The Kosovo myth

A battle fought 600 years ago animates the Serbian lust for a province now populated by Albanians.

Published March 25, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

With NATO warplanes making good on a long-standing threat to stop Serbian attacks in Kosovo, what makes Serbia so determined to hold the small province, where 90 percent of residents are ethnically Albanian, not Serbian?

It's "the Kosovo myth," says Tomislav Longinovic, a leading expatriate Serbian scholar and an associate professor of Slavic Languages at the University of Wisconsin, where he is writing a new book called "Borderline People: Imagining 'The Serbs.'" At the heart of the current conflict, he says, is a fervently patriotic version of the Battle of Kosovo, in which the Ottoman Turks defeated Serbian Prince Lazar and his allies in 1389. The defeat at Kosovo meant hundreds of years of Ottoman servitude for the Serbs, but it has taken on mythic proportions as the battle that ultimately halted the expansion of the Ottomans and Islam into Europe.

If this sounds like ancient history, it was, and maybe still would be if it were not for Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. In 1989, Milosevic stirred up nationalist passions based on the 600-year-old Kosovo myth to cement his hold on power while Eastern European communism crumbled. "The popular political imagination has substituted the Albanians for the Ottomans who defeated the Serbian army in 1389," Longinovic says. "The Serbs have shown readiness not only to fight their neighbors to the death, but to take on the entire world community as well."

But the current conflicts shouldn't be seen as a hopeless case of "bloodthirsty barbarians fighting it out in the Balkans," the Serbian scholar insists. The Kosovo myth has been cynically exploited to release deadly nationalist passions against the Serbs' neighbors in the region, but it may also make victims of the ordinary Serbs who live under Milosevic's rule and oppose his designs on Kosovo, but who will bear the brunt of NATO attacks.

Longinovic talked to Salon about the ancient history of the current conflict.

What is the Kosovo myth?

Any understanding of the current civil war in former Yugoslavia has to start with an understanding of the Kosovo myth and the way it is periodically resurrected by nationalist politicians and intellectuals. The myth is central to the Serbian perception of national destiny, and the crucial feature is defeat at the hands of Asian invaders. This was seen as a fight between Christianity and Islam, which elevated Serbia from its real position as a minute agrarian Balkan state to a leading defender of Europe and the Christian faith.

Ever since 1389, the Kosovo myth has been so charged with a mixture of patriotism and hatred of those who caused "the fall" -- Turks, domestic converts to Islam and Serbian traitors to the national or nationalist cause -- that every political manipulation of the myth is able to instantly unite the people behind any leader who is unscrupulous enough to tap into it.

It's also important to remember that Kosovo has tremendous significance because there are more than 1,300 religious objects housed there, dating from the 11th century through the 17th century, making it the Serbian or [Eastern] Orthodox Jerusalem. This is something you never hear about in the mainstream media. The Serbs who are left there -- 10 percent or less of the population of Kosovo -- are basically people who cannot afford to move out, poor peasants, or those old monks and nuns who mind the 1,300 religious objects. There really isn't any sort of vital interest there, yet it has tremendous symbolic value.

What role is the Kosovo myth playing in the current conflict?

On June 28, 1989, Slobodan Milosevic delivered a speech in front of more than a million Serbs to commemorate the battle of Kosovo exactly 600 years before. This speech in Kosovo marked the end of the common Yugoslav idea, and after it, Milosevic became firmly entrenched as the only Serbian leader who could appeal to the masses. He created the contemporary impression of a seamless, uninterrupted identity of the Serbian people found in the Kosovo myth.

But a lot more has led to the current crisis.

Well, Tito died in 1980, and then the first Albanian riots, demanding republic status within Yugoslavia, started right away in 1981. This was the first trigger. At that time in 1981, I was serving my military service in Nis, which now is the center for military operations in Kosovo. I was working in a recruit center, and I was given the job of testing the new incoming recruits. A large number of them were Albanians who had been participating in these demonstrations, and for the first time in my life, this dream that I had of Yugoslavia as a stable country came apart -- when I saw the misery of these people. I witnessed several beatings of Albanian demonstrators by the military police, and that sobered me up about where I was living. I think this heavy-handed response to the Albanians, which continues today, was really the trigger that started the breakup of Yugoslavia.

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What did you learn about Kosovo when you were young?

I was born in Belgrade in 1955 and ethnically my background is Serbian ... When I was young, I remember as a boy sitting with my grandfather who, after a few shots of slivovice (plum brandy), would start reciting poems about heroes of old. I would get very emotional about this as a child. It stood for the tremendous sacrifice that the nation had to endure under Turkish domination for the sake of Europe and the West.

But growing up I never in my mind connected those Turks that were described as the bad guys in the epic poetry with the actual Muslims around me. While growing up, our Communist education meant we did not know what ethnicity anyone belonged to. We all spoke the same language, we all looked the same, so there were no visible markers or identities to speak of. Only now when I try to recall a name -- I left in '82 -- I think, "Oh, that person must have been a Muslim, or that person must have been a Croat." But at that time I had no idea -- we were all friends.

Do you have a sense of what other Serbs think of Milosevic and what is happening in Kosovo now?

The Kosovo myth was a part of the national imagination up until the mid-'90s or so, but after the Bosnian war there has been such a level of disillusionment and depression in Serbia that less and less people will be swayed to believe in any part of the Kosovo myth. It really is a question of those Serbs who live in Kosovo, which is such a tiny minority.

I have a mother and father and relatives living there [in Serbia] who are anti-Milosevic. I don't know a person who is for him when I go there. Everybody despises the man and they see the game that he is playing basically by signing all these agreements with the West after threats ... he is just buying himself another two or three years of time as ruler.

Then how does Milosevic stay in power?

Although he's a malignant person, he is incredibly cunning and smart as far as his own power is concerned. You cannot really call him a nationalist, because you always think that nationalists will care for the nation that they are part of. That's absolutely not the case with Milosevic. He just knows how to stay in power. He controls almost all media outlets and manipulates public opinion almost at will, in the style of old totalitarian dictators. The only way that rural Serbs have of finding out what goes on around them is through state-run radio and television. So, they keep voting for Milosevic and his party, since they represent themselves as defenders of Serbian national interests.

There were tremendous demonstrations in Belgrade during '96, and this was the first signal to me that if the West really wanted Milosevic out they would have supported these demonstrations in some material way, they would stand behind them. Instead there were statements of support but there was nothing concretely done. Now people have to devote considerable energy just to daily survival, finding food, finding a light bulb or something like that that was a normal thing in the past [Yugoslavia is under economic sanctions imposed during the Bosnian war], so they don't have any energy for political engagement, especially after the failure of the 1996 demonstrations.

To what extent do you think that the Serbs have been wronged?

One issue is how did Kosovo become so predominantly Albanian, which is not really discussed. The Ottomans had a policy of population transfers in which they would never allow too many of the indigenous communities living next to each other, which really created a tension between the communities there. Then during the Second World War was the worst legacy, and the closest to us, which was that Albanians were allied with fascist Italy, and in Kosovo they carried out ethnic cleansing of the Serbs. This is when the majority of the Serbs were expelled or murdered.

The Serbs have also been wronged by the media, which is notorious for its selective reporting. In 1995 when there was a two-week campaign by NATO against the Bosnian Serbs ... I think many [of the Serbs in Yugoslavia] at that time thought that maybe it was justified because of the atrocities that the Bosnian Serbs committed. But of course at the same time there were all these atrocities committed by the Croats and the Muslims that were sort of covered up, but nobody really wanted to talk about that then.

There were also massacres of Serbian civilians in Kosovo during the summer and fall of '98, but no major interest in the West to learn more about them. There is a feeling that the Serbs deserve to be punished for all their past transgressions in Bosnia and Croatia and that their lives are worth less than the lives of other ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia.

Are NATO and the West being hypocritical?

There is clearly a double standard if you compare the situation in Kosovo to the situation of the Kurds in Turkey, for example, or in the case of Israel and its gross abuses against the Palestinians. There is no threat of bombing Istanbul or any part of Turkey, and [the West] is not threatening to bomb Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, obviously. Somehow the Albanians at this point have been chosen as a "pet nation."

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How do you think typical Serbs view the confrontation with NATO now?

I see anguish among the urban elites because they feel that they are a part of the West, yet they read the news in which they're always called bloodthirsty barbarians and they cannot reconcile the two. There's a lot of anguish there, especially among the young.

I think there has been a frame of looking at the Balkans in particular and maybe at Eastern Europe in general through a certain prism that "others" them -- makes them into something different, more prone to violence and so on. There have been a few excellent studies about it. The most prominent is one by Larry Wolf, who wrote "Inventing Eastern Europe," in which he talks about how the West European Enlightenment invented the whole notion of Eastern Europe because of different cultural standards and different languages that were incomprehensible to the Enlightenment West Europeans, mainly the British and the French and to some extent Germans. The Serbs have the disadvantage of being perceived within this Balkanist, East Europeanist discourse as miniature Russians, because of their Orthodox religion and use of the Cyrillic alphabet and so-called traditional friendship with Russia.

I don't think that if you go to Belgrade or to Serbia you would find that sentiment among the general population, especially among the young. Young Serbs are completely Western, as Western as they can be. They look like people on the streets of Milwaukee or Chicago, and they actually would welcome being integrated into Western Europe.

What do you think should happen?

This is going to sound completely utopian, because it's not going to happen, but the only way to deal with the post-Communist transition in Russia and Eastern Europe was through some sort of Marshall Plan that would not be carried out by the local corrupt elites like it happened in Russia ... but implemented by well-meaning people on the ground like the Peace Corps or people in NGOs [non-government organizations] in the West who would go and work with the local population in implementing some sort of economic reforms and change. I believe that if that was the case, the ethnic tensions would immediately go down.

Ethnic tensions flourish in times of economic crisis, and we see that throughout this century. When people don't have resources, they clam in, and they withdraw into some sort of imaginary core of who they are or what their collective identity is and it just takes an irresponsible leader like Milosevic or Tudjman [the president of Croatia] to stir up the hatred and nationalism. And so I would start with that, with some sort of massive economic aid, and then working slowly on building confidence measures and so on.

Is it too late for this?

I think it's definitely too late for Kosovo. I don't think it can happen now that the hatred between the communities is at such a high level at this point.

There is no real claim that the Serbs can make on this region through population anymore. It is obviously Albanian now. The only thing is maybe to grant some sort of cultural autonomy to the Serbs to visit those monuments and churches and monasteries, which are not just Serbian, they're part of the world and European heritage. Those are ancient objects that really speak of the past for the whole continent, and they shouldn't be allowed to just be abandoned. They should be put under the protection of UNESCO or some other world body that will take care of them and the monks and the nuns that are still there.

What do you think will happen?

There is going to be more and more foreign involvement, and eventually I think there are going to be international troops on the ground, and it will become a protectorate like Bosnia. I think soon this will sort of prove to be the training grounds for the new enlarged NATO. The Poles, the Hungarians and the Czechs will have to sort of prove themselves as being truly Western by participating in Kosovo peacekeeping operations.

There also may be the possibility of some sort of partitioning of Kosovo, a Serbian and Albanian part. Right now as we speak I think there are Serbian operations in the north of Kosovo and it looks like the West is looking the other way, so there may have been some secret clauses in the previous Dayton agreement in 1995. You never really know what happens behind closed doors.

If you look five to 15 years down the line, here's another really scary scenario: With Russia going down the tubes -- an economic basket case with Yeltsin an alcoholic president, half-dead, being dragged around -- there is a real potential for native homegrown fascism in Russia using the aggressive posturing by NATO and the West -- including in Kosovo, the westernmost point of Eastern Orthodox culture and Christianity -- as a focus. With the nuclear weapons that Russia still possesses, this is a really scary scenario, and I hope it doesn't come to that.

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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