Serb Students React to Kosovo's Independence

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Albanians around the world celebrated last week as Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. But, for many Serbs, the mood was very different. Rioters stormed the U.S. embassy in Belgrade, leaving one person killed. Policy analyst Obrad Kesic is joined by Serbian students Andrej Komnenovic and Tamara Pavasovic to discuss the Serb reaction.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Just ahead, from gang leader to community leader. A new documentary on PBS tells how one man turned his life around and is now trying to help others. Plus, she was the first African-American actress to win the Tony Award for Best Actress. If you missed her on Broadway, you can see why tonight on television. Phylicia Rashad on the television adaptation of "A Raisin In The Sun". But first, another international story.

Albanians around the world were celebrating last week when Kosovo declared independence from Serbia. The pride and joy was evident in our studio during a discussion with three young Kosovar Albanians who are studying and working in the U.S. Let's listen.

Unidentified Man: This has enabled me to end this state of feeling stateless. And now I am just thrilled that I have a country. I belong to a country and I can call myself Kosovar.

MARTIN: But the mood was very different elsewhere, especially across the new border. Rioters stormed the U.S. embassy in Belgrade. One person was killed and 150 were estimated to have been injured. The Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of Kosovo denounced the violence, as did representatives of countries that have recognized the new republic. Those countries include the U.S., Britain, France and Germany.

But we wanted to know more about why many Serbs reacted as they did. Why are they so angry? Here in the studio to talk about this are two Serbian students who have been studying in the U.S. - Andrej Komnenovic, he's a recent graduate of Georgetown University; and Tamara Pavasovic is pursuing her PhD at Harvard University. Joining us on the phone is Obrad Kesic. He is a senior partner with TSM Global Consultants, LLC and a policy analyst. We're please to have you all here. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ANDREJ KOMNENOVIC (Student): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: We asked the Albanian students how they felt the day of the vote. So I'd like to ask you, how did you feel that day, Andrej?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Well, Serbs are usually very passionate when it comes to Kosovo issue, because it's such a significant part of our heritage. And the Balkan story is kind of very complicated. So (unintelligible) Serbs kind of felt frustrated because on various issues all the solutions were in a way against Serbian interests. So Serbia suffered through isolation, also suffered a lot economically. And Serbia was on a good way to recover since the year of 2000. But this like a struggle for Kosovo and this latest solution of the Kosovo issue that has been imposed, it's sort of pushing Serbia backwards, in my opinion.

MARTIN: So it's like a slap in the face. Do you mind though if I ask you how you felt?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Well, I felt also kind of very sad and I was outraged also for a certain approach that the Kosovo issue have had in the media and because Kosovo is such a significant part of our heritage. For example, you cannot study Serbian literature, Serbian art, without the Kosovo, and it's historically, it is very, very important for every Serbian and simply as a - when you are a kid and when you're growing up, it's such a significant part of every Serbian man's life.

MARTIN: Really? Why? Tamara, can you tell me why? And also tell me how you felt.

Ms. TAMARA PAVASOVIC (Student): Sure. Well, I'm a really big supporter of the current democratic government in Serbia, and they have really done everything right since 2000. They have really worked their best on imposing a democracy, working out all of the issues. They have - they faced a lot of challenges and they've really worked through them. And even after the riots in 2004, when Albanians burnt most of the Serbian churches in Kosovo and all of the violence, the Serbian government still said let's not go back to violence. Let's solve this democratically.

Let's work through this in a democratic way. And now the U.S.'s approach to this has really been a slap in the face, because you know, the U.S. already last year came out and said, if you don't come up with a solution by December we'll impose independence unilaterally. And this gives no incentive to Albanians. They absolutely had no incentive to negotiate when they knew that the U.S. would back up independence either way.

MARTIN: Could you back up though for a minute and explain, like Andrej was starting to explain, why is Kosovo so important to sort of the Serbian identity? Because as we've discussed, it's kind of 90 percent Albanian in population. So can you describe for those who don't know, it's my understanding that there are a number of historical and important religious sites there. Can you just help us understand...

Ms. PAVASOVIC: Right. I mean the cradle of civilization, people mention this all the time, was in Kosovo. But I think even more important than that, Serbian people get really frustrated when you say 90 percent of Kosovo is Albanian without asking why is 90 percent of a Serbian territory Albanian. And this really dates from before - during World War II 40 percent was Albanian. Before World War II, 50 - I mean 50 percent were Serbian. So it's 50/50; then after World War II 40 percent, and the percentages kept getting smaller, because of a lot of reasons, because of illegal immigration from Albania into Kosovo. The Albanian birthrate in Kosovo is 5.5 kids per family. The Serbian birthrate is, you know, 1.2 kids. So for a lot of reasons, this population percentage kept increasing.

MARTIN: I understand. Obrad, are you with us?

Mr. OBRAD KESIC (TSM Global Consultants): If I could jump in...

MARTIN: Yes, I would. Obrad.

Mr. KESIC: Yes. It's very important to say that the Balkans were occupied by the Ottoman Empire for over 400 years. During that time for the Serbs, Kosovo became a center not only for creating a national identity, but also for the push for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. The mythology surrounding the battle of Kosovo in 1389 was very biblical in terms of its significance. For most Serbs now, over generations they've been told and have been studying and have been basically totally familiar with the cycle of the Kosovo ethic, where a king and all the nobility were lost in this battle.

Serbs and many others believe that this was a very crucial period in terms of their nation. They had a chance to basically accept Ottoman domination but they refused. And instead the nobility sacrificed themselves on the field. And this has become for Serbs a defining moment in their history. It has religious significance. For Serbs, Kosovo is like Jerusalem for Christians. It's very difficult to separate the emotional, the mythological and the factual importance of Kosovo for everyday Serbs.

And you have to keep it in that connotation. This is part of who Serbs are. Kosovo is part of the body collective and the psychology and the mentality and the emotional identification of Serbs.

MARTIN: Do you, do any of you have any - and I asked the Kosovar students if you have - this is sort of the corollary question. But do you have any sympathy for the other side of this, for the other point of view, Andrej?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Of course we do. I firmly believe that we can live next to each other. On the micro level, you have two communities, they're so different culturally, religiously, different languages, different customs. But on the other side, I firmly believe that if there's a natural compromise between the two sides, we can live together. So there was no need for building walls and for separation. There was just a need for a historic agreement to be achieved from both sides, in my opinion.

MARTIN: Okay. Obrad.

Mr. KESIC: What happened last week was a defeat for the idea of multiculturalism and multi-ethnicity. Nobody doubts and nobody questions that Serbia now is a democratic state, that it's on the road to joining the European Union, and this is why Serbs are frustrated, because what it says is that minorities in a democratic state in Europe, in a multicultural, multi-ethnic state, cannot live normally unless they have their own state. This has really been a very significant development last week. It's significant in many ways and much more beyond just the question of Serbs and Albanians.

MARTIN: But there - as we discussed and as you know, that the declaration of this new government is that this will be multi-ethnic and democratic. And as a statement and as a gesture in support of that, the new flag very intentionally has like six stars to represent also the ethnic groups that are represented there. Is it that people just don't buy that?

Mr. KESIC: Actually - actually you just hit the nail on the head in terms of what the problem is. That flag has been imposed from the outside...

MARTIN: Outside of who? Outside where?

Mr. KESIC: By the European Union basically. This is a flag, just like in Bosnia - the citizens of Bosnia did not pick their flag. The administration by the international community, the European Union, the high representative there picked the flag for Bosnia, and that's what happened with Kosovo. This isn't a flag that has any national or emotional significance, neither for Albanians nor for Serbs. This is a flag that is designed to be neutral. It's a flag that's been designed by the outside, and this is one of the big problems, is because this new statelet is totally dependent for its existence on the outside - economically, politically, militarily.

It's going to be a ward of the European community. And the Serbs question why it was such a good idea to dismember the Serbian state to create something that is going to be on life support for the foreseeable future.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News and we're speaking about the reaction to the independence of Kosovo with Serbian policy analyst Obrad Kesic and two Serbian students who are currently studying in the U.S. And can I read you all an email that I got last week after the conversation we had with the students? And there's a lot of all caps in it, which suggests some strong feelings. But it says: Shame on you to go against the Serbian Christian nation and to support Albanian Muslim minority. Is that your choice? No, only American politicians and media's choice. Don't worry, you supported Afghanistan too and they returned you a favor ten years later. The Albanian Muslims will too.

I got to tell you, I'm hearing a lot of ethnic chauvinism, and I would also argue perhaps religious bigotry in that statement. Now, of course one does not want to read too much into an e-mail, but there were a number of them that we received that way. I mean, is that a part of this? Is there a sense of disdain for Albanian Muslims?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Well, there are - I mean, I cannot say it's a bigotry, but there are prejudices in the whole region. I mean, we witness that there is like a process of Balkanization, of creating small and self-insufficient national states, and I just wonder where it's going to end. And as far as the Kosovo issue concerns, there are a lot of elements included in that.

You mentioned religious element. You also mentioned sort of links that exist of Kosovo politician, Albanian side with the terrorist activities, and in the global effort to fight the global terrorism it just sounds paradoxical to me that the U.S. is currently leading the whole effort, and now they're in Europe recognizing the side that is suspected to perform the...

MARTIN: But that seems to be an indictment of all Muslims.

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Not all. Not all Muslims.

MARTIN: It suggests that Muslims are, by definition, supportive of terrorism, and I think that many Muslims have been victims of terrorism. Isn't that the case?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Absolutely, yes, and Albanians were victims of those sort of activities, as I may say the Serbian side has also performed some violence in the past during the Milosevic time, and we were...

MARTIN: Well, more than some violence, I would say. I mean, there's a reason that Slobodan Milosevic was being prosecuted for war crimes.

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Yes. There is a reason, but also the story has two sides. So he was also kind of provoked by violence that already existed there, the violence that is very old in that particular area. So as I may say, I mean, the Kosovo issue is so complex that it cannot be observed just from one position and one perspective.

Mr. KESIC: You know...

MARTIN: I want to hear from Tamara on this too, but Obrad, if you would for just a moment, go ahead.

Mr. KESIC: You know, the Serbian people took to the streets and overthrew Slobodan Milosevic. They prosecuted countless cases of war crimes against Albanians in Kosovo. There are currently three prosecutions, major cases underway in Belgrade. There have been sentences handed down. But none of this gets said, and in fact if you're talking about chauvinism, we have to examine the chauvinism that exists in covering these stories, where it's very easy to portray the Serbs being the bad guys or the evil aggressors.

But you know what? History starts a long time ago. Everybody has been victimized. The Serbs lived through a genocide during the second World War, together with the Jews. There were death camps that were set up. The issue of ethnic cleansing has been a cyclical process. Whoever has been on top has ethnically cleansed the other.

MARTIN: Let me - can hear from...

Mr. KESIC: (Unintelligible) that this is being manipulated in order to make a case. We should be talking about law. We should be talking about the respect for law and for respect for the United Nations.

MARTIN: Tamara - I want to hear from Tamara on this because she was - in the 2000 election you were - when Slobodan Milosevic was voted out of office, and you among the sort of group of young people who called, who organized demonstrations and worked to achieve that sort of - so what is - I'd like to hear from you on this sort of question of how we go forward at this point.

It was your view that Serbia's been on a democratic trajectory and has been in the place of achieving a multi-ethnic democracy where these sort of differences can be sort of worked out. How do you feel that this latest move will affect that?

Ms. PAVASOVIC: No, I definitely think it'll have really negative repercussions on the development of Serbia and of the region. I think one of the biggest problems I see is that the Albanians in Kosovo had nine years to show the Serbs that they really are willing to work out a democratic state, that they want to work with their ethnic minorities, and yet in nine years the Serbian population in Kosovo has just been more and more subjugated.

They live in enclaves. They have to be escorted by troops to go grocery shopping. They can't leave their neighborhoods. Cement walls have been built around our churches because Albanians throw rocks and stones at nuns. So the situation for minorities in Kosovo is right now really terrible. The international community adopted the standards before status. They said they wouldn't give Kosovo status until Kosovo showed that it fulfilled these standards, of which respect for minorities and the Serbs was an integral part, and in nine years Albanians have done nothing to show Serbs...

MARTIN: Well - but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Friday, we believe that the resolution of Kosovo's status will finally let the Balkans begin to put its history behind it, and she said, I mean, we're talking about 1389 to - it's time to move forward. What will it take for Serbia and Kosovo to move forward?

Ms. PAVASOVIC: Right, but I don't see why Serbs would really feel like the way forward is under a government that has done nothing to protect the Serbian population for the past nine years. We got rid of Milosevic eight years ago, and in eight years the situation in Kosovo for the Serbs has gotten worse and worse over time, and I think for Serbs it's really hard to convince them why we would except that the prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaci, is a former KLA commander, and why would we except that the former KLA commander would do anything to guarantee rights to a Serbian minority?

MARTIN: We only have about a minute. I wanted to ask you two, as the next generation of Serbs, and Obrad, I'm sorry, we're going to have to let you go because your phone line is deteriorating. Andrej, as the next generation, what would you like to see Serbia look like in the next five years?

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: I'd like to see Serbia as an economic developed country, as a sort of dragon of the southern Europe, and I would like to see Serbia also a competitive country, but these slaps in the face of Serbian struggle for democracy, for economic development - can Serbia really push backwards? And that's my biggest fear.

So also the lack of knowing of Serbia and the complexity of the whole region also contributes to this problem very, very much.

MARTIN: Tamara, final thought?

Ms. PAVASOVIC: Yeah, I also see Serbia continuing along its democratic path, and I think that the only way that can happen is under - within the U.N. charter, in agreement with international law and not with a U.S.-imposed solution that breaks, you know, violates the U.N. law, violates the Helsinki accords, violates U.N. Resolution 1244. This is definitely not the way forward.

MARTIN: Tamara Pavasovic is a Serbian student currently studying at Harvard University. Andrej Komnenovic is a Serbian student. He just recently finished his degree at Georgetown University. They were kind enough to join me here in the studio in Washington. On the phone we were joined by Obrad Kesic. He's a policy analyst in Washington, D.C. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

Mr. KOMNENOVIC: Pleasure.

Ms. PAVASOVIC: Thanks for having us.

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