Monday, February 25, 2008

People who follow events in the Balkans closely all sooner or later ask themselves the same question: When will these people who have found reasons to fight through all of history finally put a stop to it and move on?

Many in the former Yugoslavia like to joke that while all the region’s ethnic groups are watching the same historical movie, they each entered the cinema at a different time. The story is the same, the consequences are the same — it’s just the various victories and defeats, heroes and traitors, that keep changing.

The organized protest rally in Belgrade Thursday started peacefully, but ended with violence. The United Nations Security Council condemned what it called “mob” assaults on foreign embassies in the Serbian capital, the most serious of which was the setting fire to the U.S. Embassy by protesters angry at Washington’s support for Kosovo independence.

The Security Council welcomed steps by Belgrade authorities to restore order, but the White House said Serbian police had not done enough. Serbian President Boris Tadic appealed to citizens to stop the attacks, but Alexander Vucic, general secretary of Serbia’s dominant Radical Party, sent a somewhat different message: “This is a lesson for all those who have been provoking Serbs on a daily basis. They are as guilty as those who took part in the violence.”

Such sentiments are hardly limited to the Radicals. A day before the rallies, Infrastructure Minister Velimir Ilic, who heads the New Serbia Party, appeared to encourage crowd violence, saying breaking windows was part of the democratic process. “To aim a stone at the American Embassy — well, that happens all over the place,” Mr. Ilic said. “It looks like it isn’t bullying to claim a piece of a country’s territory, but it is bullying to throw a stone at an embassy window.”

Another minister defended Tuesday’s destruction of a Kosovo border post as the “normal reaction of angry citizens.” Serbian television has filled the airwaves with stories of Kosovo Serbs living in a virtual “prison.” Actors at the Thursday rally gave emotional readings from poetry that aimed somewhere between the heart and the jugular. “Those who oppose us have scurried back to their mouse holes,” one said.

Nonetheless, Serbian officials professed surprise when Thursday’s rally turned violent, and were far from prepared to protect the city’s foreign embassies from attack, sending out only small police units.

Similar scenarios can be expected to play out on a smaller scale as protests continue in the days ahead in other Serbian cities and Serbian diaspora communities around the world. In the end, they’ll accomplish nothing more than spreading hatred and intolerance. It’s alarmingly reminiscent of the time 20 years ago, when Slobodan Milosevic used similar tools to secure his rise to power. That period ended with destabilization, wars, and newly independent states. Serbia moved from defeat to defeat — a fact deftly cushioned by the rhetoric of authorities and state-controlled media. Even today, many in Serbia still blame the leadership not for starting the wars but for losing them.

Serbia itself is very much divided. Half the country wants to pursue integration into the European Union. Half wants closer ties with Russia. The main enemies of Serbian nationalists are now safely located in independent states; fighting them is no longer possible. But there’s still someone Serbian hard-liners can fight — their fellow Serbs from the moderate camp. Cedomir Jovanovic, the leader of Serbia’s Liberal Party (and the only candidate in the country’s January presidential race to back Kosovo independence), has already received death threats; Natasa Kandic, the country’s most prominent human-rights defender, has too.

The crowd on Thursday demanded the arrest of those and other voices who oppose the nationalist line. Serbian television has purged the airwaves of all American programming, replacing it with Russian serials and movies. Press reports describe the Serbian government as calling for a public boycott of all Western products — but is tellingly silent on which countries have already recognized Kosovo’s independence. The power struggle between the hard-liners and moderates is well under way.

The genie of radical nationalism was released from a bottle 20 years ago, and it has returned for an encore. Serbia — and Serbia alone — desperately needs to eradicate this spirit. Experts are concerned that the declaration of Kosovo independence might mean more than just the end of the collapse of the former Yugoslavia — it might also be the start of the dissolution of Serbia.

Rada Trajkovic, the vice president of Serbia’s National Council, told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s South Slavic and Albanian Language Service: “Serbia is a multiethnic state, and if we do not find a way to make a deal to join the EU and NATO, if we choose only Russia as our strategic partner, I am afraid that other ethnic groups such as Hungarians or Bosniaks will try to pursue European integration on their own. This would mean the continuation of destabilization in Serbia.”

Historian Ljubinka Trgovcevic echoed the sentiment, saying everything depends on how quickly the region integrates with the EU. “If this doesn’t happen relatively soon, we can expect the appearance of separatist movements in the south of Serbia and in western Macedonia. If the region joins the EU quickly, Kosovo independence will remain the last step in the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. If this process takes more time, however, that would be an open question,” she told RFE/RL.

Frustrations in Serbia are understandably high. Whatever Serbia wanted to achieve in the last 20 years, it has failed. The loss of Kosovo contributes heavily to this loss. But Serbia itself is first and foremost to blame for those frustrations, and Belgrade should be aware of that.

Most Serbs have already left the cinema and are no longer interested in finding out how the movie ends. Their leadership, at least, should be aware that if they don’t come back, someone else will decide how it finishes.

Nenad Pejic is an associate director of broadcasting with Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty.

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