ADŽINCE, Serbia — A wooden signpost in the snowy landscape points the way to the hamlet of Putinovo in southern Serbia. That is not yet its official name but villagers voted to adopt it last November in tribute to the man they see as a Slavic brother, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Since Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election, some Serbs believe they may now have another friend in high office. They hope that Trump’s apparent admiration for Putin could mean a rebalancing in the Balkans, with the U.S. retreating and Russia wielding ever more influence.
Getting to Putinovo is not easy. I drove slowly through twisting mountain roads, past fields of cornstalks leaning under the weight of weeks of snow and a one-room whitewashed Serbian Orthodox church. The only traffic on the road was a black sow trotting on the asphalt and a group of loggers sporting military fatigues, each with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Petrusić, a retired factory worker, met me at the signpost and we trekked the last kilometer to his home through ice and now. He was quick to explain that the village had been called Adžince for centuries, after the Turkish word for the seat of a local dignitary or “Hadžija” — a remnant of the 500-year Ottoman occupation of the Balkans.
“We decided to finish things with the Turks,” he said, “and the younger generation suggested we change the name to Putinovo.”
In Kosovo, the government remains optimistic that its most enthusiastic cheerleader on the international stage, the United States, will continue to support it.
Petrusić began his history of Putinovo with the conquest of the Balkans by the Ottoman Empire, telling the story of the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Field, a fundamental national myth of the Serbs.
By the time we reached his front yard, flanked by two towering bales of hay, we had covered some 700 years of history.
Now, with the arrival of Trump in the White House, a new chapter in history is about to be written. As the new U.S. president has criticized NATO and the U.S.’s record of military intervention, many Serbs see their worldview vindicated. They continue to resent the NATO bombing to end the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, which is not far from Putinovo. NATO still has 4,200 troops based in the former Serbian province, 650 of them Americans.
Although Serbia aspires to join the EU and cooperates with NATO, it has also been pursuing closer ties with Moscow, a longtime ally. As a Security Council member, Russia has blocked Kosovo’s path to U.N. membership, leaving the ethnic Albanian-dominated territory in international limbo.
‘More booze than books’
On a short tour of Putinovo, Petrusić pointed out a gathering place he called the town “library.”
“But there’s more booze in there than books,” he said, laughing. Under the gaze of portraits of Radovan Karadžić, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader who was convicted of genocide by a U.N. tribunal, and other figures from Serbian lore, the villagers gather from time to time to sip homemade brandy they’ve dubbed “Putinovka,” tell stories, and sing traditional songs.
At home, Petrusić pulled out an ornate one-stringed gusla, a traditional Serbian and Montenegrin instrument used to sing songs of lamentation. He keeps it hanging just above a calendar the villagers have printed featuring Putin’s face and a Russian flag in the background.
Before a lunch of cured pork and pickled vegetables, Petrusić performed an epic song about the 1389 battle in Kosovo.
After Trump was elected, a gusla song made an appearance in the Serbian parliament. Ultra-nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj played on his cell phone a song composed by Serbs in Milwaukee, titled “Serbia for Trump,” which contains so much admiration that it had to be split into two parts.
The singers shower Trump with adulation over his promises to deport Muslims, and herald his appointment as co-emperor of the world — a title, they intone, that he will share with Putin.
“After the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential elections, we hope that Russia and the U.S. will be able to find a common language on many international issues,” he told Sputnik News, a Russian media outlet with a growing presence in Serbia. “I also think that Moscow and Washington could launch a new division of the spheres of influence. Hence I hope that Serbia will find itself in Russia’s sphere of interests, which will give Belgrade a real chance to solve many of its problems.”
In Kosovo, which is now recognized by more than 110 countries, the government remains optimistic that its most enthusiastic cheerleader on the international stage, the United States, will continue to support it, but acknowledges quietly that things may change.
“This is the end of the international community as we know it,” says a Kosovo diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.
“It will force us to find our own way in world, which is not necessarily a bad thing.”
Train tests resolve
Despite an EU-brokered dialogue to “normalize” relations, Serbia and Kosovo have been involved in a series of flare-ups in recent months, most seriously after Belgrade sent a train to northern Kosovo emblazoned with the slogan “Kosovo is Serbia” in 21 languages. Serbian officials stopped the train before it crossed the border after Kosovo sent special police to intercept it.
Some observers believe Belgrade has been testing how much it can get away with — during the transition to the new U.S. administration and now that Trump is in the White House. The train journey took place the weekend before Trump’s inauguration.
Jelena Milić, director of the Belgrade-based Center for Euro-Atlantic Studies, says Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić had already been fanning the flames of Serbian nationalism and was emboldened to run a “victory lap” after Trump’s election. She believes the train was sent to take advantage of the U.S. transition period, and was a test for the European Union, which has been showing an “obvious lack of strength and authority.”
Vuk Vuksanović, who studies Serbia’s balancing act between Russia and the West at the London School of Economics, says Vučić and current President Tomislav Nikolić are capitalizing on pro-Russian sentiment ahead of presidential elections in April, in which they are both potential candidates.
“Trump just started, and we congratulate him. But I’m waiting for him to tell us Serbs that he will pull back from Kosovo” — Putinovo resident Milutin Petrusić
And while the U.S.’s role in the region remains uncertain, the EU’s power in the Balkans is diminishing, Vuksanović says. As it has become increasingly clear that none of the western Balkan countries outside the EU will be joining the bloc any time soon, Brussels lacks leverage to keep local leaders on a path towards liberal democracy.
“The EU will not be expanding to the Balkans, at least not in the short and medium term and Russia has been very adept at opportunistically seizing that vacuum,” Vuksanović said.
Serbs have expressed hopes that that Trump and Putin will strike some kind of grand bargain, which might involve at least partitioning Kosovo, with the ethnic-Albanian dominated south remaining beyond Belgrade’s control but the majority-Serb north being absorbed into Serbia.
However, some are already starting to wonder whether Trump will be at their side along with Putin. His Defense Secretary, James Mattis, said as part of his confirmation procedure in the U.S. Senate that the NATO force in Kosovo “remains critical to ensuring the stability of the region.” And Trump also looks set to approve Montenegro joining NATO, despite strong opposition from Moscow.
Back in Putinovo, Petrusić expressed a love for Russia and some cautious optimism about the new U.S. president.
“Trump just started, and we congratulate him. But I’m waiting for him to tell us Serbs that he will pull back from Kosovo. If he makes an agreement with Russia, why would he need those military bases anyway?”