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Balkans Without Borders

Thursday 22 June 2017

Far-right demonstrators, including members of the ultranationalist Oath Keepers organization, stage a rally in front of the national assembly in Belgrade under a banner declaring "Kosovo is the picture of Serbia." (file photo)

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. (The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.)

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.

'Ideological Straitjackets'

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.

Members of Zavetnici protest against a screening of the documentary Kosovo Cheers in Novi Sad.
Members of Zavetnici protest against a screening of the documentary Kosovo Cheers in Novi Sad.

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."

Former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga (file photo)
Former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga (file photo)

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.​

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

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.

Rallying Cry

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
There is hope that the installation of Zoran Zaev as Macedonian prime minister will bring an end to the political turmoil that has engulfed the country for months.

Macedonia's incoming prime minister, Zoran Zaev, pledged to uphold the rule of law, fight corruption, and serve the people. In many countries, that would amount to simply stating the obvious: Surely any prime minister's basic obligation should be to support the institutions of government and the rule of law. But, in today's Balkans, the Social Democrat Zaev's vow to break with the authoritarian style of government borders on revolutionary.

Macedonia's incoming prime minister, Zoran Zaev, pledged to uphold the rule of law, fight corruption, and serve the people. In many countries, that would amount to simply stating the obvious: Surely any prime minister's basic obligation should be to support the institutions of government and the rule of law.

But, in today's Balkans, the Social Democrat Zaev's vow to break with the authoritarian style of government borders on revolutionary. Zaev faces a potentially monumental task -- restoring confidence in a state that at times over the past three years has appeared threatened with paralysis or, worse, authoritarianism.

The new government that appeared headed for confirmation in the Sobranie, Macedonia's unicameral parliament, on May 31 could encounter strong opposition from legislative allies of former Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski and a nationalist agenda.

They are expected to demand new elections before any of the ongoing investigations into possible corruption during Gruevski's decade-long administration reaches the courts.

There is hope, however, that Zaev's new government will bring to a close the political turmoil that has engulfed the country.

Following the April 2014 general elections, the opposition left the Macedonian parliament in protest, claiming that the vote was neither fair nor democratic. This was followed by a wiretapping scandal, broken by Zaev's then-opposition Social Democrats (SDSM). It emerged that around 20,000 Macedonian citizens had been wiretapped. A number of cases of corruption and obstruction of justice by government officials were subsequently uncovered, as well as attempts to control the media.

Reporters Without Borders' Press Freedom Index this year ranked Macedonia 111th; in 2005, when the European Commission granted it candidate status, it was 43rd.

Oligarchs Play Ethnic Card

Macedonian oligarchs and others who enriched themselves during Gruevski's rule seemingly responded after December's elections by attempting to turn a confrontation between competing ideas of government -- authoritarian or democratic -- into an ethnic conflict.

Possibly as a result, Zaev's mandate to form a government was presented by some media outlets as a victory for "federalization" and a threat to Macedonia's integrity.

Russia's state-funded Sputnik news network has been running stories in Serbian about an alleged "Macedonian scenario" under which Macedonia's territorial unity and sovereignty are endangered by concessions that Zaev will make to ethnic Albanians, his coalition partners. (Ethnic Albanians make up around one-quarter of Macedonia's population and some of them previously partnered with Gruevski in government.)

Sputnik headlines have warned against Macedonians going in the direction of "color revolutions" and sought to remind them whom they should trust (Sputnik's answer: It's Time To Trust Russia, Not Trump, on Macedonia).

Yet Zaev does not seem to be looking for sponsors in Moscow or Washington, and appears above all to want good relations with his Balkan neighbors. Macedonia's closest neighbors -- Greece and Bulgaria -- stood neutral during this long cycle of political crises.

Even starting with a clean slate will prove to be a challenge. There is already a "spying affair" involving Macedonia's northern neighbor, Serbia. During a fracas when nationalists reportedly stormed the Macedonian parliament in April -- in which Zaev himself was bloodied by a blow to the head -- one of those present was an officer in the Serbian Security Intelligence Agency (BIA).

WATCH: Macedonian Protesters Storm Parliament

He turned out to be Goran Zivaljevic, an employee of the Serbian Embassy in Skopje. The Serbian ambassador was subsequently interviewed by Macedonian authorities, and an angry statement was issued by Serbian Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic asking why they had not questioned other diplomats and members of other secret services who also happened to be in the Macedonian parliament during the session interrupted by the violence.

Meanwhile, Zivaljevic's name has arisen in connection with another scandal. Belgrade-based investigative-reporting unit Krik is said to have obtained recordings of a conversation between Zivaljevic and a prominent Serbian journalist who is also a member of the Serbian parliament. The purported transcript of their telephone conversation hints at a conspiracy to manipulate media coverage in ways that suited ex-Prime Minister Gruevski.

Strained Ties With Belgrade

Unlike with Macedonia's other neighbors, relations with Serbia have been strained since the transition of power in Skopje. Incoming Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic has pointed to the political unrest in Macedonia as a disaster that Serbia would be spared thanks to him. Zaev responded simply that the comments were "inconvenient" and unhelpful.

In an interview with N1 regional television, Zaev insisted that the primary dispute in Macedonia is not ethnic but political, and that the country's future lies in multiculturalism.

When it was put to him that he might be unwittingly aiding the cause of a "Greater Albania," Zaev said that few people were interested in such a cause and that, in any case, the future of the Western Balkans should be "open borders and the mobility of citizens."

Within his government, Zaev said that he would strive for Macedonian unity, territorial integrity, and sovereignty, and his government would work for the benefit of all its citizens.

Zaev's approach might be welcomed by many, and Macedonia could serve as a positive example for other states in the region that democratic change is possible despite the obstacles. But it is important to remember that those who base their power on identity politics and populism remain strong in the Balkans.

Zaev has a tough row to hoe.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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