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.
This shows two things. First, there is a huge sense of disappointment among those who supported the democratic parties that overthrew Miloseviå«c and have dominated the government ever since. Second, if the Radicals find coalition partners, they could form the next Serbian government. They know that they will not win votes by pledging themselves to a seriously irredentist policy, which everyone knows would mean new wars, so their commitment to recreating a Greater Serbia is purely rhetorical. As the only effective opposition, they draw support from those who have lost out over the last fifteen years, and they continue to grow stronger, I was told, with every story of government corruption that is published in the daily newspapers.
A Radical government could not start major new wars but it could easily destabilize the whole region by encouraging Serbs in Kosovo and Bosnia to declare independence and begin new, local conflicts. Those who are especially gloomy believe that the Radicals in power would make little difference since they expect a new wave of mutual hostility is coming in the Balkans anyway. Serbia’s negotiations with the EU, which might eventually lead to membership, have been suspended. This is because Serbia has failed to arrest and extradite Ratko Mladicå«, the Bosnian wartime military commander who has been indicted for genocide by the Hague tribunal. The Radicals say they will never hand him over. But Kostunica, who is in control of the police, has not done so either, although he says he does not know where Mladicå« is.
About half an hour’s drive from Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, is the town of Lipljan, with about eight thousand ethnic Albanians and some eight hundred Serbs. The Serbs live in the middle of the town clustered around the church. When I visited the Serbian enclave this summer, the place seemed listless; not much appeared to be going on. Hardly any Serbs here have any real work and most of them are just waiting to find out whether, in a few months, they are going to have to leave Kosovo, possibly forever.
Kosovo is studded with historic Serbian churches and monasteries but now, in the culmination of a process that has been going on for centuries, few Serbs remain. There are no accurate figures but a common estimate is that there are about 1.8 million ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, a little over 100,000 Serbs, and a similar number of other minorities. Of the Serbs, less than half live in the north, in a region that borders on Serbia and is overwhelmingly Serbian. The rest live in enclaves, like Lipljan, scattered across the rest of Kosovo.
In 1999, following the war, Kosovo was put under the jurisdiction of the UN, and talks on its future status began last February in Vienna, with Martti Ahtisaari, the former Finnish president, as mediator. So far the talks have yielded nothing.
The parties turn up for sessions on such matters as the economy; each side declares its position and then announces that no progress was made because of the intransigence of the other side. At one point the Albanians had to be reproved, in private, after they laughed openly at statements being made by the Serbs.
Kosovo’s Albanians say they will compromise on almost everything except independence—which Serbia’s leaders absolutely refuse to accept. Serbia’s position is that since Kosovo is part of Serbia while Montenegro and the other former Yugoslav republics were not, Kosovo can be entirely autonomous but legally speaking it cannot become independent. Since the two sides will not agree, it seems likely that this autumn Ahtisaari will present to the UN Security Council a plan for the independence of Kosovo, albeit with some reservations. After that the Security Council may well impose a settlement in which countries are invited to recognize the new state of Kosovo.
Serbia has been hoping that Russia might support its position, since Kosovo’s independence would lend credence to Chechnya’s calls for independence from Russia. But the diplomats I’ve talked to say that Russia is unlikely to help Serbia. If Kosovo is denied independence, then an Albanian intifada might begin and Russia does not want that. Gazprom, the giant Russian gas producer, is considering extending its existing pipeline network through Serbia, across Kosovo to Albania, and then under the sea to Italy; if there is violence, the project might be threatened. If Kosovo does become independent, moreover, Russia could profit diplomatically, using the precedent to threaten former Soviet republics such as Georgia, in which there are two breakaway regions supported by Russia.
While the fate of Kosovo is thus followed closely in the Gazprom boardroom in Moscow and the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, the global implications of independence are remote to the Serbs of Lipljan. They don’t mix much with their Albanian neighbors, although they do not feel as physically threatened here as Serbs do in other parts of Kosovo. At the beginning of the street leading to the Serb enclave is a Danish NATO watchtower, but I never saw anyone in it while I was there.
One of the issues Serbs and Albanians are supposed to be talking about in Vienna is decentralization within Kosovo. The idea is to reassure local Serbs by giving them more autonomy in the areas in which they live; but there are simply too few Serbs in Lipljan to create a new municipality. Borivoje Vignjevicå« is a Serb but he is also deputy mayor of the town. He told me that since 1999 some twenty-one Serbs had been murdered in the wider region of Lipljan. Now, he said, most local Serbs are worried and confused. No Serbs, he told me, would want to continue to live in an independent Kosovo dominated by Albanians. But when I asked him if Kosovo’s Serbs would leave if it did become independent, he said: “Probably, if Kosovo gains independence there will be a signal from Belgrade that we should all leave even if that is not in our own interest. But anyway, most of us would have to go.”
In a gloomy café (the electricity in town was off—there are often shortages in Kosovo) Mr. Vignjevicå« explained that the Serbian government in the past has used two forms of pressure to get Serbs in Kosovo to do their bidding. Serbian “orders” came from Belgrade not as clear instructions, he said, but as coded “messages,” in statements in the newspapers that are taken to mean, for example, that people should not vote in Kosovo’s elections. Those disinclined to follow these instructions soon found themselves denounced as “traitors.” Second, in almost every family at least one person receives a salary from Serbia, though many of them don’t have a real job. To keep Serbs in Kosovo, this salary is twice what they would receive in Serbia and thus a good wage by any standard. No one wants to lose it.
Since 1999, only Albanians have used Lipljan’s official clinic. The Serbian counterpart is located in a private house. Here I found at least twenty nurses and other medical staff sitting around without much to do. For just going through the motions of the job—and maintaining a Serbian presence in Kosovo—they received salaries from Serbia. The nurses said they did not trust Albanians (indeed some of their houses had been burned down during riots in March 2004), and they did not trust the Serbian authorities either. Nor, since the failure of NATO-led troops to protect them quickly enough in 2004, did they trust foreign promises. “We are nervous and tense,” said Marina Nikolicå«. “We don’t know what tomorrow will bring.” Even if they do not all leave at once, my impression was that if Kosovo becomes independent many would indeed go. Just in case, however, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, has made provisions for a mass exodus.
In the north of Kosovo, the Ibar River splits the town of Mitrovica in two. The Albanian part of town lies to the south of the river, the Serbian part to the north. Between the river and the Serbian border almost everyone is Serb, so the atmosphere here is different from that of Lipljan. Indeed the region has cut many of its links with the authorities in Pristina and no one knows what would happen if, in a crisis, the police here were told to obey orders from Serbia, or at least from a breakaway Serbian authority that might emerge if Kosovo declares independence. Nebojsa Jovicå«, who is in charge of security for an important Kosovo Serb political group, told me that he expected that Albanian extremists might attack Serbian enclaves like Lipljan this autumn. But here in the north, he said, “we are capable of defending ourselves.” (Ironically, a few weeks after we spoke, the very cafe in Mitrovica was damaged by an Albanian who threw a grenade, injuring nine.)
Officially the major powers involved in this region—the US, the UK, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia—have ruled out the partition of Kosovo, but the idea is being floated unofficially along diplomatic back channels. Serbia would retain the north and recognize an independent Albanian state south of the Ibar. That is what Serbs have in mind when they talk of compensation for the loss of Kosovo. Such a solution would avoid setting a legal example objectionable to Russian interests in the Caucasus or elsewhere. When I asked Mr. Jovicå« what he thought of this, he professed to be shocked: “Albanians never had a state here and now we would be asked to give up 90 percent?” He objected not to the idea of partition, but to the suggestion that Serbia would get only the north. A Serbian journalist who was present at the interview told me afterward that this indignation was exaggerated. “Of course they [the Serbs] would accept. They would be delighted.”
When I asked Kosovo Albanians about the possibility of partition, they said it would never happen. If it did, the prevailing taboo on redrawing borders across the Balkans would be broken. Agim Çeku, Kosovo’s Albanian premier, said: “No way. Kosovo is Kosovo and we are not going to change borders. No one could accept this.” When I asked if there could be a breakthrough in the negotiations with the Serbs, he said: “No. The positions are too far apart to find a compromise between Pristina and Belgrade. They [the Serbs] are too far from reality.”
Çeku became premier in March. Although he denied it when I talked to him, many in Kosovo say that he can do nothing without the permission of Ramush Haradinaj, the former premier who has been indicted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes committed against Serb civilians during fighting in 1998 but is now free to pursue politics at home while awaiting trial. This makes Serbs particularly bitter. They point out that when Slobodan Miloseviå«c, who was already on trial in The Hague, asked permission to travel to a hospital in Moscow, his request was refused by the tribunal. The following month, on March 11, he died in his cell. Of course, the people who benefit from this bitterness are the Radicals in Belgrade.
It is a long drive from Pristina to Sarajevo. You pass through the Serb-controlled north of Kosovo and then into Serbia proper through the beautiful rolling countryside of the Sandzak, a region of Serbia with a large Muslim population, which has strong ties to Bosnia.
Parts, but not all, of Bosnia remain depressed, having never recovered from the war. Officially some 40 percent of the population is unemployed and those with a job earn only an average of 250 euros a month. If these statistics were true, however, most Bosnians would be starving. In fact most of them just want to avoid paying taxes, and because Bosnia’s central government is weak, they have a good chance to succeed. In Sarajevo many of my Bosniak (i.e., Muslim) friends told me that they were worried about the future. The Dayton peace agreement of 1995 divided Bosnia into two parts, the Republika Srpska, which is Serb-dominated, and the Federation, which is dominated by Bosniaks and Croats. What worried them was that after the referendum in Montenegro, Milorad Dodik, the premier of the Republika Srpska, said there was no reason why Serbs there should not also have the right to a referendum on independence. If that happened, according to Senad Pecå«anin, the editor of the magazine Dani, “it is possible we would have conflict here again.”
Dodik’s remark can be seen as part of his political campaign in the elections that are scheduled for October. That his demand for the right to a referendum on independence proved popular shows that, eleven years after the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina is seen more as an imposed arrangement than as a homeland by most of its 1.25 million Serbs. (The same is true for most of its Croats.) Dodik told me that, against their wishes, Serbs felt under continual pressure to cede powers to the central state. If Kosovo gained independence, he said, Bosnian Serbs would ask why Albanians were gaining “everything” while “the Republika Srpska loses everything.”
Bosnia is a strange place today. Like elsewhere across the former Yugoslavia (with the exception of Kosovo), ordinary people are recreating many of the connections that the politicians destroyed, as one can see from the bookshops and from the fact that the Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats are doing much business with one another. A decade and a half after the disintegration of Yugoslavia, when the politicians agree, their people also work well together. Bosnia’s government has a team devoted to gaining entry into the EU that is made up of Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats and is one of the best-run agencies in the country. It also cooperates very closely with similar teams from other parts of the former Yugoslavia.
The Serbs face difficult times now. An unstable Serbia—or one led by a Radical government which would be shunned both within the region and internationally—would set the country back years. Still, that the old Yugoslav “space” is reemerging can only be a good thing for ordinary people, even if they have no desire or need to recreate the old country. The question is whether these hopeful developments will prove strong enough to ride out the coming storm of Serbia’s likely loss of Kosovo.
—September 20, 2006
October 19, 2006