Sunday, November 19, 2006; 12:36 PM
BELGRADE, Serbia -- Outbursts of nationalism are nothing new in Serbia, but the blustering graffiti in a Belgrade park belongs to a bygone era.
"On your knees before Serbs!" it demands.
In June, Serbia lost access to the sparkling Adriatic coastline when its sister republic, Montenegro, gained statehood. This winter, it could lose the southern province of Kosovo if U.N.-brokered talks lead to independence as expected.
As their nation relentlessly shrinks, Serbs _ a fiercely proud people accustomed to ruling the roost in the Balkans _ are slipping into despair.
"How do you like our cemetery?" businessman Zoran Djuric asks cynically, standing on a hill and sweeping his hand over the twinkling lights of the capital below.
A string of staggering setbacks began last spring, when the European Union suspended pre-membership talks with the former Yugoslav republic for failing to arrest Gen. Ratko Mladic, the world's No. 1 war crimes fugitive long believed to be hiding here.
Geographic isolation came within weeks. Serbia-Montenegro dissolved when Montenegrins voted to break away from the union forged in 2002, leaving Serbia landlocked and alone.
Now, if independence comes to Kosovo and the ethnic Albanians former strongman Slobodan Milosevic tried to crush, Serbia soon could suffer its greatest humiliation: losing a province many consider the heart of their ancient homeland.
"Psychologically, it's very difficult to face up to the fact that your country is shrinking," said Braca Grubacic, a Belgrade political analyst.
"Half the population knows that Kosovo is a lost cause," he added. "But what's worse is that we have a serious crisis of leadership. We don't know who we are or where we're going. There are no signs of hope or a future."
Not all the news is grim.
Serbia has become something of a Balkan tiger, with 6 percent annual growth that has won praise from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
Culturally and intellectually, Belgrade is regaining some of the vibrancy it once pulsed with during the 1970s, when its music, film and sports festivals made it an exciting, experimental European city in a bleak zone of communist regimes.
Yet unemployment still runs at about 30 percent, and the average monthly salary is less than $345. Frustrated Serbs have watched helplessly as Balkan neighbors Romania and Bulgaria prepare to join the EU in January, while their own prospects of membership now lag even behind impoverished Albania.
Serbia is still issuing new passports bearing the old Federal Republic of Yugoslavia name and crest _ partly out of confusion over its borders, but mostly because it simply can't afford to retool its printing presses.
It's all a bitter pill for people here in the heart of ex-Yugoslavia, a prosperous six-republic federation until its bloody 1990s breakup under Milosevic. When dictator Josip Broz Tito was in power, many Serbs traveled the world; today, most struggle just to make ends meet and need visas to go practically anywhere.
And it could get much worse.
Serbia's government, which this month hastily adopted a new constitution declaring Kosovo to be an "integral" part of the country in hopes of staving off its independence, will hold early parliamentary elections on Jan. 21. Many expect the ultranationalist Radical Party to exploit emotions over Kosovo and make big gains, which could trigger an explosion of nationalism and deepen Serbia's isolation.
Although few expect more armed conflict in the Balkans _ Serbia, most observers agree, has lost its capacity to wage war _ nationalists could incite violence if Kosovo becomes independent.
The International Crisis Group, a think tank that accused the government of rigging a recent referendum on the new constitution, warns that Serbia "is moving away from Western values and European integration." Its leaders, contends Serbia's Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, "frequently resort to Stalinist methods, notably in personal showdowns."
Serbia could emerge from isolation and end much of its self-inflicted misery by capturing Mladic, wanted since 1995 for genocide in Bosnia. But many Serbs still revere Mladic as a patriot.
Sonja Biserko is a prominent and outspoken human rights activist who attacked and beaten by an assailant last year.
"For many in the West, Serbs became symbols of evil in films and books," she said. "You can only shed an image like that by acknowledging it. But everyone here is in denial."