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The Balkans Watch Ukraine, But See Themselves

In Belgrade, protesters backed Russia's military intervention in Ukraine: "Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is Serbia."
In Belgrade, protesters backed Russia's military intervention in Ukraine: "Crimea is Russia, Kosovo is Serbia."
BANJA LUKA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- International news rarely makes an impact in the Balkans, which has spent the past two decades immersed in its own roiling headlines of war, recovery, poverty, and resentment.

But that has changed with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, whose complicated struggle for multiethnic balance and postimperial autonomy from Russia strikes all too close to home.

In every corner of the Balkans, from newly independent Kosovo to politically torpid Bosnia-Herzegovina, people are watching events in Ukraine from their personal vantage point as survivors, or victims, of the Yugoslav collapse. Some applaud Euromaidan for taking down a corrupt regime, others lament the potential economic fallout. But no one's opinion seems indivisible from their own experience.

In Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb-majority Republika Srpska -- which has frequently threatened secession in favor of joining Serbia proper -- many residents are eager to defend Russia's military buildup in Crimea, saying the territory's ethnic Russians risk retribution from Ukraine's new pro-Western government.

Dane Cankovic: "It's obvious that the new authorities in Ukraine...don't respect the human rights of minorities,"
Dane Cankovic: "It's obvious that the new authorities in Ukraine...don't respect the human rights of minorities,"
"It's obvious that the new authorities in Ukraine, who have been promoted by the street, don't respect the human rights of minorities," says Dane Cankovic, a 52-year-old mining engineer. "They removed Russian as an official language, and they view Russians in Ukraine as second-class citizens. Russia is a serious country, and it won't let this happen."

A distinctly different view can be heard to the south in Sarajevo, the devastated focal point of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, which left an estimated 100,000 people dead and more than 2.2 million displaced as Belgrade fought to reverse the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Seen Through A Local Lens

Residents in the Bosnian capital inevitably draw parallels between Russia's moves on Crimea and the incursion of ethnic Serbian soldiers in unmarked uniforms seeking to "protect" fellow Serbs in a city that had long been home to a cosmopolitan blend of Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and others.

Muhamed Hadji-Isakovic, standing alongside gravestones dotting a grassy hillside park in the city center, says he's not surprised by the Russian actions. "It's just another example of Russian policy, something that hasn't changed in all the time we've known Russia," he says. "What did they do in Georgia? What did they do in Chechnya? There's nothing different about their actions. And Europe is weak. I don't know anyone in [Ukraine], but I do support people who are forced to defend themselves."

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Frustration with Europe, and the West overall, is tangible throughout the Balkans, but nowhere more so than in Bosnia.

The country's Byzantine political structure of layered government entities -- ethnically balanced but almost incapable of coordinated action -- is a bitter legacy of the international community's Dayton agreement, which has left the country mired in corruption, unemployment, and political inertia.

Muhamed Hadzi-Isakovic: "What did they do in Georgia? What did they do in Chechnya?"
Muhamed Hadzi-Isakovic: "What did they do in Georgia? What did they do in Chechnya?"
Mounting public frustration has fueled a wave of violent protests in recent weeks, with many Bosnians looking admiringly to Kyiv's Maidan demonstrators as an example of change from within. Change from outside, warns Sarajevo resident Nadja Mehinovic with the weary voice of someone who knows, is something best avoided. "[Ukraine] should let people themselves come to an agreement -- without the kind of interference by the international community that we had, she says. "We can see that there are a lot of factions there -- extremists and normal people alike."

Belgrade Balancing Act

So far, Serbia has been the only country where the Ukrainian situation has sparked actual street protests. On March 3, 200 pro-Russia demonstrators gathered in the capital, Belgrade, chanting and holding placards reading, "Crimea is Russia, and Kosovo is Serbia."

On an official level, however, Belgrade has sought to maintain a far more subtle balancing act. As a fellow Orthodox country with urgent economic needs, Serbia has long served as Russia's Balkan foothold. Moscow backed Serbian opposition to Kosovo independence in 2008; in return, Russia has poured billions of dollars into Serbia's crumbling energy sector -- a lever it may seek to apply if Serbia, which this year began EU membership talks, moves to solidify its ties with Brussels.

Caught in a Ukraine-like squeeze between Russia and the EU, Serbia has attempted to present itself as a stable, if not entirely neutral, partner to both sides.

Speaking at a March 3 rally in Sremska Mitrovica, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that "work and discipline" would lead the day in his country, adding, "We are not going to have a Ukraine or Bosnia in Serbia." At the same meeting, however, he noted Serbia would not break off its ties with Russia, "regardless of what is happening in the world."

WATCH: Serbs back Russian actions in Ukraine.
Pro-Russian Demonstration In Belgrade
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Echoes Of 1999

Indeed, many Serbs and Montenegrins, still mourning Belgrade's loss of influence following the collapse of Yugoslavia, harbor tacit sympathies with Moscow as it seeks to restore its Soviet-era status as the imperial center of power. (The similarity has led some commentators, including Ian Traynor in "The Guardian," to compare Vladimir Putin's tactics in Crimea to those of late Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.)

"Unfortunately, Ukraine is following the Yugoslav scenario, and I'm sorry about that," Serbian film director Emir Kusturica told ITAR-TASS. "I see the same kind of catastrophe. I think that Russia should protect the Russians who live in Ukraine."

Many in Serbia and Montenegro, which remained a single entity throughout the Balkan wars, have been hotly defensive of Russia's claim on Crimea. They accuse the West -- and particularly the United States, which forced Belgrade's retreat from Kosovo, and an end to the Balkan wars, with 1999 NATO air strikes -- of applying a double standard.

Nadja Mehinovic: "We can see that there are a lot of factions there -- extremists and normal people alike."
Nadja Mehinovic: "We can see that there are a lot of factions there -- extremists and normal people alike."
Ivan Milosevic, a journalist in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, says he is shocked by NATO's concern that Russia invaded Crimea without permission from the UN Security Council. "I can't believe the hypocrisy. Nobody asked the Security Council for permission to attack us [in 1999]. But now that Russia is doing it, suddenly permission is required," he says. "I think this is a game for the big powers -- we as small nations aren't able to do anything about it."

Democracy 'Moving Eastward'

Others see Russia's goals in Ukraine with more skepticism. Blagoja Grahovac, a retired Montenegrin general and security analyst, says Moscow may be able to claim short-term victory if Crimea declares independence or allies itself with Russia. But, ultimately, the strategy will fail. "The process of democratization is moving eastward, and it's unstoppable. It engulfed Ukraine, and it will engulf Russia, too," he says. "And all of this, which Russia now considers a great triumph, will cost them dearly later. Because there will be upheaval in Russia too, for social and democratic reasons."

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In Kosovo, ethnic Albanian residents may feel a certain kinship with Crimean Tatars as fellow native minorities historically oppressed by Slavs. But in Pristina, most public displays of support have been for Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters, who Kosovars see as fighting for their rightful place in Europe.

"The lives of our protesters in earlier years weren't lost in vain -- they brought us freedom," said activist Ramadan Iljazi during a vigil on March 3 for the nearly 100 people killed in the Ukrainian violence. "In the same way, the Ukrainian nation is on the right path, and justice will triumph there as well. We understand the people of Ukraine and what it means to fight for freedom against a strong opponent."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondents Gojko Veselinovic in Banja Luka, Ivana Bilic in Sarajevo, Dusan Komarcevic in Belgrade, Olivera Nikolic in Podgorica, and Amra Zajneli in Pristina

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