But unity is a quest that has brought the Serbs into harsh conflict with their neighbors in the Balkan ethnic patchwork and with the wider world. Today they are often viewed as the primary aggressors in the bloody wars of the 1990s that dismembered Yugoslavia. With many implicated in crimes against humanity—including ethnic cleansing and genocide in the war in Bosnia—Serbs heatedly protest that the West singles them out for special vilification while overlooking similar crimes perpetrated against them. They face a vexing question: What can Serbian unity mean in 21st-century Europe?
The question is as divisive for the Serbs as it is unsettling for their neighbors. To Nakalamic, the answer begins with taking care of his own village. So he has accepted a seat as the lone Serb on the Rahovec (Orahovac) municipal council, which oversees local villages, including Velika Hoca. The council answers to the Republic of Kosovo, the nine-tenths Albanian country that declared independence from Serbia in February 2008, with strong support from the United States and most of Europe. To many Serbs, that makes Nakalamic a traitor.
After Kosovo grabbed independence, TV viewers worldwide watched radical nationalists storm through Belgrade, Serbia's capital, smashing windows and torching a symbol of arrogant foreign meddling—the U.S. Embassy. The Serbian government views Kosovo's independence as an illegal dismemberment of Serbia's sovereign territory. It ordered Serbs in Kosovo—many of whom receive cash assistance from Serbia—to boycott elections there, and most obeyed. Without the requisite ballots from his district, Nakalamic lacks a council vote and thus can't fully participate in drafting budgets or ordinances.
Yet many Serbs seem resigned to the new borders, and to the prospect of a smaller, tamer Serbia at ease with its neighbors. "People are marching and demonstrating, but no one really believes we will get Kosovo back," said Marina Alavanja, a young woman I met in Belgrade as she and her fiancé, a Caribbean American from New York, had a midnight drink with friends on a stylish Belgrade street. Alavanja, a student in Florence, is the kind of liberal, internationally oriented Serb on whom Western governments pin their hopes. After Kosovo independence and the resulting riots, Serbian voters, in the spring of 2008, surprised the world by propelling into power a pro–European Union government that vowed to track down Serbian war criminals—evidence of a widespread belief that the country's best hope for cultural and economic growth is with the West.