I have been back in London for a couple of weeks now and have been watching Brand Srbija with interest. I’m always interested in what the English think of my adopted homeland and have found myself defending it on occasions but, more often than not, simply satisfying people’s curiosity in a country few know much about. I suppose we English are happy with our stereotypes (Brand USA: brash cousins, freedom fries and Die Hard; Brand Germany: order, engineering and Adolf) but we do look to overcome them on occasions and Brand Srbija is one that could do with a little modification. This year, fortunately, it seems that things are set to change.
And this change, resulting in an exponential rise in the value of Serbian shares has been thanks to the efforts of just four people. Not Boris and Vojislav or Carla and Zdravko but a trio of tennis stars and a Eurovision winner. It’s funny how stereotypes can pivot on such seemingly trivial things, but they do. Years can go by before the stars align and someone or something captures the public’s imagination enough to change country stereotypes. 2007 was just such a year for Serbia.
Until 2007, Serbia’s most famous cultural ambassador was (like it or not) Milosevic, its most notorious cultural product ethnic cleansing. It may be painful for Serbs to hear and admit it, and I am sure that similarly unflattering perceptions of Britain are common, but stereotypes are hard to shake. And that is why Ana, Jelena, Marija and Novak should be greeted with such jubilation; not simply as champions within their fields, but champions of a resurgent Serbia. It seems that they have finally been able to shake off the ghosts of the nineties, the Hague and the leader who was known and remembered for all the wrong reasons.
So now, rather than answering somewhat embarrassed questions about the political situation, I answer ones about Jankovic and Murray or ‘that one from Eurovision’. Jelena is now something of a golden girl on the island thanks to her securing Britain’s first win at Wimbledon since man discovered fire. And the on-court chemistry between the pair has made Jelena even hotter property. What more do the press, the tennis establishment and the wider public want? A British winner and possible romance with a (by English standards) exotic doubles partner. Reads like a film script. And then there’s the obvious question: ‘Where’s she from?’ ‘Serbia.’ ‘Oh, yes.’ Jelena seems to be the perfect antidote to Slobo, and having seen her play she’s got a smile that’ll have the English press wrapped around her little finger and forgetting there ever was such a thing as the nineties. Djokovic and Ivanovic have also played their role, and despite not being quite as meteoric in the Brand Srbija stakes as Jankovic, have nonetheless done much to re-brand the country. Between them they have established themselves as recognisable and successful sporting ambassadors for Serbia and have done so in one of the world’s most popular sports.
And let’s not forget Marija and Eurovision. Not such a big draw in England I have to admit (where we like to look somewhat disdainfully down upon the competition) but pretty major in terms of international opinion. But despite the English contempt for the competition I still fielded plenty of questions about the girl: ‘Is she a …?’‘Lesbian? Yes probably.’‘Isn’t that a little unusual in…?’‘Serbia? Yes. And they are homophobic.’‘And wasn’t she rather, er…?’‘Yes, I don’t know where they got her from. There are lots more girls more beautiful than her in Serbia.’ But like the tennis stars, Marija’s win has generated recognition of, and positive responses to, Brand Srbija. Marija is another cultural ambassador for Serbia and with Molitva she has created a welcome cultural product; at least amongst Eurovision fans and the hard of hearing.
2007 has been a resounding success for Serbia. This year the country finally left behind its troubled past and moved forward with young, dynamic cultural ambassadors rather than old, violent ones. Let’s hope the trend continues.