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Serbia, officially the Republic of Serbia, is a landlocked country in Southeast Europe, at the crossroads of the Pannonian Plain and the Balkans
Belgrade is the capital of the southeast European country of Serbia. Its most significant landmark is the Beogradska Tvrđava, an imposing fortress at the confluence of the Danube and the Sava rivers. The fort is a testament to the city’s strategic importance to the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Serbian and Austrian empires, and it's now the site of several museums as well as Kalemegdan, a vast
People of Serbia
Most of the population of Serbia and neighbouring Montenegro is of South Slavic origin. Slavic tribes entered the region from the north during the 5th to 7th century CE, encountering Illyrian-speaking peoples. Although the Slavs acculturated large numbers of Illyrians, many of the latter retained their distinctive language and customs in the complex hills and valleys of present-day Albania.
Cleavages between southern Slav tribes developed over time, particularly after the establishment in the 4th century CE of the north-south “Theodosian Line” demarcating the eastern and western segments of the Roman Empire. Organization of the Christian church subsequently was based on this division. Missionaries from Rome converted Slavic tribes in the west to Roman Catholicism (these tribal groups becoming progenitors of the Slovenes and Croatians), while missionaries from Constantinople converted ancestors of Serbs and Montenegrins to Eastern Orthodoxy.
Government and society
For more than four decades after the Partisan victory of 1945, Yugoslavia functioned as a communist federation. Its political evolution during the long presidency of Josip Broz Tito included the adoption of new constitutions in 1946, 1953, 1963, and 1974. After Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia declared independence in 1991–92, Serbia and Montenegro adopted a new constitution in 1992 that created a Yugoslav federal union comprising the two republics. However, that new constitution lasted little more than a decade. In the late 1990s there was widespread support in Montenegro for independence, though the EU and the United States voiced disapproval. In 2002, shortly before a planned referendum on independence, Montenegrin leader Milorad Djukanović negotiated an agreement (under the auspices of the EU) with Serb and Yugoslav authorities that called for greater autonomy for Montenegro in a continued loose federation with Serbia named Serbia and Montenegro. Most governmental powers under the new constitution, ratified in 2003, were reserved to the two republics, though foreign policy, defense, and individual rights fell under federal statutes. In June 2006 this federation was dissolved, as Montenegro achieved its independence. Serbia, meanwhile, continued as a successor state to the former federation of Serbia and Montenegro.
Serbia’s head of state is the president, who is selected by the National Assembly but whose powers are marginal. Serbia’s parliament consists of 250 members directly elected by the public.
The Serbian republican government lost direct control over the autonomous provinces of Kosovo and the Vojvodina in 1968, when they were placed under federal authority. But over the following decades Albanians began to press for full republic status within Yugoslavia, which elicited an emotional counterreaction from Serbs, especially regarding Kosovo. The Serbs were particularly distressed at what were perceived to be pressures forcing the shrinking Serb minority to emigrate from Kosovo. In 1989 Serbia reasserted its direct control over Kosovo and the Vojvodina, which led to increased tensions that eventually erupted into armed conflict. In 1999 NATO began a 77-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia in response to increasing violence against its Albanian population; subsequently, the Yugoslav government agreed to remove its security forces from Kosovo. The United Nations Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) then took over the administration of the territory. The Vojvodina regained nominal autonomous status in 2002, but some local groups continued to call for a more extensive form of self-rule. In 2008 Kosovo declared independence; although the United States and most countries of the EU recognized the new country, Serbia denounced the declaration as illegal.
Local governments in Serbia’s communes (opštini) serve as basic units for services and tax collection. These communes are roughly 150 square miles (400 square km) in area, with an average population of 45,000. Urban communes have larger populations, many containing more than 100,000 inhabitants. The Basic Organization of Associated Labour chapters report to local commune assemblies and also elect representatives to them.
Until the secessions of 1991–92, Yugoslavia permitted only one political party—the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY). Like communist parties elsewhere in eastern Europe, the LCY originally maintained a monopoly on decision making. However, as branches in each republic and autonomous province grew more assertive, the party lost its monolithic character. During the period of secessions, branches of the LCY in Serbia and Montenegro adopted the name Socialist Party. Other political parties were legalized, and in 2000 an opposition alliance was even able to win the presidency.
In the early 21st century the pro-European Democratic Party (DS) and its offshoot, the centre-right Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), emerged as leading parties. In 2007 they formed the governing coalition of newly independent Serbia. The nationalist Serbian Radical Party also enjoyed strong support. The Socialists and other smaller parties maintained seats in the parliament as well. The DS-DSS coalition did not last long; in 2008 a pro-EU bloc known as For a European Serbia, led by the DS (and excluding the DSS), won the most votes in parliamentary elections. The pro-EU bloc then joined with a Socialist-led bloc of parties to form a government.
Under the banner of the combined Serbia and Montenegro, the country’s armed forces played an unusual role in the federal government, continuing a practice that has long been one of the state’s distinctive institutions. Legislation adopted formally in 1982, before the secession of the other republics, established a National Defense Council, which in time of war “or any other peril” could assume sweeping police powers—even making its own determination that such a situation exists. As a result, a small number of military officers held a considerable amount of power. The council invoked its powers during the secession period of the 1990s, utilizing the Yugoslav armed forces in vain attempts to prevent Slovenian and Croatian independence.
The armed forces of Serbia and Montenegro were led by a Supreme Defense Council composed of three presidents. The country maintained a policy of universal defense of the state. Its armed forces contain both professional military personnel and conscripts. All able-bodied males were required to serve 12 to 15 months’ active duty (conscientious objection is prohibited), after which conscripts became part of a reserve force. Recruits performed their service in the territory of their own republic. Almost all citizens, including women, were organized into a civil defense organization.
Health and welfare
Interwar Yugoslavia was noted for the endemic presence of malaria, typhus, typhoid, syphilis, dysentery, and trachoma. By the 1980s, however, these scourges had been reduced to individual cases. Still, Serbia suffers from significant health problems. Even before the civil unrest of the 1990s, infant mortality was fairly high, especially in Kosovo. Only in the Vojvodina region did health standards approach those of central and western Europe. Despite marked improvements in medical services, the country’s population suffers from crowded housing conditions, poor nutrition, and lack of sanitary services.
Pregnant women, infants, and children up to age 15 receive complete health care, as do students up to age 26. All citizens also are entitled to treatment for infectious diseases and mental illness. Still, about one-fifth of the population remain outside the health care system.
Great emphasis is placed on training doctors. Before World War II one doctor served every 12,000 inhabitants in Yugoslavia. By the 1990s the number of doctors had increased dramatically throughout the country, though Kosovo was the most poorly served region, with about half as many doctors per inhabitant as the country’s other regions.
The communist regime of Yugoslavia established a comprehensive social welfare system that continues to provide a wide range of services in Serbia. All economically active persons are entitled to retirement and disability pensions; unemployment compensation and family allowances also are provided. These activities are the responsibility of commune governments, and significant variations exist between the administrative units.
Housing is a perennial problem, particularly for young people in urban areas. Most city dwellers live in small apartments in high-rise buildings. Although communes bear responsibility for housing construction, much of the new housing stock has been built by enterprises. Most villagers build and own their homes.
The civil strife in the 1990s left some two-thirds of the population impoverished and hundreds of thousands homeless. Assistance from the West only partially resolved the problem of housing, feeding, clothing, and providing medical care for a significant proportion of the population.
Eight years of primary education are compulsory in Serbia, beginning at age seven. Four years of secondary education also are available, divided between two types of schools: general secondary schools, which prepare students for universities, and vocational schools, which offer training that usually leads to admission to two-year technical colleges. There are several universities; the largest is the University of Belgrade, founded in 1863.
The communist regime of Yugoslavia made great strides toward eliminating illiteracy. In 1921 about two-thirds of Serbs and Montenegrins and nine-tenths of the country’s Albanians could not read or write. By the 1950s less than half the total population was literate. Less than one-tenth now remains illiterate, ranging lower in the Vojvodina.
Traditional Serbian society has a strong peasant patriarchal tradition that evolved under Ottoman domination and is still reflected in family and government structures. A distinctive feature is the zadruga, a corporate family group of 100 or more individuals that originally worked the land under the direction of family elders. The zadruga functioned as a rural tradition well into the communist era. The advent of modern public services, however, took a toll on this system. Even as elders lived increasingly longer, younger adults educated in an expanding school system chafed at patriarchal authority. By the 1970s the zadruga system had evolved into a less-onerous system of cooperative extended family groups. Nevertheless, family loyalties continue to play a major role in Serbia, where nepotism in the workplace is a recurring phenomenon.
Daily life and social customs
The cities of Belgrade and Novi Sad offer a cosmopolitan milieu, and the people there frequent cafés and pubs, take their meals late (in the southern European tradition), and have access to a range of entertainment, from sporting events to poetry readings and gallery openings.
As is true of rural societies elsewhere, the Serbian countryside is a great repository of old customs, traditions, folklore, and belief. Anthropologists still travel there to gather stories of vampires and ghosts, while until the 1960s scholars collected long epic poems from the guslars, or folksingers, who preserved them through memorization. Many rural women still create elaborate traditional costumes that are worn during holidays and family celebrations.
In addition to Orthodox Christian holidays, Serbs celebrate secular holidays such as Labour Day (May 1) and Constitution Day (February 15). Belgrade hosts a range of cultural festivals, and Novi Sad is the site of a heavily attended agricultural fair held each May.
Even the most urbane Serbs enjoy traditional cuisine, and the Skadarlija district in the heart of Belgrade abounds in restaurants serving national dishes as well as foods from all over the world. Serbian cuisine reflects its Byzantine and Ottoman heritage and resembles that of Greece and Turkey in many respects. The national dish is ćevapčići, consisting of small rolled patties of mixed ground meats that are heavily seasoned and grilled. Other popular dishes include sarma (stuffed cabbage), podvarak (roast meat with sauerkraut), and moussaka (a casserole of minced meat, eggs, and potatoes). Food is usually accompanied by domestically produced wines and slivovitz (plum brandy).
The arts of Serbia
Serbia’s peasant traditions continue to exert a substantial influence on the arts, and traditional handicrafts such as the making of opanci (leather sandals) are valued as links to the past. Moreover, a significant part of contemporary Serbian painting is based on traditions developed in Serbian church frescoes and icon painting. But while folk music remains popular, particularly in rural areas, the country’s vibrant culture is heavily influenced by trends from western Europe and North America. Western rock music, in particular, has a substantial following, and Serbian performers such as Fish Soup and Djordje Balaševic have used rock to make political statements. The modern Slavic music known as turbofolk, a fixture of cafés in Serbia’s larger cities, combines the electric instruments of rock with traditional folk rhythms. Among the republic’s most popular turbofolk singers is Svetlana Čeča. Clubs in Belgrade and other cities offer performances by musicians working in a variety of genres, including heavy metal, reggae, punk, hip-hop, and even country and western.
The best-known Serbian writer of the 20th century was undoubtedly Ivo Andrić, who won a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961, mostly on the basis of his novel Na Drini čuprija (1945; The Bridge on the Drina, 1959). Dobrica Čosić, another prominent writer and nationalist, served as the federal government’s president in the 1990s. Among more-contemporary writers, novelists Vuk Drasković, Milorad Pavić, Vladimir Arsenijević, Mileta Prodanović, and Borislav Pekić have attracted considerable attention. Poetry has been a particularly honoured form of literary expression, rewarded in the past by handsome prizes and official positions; Desanka Maksimović, Oskar Davico, Jovan Ducić, and Vasko Popa are among the most highly regarded poets in the latter part of the 20th century.