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“Serbs traditionally perceive themselves as the victims,” said historian Jovan Byford.
“They’d be very willing to talk about the Holocaust if you ask them about the Holocaust in Croatia, because the dominant narrative there is that Serbs perished in Jasenovac with Jews,” he told Reuters, referring to the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia where thousands of Serbs were killed.
“But if you ask them about Serbia, it is a remnant of how things were seen in the communist era, in which there was no recognition,” he said.
Serbia hopes to start talks on joining the European Union in January next year, a process that will require more work in resolving regional tensions two decades since Yugoslavia’s descended into war. But, Byford said, it may also bring pressure on Serbia to confront the fate of thousands of Yugoslav Jews.
“There will be pressure to construct a Holocaust memorial and to include the Holocaust in school curricula,” he said.
Serbia is a signatory to the non-binding 2009 Terezin declaration, committing to return property to the families of Holocaust victims and to ensure mass graves are identified and protected. But implementation has been stalled.
Serbia lags behind several of its neighbours in recognising the crimes committed against Jews on its soil. Neighbouring Hungary, Croatia and Macedonia each have museums dedicated to the Holocaust. A small museum in Serbia, founded in the 1960s, looks at the general history of Jews in Yugoslavia.
To its opponents, the shopping mall is all the more galling given who stands behind it. Miroslav Miskovic, head of the Delta empire behind the project, is one of the richest men in the Balkans and a symbol for many Serbs of the murky nexus of politics and business that has dogged the country since the days of strongman Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990s.
Miskovic made a fortune during Yugoslavia’s collapse despite international sanctions on Serbia and a permanent state of crisis. He thrived further under the democrats who replaced Milosevic in 2000.
Then in December last year, police arrested Miskovic on suspicion of fraud. He posted a record $16 million bail in July pending trial. Delta and Miskovic have denied any wrongdoing.