Accessibility links

Balkan Report: March 5, 2008

Kosovo: Time For Serbia To Wake Up

By Gordana Knezevic

Serbs protesting in Mitrovica

Last week's pictures from Belgrade were ugly. Broken windows in the city center, the burned flags of foreign embassies, and thinly veiled justifications of the violence by Serbian officials. A government minister, Velimir Ilic, went so far to say that violence against foreign embassies was the appropriate answer to the "violence" committed against Serbia by taking away its province.

However, Kosovo left Serbia a long time ago. Most Serbs did not notice that departure, since Kosovo was not present in their conscience as a place to visit or, God forbid, a place to move to with a business or the family.

Despite this ignorance of the real Kosovo, the former Serbian province plays a key role in Serbian identity -- an identity that is very much shaped by the idea that Serbs have always been victims, throughout history. In the hands of local politicians, Kosovo is inevitably mentioned as a symbol of a great loss, producing an instant image of a battle against the Turks -- a battle that took place 600 years ago. It has always been packaged as an event that took place yesterday (or might as well have), and conversely, what happened as recently as yesterday is somehow directly related to that medieval battle.

The myth of Kosovo, as an integral part of Serbian identity, was created and cemented by Serbian writers, poets, politicians, and academics. If Serbs happened to disagree on other issues, Kosovo would always be their common ground, their rallying point. A romantic picture of Serbs as both heroes and victims at the hands of brutal Ottoman Turks would suspend all disputes and produce an idyllic picture of national unity.

In other countries, politicians have to work hard and come up with good ideas and policies in order to get reelected. In Serbia, it was always enough to just mention Kosovo and to have the entire nation clapping hands. But what Serbs want to have is not Kosovo as it is, inhabited by an ethnic-Albanian majority. It is Kosovo as it was a few centuries ago, inhabited by Serbs. Or, in the face of the demographic reality, inhabited by whomever, but run by the Serbs.

Selective Curfew

In 1981, as a young journalist, I was sent to Kosovo in the aftermath of large student demonstrations that took place a year after Tito's death. The demonstrations were brutally suppressed by the Yugoslav Army. By the time I arrived in Pristina, hundreds of Albanians had been imprisoned, special police units from all over Yugoslavia had been deployed in the streets of the Kosovo capital, and a curfew was in force after 8 p.m.

Apart from me, two other journalists from Zagreb and Ljubljana were the only guests at the Grand Hotel, run by the Serbian secret police. It was rather unpleasant to have to listen to the frequently drunk policemen singing at the hotel bar every evening. We felt that we were trapped in that place as a result of the curfew. After many boring and uneventful nights at the hotel, we decided to test the curfew and to leave the building long after 8 p.m. Thus the three of us started our dangerous walk through the empty streets of a city that had not yet recovered from the violent demonstrations and the brutal army action. Without ever being stopped or asked for any ID, we spent most of the night moving from one bar and restaurant to another.

The only obvious conclusion was that the curfew was only in force for Albanians, and that each and every police officer in Pristina was aware of the three journalists from outside, so they didn't even ask for our identification. Humiliation and torture by the police were meant for Albanians only. We left Kosovo with the bitter taste of injustice and oppression against the Kosovar Albanians.

Even in those fractious times, most Albanians thought of themselves as Albanians as well as Yugoslavs -- and they did not feel any necessary contradiction between those two identities. Once Yugoslavia ceased to exist, however, they couldn't possibly declare themselves to be Albanians and Serbs, since in that case one clearly excluded the other.

No Serbian policeman or army officer has been allowed in Kosovo since 1999. The terrible crimes committed by Serbs in Kosovo before the NATO intervention were hardly an invitation for Albanians to remain inside the borders of Serbia. Breakup was imminent, and it was not a question of whether it would happen, but when the separation would take place. Even as Serbian officials extended the talks about Kosovo's future, they continued to advance only legal arguments, and never expressed any desire to share a country with Albanians. They wanted only a piece of paper that would give them ownership of Kosovo. A Serbian historian from the beginning of the last century once said that the Serbs would "grow up" as a nation only once they realize that Albanians are human. It is time for Serbs to grow up.

Gordana Knezevic is the director of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service

U.S. Ambassador Says Balkans 'Not Returning To The 1990s'

U.S. Ambassador Robert Bradtke (right) and RFE/RL correspondent Enis Zebic

ZAGREB -- In the wake of Kosovo's declaration of independence and Serbia's harsh reaction, U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Robert Bradtke spoke to RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service correspondent Enis Zebic about the wider impact the situation will have in the Balkans.

RFE/RL: Since Kosovo's declaration of independence on February 17, we've seen violence in Serbia, the Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and on the border between Serbia and Kosovo. Do you expect this violence to continue?

Robert Bradtke: For me, the starting point is to say that we are not returning to the 1990s, we are not returning to the conflicts we saw in this region in the 1990s. I would like to believe that the situation will improve, that the reality of Kosovo's independence will be accepted. There really is no alternative here; there's no going back. Kosovo will not be part of Serbia again and it would be good if the Serbian government, the Serbian people would recognize that as soon as possible and look to a future which we hope would be the European Union.

RFE/RL: Does Kosovo's independence mark the end of the dissolution of the former Federation of Yugoslavia? And, if so, do you see it as a starting point for stability in the region?

Bradtke: I think that Kosovo's independence can create the basis for a stable future of this part of Southeastern Europe, with membership in the European Union and NATO for the countries of this region. I think it is important, however, that Serbia recognize that that is where the future is. The future is not trying to go back to the past, the future is not trying to live in isolation, but it is accepting the reality of Kosovo's independence and moving forward.

RFE/RL: Some say that Kosovo's independence will weaken the United States' presence in the region. Do you agree?

Bradtke: First of all, we have invested too much effort, resources, and human effort in trying to create a better future for Southeastern Europe. We are not going to walk away from that job when it's only half-finished. We also know that Kosovo will take a long time to really achieve some of the potential that's there. It was, as you know, one of the most backward parts of the former Yugoslavia. It went through a terrible conflict. It has been in this state of limbo for the last nine years. So it's not going to change overnight to reach the kinds of developed levels of political and economic development that we all want to see. That is going to require long-term commitment.

RFE/RL: What do you think Croatia's role is in the region?

Bradtke: I think Croatia has been playing a very important role. I would characterize that in two aspects. One is that I think Croatia is an example for other countries of this region. It is an example of a country that has undertaken some very difficult reforms, including full cooperation with The Hague tribunal. In taking these reforms, it has been able to move forward toward NATO membership and toward membership in the European Union. So, on the one hand, Croatia's positive role is an example for other countries. I also feel that Croatia, in reaching out to the countries in this region, in the kind of relationship it has developed in the Adriatic Charter with Albania and Macedonia, in the good relationship it has developed with Montenegro since Montenegro's independence, I think these are examples of the kind of role Croatia can play directly working with countries in the region.

RFE/RL: You were at the Dayton talks that produced a peace agreement for Bosnia in 1995. It is certainly up to Bosnians to find solutions for themselves. But the international community, including the United States, also bears some responsibility toward Bosnia. What can be done to push Bosnia forward?

Bradtke: I think [the Dayton agreement] was a great accomplishment. It brought an end to a terrible conflict and created a framework to try to build peace, stability, and a unified country. But Dayton was never meant to be like the 10 Commandments carved in stone, handed down from the mountain. It was meant to be a document that stopped the fighting and provided a start. All the parties in Dayton, all the constituent peoples of Dayton, need now to work together to modernize the Dayton arrangements, to provide Bosnia with a more efficient, more capable government that can take Bosnia forward into NATO, into the European Union.