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Outspoken schoolboy exposes Serbia's deep divisions

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Rastko Pocesta: 'I don't care about the death threats and will never step down'

A Serbian schoolboy has become an unlikely champion of closer ties between his country and the European Union and Nato. But Rastko Pocesta, 12, has won admirers - and enemies - for his outspoken views, the BBC's Mark Lowen in Belgrade reports.

Rastko Pocesta straightens his pinstripe suit and tie and picks up a copy of his first book - a short history of US presidents.

It is an unusual choice of topic for a 12-year-old author, but then Rastko is a rather unique boy.

A passionate supporter of the West, he has published blogs and articles calling for Serbia to join the European Union and Nato.

Rastko Pocesta
The EU means economic stability and prosperity, while Nato means security
Rastko Pocesta

He also believes his country should recognise Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence from Serbia - something the Belgrade government says it will never accept.

Surrounded by flags of the EU and US, he tells me his dream for Serbia.

"It's a country in which human, civil, political and minority rights are maximally respected, which is not seen through the wars in the '90s and war crimes, but by its involvement in international affairs as a defender of democracy.

"The EU means economic stability and prosperity, while Nato means security," he tells me. "As a Serb, I love my country and I want all the best for it."

But those views, aired on the internet, have not gone down well with ultra-nationalists here, who have sent him violent threats. He has now been placed under police protection.

The forum of the biggest right-wing group, Obraz, bears comments including: "He should be slapped and when he grows up, break his ribs."

Another boasts: "I would mistreat this kid for fun... He doesn't need school, but hospital."

"At first I didn't really care," Rastko says calmly. "But when a man said he will wait for me at school and then kill me there, I was a bit worried so my mother and I visited the police who are now searching for these men."

Mladen Obradovic of right-wing group Obraz
They don't teach our children to love the heroes of our nation
Mladen Obradovic
General Secretary of Obraz

Across the river, in New Belgrade, is the office of Obraz, led by Mladen Obradovic. He is clear about his feelings for Rastko.

"There's something wrong with this boy," he says. "But I hope, since he's still very young, that there is enough time for him to understand he's wrong and become a better pupil, a better Serb, a better Christian, a better person."

I ask whether he thinks loving Serbia and supporting integration within the EU can go hand-in-hand.

"I think not," he says. "The EU and Nato have shown that they are the enemies of Serb nationalism."

He tells me Serbia's current pro-Western government is to blame for "making such a disgrace as this boy".

"They don't teach our children to love the heroes of our nation, but to become some kind of new Serbs - or maybe even non-Serbs," he says.

So what about the threats aired on Obraz's forum? "They're not serious," says Obradovic.

I ask whether it is acceptable to keep such views on a public internet page. "Yes," he says. "This country claims to be democratic. So where is the freedom of speech?"

Different faces

Ultra-nationalism is still a force in Serbia, its followers often involved in street protests. Their anger, stoked by Washington's support for Kosovan independence, led to the US embassy in Belgrade being set alight in February 2008.

Marko Karadzic, Serbia's State Secretary for Human Rights
I sent [Rastko] an e-mail saying that I have no idols but he's kind of my idol
Marko Karadzic
Serbia's State Secretary for Human Rights

And they believe any Serb supporting Nato is a traitor, after the military alliance bombed their country 11 years ago during the Kosovo war. Across the capital, the names of ultra-nationalist groups are scrawled in graffiti.

But modern Serbia has so many different faces.

This is a country where the majority supports EU membership, but also opposes any move to arrest former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic, who has been indicted by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague.

Issues like regional reconciliation, or gay rights, or Kosovo split the population down the middle.

Rastko's story shows a country pulled in two directions - one liberal, keen to move on from the past, and the other still fiercely nationalistic.

"In post-conflict societies, you still have violent groups which simply don't see themselves in a system with rules," says Marko Karadzic, Serbia's State Secretary for Human Rights, who has himself received death threats.

Anti-EU graffiti in Serbia
Anti-EU sentiment is still rife in Serbia

"But this is completely unacceptable, because we have to show that we have learnt about the evil of war and violence and that we're going to fight against them."

I ask how he feels about Rastko.

"When I found out he was a 12 year old, I sent him an e-mail saying that I have no idols but he's kind of my idol," he laughs.

"But my concern is that, as a kid, he still has to take part in other activities. Because only being interested in politics without real communication with young people might be an obstacle later on."

Before dealing with political issues, Rastko has other problems to solve with his maths homework, supervised by his mother.

This schoolboy has exposed the deep divisions within Serbia over its future path. And at the age of 12, his determination and defiance far outstrip his years.

"I'm looking forward, at my career," he tells me. "Society should never allow anyone to step down if someone threats because it's a complete failure. It's the worst thing that can happen."



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