A Ukrainian In Belgrade: The Straight Line From Milosevic To Putin, And Back Again
As hostilities flare again between Serbia and Kosovo, the writer draws connections between the dissolutions of both the USSR and Yugoslavia, and the leaders who exploit upheaval and feed the worst kind of nationalism.
At high school in Kyiv in the late 1990s, we studied the recent history of Yugoslavia: the details of its disintegration, the civil wars, the NATO bombing of Belgrade. When we compared Yugoslavia and the USSR, it seemed evident to us that if Boris Yeltsin or Mikhail Gorbachev had been anything like Serbian dictator Slobodan Milosevic, bloody wars would have been unavoidable for Ukraine, Belarus, and other republics that instead had seceded from the Soviet Union without a single shot being fired.
Fast forward to 2020, when I visited Belgrade for the first time, invited for a friend's wedding. Looking around, I was struck by the decrepit state of its roads, the lack of any official marked cabs, by the drudgery, but most of all by the tension and underlying aggression in society. It was reflected in all the posters and inscriptions plastered on nearly every street. Against Albania, against Kosovo, against Muslims, claims for historical justice, Serbian retribution, and so on. A rather beautiful, albeit by Soviet standards, Belgrade seemed like a sleeping scorpion.
And all this was set in motion by the actions of a single person. In Serbia, it was Slobodan Milosevic, who, with his nationalist and populist rhetoric, inflamed ethnic war, with his taciturnity and stubbornness triggered thousands of rockets aimed at Croatian and Kosovar civilians. He was finally tried for crimes against humanity by an international tribunal in the Hague and died in prison before his sentence was announced.
What unites Serbia, Russia and China
Years later, with Yeltsin and Gorbachev long forgotten, the Milosevic of Moscow finally showed his true colors. Russian President Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, and on Feb. 24 launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. All the bloodshed and isolation in order to reclaim some imagined past and reunify the territories which, in his very personal opinion, were destined to be united.
Serbia, Russia and China are all trying to turn back time.
Historical justice, sacred land, nationalism — all these terms in the speeches of politicians gathered at the very pinnacle of power promise wars, inevitably followed by degradation, poverty, and oblivion.
Meanwhile back in the Balkans, the conflict between Serbia and Kosovo has flared up again in recent days. Against the background of Russia's war with Ukraine and China's claims over Taiwan, it seems as if the world risks entering a new era of neighborhood wars with territorial claims that threaten to conflagrate into one big war, even another world war.
All three conflicts are similar to each other in one important factor: Serbia, Russia and China are all trying to turn back time.
Slobodan Milosevic meets with U.S. President Bill Clinton in Paris in 1995
Nationalism and spheres of influence
Behind each of these conflicts are not the civil unrest of the masses, but individual nationalist leaders who do not live peacefully within their domain, expressing some dire need of regaining lost territories and expanding spheres of influence as some kind of manifest destiny.
The Soviet Union, for all the horror of its machine, ultimately collapsed with relative ease and justice, granting each of its republics a chance to live and prosper. What was once Yugoslavia instead descended quickly into bloody wars and ethnic cleansing.
Today there are countries from each respective disintegration that are now part of the European Union, enjoying relative peace and prosperity. Kosovo and Serbia are not among them, while Ukraine is betting everything on trying to get there. In the meantime, one can be sure that Vladimir Putin is not only reveling in all the would-be Russian empires of the past, but remembering how the story ended for Slobodan Milosevic.
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