On January 15, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic sounded like a leader whose country had just averted mortal danger.
"If I had not asked the Serbs to stop the train, we would have had war," Vucic told Belgrade's Pink TV, reflecting on the "train crisis" that threatened to disrupt the fragile peace between Serbia and its former territory Kosovo.
A train dispatched from the Serbian capital toward Mitrovica -- an ethnically divided city in predominantly Serb northern Kosovo -- had stopped just before reaching those countries' shared border on January 14 and then returned to Belgrade a few hours later.
Its abortive journey unleashed a torrent of nationalist anger and a flurry of diplomacy to avoid conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians, who represent a majority in Kosovo.
Why all the fuss?
Vucic says he didn't see the train before its departure. But it was unusual in conspicuous ways. Its interior was decorated with images of icons from medieval Serbian monasteries (many of them located in Kosovo), while the exterior was painted in the red, white, and blue of the Serbian flag with the slogan "Kosovo is Serbia" written in 21 languages.
Many locals have dubbed it a "promotional train," others a "Russian train," as it was manufactured in Russia, which has staunchly sided with Serbia in the dispute over Kosovar independence.
Ethnically Charged Symbols
Such a marked display of Serbian heritage bearing words questioning the territorial integrity of Kosovo, unsurprisingly, was unwelcome in the eyes of Kosovar authorities.
Kosovo President Hashim Thaci had ordered a Rosu special-police unit to halt the train at the border, prompting local Serbs in Mitrovica to come out to protest his move.
There is already a daily train route between Kraljevo, in Serbia, and Mitrovica, so the special train bearing ethnically charged symbols did not appear to have been meant as a bridge between the two countries. But whatever the intention, increased tensions were the result -- the Belgrade daily Blic reported that only a single passenger boarded the scheduled train from Kraljevo the following day.
Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic emerged from a January 15 meeting of his council for national security saying, "We don't want war, but if it is necessary to protect Serbs from being killed, we will send an army to Kosovo. We will send soldiers; we'll all go. I'll go, and it won't be the first time that I go [to defend Serbs]. Serbia will act in line with the Serbian Constitution."
Nikolic was critical of the outgoing U.S. administration over its support for Kosovo's independence, which was recognized in Washington and many other Western capitals within days of its enactment in February 2008 and currently has the support of more than 100 UN member states.
"I think these are the lasts gasps of the current U.S. administration, whose members have had streets [in Kosovo] named after them," Nikolic said, adding that "neither the EU nor NATO reacted as they should have to [the January 14] events."
From Bad To Worse
Relations between Kosovo and Serbia have proceeded from bad to worse since the detention of former Kosovo Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj in France, based on an arrest warrant from Serbia over allegations of wrongdoing in a 1998-99 war in its former province. The Hague war-crimes tribunal has twice cleared the former Kosovo Liberation Army officer of charges, but Belgrade insists he should be extradited and has protested a French appellate court's release of Haradinaj pending a review.
Borko Stefanovic, a former head of Serbia's negotiating team for Belgrade-Pristina talks mediated by Brussels, saw Nikolic's comments in the context of the Serbian presidential election, scheduled for this spring.
"Regarding Nikolic's claim that this [halting of the train] was the last gasp of the outgoing U.S. administration," Stefanovic said, "I cannot escape the conclusion that it was in fact the last spasm of his own political career."
Dusan Janjic, an author on Balkan history and coordinator of the Belgrade-based Forum for Ethnic Relations, warned of the risk of summoning the ghosts of the 1990s, when multiple wars broke out as former Yugoslavia fell apart.
"Stop playing with trains like little kids," Janjic told Blic. "One may ask whether those who organized the departure of this train were aiming to strengthen their negotiating position or in fact to break off negotiations with Brussels," he said, in a reference to Serbia's ongoing efforts to join the European Union.
In an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, former Serbian politician Vesna Pesic also questioned the motives of the train's sponsors: "I think it all boils down to the fact that the Serbian Progressive Party does not currently have a viable candidate for the presidential election. They have no one. This is how I interpret the fact that both Vucic and Nikolic have been appearing on TV to vow that no one will kill Serbs -- and yet no one is killing Serbs."
In the end, both sides may have gotten what they wanted from confrontations surrounding the "promo train." Vucic and Nikolic have burnished their nationalist credentials as protectors of Serbs, while Pristina has reiterated its sovereignty over all of Kosovo, including heavily Serb northern provinces.