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Serbia and the West 15 Years after the NATO Bombing: Dislike or distrust?

Exactly 15 years after the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavian Serbia, the Serbian political arena has been overwhelmingly dominated by the Serbian Progressive Party, an odd conglomerate of Slobodan Milošević’s blue-eyed boys, radicals and nationalists who unexpectedly turned into pro-European politicians advised by American consultants and who signed the breakthrough agreement on the normalisation of the Serbia – Kosovo relations.

March 24, 2014 - Ida Orzechowska - Articles and Commentary

24.03.2014 800px-Serb-milit-bomb-nato

Yugoslavian Army General Headquarters building damaged during NATO bombing. Photo taken in August, 2005. Photo: Not home (cc) commons.wikimedia.org

What happened 15 years ago influenced significantly both Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and his comrades, but most importantly it influenced the society itself and let genies out of the bottle of the Serbian soul. It also shaped the western perception of Serbia and the Serbs as the embodiment of everything that is anti-western, anti-American and anti-NATO. How much has changed so far and how did it happen that after 15 years Vučić, then minister of information famous for his oppression of anti-government journalists and for a front-page interview in which he announced his revenge on Slavko Ćuruvija, a popular and brilliant journalist criticising the rule of Mirko Marjanović, shot dead shortly after in a state-sponsored assassination, is now giving away Kosovo, willing to join the EU and pushing for trials for the unsolved political murders from the 1990s?

The 1999 NATO bombing was from a Serbian perception an attack not only on Yugoslavia, but first and foremost on the core of Yugoslav territorial sovereignty and the heart of Serbian national identity: Kosovo. The Serbs, who lost almost everything during the wars in the early 1990s, were again faced with an illegal war that brought tremendous results to Serbian infrastructure, environment, health situation and, principally, national pride. After signing the Dayton Accords in 1995 it was clear in Belgrade that no matter what happened during the four long and intricate years of war, the world has declared them to be the guilty bad boys. What Milošević was trying to achieve in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999 was a desperate attempt to strengthen his position as a new Tito who will guarantee Serbia the right to rule the New Yugoslavia as it should have been doing for the past decades. If one is willing to follow the trend of comparing the today’s situation in Crimea with the Kosovo case, this power-building leadership style is probably where the biggest similarity between the two lies. Milošević’s policies were not anti-western. I would also claim they were not even anti-Albanian at their very core. The extreme nationalistic narration and actions were political tools, not an ideology. The developments in late 1998 and early 1999 made the ground very easily susceptible to this rhetoric. And March 24th 1999 brought to Belgrade the much-needed proof that the West, personified by Richard Holbrook, is anti-Serbian.

The Serbs have neither after 1995 nor after 1999 been given the right to suffer. The aggressors cannot cry. The growing frustration of Serbian society has automatically transformed into an extremely introverted approach and distrust towards the “Other”. And the “Other” was everywhere. It was right behind the newly delimited border, it was in Berlin, Rome, Brussels and London, it was in Washington DC, most importantly it came to the Serbian territory (as Kosovo has been guaranteed to be by the 1244 UN Security Council Resolution of 1999), with tens of thousands of foreign soldiers, policeman and other officials who moved to Kosovo. The frustration and anti-“Other” feelings were fed by the West with the continuous narration on the Serbian sins excluding any kind of popular recognition of victims on the Serbian side. A majority of Serbs did not and does not want to reject the crime of Srebrenica (it is a different discussion whether it was a genocide or a war crime), but they want the “Other” to hear about Kravica.

The war in Kosovo did not bring any positive results for Serbs. Their reputation was over, their country was destroyed and international forces were on the ground. Milošević remained in power and the isolation of the state was proceeding. There was nobody to trust, not even the “Russian brothers”, as the Serbs used to refer to Moscow, who did not give a hand during the war, either. The isolation stood in contradiction to traditional Balkan and Yugoslav cosmopolitism, and it was well-visible in the course of the so called Bulldozer Revolution – the broad societal movement aimed at overthrow of Slobodan Milošević, which finally happened on October 5th 2000. One of the leading slogans of the revolution was Belgrade Is the World. And even if the Otpor! movement who organised the protests was externally financed or even invented in Washington, it found itself on an again very susceptible ground. The Serbs needed to be told to be able to love Serbia (another slogan of Otpor! was “Resistance, Because I Love Serbia”) despite what happened during all the wars. It was the secret of the great power of Zoran Đinđić as well – he was the one who was trusted and who trusted the Serbs, as nobody in the West did.

He truly and deeply believed that the Serbs can be trusted and that their love of their fatherland did not mean killing their neighbours. He respected their affection towards Kosovo, but was honest. Paradoxically, as politically far from Đinđić as he can be, Vučić today resembles him to a certain point when leading his negotiations with Kosovo and the EU. The assassination of Đinđić in March 2003 showed that the state system of Milošević was much stronger than the nationalistic anti-western spirit in the society. Neither Koštunica nor the Tadić – Cvetković tandem were able to win the trust of society again over the next years. Their policies were not clear-cut enough to overcome the wall the Serbs have built around themselves. The walls become even thicker when the West broke the promise of the commitment of all the UN member states to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia given in 1999 in the 1244 UN Resolution on Kosovo. The independence of Kosovo was enthusiastically welcomed all over the world, and the trust of the Serbs was misused.

The isolation, fear and distrust towards the “Other” is not only in contradiction with the cultural background that Serbs have been brought up in, but it also results in serious economic restraints. So it is changing, because people want to have a normal life. As the elections show, the political space for anti-everything-pro-Serbian approach is decreasing – none of the far right-wing parties entered the Parliament. In fact, the Serbian Radical Party won less votes than the alliance of Hungarian minority of Vojvodina (in the northern part of Serbia). Serbs want to be trusted and want to trust. On April 16th they gave their vast trust to Aleksandar Vučic. I am strongly convinced that if Đinđić was not killed, Serbia would have already joined the EU and be at least a key NATO partner joining the Alliance soon.

Like the traditionally pro-western Croats, the Serbs are not extremely enthusiastic about the EU and NATO, but the stagnation and recurring disappointments make it necessary to step forward. The only alternative that would fit into the western perspective of anti-western Serbia is a turn towards Russia. With Vučić’s pragmatism, however, it seems hardly possibly at the moment, especially given the fact that most likely the Serbia will be paying a high price for Crimea with Gazprom cancelling some of its South Stream contracts. Last time, it was Milošević who had this kind of power that Vučić has in his hands today. The Serbs trust him, even though many inside and outside the country are warning of a possible “Putinisation” of his policies. He seems to want to be the one to prove that one can love Serbia and move forward toward the West. However, it still sounds slightly ironic when Milošević’s favourite expresses his special thanks to the CIA for its help in capturing one of the most prominent Balkan criminals Darko Šarić. The thing is that nobody knows if the never-smiling Prime Minister is joking or not.

Ida Orzechowska is a PhD candidate at the Institute of Political Science of the University of Wroclaw, Poland, obtaining a degree in political science. Her main research interests relate to international security, the Western Balkans and conflict studies. Recently, she has held visiting fellowships at the Institute for International Relations in Zagreb and Centre for the Study of the Balkans in London. Currently based in the Balkans, she is developing her dissertation on the correlation between power relation and stability in the region, and works as a freelance analyst.

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