For most of the 20th century, Serbia was a part of the former state known as Yugoslavia. and language continue to play large roles in Serbian culture, particularly in terms of identity formation and interactions. Moreover, key events from history have influenced the national identity of Serbians. Such events include the Ottoman Empire’s occupation of Serbia, the formation of Yugoslavia and Serbia’s attainment of national independence. Many Serbian customs and traditions are often linked to these significant events from the past. Contemporary Serbia draws inspiration from around the world while paying homage to the past.
Within Serbia, the majority of the population identify as ethnically Serb (83.3%). Serbian identity is often not exclusively defined by place of birth. Indeed, people who identify as Serb may have been born in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina or elsewhere. The second largest group is Hungarians (3.5%), most of whom live near the Serbian-Hungarian border in the northern province of Vojvodina. The culture in Vojvodina is partly influenced by Hungary. Of the remaining population, 2.1% identify as Romani, 2.0% identify as Bosniak, 5.7% identify with some other and 3.4% of the population are undeclared or unknown.
For many Serbs, the association between religion and influences social perceptions whereby one will often infer religious affiliation based on . For example, those who identify as Serb tend to identify as Eastern .
Generally, interactions between Serbs and Croats as well as Bosniaks are often quite peaceful. However, when the topic of politics and political history arise, interactions may become tense. Nationalism towards one’s country and tends to be stronger among than those in Serbia. Some people who identify with an group may try to avoid interactions with other groups to prevent potential unpleasant contact or evoking past memories. Serbians also have a long history of interaction with Montenegro, a country located to the southwest of Serbia. The two countries were in a state union up until 2006. Relations between Serbs and Montenegrins are generally harmonious.
In the post-WWII period, Serbia was a republic governed under the unified communist state of Yugoslavia, led by Josip Broz Tito. Serbia was integral to Yugoslavia as Belgrade (the current capital of Serbia) was the capital city of the federation. In 1991, Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia declared independence, followed by Bosnia in 1992; the remaining republics of Serbia and Montenegro declared the new Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. Meanwhile, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic sought to unite Serbs in neighbouring countries and claim their territories as part of a “Greater Serbia”. This goal was fuelled by a nationalist rhetoric and led to a number of conflicts whereby all sides suffered considerable loss and damage.
Over the course of these events, the population of Serbs in Serbia grew significantly due to the influx of Serb refugees from primarily Croatia and Bosnia. While the physical damage from the wars was sparse (with the exception of air raids by NATO during the Kosovo war in 1999), the country suffered economically due to an embargo imposed by Western countries. Many Serbians attribute Serbia’s current economic struggles to the West, which creates a still-prevalent sense of bitterness. This feeling also stems from the belief by many Serbians that the Western media presented negative and inaccurate coverage of the conflict. Moreover, many Serbs feel as though they have been wrongly blamed for the wars that occurred throughout the Balkan region.
For many Serbs, there is much sorrow and anger that runs deep into the memories of many generations, thus making the process of reconciliation complex. Many Serbs fled Serbia in fear of military conscription while others sought a more financially secure life. Displacement and separation between family members were common.
There is a generational divide when it comes to the experiences and feelings towards the Yugoslav Wars. Those who were mature during the war find it difficult to speak about the conflicts and particularly Croats and Bosniaks. When discussions about these tensions do arise, it may evoke emotions of sorrow, grief and/or anger. The older generation passed on their experiences of the conflict to subsequent generations, along with historical legends about the struggles in creating the Serbian nation. Thus, many of the younger generations feel strongly about the conflicts and tensions, while others may speak about it more openly in hopes of reconciliation.
Serbs are more likely than the other groups in the region to identify themselves as Yugoslav. This is largely due to the belief that during Tito’s regime when Yugoslavia was unified, Serbia was flourishing economically and the standard of living was higher than it is now. For many, there is a sense of nostalgia towards the greatness of Serbia during the Yugoslav years.
Identity and Pride
Although not often spoken aloud, the national slogan ‘samo sloga Srbina spasava’ (‘only unity saves the Serbs’) reflects the common attitude that solidarity is necessary in order to survive. This attitude stems from Serbia’s history of upheavals, including the Yugoslav Wars. It also reflects the nature of society, whereby people tend to be extremely loyal towards their friends and family.
The various historical events that have occurred in Serbia have contributed to the sense of national pride. For example, most Serbs are familiar with the role Prince Lazar played in the battle between Christian and Ottoman forces in 1389. The battle stands as a symbol of the national suffering of the Serbs and is often considered one of the pillars on which the Serbian national identity was created. Such events and myths are passed down from previous generations and are often seen as a core part of the Serbian identity. This was amplified by artists that fled abroad to escape the conflicts. Many of these artists portrayed Serbian culture in a more nationalist light by recalling these national myths.
The correlation between and religious affiliation also plays a central role in the Serbian identity. The national slogan is symbolised as four large C letters in each quarter of a Serbian crucifix. This symbol is widely seen throughout Serbia and in other Serb-populated areas of former Yugoslavia, often in the form of graffiti. A connection between Serbian identity and religion is also reinforced by language.The Serbian language is distinct as it is typically written in the Cyrillic alphabet. This occurred largely through religious liturgy, which is where the written language of Serbia emerged from. For many individuals, the Serbian faith and language distinguishes Serbia from its neighbours.
Humour and ‘Inat’
Humour is a common part of the Serbian demeanour. ‘Inat’ refers to a combination of stubbornness and defiance and is often expressed in humour. Many Serbians consider it to be a good trait that reflects one’s strength in the face of overwhelming odds. One example of inat is when Belgrade residents responded to the violent tactics used in NATO’s intervention in 1999 by holding rock concerts and wearing shirts displaying target symbols on their backs.
Dark humour and aphorisms are also popular throughout Serbia. An aphorism usually consists of one or two short and sharp sentences that describe in and often blunt terms a truth on some common social matter or state of mind. In recent times, this form of humour has assisted the country through the transition after the war. An example is by Serbian writer Rastko Zakic, who wrote during the Yugoslav Wars, “We will do our best not to have any more fratricide. We will stop being brothers”.
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