Serb nationalists boo Clinton, cheer Putin, but mostly stay home

BELGRADE, Serbia — Carrying placards with the faces of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and the late Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, fewer than 1,000 people turned out Tuesday for a rally sponsored by extreme nationalist groups to mark the 10th anniversary of NATO's bombing of Serbia during the war over Kosovo.

They cheered for Russia and booed at the mention of the United States and the European Union. In contrast to a year ago, however, they mostly stayed home.

On Feb. 21, 2008, some 150,000 people gathered at the Serbian government's invitation for a protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence. A group of protesters set fire to the U.S. Embassy, and police and firefighters stood by without attempting to douse the flames. A young Kosovo Serb died in the smoldering building.

This year it was a tame affair. Retired Serbian and Russian generals, aging members of Milosevic's Socialist Party and a representative of the Serbian Orthodox Church made speeches, as the crowd sang Russian songs and Serb nationalistic tunes and chanted: "We want arms" and "Kosovo is a heart of Serbia."

At every mention of former President Bill Clinton, who helped direct the 78-day bombing of Serbia and set the stage for the subsequent independence of Kosovo, the crowd erupted.

The fizzled protest constitutes a victory for the Serbian government, whose top officials avoided attending any rallies and instead lay wreaths at places where people died during the bombing.

President Boris Tadic and government officials appeared to be chiding the nationalists, who under Milosevic carried out a severe crackdown on the civil rights of the Albanian majority in Kosovo and went to war with other republics of the former Yugoslavia, breaking the multi-ethnic country into seven independent states.

"Serbian politics must not endanger its people ever again," said Tadic, who was in New York attending a U.N. session on security in Kosovo.

Illusions remain, however. Serbia's new constitution declares that Kosovo, whose independence now has been recognized by 56 governments, remains a part of Serbia. The Serb government has a ministry for Kosovo, and most parties, in and out of government, use "yes to Europe, no to Kosovo" as an official mantra. Weather forecast maps show Kosovo as part of Serbia.

Serbia's current government — run by Tadic's Democrats-led coalition, which includes the Socialist Party once led by Milosevic — maintains that it would never use arms to cancel the former province's independence.

Serbia has gotten closer to NATO as part of the Partnership for Peace program, but it's said that it will maintain neutrality, and it hasn't applied for full NATO membership. That's making its road to joining the European Union bumpier, as diplomats in Brussels, Belgium, have indicated that an unwritten rule for the Western Balkan countries is: first NATO, then the EU.

Belgrade's only recent foreign-policy victory was to win the U.N. General Assembly's approval for a resolution asking the International Court of Justice to rule on whether Pristina's secession in February last year was in line with international law.

The EU, however, has warned Belgrade that "good neighborly relations are a key condition" for membership. This contradicts the oath that Serbian presidents take on assuming office: that their main job is to preserve the territorial integrity of Serbia, including Kosovo.

(Mojsilovic is a McClatchy special correspondent.)


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