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The Observer (UK)
March 22, 2004

Violence in the Balkans

Belgrade--Protests swept Serbia this week following ethnic bloodshed in the breakaway neighboring province of Kosovo. Beginning late Wednesday night, crowds burned Belgrade’s mosque and converged on the US embassy; a mosque in the southern city of Nis was also torched. Dozens of police were injured. On Thursday and Friday, the situation was peaceful but tense, and large crowds turned out throughout the country for street protests. 

The violence followed events in Kosovo, where mobs of ethnic Albanians rioted and attacked ethnic Serb enclaves after a story circulated that some Albanian boys had been chased by ethnic Serbs into a river and drowned. An estimated 31 were dead in the Kosovo violence (including 5 international peacekeepers) and more than 500 injured. Soon word spread to Serbia proper, and crowds quickly began forming and taking revenge.

Details of the drowning incident were not clear, but United Nations officials declared that a survivor insisted that no one had chased them into the river. Nevertheless, it doesn’t take much to inflame passions in these parts.  Serbs remain furious over the secession of Kosovo, which now has a large Albanian Muslim majority but played a central role in Serbia’s cultural and religious history. 

Police, who provided only light protection at the mosques, came out in force to push crowds back at the United States and Albanian embassies, using tear gas to disperse rock-throwers at the latter. More than 100 protesters have been detained, primarily for attacking police officers; a number of journalists have also been injured.

Fortified by suddenly glorious spring-like weather and the authorities’ decision to close the university for the protests, groups of high school and college students marched peacefully through the streets. Some carried the flag of an extreme nationalist group and chanted “Death to Shiptars”, using a derogatory term for Albanians. Larger clusters of university students marched behind a banner calling for peace and an end to terrorism, but in an indication of the complexity of the situation, chanted “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia.” .

Ethnic Serbs have taken the brunt of the world’s condemnation for the ethnic cleansing that occurred in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo in the 90s, but by all reports, most of this week’s violence in Kosovo, including widespread destruction of Orthodox churches and monasteries, was perpetrated by Albanian mobs – in actions that UN officials said appeared coordinated, and that a NATO commander called tantamount to “ethnic cleansing.”

Anti-western sentiment was the most significant felt in Belgrade since NATO forces bombed the capital in 1999 to halt Serbian military action in Kosovo. The US embassy was advising caution to its nationals; even to avoid taking taxis, many of which are driven by Kosovar refugees -- and taxi associations were involved in coordinated traffic blockages. 

In a region where so many events have invisible sponsors, many Serbs expressed skepticism about the protesters, especially the large numbers of marching teenagers. “They couldn’t even find Kosovo on a map,” said one Serb working for a foreign government, who asked that his name not be used. “They don’t know what that’s about, and they don’t care.”

“This is what I would call helplessness rage, and it’s boiling over,” said Ljubica Pocuca, an office administrator and part-time psychology student. “Wherever it can be expressed it will be.” To be sure, Serbs are increasingly impatient with the pace of changes promised since the ouster of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.  Democracy and market reforms are often equated here with general impoverishment, and a corrupt, inefficient, turmoil-ridden government. Consumption of tranquilizers is a major factor of daily life.

Nationalist rhetoric effectively taps into this frustration, and  extreme parties garnered surprisingly large minorities in recent elections. Newly installed moderate nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica is in a difficult balancing act, sympathizing with an inflamed populace while endorsing a political compromise in Kosovo. Meantime, the NATO-led forces have dispatched peacekeeping troop reinforcements into Kosovo, where the situation had partially stabilized by the weekend.

Liberal-minded Serbs expressed horror at the country’s tattered image being further sullied by global television shots of a drunken mob pushing flaming vehicles into the 17th century Belgrade mosque’s interior, an act that was itself in retribution for desecrations in Kosovo. “This is a disgusting repeat of the early 1990s,” said Biljana  Kovacevic-Vuco, Chairperson of the Yugoslav Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. “I think [police] let the mosque be burned as an acceptable escape valve.”

“When you have this emotional situation, you can turn it any way you want,” said Milan, an economist. “Yesterday I didn’t know anybody who would go and fight in Kosovo, but today, sure. Belgrade is ready for war.”

 “For centuries in the Balkans, no story has ever ended,” he said. “Every year you wait for snow to melt and go to war. It’s in the genetic code of our people.” Still, nearly everyone agrees, economic stability and a sense of confidence in the political process will go a long way toward discouraging ancient instincts.


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