Justin Vela

Travels 2006-2009…Sumadija…central Serbia pre-election…April 2008….

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Dear citizens of Serbia, Serbia! What is Kosovo? Where is Kosovo? Whose is Kosovo? Is there anyone among us who is not from Kosovo? Is there anyone among us who thinks that Kosovo does not belong to us? Kosovo – that’s Serbia’s first name. Kosovo belongs to Serbia. Kosovo belongs to the Serbian people. That’s how it has been for ever. That’s how it’s going to be for ever. There is no force, no threat, and no punishment big and hideous enough for any Serb, at any time, to say anything different but, Kosovo is Serbia! Never will anyone hear from us that the Patriarchate of Peć does not belong to us, that Visoki Dečani monastery and Gračanica monastery are not ours! That the place where we were born is not ours; we and our state and our church and everything that makes us what we are today! If we as Serbs renounce Serbianhood, our origin, our Kosovo, our ancestors and our history – then, who are we Serbs? What is our name then?

-Speech by Vojislav Kostunica after Kosovo declared independence in February 2008

When I first arrived in Belgrade, in December 2007, a foreign journalist told me: “They should not join the EU. If you stay here you will find that the thinking here is very Ottoman.”

Later, at a function during the January presidential election, another foreign journalist said, “I love coming here. It never changes. Same people. Same politicians. It hasn’t changed in one hundred years. It’s horrible for the people, but I like coming. For the nostalgia.”

A DSS supporter holds a flag that reads "Kosovo is Serbia" at an election really in Novi Sad Serbia in April 2008.

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Both of the journalists had covered the wars and spent far more time in Serbia than I. What they both wanted to impress upon me is that Serbia is an old society. But all European societies are old. There is the presence of hardline nationalism in Serbia, but nationalist Serbs differ from conservatives and nationalists in countries that already belong to the EU only because of the memory of recent wars and a ravaged political system that is attempting to remake itself.

As the wealth, intellectualism, and liberalism in Western Europe proves, countries can progress beyond old wars.

Of course, some of the old politicians would put off what is an inevitable transformation to maintain their own hold on power.

According to polls, year ago, most Serbs wanted to join the EU. However, after the loss of Kosovo, it has been predicted that the Radicals will win the election and then form a coalition with DSS to have a majority in parliament.

A newspaper runs the headline: “Kostunica and Seselj.”

Even some DS party supporters say that following Kosovo’s independence declaration, Tadic’s move towards quick integration with the EU is a lost hope. Most people I interview believe this should have been expected. Because of their continual self-victimization and inability to come to terms with the past, Serbia is most likely at least ten years from a time when its population will vote for the EU.

The wars, the loss of Kosovo, the bitterness over being known as the ‘outcasts of Europe….

It is all too fresh.

Some people even think that a period of time with the Radicals in power will be good for Serbia. “So Serbs can experience how bad the Radicals can make this country,” says observer. With the Radicals in power EU countries will refuse to interact with Serbia. The country will again slow down.

Other people say that the Radicals being in power won’t make a difference. In the EU or not, Serbia is still part of Europe, its people European.


As election day approaches, Dominic and I go to a DSS rally in Kragujevac, a town in central Serbia.

I am in front of the stage, waiting to photograph Kostunica’s arrival, when from somewhere in the crowd Dominic sends an SMS saying that the Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), one of the critical first steps towards Serbia joining the EU, has been signed in Luxembourg.

Though the signing is only a good will gesture, I am jubilant. The agreement will remain ‘frozen’ until Serbia fulfills the Copenhagen Criteria and surrenders war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. Yet this can be interpreted as a needed hand up from the EU.

The next day the Italian car company Fiat buys seventy percent of a state owned Zastava factory in Kragujevac and says it will invest more than 600 million euros.

The EU is trying to prove to Serbs that they are wanted. “The EU did not break the Balkans, but it still has to buy it,” writes Parag Khanna in The Second World.

Following the signing, Kostunica announces he will annul the SAA after the elections.

Tadic receives a letter saying that he is guilty of treasons and that he will “receive what he deserves-a bullet in the forehead.” Posters appear in Belgrade calling him an enemy of the state.

At the DSS rally, a twenty-four year old student named Jelena and her cousin Darko, approach Dominic. Afterwards, we go for coffee at a nearby cafe. They are not sure about Serbia joining the EU, neither are most of their friends, they say.

“You must know that Kosovo is very rich,” Darko says. “There is gold and minerals. Your governments and the Albanians are stealing that.”

“There is none of that wealth in Kosovo,” I say. “All the wealth has been gone for years. A secret like that could not have been kept.”

“Justin,” Darko says. “You do not know? Kosovo is very rich. Kosovo is ours”

Many nationalist Serbs believe conspiracy theories about Kosovo being declared independent. They also believe that Serbia joining the EU will somehow destroy their culture.

Darko is studying to be a priest. “Serbia is Orthodox. We are far more like Russia than Europe.”

Jelena does not agree.

“I don’t know if we should go to the European Union,” she says. “But that’s the only way. If all countries are integrating. We cannot be the only country not in the European Union unless if we want to be like Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and all other countries that are isolating themselves.”

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Written by Justin Vela

September 25, 2011 at 8:04 am

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