Politics in the Balkans operates on its own timescale. NATO air strikes against Serbia may have taken place 18 years ago, but reading the newspapers in Belgrade, one could be forgiven for thinking that they happened only yesterday. The past is here to stay.
Ignoring the argument that the 1999 NATO bombardment was provoked by the brutal actions of the Serbian police and military in Kosovo -- a campaign of ethnic cleansing akin to those conducted by ex-Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina -- the majority of Serbia's population is convinced that it was unprovoked and unwarranted. "The West does not like us" is a dominant refrain among Serbs, and it is sustained by media outlets like Russian Sputnik radio, broadcasting in Serbian since January 2015. (Sputnik's main task appears to be to remind Serbs of who their friends are, and who the enemy is.)
After NATO's intervention, Serbian troops were forced to withdraw from Kosovo, and the former autonomous region of Yugoslavia declared independence less than a decade later, in 2008. Kosovo is now recognized by 114 countries, but each step taken by the young nation on the road to membership of international institutions is met by Serbian obstruction. The Serbian Constitution still describes Kosovo as an integral part of Serbia.
The change of administrations in the United States gave rise to hopes that newly elected President Donald Trump would return Kosovo to Serbia. With Serbia already enjoying close relations with Moscow, Serbian nationalists appeared to believe that presumed signs that Trump might be interested in a rapprochement with President Vladimir Putin boded well for their agenda. During the U.S. election campaign, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj took to wearing a Trump T-shirt and frequently praised the Republican presidential candidate. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, was regularly demonized in Serbian tabloids as an extension of Bill Clinton, who was U.S. president at the time of the NATO bombardment.
Some Serbs even clung to the idea of Trump as a "Balkan son-in-law" owing to his marriage to Melania Trump (nee Melanija Knavs), who was born in Slovenia, once part of the former Yugoslavia. The connection, that narrative went, would boost his attachment to the region, and to Serbs in particular.
But early signs of continuity in U.S. policy in the Balkans have come as a shock to many Serbs. The first hint at disappointment came over the decision to extend sanctions originally imposed by the Obama administration against Milorad Dodik, the president of the Serb-dominated Bosnian entity Republika Srpska.
The measure was a response to Dodik's perceived violation of the provisions of the Dayton peace agreement -- the U.S.-brokered treaty that ended four years of fighting but divided Bosnia into Republika Srpska and the Bosniak-Croat federation -- in connection with the holding of a referendum in defiance of a Constitutional Court ban.
The Serbian press also sounded the alarm over incoming Defense Secretary James Mattis's response to a question about U.S. troops' presence abroad. At his confirmation hearing, Mattis said a reduction of U.S. force in Kosovo would be possible only once Kosovo was capable of defending itself. That was interpreted as a green light for the creation of a Kosovar army, which unleashed public outrage in Serbia. Adding salt to the wound in Belgrade, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said that Kosovo should take its place as a full member of that international organization.
An additional blow to Serbian hopes that the Trump administration might somehow favor them was dealt by a photo of the new U.S. president with the speaker of Kosovo's parliament, published on Kadri Veseli's Facebook page.
Even routine exchanges of diplomatic courtesy, such as the congratulations sent to every head of state on the country's statehood day, are interpreted by media in Belgrade as signs of special favor. Thus President Trump's letter of congratulations to Kosovar President Hashim Thaci on the occasion of Kosovo's independence day prompted headlines asking whether this meant the end of all Serbian hopes and expectations.
It is not so long ago that Serbian expectations were so high that there was serious speculation as to whether Trump might even seek to return Kosovo to Serbia.
Such heady optimism might have influenced political decisions, too. The EU-sponsored dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina was seemingly put on ice. Even negotiations over technical details like a separate country code for telephones in Kosovo dragged out for more than a year, until December 2016.
On a lighter note, Serbian hopes that the Trump administration would reverse long-standing U.S. policy in the Balkans were reflected recently in a satirical message of welcome riffing on Trump's "America First" slogan and a viral trolling trend begun in a "Netherlands Second" video.
In a Serbian version of the popular spoof, the key to the new friendship with Washington is a mutual admiration for Putin. And instead of touting "Serbia Second," the video urges Trump to make "Russia Also First...and Serbia First After That." The odds of either of those approaches ever becoming reality might never have been high, yet many Serbs suggested that Serbia was about to profit from a grand bargain struck between Trump and Putin's Russia. "Serbia is the only country in the world, besides Russia, that truly, truly loves you" was one of the messages in the video. But that collective notion might prove increasingly hard to sustain if the affection no longer appears mutual.