Serbian nationalism stirs again

The Serbian government faces three crises that could inflame sentiments here following the death of Milosevic.

When Serbian state television cut into its usual programming to carry a live report on the arrival of Slobodan Milosevic's body in Belgrade last Wednesday, the station received hundreds of angry calls from viewers demanding that it stop giving such importance to the fate of the former Yugoslav president.

When the report ended, hundreds more furious calls came in, this time from Mr. Milosevic's supporters, demanding the channel carry 24-hour coverage of his funeral arrangements.

"Even after his death, Milosevic continues to divide Serbs into two enemy blocs," says Nenad Stefanovic, chief editor of state TV.

Despite the battlefield losses in the 1990s and the popular overthrow of Milosevic, Serb nationalism remains a potent force and the country is still torn between its past and future. Milosevic loyalists have seized on his death to galvanize voters and try to regain the power they lost five years ago. At stake is the blueprint for Serbia's European integration that reformers have drawn up as the keystone for stability in the Balkans.

A farewell rally for Milosevic in front of the parliament building here Saturday, attended by around 80,000 predominantly older people, put wind in the sails of the nationalists who already enjoy the support of almost half the electorate, according to recent polls.

Two hours later, pro-democracy forces could muster only a few hundred younger demonstrators at a nearby square to celebrate what they hoped was the end of an era, but feared might signal its rebirth.

Among them was Branka Prpa, widow of a journalist murdered by members of Milosevic's security forces in 1999, who was dismayed that the authorities had allowed the former president's supporters to gather on the steps of parliament. It was there, she recalled, that anti-Milosevic protesters had overthrown the government in 2001. The former president's supporters chose the same spot Saturday "to send a message to the citizens of Serbia that he has returned from the dead, that he will triumph over us," she said.

Adding to the woes of the government, led by reformist Boris Tadic, is the prospect of three crises in the coming months that could inflame Serb nationalist sentiment.

• Within the next two weeks the government must hand Gen. Ratko Mladic over to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, where he has been indicted for involvement in the Srebrenica massacre, or see the EU cancel negotiations on a closer partnership with Serbia.

• Next May, voters in Montenegro are expected to decide in a referendum to secede from Serbia and set up an independent state.

• Most painfully, UN-sponsored talks on the future of Kosovo are likely to end in independence for the territory that Serbs regard as the historical hearth of their homeland, although today they are vastly outnumbered there by an ethnic Albanian majority.

"We are entering a very gray zone," warns Zarko Korac, a former deputy prime minister.

If the government appears in no immediate danger of falling, despite depending on the parliamentary votes of Milosevic's Socialist Party, it is because "no-one else wants to be in power and have to deal with this triple whammy" says James Lyon, an analyst in Belgrade with the International Crisis Group.

But the ultranationalist Radical Party's plan to introduce a resolution in parliament condemning The Hague tribunal, which government deputies will find hard to vote against, "shows that the opposition is flexing its muscles and can force the government to do what it wants," Mr. Lyon adds.

The Hague war crimes tribunal, dealing with atrocities committed during the Balkan wars in the 1990s, is viewed even by moderate Serbs as focused unfairly on Serbian criminals while sparing Bosnian, Croatian, and ethnic Albanian perpetrators.

This fuels a widespread sense, voiced loudly in recent days, that Serbia continues to be victimized by the rest of the world. "Slobodan Milosevic did not attack anyone, he simply defended his people," said Mara Triveskovic, a pensioner, as she emerged from the museum where Milosevic's coffin had been on public display. "He was a true hero."

That such a view of recent Serb history - at odds with the one held everywhere else in the region and beyond - is so common in Serbia is largely the fault of the democratic governments in office since 2001, says one Western diplomat.

"They have shied away from the debate that the country has to have" about what exactly happened in the Balkans in the 1990s, the diplomat says. "You cannot set a new direction for Serbia without confronting those forces who glorify the past. The people are ready for this change, but it takes just a little bit of leadership."

In the absence of such leadership, the opposition is eager to exploit the authorities' difficulties, as Socialist leader Milorad Vucelic made clear Saturday. "Fight, Serbia, he [Milosevic] would say to us," Mr. Vucelic declared. "Fight for your freedom and don't give away Kosovo."

Kosovo appears bound for independence regardless of Belgrade's wishes. But the government does have more influence over the fate of General Mladic, who is believed to be hiding in Serbia. Milosevic's death, however, for which most Serbs blame the tribunal and a lack of proper medical care, makes it even less likely that the authorities will soon transfer him to The Hague, or persuade him to surrender.

That means the EU will not open negotiations on closer ties, due to begin April 5, and it will also entail another cut in US aid as punishment. With unemployment around 30 percent, inflation at 15 percent, and the average monthly salary only $250, any cuts in aid will only add to voter frustration.

Milosevic's death, laments the Western diplomat, "have caused people to get caught up again in conspiracy theories ... in what has happened in the past, not what should happen in the future."

Beth Kampschror contributed to this article from Belgrade.

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