Thursday, February 21, 2008

Reap What You Sow

You won't catch me writing about politics too often, but I need to express my view on the declaration of independence in Kosovo. Actually, I'll mostly bother you with some of my family history, but the two are, for better or worse, somewhat intertwined.

As you might or might not know, I grew up on the territory of former Yugoslavia, in a small village in northeast Croatia, bordering on Serbia. My family lived in Croatia, but we had relatives in Serbia as well. My family's roots are from the Serbian Vojvodina province, which belonged to Hungary under name Vajdaság until it was annexed into the Serbian-Croatian-Slovenian Kingdom (forerunner of Yugoslavia) as part of the breakup operation of the Austro-Hungarian empire after World War I. (In a way, Serbia then gained a province in north not unlike to how these days it lost one in south.) As such, Vajdaság has a high (alas, dwindling) Hungarian population, and I come from this ethnicity.

I never felt any drawback growing up a non-croatian in Croatia. Nobody in Croatia ever as much as made a remark about me being ethnic minority. Not so in Serbia. Whenever I visited my grandmother in Novi Sad (Serbia) during summer vacation, I experienced strange things. She'd hush me to not speak Hungarian on the street or on the bus. She did neither. The name plate on her door had her name spelt in Serbian (serbian "Jelisaveta" instead of hungarian "Erzsébet" for "Elizabeth"). It was clear you can get into trouble for being different. My whole experience of Serbia was - as far as I can remember - that people there are highly xenophobic and intolerant of their ethnic minorities.

Then came 1991 and the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Croatian region I lived in was overrun by serbian paramilitary troops with full backing by Milosevic's serbian state army. They ruthlessly drove away or slaughtered nonserbian population from the territories they occupied. My family fled with one car trunk worth of belongings when these thugs were approaching. We lived next to an improvised Croatian police station, and we later learned we were targetted as "Croatian collaborators" by paramilitaries because we were on cordial terms with the police officers. They broke into our home on a night after they occupied the region. I have no doubts as to our fate if they found us there.

Mind you, at the time police officers with handguns were the only armed force the just-born Croatian Republic could stack against the Serbian-controlled "People's Army of Yugoslavia", the biggest and most heavily armed force in Balkans in 1991. They had all the chance of a snowflake in hell to defend our homes against the occupators.

While Serbia was significant territorial influence in the breakup of Yugoslavia, it clamped down even harder on its own ethnic minorities, trying to prevent further loss of grip on its remaining territories with the oppression in both Vajdaság and Kosovo growing year after year under Milosevic regime. It culminated when Serbia attempted to eradicate the Albanian minority (minority when viewed against overall population of Serbia, but a 95% majority in Kosovo) in 1999 using its military. This led to the well known NATO intervention when Serbia was bombed by US and its allies until its warlords lost the backing of the population and were overthrown in a revolution.

But the damage has been done. The Serbian state consistently over several decades mistreated and oppressed its ethnic minorities. After what they experienced under Serbian regime for decades, ethnic Albanians of Kosovo wouldn't trust'em as far as they can throw'em. The Serbian state is reaping what they sow now.

It's ironic, but I do actually believe that the recently elected Serbian government might actually be a modern european democratic government that would treat its minorities as a modern european democracy should. (Provided they don't assassinate their prime minister again for being too European...)

But it's simply too late.

There was a huge demonstration this evening in Belgrade. There were atrocities. Embassies and banks were burned. The prime minister spoke to the crowd, fueling it, and the police didn't stop the hooligans. It's sad how they still lay the blame everyone for the situation except themselves, and their decades of hostile politics. I have no illusions this will change soon. I have no doubts that the long oppressed Albanian people of Kosovo are better off in an independent state. They finally will have the chance to bring prosperity to the long neglected region. The region will finally have a government that feels it belongs to the land. As far as I remember, Kosovo was always extremely poor. Serbians have strong emotional ties to the region because Kosovo is the historical site of birth of Serbian state and church, but aside from that, Serbia was a very lousy custodian of the region, not bothering developing it, or helping it develop, or even just not actively hindering any economic progress in it in recent history.

My father packed his two children and wife into his car on 20th August of 1991, and pressed the pedal to the metal until we crossed the border to escape certain death from Serbian paramilitary thugs. Dad spent the rest of his life in exile. Even after our former Croatian homeland was liberated, the six years of Serbian rule set it back economically, infrastructurally, and most importantly socially for decades - it still didn't recover as most young people, including me, departed the region and didn't go back, decimating the society's renewal potential. There was simply no place to go back to, as that land was no more the same land we left. So Dad didn't return either although I know his heart ached for an alternate reality where all of this didn't happen, the peaceful continuation of days of old, something that is not ours to experience in our lifetimes, taken away from us by force by aggressive neighbors' selfish geopolitical interests. I wish Dad was still alive to witness how those same aggressive neighbors are now in pain too; while it doesn't cure our wounds, he would certainly find some poetic justice in it.

Schadenfreude? Damn well yes, we're entitled to it.

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