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Serbia after Kosovo

Vicken Cheterian
17 April 2007

A joke circulating in Belgrade says: "Serbia until Tokyo, Kosovo until April". But after brisk smiles, the tone gets more serious. In April 2007 the United Nations Security Council has been discussing the United Nations special envoy Martti Ahtisaari's plan, announced on 2 February 2007, for the future status of the territory - which proposes effective independence for Kosovo under international supervision. A fact-finding mission from a still-divided Security Council is preparing to visit Kosovo as the delicate end-game reaches a vital stage.

The public feelings in Belgrade about the outcome in Kosovo are more mixed than might be expected. On the one hand, many would like to turn the page and start a new life for Serbia within well-defined borders, resolutely looking towards a European future. On the other, there is anguish about the fate of Kosovo Serbs and their security, and a fear that the definitive loss of the territory will follow with the deportation of the remaining ethnic Serbs from Kosovo. Between these positions - and within the hearts of people who espouse them - there is a combination of confusion, powerlessness and uncertainty.

Srdja Popovic cannot be labelled a "Serbian nationalist". He was one of the founders of Otpor, the youth movement that led the struggle to bring down Slobodan Milosevic. After the 2000 "October revolution" in Serbia, he was elected a member of parliament, and appointed advisor to prime minister Zoran Djindjic. After the assassination of Djindjic, he co-founded the Centre for Applied Non Violent Action and Strategies (Canvas) which is engaged in spreading the experience of "colour revolutions" abroad.

Yet, Popovic is revolted by the stand of the international community over Kosovo. What is happening in Kosovo now is a "reverse ethnic cleansing", he told me, for which "the United States should bomb Kosovo, but instead they are giving it independence." This malaise is very much shared by many pro-democratic political activists in Belgrade, where frustration towards the loss of Kosovo is mixed with disillusionment with political change after the fall of Milosevic, and with the unfulfilled promises of the west.

Vicken Cheterian is a journalist and political analyst who works for the non-profit governance organisation CIMERA, based in Geneva

Also by Vicken Cheterian in openDemocracy:

"The pigeon sacrificed: Hrant Dink, and a broken dialogue" (23 January 2007)

The international community would like to place "the last piece of the Balkans jigsaw" on the map, the notion being that independence of Kosovo will end the epic hurricane of violence that started with the disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991-92, and the internecine wars that followed. UN officials fear that in case the current situation is frozen further, the growing frustrations among Kosovo Albanians will lead to violent explosions. There were demonstrations by some Kosovo Albanians on 10 February after the Ahtisaari plan failed to endorse full independence, and amid violent clashes, UN police in Pristina shot dead two protestors and wounded seventy others. The incident was a disturbing echo of the far more widespread clashes in March 2004 that led to twenty-two deaths among both main populations and scores wounded in orchestrated attacks on Serbian targets.

The latest revisionism

The UN officially wishes to see Kosovo's future in a "multi-ethnic" society that "(governs) itself democratically". Yet there is little sign that Kosovo Albanians, Serbs, Roma, and other minorities will live side-by-side the day after Kosovo becomes independent. The ethnic Serb enclaves in the north and west of Kosovo, around the town of Mitrovica, live cut off from their Albanian neighbours; new roads have been built to allow them to avoid passing through Albanian-held territories; and even the source of their water and electricity is different. When Serbs travel, their convoys that pass through Albanian land is protected by United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) troops.

The Serbian authorities - who are relying on Russian and Chinese support for their stance in the UN Security Council - have rejected Ahtisaari's plan. On 15 February, the Serbian parliament overwhelmingly rejected it. The statements of prime minister Vojislav Kostunica were particularly harsh: "Serbia warns that, no matter what, it will not be an accomplice to such violence," and added, "if anyone dares seize Serbia's territory, it must take into account that it takes full responsibility for such violence."

Kostunica also dismissed the fact that 90% of Kosovo's inhabitants are ethnic Albanians, saying: "we don't need the talk about a sense for reality. The reality is that Kosovo is part of our territory". The head of the Serbian Radical Party, Tomislav Nikolic, went further, threatening an uprising in Serbia if the United Nations Security Council accepts the Ahtisaari plan.

Dubravka Stojanovic is a historian at University of Belgrade. She is a specialist of contemporary Serb historiography, and studies the manner in which Serbian history schoolbooks have been revised in the last two decades (see Dubravka Stojanovic, "Serbia: History to Order", Transitions Online, 20 March 2007). She concludes the current revision of the past is not on the right track, and that there is a revival of nationalism in Serbian political as well as academic circles today: "the new wave in current history is anti-communism... we are not only facing [revision of] interpretations of the wars in the 1990s but also the second world war"... this revision is important because the new historical line is that "the wars of the 1990s were led by the communist Milosevic, and they keep saying that communism was defeated on 5 October (2000) - which is not true. Communism was defeated when Milosevic came to power and he went to war for nationalist ideas (...) he never said he's going to fight Croatia for the interests of the working class, he was fighting for Serbia's interests."

The political consequences of this historic revision are important: Milosevic "did not lead these wars in a proper way because a communist cannot lead a proper Serbian war. He by definition does not understand Serbian position and Serbian interests" and in consequence he could not lead the war of the Serbian nation "until the end". The implied conclusion is that the new leadership is capable of better defending Serbian national interests, and if they had been in power in the 1990s Serbia would have scored victories and not a series of defeats.

Also in openDemocracy on Serbian politics and Kosovo in the early 2000s:

Dejan Djokic, "Serbia: one year after the October revolution"
(18 October 2001)

Dejan Djokic, "Serbian presidential elections" (18 September 2002)

Katerina Bezgachina, "Serbia: the election that wasn't"
(23 October 2002)

Dejan Djokic, "The assassination of Zoran Djindjic"
(13 March 2003)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life"
(28 June 2005)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

Eric Gordy, "The Milosevic account"
(17 March 2006)

Vesna Goldsworthy, "Au revoir, Montenegro?" (23 May 2006)

Eric Gordy, "Serbia's elections: less of the same"
(23 January 2007)

TK Vogel, "Kosovo: a break in the ice"
(2 February 2007)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

After the declaration

What will happen the day after Kosovo is declared independent? "The Albanians will make a big party", said Dejan Anastasijevic, a reporter from Belgrade weekly Vreme and an expert on Kosovo. "But the Serb National Council [which represents Kosovo Serbs] will declare its own independence" from Kosovo, and try to keep the links between the region of Mitrovica and Belgrade. "There will not be violence, not immediately. But after few months it is a possibility", according to Anastasijevic. A few days after our discussion, Dejan Anastasijevic himself was a victim of violent attack: on 14 April his house was targeted by two grenades, though luckily no one at home was hurt (see Dejan Anastasijevic, "The Price of Speaking Out in Serbia", Time, 17 April 2007).

"Part of the reason why changes are so slow in Serbia is that we are intentionally humiliated by the international community", said Srdja Popovic. This feeling of humiliation is the result of Serbia's inability to move neither forwards, nor make a definite retreat. Kosovo was lost by Belgrade following the 1999 war between the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (yes, it was Yugoslavia at the time) and Nato, when after eleven weeks of aerial bombing, Milosevic gave in to the demands and withdrew his forces from Kosovo. Yet, in the current political atmosphere in Serbia, the fact that Kosovo was lost back in 1999 is hardly mentioned by the political elite, and the most vestigial consent to Kosovo's independence is seen as "betrayal".

Since the 5 October 2000 revolution, Serbia continues to be haunted by the national question. The international community continues its pressure to hand suspected war criminals to the international court at The Hague; the relationship between Serbia and Montenegro, after long discussions and a referendum, was decided in May 2006 by Montenegro declaring its independence; and the status of Kosovo continues to sap energy much needed elsewhere. On all those matters, Serbian society remains polarised between conservative nationalist positions, pro-western democrats, and an intermediate group reflected by Kostunica's attempt to articulate a desire for "national unity".

Today, the fact is that most of Kosovo is outside the rule of the Serbian state. The return of this territory to Serbian rule could only be made possible by the use of massive violence. Many people in Belgrade think that most Serbian leaders - despite their bellicose positions - are conscious that Kosovo is "lost". Yet in the current political atmosphere, no political party - with the notable exception of the marginal Liberal Democratic Party of Cedomir Jovanovic (which fused with the Civil Alliance of Serbia [GSS] on 7 April 2007) - is capable of publicly supporting the Kosovo's self-determination.

Belgrade must decide what is most important in the Kosovo issue: the land or the people? If it is the land, the problem is one of symbolism, identity politics, and myth-making - which cannot be addressed by pragmatic political steps. If it is the people - the security and well-being of Kosovo people, minority as well as majority - then a totally new approach is needed. For the moment, Belgrade is a city in suspension, not knowing in which direction it should take its next step.

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