When President Donald J. Trump’s youngest daughter, Tiffany, undertook a stimulating visit to Serbia's capital of Belgrade last spring, her journey marked the beginning of a rewarming of relations between the United States and Serbia. With an estimated 750,000 Serbian-Americans in the United States, residing in a number of key battleground states, including Arizona, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida and Pennsylvania, many are now wondering, who will they vote for in the upcoming 2020 presidential election?
On one hand, with unrest flaring throughout the nation, some Serbs are considering the Democratic candidate Joe Biden. “This pandemic has severely hit all immigrant communities, and the economic impact is heavily weighing on our community, too. Many people are looking to support the candidate who puts these issues and potential solutions at the forefront of their platform,” said Ivan Grujic of Michigan.
What likely gives many Serbs pause, however, is Mr. Biden’s unfortunate conduct toward Serbia during a 1999 conflict. For 78 days, NATO aircraft mercilessly bombed targets throughout Serbia in support of the Albanian insurgents, in breach of UN Charter and without the acquiescence of the United Nations Security Council. Serbs have not forgotten Mr. Biden’s enthusiastic support for the bombing campaign, which was unleashed on largely civilian targets, causing mass casualties and heavily-damaged infrastructure. NATO's use of depleted uranium in cluster munitions and shells in the Kosovo War is suspected by many to be a reason for high rates of leukemia in the region today. Even worse, in 2008 Serbia had the highest mortality rate from breast cancer.
Biden-era policies toward Serbia were seen as a slap in the face by many Serbian Americans given that the two nations were allied in both world wars. A stark contrast to July 28th, 1918, when President Woodrow Wilson gave the order to fly the flag of Serbia over the White House to reflect the solidarity of Americans with the Serbian people during World War I. To this day, it is an honor only a handful of countries have enjoyed.
Where Mr. Biden fails for some Serbs, Mr. Trump has succeeded for others. After 2008, when Serbia’s province of Kosovo and Metohija unilaterally declared independence, a stalemate was created between Serbia and its renegade province, breached only mere months ago through talks brokered by Mr. Trump at the White House. In conjunction with a substantial and rapid rekindling of relations between the United States and the Republic of Serbia, some Serbs wonder if Mr. Trump is the President for them.
Of great importance to Serbian Americans, the agreement pledged to protect and promote freedom of religion, including renewed interfaith communication and protection of religious sites. Many of their countrymen have witnessed a plundering of their religious places and desecration of Orthodox Christian cemeteries. According to the International Center for Transitional Justice, 155 Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries were destroyed by Kosovo Albanians between June 1999 and March 2004.
“I think for a lot of us, Kosovo has been a point of concern for a long time. Many Serbians were forced to flee Kosovo, seeking refuge abroad. Some stayed and live in deplorable conditions.The crime rates are high, segregation common, and access to functional institutions near non-existent for Serbs in the region,” said Aleksandra Tesanovic, who has personally witnessed the situation during a 2018 trip. “So seeing a President who at least recognizes the true picture of what’s actually happening there, and working toward resolutions, definitely impacts our decisions,” she added.
Ana Petronijevic, Director of Strategic Partnerships for Humanitarian Organization 28. Jun, an international aid organization active in the Western Balkans and the first organization from the region to be granted Special Consultative Status with the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), stated that, “Much of the humanitarian work by our organization in the Western Balkans, more particularly in Kosovo, relates to the aftermath of the NATO aggression.” Ms. Petronijevic believes that sentiments surrounding this international issue could guide the votes of many Serbs at the polls.
While Serbia’s capital blooms with culture, history, and tourism, it is a stark contrast to other regions, where Serbian populations are struggling. Carrying out humanitarian work in the province of Kosovo and Metohija remains difficult due to the ethnic tension between Serbs and Albanians. Ms. Petronijevic and the rest of the 28. Jun organization, which boasts the largest global following of any organization operating in the region, are watching the election closely.
“We've seen how the destruction of infrastructure has directly created a cycle of poverty and long term adversity in the region. Even more concerning are the direct health effects on people who were victims of the aggression. Our organization has worked diligently to provide financial and medical aid to these individuals. A large portion of our donors reside in the United States and the impact of this time in history on them and their loved ones does seem to be at the forefront of their minds.”
President of the 28. Jun organization, Filip Filipi, agrees with Ms. Petronijevic, also expressing his opinion that, “While the pandemic certainly has directly affected the community, Serbian-Americans vividly remember the 1999 bombing of their homeland and the unsanctioned aggression favored by establishment politicians on both sides of the aisle, including at the time, Joe Biden.”
In a polarizing race that is set to come down to the wire, and where every vote will count, for many of the 750,000 Serbian-Americans in the United States, the choice that they will have on November 3rd will undoubtedly be a difficult one.