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Belgrade braces for 'people's rally'

Latest update : 2008-02-21

Serbia plans to stage a government-sponsored protest against Kosovo's declaration of independence in the country's capital Thursday as NATO troops reopened Kosovo's northern frontier following the demolition of two border posts.

Thousands of Serbs are expected to march in Belgrade Thursday afternoon in protest at Kosovo’s independence. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica’s government and the nationalist Radical Party, the leading political force in Serbia, are supporting the demonstration.

Schools have closed down and some state-owned companies have given their employees a day off. Alo newspaper summarised the situation in a headline: “Serbia paralysed due to rally.” Rail and bus operators have offered free tickets to those who want to take part in the demonstration.

Serbs living in Kosovo have also been travelling to Belgrade. In Mitrovica, FRANCE 24’s Cyril Vanier witnessed the exceptional security measures surrounding this day of protest. “A demonstration takes place every day in Mitrovica against Kosovo’s declaration of independence. But today, it was cancelled and the university closed down to allow the Serbs who live in Kosovo, especially students, to attend the main march in Belgrade where dozens of thousands are expected”, he said.

Jacques Rupnik, a leading academic at Sciences Po’s Centre for international studies and research in Paris, gave his analysis the rally: “This protest serves two purposes: internally, it is devised to rally the population behind a national theme to bring the people together and turn their attention away from trickier issues such as the economy and unemployment. In international terms, the idea is to show that the masses stand behind the government and its stance.”

As FRANCE 24’s Belgrade correspondent Laurent Rouy points out, “Kosovo is part of the Serbs’ national identity. They often say that it is the cradle of their culture, hence the importance of this province for them.”

Speakers to include Kusturica and Djokovic


Serbia’s nationalist Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who has focused his policy on opposing Kosovo’s independence, is the rally’s main speaker. Radical nationalist Tomislav Nikolic, who leads the Serbian Radical Party in parliament, is also scheduled to speak at the rally.

Filmmaker Emir Kusturica, who won two Palmes d’Or at the Cannes film festival, will also address the crowd. So will world number 3 tennis player Novak Djokovic.

The march will leave from Parliament buildings and head towards Belgrade’s Saint Sava white cathedral, where Orthodox Church leaders will celebrate a “prayer for Kosovo”.
   
“Kostunica playing to the same tune as Milosevic”

Vojislav Kostunica said that other demonstrations were scheduled in cities outside Belgrade.

According to Jacques Rupnik, “this protest calls to mind the late 1980s demonstrations that aimed at supporting those Serbs who live in Kosovo and helped Milosevic get hold of power. Kostunica is indeed playing to the same tune as Milosevic with this demonstration.”

However, Rupnik does not think that the current movement could lead to a conflict similar to the one that tore Yugoslavia apart. “The government will use all means available but will not inflame the situation. The context is different and nobody wants to start a fresh violent conflict. This is more of a gallant last stand”, he said.

Date created : 2008-02-21

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