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Kusturica was born into a Muslim family in 1954 in Sarajevo, but in the early ’90s he says he discovered ancient Serb roots. He now sports a big Orthodox crucifix — and is being promoted as a figurehead of this axis. As he explains in gnomic English: “If you see how we are understood by Russia, if you see how much the culture of the two countries is important to each other, how much we are deeply into the Orthodox . . .” The West, au contraire, owes its economic success to a pact with the devil: a society where “man is to the man a wolf”: “Serbia and Russia are much more into collective subconscious quality of life and the way that we see history and the future.”

This is familiar stuff: the ineffable Slav soul frequently stands in for more tangible benefits. But on this age-old borderline of Christian and Muslim Europe a major tussle is going on over the future of the Balkans. Serbia still suffers from the pariah status incurred by the Yugoslav wars (of which Serbia certainly lost the PR angle, even if it was only primus inter pares in terms of recherché horror) but is on an uncertain road towards EU membership — something certain parties are extremely keen to prevent.

Serbia is the bridgehead for Russian penetration of the Balkans. There is an ongoing struggle in neighbouring Montenegro, which broke away from the rump Yugoslavia — i.e. Greater Serbia — in 2006, and joined Nato in 2017, which Russia tried to scupper by fomenting an attempted coup in 2016, and clearly believes is reversible. Next door in Macedonia, Russian attempts to disrupt the upcoming referendum (September 30) on EU and Nato membership — which depends on accepting the compromise name of North Macedonia to palliate Greek objections — have irritated Greece, which could previously be relied on (through Orthodox brotherhood) to be sympathetic to the Russian line, and resulted in the expulsion of two Russian diplomats from Athens in July.

Serb nationalism feeds on a sense of victimhood — a notion that might provoke hollow laughter across former Yugoslavia. There is no mention of the “cleansing” of tracts of Bosnia in the early ’90s: the 1992 events in Višegrad, only ten miles over the Bosnian border from Drvengrad, where hundreds of Muslims were massacred by Bosnian Serbs, many thrown from the 16th-century Ottoman bridge into the River Drina, might never have happened.

Seen from Belgrade, the latest outrage against Serbia was the widespread recognition of the independence of Kosovo (Russia, China, Spain and Greece, inter alia, were hold-outs), regarded as the cradle of the nation, stolen from the motherland and handed over to Albanian bandits by Nato. The 1999 bombing of Belgrade by Nato, a belated reaction to the Kosovo war, is the locus classicus of Western perfidy; it stands in Serb history with the 1389 battle of Kosovo Field, when Serb resistance to the Ottomans finally crumbled with the army’s destruction. In the Russo-Serb narrative, enthusiastically retailed by Kusturica, the Belgrade bombing takes its place alongside the Iraq and Libya interventions as the launchpad of the “new colonialism”.
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