Local Serbs Celebrate Holiday, New Government

David C. Barnett- A small maple tree with rustling dried leaves was carried to the front of the meeting hall of St. Sava's church this past Saturday. Crepe paper streamers and colorfully-wrapped fruit hung from the brown branches as a priest blessed the tree with bells and incense. The Christmas eve observance was underway.

Ever since the Eastern Orthodox refused to follow the calendar reforms of Pope Gregory in 1582, there has been a two-week difference in the celebrations of Eastern and Western Christians. And that's just one example of the numerous cultural differences that typify the six republics of the former Yugoslavia. Today, only the states of Serbia and Montenegro remain in the shaky coalition that was created at the end of World War I.

New Yugoslavian President Vojislav Kostunica is riding a tremendous wave of popular support and has a tremendous task ahead in rebuilding a country laid waste by the rule of former President Slobodan Milosevic and the bombing of NATO forces led by the United States, two years ago.

Vesna Kutlesic is a clinical psychologist and a member of St. Sava, whose family roots in Cleveland go back to World War II, when her grandfather was liberated from a German concentration camp.

Vesna Kutlesic- Politics is very much a part of our lives, politics and religion. Because the people who chose to come here had very strong political ideals or were somehow impacted by the war, the emotions around the war, and the results of the war were very high.

DCB- And some of the ethnic conflicts from back home were carried over to the new world, often erupting on the metaphoric battlefield of sports competitions.

VK- A Serbian-Croation soccer game about 15 years ago was out of control and actually became a riot. But, for the most part, we pretty much leave each other alone. Most people are pretty moderate, amenable to friendships, and we have marriages of Serbs and Croations.

DCB- Over the course of the last decade, a crumbling iron curtain gave hope to local Serbs that their home land could come out from under the thumb of Soviet communist rule. But, by the same token, the withdrawal of Soviet oversight helped fan the flames of smoldering ethnic animosities, inspiring acts of human slaughter. Serbs in cities like Cleveland watched their TVs and read their newspapers with mixed emotion, feeling that news reports painted the Serbs -- as a people -- with a broad brush.

VK- It's been pretty horrifying. It's probably more difficult for the Serbs that live in the United States than for the Serbs that live there. We were witnessing the demonization of Serbs in the media here. And they weren't aware what the western media was saying about them there.

DCB- Elizabeth Sullivan is a Cleveland-based member of the media who has made many trips to Yugoslavia for the Plain Dealer and she's very aware of the connections between native Serbs and immigrant members of the Diaspora who came to live in Cleveland. She sees Cleveland's Serbian community as having deep feelings -- and deep pockets.

Elizabeth Sullivan- Now that you have the first fervent Orthodox believer as the president of Yugoslavia, I think that you'll see a lot of money going in. In fact the Diaspora, meeting here in Cleveland, a couple of years ago, promised as much... the Serbian Diaspora were dangling money in front of the opposition saying to them, "if you can unite around one candidate, one that's electabl, there's a lot of money in it for you."

George Voinovich- Mr. Kostunica is the finest person they could have had as a new leader in Serbia.

DCB- Ohio Senator George Voinovich is part of a Congressional delegation that has been meeting with the new Serbian leadership to offer support. He speaks as someone with close ethnic ties to the region and dismisses the concerns of some who feel that Kostunica won't make the quick bold moves needed to rebuild the country.

GV- They have not had any real experience with a democratic form of government since the end of the second world war. So, they need to establish some principles as far as how things are going to be operated. And I think his method of going about it may be slow, but if it works -- and it has a good chance -- then he will have laid the foundation for the future in terms of how things get done in Serbia.

VK- I was blown away when Kostunica won.

DCB- Vesna Kutlesic says the fragmented politics of Yugoslavia hadn't given her much hope for reform. But, now that Kostunica HAS won, she thinks it will be hard to make rapid improvements. Still, the events of recent months in Eastern Europe, make this a memorable season of celebration.

VK- In speaking to my relatives, they say that they can just breathe easier, even though things are in shambles and they definitely sense that there is a lot of reconstruction that needs to occur, they say they are more at peace with things. So, I think that this Christmas will have more meaning for that reason.

DCB- In Cleveland, David C. Barnett, 90.3 FM.

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