Belgrade Exploits War on Terror

Serbia is looking to make political capital out of the US-led campaign against terrorism.

Belgrade Exploits War on Terror

Serbia is looking to make political capital out of the US-led campaign against terrorism.

The current "war against terrorism" - which everyone knows is really a war specifically against Islamic terrorism - has been seized in Belgrade as an opportunity to reposition Serbia on the world stage.

By embracing the American-led campaign, the government hopes to re-enter the international fold after years of isolation. Some politicians go further, by casting the atrocities of September 11 as part of a long-standing evil of which Serbia was an early and misunderstood victim. They argue that Serbs in Bosnia and Kosovo were as much victims of Islamic terrorism as those who perished in the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

One unexpected advocate of this more extreme view is reformist deputy prime minister Nebojsa Covic, whose conciliatory policies were this summer credited with ending months of clashes between Serbian police and armed Albanians in southern Serbia. Covic was in a far from conciliatory mood, however, when he visited the town of Bujanovac - scene of many of the clashes - on September 20.

"Our intelligence indicates that there are terrorist groups here training for actions in Belgrade," he told a press conference. He also said that Albanian guerrillas had "a direct link ...with the recent events in the US" but produced no evidence for his claim.

Back in Belgrade the next day, Covic developed his theme. "There were over ten thousand mujahedin in Bosnia-Herzegovina and many still remain - and there are over three thousand in Kosovo," he said after a meeting with German MP Friedberg Fluger. "They are all little Bin Ladens." Covic's estimates of mujahedin numbers were six or seven times higher than those of the Serbian police who, until two years ago, collected data which they used to assess the strength of Islamic militants in both Kosovo and Bosnia.

Covic's statements always receive close attention, as they are seen to presage government policy. So while other politicians shied away from his claims, which were regarded as excessive, none disassociated themselves from them, believing they were part of wider strategy to reposition Serbia on the international stage.

There have been some contradictory statements, however. While federal defence minister Slobodan Krapovic told the BBC on September 20 that there was no evidence that Bin Laden's associates had been active in Bosnia, Kosovo or Albania, the next day the Yugoslav minister of the interior, Zoran Zivkovic, told the SRNA news agency that he had indications that members of the Saudi dissident's organisation "were involved in extremist Muslim acitivites in Bosnia and KLA activities in Kosovo".

While the government strives to sing from the same song sheet, elements of the independent media have lost no time in launching a fierce anti-Islamic campaign. The Belgrade tabloid Nedeljni Telegraf - which has close links with the Serbian secret police - last week published a report about Islamic "holy warriors" in Kosovo and the south-west Serbian province of Sandzak, home to Serbia's Muslim minority. The paper equated Wahhabism, a form of Sunni Muslim teaching followed right across the Arab peninsular, with terrorism.

On the basis that Bin Laden preaches Wahhabism, the paper accused the Wahhabist imam in the town of Sjenica of preparing for jihad. "He and his supporters imported this teaching from Bosnia, where they attended mujahedin schools," Telegraf wrote under pictures of the Muslim preacher.

Meanwhile, Miroljub Jevtic, professor of political sciences at Belgrade university has popped up claiming that "Wahhabists cause bloody conflict whenever they join mixed communities". Out of the spotlight since the mid-1990s, Jevtic made his name during the Bosnian war with a vicious anti-Muslim campaign.

But while there may be superficial similarities with that period, today's "anti-Islamic" campaign is driven purely by political pragmatism and has stirred none of the visceral hatred witnessed then. There has been no popular groundswell of feeling and no physical attacks - spontaneous or otherwise - on Muslims.

Most politicians and state media have resisted Jevtic's brand of racism, even when the religious leader of Belgrade Muslims, Hamdija Jusufspahic, slipped an ill-judged comment on Studio B television. Asked by a presenter whether a jihad had started, he retorted, "Well, if it had I would not be sitting here doing nothing, I'd be over there doing my utmost to help."

Serb politicians hope that September 11 can be used to realign domestic public opinion and enable them to make the pro-Western U-turn they have long wanted.

Sinisa Vucinic, close to Mirjana Markovic's United Yugoslav Left, JUL, told the Belgrade daily Glas Javnosti, "78 days of bombing are easier to forgive than five centuries of oppression", urging Serbs to measure NATO's sins against those of the Ottoman empire. Indeed, public opinion seems to be changing already, as pollster Srdjan Bogosavljevic told IWPR that Belgraders are already saying that it was Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright - not the US and NATO - who are to blame for the bombing of Serbia.

There are signs that the atrocities in the US and the subsequent investigation have drawn Washington and Belgrade closer together. The US ambassador to Belgrade, William Montgomery, told the BETA news agency that the Yugoslav government had given it "full support and cooperation in relation to this tragedy. We had several good exchanges of information and we are very satisfied with the support we got."

Montgomery also appeared to support Covic's concern over Albanian extremist groups in southern Serbia. "There is no doubt that militant extremists which were defeated and had to pull out are very unhappy and would like to come back," he said.

Moreover, US Ambassador to London William S. Farish will soon visit Belgrade to examine how the region might become a buffer zone against terrorist threats. This suits the government, which assesses its best chance of overcoming the taint of the Milosevic era is to redefine its old self-proclaimed role of "defender of the West against Muslim hordes from the East" in more modern terms. Thus, Serbia will become a willing and able partner in the anti-terrorist struggle and hope to become the centre of regional cooperation in the Balkans.

Zeljko Cvijanovic is a journalist with the Belgrade weekly Blic news

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