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Commentary: Time For Serbia To Wake Up

By Gordana Knezevic Serbs protesting in Mitrovica (AFP) 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

RFE/RL Balkan Report

RFE/RL Balkan Report


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