafi wages war on his own people, whatever international support he once enjoyed has almost entirely dried up. The first to go were his powerful friends in Great Britain; former Prime Minister Tony Blair, who helped rehabilitate the Libyan dictator after he surrendered his nuclear weapons program in 2003, privately urged him to step down. The London School of Economics, which greedily accepted a $2.4 million grant from a Qaddafi-owned charity, has announced it will redirect the funds toward scholarships for North African students, and the director responsible for soliciting the donation resigned in disgrace. Next to abandon the tyrant was the Arab League, which never much liked Muammar Qaddafi in the first place (that’s what you get for allegedly trying to assassinate various members of the Saudi royal family).
With all these fair weather friends—including his own foreign minister, Moussa Koussa, who feld to Great Britain last month—Qaddafi must feel lonelier than ever. Yet the Tyrant of Tripoli can count on one group of people to stand by him to the end: far-right Serbian nationalists.
It may seem strange that those who backed the ethnic cleansing of Muslim Bosniaks and Kosovar Albanians would rush to the defense of a man proclaiming to defend his country from a “crusade against Islam.” But Dragan Todorovic, a leader of the Serbian Radical Party, recently told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), “Qaddafi absolutely has our support.” (The Radical Party’s former leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial for war crimes at The Hague). At least one pro-Qaddafi rally has already taken place in Belgrade; demonstrators bore posters with slogans like, “SUPPORT TO OUR FRIEND.” A Facebook group entitled, “Support for Muammar al-Qaddafi from the People of Serbia” has garnered over 65,000 members. “Our plan is for the campaign to shift from Facebook towards the street,” Igor Marinković, of the ultranationalist Naši 1389 told RFE/RL (1389 being the year of the Serbs’ loss to the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Kosovo).
Why do far-right Serbs have such affection for Qaddafi? The reasons are historical and emotional, grounded in cold war-era relations, a disdain for the West, and opposition to foreign intervention. “We absolutely think that non-meddling in one country’s affairs has to be respected and that citizens of that country should choose the government that suits them,” Todorovic said.
The Serbian-Libyan connection goes back decades, to the rule of then-Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito. Though himself a Marxist-Leninist, the dictator managed to stay outside the orbit of the Soviet Union, fashioning a less-repressive form of communism dubbed “Titoism.” In 1961, alongside Indonesia’s Sukarno, India’s Jawaharlal Nehru, and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, Tito founded the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which held its first conference in Belgrade. Soon after taking power in a 1969 coup, Qaddafi became an enthusiastic member of the movement.
Qaddafi was also a vocal opponent of the NATO intervention against Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s, and the two countries maintained a healthy arms trade for years, even after the Serbian president was ousted by his own people and handed over to The Hague. In 2007, Belgrade’s Megatrend University awarded Qaddafi an honorary doctorate. (Serbia’s deputy minister for Higher Education recently sniffed to RFE/RL that, “considering the quality of the university, it is not surprising that it awarded a doctorate to a dictator.”) Serbia’s relatively pro-Western president, Boris Tadić, has paid several visits to Libya. Serbian military units performed in a parade to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Qaddafi taking power, and Libya was one of just 14 countries that filed briefs with the International Court of Justice in favor of Serbia’s position opposing the recognition of Kosovo.
In light of this relatively chummy history, it’s easy to understand why Serbian ultranationalists have been willing to dispense with their hallmark anti-Muslim prejudice in favor of the timeless calculus that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend. Indeed, as the Libyan regime comes under the assault of Western nations in general and NATO in particular, Serbian nationalists have come to see in Qaddafi a fellow victim of imperialist aggression.
Qaddafi's Serbian supporters have been effusive in their rhetoric, indulging the colonel’s own delusions of grandeur. On the “Support for Muammar al-Qaddafi from the People of Serbia” Facebook group, one enthusiast penned a poem using the heroic verse of southern Slavic poetry:
Our forces grow by the day,
by summer we will be with the desert lion
Мoamer, victory is close,
Your troops will be in Paris,
You will sit on the papal throne,
I set up your tent in London,
Qaddafi, Serbia hails you,
Defeat them, you courageous colonel
Marinković, the leader of 1389, draws direct parallels between the NATO bombing campaign against Serbia and the current operation against Qaddafi. “Libya is in the same situation Yugoslavia was in 1999,” he told RFE/RL. “Back then, Qaddafi and the Libyan people staged protests for Serbia. … But even without that friendship, we have supported the Libyan people out of principle because we were also victims of NATO’s bombing.” And Qaddafi appears to have taken his Serbian support to heart. A Libyan opposition group recently sent a statement to Agence France-Presse (AFP)claiming, “Libyan official state TV has been broadcasting Internet content from Serbian supporters of Qaddafi on a regular basis in order to show that Qaddafi still has supporters in other nations“—a claim which AFP could not verify.
Serbian marketing expert Nadezda Milenkovic blames her country’s foreign policy, specifically, its history of close ties with Qaddafi, for the wave of support the Libyan tyrant currently enjoys. “I’m surprised that there is only 50,000 of them,” she said of the Serbian Facebook group when it was in its early stages. “When our official policy is that we are friends with everyone and that we cannot condemn undemocratic regimes, it is logical that people who do not have enough information, although we live in the age of information, accept official positions.”
Belgrade has taken a more cautious approach to the current situation in Libya. It was ambivalent toward the United Nations resolution enforcing a no-fly zone but opposed the bombing. Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic has stated, “We are a country that has a bitter experience and as such calls for the cessation of all combat activities and of the use of excessive force by all sides in the conflict so that destruction and civilian suffering would end.” This position illustrates the precarious balance that President Tadic’s government has tried to strike between Western aspirations and the nationalist sentiments held by a significant bulk of the Serbian electorate.
It’s certainly not the first time it’s had to juggle these competing influences: Last year, I attended Serbia’s Gay Pride Parade, which Tadić, under EU pressure, had allowed to be staged under the protection of 5,000 riot police. Much of the opposition to the parade was rooted in religious homophobia, but it wasn’t long before the arguments I heard drifted from typical fire-and-brimstone speeches to the elaborately geopolitical. The protestors, who ended up causing $1.4 million worth of damage, viewed Tadić’s move in support of the parade as a capitulation to the West, part and parcel with his alleged failure to “protect the territorial integrity of Serbia.” When the tear gas cleared, I saw fresh graffiti art depicting the letters “EU” with a cross through them.
Indeed, in Serbia, support for gay rights is seen in part as a Western-driven cause—and, to Serbia’s right-wing acolytes, pretty much anything Western is something worth protesting. Thus has support for Qaddafi, under siege by the West, arisen among Serbian ultranationalists, who claim their movement is just getting started. “It is still not very massive, we’ve just started, but it will soon be more visible,” Marinković told RFE/RL. “We will prepare templates with Qaddafi’s image and spray them all over Serbia.”
James Kirchick is writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague and a contributing editor for The New Republic.