Kosovo and Serbia: Behind the Mask of Nationalism

Belgrade, Serbia – The war throughout the 1990’s between Kosovo and Serbia ended when the Serbian government rejected a Western designed ultimatum at the Rambouillet Conference. This ultimatum would have given NATO countries complete access to all of what was then the Serbo-Montenegrian territory. This discord led to further escalation of the conflict in Kosovo between the KLA, an ethnic Albanian paramilitary group who has strong ties to organized crime, and the Serbian military. NATO used this violence to justify its 78 day bombing campaign of Serbia in 1999. The war ended with defeat for the Serbian forces and the creation of UN resolution 1244, which gave the power of administration of Kosovo to the United Nations. The United States helped bring about this power shift. The Kosovo parliament stated that their declaration of independence on February 17, 2008 was the next logical step to come out of resolution 1244. Meanwhile, Serbian officials argue that the declaration is breaking international and constitutional law.

Recently re-elected Serbian President Boris Tadic has advocated the use of diplomatic means to keep Kosovo for the Serbian people. Given that the Serbian government has had only limited political power within Kosovo one can understand why Tadic would use historical and territorial claims to Kosovo via diplomatic channels. The ability to develop policies within Kosovo is non existent for Serbian politicians, partly due to their strong encouragement of Kosovo-Serbs to boycott any involvement within the interim government structures in Kosovo. This political crisis is also due to the nearly complete power that the UN has had within the terrority for the last nine years. The result has been continuous advocacy by the Serbian politicians for their rights over Kosovo through diplomatic solutions via the UN’s special Troika group. The UN’s Kosovo Troika was a three member council made up of delegates of the United States, European Union and Russia who were given the liberty to propose solutions during the negotiations. President Tadic had fully supported the Troika group, which had 18 months of diplomacy behind them. This past December, the Troika failed to come up with any solid recommendations for the Secretary General of the United Nations on how to resolve the ongoing questions of sovereignty for Kosovo.

While the Kosovar representatives and the Serbian government failed to reach a consensus that would statisfy both sides, the attitudes of each delegation contributed to the failure of the Troika report. This report to UN Secretary Ban Ki Moon included suggestions on how the United Nations should precede on the question of Kosovo’s status. From the start of the negotiations the American delegation, headed by Frank Wisner, said that even if there is no agreement on the future status of Kosovo between Serbian authorities and the representatives of Kosovar Albanians then the United States would still recognize a unilateral independence. Regardless, Tadic and his Democratic Party continued to participate fully in the Troika negotiations. They never deviated from their beliefs that the Security Council Resolution 1244, which placed Kosovo under an interim UN administration, was always meant to be a temporary solution; moving beyond Resolution 1244 required a bilateral agreement between the Serbian government and Kosovo representatives.

When in December of 2007 the Troika group still had no solutions many Serbians were not surprised; they have long felt that the international community has been conspiring against them. This belief stems from an optic view of the international community’s actions over the last ten years, from taking over part of their territory, to taking away their state owned companies, such as the Trepca mine and the electrical system.

Over the last two years the question of Kosovo’s independence has totally dominated Serbian politics. During recent elections, politicians keenly used the controversy to their advantage, while neglecting to mention any social problems, such as the high unemployment rate or rising cost of living within Serbia.

Serbia, along with all the other countries from the former Yugoslavia, has over the last decade seen rapid transformation of socially owned companies into privately owned companies. It is the business tycoons, politicians and members of the bankruptcy courts that have all benefited from this change. Since the 1990s an influential economic elite has emerged with strong ties to the political realm within Serbia. With all eyes on Kosovo these facts get swept away or are viewed as irrelevant and unrelated. Serbian politicians, especially those within President Tadic’s Democratic party, have presented neoliberal policies as preconditions for any steps towards European integration. With Kosovo being the front and center issue over the years, shady business deals and illegal privatization practices were allowed with little scrutiny.

Could anyone imagine a demonstration of 250,000 strong fighting for pensions, or securing workers rights in Belgrade? No. Last year in Belgrade when students saw their tuition drastically raised, and attempts to fight it were being organized, the turnouts by the students were dismal. Yet it was no surprise that people came out in full force to voice their anger at what they saw as a grave injustices committed by the EU, United States and the UN. These political forces were being selective and choosing favorites with the Albanian population in Kosovo and disregarded resolution 1244, never mind Serbian history – this is what Serbians have been told by the state for decades. Children are taught it in schools and men fought for it in the 1990s. Recent polls show that over 70% of the population in Serbia thinks that Kosovo should remain within Serbia, citing the mantra that ”Kosovo is the cradle of our culture, our religion and our territory’.

Other historical and social facts are often omitted, including that the population is now 90% Albanian and that Serbians enacted widespread ethnic cleansing and war crimes during the 1990s. With this as the prevalent view within Serbia, intolerance levels are frighteningly high. Amnesty International released a statement last week condemning the widespread violence, intimidation and threats within Serbia that have been made towards Albanians, Muslims, NGOs, grassroots organizers and media who have expressed dissenting views towards the status of Kosovo.

Since Febryary 17th, countries around the world began recognizing the unilateral independence of Kosovo. Within Serbia, the criticism, suspicion and dissatisfaction toward these countries resulted in widespread demonstrations. The massive number of people who took to the streets was a lever used by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to strengthen national rhetoric and keep Kosovo the central issue. A few thousand stole the limelight by attacking embassies of countries seen as Pro-Kosovarian, and the offices of Western multinationals. However, hundreds of thousands more took to the street in peaceful ways, gathering under the banner of ‘Kosovo is Serbia’. Prominent speakers spoke out against countries that have recognized Kosovo Independence, fighting against Western domination, and the bombing of Serbia in 1999. Film director Emir Kusturica was a strong agitator that closed the speeches by saying "The Clinton Administration bombed Belgrade and Kosovo, so hundreds of thousands of our people left from there. Before that, the same administration, made a supervision of the expelling of Croatian Serbs from Knin and Kninska Krajina."

When on February 17th the US embassy was attacked due to its support of Kosovo’s independence, only a handful of police were on guard to protect the embassy. Fires set off by Molotov cocktails burnt a small part of the building, and Zoran Vujovic, a 21 year old refugee from Kosovo, died in the fire. Witnesses reported that leaders of the largest football clubs in Serbia, ‘Partizan’ and ‘Red Star’ were in front, agitating and encouraging the destruction of the building.

Marija Perkovi, co-coordinator of Women in Black in Belgrade, one of the only peace groups in Serbia, commented on these recent events. "When Kostunica came to power, the elite continued to nurture some kind of militant nationalism, most recently by supporting all those small pro-fascist and clerical-fascist groups that did the violence after the declaration of independence. Of course, we think that that kind of militant, nationalistic and clerical ideology and rhetoric’s of Vojislav Kostunica and his government and parliament, even President Tadic’s balance between nationalism and civil, democratic orientation, are directly responsible for the recent violence."

Mixed reactions have come from the Serbian government, with members speaking both for and against the violence. Velimir Ilic is the Minister of Infrastructure and a member of the ultra Nationalist party ‘New Serbia.’ Earlier this week he applauded those who rioted, saying that ‘rioting is part of democracy.’ The attacks on the embassies, as well as the reaction by the Serbian government produced international outcries, most notably from the US, and Slovania. European Union spokeswoman Cristina Gallach said the violence in the Serbian capital was "totally unacceptable", and that the Serbian government’s reaction will impede positive relations. More politicians, including Prime Minister Kostunica, have given nods to this sentiment over the property damage, adding that not all politicians within Serbia are going to keep pushing diplomacy. Since the declaration of independence was made, Serbia has decided to cut off diplomatic relations with countries that have recognized Kosovo, and now plans are underway to begin a boycott of their products. On February 27th, Jovan Jovanovic, President of the Consumer Protection group in Nish, has argued that "the boycott of goods from countries recognizing the independence of Kosovo, will largely hurt the people of Serbia, but will hugely benefit the domestic tycoons."

It was only in early February that the hard-line Radical party lost the election by .5%, and this opposition is not going to let the issue die down. Kosovo will continue be the quintessential issue within Serbia as long as the various extremist nationalist groups and political parties have a say, and right now their views dominate the political arena.

On February 22nd, all 15 countries of the UN Security Council sent a unanimous statement condemning the property violence against the embassies, and during the 25th at the last UN session on Kosovo, no positive development or changes occurred, leaving many to wonder how much of an isolationist route Serbia is willing to take over Kosovo. Meanwhile, it is certain that the internal domestic social problems will continue to sit on the backburner for many months to come.

Reporting from Belgrade, Serbia, Amy Miller freelances in video, radio and print work that explore social issues in Belgrade.

Fore more information, see this article on Toward Freedom by Rene Wadlow:  Phantom Republics: Front and Center After Kosovo Independence