Kosovo Question Creates New Strains in Serbia

Still reeling from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Serbs see neighbors move closer to the EU and NATO. But Kosovo's quest for independence is further poisoning relations between Serbia and the West.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

When Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown six years ago, many Serbs hoped that it marked a new dawn for Serbia. Without him, many Serbs believed their country would see economic growth, tourism and foreign investment. But the legacy of the Balkan Wars, the territorial aggression, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, has continued to dog the country to the point where many Serbs see little hope of a better life.

NPR's Emily Harris reports from Belgrade.

EMILY HARRIS: Goran Yvevitch's(ph) Iguana Restaurant is a small hub of internationalism in Belgrade.

GORAN YVEVITCH: Now, can I tell you what we have tonight? We have gazpacho and we have fish soup. We have a chicken dish with grapefruit and mandarin, stir-fried. We could also do curry.

HARRIS: Yvevitch left Belgrade in 1989 to seek new opportunities in Australia. He became an Australian citizen but two years ago returned to Serbia to live. Serbian friends told him he was crazy.

YVEVITCH: They went through hell here in the last 15, 16 years. From one war to another then NATO bombing in '99, poverty, unemployment, lack of opportunity.

HARRIS: But Yvevitch and his Serbian wife wanted to raise their son at home. Since they arrived, the U.S. has repeatedly cut off aid to the Serbian government and the European Union has halted talks on Serbia joining it until wanted war criminal Radkum Latich(ph) is handed over to a court in The Hague.

In May, Serbia's only partner in a post-Yugoslav Union, Montenegro, voted to become independent, and Serbia soon may completely lose Kosovo, its southern province now under U.N. control. NATO bombed Serbian troops in 1999 to stop ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo. The Albanian majority there wants freedom from Serbia and is expected to get it. That angers many Serbs, including Yvevitch.

YVEVITCH: The international community obviously is getting ready to reward a separatist movement and break all the international laws and the United Nations laws basically because we lost, we were on the receiving end of the New World Order. That's how I feel about it. And a lot of people, I mean I consider myself moderate and I don't really hate anyone.

HARRIS: Keeping Kosovo is the touchstone of Serbian politics these days. Serbian politicians of all stripes insist that independence for Kosovo is absolutely unacceptable.

SERGAN SWEKAVITCH: I mean personally Kosovo is the most important part of Serbia.

HARRIS: Thirty-three-year-old Sergan Swekavitch is Serbia's deputy minister of trade.

SWEKAVITCH: It is very hard for us, for democratic forces in Serbia to explain the people that international community wants to take Kosovo from Serbia. And at the same time, we want to be the part of the international community.

HARRIS: He and other government officials warned that if Kosovo is granted independence from Serbia, extreme nationalists will take power in Belgrade. The leader of Serbia's radical party is facing war crimes charges in The Hague. His deputy, Alexander Vucich(ph), says if Serbia is forced to give up Kosovo, Serbs will remember.

ALEXANDER VUCHICH: We cannot fight back. We do not agree with you and we will never agree with your solution on Kosovo. We will say it's part of sovereign state of Serbia even if it's not. And this period, what it's going to be in 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, 100 years.

HARRIS: The radical party gets more than 30 percent support in opinion polls. Still, political analyst Dan Vustakavich(ph) thinks it's unlikely the radical party could actually take power. But he says it's popular with the many Serbs whose lives did not improve after the war and the economic reforms that followed the end of communism.

VUSTAKAVICH: There are so many rules of transition, so many jobless people, that's why they opt for radicals. Second reason is Serbia lost the war and people here are not ready to accept that.

HARRIS: Even those Serbs who do know that they lost the Balkan wars of the 1990s and were hopeful when Slobodan Milosevic was overthrown are pessimistic now. There's been some progress in the quality of life, they say, but change is too slow and it seems the rest of the region is leaving Serbia behind.

Emily Harris, NPR News, Belgrade.

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