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Wednesday, June 24, 1998 Published at 11:36 GMT 12:36 UK

Russia and Serbia: an instinct for melancholy

Nato has said it is unimpressed with the results of a recent meeting in Moscow over Kosovo between President Yeltsin and the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

[ image: The BBC Moscow correspondent, Alan Little]
The BBC Moscow correspondent, Alan Little
It had hoped that Russia could persuade Mr Milosevic to withdraw his troops from the Albanian majority province of Kosovo. Our Moscow correspondent Allan Little reports:

Is there any nation in the world whose founding mythology so elevates the idea of defeat, so celebrates national loss and humiliation as the Serbs?

Their national day, June 28th, marks their defeat in 1389 by the Turks at the Battle of Kosovo Polje - the Field of Blackbirds - an event which marked the start of centuries of their subjugation by the Ottoman Empire.

There is one nation that comes close. The Russians indulge a similar instinct for melancholy. The Serbs and the Russians share much: their Orthodox faith; the Cyrillic alphabet; related Slavic languages; a deeply-rooted suspicion of the West; and - most important of all - an atavistic obsession with the cruel treachery of the East in the shape of the mythologised historic foe, the Infidel Turk.

Shared persecution complex

[ image: Russians and Serbs share
Russians and Serbs share "a persecution complex"
Russians instinctively sympathise with the Serbs. They share a persecution complex, a world view in which they are the defenders of Christendom's eastern gate - the front line in the war between European civilisation and Asiatic barbarism.

In 1994 I sat through interminable sessions of the Bosnian Serb parliament in the days when Radovan Karadzic was not an indicted war criminal but a key participant in a spurious and flawed "peace process", that the Western world believed in for years but which most governments now view with regret and which some view with shame.

I was collared one day by a member of the Bosnian Serb parliament, a magnificent bearded cleric in a black frock with a wooden crucifix on a chain around his neck, and he asked me which country I was from. When I told him I was British he recoiled, almost in distaste. "Then I have no love for you," he said. "Do you know that your most celebrated king, Richard the Lionheart, came to my father's home town, Nis in southern Serbia ?"

[ image:  ]
And then he began to talk about an event that had occurred in the age of the Crusades as though he were recalling an incident from his own childhood. "And Richard the Lionheart sat at a banquet with nine of the crowned heads of Europe, and the only one who ate his lamb with a knife and fork was our king, the King of the Serbs; and when your Richard had finished eating with his fingers, he wiped his hands clean on the hair of his own head. And you dare to send aeroplanes to my country, to dictate how we should behave !"

Current affairs

This ability to speak of events in the fourteenth century in the first person characterises Balkan nationalism. "The fourteenth century," a Bosnian friend once observed to me, "is not recent history to those people, it's current affairs."

At that meeting of the Bosnian Serb parliament, a prominent intellectual who was also a deputy had told the assembly that Serbian was the only language in which human beings would be able to communicate with beings from outer space. The Serbs, he said, were the genetic belly button of the human race.

I remembered the story of King James the Sixth of Scotland putting two newborn babies on an island in the Firth of Forth with a deaf-mute nurse to prove that when all vernacular linguistic influences were removed, children would naturally grow up speaking Latin. I wondered again which century that strain of Serb nationalism properly belonged in.

In the same debate, most deputies had called on the Bosnian Serb government to withdraw from the peace process. Their foreign minister responded by saying that the peace process represented the best way for the Serbs to win the war - without it, he argued, the pressure on Nato to intervene against the Serbs would become irresistible.

So, distasteful though it was, the Serbs would continue to send their representatives to Pale with Lord Owen and Mr Stoltenberg, but they would take part rather in the way that extras take part in a film.

Crazy, not stupid

[ image: Serbia and Russia: relationship does not go far beyond sentiment]
Serbia and Russia: relationship does not go far beyond sentiment
The sentiment that exists between the Russians and the Serbs is real enough, but it does not extend much beyond sentiment, beyond the fellow feeling expressed around a dinner table or in the melancholy clinking of a glass.

On Bosnian Serb territory during the war there, the only usable currency was the German Mark - the banknotes of Serbia's great enemy. "Shouldn't you be using Russian roubles in solidarity with your Slavic brothers ?" I once asked a Serbian friend in Belgrade, and he responded without a moment's hesitation, in conscious self-rebuke. "We may be crazy," he said, "but we're not stupid."

Which precisely characterises the relationship between the Russians and the Serbs. It does not translate itself into actions by their States.

In the West, during the calamitous years of the so-called peace process - the diplomatic route that the Serb nationalists used so cynically to mask their campaign of military conquest and ethnic cleansing - those who opposed military intervention, including the British Government, argued that to bomb the Serbs would so alienate Russia as to plunge the world back into a new Cold War, a bipolar division of the planet or, some argued, even worse: a Third World War.

We may be crazy but we're not stupid. Yeltsin's Russia is not going to jeopardise its positive relationship with the Western powers for the sake of Serbia.

Bombing the Serbs in 1994 and 1995 did not have the apocalyptic effect on Russia that some in the West prophesied. Russia is in profound economic crisis. It values its partnership with Germany far more than its mythologised ties with Brother Serbia. The excuse that Russia's pro-Serb sympathies once provided is no longer available.

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