Similarities between recent events in Ukraine and those at the beginning of the war in former Yugoslavia two decades ago are provoking fear and anxiety among those who experienced the latter.
Alleged violations of rights of Russians in Ukraine are a reminder that Milosevic’s “awakening of the people” started with expressions of “concern” over the position of Serbs in the former Yugoslav republics.
Mobilization methods aiming to protect “their people” are almost the same, as well as Putin’s and Milosevic’s ambitions about all Russians, and all Serbs respectively, living in one country.
“I am trembling and I have very unpleasant memories,” says politician and psychologist Zarko Korac when drawing a parallel between the current situation in Ukraine and the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.
“It is a purely human reaction. I am afraid that the same thing that happened to us will happen to them, that they may start a civil war that is actually not a civil war, but a prologue to the disintegration of the country. If you remember the so-called Log Revolution that started in the Knin region and in some other parts of Croatia, it is absolutely reminding me of what I see now on the roads around some Ukrainian cities,” says Korac.
“Armed men are appearing from everywhere and somehow no one knows how they got their uniforms. They are of course all exactly the same and these people of course have automatic weapons that I suppose are not legal in Ukraine as they weren’t in Serbia. It is absolutely clear what is going on there,” he adds.
Similar to Putin, Milosevic claimed that self-organized armed groups were the protectors of the Serbian people as well and some of those militias used that excuse as a mantra when they brutally murdered citizens of Serbia’s neighboring countries.
Historian Nikola Samardzic says, “It is obvious that Putin is arming and encouraging local hooligans the same way that territorial defense forces in Bosnia and Croatia did. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) did it the most because they had the most opportunities to encourage violence and conflicts. In this case it is obvious that military superiority is on Putin’s side.”
Although it supposedly was not in the official program of Milosevic, the idea of a Greater Serbia expanded in the early nineties through Vojislav Seselj[B2] and served as an excuse for numerous crimes.
"First and the most important association with the nineties is a slogan that can be heard these days - all Russians in one state. This strongly resembles one slogan from the early nineties - all Serbs in one state. The same as this slogan once absolutely destabilized Yugoslavia until the disintegration, it is now destabilizing a huge part of Europe,” says the writer Filip David.[B3]
The sentiment that drew many Serbian extremists to the idea of "Serbo-Russian brotherhood" is one of the myths that in the nineties brought many Russian volunteers in the opposite direction, towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example.
The most famous example of that is a Russian poet Eduard Limonov who will always be remembered for the video in which he stands beside an artillery piece overlooking Sarajevo and speaks about "the Turks who occupied Serbian land". Now, when Putin is moving away from the West, Serbian rightist parties see this as the realization of a long awaited fixation. Therefore, it is not surprising that many Serbian Chetniks[B4] went to Crimea at the beginning of the escalation of the crisis in order to “help Russia defend its interests.”
The idea that "mother Russia" will bring all "Slavic brothers" under its wing, without forgetting small but loyal Serbia is the main fuel of Serbian extremists.
“Russians in Ukraine are supported by the right conservative parties and ultra-nationalists in Serbia. I am concerned about the words of the famous Russian advisor[B5] and geo-politician, as he calls himself, that has a great influence in our country and who recently said-‘Hang in there Serbia, Russia is waking up and everything is going back to normal soon’,” says David.
Similar to Serbia in the nineties, Russia uses religion to justify her moves. However, despite the similarities between Milosevic and Putin, who both began their rules with ethnic conflicts, the main difference is in the power of these two leaders.
“The size of the government and the strength and power of the politicians involved shows that what Putin can do, many cannot do. We should not forget Russia's right of veto in the UN Security Council that Slobodan Milosevic didn’t have" says historian Ljubinka Trgovcevic.
“Their politics may be similar, but the players are completely different,” says Korac.
"Milosevic’s was based on the powerlessness of the West. Putin’s power is real and no one wants an economic war with Russia because it will hurt all of Europe. I'm afraid that Ukraine's fate is sealed by the fact that Europe is dependent on Russian oil and Russian gas. Milosevic was a product of the incompetence and impotence of the West who didn’t prevent what could have been prevented at the very beginning if they reacted more decisively and sent a much more serious military and other forces before the disintegration of Yugoslavia began. Putin, on the other hand, is a really big player with the West, who cannot cope with him," he says.
Asked whether Europe failed to learn its lesson from the Balkans, David replies:
“The international community, and by that I mean primarily the European Union and other European countries, has never been strong enough and determined enough to react at the right time and stop some bad things. This has been proved throughout modern history. Unless the United States chooses to intervene, Europe will vainly try to solve some problems alone. I'm afraid that at this moment the situation is similar. "
Drawing a parallel between the Balkans in the nineties and current situation in Ukraine, historian Samardzic starts from the end: “It would be good if Putin and his party end up like Milosevic and his party-- that is, forced to take responsibility for the events that are behind us and ahead of us,” he concludes.