‘Kosovo is our Jerusalem’

Serbian Minister Aleksandar Vulin says Israelis and Serbians have more in common than meets the eye.

ALEKSANDER VULIN (photo credit: Courtesy)
ALEKSANDER VULIN
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the second time in two years, Serbs went to the polls this past Sunday to vote in parliamentary elections. The balloting passed uneventfully, signifying the country's firm embrace of democracy.
Among the candidates was Aleksandar Vulin, a young and dynamic official who is widely considered a rising star on the Serbian political scene. For the past year and a half, the 42-year-old Vulin has served as minister-without-portfolio in charge of Kosovo, the breakaway Serbian province that unilaterally declared independence in February 2008.
On a recent trip to Israel prior to the elections, he sat down with the Magazine for an exclusive interview.
Why are you visiting Israel, and what is the current state of bilateral relations?
First of all, I feel great joy because I am in Israel. It is my first official visit, and quite often I use Israel as an example of how one should fight for one's national dignity and for freedom. And one of the reasons I’ here is to learn, to see much more about Israel than what is in the newspapers. But the official reason for my visit is that I am lecturing at the Truman Institute and meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Zeev Elkin. I think that our relations are quite good. In Serbia, we are more than grateful to Israel because you did not recognize Kosovo.
We understand what kind of pressure you came under over that issue, and we know this was not easy for you. We understand that, and that is the reason why I am so grateful and why my nation and my government are so grateful to the government of Israel because of its principled stand. And while I think that our relations with Israel are really excellent, I think that we can do more in terms of trade. We have so much to learn from Israel in fields such as technology and science.
What, if anything, do Serbs and Jews have in common?
We share a lot. Serbs and Jews have a kind of a historical link with one another.
We suffered together in World War II, and in all of history we have always been on the same side. And this was not just historical coincidence. You know, when you say “Israel” in Serbia, it always evokes an element of respect and of friendship. Because of the Holocaust, there are very few Jews left in Serbia – just over a thousand or so. But Serbs and Jews – we understand one another, we share the same burden. Quite recently on our national television, there was a very good series about a Jewish family before, during and after the Second World War. We feel your suffering because we suffered as well, and we suffered together. A short while ago, Dr.
Efraim Zuroff of the Wiesenthal Center visited Serbia, and his visit received wide coverage in our media. It is interesting because in the reports about the visit, there is no need to explain who Zuroff is or what the Wiesenthal Center is, or what is its aim. There is no need to explain because, as Serbs, we shared the historical suffering in World War II.
To someone who is not familiar with Serbia, can you tell us what Kosovo means to you in terms of Serbian history and identity?
It’s really easy when you are in Israel to explain that. I can do so in just one word: Jerusalem. Kosovo is our Jerusalem. We cannot be Serbs without Kosovo. That is where our nation was created and our first state was. Our most important religious sites are there.
Because of that, we love it the most.
For us as Serbs, it is our Zion. For us, it served as an inspiring example that we can remain Serbs even while enduring great hardship throughout history. And you know of course that Kosovo also has economic and strategic importance. But most of all it is the soul of our people.
Without Kosovo, I’m not sure how I can explain to my son how we became Serbs, how we remained Serbs, or why we will stay Serbs. For us, our connection to Kosovo is metaphysical, and I think that Israelis can well understand this type of connection. It is not something that can be measured merely in terms of dollars or oil reserves. And in strategic terms, of course, Kosovo is important, if only because a state that recognizes secession on its own territory is a state that will quickly perish. It is like a human being: When the body begins to wither and gets smaller, death may be on the way.
On Christmas Eve, there was an incident where Kosovar Albanians stoned a bus carrying Serbs who were on the way to a monastery in Dakovica, and the Pristina authorities also prevented you personally from visiting there as well. What do you think these incidents say about the situation in Kosovo?
You know, this was not a matter of an incident, but of an ongoing policy.
Last year, I was arrested together with 10 Serbs on Christmas Day. Unfortunately it is an example of what the Albanian majority feels about Serbs. You know that in Dakovica, the town in question, there lived some 12,000 Serbs 15 years ago, before the war. Now there is not even one. Zero. The Serbs who sought to visit there on Christmas have every right in the world to do so. But 3,000 or 4,000 Albanians gathered – it was a lynch mob – and they stoned them. They threw at them whatever they could find, and there were some injuries. But beyond the injuries, they were sending us a message: “You Serbs are not welcome here, not even on Christmas Eve. There is no place for you here, ever.” And that shows that Kosovo is really the last outpost of apartheid in Europe. Most of our Serbian graveyards in the Albanian part of Kosovo have been completely destroyed. Before the war in 1999, in the city of Pristina, there were 40,000 Serbs.
Now, just 40 remain. Why? Because the Albanian majority does not want them there.

What about the international community? What has its response been?
Not a single representative of the international community condemned what happened in Dakovica. Not even one!For me, it is really hard to understand this. How can it be justified? People were attacked and stoned. It is really disappointing for me that the international community did not utter a single word of condemnation. The message it sends is that if you want to throw stones at Serbs, that’s fine. And that is not really a good message to be sending.
Last year in Brussels, your government signed an agreement aimed at normalizing relations with the Kosovo Albanian leaders in Pristina. Why?
You know, we want to find a solution for Kosovo. We are not politically blind. We do not say, “Okay, there are no Albanians in Kosovo.” There are Albanians in Kosovo, they are the majority and we want to find a solution that we can live with, one that the Serbs in Kosovo can live with and one that representatives of Albanians in Kosovo can live with. Our principle is that we want dialogue; we want all disputed issues anywhere in the world to be resolved with dialogue. But not with unilateral measures. That is one of the reasons why we signed the agreement, and of course there was lots of pressure from the international community that we do so. But no one should read into the agreement something that is not there and suggest that we have opened the door to recognition of Kosovo. Our redline, as I said, is that we are not recognizing Kosovo.

There are now two Muslim-majority states in the Balkans – Bosnia and Albania – and if Kosovo were to become fully independent one day, that, of course, would make three. Do you think the West is ignoring the signs of mounting Islamic extremism in the region?
Yes. In fact, for me, it is very hard to understand how you can fight al-Qaida in the whole world except in the Balkans. It’s something that is over my head, and I cannot understand that kind of policy. In Syria, you have by some estimates around 300 or more jihadist fighters from Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo. I cannot understand how the West can be blind to this kind of “side effect.” We have had this kind of experience with terrorism in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in Kosovo, where radical Islamic elements are increasingly endangering the stability of the Balkan region. The international community has a large presence in Bosnia and in Kosovo, with thousands of soldiers and a large bureaucracy. And yet they do not pay attention or recognize this danger.
For example, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you now have Wahhabi [ultra-conservative Muslim] villages, whereas in the past there were no such things. Arab sponsors from abroad often send lots of money to mosques, schools or hospitals in the region without realizing that it goes to people who embrace the Wahhabi teaching. That is something that is really very dangerous.
What do you think of the Western media’s portrayal of Serbia? Does it treat your country fairly?
Not really... I’m sad about this. We want the whole world to know that we are not better, nor are we any worse, than any other nation in the world. I don’t ask for sympathy or to show us as innocent victims. We are a proud and independent nation. Sure, there were dreadful crimes committed by people of my nation, but it was not done in the name of my nation or on its behalf. Were there war criminals among the Serbs? Yes. But we have held trials for them, we have dealt with our criminals. We have shown that we can deal with our history, and I expect that other nations in the Balkans will deal with theirs as well.
Late last year in Zagreb, there was an incident when a Croatian soccer player took the microphone after a game and led the fans in a fascist salute used by the Nazi-allied Ustashe during the Holocaust. Are you concerned about rising extremism in Croatia?
I’m very concerned about it. And I’m very concerned that the international community is doing nothing to stop it.
In Serbia, we do not have such things. Of course, we have rightists and we have extremists and chauvinists. But for our top national player to lead a fascist salute at a central stadium? It is unheard-of and unthinkable. And even if you want to say that the Croatian player was just one person, the fact is that the entire stadium applauded him. In Croatia, they have never really admitted or come to terms with their involvement in genocide during World War II. The Croatian Ustashe, which supported the Nazis, committed the most horrible crimes during World War II against Serbs, Jews and others.
But in the new history books there, you do not see that. In Croatia, representatives of the Catholic Church performed a mass in honor of the Ustashe leader, Ante Pavelic, who oversaw the mass murder! This is something that is frightening and very worrisome.
What is your opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I have absolutely no doubt that everything must be resolved by dialogue and without any unilateralism. Maybe it is not diplomatic when I say this, but I cannot understand the kind of hatred that sometimes is directed against Israel. It is very hard to understand, and quite often, in various international policies, you see that. And you even have people who justify that, and that is dangerous. I see it too with regard to my nation, the Serbs. Our people are stoned on Christmas in Dakovica, and some people react by saying, “It is fine – they are only Serbs.” This kind of hatred cannot bring peace. ■