The Balkans outraged by Serbian President's scandalous irredentist speech

Serbian President Vučić in Kosovska Mitrovica (photo: Zoran Žestić, Tanjug)

On 9 September, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić held a provocative populist speech in Kosovska Mitrovica which triggered fierce reactions among politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Kosovo. He first planned to hold a "historic" meeting in Banje, Kosovo's village near Drenica that has some 300 Serb houses, but the Kosovo Government prevented him from visiting this multi-ethnic village due to security risks. In spite of their decision and the fact that Kosovo Liberation Army veterans blocked all roads leading to Banje, Vučić continued to drive towards village, but he was finally stopped by the Kosovo police. Then he spoke to Banje residents via phone: "I'm sorry I couldn't come because the Priština authorities wouldn't let me. I couldn't go any further because I didn't want to threaten your safety. Therefore, I ask of you Serbs from the Banje village to stand firm like warriors, as firm as possible," Vučić said.

Later during his two-day visit to Kosovo, a partially recognized state whose independence the bordering Serbia disputes, Aleksandar Vučić addressed the Serbian community inhabiting the Serb-dominated northern part of the divided town of Kosovska Mitrovica. Vučić had been expected there for weeks and the town was festooned with his photograph and Serbian flags in eager anticipation of his visit, which was hotly anticipated as the day when Vučić would finally announce his plan to resolve major outstanding issues with Kosovo's majority ethnic Albanians and to turn the corner in relations with the former Serbian province, today the independent Republic of Kosovo (since 2008). In Kosovska Mitrovica, Vučić praised Slobodan Milošević, the former Yugoslavia President who was processed before the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) in The Hague for the charges for war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, and he also spoke affirmatively about Serbian separatist movements in the 1990s in these three countries.

"Milošević was a great Serbian leader who undoubtedly had the best intentions, but the outcome (of his actions) was very poor. Not because he wanted it that way, but because our wishes were unrealistic, while we neglected and underestimated the interests and aspirations of other nations. Because of that, we paid a greater price than others in the region. We haven't expanded," Serbian President said. In other words, Vučić in typical nationalist manner blames Milošević for having lost the wars in the 1990s, as opposed to having played a role in starting them. Immediately after, he added that "Officially and unofficially, we did help our brothers - Serbs died for Knin (in Croatia), for Sarajevo (in Bosnia), for Priština (in Kosovo)." Here, he was referring that Serbia actually appropriated the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) to wage wars against Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo with the help of Serbian paramilitary and police units, along with volunteer gangs that became part of the same army, whose troops committed hundreds of war crimes and commissioned genocide and ethnic cleansing campaigns.

Serbian media have described Aleksandar Vučić's "historic" speech in Kosovo on Sunday as his own "Gazimestan moment," something akin to Slobodan Milošević's (in)famous speech in 1989 at the site of the 14th-century Battle of Kosovo, after which Milošević destroyed Yugoslavia. Media reactions in neighboring countries were not so romantic and nostalgic. Enver Hoxhaj, Kosovo's Deputy Prime Minister, expressed outrage at the speech in a tweet, drawing explicit parallels between Vučić and Milošević, adding that their performances were "the same." Šefik Džaferović, a candidate for Bosnia and Herzegovina's state Presidency, said "Vučić showed once again today with his scandalous speech in Kosovska Mitrovica that he is still devoted to the Greater Serbia idea, in whose implementation he participated as a part of Milošević's regime. It is shameful that the President of Serbia regrets over the failure of Milošević's criminal policy." The Croatian government also dismissed Vučić's speech as futile provocations, referring especially to his claims that "the Croatian coat-of-arms that are displayed today in Knin was never there before." A town was "a seat of medieval Croatian kings and a 1,000-year-old symbol of Croatian statehood," they added.

In addition to politicians, Vučić's speech has been highly criticized by various political analysts from neighboring countries and within Serbia itself. A majority of them engaged in correcting historical misinterpretation about true responsibility for the Yugoslav wars, basically repeating what the world already knows, and some of them even arguing that Vučić never left the idea of "Greater Serbia" and that he remained who he always was – the disciple and successor to Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj and Milošević himself. However, all of them are missing a crucial point, namely its populist dimension and the main message to his target audience. Vučić used a superficial and simplified language intended for the low-educated population of the state's periphery, and he also spoke from a (former) nationalist position for a purpose of getting closer to them. Ultimately, his final message was not warlike, but a call to peace and coexistence. Several parts of speech may sound scandalous, as well as his using a false balance, but only if it is taken out of its full context. His approach can be described even as praiseworthy because if he used the arguments of the aforementioned politicians and analysts, none of the Kosovo Serbs would like to listen to the speech, let alone the closing messages.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.