BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) – Serbia opened a new national day on Wednesday with a demonstration of military power and called on all ethnic Serbs in the Balkans to unite under one flag, which sparked unrest among neighbors decades after similar talks led to bloody 1990s wars.
Serbs were asked to display thousands of red, blue and white national flags wherever they lived in the region or the world to mark “The Day of Serbian Unity, Freedom and the National Flag”.
Populist President Aleksandar Vucic opened the entire celebration of the day, inspecting military hardware displayed in a park in Belgrade and praising the army’s readiness to respond to external threats.
He said the army was “five times stronger” than just a few years ago and announced new military purchases.
Later Wednesday, Vucic spoke at a rally in central Belgrade – where nationalist sentiment was high – in the presence of government members, Bosnian Serb officials and tens of thousands of his supporters.
Vucic, a former ultranationalist who advocated the expansion of Serbia’s borders at the expense of its neighbors, said the new holiday was not intended to threaten anyone or change established borders in the Balkans.
“The Serbian flag is threatening someone, and they expect us to apologize?” Asked Vucic. “My answer is: Never again. We will carry our flag with pride anywhere in the world. ”
The Bosnian Serb separatist leader Milorad Dodik also spoke at the meeting.
“Our country is not Bosnia-Herzegovina, it is Serbia,” he said to loud applause from the crowd.
The muscle-bending of Serbian officials, as well as their calls for the creation of a “Serbian world”, or the political unification of an estimated 1.3 million ethnic Serbs living in Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Croatia with Serbia, have caused concern in neighboring countries.
In the 1990s, Serbian forces with financial and political support from Belgrade led bloody campaigns in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo with the goal of forming a “Greater Serbia”. The campaign tried unsuccessfully to redraw the internal borders of the former Yugoslavia and create a single Serbian state.
Denis Becirovic, a lawmaker in the Bosnian parliament, said Vucic was “restoring the Greater Serbia project” by supporting Bosnian Serb separatist policies.
“Unfortunately, the expansionist forces in Serbia have the potential to rekindle the entire region,” Becirovic said. “The West must stop the Greater Serbia demon before it is too late.”
Croatian President Zoran Milanovic said he could not “believe that Serbs have anything more important or smarter to do” than create holidays that violate the internal affairs of neighboring states.
Serbian Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin, the most vocal supporter of the “Serbian world”, responded quickly.
“There is nothing more important than preserving the Serbian identity,” he said.
The new national day coincides with an important Serbian and French victory in 1918 against the central powers at the Balkan Opera House during the First World War.