YaelSerbia-768x1024

Yaël Ossowski sporting a t-shirt with the Serbian crest.

ESFL leaders’ recent visit to the newly-declared microstate of Liberland has sparked a flurry of attention in the Balkans. It all started yesterday, when European Programs Director Yaël Ossowski posted this video to his personal YouTube account. It’s a recording of a Serbian police officer demanding money for an alleged speeding violation — a stunning display of the power that agents of the state have over individuals and especially international visitors and other non-citizens. Since yesterday, the video has received over 300,000 views.

Yaël, on the other hand, has received mainly death threats and derision. Here’s his explanation of the moments leading up to the video, from his blog post over at PanAm Post:

The officer stated I was speeding and demanded my passport and personal documents. He wrote down “150” on a piece of paper and then wrote “120” beside of it. I asked to see the proof of where I would have violated the speed limit, but he just said “passport, papers.”

Once I had given these up, he said “2500 dinars or 50 euros”. To anyone who knows the conversion rate, 50 euros is much higher than 2500 dinars. Hence why I believed it to be a bribe, as is the title of the video. After I asked again to have proof of the traffic violation, he took my documents and went back to his vehicle, where 2 other Serbian police officers were waiting.

This is when I began recording.

While it’s clear that this was a tense situation on both sides, with language barriers adding another level of confusion, it’s amazing how many people have chosen to side with the police officer. As Yaël points out, he and the other SFL leaders were “in a position of weakness, not strength” relative to the Serbian police. The changing price and lack of documentation make it clear to anyone watching that this was not a completely normal traffic stop. Fred Roeder, SFL’s Vice President of Finance & Operations, who was also present, noted that as they sat they observed the police pulling over many other cars with foreign plates. He adds:

Making their job harder by showing no compliance has hopefully discouraged some corrupt cops to continue their practices. Each car they pull over could potentially be filled with people that don’t look down and bow to corrupt civil servants.

This is an important point. Police are less willing to overstep their bounds when they know that individuals will assert their rights. That Yaël has received so many angry comments and an inbox full of death threats illustrates well the sway that states hold over public opinion. It also exposes the violence and obsessiveness inherent to such nationalism. For the Serbian commenters, the desire to defend their own government’s actions clearly colored their interpretation of events.

This sort of nationalism is a global problem, and one we often see here in U.S. as well. Too many Americans, for instance, are willing to excuse police brutality because they assume the police officer is always in the right. This assumption that an agent of the state will always tell the truth and uphold the law and that compliance is the best course of action is one of the most dangerous myths perpetuated by the state. We must challenge it whenever possible.

As Yaël explains many times in his blog post, his intention was never to disrespect Serbia or Serbs and he has a deep love for the country and its people. He was simply unwilling to comply with a police officer who was overstepping bounds by targeting foreigners and not providing any documentation for the supposed speeding violation. SFL is proud to have leaders who are willing to assert their rights. While this is never an easy task, it is vital one if we’re going to effectively combat the overreach of the state and the blinding power of nationalism.