February 21, 2008 / 7:01 AM / 12 years ago

Serb rally for Kosovo "a chance to grieve"

BELGRADE (Reuters) - When Serbs rally against Kosovo’s independence on Thursday, it may look like Serbia has gone back to the virulent nationalism that stoked war in the 1990s under the leadership of the late Slobodan Milosevic.

But that would be a false impression, say analysts.

The loss of the province — Serbia’s religious heartland — is a highly emotional issue, but the bitterness Serbs are expressing does not alter the fact that more than 70 percent of them also see their future in the European Union.

“The anger Serbs feel right now is understandable, it’s part of the process that comes before acceptance,” a Belgrade-based Western analyst said on condition of anonymity.

“Serbia has been stuck for so long by issues that let extremists get the upper hand.” he said. The rallies were a good thing as they would let the nation “be together and grieve”.

“But long-term prospects for Serbia are very good, if the West is patient and lets them go through this difficult time.”

The “people’s rally” for Kosovo in the Serbian capital Belgrade is in fact very much a government-sponsored event.

Free trains will transport people from across Serbia to Belgrade for the 5 p.m. (11 a.m. EST) demonstration. Schoolchildren are being given the day off.

State television RTS said all media had a duty to be to be patriotic and express the “national rage”, as one newspaper put it. RTS has been screening Serb movies, including historical dramas, instead of scheduled foreign blockbusters.

Sunday’s declaration of independence by Kosovo — with a 90 percent Albanian majority — triggered several days of small, at times violent protests in Serb cities and in Bosnia’s autonomous Serb half.

Embassies of states that recognized Kosovo were attacked, especially the United States and current EU president Slovenia, and some foreign businesses were stoned or threatened.

A senior Western diplomat whose country recognized Kosovo said he hoped for a quick return to normal.

“We’ve talked to our companies, they’re going about their business,” the diplomat said, “but we’ll be taking precautions.”

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Belgrade University professor Srbijanka Turajlic said this drive to get children involved in the rally harked back to the days of the autocrat Milosevic. “I can’t believe it is happening again,” she told independent broadcaster B92.

Milosevic whipped up Serbian nationalism — firstly over Kosovo in 1989 — to boost his power as the old socialist order died in Yugoslavia. He then led his people to defeat in war after war, Belgrade’s power shrinking at each turn.

Observers say now, the patriotic fervor feels forced.

“I don’t see the same nationalism,” said Josip Saric, a Croat journalist who has covered the region since the 1990s.

“People are more realistic about Kosovo than politicians. They are sad, but mostly care about their own problems, about jobs and salaries.”

Kosovo’s eventual breakaway was an open secret in the Balkans since 1999, when NATO intervened to stop the mass killings of civilians by Serb forces in a two-year counter-insurgency war, and the United Nations took over.

The West still worries that nationalism will surge now the province is formally gone.

The EU openly backed pro-Western liberal Boris Tadic in an election for president earlier this month, seeing him as the only man able to steer Serbs to Europe.

He won, but nationalist Tomislav Nikolic got 48 percent, and hardline Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has not ceased his attacks on the EU’s plans for a supervisory mission to Kosovo.

Diplomats say Nikolic’s vote was more down to the growing numbers of “transition losers” than to nationalism — rural people who have seen few benefits of moves to a market economy.

“We do not see Serbia’s European course as being derailed by this, these protests were expected,” said a Western diplomat whose country has not yet recognized Kosovo.

“There’ll be a short-term lull, but things should pick up quickly. The unknown is Bosnia’s Serb Republic, will they try to use Kosovo as a precedent to secede, and of course, the situation in north Kosovo, with the de facto partition there.”

Kosovo’s minority ethnic Serbs reject Albanian and EU authority and are expected to continue their protests. Analysts say Serbs in Serbia proper feel solidarity, but will most likely not be whipped up into a nationalist frenzy.

“It is unfair, and it’s all the fault of the Americans,” said Zoran, a Belgrade taxi-driver in his 50s. “But what’s the point of rallies? Kosovo is lost, and Serbs are tired.”

Editing by Richard Meares

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