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Serbia: The Coming Storm

With so much else going on in the world it is hardly surprising that the Balkans get so little attention in the international press. The editor of a magazine I write for recently asked what was going on in Croatia. I replied: “Things are pretty good. The economy is improving and the government is doing fairly well.” “Boring,” he said.

This editor is much more interested in Serbia, and of course he is right to be. The Serbs were the largest single national group in the former Yugoslavia, and while the Croats and Slovenes also made up part of the country that disintegrated in the 1990s, the Slovenes are now members of the European Union and NATO and the Croats are well on their way to joining them. The Serbs still haven’t found a place for themselves.

During the three weeks I traveled across the lands of the former Yugoslavia this summer, I found deep contradictions. On the one hand Serbia and the Serbs still face major upheavals. In the next few months Kosovo, technically part of Serbia but inhabited overwhelmingly by ethnic Albanians, may achieve some form of independence, against Serbia’s will. On the other hand, in a way that is only now becoming clear, the old Yugoslav “space” is reemerging, especially in cultural and economic matters. In this sense, ordinary people are reconnecting across political boundaries, and that can only be good.

There will be no new wars in the Balkans so far as anyone can foresee. However, there will also be no long-term stability as long as Serbia remains in a state of dissatisfaction, facing the loss of its historic province of Kosovo in addition to all the losses of the last fifteen years. It has now become fashionable to talk of a Serbian “Trianon Syndrome,” drawing a comparison between Serbia and Hungary following World War I, when millions of Hungarians were left outside the country’s new borders, as were many of Hungary’s historic lands. What had been Hungarian Transylvania, for example, was taken over by Romania. The new borders were then officially confirmed by the Treaty of Trianon in 1920. After that, Hungarians were left embittered and angry. Many people, both Serbs and foreigners, fear that the Serbian response to the probable loss of Kosovo will be similar.


On the way to Serbia I stopped to see a friend in the town of Vukovar, the river port on the Danube. Its side of the river is part of Croatia and the other side is in Serbia. In 1991, after Croatia had declared independence, local Serbs, Serbian militias, and the Yugoslav army laid siege to the town. After leveling much of it, the Serbs captured Vukovar and briefly integrated it into the Greater Serbia created by the then Serbian leader Slobodan Miloseviå«c. Following the 1995 peace agreement in Bosnia and the military defeat of the breakaway Serbian enclaves in Croatia, Miloseviå«c agreed to peacefully return Vukovar to Croatia. Since then the town has been substantially rebuilt.

The brother of my friend Marija Molnar, who works for Croatian radio, was a Croatian soldier who died defending the town. Bitterness toward Serbs understandably runs very deep here, but Marija told me that things have begun to change. “Until two years ago,” she said,

you could not say you read Serbian writers or liked to listen to Serbian music…. It would have been like you were a national traitor or something and then, out of the blue, I don’t know how it happened, people began to talk about Serbian writers and music again.

According to Marija, Serbian music is being played on Croatian radio once more, something that had been absolutely taboo. She also mentioned increasing cooperation between Serbia and Croatia in the arts and music. After all, with very minor variations, Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians all speak the same language. “There was no catharsis,” she said, about the improvements in relations with Serbia. “It just happened. You could no longer pretend that you did not want it or need it anymore. So you just stop pretending. You just accept it.”

When I asked Marija if she went to Serbia often, she looked surprised. “Of course,” she said. A few years ago there was not much traffic across the border; that has now changed. Croats cross the Danube every day to buy bread and cigarettes (which are much cheaper in Serbia), and Serbs come to Croatia to buy electrical and other goods (cheaper in Croatia). At the same time, old Yugoslav products are reconquering territories lost during the wars. Slovene refrigerators, Croatian chocolates, and Macedonian wines have reappeared throughout the entire old country. More and more people are watching cable television with channels from the other ex-Yugoslav republics. Slovene businesses, especially, have been making major investments throughout the former Yugoslavia and especially in Serbia. In bookshops in Belgrade, Sarajevo, and Zagreb you now see books published in one former Yugoslav country being sold in another. Just a few years ago this was not the case.

From Vukovar it is a short drive across the border to Novi Sad, the capital of Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina, which borders on Hungary. This was the seventh year of the Exit music festival, which has rapidly established itself, at least according to British newspaper supplements, as one of the coolest places to be in Europe in July. The festival is held in the old Austro-Hungarian fort in Petrovaradin, which is part of Novi Sad. This year there were big-name bands from across the former Yugoslavia and also from Europe, including Franz Ferdinand from Scotland and the Cardigans from Sweden. From the terrace of the old fort you can see on the Danube the Freedom Bridge, which was bombed by NATO during the Kosovo war in 1999, and which reopened last October after having been rebuilt with EU money.

Today Serbs worry that their name has been hopelessly tarnished by war crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars. The government has announced that it is looking for a marketing company to “rebrand” Serbia. As the success of the Exit Festival suggests, however, Serbia’s image is already beginning to change, at least in Europe. The word “Exit” was chosen to suggest that the country was leaving behind the nationalism of the past; and the festival is seen by many as a vision of the Serbia of the future. This year some 150,000 people came, including former Yugoslavs from outside Serbia, and several thousand from other countries too. Though optimistic and well educated, the young Serbs who go to Exit face a major problem: they are trapped in the region by the EU’s stringent visa requirements, which make it difficult for them to travel and see the Europe they want to be part of. While changes are now planned to make it easier for at least some people, such as academics, to get visas, it is more than likely that the visa wall won’t come down entirely, as it has for Croatia, until Serbia becomes a normal country.


One reason why Serbia is not yet a normal country is that the question of Kosovo—and therefore of Serbia’s future borders—remains unresolved. Most Serbs were content to be part of the former Yugoslavia, especially since so many of them lived outside of Serbia in other parts of the country while remaining citizens of the Yugoslav state wherever they were. In 1995, at the end of the Croatian war, some 200,000 Serbs fled from Croatia, following hundreds of thousands from Bosnia in the years before that. Then in 1999, tens of thousands (no one knows the exact number) left Kosovo. Many of those refugees have made new lives in Serbia—they will not return to their former homes—but they remain resentful and their votes are often cast for the uncompromising conservative parties that promote traditional Serbian nationalism.

Today, there is no dispute between Serbia and Croatia about borders, although there are discussions about locating the precise path of the frontier, which meanders oddly across the Danube. Serbia recognized Bosnia—and thus its borders—in 1995. In the south, Serbia’s border with Macedonia is undisputed, as is the frontier with Montenegro. One of the major achievements of this year, in fact, has been the resolution of the lingering question of Montenegro. When Yugoslavia disintegrated, only Montenegro stayed in the union with Serbia. Its people are mostly Eastern Orthodox, like the Serbs, and almost one third of them actually identify themselves as Serbs. Beginning in 1997, however, the government of Milo Djukanovicå«—now the country’s premier—decided to pursue independence for the republic of 672,000 people. A referendum was held on May 21 and 55.5 percent of Montenegrins voted in favor.

After the poll, Montenegro declared independence. Many Serbs were stunned, especially Vojislav Kostunica, Serbia’s premier. Kostunica apparently relied on the word of his advisers, some of whom come from Montenegro, who assured him that independence would never happen. The Montenegrin poll did not affect Montenegro alone, of course. Serbia, whose 7.5 million people (excluding Kosovo) had never asked for self-determination, now found itself independent. Following the departure of Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, and finally Montenegro from the Yugoslav union, Serbia was alone, for the first time since 1918. Never has the rebirth of a country been greeted with so little enthusiasm by its own people.

This recent history has left the Serbs, as a people, feeling rejected; with the likely loss of Kosovo in the near future, they may feel robbed as well. The result, according to Braca Grubacicå«, an analyst who runs an influential newsletter called VIP, is that the political and social landscape in Serbia has indeed begun to “look like Hungary after the First World War.” Grubacicå« told me that Serbian politicians simply do not have the courage to tell their people the truth. “Serbs have the illusion of being partners of the world,” he says. “After the fall of Miloseviå«c” in 2000, “they felt like they were equals within the international community. But really no one dares to say what has happened, which is that we are having to pay the price of the wars lost by Miloseviå«c. Now, our leaders simply have no plan or strategy for the country, which is why they waste time talking about ‘rebranding.’”

Srdjan Gligorijevicå«, an international relations specialist at a Belgrade think tank, says that whatever happens in Kosovo, it is important for the future of the whole region that Serbia not be “the absolute loser.” Serbia, he says, “must be given some kind of incentive over Kosovo, so as not to foster the feeling of loss, rejection, exclusion and the feeling of being cheated, the feeling that Europe is against us. We need some form of compensation.” The question, of course, is whether that is possible and what the compensation could be.

The Trianon treaty casts a long shadow in Serbia today because one result of it was an authoritarian regime in Hungary; today, the Serbian Radical Party has the largest number of seats in parliament in Belgrade. Its founder, Vojislav Seselj, is in prison in The Hague, where he awaits trial before the UN’s Yugoslav war crimes tribunal for his part in the ethnic cleansing and killings of Bosnians and Croats. The Radicals have long been an extreme, hard-line nationalist party. They are not in the government but many fear (or hope) that they soon will be. An opinion poll in June showed that they had the support of 36 percent of those who said they were sure to vote.

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