The most important European emigrant of 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about the Serbian elections, and the continuing slapfest over Macedonia, and some more about the frozen conflicts, and all that good stuff. But first:

Niko Bellic is Serbian.

He’s not just a generic Eastern European; he’s a Bosnian Serb who fought in the war as a teenager. The game’s backstory (which is revealed over many hours of play) involves his war experiences, and his issues with them pervade the whole game. Also, he seems to have come from rural Bosnia, so he’s initially pretty baffled by American urban culture.

So: is this a simple-minded decision, reflecting a vulgar stereotype of Serbs as violent thugs with a taste for organized crime, ignorant peasants who are thrown into culture shock in the modern world? Or is it an inspired choice, allowing the writers to make the protagonist character more complex and morally ambiguous, and position him as a “fish out of water” observer of the madness that’s modern American street life?

Note that Niko Bellic is not inherently evil. Nor unsympathetic. In fact, you can play him as a hero, albeit a rather noir one. (Yes, you can also go around killing people at random, but that’s your problem, not Niko’s.) And he’s presented as likable, and even — in the first few episodes — somewhat innocent.

On the other hand, providing the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto is not exactly a point of national pride. Niko is now the planet’s most famous Serb, and he’s a small-time crook with issues.

On the other-other hand, Grand Theft Auto! Come on! How cool is that?

So: good or bad?

Comments from informed readers welcome. N.B., you don’t have to have played the game to be “informed”, but you should at least read about it. Not hard, right? It’s the biggest and most famous video game anywhere ever.

Non-Serb commenters are encouraged to pause and ask themselves “what if Niko Bellic were [my nationality]?” Still cool?

What think you, commenters?

This entry was posted in A Fistful Of Euros, Culture and tagged by Douglas Muir. Bookmark the permalink.

About Douglas Muir

American with an Irish passport. Does development work for a big international donor. Has been living in Eastern Europe for the last six years -- first Serbia, then Romania, and now Armenia. Calls himself a Burkean conservative, which would be a liberal in Germany but an unhappy ex-Republican turned Democrat in the US. Husband of Claudia. Parent of Alan, David, Jacob and Leah. Likes birds. Writes Halfway Down The Danube. Writes Halfway Down The Danube.

15 thoughts on “The most important European emigrant of 2008

  1. In the commercials for GTA I have seen here in France he is definitely presented as cool. I do not think a Dutch hero would work in this case. The element of the ‘guy toughened by his warzone experiences’ would be missing.

    Besides, I have always found the evil characters in many action movies much cooler than the “good guys”. From Fu Manchu to the countless evil Russians (or English) in American movies, the bad guys always had a certain je-ne-sais-quoi coolness.

    On the other hand, I understand that having a famous countryman like this could affect the image of your country. Like with the Russians = maffia thingy. In the Tim Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory there was one character who forged a gold ticket. Guess who? A Russian. I was not even surprised.

    But then again, who would the hip youngsters of today choose as a role model: Cliff Richard or some bad gangsta rapper?

  2. Strange choice though. Niko Belic is not a Serbian name. It is Croat. However, if one wanted to portray the Serbs as gangsters they could call him Tony Blair and say that he is a Serb. Couldn’t they?

  3. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Serbia: More on Niko Bellic

  4. This seems to follow a trend that’s been apparent in American pop culture in the last 10 years; the profile of Balkan immigrants has risen, but usually they appear in connection with organised crime. Off the top of my head, I can think of Spartan, Inside Man and numerous episodes of Law and Order, but there have been enough other instances that I’ve noticed it.

    Part of me suspects that this is because the Balkan wars and subsequent criminalisation of the region present a handy source of battle-hardened, criminally-inclined characters – who happen to be white. Given the racial politics in the US (which is where the publicity battle is won or lost), that’s a much lower risk than presenting a protaganist who is – shall we say – of a more dusky complexion.

  5. It could easily be a Croatian Serb name, although that might also be bjelic.

    Anyway I fully paid up member of the GTA / Niko Belic fan club. As a former hardcore game player, I know what games are and the function they serve. They are not movies where you watch whats going on, rather in the game you are Niko Belic, so you will identify with him.

    I know that thousands of Serbs, Croats and Bosnians will get a special kick out of playing this game because of the extra connection, even if the accent is rubbish and even if Niko is ostensibly Bosnian Serb.

    I think its mainly non gamers who will have a problem with Niko.

    Douglas, you didn’t pinch this subject from the Belgrade Blog did you? We did it a couple of weeks back!

  6. bganon, no — I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. Also, I only check the Belgrade blog irregularly. Um, I should probably go check it now, I guess. Cough.

    Paul C, good point. However, they’re also constrained by the fact that they can’t make the protagonist over 30. Apparently it’s too hard for teenage gamers to identify with someone who’s /so damn old/. And while not all gamers are teenagers, it’s an important chunk of the market. So by GTA V, they’ll have to use an Albanian veteran of Kosovo. (Or maybe an Iraq war vet but, hum, somehow I think not.)

    Doug M.

  7. There was a time when white South Africans (particularly Afrikaners) were the bad guys in movies and tv shows.

  8. Ha!

    I’d say it was a simple but inspired choice on the part of Houser and Humphries. Maybe even a little overdetermined.

    The game uses a fair amount of Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian popular music in one of its internal radio stations (Vladivostok FM, hosted by Eurovision winner Ruslana), and the tracks have proved fairly popular with American audiences. But as far as I know, there’s no turbofolk in the game, which is what you’d expect the main character to listen to, right? Given the effort the company made to acquire the rights to a wide variety of music for the game, I doubt it’s a simple omission.

  9. Well, the first question in my mind was “who the hell is Niko Bellic”? So, I guess that I’m not an informed reader.

    As for the question “what if Niko Bellic were [my nationality]?” Hm, well. On balance, I’d say that it wouldn’t be any worse option than Aileen Wuornos or Vampira.

    Cheers,

    J. J.

  10. what about a guy from the suburbs of marseilles with italian origins..yes, far too “old school” i’m afraid…

    So what about the same guy with “arabs” origins, like in the TAXI movies ?

    would be a kind of good us/international stereotype of a modern bad(but no so much) guy ?

  11. When I worked in Bosnia, my Bosniac and Croat hostess and host told me that it was the Serbians access to more weapons which led to an excess of Serbian crime in the war rather than any Serbian tendency towards crime. They implied that the war and the leadership created the villains rather than any nationality or ethnic group. Whoever had the most technological capability for murder would commit the most murder.
    In the US, I note a tendency towards TV shows and games with more clear-cut villains and good guys, a la WWII versus Vietnam. I think the Balkans is the last war in which the media presented clear-cut crimes in the American media. This makes it an easy morality tale magnet. At this point in our own complex moral current events, I don’t know how interested we are in the real complexity of Balkan history.

  12. I have seen (and played with) GTA III and GTA SA, I wonder if there is an episode with an Italian mafia guy, cooler still, the daughter of a famous italian boss in disgrace, who has to emigrate to Russia to forge an allegiance that will take her back to power back in Sicily…

  13. After movie about a Serb who wore backpack with A-bomb to blow up UN building in New York (“Peacemaker”), every Serb in world media looks good.

    I am Serb, and when i heard that hero of GTA IV comes from Serbia, i was flattered, not humiliated. Nobody sees Niko like a monster killing innocent people-everyone sees him like a 21st century Vito Corleone, a guy who came from nowhere to get to the top(by nowhere i mean bottom where he was after coming to America, not Serbia). So dont worry; fighting with Albanians, showing America who is the man, teaching Serbian language through video game and most of all showing people that Serbs are more then blood-thirsty animals – this video-game couldnt fit Serbia better.

    P.S. Sorry about possible grammar mistakes i made, i am not very good with English.

  14. Bosniacs have Muslim names like Abdulah Spaho.

    Croats got their names from Catholic saints, like Klement Igrec.

    Serbian surnames have -ic. That is something very specific.
    Niko Bell-ic.
    His friends are Florian Crav-ic and Darko Brev-ic.

    Bellic means whitey in Serbian. 😛

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