It has become a disturbing pattern in Serbia of late: those looking to improve relations with neighboring Kosovo can expect to encounter mayhem-minded ultranationalist youths hell-bent on foiling their efforts.
However seemingly innocuous the event -- a film screening, a festival, a visit by a dignitary -- young Serbian nationalists see an opening for disruption, prompting calls for newly elected President Aleksandar Vucic to live up to his pledge to initiate a dialogue about Kosovo within Serbia.
Most recently, threats from a right-wing youth group that calls itself the Zavetnici (Oath Keepers, a nod to the 14th-century Tsar Lazar of Serbia, who died in the battle of Kosovo against Ottoman forces), led to a change of venue for the screening of the documentary "Kosovo Cheers" in Novi Sad, the third-largest city in Serbia.
The movie is not about the late-1990s Kosovo War, or Kosovo's pursuit of independence. Rather it presents a slice of everyday life in Kosovo, focusing on the hopes and concerns of its main communities -- ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians.
The film's director, Aleksandar Reljic, told RFE/RL that the aim was to promote dialogue, not to stifle it.
"The irony is that the film deals with ordinary people free of ideological straitjackets that would prevent them from communicating with others, and as such was supposed to serve as an example of people coexisting despite political, ethnic or other differences," he said.
Despite the precaution of moving the event to more secure premises, however, the Zavetnici managed to interrupt the June 12 screening. They effectively accused the producers of the documentary of treason, claiming that the film had reversed roles by casting the Serbian military as an occupying force in Kosovo, and the Kosovo Army as its liberators.
The development came less than two weeks after similar incidents led the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which describes itself as working to build connections between young people across the Balkans, to send an open letter to President Vucic asking him to protect public space from all forms of violence and hate speech.
'Heart Of Serbia'
The letter came after a number of events organized by the YIHR and other NGOs in Belgrade -- including the Miredita, Dobar Dan festival ("Good Day" in Albanian and Serbian, respectively) -- were aggressively disrupted by the Zavetnici.
Using derogatory words for Kosovo Albanians, members of this group carried photos of Kosovar politicians as well as the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers -- killed in 1999 while in the custody of Serbian security forces while fighting in Kosovo -- calling them terrorists. The Zavetnici interrupted a performance by Kosovar artists, singing nationalist songs celebrating Kosovo as the "heart of Serbia."
A planned visit by former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga to the festival, which ran between May 31 and June 3, was abruptly canceled following actions and threats by the Zavetnici. She addressed the audience via video link from Pristina, expressing regret for not being able to come to the Serbian capital.
Jahjaga was due to promote a new book that addresses one of the most under-reported war crimes -- rape. She wrote the foreword to the book, I Want To Be Heard, based on firsthand testimonies of victims. During her time in office Jahjaga used her authority to highlight the plight of these silent victims of war, and this book was meant as a continuation of that effort. However, the Serbian authorities apparently could not provide the necessary security arrangements for her visit.
'A Shouting Mob'
In its letter to the president, the YIHR reminded Vucic of the promise made in his inauguration speech to initiate a dialogue about Kosovo within Serbia.
It continued as follows:
We simply wish to inform you that a very substantial, vigorous, and intensive dialogue on this topic has been ongoing for years under the auspices of the wider regional civil society. However, in the last few days that dialogue has been jeopardized by physical threats and a 'lynching atmosphere' created by the ultra-right-wing and football-fan groups.
Events that serve as a platform for that dialogue have been violently disrupted, threats to members of NGOs are more brazenly open, and the escalation of violence is imminent unless the state is prepared to take decisive action. Belgrade University and the Belgrade Youth Club [Dom Omladine] are no longer the guardians of freedom of thought and open debate, because they have been occupied by a shouting mob that is only able to express its views with blows.
Miredita, Dobar Dan, which was taking place for the fourth year running, brings artists, journalists, and public figures from Kosovo to Belgrade to meet with members of Serbian civil society and cultural organizations.
The festival was created in the spirit of normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, a function it had fulfilled with relative freedom until now.
This year, however, around 30 members of the Zavetnici began interrupting festival events and, despite the presence of security forces, managed to get inside the festival space at Belgrade's Youth Club. Moreover, with each day of the festival their actions became more overtly violent.
The 2017 festival was officially inaugurated by Alban Ukaj, a Kosovo Albanian actor who has frequently appeared in Belgrade theaters.
"The organizers have put together a great program. Young people are getting together to talk, exchange views, think [together]...it's all very nice and heartening. But there is also something here that is not so easy, and perhaps not so appropriate to speak about at the festival opening," Ukaj said.
"That something is shame. Today it is no longer shameful to hate, today no one is ashamed of having been involved in killing and then covering up [the crimes], today we are not ashamed to stay silent," he added, saying he was sorry that the festival was taking place amid the fear of violence and controversy.
As the Serbian portal Pescanik points out, the Miredita festival -- supported by Vucic in its first year -- does not promote Kosovo politicians, but gives a platform to "artists who have stood up to their own [Kosovo] politicians with more courage and determination than all the 'Oath Keepers' and football fans of this world."
Under siege from increasingly emboldened ultranationalist groups like the Zavetnici -- whose members met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his December visit to Belgrade and were hosted by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party during their visit to Moscow in 2016 -- the YIHR is asking Vucic to use his authority as president "to protect the advocates of human rights whose security is currently under threat.
"We believe that a rallying cry as well as a basis for continued dialogue can be [the slogan] 'Hate is shameful,'" it wrote in its letter.
President Vucic is yet to respond to this entreaty.