issue 247 - September 1993
The curse of Kosovo
Branka Magas digs up the roots of Serbian racism
in a myth about a medieval war.
The current slaughter in the former Yugoslavia began under the sign of a myth about a battle fought 600 years ago. In 1389 at the Battle of Kosovo Field a multinational Christian force was defeated by its Ottoman foe. This was part of the expansion of the Ottoman Empire that eventually spent itself at the gates of Vienna some three centuries later. What actually happened in the Battle of Kosovo is a matter of dispute. But its importance to all the people of the region is undeniable: Bosnians, Serbs and Albanians all commemorate it in their folk songs. Yet it was only the Serbs who turned the defeat on Kosovo Field into a powerful national myth.
This happened in the second half of the nineteenth century when Serbia became an internationally recognized kingdom and was able to contemplate the ‘liberation of ancestral lands’ – the sandjak of Novi Pazar, Kosovo, Macedonia – from Ottoman rule. Since much of this territory was inhabited by non-Serbs, it was necessary to reinterpret the Kosovo battle as an exclusively Ottoman-Serb affair. The aim was to present the Albanians in particular, ethnically dominant throughout the Kosovo region, as usurpers of Serbian historic territory. They were portrayed as a ‘people without history’: a barbarian tribe genetically incapable of cultural or political development. Serb-Albanian conflict was thus built into the very foundation of the Kosovo myth. Indeed, from its early days the Serbian state practised a policy of mass expulsion and/or forced assimilation of non-Serb populations, thereby turning an ethnically heterogeneous region into a homogeneous Serb one.
The Kosovo myth is a textbook case of how national history is often reinvented in response to contemporary political needs. It implies that Serbs were the original masters of this part of the Balkans and that their great empire (itself actually fleeting and multinational in character) was extinguished on Kosovo Field. The reconquest of Kosovo, by implication, was not just a matter of revenge for the past, but a precondition for the very existence of the Serbs as a free people.1
The mythical reworking of the Kosovo battle also ignored the fact that the Ottoman side included the Sultan’s Christian vassals, some of them ethnically Serb – the conflict was presented instead as one between Christianity and Islam. And the strongly religious character of the Kosovo myth is what separates it from other national myths developed in the region during the nineteenth century.
According to the ‘classic’ Serb version, the defeat on Kosovo Field had a spiritual cause: Tsar Lazar’s conscious preference for a ‘heavenly’ rather than an ‘earthly’ empire. His choice made the Serbs by extension into a ‘heavenly’ people, a people chosen by God. The Serbian Orthodox Church survived the ensuing centuries as the only Serb national institution in both Ottoman and Habsburg lands. Other key components of national integration – such as codification of the vernacular as the printed language, or political independence – were acquired by the Serb nation only in the nineteenth century.
The Serbian Church was thus a state in embryo – a spiritual state in anticipation of a secular one. Whereas in Russia the church always remained subordinated to the secular authorities, in the Serbian case the church substituted for the state, preparing the ground for its eventual rebirth. When the multifaith state of Yugoslavia came into existence at the end of World War One the Church remained the most jealous guardian of Serb state and nation, imparting a strongly mystical dimension to Serb nationalism that has even survived modernization. It is here that critical intellectuals in present-day Serbia have found the seeds of Serb fascism.
Yugoslav nationalism took over the spiritual aspect of the Kosovo myth. Yugoslav nationalists hailed the creation of the south Slav state as an historic revenge against the original defeat in Kosovo and as an affirmation of the state’s divine origin. Here is how the prominent sculptor Ivan Mostrovic, ironically a Croat, rendered the Kosovo myth way back in 1915: ‘Kosovo is a crown of thorns borne by the suffering Yugoslav nation... There, on Kosovo, its Tsar spoke to God the night before the battle and chose the heavenly kingdom as the only eternal empire, thus making himself and hence also his people eternal... Only one soldier of this holy army remained, his eyes gouged out by the Turks. This farsighted blind gusle-player... set off among his enslaved people, preaching to them that justice is gained not by arms but by sacrifice and repentance... and the whole of the Yugoslav nation has become Tsar Lazar’s soldiers.’2
In 1986, a year before Slobodan Milosevic came to power, the Kosovo myth resurfaced to mobilize Serbs for an all-out conflict with other Yugoslavs. Tsar Lazar’s bones were dug up and carried in procession through the cities and villages of Serbia, where they were waited upon by Communist functionaries. Several hundred prominent intellectuals signed an anti-Albanian petition, in which the aggressive content of the Kosovo myth was revealed to the full. The Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences produced a notorious memorandum, which in essence was nothing but a revamped version of the myth. It was a call to arms against the racial Other – the Albanian Barbarian, the Muslim Infidel, the Ustasha Croat, the Slovene Servant of Austria, the Turncoat Montenegrin – behind whom stood ‘century-old’ enemies such as the Vatican, Lenin with his policy of national equality and of course the ‘decadent’ West. All were charged with the attempted murder of the Serbs: genocide became the most frequently used word in Greater Serbian agitprop.
The crowning event was a mass rally organized in June 1989 to celebrate the 600th anniversary of Kosovo Field and held on the original site of the battle. Milosevic, flanked by generals dressed in the uniforms of the Yugoslav People’s Army – an army born in a national liberation war meant to liberate Serbs and Yugoslavs from the Kosovo curse – announced his readiness for war against other Yugoslavs.
In this latest attempt to ‘right the wrongs of Kosovo’ the Serbian state started to prepare its army and its people for a war of territorial aggrandisement. Some of its conquests took place even before the actual war began, while Yugoslavia was still formally in place. Between 1987 and 1990 Serbia imposed its rule on three of the other seven members of the Yugoslav Federation: Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosovo. As for the rest, Slovenia was attacked frontally in June 1991, Croatia in August of the same year, Bosnia-Herzegovina in April 1992. Only Macedonia has so far escaped unscathed. Serbia’s wars in Croatia and Bosnia quickly revealed its true aims: the destruction of these states and the expulsion of all non-Serbs (‘ethnic cleansing’) from conquered territory. The original charge that the Other was intent on destroying Serbdom turned out to be a simple case of displacement – an outward projection of the government’s own murderous designs.
This is a war driven by obsession not reason. Two years after its inception it has lost all meaning beyond its self-perpetuation. What will follow, even in the event of victory? This is a question to which the Serbian regime has no answer. Winning has become as dangerous for it as losing. Six centuries after Kosovo, Serbia is fighting another lost war. The Kosovo myth has turned out to be not just an irresponsible adventure, but the nemesis of modern Serbia. In the view of the democratic opposition, the war amounts to Serbia’s historic defeat. As Bogdan Bogdanovic, ex-mayor of Belgrade and an early opponent of Milosevic, said in the summer of 1991: ‘Serbia has lost this war. When I say “this war”, I am thinking not only of the current one, but of all our modern wars and our entire modern history... A feeling of failure lies at the very heart of Serb nationalism... This history gambled away – a century and a half gambled away – is what can be described as a lost war.’
Branka Magas is a Croatian-born expert in Balkan politics based in London. She is the author of The Destruction of Yugoslavia, Verso 1992.
1 For the power of this myth among Serb peasants-turned-soldiers during the Balkan Wars see the account given by Leon Trotsky in his Balkan Wars 1911-12, New York 1980.
2 Quoted in Miroslav Krieza, Desect krvavih godina (Ten bloody years), Zagreb 1957. During the War, Mestrovic was an active campaigner for the unification of Yugoslavia.