UN General Assembly President, a Serbian Nationalist, Acknowledges His Muslim Heritage

Vuk Jeremic has kept his link to prominent Bosnian Muslims under wraps. Now, he's coming forward -- for what some believe are political motivations.
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Then-Serbian foreign minister Vuk Jeremic answers questions during a news conference in Prague on July 25, 2011. (David Cerny/Reuters)

Nurija Pozderac and his wife, Devleta, were the kind of forebears that many people would be eager to claim as their kin: Bosnian Muslims who risked their lives to shelter Balkan Jews destined for near-certain extermination during World War II.

But one of the Pozderacs' most prominent descendants has kept largely silent about his blood link to the heroic Bosniak couple -- perhaps because his political career has, until now, been grounded in his image as an unapologetic Serbian nationalist.

All that appeared to change on March 18 when Vuk Jeremic, the former Serbian foreign minister and current president of the UN General Assembly, attended a ceremony in Belgrade posthumously granting his great-grandparents the Righteous Among the Nations medal, Israel's highest award honoring non-Jews for brave conduct during the Holocaust.

Flanked by his grandmother, Sadeta Pozderac Buljubasic, the 37-year-old Jeremic said he was "grateful and excited" to honor his great-grandparents' role in saving Jews and others from the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia, where an estimated 700,000 people were killed.

"I want to say that I am immeasurably proud of my ancestry and of my ancestors who, during World War II, courageously stood up against crimes whose ferocity is unmatched in history, against their Jewish and Serb fellow citizens," Jeremic said.

Fighting For Serbia

The nod to his Bosniak relatives marks a subtle shift for Jeremic, a high-energy, Harvard- and Cambridge-educated wunderkind who has doggedly pursued a pro-Serbia agenda in both Belgrade and the UN despite efforts to brand himself as a progressive alternative from the worst extremes of his country's Milosevic-era past.

Jeremic, who spent five years as foreign minister before assuming the rotating UN post in September 2012, is best known for using his diplomatic muscle to fight recognition of Kosovo, whose independence he rejects and which he has referred to as Serbia's "Jerusalem."

But he has also angered much of the region by taking a critical stance on the role of international courts like the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

​​Many Serbs accuse the ICTY of harboring an anti-Belgrade bias by focusing on high-profile incidents like the Serbian massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica, while acquitting Kosovar and Croatian authorities accused of crimes against Serbs.

At the urging of Belgrade, Jeremic has used his current UN post to schedule a General Assembly debate next month on the merits of the ICTY that will include Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic -- who has described the Srebrenica massacre as less than genocide -- as a featured speaker.

Jeremic also recently drew fire after organizing a performance at the UN of "March on the Drina," a World War I-era Serbian patriotic song that was adopted by Serbian paramilitary units during the Bosnian Wars in the mid-1990s.

The UN was forced to issue an apology after the performance received an ovation from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other audience members who were unaware of its historic connotations.

Some political observers in Belgrade have suggested that Jeremic, who lobbied aggressively for the General Assembly presidency, may be embracing his Bosniak heritage in order to generate Muslim support for a possible bid for the UN's top post in 2016, when Ban's second five-year term expires.

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