BELGRADE -- Serbs are expressing alarm at reports that the Defense Ministry is distributing notices telling people to join the military reserves and report for basic training.
The reports come as tensions with neighboring Kosovo -- formerly a Serbian province, and whose independence Belgrade does not recognize -- have been running high amid a sometimes violent dispute over border crossings.
The Belgrade Helsinki Committee for Human Rights announced this week that an undetermined number of men had received the notices.
The committee released a statement from one recipient, who declined to be identified, saying: "These people who for all the years of my childhood and to the present day -- and I'm already a grown man; I'm 31 and planning a family -- have not provided the conditions for a decent life. And now they have the gall to ask that I join the reserves and serve in the event of war. And they threaten us with fines or with prison if we don't agree. I don't know what is greater -- my fear or my anger."
The Defense Ministry says the notices don't reflect any new policies and are part of the military's normal preparedness planning.
"Just this year we have published on our website news on military reserve force deployment six times. So, we are not creating any new military units," ministry spokesman Petar Boskovic tells RFE/RL's Balkans Service. "There is no cause for alarm. We are just informing the public about the draft schedule and plans for military-reserve members, which is being done according to the law on the military, war, and financial conscription throughout Serbia."
He says that information on the deployment of military conscripts "has been published in a timely manner on our website for many years now." The spokesman cites the announcement of a deployment for 2008, including an update that appeared on September 16 2007.
"The preparation of Serbian military forces is outlined by annual and five-year plans about calling up and training the military-reserve force," Boskovic says.
Farewell (For Some) To Arms
Earlier this year, Serbia ended conscription as part of its much-lauded effort to modernize and professionalize its military and bring it in line with NATO standards. However, the law does allow the military to compel anyone up to the age of 60 to join the military reserve and undergo basic training. It is not known how many call-up notices were issued in the latest round.
Sonja Biserko, head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, says the Defense Ministry's explanation should help reduce the anxiety over the notices. She says that before the story went public, tensions had been stoked because the situation was reminiscent of various forced conscriptions carried out during the 1990s Balkans wars.
"The goal of making this information public was to dispel the fears of some people who have contacted us," Biserko says. "First of all, because of the situation in the north of Kosovo and all the spin in the atmosphere, which resembled wartime propaganda; and, of course, because of the presence of many paramilitary groups that have shown up in the north of Kosovo together with General Bozidar Delic, who is again in the Radical Party and who had a very active role in the1990s."
Delic was a commander of the Yugoslav Army's Pristina corps prior to the outbreak of fighting in Kosovo in 1999.
Biserko adds that "dozens of men" have announced on various Internet forums that they had received the notices and that the reaction to them has been very negative.
"It is interesting that many young people have discussed the [Defense Department's explanation] and said that they are against war and that they are not interested in participating -- which is a good reaction, good that after all the propaganda, young people are reacting with such an attitude," Biserko says.
The reactions to the call-up notices on the Internet have indeed been lively and negative.
"I served in the army," one commenter writes. "I took part in war, but I don't even want to be in the reserves anymore. I'd like to meet the hero who is going to punish me. I served in the army in Kosovo and returned after five years to fight against the KLA. I've had enough. No one's crazy enough anymore to go and die so that someone else can give or trade territory away."
"When I see [business tycoon Miroslav] Miskovic's son in uniform with a rifle on his shoulder, then I'll go, even if I have to die," writes another. "Otherwise, don't even think about calling me."
Other commenters eagerly take up that theme, with one urging the government to "send your party colleagues and your own children to war."
Other commentators note that the memories and disillusionment from Serbia's past military adventurism remain painful.
"A duty is a duty," one writes. "Even in democratic countries, there are reserve forces and an obligation to serve in them. What's the problem here? The biggest honor is to serve your country. My brother had that honor, and he didn't return. Millions were chanting slogans, but a great majority was just holding nighttime vigils in their villages, in their yards."
During the fighting in Kosovo in 1999, as well as during the earlier Balkans conflicts, there was already a high level of fatigue among the Serbian public, leading to fairly strong antiwar movements and to significant levels of draft dodging.
Nonetheless, sociologist Ljubisa Rajic of Belgrade University senses a changing mood in the country's reaction to the Defense Ministry notices.
"Things have changed a lot among the rural population, which previously willingly sent its sons into the military," Rajic says. "It has also changed a lot in cities, because parents are reluctant to tell their sons to heed the military call-up -- although I cannot cite any empirical research because I haven't seen any."
Rajic says there's another element. "Fathers and older brothers returned from the wars of the 1990s thoroughly embittered with what took place and many felt they had been abused," she says. "Young men in urban areas don't have a sense that the army is something that is important for them. I don't think such an atmosphere exists anymore, apart from some clerico-fascist or neo-Nazi circles."
Rajic adds that some radical parties continue to espouse military rhetoric, but that the public increasingly sees their calls as hypocritical because party leaders do not serve in the military themselves.
RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson and RFE/RL Balkans Service correspondent Nedim Dervisbegovic contributed to this story from Prague