- The Washington Times - Monday, December 22, 2003

Radical nationalism is on the rise again in Serbia. The failure to achieve their territorial goals during the savage wars of the 1990s should have taught hard-line Serb nationalists that the dream of a “Greater Serbia” is unattainable. It hasn’t.

In recent presidential elections, Serb revanchists led by Tomislav Nikolic won the largest share of the vote. The results were abrogated because of inadequate voter turnout. But Mr. Nikolic’s call for a “Great Serb” state resonates with an electorate still angry at the West for NATO’s 1999 bombing campaign in Kosovo, as well as the failure of the pro-democracy ruling coalition to improve the country’s dismal living standards.

Reformist Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic is deeply concerned that Mr. Nikolic’s Radical Party will emerge as Serbia’s strongest political force following parliamentary elections later this month. Both Mr. Nikolic’s boss, the odious Vojislav Seselj, and former Serb dictator Slobodan Milosevic are presenting themselves as viable alternatives to the ruling pro-Western government. Mr. Milosevic is heading the list of Socialist Party candidates and Mr. Seselj the Radicals, despite the fact that both men are in prison cells in The Hague, Netherlands, indicted for war crimes committed by the Serbian army and paramilitaries following the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia.

Opinion polls show Mr. Seselj’s Radical Party and Mr. Milosevic’s Socialist Party are poised to dominate the general elections. A victory by the extreme nationalists threatens to set off alarm bells throughout the region, paving the way for a possible new round of ethnic fighting.

The surging popularity of both Mr. Milosevic and Mr. Seselj is emblematic of the refusal by many Serbs to come to terms with their country’s sordid record during the Balkan wars of the past decade. Rather than take responsibility for their culpability in supporting Mr. Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing campaigns in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo, most Serbs have embraced a conspiratorial victimology in which Serbia is seen as having been betrayed by the international community and “turncoats” at home.

This more than anything else explains the 2000 revolution that toppled Mr. Milosevic from power. The anti-Milosevic movement only gained critical mass following Serbia’s humiliating defeat at the hands of NATO, which forced Belgrade to relinquish its control over Kosovo. As one adviser to former President Vojislav Kostunica, a pivotal leader of the country’s fledgling democratic movement, confessed to me: “The Serbian people only turned on Milosevic after they realized he was a loser. He promised the Serbs much, but eventually failed to deliver on those promises.”

Yet Mr. Milosevic’s current political revival is based mostly on his image as the strongman who will stand up to the West. His trial at The Hague has been closely watched on Belgrade television. Realizing he has been given a platform from which to influence his domestic audience, Mr. Milosevic has relished playing the role of the great Serbian patriot who defended the rights and aspirations of ethnic Serbs in the former Yugoslavia. But for all of his political posturing, the Butcher of Belgrade is still remembered by many Serbs as a failed autocrat who led his country to defeat and ruin.

This explains the stunning rise of Mr. Seselj and his Radicals. They champion a lethal mix of xenophobic nationalism and state socialism. An outspoken proponent of a “Greater Serbia,” Mr. Seselj vows to restore Belgrade as the hegemonic power in the Balkans. His ultimate goal is to reincorporate Kosovo along with large chunks of Bosnia and Croatia into a larger unitary Serb state — regardless of the fact that such a move would trigger widespread ethnic violence with Kosovar Albanians, Bosnians and Croatians.

He has contemptuously referred to Montenegro and Bosnia’s Muslim community as “invented nations.” His antics have included brandishing a pistol in front of the parliament building and spitting on the speaker of the legislature. During the 1991 war in Croatia, Serb paramilitaries under Mr. Seselj’s leadership committed numerous atrocities in Eastern Slavonia. His forces developed a notorious reputation for mutilating the bodies of victims, gouging out the eyes of Croatian civilians with rusty spoons.

The resurgence of radical Serb nationalism harkens back to a darker period in European history when Adolf Hitler rose to power by appealing to ethnic revanchism and promising to avenge Germany’s defeat in World War I. Just like Serbia today, Germany in the early 1930s was reeling from an economic depression and the widespread humiliation following its military loss to the Western powers. The Germans made a tragic mistake in following Hitler’s fascist appeals to blood and soil. The Serbs would be wise not to repeat that same mistake.

Jeffrey T. Kuhner is a historian and contributing writer to The Washington Times.

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