14 December 2004
Nation that is still a work in progress By Eric Jansson
In many ways, the domed Hram Svetog Sava church in central Belgrade epitomises the nation whose capital it graces. Like Serbia, it looks very different from the outside than from the inside.
Outside, the Hram, one of the largest churches in the Orthodox Christian world, is imposing, ostentatious, almost absurdly bold. Arched windows are everywhere, yet none permits the slightest view of the interior.
Step inside and the scene changes dramatically. For all its outer grandeur this is little more than the shell of a building. Unlit but for a few dozen candles over which visitors may pray, the little light that enters through the windows falls upon bare concrete walls.
Small sounds echo in the enormous, dusty workspace consecrated as a church but rarely used. A crane stands idle in the cavernous space below the dome, an earnest that work will recommence.
In the shadow of the Hram stands a statue of Karadjordje “Black George” Petrovic, the Serbian warlord who successfully revolted against the Ottoman Empire 200 years ago. He wields a sabre menacingly.
This is how Serbia’s neighbours in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia tend to see this country of 8m people, the largest of the former Yugoslav republics. Their experiences with Serbian military aggression during the past decade’s Yugoslav wars of secession inform a dark perspective now shared by much of the world.
Serbia became known as the bully of the Balkans under Slobodan Milosevic, the former Yugoslav president. He lasted from the early 1990s through Nato’s bombing during the Kosovo war, until 2000, when pro-democracy protesters forced his removal. Though Mr Milosevic was soon extradited to the Netherlands under an international arrest warrant, his misdeeds still mar Serbia’s image.
From the inside, Serbia is anything but a great power on a Balkan scale. Serbs know their own nation as a work in progress.
Like the Hram, begun in 1935 but never finished, Serbia is a place where time has stood still. Its involvement in regional wars during the 1990s stemmed from the impossibility of establishing a post-communist, democratic Yugoslavia.
With communist rule extinguished, nations were permitted again to remember their histories and pursue national interests. The consequences were disastrous. More than 200,000 people died in a series of wars. Millions fled.
The experience was profoundly disorienting and many Serbs’ social consciences have yet to settle.
But a growing number now see the Yugoslav idea - the vehicle by which they sought to preserve and extend Serb influence - as a mere chapter in a longer national history.
Yugoslavia was finally disbanded as a state last year, leaving Serbia and Montenegro as two republics associated through a loose union. Serbia is freer than at any point since before the second world war to renew a genuinely independent political, social and economic identity.
The republic is starting small. Weary of recent misadventures, legislators this year voted to reinstate the pre-communist flag, overlaying the tricolour red, white and blue with a once-banned image of Karadjordje’s royal crown. Likewise a coat of arms capped by a crown was reinstated, in another throwback to the constitutional monarchy of the early 20th century.
Mr Karadjordjevic, the crown prince, who had been long exiled in Britain, was allowed to move his family back into the Royal Palace in Belgrade after Mr Milosevic’s departure.
Copyright © 1998 NJ.K.V. Prestolonaslednik Aleksandar II
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