By Srđan Cvijić
What are they celebrating? I asked myself exactly 20 years ago, the night when NATO bombing of Serbia ended. Through our windows shattered from the bombing of the Chinese Embassy nearby, I could see the fireworks from neighbouring socialist high-rise buildings illuminating the Danube silently floating in the dark.
After 11 weeks of the war, almost 10 000 dead later, Serbia’s dictator Slobodan Milošević presented the capitulation of his army as a victory. In his delusional eyes, the bombing created a perfect excuse for the loss of Kosovo. An illusion of victory was aimed to assure peaceful years in power.
He got only one year. In 2000 we celebrated the end of his murderous regime.
Fast forward to today’s Serbia. Everything changed and nothing did.
While much of the international coverage of Serbia is reserved for Kosovo status negotiations you can scarcely read about what goes on within the country. The pro-Western Dr. Jekyll side of Serbian policy remains reserved for international audiences. The citizens in the country are getting their daily drip of Mr. Hyde slowly transforming Serbia into a postmodern Weimar Republic.
Ever since 24 March anniversary of the beginning of the bombing, hardly a day passed without a widely publicised commemoration of a tragic episode from the 1999 war. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić on several occasions hinted that Kosovo is lost, but the atmosphere created by the media under his control is that of warmongering resentment towards the neighbours and the West.
Ever since 2012, when Vučić’s party came to power, pro-government media feed the population with a daily dosage of anti-Western, pro-Russian and nationalistic propaganda. The difference with the period before they came to power is striking.
While pre-2012 government extradited war criminals such as Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, this government is honouring convicted war criminals.
As a result of the anti-Western campaign, Serbs are supporting EU and NATO less and less. Back in 2013, despite the bombing, as many as 27 per cent of the citizens supported NATO membership for their country. Support for NATO has since dropped to 11 per cent. In 2009, 73 per cent supported EU membership for Serbia. Today only 55 per cent do.
Recently I went to the cinema to see a Russian-Serbian action movie “The Balkan Line”, released to mark the 20th anniversary of the 1999 NATO bombing. The film provides a fictionalised account of the capture of the Slatina Airport in Kosovo by Russian troops at the end of the war. The Serbian government gave money to make the movie.
I was among the oldest people in the cinema. Youngsters around me cheered every time a Russian Rambo in the film killed one of the Kosovo Albanian fighters. Their attitudes are shaped by government propaganda turning future Serbian generations against our neighboursand the West.
Under this revisionism, democracy in Serbia is dying. According to Freedom House, for the first time since the early 2000s, Serbia is no longer ranked as a free country. In reaction to the democratic backsliding, citizens and the opposition have been protesting all over the country for five consecutive months, asking for media freedom and basic conditions for free and fair elections.
On Kosovo, the opposition thinks that the EU and the US are consciously sacrificing Serbia’s democracy, hoping to secure President Vučić’s acquiescence to its formal independence. They are not entirely wrong. However, criticizing Vučić on Kosovo only adds to the government-inspired revisionist propaganda. Reform-minded pro-Western politicians that remain a majority in the opposition block should know better.
A compromise solution on Kosovo cannot come without the return of democracy in Serbia or without an immediate stop to the anti-Western campaign. The opposite is also true. Reconciliation with all the neighbours is a precondition for a true democratic transformation of the country.
To make this happen, the EU and the US need to revoke the blank check to the Belgrade government on democracy so long as it maintains stability. EU and the US must put the pressure on the government to free the media and fulfil all the opposition’s conditions for free and fair elections.
As far as Kosovo is concerned the government and the opposition must treat it as a bipartisan issue. There should be no politicking around it.
Back in that confusing night 20 years ago Milošević celebrated a defeat. Today we forget that Kosovo was lost not because the Serbian tanks rolled out of the province but because they left behind thousands of murdered Kosovo Albanian civilians.