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.

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