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Serbia Alone

A journey through the complexity of former Yugoslavia

By Frank Shouldice

Agnostic Yugoslavs suddenly became Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs or Bosnian Moslems. These differences were masterfully exploited by political leaders clinging to nationalist agendas – most especially by Milosevic in Serbia and Franco Tudjman in Croatia.

The train that flits through the backwaters of northern Serbia is quaint but functional. Running twice a day it chugs along a single track for 40 kilometres to connect the Serbian city of Subotica with the city of Szeged in Hungary.

The engine and carriage operate as one so the train feels more like a bus. Our driver sits hunched over controls at the front, peering into the baleful night while wipers squeak across his windscreen. A conductor finishes checking tickets and sits alongside the driver, the draughty interior of the carriage gloomy under low wattage lighting.

At Horgos the Serbian border guard is mildly curious about seeing an Irish passport. It’s rare enough to find anyone far-flung on such a local line but he stamps it and hands it back without a fuss. Northern Serbia is not exactly a magnet for tourism but EU nationals no longer need a visa to go there.

The conductor removes a wad of notes from his jacket pocket and counts the takings into separate currencies — Serbian dinar and Hungarian florint. The driver gives up on the wipers so all that’s left is a howling wind and the heavy percussion of rain. He knows many of his passengers by name, making random stops in the middle of nowhere to let people off. It’s the Balkan rail equivalent of the Lough Swilly bus.

We reach Subotica in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. Among 27 different ethnic groupings here is a large ethnic Hungarian population. Thousands fled back across the border during Yugoslavia’s civil war, fearing an influx of Serbian refugees from Bosnia and Croatia. Generally however it’s relatively harmonious and in some ways Vojvodina offers rare evidence that former President Josep Broz Tito’s dream for Yugoslavia might have lasted.

But of course it did not.

The federation Tito nurtured now comprises seven states – Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and, most recently, Kosovo. Convulsions that started in May 1991, when the first shots rang out in Vukovar (now part of Croatia), continue to rumble and simmer, most particularly between Kosovar Serbs and Albanians.

“Once upon a time there was a country and its capital was Belgrade”, runs the opening line of Emir Kusturica’s ‘Underground’, a magnificent dirge to former Yugoslavia. The Sarajevo-born film-maker weaves a mesmerising tale that captures the complex tragedy that is the Balkans. “With pain, sorrow and joy we shall remember our country”, concludes the narrator, a Belgrade zookeeper. “As we tell our children stories that start like fairytales — Once upon a time there was a country — this story has no end”.

There is indeed a circularity about history in these parts. Following Tito’s death in 1980, the charismatic leader was buried in a white-marble mausoleum named ‘Kuca Cveka’ (House of Flowers). The memorial is located on Bulevar Mira, a couple of miles from Belgrade city centre. On a visit in 1988 I joined a steady procession of visitors to the mansion — a cross between the Whitehouse and Graceland — paying tribute to the man whose 35-year reign made Yugoslavia a unique but imperfect success.
Tito’s successor Slobodan Milosevic, a Serb nationalist, later took up residence on Bulevar Mira. For privacy he built a high wall between the house and the mausoleum. The former museum was cut off from the people and most of the artefacts simply disappeared. It was an audacious gesture witnessed with mute public disapproval. Milosevic and his wife Mira acted more like Yugoslav royalty, occupying a mansion high on the hill while Tito’s faithful made pilgrimages to a lower altitude.
By the late 1990s the writing was on the wall for Milosevic. Through his 13-year reign he played a key role in sparking the disastrous civil war that ultimately brought Yugoslavia to an end. Reviving his lost pursuit for Greater Serbia he turned his attention to subduing ethnic Albanian separatists in Serbia’s southern province.

NATO responded to Serbia’s policy of aggression in Kosovo by bombing Belgrade in 1999. Key offices, such as the Department of the Interior, Secret Police HQ and the national broadcaster, RTS, were surgically targeted during 78 days of bombardment. Eleven years later many of these vast buildings still totter precariously in downtown Belgrade, fenced-off reminders of the power beyond these borders.

Visitors to ‘Kuca Cveka’ today will notice how few people still attend the mausoleum. Put it down to despondency or disillusionment but it’s not the shrine it used to be. Tito’s resting place went unscathed when the presidential mansion took a direct NATO hit but the adjacent gardens are full of weeds and a dry fountain peels in rust. It’s as though Tito’s dream died with him. While there is a degree of anger that the partisan hero failed to ensure stable succession the most pervasive feeling is regret for a bygone era that Serbs — and ex-Yugoslavs in general — realise will never be achieved again.

Irrespective of origin, many citizens are still shocked at how quickly Yugoslavia tore itself apart. They recall how questions previously unasked — such as ethnicity or religious beliefs – suddenly became defining identities. Agnostic Yugoslavs suddenly became Catholic Croatians, Orthodox Serbs or Bosnian Moslems. These differences were masterfully exploited by political leaders clinging to nationalist agendas – most especially by Milosevic in Serbia and Franco Tudjman in Croatia. Balkan unity, capricious at the best of times, was doomed.

Such was the inspiration for Nobel Prize-winning author Ivo Andric. He based ‘The Bridge on the Drina’ on conflict between Moslems and Christians in the mountainous Bosnian village of Visegrad. Published in 1945 the Andric classic centres on events at the magnificent 11-arch bridge built by the Ottomans in 1577.

At this beautiful idyll it is difficult to imagine that 47 years after the book was published Bosnian Serb forces murdered an estimated 3,000 Bosniaks around Visegrad, many of them shot on the bridge and thrown into the river below. It says much that the stone bridge – a dedicated world heritage site — now divides the two communities completely.

While post-war relations stall in places like Visegrad, reconciliation stirs to life elsewhere. In November Serbian President Boris Tadic visited Vukovar with his Croatian counterpart Ivo Josipovic to formally apologise to Croatians who suffered during the war. “I came here to share words of apology; to express our sympathy; to create the possibility for Serbs and Croats, Serbia and Croatia, to turn a new page in history”, said Tadic at a wreath-laying ceremony.

As the largest ethnic bloc involved across three conflicts, few will dispute that Serbian forces committed a greater proportion of wartime atrocities. More recent events – such as October’s attack on a gay march in Belgrade and serious rioting by ultra-nationalist Serbian fans at a soccer match in Italy — reinforce that notoriety.

In the West the received wisdom was that Serbs started the war, lost heavily and got what they deserved. Among a litany of acts the destruction of Vukovar (1991), the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo (1992-96), mass murder of some 8,000 Bosnian Moslems at Srebrenica (1995), widespread persecution and expulsion of Kosovar Albanians (1998-99) ensured post-war Serbia would be seen as the villain of the piece.

Yet ordinary Serbs do not look back on civil war with more remorse than any other ethnic grouping. Many are highly critical of the route Milosevic took them, a road to penury and isolation, but feel the culpability of others is often overlooked.

They are a proud people who typically face adversity with a blend of stoicism, stubbornness, chauvinism, fatalism and defiance salted in black humour. The outside world has long seemed a faraway place but Serbs will counter with a trademark shrug, suggesting that the outside world has let them down before.

They point out how it is forgotten that while many Croats sided with Germany in World War Two, Serb partisans – led by the Croatian-born Tito — resisted the Nazis. They ask why the Allies bombed Belgrade at the end of the war when the Germans were already evacuating.

Decades later they feel the EU was too quick to recognise independence for Slovenia and Croatia, thereby accelerating the break-up of Yugoslavia. More recently, they question why so many EU member states immediately recognised Kosovo even though its legal status was far from certain and the fate of over 100,000 Kosovar Serbs unresolved.

While the aftermath of such a brutal conflict leaves a prevailing sense of numbness, many war victims would welcome apology from their erstwhile oppressors. However, for hundreds of thousands of Bosnians, Croats, Kosovars — and Serbs — any offer of contrition comes too late.

Branco, a 45-year-old Serb waiter in Novi Sad – a picturesque Danube city 70 kilometres from Belgrade — considers it all with a nonchalance characteristic to these parts. Formerly a successful restaurateur in Zagreb, he fled the Croatian capital when war broke out and joined the Serbian army. When war ended he could not go back to Zagreb. Eight years ago he arrived in Novi Sad as a refugee, along with his wife and children. As the second largest city in Serbia (after Belgrade) Novi Sad was heavily bombed by NATO in 1999, destroying the oil refinery and the city’s three bridges (since rebuilt) across the Danube.

“I owned three restaurants before the war and now I am a waiter”, he nods. “Sometimes someone will ask me, why did you come to Novi Sad. I mean, where else were we going to go?” He does not like the term refugee and objects to being described as one although his family now shares an apartment with two other families. “During the war we had five Deutschmarks a month to live on”, recalls Branco. “But we did it. And now, here? It’s, it’s — well, we are living”.
The same experience is replicated in every acre of former Yugoslavia where talk, invariably, returns to war. Even so, each part of the former republic is moving in separate directions. Slovenia is the only EU member; Croatia is not so far behind but first must sort out border disagreements with Slovenia; EU-applicant Macedonia is very sensitive to events in neighbouring Albania; Bosnia-Herzegovina remains ruptured between different factions; Montenegro, with a population of 600,000, is only four years old and half the countries in the world don’t even recognise Kosovo. Which leaves Serbia, with more than seven million citizens, a rump state forged uncertainly from the ashes.

As with much of former Yugoslavia, Serbia’s recent history is a story of extreme violence. The state is accused of being tardy in handing over indicted army commanders — like Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladic — to The Hague. Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was assassinated in Belgrade in 2003, local warlord Arkan was shot dead at the Intercontinental Hotel three years earlier.

In the last days of the old regime. anti-Milosevic rallies were brutally repressed in Belgrade. In fact it took a mass demonstration at parliament buildings in 2000 to oust Milosevic after he tried to rig presidential elections.

In 2006 Milosevic reportedly died of natural causes in Scheveningen Prison. Prior to his death the ex-President’s trial for war crimes at The Hague was televised live every day by B92 TV station, but most Serbs, including those who had no time for him, felt the trial was a charade. In the captive Milosevic they saw the very man they ousted defending the ailing country they love to an international court they didn’t believe in.

His legacy continues to be played out. Governance in Belgrade is a precarious authority, presently held by the Coalition for European Serbia led by President Tadic. In two decades the country has grappled with economic collapse, blockades, food shortages, refugees, bombardment and the fiefdom of organised crime. Income in parts of former Yugoslavia used to compare with income in parts of Italy but average gross salary in Serbia is now about €7,000 per annum and unemployment stands at 19 percent.

Like the Milosevic trial which never reached a verdict, ex-Yugoslavia is unfinished business. Kosovo’s independence was upheld by the International Court of Justice last July. Despite that decision the matter of statehood is not clear-cut. 71 nations (including Ireland) formally recognise Kosovo but for various reasons many others, including Russia, China, India, Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Greece — and, of course, Serbia – do not.

With Kosovo’s population hovering around two million, some 100,000 Serbs remain in NATO-policed enclaves. It is widely seen that formally letting Kosovo go is the main carrot to advance Serbia’s EU membership. On taking office however Tadic took an oath pledging “to be committed to preservation of Kosovo and Metohija within the Republic of Serbia”. Should forsaking Kosovo be a pre-condition to EU accession some of his coalition partners might decide that European Union is something Serbia can do without.