The Book: Serbia…Very Sad and Very Fun…New Year’s Eve 2007…
“This is a heavy place,” says the Serbian journalist J. “Politics in the Balkans are like ten different chess games all being played at once. Minimum ten chess games. It would take years of living here before you began to understand.”
He stares through the haze of the cigarette smoke clouding the Belgrade bar and adds, “Fucking Serbia. Here nothing will ever change.”
Belgraders enjoy seeing their city as cursed. The Turks, the Germans, or NATO, across Belgrade’s one thousand years of history some outside force is always invading or bombing. Yet, today, the city is becoming famous in Europe for its nightlife. Guidebooks rave about it and newspapers describe people as coming from “all over” to drink and dance in a capital that was bombed just a decade before years by the largest military alliance in history.
Wanting to experience some of this local wildness I go to the club with S, a twenty-four year old Serbian photographer. Inside, the dance floor heaves and there are people across the bar. Flashing lights briefly illuminate moving bodies.
Watching this party, I think how the level of energy corresponds to a land that is constantly in an uproar.
The tiny Balkan countries are routinely dotted and lined to show some new separation or disputed zone. The geographical shakeups can be extreme. In 1878, Bulgaria was unceremoniously cut in half to balance the powers of Britain, Russia, the Ottoman Empire, and the Habsburg Empire. More recently, in famously bloody ethnic wars during the 1990s, the massive entity of Yugoslavia collapsed into the countries of Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Slovenia, and Albania, with Montenegro declaring independence from Serbia in 2006.
The reasons behind the consistent breaking of this land are rarely fully explained. As it is larger powers have for centuries either invaded or been drawn into conflicts that appear so frequently in these countries, rationalizing their actions by saying they are stabilizing a region where the compacted mix of cultures, religions, poverty, and conflicting views of history conspire to create violence.
And now it is Kosovo’s turn to demarcate the map.
Serbia’s tiny southern province has been under international administration since NATO bombing ended former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s 1999 attempt to ethnically cleanse the independence seeking Albanian population and reestablish control over the land which is known to Serbs as the birthplace of their culture and religion.
It is nearly impossible to describe how important Kosovo is to Serbia. The land was first lost to Serbs during an Ottoman invasion in 1389. Through more than six hundred years of occupation Kosovo instilled itself in Serbian memory and each generation vowed to reclaim it. They did so in 1917 during WWI and it became one of Serbia’s two autonomous provinces, but now Serbs blame the Albanians, who have for decades been the majority ethnic population in Kosovo, and Western powers for conspiring to take it from them.
Eight months have passed since I left Caracas. R and I have ended our relationship. That and a near fatal car accident in California needed to be recovered from.
I arrive in the Balkans with three titanium plates holding my left arm together, a crease across the top of my head, a chunk missing from my tongue, and a mangled ring finger. My intention is to cover Kosovo’s independence declaration and then perhaps stay photographing in the Balkans for the next few months.
Before Kosovo however, I go to Serbia, which is in the midst of a crucial presidential election.
Incumbent President Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS) is running against ultra-nationalist Tomislav Nikolic of the Radical Party (SPS) in an election that will decide not only Serbia’s future as a country, but also it’s response to Kosovo declaring itself independent.
While thousands of NATO military units are in Kosovo, there are rumors of embargoes, cutting Kosovo’s water supply, and attacks carried out from Kosovo’s Serbian enclaves.
No one knows what to believe. But because of Milosevic’s genocidal actions in Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, Serbia has spent the last decade known as the outcast “pariah of Europe.” The (Western) international community see the Serbs as maniacs bent on achieving their own nationalist goals at the expense of the surrounding countries, completely unwilling to cooperate with the dominant powers.
The Serbs see themselves as victims of Western exaggerations about the war.
Despite this, the European Union, furthering their goal of a unified Europe, recently began pushing Serbia to join, giving the country a chance to leave behind the wars and enter into a new phase of history.
Tadic is championing Serbia joining the EU.
Nikolic believes that joining the EU is the same as entering into a coalition with Serbia’s enemies: many EU states were among the countries that supported the NATO bombing of Serbia just ten years before.
The election will be divided into two rounds. The first round will be open to candidates from all political parties. Tadic and Nikolic are expected to come in first and second places, though no one knows in which order. However, because Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) is running his own candidate, neither Tadic or Nikolic are likely to win enough of a majority in the first round to become president.
A second polling will decide the victor.
The complications and subtleties to the Balkans are great. And as I am about to realize in the coming months, all encompassing…