Sports, raspberries, but no sea: five things about Serbia

Nicolas GAUDICHET
Aleksandar Vucic has enjoyed wall-to-wall election coverage

Serbia, which will elect a president on Sunday, is forever marked by the Balkan wars of the 1990s that have since deprived it of direct access to the sea.

Here are several things to know about Serbia, a candidate country for the European Union that remains a close ally of Moscow. It is a country proud of its national identity and also populated by a number of minorities, a small country in love with sport and good food.

- Yugoslavia to independence -

Serbs are like the Swiss and Paraguayans in that they have to travel abroad to vacation on a coast. Since Serbia's split with Montenegro in 2006, the Balkan country no longer has direct access to the sea. Seven ships from its military fleet sail the rivers, notably the Danube.

Communist Yugoslavia, born at the end of World War II, was made up of six republics: Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Montenegro and Macedonia. Following the death of its autocratic leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, the Yugoslav federation found itself in deep political and economic crisis in the decades that followed, with Slovenia and Croatia declaring independence in the early 1990s.

Montenegro followed some 15 years later, before Serbia's former southern province Kosovo, populated by an ethnic Albanian majority, declared independence in 2008, almost a decade after the war that ended with a three-month NATO bombing campaign in 1999, forcing Serbia to withdraw its troops from the breakaway territory.

With troops in the surrounding countries, NATO remains highly unpopular with Serbs who have not forgiven the bloc for the bombings.

- Divided country -

Serbia is a candidate for membership in the European Union, its main economic partner. But the EU has seen its popularity fall since the start of negotiations with the country in 2014.

Some Serbs prefer the closeness they have with Russia, the big Orthodox Slav brother. They are grateful for Moscow's support, including in the United Nations, and in its refusal to recognise Kosovo's independence.

Walking along Knez Mihajlova, the main pedestrian street in Belgrade, one can find Western banners and shops wedged next to ones offering T-shirts with portraits of people less popular in the West: Vladimir Putin, World War II Chetnik leader Dragoljub Draza Mihajlovic, former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic on trial for genocide at a UN war crimes tribunal, and Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 sparked World War I.

- A patchwork of nationalities -

According to the 2011 census, Serbs account for 83 percent of the population and most of them are Orthodox Christians. But there are alos about two dozen minorities living in the country including Croats, Roma, Albanians, Hungarians and Slovaks. Roman Catholics and Muslims make up two of the other largest religious groups.

About 7.1 million people live in Serbia but there are several million more in the diaspora: Vienna is considered the second-largest Serbian town in the world. Serbs also live in significant numbers in Toronto, Chicago, Paris and even Australia.

They also make up significant minorities in neighbouring countries Bosnia, Montenegro and Croatia. Some 120,000 Serbs live in Kosovo.

- The raspberry state -

Serbia is an agricultural country, notably the world's number one exporter of raspberries. In 2016, exports came to around 125 million euros ($134 million), according to the statistics bureau.

But that's not nearly enough for an economic recovery that has been long and painful after being hard hit by the international sanctions imposed for Serbia's role in the 1990s Balkan wars.

The economy has slipped in and out of recession in recent years, but grew 2.8 percent in 2016. However, the average monthly salary worth about 330 euros remains one of the lowest in Europe.

- Sport passion -

Tennis player Novak Djokovic is an icon.

Although Serbs seem to love football the most, they are in fact much more successful in other collective sports. They have regularly beat world and European powers in basketball, volleyball and water polo.

Serbia brought home eight medals from the Rio Olympics.