Sliding backwards in Kosovo

Author: Anna Di Lellio
Uploaded: Tuesday, 26 February, 2008

Op-ed published by The Guardian's 'Comment is Free' weblog which examines Belgrade's 21 February 'carefully choreographed mass rally and its political use by [Vojislav] Kostunica and Tomislav Nikolic'

The conventional wisdom about the recent violent protests in Belgrade is that a bunch of hooligans ruined the peaceful and dignified display of national pride by a crowd of hundreds of thousands. It is a distinction with rhetorical and political implications. Serbian prime minister Kostunica used it to avoid an outright condemnation of the rioters. He just complained that violence and destruction damage the Serbian national cause and cheer the enemy. More important for him is that ‘the youth of Serbia have sent out a message that they want law, justice and freedom’.

Echoing this sentiment, Mladen Tosic [op-ed in Comment is Free, 23 February 20008] finds the whole day of protest ‘inspirational’. Mobs attacked and set on fire the US embassy, but also the embassies of Croatia, Bosnia, and Canada, countries that have not recognised the independence of Kosovo. The police intervened too late, with what appears to be a studied ineffective response to a very predictable outburst of violence. Yet, Tosic writes, this should not tar the event. Quoting Branko Kovacevic, chancellor of the university of Belgrade, he focuses on what matters: the massive rally that behaved like a ‘people's parliament’.

Let's take this assessment seriously and reframe the event. What should be very worrisome for anyone who cares about democratic Serbia is exactly the carefully choreographed mass rally and its political use by Kostunica and Tomislav Nikolic, the leader of the Radical party. These two nationalist politicians plan to concentrate power and marginalise even the lukewarm opposition of President Boris Tadic, by claiming to have the full support of the ‘people's parliament’.

It is a known pattern. In the final years of the 1980s, Milosevic consolidated his leadership by embracing the ‘anti-bureaucratic revolution,’ a series of populist ‘happenings’ that were in part orchestrated by the government. Today, like 20 years ago, the crucial issue is Serbia's existential relationship with Kosovo.

History never repeats itself in the same manner, but the similarities with the past are frightening. It could not be otherwise; the protagonists are often the same.

Nikolic once was Milosevic's deputy. Standing at the helm of the Radical Party on behalf of indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, he was suspected by the Humanitarian Law Centre of having participated in criminal actions during the war in Croatia.

The acting Orthodox patriarch who officiated the religious service on 21 February is Bishop Amfilohije, an outspoken supporter of Milosevic who once praised Karadzic for his defiance of the Dayton accord.

A rumour in Belgrade attributes the fiery but lyrical speech delivered by Kostunica to the poet Matija Beckovic. It could easily be true. Another enthusiastic supporter of Milosevic, Beckovic wrote in a 1987 poem, ‘where to walk away with the Visoki Decani? Where to Shift the Pec Monastery?’ and last Thursday Kostunica cried out, ‘Never will anyone hear from us that the Patriarchate of Pec does not belong to us, that Visoki Decani and Gracanica are not ours!’

Even the nameless crowd of the hooligans is unfortunately known. These are not just juvenile delinquents. Ivan Colovic noticed years ago how seamlessly violence moved from the stadium to the battlefield at the start of the Yugoslav wars, when the themes of ethnic identity and greater Serbia came to dominate the football fans' folklore.

We are witnessing the same nationalist frenzy that in the 1990s directed the repressive Serbian state apparatus against Kosovo and caused irreparable damage to generations of Albanians. An absurd amnesia has seized the dominant discourse on Kosovo independence in the west, and too often there is no mention of the losses suffered by a nation that suddenly lost all its rights, whose citizens were forced en masse into the grey economy, and whose children were confined to an improvised, under funded and inadequate school system. To top this tribulation, in 1998 Belgrade unleashed its army and police against Albanians with unusual brutality and provoked NATO to intervene. The rest is known. Nobody took Kosovo from Serbia. Serbia lost Kosovo all by itself.

Despite the double talk, there can be no equivocation on what the intentions of Kostunica and his government are. The fundamentalist ideology that ties Serbia's very existence to a highly inspirational view of Kosovo medieval history actively encourages violence against anyone who does oppose it, anywhere. This ideology defies the law. For Kostunica, international law and Resolution 1244 are like a restaurant menu from which to choose according to taste: sovereignty yes, but self-determination, human rights and compliance with the Hague tribunal no.

Serbia in fact never implemented 1244. It boycotted all the elections that since 2001 have taken place in Kosovo under the aegis of the United Nations. Now, it has ordered the Serbs employed by local or international institutions - mainly police and the courts - to leave their posts.

Many commentators say that Serbia must choose between joining the EU and drifting closer to Russia. As Andrej Nosov and Dragan Popovic have eloquently written, it seems that another chance to embrace a democratic future has been missed with Kostunica's authoritarian turn. In 2003, a political lynching atmosphere led to the assassination of Zoran Djindjic, the first and only western-minded leader in Serbia. The times are now especially dangerous for the ‘enemy within’: the human rights activists, the independent media and the Liberal Democrat Party. They need our support.

This op-ed appeared on The Guardian’s weblog, 25 February 2008.

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