Rude awakening for the orphans of ‘Greater Serbia’

By Jean Arnault Dérens, Le Monde diplomatique, November 1997

Kosovo is Serbia's Jerusalem says a former Communist Party official in Pristina, capital of Kosovo. We are at the historical heart of Serbian nationalism and here—as elsewhere—it is evident that the Serbs see their problems as far from resolved. In particular, the problem of Serb communities outside Serbia itself. Inside Serbia, presidential elections scheduled for 7 December threaten a contest between hardliners of one sort or another.

Dusan Ristic, a former Communist Party official in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, is a small man in his sixties. Expelled for nationalism in 1981, he is now the leading ideologist of the Serbian Resistance Movement (SRM). Kosovo is Serbia's Jerusalem, he remarks, gazing out over the foothills dominated by the monastery at Sopocani. Here in this monastery, founded in the 13th century by King Uros I to house his own tomb, we are at the historical heart of Serbian nationalism.

A meeting of the Policy Council of the Pan-Serbian National Church Convention, chaired by Mgr Artemije, the Bishop of Prizren and Raska, has just ended. Leaning on a staff almost taller than himself, the bishop blesses the participants while young monks serve coffee and potent local plum brandy. He delivers a final homily on the evils of ecumenism. Christ's truth is indivisible, and the Orthodox Church is its defender. Ecumenism is the thin end of the wedge. Like John Paul II, you end up dancing the tango with the Dalai Lama.

Mgr Artemije's see of Prizren and Raska is a prestigious one. Prizren is in Kosovo, one of the original heartlands of Serbian nationhood. It also has an Albanian Catholic bishop, Mgr Mark Sopi, who has never had the slightest contact with his Orthodox opposite number. The Sopocani monastery is in the heart of Raska, the other core of the Serbian kingdom in the middle ages (1). Medieval Raska corresponded more or less to the sanjak of Novi Pazar, which straddles Serbia and Montenegro. This area is now mainly inhabited by Muslims. In Kosovo, formerly an autonomous region and now part of the Republic of Serbia, more than 90 % of the population is Albanian (2). (See insert.)

Like the victims of some strange curse, the Serbs have become a minority in those very areas in which their history was forged. Mgr Artemije condemns fifty years' genocide of the Serbian people perpetrated by the Albanians and Muslims with the connivance of the Communists. He expects nothing from the international community, which he considers systematically anti-Serb, or from Slobodan Milosevic's regime. Only the Church can save his people.

In January of this year the Pan-Serbian National Church Convention adopted the Saint Sava Declaration, addressed to President Clinton, President Chirac and other world leaders, in which it claimed that the Serbian people of Kosovo and Metohija, described as sacred Serb territory, had for centuries been exposed to systematic, aggressive, racist Albanisation that has shaken Serbian national existence to the root and threatens to destroy it for ever. It castigated Mr Milosevic as the representative of an anti-democratic regime who had forfeited the right to negotiate with anyone or take any decision whatever with regard to Kosovo and Metohija. Mr Ristic also constantly criticises interference from Belgrade, which he claims is preventing a satisfactory settlement of the Kosovo question. In his view, the basis for a compromise already exists. All that is needed is to grant the Albanians maximum cultural autonomy while ensuring that the province remains part of Serbia.

The discourse of these Serbian Afrikaners oscillates between denial of Belgrade's right to interfere and the conviction that they themselves have a historic mission to defend the frontline of Serbian ethnicity. For them, the Dayton agreements were the logical conclusion of Mr Milosevic's policy of betrayal. Jorgovanka Tabakovic is a Radical, i.e. extreme right-wing nationalist, member of parliament from Pristina. Like Dusan Ristic, she never utters the cursed name of the military base in Ohio. She, too, prefers to refer to the day when Milosevic chose to set the frontier on the Drina. In other words, to abandon Serbian Bosnia.

Here things are clean

Mrs Tabakovic is an energetic young woman who has kept her management job in a bank despite election to parliament. She describes herself as a modern nationalist and sees Jean-Marie Le Pen as the major theoretician of all Europe's nationalist movements. We nationalists are bound to understand each other. Even the Albanian nationalists. Once they recognise that Kosovo is part of Serbia, the Radical Party will be prepared to grant them full cultural autonomy. After a moment's thought she adds, Except schools in Albanian, of course. They will have to learn the official state language.

The Radical Party is certainly a larger militant body than the disparate forces of the National Church Convention. In June 1997 it organised a march on Belgrade by Serbian refugees in Kosovo. Serbs from Croatia or Bosnia who can prove they have family roots in Kosovo were invited to avail themselves of their right of return. But instead of receiving the house and land promised to each family, those who accepted the invitation were crammed into temporary resettlement centres. Not surprisingly, dozens of families responded to the call from the Radicals and set off in their tractors to demonstrate outside the Serbian parliament.

In Pristina the refugees are lodged in a sports hall. The building is guarded. To get in, you need a pass from the minister of information of the Autonomous Region of Kosovo and Metohija. Two security guards with portable telephones preside over contacts with the press. The refugees, all from Croatian Krajina, hardly dare vent their bitterness and despair. Serbianisation of Kosovo has proved a total failure. The authorities now realise their reckless attempt to change the ethnic balance of the province is doomed. All that remains are these refugees with no future, the abandoned orphans of Greater Serbia.

Some people, like academician Nikola Stipcevic, have not yet learned the lesson. At the annual meeting of the School of Philosophy in a monastery near Krusevac in southern Serbia, he sagely explained that the refugees are a biological opportunity for Serbia. Fifty or so intellectual has-beens, including a fair sprinkling of academicians and former ministers in Milan Panic's democratic government of 1992-93, bustle round the undisputed star of the occasion, the writer and former federal president Dobrica Cosic. Among them are many former dissidents who used to frequent the Marxist critique gatherings at Korcula in the 1970's.

Momcilo Markovic, himself a philosopher, is indignant at the suggestion that anyone might take Cosic for a nationalist. Our Dobrica? Forget it. He's always been a democrat, an eternal dissident. Mr Markovic was considered the ideologist of the Socialist Party during the heyday of hardline nationalism. He left the party when the Communist mafiosi of the JUL took control again. Meaning when Slobodan Milosevic abandoned the nationalist line and put an end to his three-year alliance with the far right (1990-93). To confirm the pax Americana in Bosnia and hang on to power, Mr Milosevic came to an arrangement with the party of his wife, Mirjana Markovic, the United Yugoslav Left (JUL).

Meanwhile, Mr Stipkevic was expounding his theory of biological renewal. The Serbian people were becoming mongrelised. They lacked demographic vitality. The refugees are true Serbs, from healthy mountain stock. These are the philosophers and academicians who provided the intellectual backing for the national-communist synthesis which Mr Milosevic once embodied. Put out to grass after the turn to pragmatism, they are closing ranks like a bunch of tired campaigners. The abbot blesses them at length. A journalist on Radio Belgrade puts a word in. Here things are clean. Just like they were in Kosovo when I was a kid. Now everything's been fouled up by the dirty Albanians. These ideologists of Serbian nationalism, who in 1986 penned a notorious memorandum protesting against the anti-Serbian policy pursued since 1974, refuse to speak of the war or the present situation.

There are an estimated 650,000 refugees in the present Yugoslav Federation. Rocky is a young Serb from Zagreb who made all the wrong choices and lost everything. Don't talk to him about Belgrade or Sarajevo. For him the only real city in the Balkans is Zagreb. But Rocky is now living in Rtanj, a tiny mountain village not far from Zajecar and the Bulgarian border. He explains that he left Zagreb for the Krajina Serb capital of Knin, which he left in turn in 1993. This means he joined the Serbian army in Knin but chose to flee to Serbia before the Serbs lost control of the region. Now he despairs of ever seeing Zagreb again, though his father and uncle still live there.

The Republika Srpska, the Serbian Republic in Bosnia, also contains large numbers of refugees from Krajina or from areas that now belong to the Croatian-Bosnian Federation. The largest town is Banja Luka. Here the small office of the Krajina Refugees Association is like a branch of the Radical Party. The dominant atmosphere is uncompromising revanchism. Milorad Pribicevic, who comes from Benkovac, admits he is caught in a cleft stick. With my Republika Srpska identity card I am no longer allowed to vote in Croatia. But the Dayton agreements also prevent me voting in Bosnia, as I wasn't resident there in 1991. Mr Pribicevic dreams of Greater Serbia. He is a non-person, a citizen of nowhere. Refugees like him are the orphans of the former Yugoslavia, which, whatever its drawbacks, was a federal state in which all Serbs could live under the same roof.

But not all refugees made the same choices. Pre-war Drvar had the most homogeneous Serb community in Bosnia. The hazards of war, endorsed by the Dayton agreements, gave the town to Croatia. Many of the Serbs who lived in Drvar want to return, undeterred by the fact that their town is now part of the Croatian-Bosnian Federation. They are in conflict with the authorities of the Republika Srpska, who will not let them go back and are moved only by considerations of ethnic homogeneity. The refugees are fighting for the right to return to their land and the principle of non-ethnic Bosnian citizenship. Together with the opposition parties of the two Bosnian territorial entities, they presented a Drvar supporters slate at the local elections last September. Their chairman, Milo Marceta, proudly displays a poster calling on people from Drvar to vote in their home town, not in the Republika Srbska. Judging by the considerable success of the Drvar slate, his call did not fall on deaf ears.

Nation state or federation?

After the break-up of the Yugoslav Federation in 1991, Slobodan Milosevic and the other Serbian leaders made two fatal mistakes. First, they decided not to try and negotiate the position of Serbs in the new states. Then they tried to unite by force all the territories in which Serbs lived. The Serbs' present plight is the direct result of this twofold error. Even supposing the territory of the Republika Srbska is in the end attached to the little Yugoslavia of Serbia and Montenegro, a million or so Serbs will have lost their ancestral homes. Areas of Serbian population dating back to the middle ages or to the 17th century, like the Krajina (3), have been abandoned for ever, and the new Yugoslav Federation is hard pushed to absorb the refugees. With the Albanians, the Hungarians of Vojvodina and the other minorities who live within its present borders, Serbia is paradoxically the most multi-ethnic state in the Balkans.

At the very real cost of the ethnic cleansing of the Krajina and other reconquered territories in 1995, Croatia was nevertheless able without too much difficulty to become an ethnically homogenous state. Serbia is in a very different position. Large numbers of non-Serbs live within the limits of the Serbian territory defined by Tito, and large numbers of Serbs live, or rather lived, outside it. There are only two solutions. Either the re-introduction of non-ethnic citizenship in all the Balkan states, or population transfers on an even greater scale than in Bosnia. Zoran Lilic, former president of Yugoslavia and candidate for the Serbian presidency, leaves us in no doubt as to his own preference. According to him, there is no Albanian problem in Serbia, because the Albanians already have a state outside the country.

The Serbs who remain in Croatia and the Bosnian Federation are nevertheless striving to negotiate their survival. Maksim Stanicic is chairman of the Democratic Initiative of the Serbs of Sarajevo. Concerned to protect the interests of those who are still living in the districts of Sarajevo handed back to the Bosnians (4), he feels he is fighting a lone battle. Everyone would like to see the back of us. The Croat and Muslim nationalists are trying to force us out by increasing victimisation, and the Serb nationalists look on us as traitors for wanting to stay in our own city.

Milorad Pupovac was elected to the Croatian parliament as a member of the Social Democratic Alliance, winning one of the three seats allocated to Serbs (less than the number of seats reserved for Croats living abroad, as he points out). Of the 600,000 Serbs living in Croatia before the war, he estimates that only 100,000 remain in the large towns and 100,000 in Eastern Slavonia. We are second-class citizens, he claims, in a damning indictment. There is not one school in which children can learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Discrimination is rampant in all areas. Although there is somewhat less hostility towards us since the fighting stopped, no effort is spared to force us out. Serb property is requisitioned after the owners have been absent for six months. We have three demands: cultural rights, greater parliamentary representation and genuine territorial autonomy for the remaining areas of Serb population.

Despite the difficult situation in Croatia, the Serbs of Eastern Slavonia seem to have obtained substantial guarantees. Zagreb has undertaken to respect their territorial and cultural autonomy, and a genuine transitional administration has been established in accordance with the United Nations mandate (UNTAES). The nationalist leaders of the war years, like Slavko Dokmanovic, the former mayor of Vukovar who was arrested and is awaiting trial in the Hague, have disappeared from the scene. Having obtained 47% of the poll in the election of April 1997, Vojislav Stanimirovic's Serbian Independent Democratic Party is in a position to demand the strongest possible guarantees for the Serb minority in Zagreb. Serious problems remain, particularly the war crimes issue. Branko Juricic is a representative of the Comittee for the Defence of Human Rights, an organisation linked to the Serbian authorities. He wants to see the real criminals stand trial, but is concerned that denunciations may be seized upon by the Croats out of a desire for revenge. All of us here fought in defence of our city, he claims. So why should some be treated as criminals and others not?

He admits the hardest thing of all is to accept that we are now Croatian citizens and our land is part of Croatia. The last vestiges of the Serbian Republic of Sirium, Baranja and Eastern Slavonia are being incorporated into Croatia in an atmosphere of utter disillusion. When Croatian President Franjo Tudjman went to Beli Manastir in Baranja for the first time in June of this year he was confronted by only a few dozen young people dispiritedly chanting anti-Croat slogans. The townspeople, worn down by six years of isolation, feel only indifference and contempt for all politicians.

Back in Belgrade, Vuk Draskovic (5), the chairman of the Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO), has little to say about Bosnia or Croatia. In an office adorned with symbols of Chetnik folklore (6) and a portrait of General Draza Mihajlovic, he is content to confirm his desire to see the Dayton agreements applied in full. He stands for democracy and denunciation of the Communism of Slobodan Milosevic, plus rehabilitation of the Chetnik movement and the Serbian monarchy. Mr Drakovic is a writer who for many years symbolised the opposition to communism. He has just published a novel glorifying his hero, Mihajlovic, who he denies was responsible for the murder of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims during the second world war. Like General de Gaulle in France, the Chetnik army was the legitimate resistance movement in opposition to the Communists. There were many Muslims in its ranks, and most of the massacres were perpetrated by the Communists.

On the strength of this scandalous rewriting of history, the SPO leader dreams of imposing a restored monarchy on the whole region. Incredibly, his model is the British Commonwealth. He waxes lyrical as he expounds his geopolitical fantasies. Of course a new Balkan federation is needed, but it can be created only under the aegis of the Serbian monarchy, to which all the peoples of the region will turn in time. Dayton is a stop-gap, a compromise. In the future all the peoples of Bosnia will be able to exercise their national rights as part of the new Serbian commonwealth.

Mr Draskovic attributes the collapse of the Zajedno coalition entirely to the treachery of his partners. He claims that Zoran Djindjic and Vesna Pesic had promised to support his bid for the Serbian presidency, in exchange for which the SPO, the strongest party on the Belgrade city council, enabled Mr Djindjic to become mayor of the capital. In the event, Mr Djindjic and Mrs Pesic decided to boycott the presidential election and called on their supporters to abstain in the first poll. As a result, Mr Draskovic obtained only 20 % of the vote. He got his own back by evicting Mr Djindjic from his post as mayor with the friendly assistance of Messrs Milesovic and Seselj.

In any case, the Serbian opposition is riddled with contradictions. It is consistent only in its ritual denunciations of the regime. Mrs Pesic's Civic Alliance is of purely symbolic significance, and Zoran Djindjic is no more credible as a democratic alternative than Draskovic himself. Despite his attempts to portray himself as a modern democrat, his former links with the ruling Serb clique in Bosnia will not be forgotten.

While Radovan Karadzic kept a low profile during last winter's protest movement, the current president of the Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, enthusiastically supported the protesters (7). The crisis among the Serbs in Bosnia could ultimately lead to the formation of a Plavsic-Djindjic axis propounding a renewed nationalism and blaming the defeat of the Serbian people on corrupt political mafias. Lost in his monarchist dream world, Vuk Draskovic is unlike to have any real impact on events, even if his party's score in the parliamentary election, which took place at the same time as the first presidential poll, may restore some of his strength.

The outgoing coalition, comprising Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party, his wife, Mirjana Markovic's Union of the Yugoslav Left (JUL) and the New Democrats, no longer has an absolute majority and will therefore have to form an unnatural alliance with Mr Seselj's Radical Party or with Mr Draskovic's SPO. But only Vojislav Seselj is campaigning actively on all fronts: in the Republika Srpska, in Serbia itself, and among the refugees. He may well succeed in his attempt to embody latent Serbian revanchism. And it is by no means out of the question that the strengthening of the Radical Party is a devious strategy on the part of Mr Milosevic himself.

The future of the Republika Srbska was conspicuously absent from the concerns of the protest movement. Viktor Todorovic, one of the main student leaders, was elected by his fellows to the post of student vice-rector of the University of Belgrade. He admits that among the protestors there were a number of refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, often extreme nationalists and revanchists. We used them as stewards on demonstrations, he explains ingeniously. They were not allowed to harangue the crowds. Mr Milosevic's attempt to restore political normality and get the economy moving after the long and stormy period of sanctions has surely come too late. The Yugoslav president's record gives him no credibility in any role than that of master puppeteer.

Serbia's aspiration for statehood is still fraught with difficulties. The Serbs are now a minority in the areas vested with the greatest historical importance for them, and recent events in Montenegro—where Milo Djukanovic has beaten the outgoing president Momir Bulatovic, a close associate of Slobodan Milosevic—give reason to fear that they may also be deprived of the legendary heroism of the small mountain kingdom that continued to hold out when Serbia itself fell to the Ottoman Empire. Above all, the eternal question has to be resolved one way or the other. Can Serbia really constitute a nation state, or must it link its destiny to a federation?

Here again, only Vojislav Seselj seems prepared to learn the lessons of recent history. In a television debate with Zoran Lilic on 1 October he argued that the name Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was an anachronism. The country should call itself Greater Serbia, or at least the Republic of Serbia, and Montenegro's autonomy should be abolished in the framework of a new centralised state (8).

In Dobrica Cosic's novel Vreme Zla (A Time of Evil), the elderly Vukasin Katic and his friends, on the eve of the second world war, ponder the future of Yugoslavia, the Serbian people's most costly and tragic illusion (9). Today, the Serbs must face the fact that they have lost the war for Greater Serbia. They have to create a future for themselves within the confines of a truncated state overburdened with refugees that contains large non-Serbian minorities. Will they develop the concept of a nation that includes these minorities, or is further disintegration on the cards?

The Belgrade political commentator, Vladen Goati, tries to be reassuring. In an era of globalisation we are too small a people to be masters of our own destiny. Humiliating as this is, it could spare us disastrous experiments. Unless, of course, the humiliation of defeat and the shock of economic collapse have precisely the opposite effect of driving the Serbs into some reckless new adventure. Proto-fascist nationalists like Vojislav Seselj ask nothing better than to exploit their traumas. His score in the second presidential poll on 5 October shows how real the danger is. After coming out ahead of the Socialist candidate, he failed to become president only because of the low turn-out. If Mr Milosevic can be beaten only by the Balkan disciple of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Serbs are likely to jump out of the frying pan into the fire.

(1) One of the first Serbian kingdoms emerged in the 9th century around the city of Ras. The Nemanjic dynasty, founded by Stefan Nemanja (d. 1195) and his son, later canonised as Saint Sava, reached its peak in the 14th century under Dusan the Great. Its territorial basis was Kosovo and the Ras region.

(2) See Christophe Chiclet, Piège albanais pour les Balkans, Manière de voir, No. 33, Géopolitique du chaos, February 1997.

(3) In his classic novel Migrations (available in English in a translation by Michael Henry Heim, Harcourt Brace, New York) Milos Crnjanski tells how Serbian troops were deployed in the military borderlands (which is what the term Krajina means) of the Hapsburg Empire.

(4) Ilidza, Grbavica, Ilijas and Vogosca.

(5) See Catherine Samary, Epreuve de force en Serbie, Le Monde diplomatique, January 1997.

(6) The Chetniks were Serbian royalist partisans during the second world war. Their resistance to the fascists was tempered by their anti-Communism and they were guilty of many massacres of Croats and Muslims in response to those perpetrated by the Ustashi supporters of the pro-nazi Croat state.

(7) See Mécontentement chez les Serbes de Bosnie, Manière de voir, No. 33, Géopolitique du chaos, February 1997.

(8) See Le Monténégro tenté par la sécession, Le Monde diplomatique, September 1997.

(9) Dobrica Cosic, Vreme Zla, Svjetlost, Sarajevo 1990-91. See also Jacques Decornoy, Dans les griffes de l'histoire, Le Monde diplomatique, January 1992.

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