On April 11, 1999, then-New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani joined a group of Holocaust survivors and their descendants at the Upper East Side Reform synagogue Congregation Emanu-El. The event was meant to commemorate the 56th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, but the moral urgency of another impending genocide hung in the air. Just a week prior, NATO forces struck the Yugoslavian capital of Belgrade, commencing an air campaign that would last for 78 days against the Serb-led regime of Slobodan Milosevic.
NATO’s Operation Allied Force was undertaken to halt the Serbian ethnic cleansing and slaughter of Muslims in the province of Kosovo. American Jewish organizations, cognizant of the world’s inaction in response to the extermination of European Jewry, were at the forefront, demanding an end to the Milosevic regime’s atrocities. Giuliani, widely popular among his city’s Jews, shared their concern. “The Holocaust was not, unfortunately, an isolated incident,” he told the crowd of about 3,000. “Prejudice, hatred, letting perverse emotions overcome decency and law—we’re seeing it today in Europe.”
At a news conference following the event, Giuliani went further, criticizing President Clinton for not having a “game plan,” which would possibly include the use of ground troops. Giuliani was a rare Republican voice for intervention: Most of the congressional GOP opposed any U.S. military involvement in Kosovo, never mind the use of ground force. Just weeks earlier, three U.S. soldiers, part of a NATO peacekeeping mission, had been captured by the Serbian military (they were later freed after the Rev. Jesse Jackson negotiated their release). Presaging the uber-hawkish role he would later assume in national politics following the terrorist attacks that devastated his city on Sept. 11, 2001, Giuliani said that the United States has to “play a role to try to prevent atrocities.”
Fast-forward 13 years, nearly to the day, and there was Rudy Giuliani last month in Belgrade, the city whose submission he called for from a New York City synagogue. Except this time, he was campaigning for some of the country’s most prominent nationalists, people once allied with Slobodan Milosevic who have lauded Serbian war criminals.
On April 20, Giuliani traipsed around Belgrade with Aleksandar Vucic and Tomislav Nikolic, the mayoral and presidential candidates, respectively, of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS). The SNS had invited the former mayor’s consulting firm, Giuliani Partners, to Serbia in anticipation of local and national elections on May 6. “I’m here because I’ve been asked to give them advice,” Giuliani said, according to the Wall Street Journal. “I’m not endorsing anyone.” Asked on a Serbian television program how much he was being paid to appear with Vucic, Giuliani absurdly replied, “My company gets paid for it. I don’t get paid for it.” So controversial and high-profile was Giuliani’s field trip that the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade was forced to issue a statement that the visit should not be perceived as an American endorsement of any candidate or party.
Though Vucic lost the mayoral race, Nikolic eked out an upset victory in a second-round runoff against incumbent President Boris Tadic, a pro-Western, liberal reformer well respected in Washington and Brussels. Many see the election result as a significant step backward in Serbia’s liberalization and integration into Western institutions like the European Union. While Giuliani said in press interviews in Belgrade that he would become an adviser to Vucic if he won, it’s unclear whether his firm will work for incoming President Nikolic. (Giuliani Partners did not respond to an inquiry about whether it will work for the SNS.)
From once righteously calling for American intervention to put a halt to murderous Serb nationalism, to standing alongside a pair of rebranded Serb nationalists, last month’s spectacle in Belgrade represents a new low for “America’s Mayor.” Since 9/11, Giuliani has made a fortune off his reputation as the man who turned around New York City and stood defiant in the face of a catastrophic terrorist attack. But the sausage-making has not always been pretty. Giuliani Partners’ clients have ranged from the legally embattled producer of the addictive painkiller Oxycontin to the government of Qatar. In 2006, Forbes Magazine characterized Giuliani’s business practices as evincing “the sort of carelessness that suggests either poor judgment or inattention.” The same could be said about his discernment of Serbian politics.
Until late 2008, when they co-founded the Progressive Party, both Nikolic (who served as one of five vice prime ministers under Milosevic) and Vucic (who served as Milosevic’s information minister) had been leaders of the Serbian Radical Party, which supported the restoration of “Greater Serbia,” closer ties with Russia, and whose leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently facing prosecution for war crimes at The Hague. Though the Progressive Party has tried to refashion itself as Western-oriented and seeks membership in the European Union, its platform states that it “will not accept any attempt to disintegrate parts of Serbia’s territory and will protect both the state and its national interests in every inch of the territory in an uncompromising way.” In other words, it will never recognize the independence of Kosovo. It wasn’t long ago that Nikolic said his preference would be to see Serbia become a province of Russia rather than a member of the E.U. When Radovan Karadzic, currently facing war crimes and genocide charges at The Hague, was arrested in 2008, Vucic praised the former Bosnian Serb leader as a “Serbian hero,” adding “there will a strong backlash.” Indeed there was, thanks to a rally organized by the Radicals, at which Nikolic pledged that his party would do “all in its power” to bring down Tadic.
The visit of a prominent American political figure is bound to generate attention in a small country like Serbia, particularly when that politician advocated the bombing of said small country just over a decade earlier. Dragan Djilas, the incumbent mayor of Belgrade and a member of the erstwhile-ruling Democratic Party, said that “Rudolph Giuliani should not speak about Belgrade’s future as a man who supported the bombing of Serbia,” tartly adding that, “I wish him a pleasant stay in Belgrade and a safe trip out of Belgrade.” A cartoon in a Serbian newspaper showed Vucic and Nikolic dressed as women, a riff on Giuliani’s tendency to perform in drag for the amusement of the City Hall press corps. (Giuliani’s support for gay rights is of some relevance in Serbia, given the perennial controversy over the staging of gay pride parades in Belgrade.) “Did I put the second mortgage on my apartment for this?” Nikolic asks incredulously in the cartoon. The cartoonist also mocked Giuliani’s lame denial that he was profiting from the visit; the former mayor is shown holding his hands up asking, “It wasn’t me who got the money but my company, what I got to do with my company?”
To be sure, it’s not easy to find, even in progressive, pro-European circles, many Serbians who think that the NATO bombardment of their country was just. But there are significant differences in the way the various political factions deal with the past. For instance, though Djilas, the incumbent mayor, criticized Giuliani over his support for the NATO bombing, his Democratic Party is the most pro-Western of the major Serbian political parties. His chiding Giuliani should therefore be seen more as an easy political shot against his opponent, not as an assertion of Serbian territorial hegemony or anti-American sentiment (Djilas, for instance, has been happy to welcome Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, American political figures who were even more prominent in their support for the NATO bombing than Giuliani). While no major Serbian political party, at the present juncture, can realistically announce its recognition of Kosovo’s independence, the Democratic Party is less revanchist than the Progressives, as Tadic proved by his willingness to negotiate with the country’s leaders. Given this political state of affairs, it’s ironic that Giuliani would side with those more nationalistic elements that have a long history of hostility to the E.U., NATO, and the United States—not to mention a chummy relationship with Moscow.
Asked on Serbian television about the Kosovo war, Giuliani said Serbians must “forget about it and move on to the future.” But it’s unclear if Serbia’s new leadership is willing to take his advice and let go of the past. While outgoing President Tadic had presided over the country’s successful bid for E.U. candidate status and dutifully handed over wanted war criminals like Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić to The Hague, incoming president Nikolic protested the former’s 2008 arrest and, in a recent interview, implied that his silence on the latter’s was due solely to political exigencies. “We are a pro-European party, and Mladić’s extradition was one of the conditions in the E.U. accession process,” he said last year. “If we were to stand against the E.U., we would not be able to win elections in Serbia. That is why we did not wish to protest.” Such blanket avowals of political cynicism are rare in U.S. politics. Perhaps America’s Mayor has something to learn from his Serbian students.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.
James Kirchick is a Tablet columnist and the author of Secret City: The Hidden History of Gay Washington (Henry Holt, 2022). He tweets @jkirchick.