FOUR YEARS ago, shopping in Belgrade was an experience at once entertaining and disturbing. Wander into a supermarket to buy a toothbrush or a saucepan, and you would find portraits of Slobodan Milosevic stacked among the cosmetics and kitchenware. Drop in at the cornershop for a pound of apples, and you would see six copies of his latest book propped around the fruit. 'We like him. He's defending us against the Albanian terror,' the shop assistants used to say.
This was two years before war erupted in Yugoslavia, igniting nationalist, political and class rivalries across the Balkans and lifting the curtain on a series of dangerous concurrent dramas, whose fifth acts are still to be played out. At that time, non- Serbs saw Mr Milosevic, the Serbian Communist leader turned nationalist president, as an authoritarian demagogue inspired by visions either of a Serbian- dominated Yugoslav state or of a totally reorganised Balkan system in which all Serbs would live in a united Greater Serbia.
This interpretation contained much truth. However, by portraying the Serbs as a nation confident in its aggressive, expansionist purposes, it somewhat missed the point. The striking feature of the Serbian state's propaganda, then as now, is how it depicts the Serbs not as triumphant conquerors, but as threatened innocents, potential victims of enemies ranged on all sides. The Serbs see themselves as a nation in mortal peril, fighting for survival and badly misunderstood.
History has produced similar examples. Under Philip II, the great 16th-century Spanish state saw itself as under threat from Protestants, Jews, Moors and Turks, and turned itself into a closed society dominated by the Inquisition. In this century the Soviet Union, for all its size and military power, perceived itself as under 'capitalist encirclement'.
These were big, powerful empires. By European standards, however, Serbia is a nation of moderate size, barely 10 million strong. During the six years of Mr Milosevic's rule, a strange period in which paranoid official rhetoric has blended with endless administrative and economic chaos, Serbia has shown it is capable of inflicting the most brutal treatment on smaller nationalities such as Albanians, Croats, Hungarians and the Bosnian Muslims. But throughout this period, one has had the sense that the Serbs think they are fighting a last-ditch battle and that, beneath all the lies of the state and the murderous campaigns of their paramilitary gangs, they fear the odds of history are stacked against them.
In Bosnia, the Serbs have a reasonable point when they argue that some way must be found to safeguard the Serbian population, who made up about a third of the republic's pre-war 4.4 million population. But they destroyed their chances of foreign sympathy when their forces burst into eastern Bosnia last April and May and terrorised Muslim civilians. Their artillery attacks on Sarajevo and towns such as Bihac in the north- west have served only to increase the world's hostility.
Yet the Serbs see this hostility as unjust. Their sense of martyrdom is rooted in the battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when the medieval Serbian state's forces were defeated by the Ottoman Turks. The battle, which led to four centuries of rule by Constantinople, went down in Serbian legend as a supreme sacrifice in defence of the nation, Christendom and European civilisation.
In 1520, the Turkish emperor Suleiman the Magnificent led his armies into Belgrade. Not until 1804 did the Serbs, under Karadjordjevic, the first modern Serbian monarch, finally begin to claw back their independence. Of all the national groups which went to form the first Yugoslav state in 1918, the Serbs alone had successfully created an independent country in the 19th century. The struggle for self-determination and expansion went on up to the First World War, with Serbia's rulers constantly concerned that neighbours such as Turkey, the Austro-Hungarian empire and Bulgaria were out to deny Serbian national rights.
The idea of a Greater Serbian state, incorporating not just Serbs but other smaller nationalities, found its fullest expression in the writings of Petar Gracanin, who in 1846 published a nationalist tract envisaging Serbia as the largest state in the Balkans.
Another Serbian hero is Gavrilo Princip, the Bosnian Serb who shot dead the Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914, the spark for the First World War. For Serbs, however, his bullet was fired against Austro-Hungarian imperialism, and the fact that he killed the Archduke on 28 June - the same day as the Battle of Kosovo Polje - deepens the significance.
In the First World War, as in the Second, the Serbs fought on the side of the Western powers. They suffered appalling losses from 1914-18, and much of the Serbian army was at one point forced to take refuge on Corfu. Having endured so much, the Serbs saw themselves as the rightful leaders of the Yugoslav state that rose from the ashes of the Ottoman and Habsburg empires. Thus the new country - known at first as the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes - had a Serbian monarch, a Serbian-led army and a Serb-dominated political system.
It was a recipe for disaster. From practically the word go, Yugoslavia was bedevilled by political conflicts, sometimes bursting into outright violence, between Serbs and Croats. The Orthodox Serbs (whose pride led them in the 1980s to construct St Sava Cathedral in Belgrade, the largest Orthodox cathedral in the world) could not understand why the Catholic Croats wanted to be masters of their own destiny.
After 1945, Tito's attempt to divide power among Yugoslavia's nationalities angered the Serbs even more, because it seemed to deny them the status of 'first among equals' to which they felt entitled. Meanwhile, a time bomb was ticking away in the south: Kosovo.
In this century, the Serbs of Kosovo have become a minority, partly because many have emigrated, but also because of an explosion in the birth rate of ethnic Albanians. To lose their position in Kosovo strikes Serbs as it would strike an American to see Boston or Philadelphia turned into an autonomous Puerto Rican state. It was upon this sense of the Serbian nation being gutted at its core that Mr Milosevic played when he seized power in an internal Communist Party struggle in Belgrade in 1986-87.
He abolished the autonomy Tito had conferred on Kosovo in 1974, and became a Serbian national hero in the style of the 19th- century Karadjordjevic and Obrenovic dynasties. No matter that dozens of Albanians were killed in the process: for Serbs, they were all 'terrorists', 'secessionists' and 'tourists'.
When communism began to fall apart in Yugoslavia in 1989, and nationalist independence movements appeared in Slovenia and Croatia, the Serbs faced another immense problem. About 600,000 Serbs lived in Croatia, and all knew only too well that the last time Croatia had been a separate country, from 1941-45, it had been as a Nazi-supported state that massacred several hundred thousand Serbs. Croatia's President, Franjo Tudjman, and his party, the Croatian Democratic Union, stoked Serbian fears by reintroducing the flag and symbols of the old fascist state and by sacking Serbs from their jobs and replacing them with Croats.
The Serbs therefore lashed out in the summer of 1991 and, because the Yugoslav army was dominated by Serbian officers and most weapons fell into Serbian hands, quickly occupied about 25 to 30 per cent of Croatia's land. Once war had started in Croatia, its expansion into Bosnia was all but inevitable. Here, too, the Serbs were a minority. They faced less of a threat than in Croatia, but the Serbian state's campaign of nationalist hysteria was already well under way. The Bosnian Serbs armed themselves and, as soon as the Muslim and Croatian majority opted for independence, saw no choice but to go to war rather than live in a state governed by their historical rivals.
Rather as in Kosovo, the Serbs were once a majority in Bosnia. But their position has been steadily eroded in this century, partly by a high Muslim birth rate but above all by Tito's decision in the 1960s to recognise the Muslims as a distinct nationality. At one stroke, the Serbs were turned into a minority in Bosnia. In this war, they have seen only two options: surrender, or annexation, 'ethnic cleansing' and the establishment of the closest possible ties with Serbia proper.
In one sense, the Serbs are in danger of seeing their worst prophecies fulfilled. They often allege that the Bosnian Muslim aim is to establish an Islamic fundamentalist state in the Balkans. In fact, the Muslims are a highly secular group, but their suffering at Serbian hands has turned them into implacable foes of the Serbs. Similarly, Serbia's utter hostility to a Croatian state containing any Serbs has made many Croats less willing to contemplate a compromise with their Serbian minority. In Kosovo, Serbia's abuse of the Albanians has led to the creation of a kind of underground Albanian state, and made it virtually certain that the Albanians will one day win autonomy.
In the past two years, the Serbs have turned most of their neighbours and the world against them. Their economy is shattered; they may yet face Western military action. The vision of a Greater Serbia is slowly turning to dust. Their ability even to hold on to Kosovo is in doubt. In the long run this war will prove to have been the death of a Serbian dream.
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