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STARA PAZOVA, Serbia – As nationalist hysteria gripped the Balkans a quarter century ago, Aslan Ballaj, an ethnic Albanian from Kosovo, did something unthinkable: He moved to Serbia to open a bakery at a time when people like him were increasingly seen as the enemy.
Since then, Ballaj has remained alongside his Serb neighbors even as their nations went to war in the late 1990s, managing against the odds to escape violence in the darkest days of the bloodshed. Just as he thought the times of fear and revenge were over, extremists in October attacked his bakery shop, riddling it with bullets and throwing a hand grenade that shattered windows and destroyed walls, tables and chairs.
"I thought this was the 21st century," said the 50-year-old father of four. "I never dreamed this could happen, especially not now."
Nearly 20 minority-owned businesses were targeted along with Ballaj's in a spate of coordinated attacks — triggered by a soccer brawl — that have brought back memories of the era of late strongman Slobodan Milosevic, who incited ethnic hatred at home to wage wars against Balkan neighbors.
Hate speech is on the rise. Anti-Western propaganda fills the airwaves. Liberal journalists are pulled off air. Nationalists talk up redrawing Balkan borders. Mafia-style hits, a hallmark of the Milosevic years, are returning. And as Russia and the West collide over Ukraine, Serbia is falling firmly into the camp of traditional mentor Moscow, even as it tries to advance its case for EU membership.
"Somebody wants to remind us of the 1990s," said government ombudsman Anika Muskinja-Hajnrih. "That is worrisome."
Serbia, whose stability is crucial for peace in the still-volatile Balkans, has been simmering with ethnic and social tensions that exploded after fans brawled during a European Championship qualifying match between Serbia and Albania. The fight, which involved players and fans over an Albanian flag that was flown over the stadium, stirred the most strife in the multi-ethnic north of Serbia where Ballaj is from.
The increasingly strident rhetoric of Serb nationalists, tolerated if not encouraged by the government, has prompted many to ask if some of Milosevic's trademark policies are back, despite the proclaimed pro-EU stance advocated by the current right-leaning government led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic.
Critics warn that surging pro-Russian and conservative sentiment has sidelined liberal critics, threatening the country's hard-earned democracy. Vucic — who won Western support for promising to enact pro-EU political and economic reforms — has been accused at home of tightening his grip on power by curbing dissent and clamping down on the media.
"It has never been like this, never," said Olja Beckovic, a prominent journalist. "Just look at the television stations, there is no criticism anywhere no more."
Beckovic's highly popular political talk show recently was removed from the program of B92, a private television station that once was the beacon of the liberal, pro-democratic movement that led to Milosevic's downfall in 2000. She said Vucic had personally intervened to influence her choice of guests and other aspects of her show. Other media also have faced either political or economic pressure, she said.
Vucic has denied the accusations, and says he had nothing to do with the show's removal. B92 said Beckovic's show no longer fits into the broadcaster's program lineup.
Vucic was a radical Serb nationalist during the conflict in the former Yugoslavia that killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions. In the late 1990s, he served as Milosevic's information minister at a time several opposition media outlets were persecuted and shut down. He has claimed to have shifted from being a hardline nationalist to a pro-EU reformer, rejecting accusations that he is trying to impose Milosevic-style grip on power. He and other former radicals have sought to overhaul their image by promising EU integration, Western-style reform and an aggressive fight against corruption.
Unlike Milosevic, whose policies made Serbia a pariah state in the 1990s, Vucic's government has worked to normalize ties between Serbia and its neighbors, including breakaway Kosovo — a former ethnic Albanian-dominated province that declared independence in 2008 and which Serbia has refused to recognize. The EU said the two nations must improve ties to qualify for membership.
But in Milosevic-style defiance toward the West, Vucic's government has also fostered strong ties with Moscow, refusing to back EU sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis. The Serbian government gave Russian President Vladimir Putin a hero's welcome in October, organizing a Soviet-style military parade, while the two armies held joint military exercises weeks later, prompting fears that warmongering policies in the Balkans are back.
The swing toward Putin and Russia also was strongly featured last month at an ultranationalist rally in Belgrade in which 10,000 people cheered suspected war criminal Vojislav Seselj — the onetime boss of Vucic's party, who is now on provisional release from the U.N. war crimes tribunal. Evoking hate speech that marked Milosevic's era, Seselj said Serbia should scrap EU integration and turn entirely toward Russia. He also said large chunks of neighboring Bosnia and Croatia should be part of Serbia.
"Our enemies are all in the European Union," said Seselj, who is accused of organizing notorious Serb paramilitary troops during the Balkan wars. "We must turn completely toward Russia."
Days later, Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor Bruno Vekaric — whose EU-backed office has put dozens of Serb war criminals on trial — received death threats after Vucic's party official publicly questioned his energetic approach to seeking justice. Vekaric complained of an "atmosphere of lynching."
Adding to Serb tensions, a prominent tycoon was shot and wounded last month in the kind of mafia-style attack common during the Milosevic years, when criminal gangs and ex-paramilitaries fought for control over the underworld. "Fear of the '90s," read a column about the shooting in the popular Blic daily.
Vucic, highly popular for trying to restore Serb national pride after the lost Balkan wars, rejected claims that the mood of the 1990s is back in Serbia: "Everyone changes," he said. "So have I, and I'm proud of that."