In April 1987, in the small town of Fushe Kosove just outside Prishtina, Slobodan Milosevic announced to an angry Serb crowd that, “No one should dare to beat you!” The apparatchik had been sent to Serbia’s then southern province to reassure Serbs living in Kosovo, who felt “threatened” by the majority Kosovar Albanian population after numerous “interethnic incidents” had been reported by Serb media.
Milosevic’s apparently spontaneous reaction was in fact highly orchestrated, with a pre-assembled crowd of Serbs having deliberately provoked local police by throwing stones at them. His fiery speech was filled with nationalist rhetoric that quickly saw him become considered by many Serbs as a “hero” and protector of Serb interests in Kosovo, and ultimately led to him ascending to power in former Yugoslavia. However, ethnic tensions were far from the magnitude that Milosevic and the media portrayed, and were used as a tool to augment fear and mistrust between Serbs and Albanians that would lead to a decade of repression and by the end of the ’90s, war.
Parallels between the end of the last millennium and developments over the weekend surrounding the Serbian train are stark; it has been widely commented upon that the very same rhetoric and tactics of fear, barely-veiled threats and manipulation are again being applied by today’s Serbian political leadership, many of whom are key figures from the past. What is particularly concerning is the tactic of patronizing Kosovar Serbs by painting a picture that suggests that their lives are being threatened in Kosovo by Albanians.
It is a point of fact that occasional inter-ethnic crimes occur in Kosovo with 16 incidents reported to Kosovo Police in 2015 that had an interethnic dimension; civil society research suggests that for a variety of reasons such incidents may be under-reported. There is also the contentious issue of returns and property rights, whereby some Kosovar Serbs have been prevented from returning to their properties because they are occupied by Kosovar Albanians, while in general Kosovo’s government has been unwilling or unable — due to resistance from Serb leaders — to integrate Kosovar Serbs into Kosovo society. However, the notion that the lives of Serbs are threatened in Kosovo appears to have little basis in reality.
In an extraordinary press conference called by Aleksandar Vucic on Saturday evening, Serbia’s prime minister referred to the “killings of Serbs by Albanians” and “attacks on Serbs by Albanians,” despite presenting no evidence or reports of interethnic incidents. Based on an unverified video that went viral online, Vucic accused Kosovar Albanians of having laid mines on the railway tracks — the claim was categorically denied by Prishtina, with Kosovo Police stating that they had conducted a thorough search of the tracks and found nothing. Vucic urged Serbs to “remain calm,” and called on Kosovar Albanians “not to try to attack Serbs with weapons because Serbia will not allow that.”
Such language will have come as a disappointment to many of those who have bought into Vucic’s self-styled rebranding as a moderate politician, who claims to have come a long way from his controversial past; as a young politician in Vojislav Seselj’s Serb Radicals party during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, in 1995 he announced in the Serbian parliament that “for every Serb killed we will kill 100 Muslims,” and he later served as Slobodan Milosevic’s Minister of Information.
After years of presenting himself as the person at the center of driving the Balkans towards a peaceful, European future, recent developments have seen Vucic appear to return to the rhetoric of the ’90s. On January 15, only a day after the train issue, Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies director, Jelena Milic, walked out of a live debate with Vucic on TV PINK, after the prime minister accused the civil society activist of being “against Serb interests” for speaking out against the controversial train.
Yet Vucic wasn’t the only leader from Serbia using rhetoric that echoes that of an era that many thought had been consigned to the past. Serbia’s president and fellow former Serb Radical, Tomislav Nikolic, went even further than his PM in his comments on the train incident. “If they [Kosovar Albanians] kill Serbs, we will all go there [to Kosovo], not only the army. I would be the first to go, it wouldn’t be my first time,” said Nikolic.
While he may have been expected to soften his language of “going to war” following criticism from some civil activists, media and liberal voices in Serbian politics, Nikolic instead reaffirmed his language of war on Tuesday when he said, “together with my two sons I will take part in war.” He further claimed that sending the army to Kosovo if Serbs are attacked was not only his idea, but it is also a conclusion of Serbia’s National Security Council.
The nationalist language of both Vucic and Nikolic has been widely linked with the upcoming presidential elections in Serbia, with both men trying to gain political points by giving the impression that they are ‘protecting the sovereignty’ of Serbia. It is still unclear if Nikolic will once again be the presidential candidate for the Serbian Progressive Party, with rumors circulating that Vucic may be preparing to run himself.
Increased tensions also come at a time when there is a notable shift in power relations worldwide. With the EU shaken by the refugee crisis, Brexit and the rise of nationalist anti-EU politics, and the U.S. entering uncharted territory with the inauguration of Donald Trump tomorrow, there has been a growing sense of geopolitical uncertainty in recent months.
The transition of power in the U.S. to a president-elect who appears to have a closer relationship with Russia than his predecessors has particularly been viewed by some analysts as providing the context for Belgrade to test Prishtina. This is particularly so as Trump has repeatedly expressed his scepticism towards the future of NATO — the guarantor of Kosovo’s territorial security — which he this week described as “obsolete.”
Politicians within Kosovo, including President Hashim Thaci, have accused Belgrade of deliberately trying to provoke an escalation of ethnic tensions, in order to use security fears as a casus belli, such as with the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea; in that instance, Russia intervened with the pretext of “protecting” its minority population in eastern Ukraine from the post-revolutionary Ukranian government.
Moscow is also directly involved in the developments with the train, which was built in Russia, with both Vucic and Foreign Minister Ivica Dacic turning immediately to Serbia’s traditional ally as events unfolded on Saturday. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov reaffirmed Moscow’s support for Belgrade, stating: “The forces of Kosovo Albanians should not be present in the north of Kosovo and Metohija, which is inhabited by Serbs.”
Lavrov’s words are particularly important at a time when Prishtina is grappling with how to approach the matter of the bizarre wall that was erected in North Mitrovica last month, which Serbs claim are part of Brussels-negotiated plans to re-open communications between the Albanian-majority south and the Serb-majority north of the city. Prishtina has pledged to destroy the 2-meter wall at the end of the bridge that has long divided the two halves of Mitrovica, saying that its construction is illegal.
Whether the language used in recent days has been a sign of Serbia’s leadership flexing their muscles for domestic purposes, or whether a more sinister testing of the evolving geopolitical landscape, the rhetoric has been eerily similar to that of the past.K
Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.