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In football, as in politics, Serbia still doesn't get it

Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, the country still can't come to terms with modernity.

Andros Townsend (C) of England separates his team-mate Danny Rose (L) and Sasa Markovic of Serbia as they argue after the Under 21 European Championship match between the two sides. Photograph: Getty Images.

What is wrong with Serbia? Last night it seemed as if all the work of UEFA at Euro 2012 to make football free of racism was undone. Serbs fans chanted monkey sounds at the black English player, Danny Rose. As they left the pitch, after the England Under-21 team's 1-0 victory, Serb players and team officials attacked the English visitors.

The England captain Jordan Henderson said, "There was a lot of racist abuse out there from the stands and a lot going on after the game, which is hard to take for the players." Stones and coins were thrown at the England players in addition to the racist abuse.

The facts seem indisputable, but in Serbia facts are what you want them to be. The Serb team’s technical director, Savo Milosevic, came into England’s dressing rom and apologised for "any behaviour that was unsavoury," Stuart Pearce, the England manager, said after the game. Now, in an on-so-Serbian piece of chutzpah, the Serb FA are calling for an investigation into the England team and denying that any racist incidents took place.

It is up to UEFA to decide whether they are serious about their campaign against racism. They worked closely with Rafael Pankowski, who is not only Poland’s leading writer on the far-right but also founder of a Polish and Europe-wide NGO dedicated to removing the racism and anti-Semitism that has disfigured European contests well into the 21st century, despite the large number of black players in club and national teams. UEFA stadium billboards kept flashing up anti-racism messages in June in a sign that Europe acknowledged there was a problem. Now the Serbs have set this work back a decade. UEFA should take swift action. If Rangers in Scotland can be relegated two divisions for getting their financial affairs out of order, Serbian club and national teams should be suspended from all UEFA competitions for the rest of this season. Harsh and cruel, maybe, but unless UEFA is prepared to stand up against racism in football, the Serbs who abused the black English player will walk cocky and tall that they can turn a football stadium into a source of race hate.

But is it any accident that the incident, and the Serb FA’s refusal to condemn it, happened in the week that the most prominent living Serb, Radovan Karadžić, told the International Tribunal at the Hague that he had nothing to apologise for over the actions carried out in Sarajevo or Srebrenica? At Srebrenica, 8,000 plastic handcuffs were prepared to tie the hands of the European Muslims selected to be killed by Serbs to teach others a lesson. The precise number of bullets, and catering vehicles for the executioners were brought to the site, where Serb excavators had carefully dug trenches for the bodies to fall into after they had been shot.

In 1970, Willy Brandt famously knelt at the Warsaw Ghetto to make as public and symbolic an apology as he could for the German crimes against Poles and Jews. Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand held hands at Verdun as they too said "never again". Today, as Karadzic struts his stuff in the Hague, the elected prime minister of Serbia, Ivica Dačić, a former aide of Slobodan Milošević, refuses to shake the hand of the prime minister of Kosovo, Hashim Thaçi. Belgrade refuses to recognise the existence of Kosovo as a legitimate nation state, even though nearly 100 nations and nearly all the world’s major democracies have established diplomatic relations with it. In another example of chutzpah, worthy of the Serb FA, Dačić said recently that Kosovo should be partitioned with a good chunk of its territory handed over to Serbia. There are regions of Serbia peopled by Albanians close to Kosovo, but the general rule in the Balkans is no more ethnic division.

But just as the Serb FA leaders feel they can flout the UEFA rules against racism, so too do Serb political leaders treat the European-wide agreement against further Balkans partition with contempt. Stefan Fuele, the amiable, soft-spoken EU Commissioner for enlargement, rebuked Dačić, and EU officials are tearing their hair out at the failure of Belgrade to declare a truce with Kosovo, deal with the elected Pristina government, and help move both countries onto an EU membership road, as William Hague has urged.

It is 25 years since Serbia’s most famous Milošević launched the disintegration of Yugoslavia with an aggressive nationalist speech in the heart of Kosovo. Despite all the wars, bloodshed, victims, and hate, it seems it will take a little longer before Serbia’s ruling elites, whether in football or politics, come to terms with modernity.

Denis MacShane was minister for the Balkans from 2001-2005. He is author of Why Kosovo Still Matters (Haus 2011) @denismacshane and www.denismacshane.com