As renewed Serb protests this week in Bosnia and elsewhere demonstrate, the storm unleashed by Kosovo’s Feb. 17 declaration of independence is long from abating. Rather, what recent events have showed is the start of a long and protracted struggle that, in the end, the West probably cannot win. Why not? Because we’re not talking about a few hundred flag- and embassy-burning rioters as the media, the U.S. government and a chagrined Belgrade leadership speaking last week would have us believe.
Let’s remember that in Serbia’s presidential elections at the start of this month, 48 per cent of Serbs went to the polls with their faith in Europe already shattered. They voted en masse for the so-called ultranationalist Timoslav Nikolic not for any love of him or his Radical Party but because he vowed, unlike his pro-Western adversary Boris Tadic, to keep a grip on Kosovo even if it cost Serbia entry to the EU. His narrow loss signaled the depth of Serbia’s outrage — the fact that today’s violence is about more than Kosovo, reflecting instead the accumulated frustration and failure of Serbia, nearly two decades after Slobodan Milosevic came to power, to move on politically and psychologically from its past.
In this sense, the crisis now gripping the Balkans is more than a reaction to the injustice over Kosovo than it is a symptom of deeper conflicts boiling to the surface in Serb society. “Milosevic’s lies got deeply embedded,” Dusan Prorokovic, State Secretary for Kosovo in the ruling Democratic Party of Serbia, told me several weeks ago in Belgrade, “and Serbs are still confused about their past.” They are also — as they’ve shown in recent tests, from the three-month-long protest aimed at ousting Milosevic in ’96-’97, to NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign in ’99 — masters of patience and endurance. Which is why America and its European allies backing Kosovo independence must realize: Serbia is in this battle for the long haul. As a Serbian Orthodox monk I was traveling with in Kosovo, put it:
“[Independence] is just a pause. The war will continue and Kosovo will be ours again in 10, 20, 50 years when American power declines. Kosovo is our Jerusalem. It is our identity. Without Kosovo, Serbia does not exist.”
In the meantime, life is increasingly hard for the 100,000 or so Serbs who have chosen-and been at all times encouraged by the Belgrade government-to stay put in their impoverished Kosovo enclaves. I had the opportunity to drive with an Orthodox priest named Bogomir and his 21-year-old son Lazar to the soup kitchen that they run in Prekovce, a 200-person town about 20 miles southeast of the capital Pristina. More than half the residents left this enclave and the countryside around it after NATO bombs fell, factories closed and possibilities for survival dwindled. Among those who remain are a handful of Serbs with government jobs as teachers, doctors and administrators — to whom Belgrade pays double salaries to ensure that they stay — and a stooped, elderly mass of poor who show up daily at the town’s broken-walled community center carrying empty pots and containers that they fill with soup and bread. “I have no home, no work, no money,” said an old woman waiting in line for bean and noodle stew who, despite the hardship here, said her will to stay in Kosovo is strong.
As it is for Ana Gospova, whose remote house — ebuilt by the Serb government on a small hill in a valley dotted with crumbling, abandoned Serb homes — I visited with Lazar to deliver a bag of groceries. A mother of nine, Ana came out with her oldest son to greet us. Thirty-eight years old, swarthy, with a pot belly and missing half her teeth, she was still somewhat attractive. Bed sheets were drying on a line and chickens scratched around the yard as Ana pointed to the half dozen bee boxes that used to provide some income, that is, before the bees died. Her husband Radovan’s salary of 130 euros a month from working in the nearby gold mine, plus 75 euros from the Serb government, feeds 11 mouths. “Since the war it’s been terrible,” she said, “but we never thought of leaving.”
And that’s the point, because neither has Belgrade.
Serbia may face further international isolation for its decision, but it is by no means close to pulling up shop in Kosovo. Just look at the volatile, heavily Serb-populated northern area around Kosovo-Mitrovica in the north, where the most ardent protests have been in recent days and where Serbia, in the coming weeks or months, may simply bite off a chunk of the province and call a temporary truce through partition.
Nearly two weeks after Kosovo’s declared statehood, Serbia has been playing most of its cards right. It has engaged in a cat-and-mouse game following the U.S. embassy burning, saying it will pursue and prosecute those responsible while likely making no real effort to do so. It continues to employ Russia on its behalf, welcoming the country’s all-but-certain future president Dmitry Medvedev to Belgrade on Monday, where he signed a mega-pipeline deal that snubs the West’s Nabucco project and renewed Russia’s full support of Serbian sovereignty over Kosovo. It is developing, in short, into another classic stare-down between Serbia and the West and Kosovo’s ultimate fate may come down to who blinks first.
“The West made a fundamental miscalculation,” the Serbian professor and political analyst Leon Kojen told me on the eve of independence, sitting in a cozy upstairs balcony of one of Belgrade’s many kavanas in the Dorcol district. “They wanted to avoid the sort of frozen conflict in Kosovo [that exists] in South Ossetia, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Transnistria, in Cyprus. What they didn’t realize was that creating an independent Kosovo in opposition to the UN Security Council will create a much more difficult, frozen conflict than we have now. It will poison the whole politics of the region for the foreseeable future and put in doubt the so-called European future, which will more or less go up in smoke.”
None of this erases the fact that Serbs themselves have a ways to go before they’ve purged the decades-old experience of governmental violence, corruption and deceit from their system. What early February’s 48 per cent vote for Nikolic tells us is that a sweeping portion of the Serb population still chooses not to accept responsibility for the crimes the country committed in the 1990s, and to apologize for that past; it also points to the failure of successive governments since Milosevic (with the exception perhaps of Zoran Djindjic, who was gunned down for his efforts) to root out wide-spread corruption, reform the judicial system and stimulate a sunken economy.
Surely no one in the worn-out Balkans wants to return to war-at least not yet. But at what cost, I asked the Orthodox monk in Kosovo, would Serbia’s retaking possession of Kosovo be worth it? Would it be worth it at the loss of 10,000 more lives and decades more of bitter hatred between Serbs and Kosovars? “Yes, it’s worth it,” he answered. “However many have to die for Kosovo. We will follow in the path of St. Lazarus who defended his people [in the 1389 defeat to the Ottomans]. That is the perspective of God.”
MICHAEL LEVITIN is a freelance journalist living in Berlin. He has written for Newsweek, The Financial Times, Los Angeles Times and other publications and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org