“People compare this to the Velvet Revolution in Prague,” I say to Momcilo. “Yes,” he retorts, “but the Czechs only lasted thirty-seven days!”
On the 104th day of the Belgrade student protest, Momcilo Radulovic—thickset, with a two-day stubble, short dark hair, black leather jacket—has just burst into the room exclaiming, “We’ve occupied the rector’s office.” He is twenty-three and studies political science at Belgrade University. As he leads me to the new center of action, he stops in the middle of the street to explain: “I just want to live in a normal country. I want to get up in the morning, go to a normal shop, read my books, have the rule of law and democracy. And travel.” “I’m not a child of the Internet,” he adds, referring to a frequent characterization of the protesters, “but I’d like to be.”
Around the heavy conference tables in the rectorate are packed some eighty students belonging to what they call the Main Board. “Silence!” people shout at the top of their voices, “silence!” A tall, bespectacled history student called Ceda Antic tries to keep order: “Kolega Gavrilovic to speak next.” A girl with long brown hair and a little pink-and-white plastic handbag takes longhand notes in a ring binder, as if at a lecture. She is the official note-taker. From the window I can see the student masses gathering below, with their flags, posters, and badges, while pop music blares out: “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah.” How touching to hear the Beatles still.
The Main Board is discussing the route for today’s Walk. Walking with a capital W is the students’ characteristic form of protest. Today they’ll parade around the rectorate courtyard, then walk to the education ministry to support their deans. Instructions are given by mobile phone—a major technological advance on Prague in 1989. The mobile phones are a present from Bogoljub Karic, one of the country’s best-known multimillionaires and until recently—or perhaps still?—a close associate of the hated President Slobodan “Slobo” Milosevic. “After ninety days, Karic decided that he supports us,” Momcilo says, with a nice irony. The student next to me has a multicolored badge saying “Propaganda.” Their other departments include Information, Security, Culture, and Protocol. Information is for foreign visitors like me, Propaganda for their own rank and file. Protocol is now on the mobile phone to his colleague at the loudspeaker jeep outside.
The sound of singing comes from the square below. Everyone in the room rises, some standing to attention. This is the “Hymn of Saint Sava,” a patriotic-religious hymn of nineteenth-century Serbia, celebrating the patron saint of education, and only recently revived as the university anthem. Some sing along quietly, with expressions of mildly ironical affection on their faces; most are respectfully silent; one or two look embarrassed or resentful. At the end, a few—mostly the singers—cross themselves after the Orthodox fashion. Between Saint Sava and the mobile phone, this is no ordinary student protest.
Two days later—day 106—there is a vital decision. Early on, the students had formulated three demands. The victories by the Zajedno (“Together”) opposition coalition in local government elections on November 17 (by coincidence, also the starting date of the Prague events in 1989) should be properly recognized; the rector of the university should resign; and the student dean should also go. Milosevic conceded the first, main demand several weeks ago and the Zajedno mayors have already moved into their offices. Today the rector and the student dean have offered their resignations. But are these resignations binding or is it a trick? Professors from the law faculty are summoned to explain the legal niceties. Suddenly we’re in a law lecture.
Even if the resignations are binding, should the students stop here? Some want to go back to lectures, others to raise new demands. Biljana Dakic, a third-year history student who is one of my guides, nods vigorously at a comment by the student chairman. What’s he saying? “He says: democracy is when the minority respects the will of the majority.” But then a pale-faced man stands up and shouts, “This is a provocation! If you accept this, you’ll all be fooled!” Ceda Antic intervenes. If the resignations are definite, he says, they should all have a Victory Walk, and then go back to lectures; if not, they should call for nationwide elections to a new Constituent Assembly. Back to school or forward to the revolution! “You see, we have our Robespierres and our Dantons,” Ceda wryly says afterward, but he, the Girondin, was trying to outflank them.
Two clichés have been applied to this revolutionary theater of the Belgrade students, and to the Serbian drama altogether: “velvet revolution” and “nationalism.”1 Neither gets us very far. Certainly some students say things that sound nationalistic to a Western ear. Most seem rather confused in their political views. But is that true only of Serbian students? And wouldn’t you be confused if through the most impressionable years of childhood you had seen your country fall apart, in a war which had many Serb victims too, and if, through those years, you were constantly told by state television, radio, your parents, teachers, and leading intellectuals that this terrible war was the fault of others: Slovenes, Croats, Muslims, Germans, Americans? “When I was seventeen,” Momcilo tells me, “I wanted to go and fight for my fellow Serbs, like my older brother.” (This although he is Montenegrin.) Biljana was born in Knin, a city in the Krajina from which the Serbs, including many of her family, were driven out by the Croats’ “Operation Storm” in 1995. Three of her uncles are now refugees in a Serbia which greets its fellow Serbs with far from open arms.
In the circumstances, it is remarkable that these students have produced a protest that has been so relatively peaceful, responsible, wittily inventive, and basically democratic. Despite all the propaganda and the poisoned mental environment in which they have grown up since the age of twelve or thirteen, and though many of them have never been to the West, they, like the velvet revolutionaries of Central Europe in 1989, embrace a model of “normality” which includes the fundamentals of Western democracy. What is more, they are trying to practice it in their own protest. Entirely gentle this was not. At the beginning, stones were thrown and windows broken. Then they reverted to eggs. But some put the eggs in the deep-freeze first, so they came out as hard as stones. Perhaps deep-frozen eggs are the Serb version of velvet.
Against all the virulent denunciations of “Europe” by Slobo’s hacks, the students still write on their placards “EURO polis, EURO demokratija, EURO standard, EURO prava, EURO vlast.” We in the rich EURO-Europe hardly deserve such touching faith. Or again: “AMERICAN PEOPLE HAVE: Bill Clinton, Steve WONDER, Johnnie CASH and Bob HOPE! SERBIAN PEOPLE HAVE: Slobodan Milosevic. No WONDER, no CASH and no HOPE!” But a small wonder this was.
We must also distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. I walk over with Ceda Antic for a coffee at the Hotel Moskva. He, the talented history student, reminds me that the pre-1914 Serbian conspirators of the Black Hand used to meet in this cafe; why, perhaps the future assassin of Franz Ferdinand sat in this very corner. But today’s Young Serbia is not talking of assassination. Ceda is twenty-two. As a young child, with a Serb father and a Croat mother, he thought he was a Yugoslav. Then he found that he was really a Serb. In his search for identity, he discovered the glorious history of medieval Serbia—and the Orthodox Church. He read the Bible, believed, and was baptized into the Church two years ago. His godfather is a fellow student, active in the protest. Ceda was one of those quietly singing the hymn of Saint Sava.
Like many people I talk to in Belgrade, he now thinks that Yugoslavia was a mistake from the very beginning. “It was,” he adds, “our mistake”—meaning that of the Serbs who thought their aspirations could best be realized in a larger state of all the Southern Slavs. Now the Serbs’ historic task is to start again, to build a modern, liberal, democratic Serbian nation-state.
It is a travesty to call someone like this thoughtful, idealistic young man a “nationalist,” in the pejorative sense in which that term is now almost universally used. He is a patriot, someone who cares deeply for his country. (If it were otherwise, he would not be demonstrating but trying to emigrate, as hundreds of thousands of younger, educated Serbs have already done.)
He feels that the students have done what they can for Serbia, their new-old patria. Now it is up to the people and the opposition parties, three of which are supposedly united in the Zajedno coalition. The students have carefully kept their demonstrations separate from those organized by Zajedno, so as not to be “taken over” by any side, but we now walk out to observe the latest opposition demonstration, dedicated to the demand for freedom of the press, radio, and television.
More flags, more nineteenth-century patriotic hymns, more rousing speeches on Republic Square, before the National Museum. It looks like a scene from 1897 rather than 1997, except that one of the flags says “Ferrari.” The crowd use their whistles—another hallmark of the Belgrade demos—to blow like crazy at every mention of Milosevic. Then off we stroll again, on what I’m told is “the media walk,” past the egg-stained state television station, known as “TV Bastille,” past white-haired “grandmother Olga,” an old lady who became a symbol of the protest, still cheerfully waving from her balcony, past Radio Belgrade, past the Politika newspaper and so back to Republic Square. On the television in my hotel room I find CNN reporting “a massive demonstration” with calls for Milosevic’s resignation. Well, it did not look massive to me, but what CNN says must of course be true.
Seen from outside, through the lens of such Western television coverage, and with the 1989 matrix still imprinted on our retinas, you might think that the Serb story is now “Zajedno versus Slobo” (like Civic Forum versus Husak, or Solidarity versus Jaruzelski), and the question is simply when Slobo will go. Seen from inside it does not look like that at all. Even those parts of the opposition joined in the Zajedno—“Together”—coalition are still quite un-together in many vital ways. Despite the country’s dreadful condition, Milosevic and his allies still have many important sources of power, and he has nowhere else to go. Above all, the question of democracy is overshadowed by the still unresolved national question. And that is still, as it was a century ago, about the basic issue of the frontiers of states in relation to those of peoples, including the position of Serbs outside the present Serbian state—especially in Bosnia—and that of other nationalities inside the present Serbian state, especially the Albanians in Kosovo.
I talk to all three leaders of Zajedno—Vesna Pesic of the Serbian Civic Alliance, Vuk Draskovic of the Serbian Renewal Movement, and Zoran Djindjic of the Democratic Party—as well as to Vojislav Kostunica, a “moderate nationalist” whose small but significant Democratic Party of Serbia was briefly in the Zajedno coalition but now stands separately again.
Kostunica, grey-suited, analytical, sober to the point of gloominess, harks back wistfully to the first, post-1918 Yugoslavia, a unitary state under a Serb king, before the dreadful blood-letting between Serbs and Croats during the Second World War confounded British-style nation-building (Serbs as English, Croats as Scots?). But he thinks Draskovic’s idea of restoring the monarchy is dotty. Why, the exiled Prince Alexander’s Serbian is so poor they have to talk to him in English.
Vesna Pesic, a small, neatly dressed, energetic woman, is the only one with a consistently impeccable record of commitment to civic, liberal causes, opposition to the war, and rejection of nationalism. But—alas!—she also has the smallest following.
Vuk Draskovic is the strangest of them all, a tall, nut-brown, prophetic figure—although his long black locks are now more neatly trimmed and the prophet is cased in a very smart Italian suit. Politically, he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When he talks about the past, about the atrocities committed by the Croat Ustashe during the Second World War, he is the old Mr. Hyde, the writer whose fiery language helped to inflame Serb nationalist feelings in the 1980s. When he talks about the present, he is Dr. Jekyll, swiftly hitting all the Western semantic keys—“human rights,” “regional cooperation,” “peaceful change,” “the right of refugees to return to their homes”—but also referring with justifiable pride to his own record of opposition to Milosevic’s war.
Behind this Jekyll and Hyde there is the unmistakable silhouette of an old Sixty-Eighter, one of that last defining generation of student activists, now to be found in high places all over Europe. To complete the picture there is his equally arresting wife, Danica, a tall, dark-skinned, orange-haired woman, bursting out of a gold-threaded designer jacket and skirt. In our short conversation she lives up to her reputation for verbal extremism by suggesting that the Serbs should really set about getting rid of the communists “like the Albanians.” (The Albanians are looting their army’s arsenals as we speak.)
Finally, there is Zoran Djindjic, also an old Sixty-Eighter but now the very model of a modern politician. Neat in suit, white shirt, and tie, speaking excellent German (once a pupil of Habermas, he spent most of the 1980s in West Germany), he sits in his vast office as the new mayor of Belgrade and explains how he can do something from there. In the Balkans, he says, the difference between pays légal and pays réel is especially large. On paper the city government may have few powers and less money, but in practice it has many properties and concessions (taxi stands, restaurants, public beaches) which can be privatized in an exemplary procedure, as well as other forms of informal power and influence. Also, the Serbs like a big man in power, and the mayor of Belgrade is that. I quote to him the Serb peasant who said: “I’ll vote for the opposition when they are in power.” Exactly so.
For Westerners, the skeleton in the mayor’s closet is his past support for the Bosnian Serbs and his infamous meeting with Radovan Karadzic in Pale in 1994. He defends this vigorously. If he hadn’t, he says, the national card would have been left entirely in the hands of Milosevic. What is more, the West only took him seriously when, helped by this tactical nationalism, the Serb electorate started to take him seriously. Western criticism is so much humbug. (In fact—this is my comment, not Djindjic’s—the West is not unlike that Serb peasant, supporting the opposition once it is in power.)
Diverse as they are, all the opposition leaders agree on one thing: they are still weak and divided, while Milosevic has many cards yet to play. Despite recent donations by big businessmen, now hedging their political bets, the opposition parties are still woefully underfunded and without proper organizations. The deep historical, political, and personal differences between the leaders are scarcely papered over by the façade of “Together”-ness. To give the opposition more time on the state-controlled television and radio, as they demand at the rally, might actually be a clever move for Milosevic. The more they talk the more they will expose their differences, while Milosevic can maintain his remote, statesmanlike silence. Though many claim the mantle of “the Serb Havel,” there is still no single figure to unite the opposition vote.2
No one excludes the possibility of a sudden and violent overthrow of Milosevic. The comparisons people make here are not with Poland or Hungary but with Romania (the end of the Ceausåüescus), Bulgaria (the parliament besieged), and, of course, Albania. “Remember,” everyone says, “this is the Balkans.” The catalyst might be a further, more precipitate worsening of the economy, leading to violent protests by the unemployed or underemployed workers and worker-peasants, rather than just students and city folk. (Vesna Pesic, a sociologist by profession, gives me a small lecture on how the usual social classifications no longer apply to Serbia, but the basic point stands.)
Barring this, however, the opposition leaders expect any peaceful political change to be protracted and messy. Both presidential and parliamentary elections for the republic of Serbia are due later this year. According to the law, Milosevic cannot himself stand a third time for the presidency of the Serb republic, the office that currently has the real power. But perhaps he can move this summer to the federal presidency—the presidency, that is, of what is now called the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, comprising the republics of Serbia and Montenegro—and somehow shift power to that level. He can once again fiddle with the electoral law. The opposition is getting more access to independent and provincial television and radio stations, but he still controls the all-important national state television.
Serbian political scientists struggle to characterize his regime. It is not simply a dictatorship, says one. It is “half-legitimate,” says another. A third describes it as “Demokratura,” a new combination of democracy and dictatorship. Yes, Milosevic still has an active secret police, though mainly for collecting information rather than for direct repression. Yes, the army is still vital, although during the demonstrations its commander signaled that it was not available for shooting students. But more important from day to day are the systematic manipulation of public opinion through the media and the dubiously gained fortunes of business supporters: both of his own Socialist Party of Serbia and the neo-communist Yugoslav United Left (JUL) of his influential wife, Mira Markovic, who, in popular mythology, takes the part of Lady Macbeth.
Yes, they tamper with the election results. But even discounting heavily for electoral fraud, Milosevic has won a series of at least formally free elections since 1990. Although Zajedno came out ahead in the local government elections last November, the government coalition still won the more important federal elections held at the same time. According to the official figures, they got 45 percent of the vote, with a further alarming 19 percent going to the far-right, nationalist party of Vojislav Seselj, a notorious paramilitary commander in the Bosnian war.
The opposition leaders hope that Milosevic’s position has since been eroded by the demonstrations and their arrival in local government, but everyone assumes that he still has significant popular support. For an outsider, this is the great mystery.Consider what Milosevic has done for them. Ten years ago there was a country called Yugoslavia “and I thought it was in Europe,” says my friend Ognjen Pribicevic, one of Belgrade’s brightest political analysts. Economically, they were quite well off compared to the Czechs or Poles. Belgrade looked smarter than Warsaw. Schools and courts functioned more or less normally. They could travel freely. Yugoslavia had a good name in the world.
Now they live in a country known as Serbia and it is—everyone agrees—not in Europe but in the Balkans. (Before I came out I looked in five recent tourist guidebooks to Europe. Serbia is featured in none of them.) This country is an international pariah. To be a Serb abroad is like being a German after 1945. Provided, that is, you can even get abroad. You need a visa for almost everywhere. Distinguished professors queue for five hours in the cold.
Physically, the whole place is battered and run-down. Belgrade reminds me of Warsaw in the late 1970s. If you look at the cars, the clothes, the shop windows, you feel that Poland and Yugoslavia have changed places. According to the (unreliable) statistics, average per capita income has shrunk from around $3,000 to less than $1,000. The official unemployment figure is close to 50 percent. I visit Kragujevac, a town once made prosperous by the large Zastava car, truck, and arms factory. The war decimated the production of cars (since parts came from all over the former Yugoslavia) but was good for the arms factory. Now the peace has cut the production of arms. (How far exactly I cannot establish since, unsurprisingly, a visit to the arms factory proves impossible to arrange.) Most of the Zastava factory workers are paid some $20 to $25 a month for doing nothing. To supplement this pittance, they line the streets selling black-market goods: trinkets, Nescafé, chocolate bars, cigarettes smuggled in via Montenegro.
Back in Belgrade, I am taken to a vast bazaar, full of new Western consumer goods, all imported without paying taxes. There is a great double line of people hawking Western cigarettes. But watch out for “Marlboros”: they are made in Montenegro. Fake Calvin Klein, Versace, and Nike clothes adorn the stalls—mainly produced, I am told, in the Sanjak of Novi Pazar.
Crime, corruption, and lawlessness are endemic. A notice in the hotel foyer asks you to hand over your personal firearms to the hotel security department. A security man hovers watchfully with a metal detector: does my tweed jacket suggest a local criminal or a Western businessman? I have never seen so many obvious gangsters, not even in Russia. I note that the phrase used about the election fraud is “when Milosevic stole the elections.” Elections are just one of so many things being stolen here.
People don’t trust the banks so they keep their money in cash. Here, as throughout former Yugoslavia, the Deutschmark is the real currency. “I don’t take dollars,” says one small businessman. “They are too easily forged.” When your money is stolen, you have no redress. Insurance? You’re joking. And the courts? Someone is entitled, according to the law, to inherit a flat. But to get it he needs to pay DM10,000—as a bribe to the judge.
Politics and corruption are deeply intertwined, as in all the post-communist “demokraturas.” The ruling parties run much of the state as a private business; private businesses protect themselves by supporting the ruling parties. But one would not like to enquire too closely into the finances of opposition parties either. The moral environment is as degraded as the physical one.
And what of the Serbs, for whom the nationalist standard was supposedly raised, the Serbs in Kosovo, the Serbs “across the Drina” in Bosnia, the Serbs in Croatia? The Serbs in the Krajina, in Croatia, have been completely expelled. Their villages—as I saw for myself shortly after the Croats’ “Operation Storm” in 1995—have been burned, looted, and devastated so that few Serbs will ever return to their historic settlements. The remaining Serbs in Bosnia, impoverished and brutalized, wander around the remnants of their tin-pot para-state. There are at least 500,000 Serb refugees in Serbia, most of them still without citizenship, let alone economic assistance from the state. In Belgrade, I talk to one woman whose plundered house I visited in the Krajina in 1995. She says: “I live here like a zombie.”
What a triumphant record of achievement! And yet people still support Milosevic. Why? Since I cannot talk individually to three million people, I have the usual, frustrating experience of listening to intellectuals’ explanations of what “the people” think, supplemented by opinion polls, anecdotes, and a few personal encounters. (“Vox pop” in the foreign correspondent’s knowingly ironic phrase.) First, this is, after all, a home-grown system, unlike the foreign-imposed regimes of the former Eastern Europe. Second, the intellectualssay, there is a Balkan, backward, authoritarian political culture, which always looks to a strong man in power. (Would they have said that fifteen years ago, in old Yugoslavia?) Third, there is a kind of residual socialist conservatism, fearing the plunge into economic freedom and clinging even to the pittance the Kragujevac worker has, for fear of losing that too. (Milosevic talks a lot about privatization, but does relatively little—partly, it is said, because his wife is opposed to it on ideological grounds.) Finally, Milosevic has created a national siege mentality, in which everything is blamed on the hostile outside world: the Croats, the Germans, Western sanctions. This has been a perfect self-fulfilling prophecy. He started by telling them that everyone was ganging up against the Serbs—then made it so.
As usual, the generalizations are impossible to prove; and if people soon speak otherwise through the ballot box or on the streets, that may merely show how things have changed. But I do get a small personal sample of this mental state. A civil servant in one of the ministries, a nice family man and skilled technician, tells me he telephones the private television station, BK, to complain every time the Pope appears on the screen, “because he’s our greatest enemy.” The Pope, the Germans, the Americans: all against us.
A retired major of the Yugoslav National Army, short, fat, bulging out of his grimy trousers, tells me he blames the current misery on what he calls “the American sanctions” and on the “immigrants” who come here taking all the jobs and scrounging. But these “immigrants” are actually the Serb refugees from Croatia and Bosnia.
Sanctions were imposed, he says, because Muslims bombed Muslims in the marketplace in Sarajevo. And Srebrenica? “That was also Muslims killing Muslims.” He squats on his sofa like a wary toad. But why on earth would Muslims kill Muslims? Well, the Serbs tried to drive them out and they got frightened, “so they started killing each other.”
The Zajedno opposition leaders are no good, the retired major continues, because they are not true Serbs: Djindjic was born in Bosnia, while Draskovic comes from Herzegovina and had a Muslim best man at his wedding. Oh yes, and his father was a communist. But wasn’t Milosevic once a communist? “No, he was a banker.” The major doesn’t approve of falsifying the local election results, but he’s sure Milosevic didn’t know about that: “It was the people around him.” Incidentally, he says, apropos of nothing in particular, he’d like me to know that his wife’s best friend is Jewish. In fact, his own best friend is Jewish too.
As I rise to leave, his wife—a schoolteacher—rather ceremoniously tells me that the Serbs still like the English, in spite of everything (i.e., everything we English have done to the poor Serbs). She hopes this conversation has given me a better picture of their country.
To make a modern, liberal democracy out of this degraded, re-Balkanized society, suffused with national self-pity and psychological denial, would be difficult enough if the Serbs were alone with their problems in a single, clearly defined nation-state. But they are not. This is not just a matter of the remaining “Serbs outside Serbia.” Inside the present rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Serbs comprise only some two thirds of the population (or perhaps slightly more if one were to count the Serb refugees). Another 6 percent are Montenegrins, with their own semi-independent republic within the federation. At least 15 percent are Albanians: perhaps as many as two million of them, concentrated in the southern province of Kosovo.
As so often before in Balkan and East European history, the unresolved national question cuts across, and frustrates, the attempt to democratize and modernize. As so often before, the Great Powers are called upon to sort out the mess—and end up making it worse. Diplomatic history is present in every conversation. I have never heard the Congress of Berlin mentioned so often. Talk of the frontiers and people immediately say, “London Protocol!” The reference is to a secret treaty of 1915. “In the war,” they say, and you don’t know if we are in the first World War, the second World War, or the most recent war. The last 120 years exist synchronically rather than diachronically in the political imagination—Dayton (1995) simultaneously with the Congress of Berlin (1878). For all its claimed union, “Europe” still means Britain, France, and Germany. Russia, the Orthodox brother-country, is seen as only on the margins of the game. For real solutions you look to America. That is the lesson they all draw from the agreement signed in Ohio, USA. But can Dayton seriously be described as a solution?
Bosnia features curiously little in discussions in Belgrade. The great outstanding national conundrum is now Kosovo. Kosovo is the question the opposition dreads, because they have no answer to it. Kosovo reduces even the ebullient students to baffled silence. As all readers of Rebecca West know, Kosovo, where the Serbs lost a great battle against the Turks in 1389, has traditionally been regarded by them as the mystical heartland of their great medieval state and national identity. Vuk Draskovic repeats to me the familiar description: “our Jerusalem.” The Serbian-Byzantine monasteries with their exquisite frescoes are still there; but more than 90 percent of the population is now Albanian. As you drive through the province you see all around you, dotted across the fields, the unmistakable homesteads of Albanian extended families: several houses and sheds surrounded by a single high brick wall, with a large, green-painted wooden gate, like a makeshift castle.
In the 1980s, Kosovo was (under Tito’s 1974 constitution) an autonomous province, with a largely Albanian administration. Although an Albanian rising in 1981 failed to achieve the status of a full republic, many of the Serbs were still leaving, often being forced out by discrimination and violence. Ten years ago this April, Slobodan Milosevic came to Kosovo and told the local Serbs, “No one should dare to beat you!” With this battle cry, he mounted the Serb nationalist horse and rode it—ably assisted by politicians of other nationalities, and especially by the Croat Franjo Tudjman—to the bloody destruction of Yugoslavia. Kosovo itself was stripped of its autonomy and placed under direct Serb administration. The Kosovar Albanians responded with the declaration of an independent Republic of Kosovo and extraordinary underground elections in which a majority voted for a Democratic League of Kosovo. Its leader, Ibrahim Rugova, became “President of the Republic.”
Their headquarters in Pristina is a large hut in the middle of a dusty parking lot, full of picture-book hawkers and spitters. At the door I am incongruously met by the “head of Protocol” who ushers me in to see “the President.” In passable French, Mr. Rugova tells me about the extraordinary underground state of the Kosovar Albanians: the eighteen thousand schoolteachers they fund from the unofficial dues which Kosovar Albanians pay in addition to the official Serb taxes; the independent university; the attempt at health care, through an organization named after Mother Teresa. Mr. Rugova’s immediate demand is merely for an alleviation of the repression. While the Serb police dare not touch him, they regularly harass lower-level activists. He insists that his followers use Gandhiesque peaceful means and has explicitly cautioned them against following the example of armed insurrection across the border in Albania. But on the central goal he is quite unyielding: self-determination for his people, statehood for the republic which he claims already exists.
His main rival, Adem Demaci, sometimes called “the Albanian Mandela” on account of his twenty-eight years in prison, sits opposite me on a chair in his new party headquarters and, Gandhi-like, pulls up his legs into the lotus position. He might settle for slightly less than Rugova would: a republic within a very loose confederation with Serbia and Montenegro. But he wants more dramatic protest actions to achieve it. He has called on his followers to imitate the student and opposition demonstrations in Belgrade.
That is the Kosovar Albanian mainstream. But in the last year there have also been a number of terrorist attacks, with responsibility claimed by a Kosovo Liberation Army. Are these the work of impatient young radicals, like the young Palestinians in Gaza? Or are they secretly encouraged by the Serbian leader? Even sober political observers speculate that a cornered Milosevic, faced with total economic collapse and massive popular calls for his resignation, might in desperation play the Kosovo card, provoking a terrorist assault or armed rising which he could then heroically suppress.
For the time being, no one Ispeak to thinks the Kosovar Albanians are about to imitate their compatriots in the mother-country. And this for one simple reason: even if large quantities of small arms were to be smuggled in from the plundered arsenals of Albania, the heavily armed and professionally trained Serb army could immediately wreak terrible vengeance. “You see,” both Serbs and Albanians tell me, with chilling matter-of-factness, “there are some seven hundred purely Albanian villages. So the people there could all be killed.”
Yet everyone talks of the longer-term possibility of war—and the seeming impossibility of any peaceful solution. The positions are so far apart now, the Serb and Albanian communities so utterly divided. When a local Albanian leader makes an appointment with my companion, a Serb journalist, he won’t even say the name of the street in which he lives—because it’s a Serb name. I visit a state school divided by an internal Berlin Wall, so that Serb and Albanian children never meet.
Each side speaks to you out of national martyrologies, underpinned with fantastic historical statistics. I ask the information secretary of the local Serb administration about the present ethnic composition of the province. “In the twelfth century,” he begins, “the Serbs were 98 percent of the population.” “In the 1980s,” says one of Mr. Rugova’s key aides, “Kosovar Albanians served a total of 27,000 years in prison.” The mutual stereotypes are equally fantastic. The Albanians portray the local Serbs as cocksure, triumphantly ruling the roost, whereas I find them, in fact, deeply depressed and frightened. The Serbs see the Albanians as part of some diabolic conspiracy, deliberately having so many children and spreading across the land so as to realize the “Prizren program” for a Greater Albania. (The League of Prizren, as readers will doubtless recall, was the Albanian national grouping after 1878.)
What is to be done? Some non-governmental talks between local Serbs and Albanians have started, and are to be continued in New York. The Albanians look to the so-called “international community.” Like Draskovic, they parrot the latest political buzzwords of the West: “full minority rights,” “regional cooperation.” But parroting is the wrong word. Magpieing would be more like it: for these Western terms are all adapted to their own local purposes, like a pen or pencil sharpener in the magpie’s nest.
From Belgrade, from no less a figure than the novelist Dobrica Cosic, has come the suggestion of peaceful partition. Serbia should take the holy places (the patriarchate at Pec, the beautiful monasteries of Gracanica and Decani), the mineral resources, and the main areas of Serb settlement; the Albanians should have the rest. Albanian intellectuals have heard this, of course. They even joke about it when we talk in a cheerful restaurant hidden away beneath the dim, potholed streets of Pristina. “Maximum 15 percent for the Serbs!” “No, I’d go to 20 percent!” For a moment, I feel like the Edwardian British East Europeanist R.W. Seton-Watson, dividing up the Balkans on the back of an envelope. But seriously: the Serb holy places and main settlements in Kosovo are not contiguous to Serbia proper, there are solid areas of Albanian settlement along the Serb frontier, and no one knows how a partition could be achieved without large movements of people and almost certain bloodshed.
David Owen has suggested an international conference on the Kosovo issue, under the auspices of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). A Vance-Owen plan for Kosovo? For the so-called “international community,” Kosovo is mainly an issue of “regional stability.” The NATO general’s cauchemar de Kosovo is that violent conflict breaks out there and spreads to the large Albanian minority in Macedonia, thus also tearing the fragile Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia apart, and involving Bulgaria and our NATO ally Greece. Then—hey nonny no!—we have the long-forecast “third Balkan war.” Assuming, that is, we have not had it already.
For Serb democrats, by contrast, Kosovo is about the future of Serb democracy. One of them puts the case drastically: Serbia can have Kosovo or it can have democracy. But which Serb politician would dare to suggest surrendering the mythical heartland of Serbianness? The leaders of Zajedno all feel it would be political suicide to open themselves to the charge of “losing Kosovo.” Yet deep down everyone knows that somehow, someday, Serbia must address this issue if it is ever to become a normal, democratic nation-state.
In Belgrade, I have a remarkable conversation with Dobrica Cosic, perhaps the most important intellectual father figure of Serb nationalism in the 1980s and president of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992-1993, until Milosevic cast him aside, as he has so many others, when they have served their turn. Cosic receives me in a large villa in the famous suburb of Dedinje—where Tito used to live—amid ornate wooden furniture and towering bookshelves. A heavy, white-haired man, he speaks a heavy, portentous language of national pathos. Yet his message is a startling one.
It is this: he doesn’t like the modern world, with its “technological civilization” and its dreadful, rootless Americanization. No, he abhors it. But that is the direction History is going and if Serbia, now a small nation in the Balkans, on the outer edge of Europe, does not want to be left behind, to lose out completely in the great struggle of peoples for survival, then it must go with History. Specifically, Serbia should have a democratic and preferably a parliamentary rather than a presidential government (although keeping a federal presidency), a market economy, the rule of law, and a co-operative foreign policy. And then he—he of all people—speaks the memorable line: “We cannot live from the myth of Kosovo.”
For my last day, I go back to the students. I already have my “Walker’s Passport” with, on the cover, the outline of Serbia filled with a photograph of protesters. (The outline shape includes Kosovo but not Montenegro.) Now they give me a badge saying”Room 559: epicenter of the resistance.” But Room 559 will soon be returning to its original use, as the department lending library for Ancient History.
This has been a long moment of practicing democracy, of the new kind of peaceful, self-limiting popular protest that is one of the treasures of late-twentieth-century Europe, of excitement and hope. “Canada, don’t give me a visa,” says one of the placards, “the victory is near!” (It rhymes—in the language they now call simply “Serbian.”) But privately their assessments are sober. Biljana wants to go to America to study. Ceda fears a country populated largely by “old people and refugees,” and sees the specter of fascism in its current politics.
True victory is still a long way off, and the past is such a heavy burden. “You know, there has been so much blood,” says Aleksa Djilas, sitting in the apartment of his father, the great dissident Milovan Djilas, and keeping a fastidious intellectual distance from all parties in this scrimmage. When I walked with the students a few days earlier, heading toward Milosevic’s villa in Dedinje, we were stopped by a line of police just next to a large, new, monstrously vulgar, blue-and-white wedding cake of a building, thrusting out of the hillside. This is the house and headquarters of Arkan, one of the worst Serbian gangster-warlords in Bosnia, but still operating freely here, even appearing on television with his wife and baby child, dressed to the nines. Grotesque, utterly grotesque.
One day, in a new Serbian democracy, these young historians will have to address this heavy burden. But looking at Kosovo, I fear the poisoned cup has still not been drained to the dregs. The tragedy that began on the field of Kosovo may yet end on the field of Kosovo.
Peering deeper into my crystal ball, however, I can dimly see the shape of a new Serbia. This shape is slightly smaller even than that on the cover of my Walker’s Passport. It is the outline of a truncated imperial nation, which overreached itself and then lost, perhaps even more than it deserved, in the cruel game of international politics. The comparison with Russia is suggestive: the other Orthodox post-imperial nation, now also looking back before the first World War in search of a new-old identity. But a better comparison may be with a closer country of more equal size:modern Hungary, truncated since the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which gave formerly Hungarian territory to new neighboring states, including Yugoslavia. Like Hungary, this Serbia will be metaphysically depressed, much given to national self-pity, but eventually, slowly, painfully trundling back toward a place in Europe as a more or less liberal, democratic nation-state.
Then Momcilo may finally live his “normal life.” Then Biljana may return from her university in America. Then Ceda may write the true history of a modern Serbia of which he can at last be proud. But how old will they be when that day comes?
—March 27, 1997
April 24, 1997
The students were particularly indignant about charges of “virulent Serbian nationalism” made by Chris Hedges in The New York Times. See, for example, “Student Foes of Belgrade Leader Embrace Fierce Serb Nationalism,” The New York Times, December 10, 1996. ↩
As this article goes to press, Milan Panic, the Serbian-born pharmaceuticals millionaire who unsuccessfully challenged Milosevic for the Serbian presidency in December 1992, is reliably reported to be considering another attempt, possibly in association with Zajedno and other distinguished local figures. But it remains highly questionable whether Panic (pronounced Panitch), the émigré with his trademark bottle of Coke, could really be that unifying figure. ↩