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The Russian state news agency Sputnik has proposed a monument to the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

Mijat Lakicevic, a Belgrade-based journalist, writing recently on the independent web portal Pescanik, put forward a provocative proposal.

“We should build a monument to the victims of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences,” he wrote.

Lakicevic is referring to the infamous Memorandum, a 1986 manifesto seen as promoting Serbian nationalism that was signed by a number of prominent Serbian academics. In the eyes of many, it marked the beginning of the drawing of ethnic lines in Yugoslav societies and served as a prologue to the wars of the 1990s.

His idea is in reaction to a serious initiative by Russia’s state-backed Sputnik media outlet to build a monument to the victims of the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia.

According to Lakicevic, it was the 1986 Memorandum that turned Serbs against their neighbors and, indeed, against the rest of the world.

“The harm done by that ideology [expressed in the Memorandum] is far greater than the damage caused by the war against NATO,” Lakicevic writes.

The wars that preceded the 1999 intervention led to the exodus of hundreds of thousands of educated young people and incalculable economic loss -- “a national catastrophe,” according to Lakicevic. “And that is without even mentioning the evil wrought upon other [neighboring] peoples."

Lakicevic says he does not expect many public figures to back his proposal, which is what one might call an intellectual exercise rather than a serious proposal. He will certainly be unable to compete with the long list of prominent individuals, politicians, and celebrities supporting the Sputnik proposal, which is seen as an attempt by Moscow to further discourage Belgrade -- the Kremlin’s closest ally in the Balkans -- from pursuing closer ties with the West, including membership in NATO.

Apart from Prime Minister and now President-elect Aleksandar Vucic, who said that Serbia will “fulfill its duty toward innocent victims of aggression,” a number of public figures have pledged their support, including some signatories of the 1986 Memorandum. Serbian film director Emir Kusturica is one of the most outspoken supporters of the Sputnik initiative.

Kusturica said the proposed monument should “stand as a reminder that everything that befell the Serbian people in the last century was part of a project aimed at its destruction.”

Kusturica has been a vocal critic of the West and is a known cheerleader for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Two years ago, he facetiously claimed that World War III would likely begin with the U.S. bombing of state-backed Russian TV channel RT, since it was “the only outlet challenging the spread of U.S. propaganda.”

It should be noted that there are already several monuments to victims of the NATO intervention in Belgrade and other Serbian cities, including the 30-meter-high Eternal Flame in Belgrade’s Friendship Park. Historian Ljubinka Trgovcevic fails to see the urgency behind erecting another one.

She also points out that no one involved in the Sputnik idea is mentioning the Albanian victims of the war.

“[Ethnic Albanian victims] are considered citizens of Serbia by the constitution, and yet they are excluded from outpourings of public empathy, which only shows this government’s hypocrisy,” Trgovcevic said in an interview with RFE/RL’s Balkan Service in Belgrade. “On the one hand, they continue to lay claim to Kosovo and its territory as part of Serbia, and on the other they do not count [ethnic Albanians], including those who died [as a result of NATO bombing] among the citizens who deserve to be honored. I see absolutely no reason for the monument, and I am decidedly against it.”

According to information gathered by the Humanitarian Law Center NGO, 758 people died during the NATO bombing campaign from March to June 1999. Of those, 453 were civilians, including 220 ethnic Albanians -- almost half of the total -- 202 Serbs, and 28 others. The majority of the victims (448), including military casualties, were killed on the territory of Kosovo.

The figures are based on almost 1,500 documents and more than 500 statements from witnesses and victims’ relatives.

The manipulation of historical memory for political gain is nothing new in the Balkans. What seems to have been forgotten in all public memorialization of the NATO intervention is the context of the confrontation with forces loyal to former Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.

NATO air strikes began on March 24, 1999, only after months of failed peace talks, broken promises by the Milosevic government, and, finally, a new wave of repression against ethnic Albanians by the Serbian military and police.

“No one can doubt the large-scale human rights violations, expulsions, and war crimes [perpetrated by the Serbian forces in Kosovo] -- all of which are ignored in this [Sputnik] initiative,”Jelena Krstic of the Humanitarian Law Center told RFE/RL.

Her response to Vucic’s statement that “Serbia is obliged to fulfill its duty” to the victims of the NATO bombing is that “we also have to show respect for the victims whose deaths we are responsible for.”

Trgovcevic sees the Sputnik initiative as a distraction from Serbia’s current problems.

“We have many other much more pressing problems, including high unemployment and the exodus of young people from this country, and yet we are dreaming up pharaonic monuments to serve the needs of those in power,” she laments.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL.
An area near abandoned staircases at the Belgrade bus station was home for several months to more than 1,000 refugees and migrants, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, this winter.

Around 8,000 refugees, most of them from the Middle East, remain stuck in Serbia long after the European Union closed its eastern border to newcomers in an attempt to close off migrants' so-called Balkan route to Western Europe. And while their hardship does not appear to have diminished, the major reduction in migrant numbers from two years ago and our short attention spans have led to fewer headlines on the topic these days.

But Doctors Without Borders has registered more than 70 migrant deaths on the Balkan route between Greece and Hungary in the past year. Most died of hypothermia or as a result of drowning, road accidents, or suicide.

And after initially winning international praise for its reception and treatment of migrants, it looks like sympathy and respect for refugees is running low in Serbia.

Just two years ago, grassroots groups were providing meals and clothing for migrants who were escaping conflict or poverty. Some Belgrade residents even opened their homes to refugees during the harsh winter of 2015. Many Serbs were proud that their country -- still outside the European Union -- arguably had a record of caring for refugees and migrants that was at least as favorable as that of EU neighbors Hungary or Bulgaria.

Yet Serbia and Macedonia are prominent among the countries criticized for violations of humanitarian law in a recent Oxfam report based on aid workers' interviews with refugees. The report is based on data collected by the Belgrade Center for Human Rights and the Macedonian Young Lawyers Association, supported by Oxfam. It catalogues a long list of incidents of abuse of refugees and migrants (including children) by police in Serbia, Hungary, Croatia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

Migrants wait to receive free food near the Serbian-Hungarian border outside the town of Subotica last month.
Migrants wait to receive free food near the Serbian-Hungarian border outside the town of Subotica last month.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service in Belgrade reports that some Serbian (and Croatian) bus companies are refusing to transport migrants or refugees even when they have valid tickets and documents provided by Serbian authorities.

Employees of a Belgrade refugee center called Info Park say that despite valid tickets and assurances from ticket sellers, there is no guarantee that refugees will be taken to their destination.

"It has often happened to us that when refugees are assigned to the Presevo camp, we have no way of getting them there because the bus company...has refused to take them on board," says Info Park's Branislava Djonin, who routinely helps migrants buy their bus tickets and find their way to their assigned camps. (On the day she spoke to RFE/RL, she was accompanying three young Afghan men who had registered with Serbian police and been given a 72-hour deadline to appear at a refugee reception center in Presevo.)

"We would buy the tickets for them and someone from the [refugee] commission would accompany them to the station, carrying a certificate of their good health, but they would not be allowed on the bus," Djonin says.

RFE/RL's Balkan Service reports that the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is aware of such discrimination not only by bus companies but by railway service providers as well.

These don't appear to be isolated instances. At the height of the refugee crisis, an RFE/RL correspondent on his way to Subotica, in the northern Vojvodina region on the border with Hungary, witnessed a bus driver directing refugees to the back of the bus, even though the tickets were for assigned seats.

"Unfortunately that is a reflection of our society: ignorance and the lack of a desire to understand other people and other cultures," Djonin says. "I think we all have to fight against prejudice together, and to help change the image of people [refugees] who are no different from us."

The camp in Presevo has seen the foundation of the first school for refugee children in the region.
The camp in Presevo has seen the foundation of the first school for refugee children in the region.

Meanwhile, on a more positive note, the first school for child refugees in the Balkan region has opened its doors at the Presevo refugee camp. Some 220 7-to-15-year-olds from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Kurdish region are currently being taught there, attending classes in the Serbian and English languages, as well as math, geography, art, and physical education.

The school's stated goal is to ensure that the children of adult asylum seekers are more easily integrated into Serbian society and the country's education system.

So despite the lack of headlines, the ongoing refugee crisis remains a stern test of the ability of Balkan societies -- a source even in very recent memory of their own war refugees -- to feel the pain of others.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those 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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