Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic might well have offered up a gift last weekend to critics who believe the aphorism about history not repeating itself but often rhyming.
His speech to a crowd of mostly ethnic Serbs in the divided city of Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, on September 9 sparked comparisons with a nationalist outpouring by former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in that same location almost 30 years ago, at least among those old enough to remember it.
The resulting storm suggests that even decades later, Kosovo can still make or break a Serbian politician.
Vucic had been expected in Mitrovica for weeks. The town was festooned with his photograph and Serbian flags in eager anticipation of his visit. September 9 was hotly anticipated as the day when Vucic would finally announce his plan to resolve major outstanding issues with Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and to turn the corner in relations with the former Serbian province, which declared independence in 2008.
It didn't happen. Instead, Vucic appeared to take almost everyone by surprise with one brief passage of his remarks, in particular: "Milosevic was a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions, but the outcome [of his actions] was very poor. Not because he wanted it that way, but because our wishes were unrealistic, while we neglected and underestimated the interests and aspirations of other nations. Because of that, we paid a greater price [than others in the region]. We haven't expanded."
His praise in defense of Milosevic set off alarm bells across the region, as some interpreted it as a nod to the notion of "Greater Serbia." Like many nationalists in Serbia, some observers complained, Vucic blames Milosevic for having lost the wars in the 1990s as opposed to having played a role in starting them.
Kosovo's deputy prime minister, Enver Hoxhaj, expressed outrage at the speech in a tweet, drawing explicit parallels between Vucic's words in Gazivoda and Milosevic's performance in Gazimestan three decades ago. The two were "the same," he fumed.
I repeat: Vucic in Gazivoda is the same as Milosevic in Gazimestan in 1989! Images from there are images of shame and chauvinism. This is a testimony EEAS is promoting anti European policy in the Balkans. I was against his visit in Gazivoda and still oppose it strongly— Enver Hoxhaj (@Enver_Hoxhaj) September 8, 2018
But the apparent defense of Milosevic raised eyebrows -- and attracted arguably harsher comparisons -- farther afield in the Balkans, too.
"I have to admit that I was very surprised," Croatian historian Tvrtko Jakovina told RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I feel that Vucic could have chosen his words much better. To say that 'Milosevic had good intentions' after the series of wars that destroyed Yugoslavia and that also cost Serbia dearly, which he referred to, is like saying that Hitler had great ideas for all Germans but, well, because they [the Germans] forgot to take into account that others also exist and may have had their own ideas, it didn't turn out so well."
Asked whether such a collation was fair, Jakovina said he "genuinely can't think of a better comparison."
"Because the man [Milosevic] was in charge of Serbia for years, and during that time was quite literally responsible for 1,001 terrible things that were done and a sequence of destructive wars," he added. "Finally, not content with that, Milosevic was responsible for taking Serbia into war with NATO."SEE ALSO: Serbian President's Praise Of Milosevic A ‘Provocation,’ Neighbors Say
Amid criticism from abroad, in particular, Vucic appeared to walk back some of his language from Mitrovica.
"Everyone who heard my speech in Kosovska Mitrovica could have no doubt that my invocation of Slobodan Milosevic was not glorification but, on the contrary, a serious and responsible critique of [Serbian] policies of that time," Vucic said, adding that some media failed to report his speech in full.
"I said that Milosevic had the biggest support, that he was a great leader, but that the outcome of his policies had been very, very poor."
Serbian essayist and writer Filip David, who founded what was arguably the first Serbian antiwar group at the outset of the Balkan wars, condemned Vucic's Kosovo speech and suggested it risked overshadowing more positive developments in Belgrade's relations with Pristina.
"Frankly, I only remember one sentence of that long-advertised 'historic speech' -- the one about Slobodan Milosevic being a 'great leader.' To say something like that in Kosovo, after everything that happened, totally unmasks this government and casts serious doubt on its commitment to do something important with regard to relations with Kosovo. A lot of demagoguery and very little genuine desire [to achieve progress]," David told the magazine Danas.
The former Yugoslav then Serbian president, Milosevic was accused of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity but died in a Hague prison cell in 2006, before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) could reach a verdict in his case.
Milosevic's template, well understood in hindsight, was to act in parallel yet seemingly contradictory ways: signing peace agreements while waging war, remaining acceptable to the generals of the Yugoslav Army and the unruly paramilitary units at the same time, and bringing together communists and anticommunists in his nationalist front.
Now, by employing potentially inflammatory language seemingly crafted to stir Serbian nationalists and using subsequent clarifications to reassure critics, Vucic seems to be trying to walk a similarly fine line.
Of course, Milosevic was able to call on the support of an army that advertised itself as the fourth-largest in Europe.
And in other ways the circumstances are vastly different, including the fact that Vucic is no Milosevic.
But U.S. Congressman Eliot Engel warned the Serbian president this week to "stop speaking out of both sides of his mouth" by invoking "peace and reconciliation" while "praising Slobodan Milosevic who was responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands."