Letter from Belgrade and Novi Sad

Most Serbs live on 200 euros a month, or less. With average salaries of that amount, no wonder Serbs consistently listed poverty and unemployment as their most pressing problems during the pre-electoral period. Some even went as far as to say they were better off under Milosevic. Christos Athanassiadis, a political refugee from the Greek civil war, now a retired worker who lives with his wife, his widowed daughter-in-law and her invalid son in a 58-square-meter apartment in Novi Sad, contemplates the «good old days.» His wife, Chrysoula, blames pro-Western reformers led by Mr Djindic and Mr Labus for poverty and widespread corruption. They are just two of the 11 candidates who were vying for the job of president of Serbia in yesterday’s election. By contrast, Dragan and Zoran, two cheery young student-newspaper vendors in the pedestrian district of Knez Mihailova express themselves openly in favor of Miroljub Labus, actually deputy Prime Minister, credited with getting Yugoslavia’s sovereign creditors to write off two-thirds of its $3-billion debt to them. Yesterday, voters in Serbia went to the polls to elect a new president. Whatever happens next, people here feel that these elections not only will seal the breakup of the political alliance that ousted Slobodan Milosevic two years ago, but will also set the scene for major improvements. «Yes, we sure have democracy now. Financially, though, we are almost bankrupt,» jeered a local journalist. The main candidates for the potentially powerful Serbian presidency are Vojislav Kostunica, a constitutional lawyer and the current Yugoslav president – a job which will become largely ceremonial later this year, when the Yugoslav federation will be replaced by a looser Union of Serbia and Montenegro – and Miroljub Labus, an economics professor, currently the Yugoslav deputy prime minister, who supports faster economic reforms and western integration. The Serbs survived five centuries under Ottoman rule nourished by the heroic national myth built upon the battle of Kosovo in 1389 when they suffered their greatest defeat at Turkish hands. Southern Slavs are great ones for myths. Today’s democratic Serbia lives by potent new myths engendered by the 1941-45 partisan war, by the defiance of Stalin in 1948 when Yugoslavia was a state bordering seven hostile countries, and last but not least, by the toppling of Mr Milosevic. During my stay in Belgrade last week, on Tuesday, September 24 precisely, the permanent synod of the Church of Serbia took a most important decision: to appoint as exarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church Bishop Jovan of Veles, in the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM). Last July, Bishop Jovan, who has a black belt in karate and is based in Bitola in FYROM, was deposed by the country’s – schismatic to us – «Macedonian» Orthodox Church as a result of his attempt to have his bishopric join the Serbian Orthodox Church, an action wholeheartedly accepted by us. He was also accused of having been «incited» by the Greek Orthodox Church and was moreover criticized for his frequent visits to Thessaloniki, where he is studying for his doctorate at the Aristotle University. Undoubtedly, Southern Slavs are great ones for myths as I have already noted. But myths can become barriers to understanding. As far as I was concerned, Bishop Irenaios, of Vojvodina, speaking in perfect Greek, helped that understanding by his calm, lucid and dispassionate account of an issue that has long been a contentious issue: the status of the «Macedonian» church. This is a dispute that is becoming acrimonious again. I visited him last Wednesday in the ornate archbishop’s palace in Novi Sad, a city which hosts the two principal Christian churches: Serb Orthodox and Roman Catholic. Encouraged by the communist authorities, the church in «Macedonia» unilaterally declared itself autocephalous in 1967. It had not previously enjoyed autonomous status within the Serbian church, he said. The other side, the bishops of FYROM, that is, retort: «This autocephalous church has existed, first in Prespes and then in Ohrid, since the time of Tsar Samuel and his descendants as the spiritual institution of that empire. It was legally strengthened by the Byzantine Emperor Basil II as an ecumenical Christian institution immediately after his defeat of Samuel’s state in 1018.» They also insist that «in the 20th century, during the period of the World War II and the course of the military actions of the struggle for Macedonian statehood, the Macedonians raised the question of an autocephalous church. Since the representatives of the Serbian Orthodox Church were attempting to postpone the solution of the Macedonian Church question, the delegates to the second Church-and-People Assembly, held in Ohrid on October 4 and 5, 1958, passed a decision in favor of the revival of the archbishopric of Ohrid and of the constitution of the ‘Macedonian’ Orthodox Church. ‘ Now, everyone knows that in Tito’s time, no church, or anyone else, could take such a decision by itself, unless there was a clear political reason – in this case, the formation of a «Macedonian» state. «I know Bishop Jovan well. He is a good man and I am convinced that his decision was based solely on theology,» Archbishop Irenaios said. Last summer Bishop Jovan, who declared himself a martyr and compared himself to the Orthodox saints Atanasij the Great and Vasilij the Great, stated: «Some are accusing me of national treason and that may be so, but as a bishop of the holy church I cannot place national interests before spiritual ones. While the church may recognize a nation, that always comes second.» In 2000, Bishop Jovan was removed from the Bregalnica diocese in FYROM after his inflexible attitude to ritual and his insistence on conducting part of the liturgy in Greek upset local faithfuls.

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