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Voices from the Balkans

A protest in of support Russia's military intervention in Ukraine in Belgrade, March 3, 2014.
International news rarely makes an impact in the Balkans, which has spent the past two decades immersed in its own rolling headlines of war, recovery, poverty, and corruption. And now, recovery from devastating floodwaters.

But that changed with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, whose complicated struggle for multiethnic balance and post-imperial autonomy from Russia strikes all too close to home here.

In every corner of the Balkans, from newly independent Kosovo to politically torpid Bosnia-Herzegovina, people watch events in Ukraine from their personal vantage point as survivors, or victims, of the Yugoslav collapse. Some applaud those who protested at Euromaidan for taking down a corrupt regime, others worry about the potential economic fallout. But no one's opinion seems indivisible from their own experience.

In Banja Luka, the capital of Bosnia's Serb-majority Republika Srpska -- which has frequently threatened secession and favors joining Serbia proper -- many residents are eager to defend Russia's show of military muscle, saying the territory's ethnic Russians risk retribution from Ukraine's new pro-Western government, even before the election of the new president, Petro Poroshenko.

"It's obvious that the new authorities in Ukraine, who have been promoted by the street, don't respect the human rights of minorities," says Dane Cankovic, 52, a mining engineer. "They removed Russian as an official language, and they view Russians in Ukraine as second-class citizens. Russia is a serious country, and it won't let this happen."

A distinctly different view can be heard to the south in Sarajevo, the devastated focal point of the 1992-95 Bosnian War, which left an estimated 100,000 people dead and more than 2.2 million displaced as Belgrade fought to reverse the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Residents in the Bosnian capital were quick to draw parallels between Russia's moves on Crimea to the incursion of ethnic Serb soldiers in unmarked uniforms seeking to "protect" fellow Serbs in their own city, long home to a cosmopolitan blend of Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, Jews, and others.

Muhamed Hadji-Isakovic, standing alongside gravestones dotting a grassy hillside park in the city center this spring, says he's not surprised by the Russian actions:

"It's just another example of Russian policy, something that hasn't changed in all the time we've known Russia…What did they do in Georgia? What did they do in Chechnya? There's nothing different about their actions. And Europe is weak. I don't know anyone [in Ukraine], but I do support people who are forced to defend themselves."

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Frustration with Europe, and the West overall, is tangible throughout the Balkans, but nowhere more so than in Bosnia.

The country's Byzantine political structure of layered government entities -- ethnically balanced but almost incapable of coordinated action -- is a bitter legacy of the international community's Dayton agreement, which has left the country mired in corruption, unemployment, and political inertia.

Mounting public frustration fueled a wave of violent protests earlier this year, and more recently many Bosnians considered Kyiv's Maidan demonstrators as an example of the kind of change from within that they advocate.

Change imposed from outside, warns Sarajevo resident Nadja Mehinovic, with the weary voice of someone who knows, is something best avoided.

"[Ukraine] should let people themselves come to an agreement -- without the kind of interference by the international community that we had,” she says. "We can see that there are a lot of factions there -- extremists and normal people alike."

Belgrade Balancing Act

On an official level, Belgrade has sought to maintain a subtle balancing act. As a country whose people share with Russia the predominant religion of Orthodox Christianity, and one with urgent economic needs, Serbia has long served as Russia's Balkan foothold.

And it has lent Serbia support. Moscow backed Serbian opposition to Kosovo independence in 2008. Since then, Russia has poured billions of dollars into Serbia's crumbling energy sector -- a lever it may seek to apply if Serbia, which this year began EU membership talks, moves to solidify its ties with Brussels.

So far, Serbia has been the only country where the Ukrainian situation has sparked actual street protests. In early March, 200 pro-Russia demonstrators gathered in the capital, Belgrade, chanting and holding placards reading, "Crimea is Russia, and Kosovo is Serbia."

Caught in a squeeze between Russia and the EU, Serbia has attempted to present itself as a stable, if not entirely neutral, partner to both sides.

Speaking at a March rally in Sremska Mitrovica, a one-hour drive from Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic said that "work and discipline" would lead the day in his country, adding, "We are not going to have a Ukraine or Bosnia in Serbia." However, he noted Serbia would not break off its ties with Russia, "regardless of what is happening in the world."

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Echoes Of 1999

Indeed, many Serbs, still mourning Belgrade's loss of influence following the collapse of Yugoslavia, harbor tacit sympathies with Moscow as it seeks to restore its Soviet-era status as the imperial center of power. (The similarity has led some commentators, including Ian Traynor in "The Guardian," to compare Vladimir Putin's tactics in Crimea to those of late Yugoslav strongman Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo, in the early 90s.

And for some the parallels bode ill for Ukraine.

"Unfortunately, Ukraine is following the Yugoslav scenario, and I'm sorry about that," Serbian film director Emir Kusturica told ITAR-TASS. "I see the same kind of catastrophe. I think that Russia should protect the Russians who live in Ukraine."

Many in Serbia, and many Serbs in Montenegro, have vehemently defended Russia's claim on Crimea. They accuse the West -- and particularly the United States, which forced Belgrade's retreat from Kosovo and put an end to the Balkan wars, with NATO air strikes in 1999-- of applying a double standard.

Ivan Milosevic, a journalist in the Montenegrin capital of Podgorica, says he is shocked by NATO's concern that Russia invaded Crimea without permission from the UN Security Council.

"I can't believe the hypocrisy. Nobody asked the Security Council for permission to attack us [in 1999]. But now that Russia is doing it, suddenly permission is required," he says. "I think this is a game for the big powers -- we as small nations aren't able to do anything about it."

Democracy 'Moving Eastward'

Others view Russia's goals in Ukraine with more skepticism.

Blagoja Grahovac, a retired Montenegrin general and security analyst, says Moscow may be able to claim victory in the short term, following its annexation of Crimea but that, ultimately, the strategy will fail.

"The process of democratization is moving eastward, and it's unstoppable. It engulfed Ukraine, and it will engulf Russia, too," he says. "And all of this, which Russia now considers a great triumph, will cost them dearly later. Because there will be upheaval in Russia too, for social and democratic reasons."

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In Kosovo, ethnic Albanian residents may feel a certain kinship with Crimean Tatars as fellow native minorities historically oppressed by Slavs. But in Pristina, most displays of support have been for Ukraine's Euromaidan protesters, who Kosovars see as fighting for their rightful place in Europe.

At a vigil for those killed in Ukraine violence in early spring , Albanian Kosovar activist Ramadan Iljazi said, "The lives of our protesters in earlier years weren't lost in vain -- they brought us freedom …In the same way, the Ukrainian nation is on the right path, and justice will triumph there as well. We understand the people of Ukraine and what it means to fight for freedom against a strong opponent."

Written in Prague by Daisy Sindelar, based on reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service correspondents Gojko Veselinovic in Banja Luka, Ivana Bilic in Sarajevo, Dusan Komarcevic in Belgrade, Olivera Nikolic in Podgorica, and Amra Zejneli in Pristina.