Why do Russians help Serbs?

The other day I interviewed Georgy Poltavchenko, presidential representative in the Central Federal District. He told me that the district board had decided that the 18 Federation members of the district, the core regions of Russia, would provide financial assistance to Serbs.

This is not the humanitarian aid that the Russian government is providing to Serbian refugees forced from their homes by the recent outbreak of violence in Kosovo. Several planeloads of humanitarian cargoes were then dispatched to Belgrade by the Emergencies Ministry and Minister Sergei Shoigu accompanied them. But it was an emergency situation.

The initiative of the Central Federal District is different and more effective: the 18 regions are collecting money to send to Serbia, as foodstuffs and everything else can be bought on site - and much cheaper. The money will be transferred to the Serbian authorities for assistance to the hundreds of thousands of Serb refugees who have been forced from their homes in Kosovo in the years of the province's troubles.

This is not a state initiative but the decision of the public supported by politicians as private citizens, which may be better for the government. Politicians - in the true meaning of the word - need this initiative also because it cleanses the soul. For us, death is no longer a tragedy; we see it in numerous television soap operas and news reports of contract killings and other forms of death from all over the planet. We no longer distinguish between the death of imaginary characters and real people. Maybe assistance to fraternal people will help revive compassion and a desire to help the neighbour? For human souls cannot live without it.

I am very pleased that statesmen and bureaucrats are not avoiding this problem, though nobody ordered them to contribute, to collect money; it is a purely voluntary decision. But the majority of the people in the district supported it immediately and Mr Poltavchenko told me that he would make a public appeal for money.

And here is another example. The Foundation of St Andrew the First-Called, a non-governmental public institution, is tackling the Serbian problem by means of citizen diplomacy. Last Christmas, a senior delegation of politicians, public figures and journalists from Russia headed by Alexander Melnikov, president of the Foundation, visited Serbia. They spent a week there, meeting the country's leaders and archpriests of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and visiting Kosovo where they saw for themselves the destroyed houses and churches and dead Serbs. Albanians threw stones at their bus - and it was before the violence in Kosovo about which the world now knows.

In short, Russians know more about Serbia and Serbs than many other nations and powerful support for Serbia is rising from the depths of the Russian nation.

What connects us? Why are we helping Serbia when this world is full of pain? I would begin with the religious aspect, though many people try to ignore the link between international conflicts and inter-faith strife. The Serbs are our brothers in origin and religion; they are a small Orthodox nation that has been persecuted for centuries and has probably suffered more than the Russian nation.

We must admit that, traditionally, Russia is Orthodox by 85%. Our common traditions influence our relations. Yes, we support Serbs because they are our brothers. Yes, we support them because they are Orthodox Christians. Yes, we support them because we remember very well how our churches and monasteries were destroyed in the not so distant past. And we cannot remain indifferent today when more than 30 Orthodox holy places, monuments of the past and part of the world's heritage, were destroyed within a week without the world community raising a finger.

Regrettably, few people in the world take note of this religious connection between our nations. We are divided by more than a thousand kilometres but in the Orthodox school that my son attends pupils study the Serbian language and revere the memory of St Savva the Serb. Early this year the students welcomed a delegation from the former Yugoslavia, which included Serbs and Montenegrins, who came to talk with children and speak with them in the language the children love. In the summer, my son and his classmates go to Serbia for a month, where they see the country and make new friends.

As for adults, Russian volunteers fought and died for the Serbs during the recent conflict. As far as I know, they were not paid lavishly for this, they were not mercenaries. It was simpler - and certainly less dangerous - to earn more in Russia even in those difficult times. This means that something inside forced these people to go to a foreign country and die there for that country's people. These are very serious deeds.

The society of Russo-Serbian friendship was set up long ago and, as far as I know, has been facilitating the development of contacts between our people, including delegation exchanges.

As for business, there are Serbian businessmen of the world class who have headquarters in Moscow and other large cities of Russia. Take the group of companies of the Karic brothers, who have been working on the Russian market for more than a decade. They cannot work in their home country but they help their people by working in Russia. I once met a man from the pharmaceutical industry who had a business in France but worked mostly in Russia. And there are many more like him.

I remember there were very many Yugoslavians involved in Moscow construction projects in the 1990s. They had fled to Moscow from unemployment and crisis in their home country, ravaged by war and international sanctions. I do not know how many Yugoslavians are working in Russia now.

In a word, there are many ties between us and they are very strong. There is also a vital element that is frequently overlooked outside Russia, which leads to problems. I said that support for the Serbs is coming from ordinary Russian people. But a certain part of Russian society cannot understand why Serbia is so special. It is easy for foreigners to talk to many such people - simply because they know foreign languages. And this creates the impression in the West that there are no special relations between Russians and Serbs, which is a great misunderstanding.

These are people who are only after money and do not care for the pain of other people. What is Serbia to them, what do they care about refugees and orphans? This psychology of the consumer society, which developed in Russia overnight, is more distorted than anywhere in the West. The rich who have bought enough cars or a sumptuous country house simply do not know how to use their money because they have only consumerist desires. They live for themselves and one or two university degrees and a knowledge of foreign languages does not help them to be human.

But those who, though they do not come to church, nevertheless believe - they become the patriots and defenders of Serbia. Orthodox intelligentsia and millions of ordinary Russians take to heart everything that happens in Serbia. For Serbs often say: What happens to us today may happen to you tomorrow. Serbs are an independent and freedom-loving people and they will hardly accept the status of a subordinate, oppressed nation. The technologies which NATO are testing in Serbia - and NATO has advanced to Russia's borders - may be applied against Russia any day. When I hear that Russia and NATO are friends forever, I say that this is an illusion. Nothing has changed, as proved by the example of Serbia, in 1999 and today.

Serbs see the withdrawal of Russia peacekeepers from Kosovo as a betrayal. A great many bad things happened after our peacekeepers, who were seen as liberators, left the province. Russians have always fought willingly for their Serb brothers. But today they say we abandoned them, for the first time in history.

We Russians will rally society, sooner or later, and come to an agreement on what is happening to us and outside Russia. The country's current leadership is working hard to solve the problem of Serbia and Kosovo, keeping the issue in the spotlight at the highest possible level. In a way, this rehabilitates us for the mistakes made by our previous authorities.

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