By Nate Tabak
An international pariah, an armed rebellion, and a NATO air campaign. Sounds familiar, right? Twelve years ago, the place was Serbia, and the pariah, Slobodan Milosevic. Now as NATO warplanes attack pro-Gaddafi forces in Libya, some in Serbia are rallying behind the Libyan dictator.
During a protest in Belgrade's main square in late March, people yelled out "Long Live Gaddafi!" This protest drew a few hundred Serbs and Libyans, and it was broadcast on Libyan state television.
It was among several anti-NATO pro-Gaddafi demonstrations in Serbia in recent weeks. There's also a "Support for Moammar al Gaddafi from the people of Serbia" page on Facebook, with more than 66,000 "likes." One user wrote: "Love for Libya! Love for Gaddafi! Your Internet army is here for you!" Serbian hackers have also been accused of attacking Libyan rebel websites.
Serbian ultranationalists are driving the pro-Gaddafi campaign on- and off-line. They say the Libyan intervention brings back memories of 1999. That's when a US led NATO operation bombed Serbia during the Kosovo war.
At a rally in Belgrade this week, Libya wasn't far from the minds of demonstrators. Tessa Tesanovic, a 23-year-old philosophy student, said when he found out that NATO is bombing Libya, he felt sad for the people living there. "The reason I felt for them, was here in Serbia, we experienced the same thing when they bombed us in '99."
Tesanovic added, "May God be with the Libyan people. May God help them in their fight against those rebels who are financed by capitalist forces."
Gaddafi the hero
Many on Serbia's far right are calling Gaddafi a hero. Vesna, a Bosnian Serb at the demonstration, said "Libya will kill all Americans. I would give my life for Gaddafi. I love Gaddafi."
Gaddafi and Serbia have a long history that predates the breakup of Yugoslavia. Gaddafi and Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito forged close ties as leaders in the nonaligned movement, an organization of states opting not to side with a major power. The cozy relationship brought many Serbs to work in Libya — and students from Libya studied in Serbia. Gaddafi himself attended the Yugoslav Air Force Academy.
Gaddafi backed Serbia and Slobodan Milosevic during the bloody Balkan wars in the 1990s, and the Libyan leader stood by Serbia against Kosovo's independence. Serbs haven't forgotten that, said Misa Vacic, a leader of the ultranationalist Nasi 1389.
"He was a friend when no one was good to Serbia," Vacic said.
But many Serbs don't really embrace the Libyan dictator, said Zoran Dragisic, a professor at the University of Belgrade.
Living under a dictator
"People in Serbia don't like dictators," Dragisic said. "We know very well how it looks like when you're living under dictatorship."
Indeed, Serbs peacefully overthrew Milosevic in 2000. A few in Serbia hear echoes of that resistance in the Libyan opposition. This week, 13-year-old human-rights activist Rastko Pocésta organized a small protest in Belgrade to support the rebels.
"I think that's a terrible a very ugly message that the majority of people in Serbia, instead of expressing solidarity with the oppressed people, express solidarity with a tyrant who kills thousands of his people," Pocésta said.
But Pocésta's message doesn't seem to have much traction in Serbia. His protest drew only eight people.
Meanwhile, Gaddafi supporters here plan another rally for Sunday, and if prior attendance is any indication, more than eight people will likely show up.