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A train bearing the words "Kosovo is Serbia" in 21 languages stopped just short of Serb-dominated northern Kosovo on January 14.

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.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
The decision by Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic (right) to meet with convicted war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik on January 11 has raised hackles in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Relations between the former Yugoslav Balkan states are at their worst in some time. The Slovenians are threatening to sabotage the Croatian tourist season. The Serbian foreign minister, Ivica Dacic, has been busy insulting neighboring Macedonia and Montenegro. Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarevic is contributing to the worst relations between Serbia and Croatia since the end of the war in 1995.

Meanwhile, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic has managed to sour relations with the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo. First he attended the celebration of Republika Srpska's "statehood day" on January 9 despite the fact that it has been declared unconstitutional.

Two days later, on January 11, he received Momcilo Krajisnik, a convicted war criminal who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for crimes committed during the war (1992-95) including deportations, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity. After serving two-thirds of his sentence in a British prison, Krajisnik returned to Banja Luka to establish an association called The Founders Of Republika Srpska. It was in that capacity that he was officially received by Nikolic.

After the meeting in Belgrade, Krajisnik was asked whose idea it had been to organize the meeting -- his or president Nikolic's.

"No, it was not President Milosevic's idea," he responded.

When the journalist pointed out that he had said "Milosevic" instead of "Nikolic," Krajisnik apologized for the slip of the tongue, explaining that on numerous occasions in the past he had held meetings with the late Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic -- who died before his war-crimes trial could be concluded in The Hague -- in the same building.

Expansionist Aims

Only two nongovernmental groups in Serbia reacted to Nikolic's meeting with a convicted war criminal. The prominent Belgrade human rights lawyer Natasa Kandic, in an interview with RFE/RL's Balkan Service, said that Nikolic was finally showing his real face as he approaches the end of his mandate.

"The meeting with Krajisnik, a convicted war criminal, is scandalous. It is scandalous not least because [Nikolic] is the president of Serbia and the meeting took place in Serbia, a country that was behind the things that Krajisnik had done, and for which he was convicted," said Kandic.

Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik presses the flesh in Banja Luka last year (file photo)
Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik presses the flesh in Banja Luka last year (file photo)

Kandic is among those who are increasingly concerned with the revival of the expansionist aims that fueled the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik has made statements in support of the idea of a Greater Serbian state that would include the Serb entity in Bosnia, Serbia proper, parts of Kosovo and Montenegro -- opinions that Nikolic failed to disavow on his recent visit to Banja Luka.

Others, however, do not see the Serbian government as the chief promoter of this resurgence of nationalism but rather ascribe that role to Vladimir Putin's Russia.

Vuk Draskovic, a former Serbian foreign minister, recalls that Dodik himself started out as a pro-NATO moderate and an opponent of the Greater Serbian project.

"Now he is saying the very opposite, and it is clear that his main support is not coming from Belgrade," Draskovic said. "We should not forget that when he organized his referendum on Republika Srpska statehood day, he did not receive support from [Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar] Vucic, but he did travel to Moscow."

"True, there are many in Belgrade" who share Dodik's opinions, he added, "from academics, movie directors to the Orthodox Church hierarchy -- all those who supported the policies of Slobodan Milosevic." However, Draskovic said, he believes that they are all doing Moscow's bidding.

Holding Belgrade 'Hostage'

Dodik currently appears to be the one who is prepared to go furthest in challenging the West and the Western-backed order in the Balkans, relying on Russian support. However, the Serbian government risks allowing itself to be pulled along by Dodik's increasingly bold nationalist rhetoric, according to political analyst Bosko Jaksic.

"The main danger is that Belgrade is becoming a hostage to Dodik's ideas and policies," Jalisic told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, adding that there are clear signs of divergence between Serbian President Nikolic and Prime Minister Vucic on the issue, despite their denials of a split.

"President Nikolic was present at the academy in Banja Luka when [outspokenly pro-Serbian, Sarajevo-born filmmaker] Emir Kusturica referred to Bosnian presidency member Bakir Izetbegovic" -- a Muslim -- "as Lucifer's minion and lamented the fact that the Serbs did not have the nuclear bomb, and neither Nikolic nor the other members of the Serbian government who attended made any comment. That is a big problem for Belgrade" and Vucic's government, Jaksic said.

There also appears to be hope in some nationalist circles in Serbia that the new geopolitical order will be favorable to their aim of redrawing the map of the region. Dragomir Andjelkovic, an analyst who is highly critical of Brussels and the European Union project, has suggested his hopes rest on a rapprochement between Putin's Russia and the incoming U.S. administration of Donald Trump.

"If Dodik makes the right moves, and if U.S.-Russian relations improve, it is entirely possible that Republika Srpska will achieve independence. In that case, some kind of confederation between Serbia, Republika Srpska, northern Kosovo, and maybe even Montenegro is not inconceivable," said Andjelkovic.

This may sound fanciful. But a recent article in Foreign Affairs by former British diplomat Timothy Less is advocating the same solution. Arguing that Western policy of defending multiculturalism in the region has failed, Less calls for a major redrawing of national boundaries in the Balkans along ethnic lines -- always a dangerous proposition. His support for the creation of a "Greater" Serbia, Croatia, and Albania may be a private opinion -- one that has been disavowed by British officials -- but his article has been translated and widely circulated throughout the region.

Possibly anticipating warmer relations between Washington and Moscow, nationalists in many countries in the region appear to be dusting off their most ambitious schemes, perhaps sensing that the United States and the European Union might be distracted. A neglected Balkans is a dangerous place.

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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