Amid the rivers of invective that Gov. Chris Christie’s allies spilled as they plotted to cripple traffic in Fort Lee, N.J., was one bitter drop of bile: The city’s mayor was referred to as a “little Serbian.”
The dig was not only in poor taste, but inaccurate. Doubly so.
In addition to being tall and broad-shouldered, Mayor Mark Sokolich is of Croatian descent.
Serbs and Croats are not often mistaken for friends. But Sokolich handled it diplomatically, uniting former combatants against a common enemy: gubernatorial henchmen.
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“That slight is offensive to me, and it’s offensive to me of everyone of Serbian background,” The Huffington Post quoted him as saying. “If I were Serbian, I would be absolutely, positively appalled by it.”
Serbians were indeed appalled by the comment, which was made by David Wildstein, a Christie appointee to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey who has resigned.
“Is it now a derogatory term to be called ‘Serbian,’ in your administration?” an open letter to Christie, on the website inSerbia, said. “We are particularly disturbed by this use of Serbian in a clearly derogatory context. I would just like to remind you that a number of Serbs are your constituents in N.J.”
The Serbian government and media have been viewing the scandal as a tiny referendum on Balkan politics in Diaspora.
Slavka Draskovic, from Serbia’s Office for Cooperation with the Diaspora and Serbs in the Region, said: “We cannot allow for every name that ends in ‘ic” to be identified with the bad and abusive, and in this case, to become the victim of prejudice.”
Reached in Belgrade, Nebojsa Krstic, a former adviser to the president of Serbia, translated headlines from the day’s newspapers. From The Daily Politka: “Revenge of the governor of New Jersey to the ‘small Serb.’ ” From Blic: “An affair in the United States because of ‘Serb.’ ”
In Croatia, the publication Jutarnji List asked: “Did the governor order traffic collapse to get revenge on the Croat mayor?” Under the rubric “Stupid retaliation,” Vecernji List declared: “Mayor Croat in the center of the scandal!”
Ancestors of Serbian and Croatian people have shared space on the Balkan Peninsula since before the Christian era. According to Laura Silber, author of “Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation,” it was not until the Christian faith split between east and west that each group came to regard itself as distinct.
Croats aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Serbs followed the Eastern Orthodox faith and came under the rule of the Ottoman Empire.
The end of World War I saw the groups united somewhat uneasily within the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, but by World War II that kingdom was consumed in civil strife. Later, as communism collapsed in the rest of Eastern Europe, Yugoslavia was again plunged into war. Serbs controlled the army, but in Croat-controlled areas they were also subject to ethnic cleansing.
In the New York area, both groups have toeholds in Queens and in northern New Jersey. “Many of my parishioners, they are very good friends, they are partners and intermarriages with Croatians,” said the Rev. Djokan Majstorovic, of the Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Sava in Manhattan.
To a few observers in New York and New Jersey, the insult seemed less offensive than just baffling. “The idea of calling someone a little Serb or a little Croat — who does that mean anything to?” Silber asked. But in the Serbian and Croatian media, she was pleased to find a more civil tone than the leaked messages revealed.
“The comments on the articles were surprisingly measured,” she said.
“The people who brought you the term ethnic cleansing, they were saying it’s impolite to comment on someone’s nationality and use it as an insult,” she added.