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Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic gestures during a rally in the northern, Serb-dominated part of Mitrovica, Kosovo, on September 9.

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.

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."

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.

Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006)
Slobodan Milosevic (1941-2006)

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."

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (right) talks with father Sava Janjic at the Visoki Decani monastery in May 2009.

Sava Janjic, the outspoken Serbian Orthodox priest whose decades-long public empathy for ethnic Serbs and Albanians alike suffering at the hands of "immoral and destructive" nationalists, is worried that any deal to redraw the border between Kosovo and Serbia would be costly for the entire Balkans.

Nicknamed “cybermonk” for his e-mails and correspondence with foreign journalists and other outsiders during the Kosovo War of the late '90s, the popular abbot of Visoki Decani, a Serbian Orthodox monastery in Kosovo, warned amid recent talk of a possible territory swap against an ethnically based solution to Belgrade and Pristina's differences.

“The lessons of history have been forgotten," Janjic told Vreme, "and that's why we must warn people while there's still time that the Europeanization of this region cannot be based on the principle of ethnic or territorial partitioning."

Much of the international "conventional wisdom" suggests that altering borders -- reportedly already under consideration by Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic and Kosovar President Hashim Thaçi -- could have explosive consequences in Kosovo and beyond.

But there are indications that Janjic's suspicion is not so widespread in Serbia -- apart from a few NGOs and some opposition leaders, there has been little public criticism of the rumored proposal, despite concerns that it would be an implicit or explicit recognition of Kosovar sovereignty. And ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo are mostly in favor of the swap, some reports suggest, perhaps in expectation that Serbian citizenship might follow.

Janjic has therefore drawn fire from some local media and nationalists on both sides. And the abbot has noticed.

“I have to admit that the threats and the unscrupulous media campaign [against me] directed by the authorities in Belgrade and sometimes also by some [Kosovar Albanian] Pristina-based media -- according to whom I am, in the first case, an American spy and, in the second, a Russian one -- are reminiscent of the threats that were made against Oliver Ivanovic,” Janjic told the Belgrade magazine Vreme recently.

That is a reference to an ethnic Serb politician from northern Kosovo who was widely praised for demonstrating cooperation and tolerance in divided times before he was gunned down in North Mitrovica in January. Ivanovic was born in a village near Janjic's Decani monastery.

Janjic has nearly 20,000 followers on Facebook and is active on Twitter, posting in both Serbian and English.

Despite the venerable status of the Visoki Decani monastery (it was built in the 14th century and has been a protected heritage site for decades), its abbot does not speak for the Serbian Orthodox Church.

But there are also ethnic-Serb communities in the areas in question that could find themselves unwilling residents of Kosovo if the proposed “border adjustment” became reality -- communities that might welcome Janjic's skepticism.​

Path To Ethnic Cleansing?

But since his Vreme interview, Janjic's Twitter feed has become a target of insults and profanity over his stance on the border issue. He has been labeled a “traitor to Serbia’s national interests” and worse. One tweet attacked him for being an advocate of Kosovo’s membership in UNESCO. (The Decani monastery is on UNESCO’s World Heritage list, along with several other medieval monuments in Kosovo, but Serbia opposes Kosovo’s membership in that and other international bodies.) Another post suggested -- rightly or wrongly -- that Janjic once held an umbrella for former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who is unpopular among Serbs for her role in the Clinton administration’s decision to intervene in 1999.

In fact, Janjic has stood out then and in the ensuing two decades for his resistance to the notion of one-sided solutions or justice for one community over the other.

"The peoples of Kosovo and Metohia are living through the most difficult days in their history," Janjic wrote in the forward to the book Crucified Kosovo in 1999-2000. "The ethnic Albanians experienced their days of suffering, exile and death inflicted by the immoral and destructive policy of [Yugoslav and then Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic's regime. Now the Serbs are being exposed to suffering, exile and death from the immoral and destructive policy of the ethnic Albanian nationalists."

In an article for Open Democracy in 2002, Janjic insisted that "democracy cannot be built on ethnic discrimination," adding, "The priority for Kosovo should be the building of a stable, civil society which would respect human rights and freedoms regardless of one’s ethnic or religious background. Only thus will all its residents be able to overcome the anachronisms of the past."

More recently, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, a convicted war criminal, has described Janjic as a "notorious traitor."

“I would never attack the church, but I would [attack] some of its individual dignitaries, if they wrong their own people and the interests of the state,” Seselj said, adding in a reference to other convicted or accused war criminals who have come before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: “I've been attacking Sava Janjic for a long time. This is a man who wanted [former Yugoslav and Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic, [former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic, and [Bosnian Serb General Ratko] Mladic to be handed over to The Hague."

If not for his monk’s robe, Seselj vowed, he would “give [Janjic] a good slap.”

It is Janjic’s role as abbot of one of Serbs' most venerated institutions -- the Decani monastery has been referred to as “the cradle of the Serbian nation” -- that lends weight to his views. Janjic also appears to enjoy the respect of ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Kosovo Liberation Army political leader Adem Demaci (left) meets with father Sava Janjic at the Decani monastery in October 1998.
Kosovo Liberation Army political leader Adem Demaci (left) meets with father Sava Janjic at the Decani monastery in October 1998.

Of the rumored territory swap, Janjic said: "I am especially worried about the part that talks about the border separating Serbs and Albanians, which implies that where one [ethnic group] lives, the other will be absent, and vice versa. This is a retrograde model that is very much in line with the policy of ethnic cleansing implemented during the wars of the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia -- and so it's unsurprising that the proposal, which has the backing, albeit for their own reasons, of both Vucic and Thaci, also has the support of one of the chief ideologues of ethnic cleansing, Vojislav Seselj."

The executive director of the North Mitrovica-based NGO Advocacy Center for Democratic Culture, Dusan Radakovic, cited complex dynamics on the ground in Kosovo among the reasons the outspoken Janjic is under fire.

But he also noted that the Serbian Orthodox Church had not yet issued any public reaction to rumors of any territorial swap between Serbia and Kosovo.

"We have yet to hear from other church dignitaries, and even the patriarch himself has not said anything very specific," Radakovic said, adding that "a solution that pleases everyone will not come easily."

"Both sides will have to swallow a bitter pill to make that happen."

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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