The Power of a Myth

Thousands Gather in Vienna to Protest the Loss of Serbia’s Ancient Heartland

News | Ana Valjak, Dardis McNamee | March 2008

The American flag was burned during a protest in Vienna against Kosovo's independance on Feb. 24th. (Photo: H. Oczeret)

Some 8,000 people gathered at Heldenplatz, on Sunday Feb. 24, to support Serbia in what looked like another useless demonstration against the independence of Kosovo. People had shown up in traditional military uniforms, carrying flags, and many had stitched the red star of the old Yugoslavia on their clothes and hats.

Emotions were running high as a group of protesters chanted slogans like, "Kosovo is the heart and soul of Serbia!"  Or, "Kosovo was and will always remain Serbian."

Most appeared to be Serbs living in Vienna, although there were also curious locals who just wanted to see what was going on. Others, though, had clearly traveled long distances, from other parts of Austria or even from other countries, like one group overheard discussing how it had taken them six hours to get to Vienna.

At the beginning, it seemed like a peaceful rally of reasonably well-informed people expressing their opinions. There were also bottles of alcohol being passed around, which might have suggested what was to come.

By early afternoon, however, what had been intended as a peaceful demonstration was moving rapidly towards violence. The Viennese police were forced to close the roads at the Gürtel because of the possibility of Belgrade-style destruction that was on everybody’s mind.

Only three days before, over 150,000 people had gathered in front of the Serbian Parliament in protest against Kosovo’s independence. Kosovo is the mythic heartland of old Serbia and although it is home to an overwhelming majority of ethnic Albanians and only a small, but significant minority of Serbs – this is not the point. It is part of Serb identity.

It was a massive gathering, led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and other Serbian politicians and entertainers and broadcast over Croatian, German and British, and Austrian television, (HRT,RTL,BBC and ORF) as the crowd continued to grow.

Soon, organizers lost control and rioting started, with bands moving recklessly through town, throwing stones and glass bottles, breaking store windows with wooden and metal bats, making torches of peaces of wood and Molotov cocktails to burn and destruct. The U.S. and Croatian embassies were attacked, and arsonists attempted to burn the buildings down.

Embassy employers were evacuated quickly and without injury, and later reported in interviews that the Serbian police had abandoned their guard stations several minutes before the riot started. Video footage showed bonfires roaring in the square as American and German flags were tossed onto the flames, exploding in plumes of golden red as the cloth caught fire and the crowd roared its approval. The army was brought in to calm the mob. But much damage had already been done. During the night, over 150 people needed medical attention.

That same evening, a small group of Croatian football fans known as BBB (Bad Blue Boys) gathered at the main Ban Jelacic Square in Zagreb protesting the Serbian actions and setting fire to the Serbian flag. But before they could cause any more rioting, local police intervened and averted further destruction.

The next day, Feb. 22, a division of the Serbian army crossed the border into Kosovo only to be intercepted by the Kosovar police and border army, according to the Croatian National Television HRT. Upset that their march had been interfered with, and so quickly, Serbian soldiers set fire to automobile tires and shouted out protests against the independence of Kosovo. It was "their country," and they intended to hold on to it.

The same day, politicians from around the world issued statements, many in support of Kosovo and threatening Serbia with sanctions, accusing its leaders of not respecting democracy. [See Commentary Who Decides in Kosovo?, Page 26]

Russian politicians were quoted on HRT as supporting their long time ally, going as far as threatening military action towards countries that recognize the independence of Kosovo. No timing was set, but later on, the Russian NATO representative Dmitri Rogozine toned down his rhetoric of Friday and clarified that Russia was not threatening "brute force" on the Kosovo issue.

"We have no intention of intervening militarily in a heated situation far from our borders," he told Interfax news agency. Nevertheless Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev called the U.S. support towards Kosovo "flagrant cynicism."

At this writing, the international community remains split between those supporting the self-determination of the small territory, those who support Serbia, and those who are simply afraid a declaration of independence will trigger a snowball of other rogue territories choosing the same fate.

And countries like Austria, with a large population of both Serbs and Kosovars, stand in the middle of the battle.

On Heldenplatz, motivations were often unclear. When asked why they were protesting, many of the demonstrators answered that their hearts simply couldn’t take the injustice that was brought upon their people –  even though most of them had never lived in Serbia much less Kosovo.    "Serbia is under attack,’ said a young man who couldn’t have been more than 18. "The whole Europe is just following the USA, who hates us." And what about Serbian aggression in the Bosnian War – which he was clearly too young to remember first hand?

"That’s a lie," he said, raising his voice. "Serbia had every right to attack other countries because it is their territory."

Many accusations were directed towards the European Union and the United States for supporting the independence of Kosovo. Threats were, in fact, coming from every corner. In a way, it felt like the early 1990s before the war in Yugoslavia had even begun.

Soon after the protest began, the mood heated up and the crowd began getting violent, their faces expressing pure hatred towards everyone but themselves.  With the  military hats with the communist red star everywhere, the feeling of déjà vu was powerful.

A smaller group of protesters broke away, setting fire to an American flag and heading off in the direction of the U.S. embassy.

"America can’t tell us what to do," a young woman screamed. "We showed them in Belgrade; we can to that again!"

When they realized the area had been sealed of by police, violence erupted, and they vented their anger on nearby restaurants and shops, smashing windows (although not stealing), according to Vienna police spokesman Manfred Simettinger.

One of the witness reported seeing protesters urinating on the Albanian flag. In the end, two policemen were injured and four people were arrested.

By the late afternoon things had calmed down and the mob went their way without accomplishing anything, accept perhaps showing the world once more that the brutal and irrational side of the Serbian character lies just below the surface.

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