Something was missing on the morning of January 23 as the locals drank their coffee on the main square of the Croatian city of Zadar.
During the night, the flags of the 24 countries participating in the World Handball Championships there had been removed. The mayor said later that memories of the recent wars in the Balkans were too fresh and his office had received numerous calls from citizens who were uncomfortable seeing the Serbian flag flying in Croatia. So all the flagpoles were stripped.
Two days earlier, the Australian Open in Melbourne featured a second-round match between Croatian Marin Cilic and Serbia's Janko Tipsarevic. At one point during the match, which Cilic won, Tipsarevic had to stop playing in order to ask Serbian fans to tone down the insults they were directing at Cilic. In comments to a local newspaper afterward, Cilic conceded that "the provocations were coming from both sides."
"The things they were saying were really not nice," he added.
The scene was even worse when Serbia's Novak Djokovic met Amer Delic, a Bosnian-born Australian, at the same tournament. Bosnian and Serbian fans were not content with merely hurling racial slurs at the players. They began fighting after the match, throwing chairs and tables at one another. One woman was knocked unconscious, two people were arrested, and more than 30 were ejected from the event.
"There's absolutely no place for that here," Delic was quoted by AP as saying after the match. "This is a tennis match. As I'm sure you all saw at the end, Novak and I are friends. We're both competitors. In the end it was a fair match, and there was no reason for such things."
Earlier in January, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service tried to arrange an online chat featuring one of the most popular musicians in the former Yugoslavia, Goran Bregovic. But insulting and provocative questions began pouring in so fast that the editors had difficulty screening them and, in the end, Bregovic refused to participate in such a primitive discussion.
And the virtual chair-tossing continues every time one of my commentaries appears on RFE/RL's English-language website. Last month, the editors took the unprecedented step of posting a reminder that "comments that violate the rules will not be approved. Violations include hate speech, incitements to violence, and non-English comments."
A lot of readers got sidetracked into a fascinating discussion speculating about my ethnic origin. It seems the facts and arguments in my articles just can't be computed by some people unless they know the ethnic point of view supposedly being represented.
Of course, most citizens of Zadar don't have anything against flying the Serbian flag among the others at the handball tournament. And all four of the tennis players involved in the Australian Open incidents spoke out strongly against the actions of their fans. But what is the motivation for stirring up ethnic enmity at venues such as these that have nothing to do with politics or the ethnic conflicts of the past?
After all, it has been 600 years since the Battle of Kosovo. Sixty since the end of World War II and nearly a decade since the last of the recent Balkan conflicts. But still many Albanians, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs are obsessed with the wounds of the past. And these passions are as strong among representatives of these groups in Australia, or -- judging by comments on RFE/RL's website -- Costa Rica, Canada, the United States, and Europe as they are among those living in the Balkans. Everybody is shouting and nobody is listening. Parallel lines have been created that ideas can never cross.
The capacity for dialogue is a virtue of a moderate person -- someone capable of listening and of treating other people as people just like them. Insults and rants are a form of monologue intended to kill off or prevent any dialogue. And the death of dialogue is the beginning of hatred and dehumanization. It is the first step toward war.
It is a cliche that people in the Balkans are hot-blooded, inclined to love too much and to hate even more. But in reality, those tendencies have been bolstered by political leaders who have prevented ordinary people from confronting and coping with the truths about the region's wars. These leaders, currying favor with their ethnic kin, create information vacuums in which people can live without facing the past, without reconciliation. "We have our problems," they say, "but those others are worse." With this us vs. them mentality in operation, no one aims to be good -- only to be better than them. Every defeat is presented as a heroic victory. "Our" crimes are justified by "their" crimes -- or by their intended crimes.
"The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them," George Orwell wrote half a century ago.
The political leaders of the Balkans, the schools, the media, parents -- none of them have told the people of the region that the wars are over. The first volleys of the earlier conflicts did not come in the form of bullets, but of words. And the war of words is continuing, even intensifying. Can conflict and bloodshed be far behind?
Nenad Pejic is associate director of broadcasting for RFE/RL. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL