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Is The Power Of The Kosovo Myth Fading?

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (far left) leads official St. Vitus's Day commemorations in Belgrade on June 28.
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (far left) leads official St. Vitus's Day commemorations in Belgrade on June 28.

Serbia has again marked its most important state holiday -- Vidovdan, or St. Vitus's Day -- and newly elected President Aleksandar Vucic led the official commemoration on June 28 for the first time, laying a wreath at the monument to the fallen heroes of the 14th-century Battle of Kosovo in the town of Krusevac.

The celebrations harken back to a historic battle between an invading Ottoman army and an alliance of Christian forces that took place in 1389, and which claimed the lives of both Serbian Tsar Lazar and the Sultan Murad I. The defeat of the Serb-led Christian army helped pave the way for the Ottoman conquest of most of the Balkan Peninsula in the 15th century.

In the collective memory of the Serbian people the valiant defeat came to symbolize, among other things, the struggle for freedom from foreign domination, love of country, and personal heroism. As such it was transformed into a potent nation-building tool in the 19th century, when Serbia secured its independence from the Ottoman Empire.

Unifying Force

In the early 20th century, the symbolism attached to the Battle of Kosovo was used as unifying force among South Slavs (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, and others) in the process of creating the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.

Yet what became known as the "Kosovo Myth" also had a more divisive, darker side.

It was invoked by Slobodan Milosevic, whose infamous speech on June 28, 1989 -- the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo -- let the genie of nationalism out of the bottle, helping unleash the Balkan wars of the 1990s.

The story of a nation's struggle, death, and reincarnation still cannot be openly questioned in Serbian public discourse. It continues to make it difficult for Serbian politicians to recognize that Kosovo today is an independent state, recognized by 114 UN members.

The Belgrade-based social anthropologist Ivan Colovic, who has worked and published extensively on the Kosovo Myth, finds this dogmatic adherence to a single and unequivocal interpretation of history troubling.

"Narratives about the past are not considered myths based on their content, but rather the demands they make on those in the present; for instance, their status as incontrovertible and sacred truths about that past," he says. "The Kosovo Myth is still held as a sacred relic whose authenticity is beyond doubt. One may privately disbelieve [this version of history], but one dare not admit to this. One is expected to submit to its authority regardless."

Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic (file photo)
Serbian anthropologist Ivan Colovic (file photo)

In his book on the subject, Colovic shows how the Kosovo Myth effectively became state religion in the 1990s, and fuel for the cycles of violence seen in the Balkans. Yet he also concludes with the suggestion that its power may be fading:

"Perhaps events will prove me wrong, but I do believe that, in the current marketplace of political symbols, the purchasing power of the Kosovo Myth is not as great as it was in the 1990s."

In his first encounter with the media following his election victory, Serbian President Vucic seemed to give credence to Colovic's assertion. Vucic said that he would initiate a public discussion on Serbia's future relations with Kosovo, one of whose central aims would be to liberate Serbian political discourse from myth.

However, when a Belgrade-based RFE/RL journalist asked if the heralded new approach meant that the government was about to announce a shift in policy toward the former Serbian province, Vucic replied that his reference to the "mythologizing of Kosovo" was part of a sentence in which he also promised to ensure that Serbia did not "easily renounce what rightfully belongs to us."

Slippery Statements

The remark served as a reminder of Vucic's reputation for making slippery and enigmatic statements before he became president. It also indicates that while a more pragmatic approach may indeed displace mythic injunctions in policymaking, Kosovo will continue to be used as a tool of national homogenization in public discourse.

Colovic points out that President Vucic's words have preemptively set limits on the very dialogue that he is calling for.

"From the outset [Vucic] set the condition that participants in that dialogue must respect the Serbian Constitution. And as we all know, the constitution still includes the notorious preamble according to which Kosovo is an integral part of Serbia," Colovic says.

"So, all those who disagree with the claim made in that preamble are immediately excluded from the dialogue. In other words, those who believe that any real, open dialogue that would indeed open a new chapter in Serbian relations with Kosovo must begin with the removal of that preamble from the Constitution. There is also the wording of the [presidential] oath that [Vucic] has just taken, which also imposes restrictions on any dialogue about Kosovo, because the oath of office also holds Kosovo as the highest value, and most sacred relic that must be preserved in Serbian hands."

It is therefore hard to predict what this future dialogue on the status of Kosovo might look like, or where it may lead. Even if many in Serbia support a new dialogue, there is still plenty of opposition to taking the big step -- formal recognition of Kosovo.

WATCH: Serbs In Kosovo Mark St. Vitus's Day

Serbs In Kosovo Celebrate St. Vitus's Day
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​The academic and dramatist Dusan Kovacevic provides a window into the views that help forge that opposition -- steadfast animus to the idea that Kosovo belongs to its ethnic Albanian majority.

"I would never sit down with people who say that Kosovo is Albanian territory, that it always has been, and will be [Albanian]. Never."

Asked whether he believed in the mythologizing narrative according to which Kosovo is the cradle of the Serbian nation, and that "there can be no Serbia without Kosovo," Kovacevic responded by saying: "That is intended as a metaphor, but if Kosovo is indeed lost, if Kosovo with all its [Serbian Orthodox] heritage becomes Albanian, then it would be true."

Colovic, the author of the most exhaustive study on the history and uses of the Kosovo Myth, Death On Kosovo Plain, is optimistic but cautious. He warns that the Kosovo Myth might be deployed elsewhere and in other ways, with potentially pernicious consequences. He observes that the epicenter of St. Vitus's Day celebrations is no longer Kosovo itself but Republika Srpska (part of Bosnia).

"The construction of Andricgrad [a new town in eastern Bosnia built ostensibly as a showcase for the life and work of novelist Ivo Andric, the only winner of the Nobel Prize from the former Yugoslavia] started on June 28, 2011, on St. Vitus's Day," he says. "The intended link is therefore with Kosovo and the Kosovo Myth, and not with Andric, or else it would have made sense to choose a date associated with the latter, such as his birth or when he received the Nobel Prize."

Using Legal Means

According to Colovic, this is one aspect of the construction of a Bosnian Serb national, ethnic, or cultural identity, a strategy like the one employed in the 1990s by convicted war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Biljana Plavsic, the architects of Republika Srpska and its claims to a separate national identity (and statehood). That project has been revived and developed in recent times by Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the film director Emir Kusturica, and some of their associates.

Latinka Perovic, a prominent Serbian historian, agrees that the power of the Kosovo Myth seems to be fading in Serbia. She believes that the new generation of Serbian nationalists are prepared to fight for their goals using legal means, but that they are not ready to go to war over Kosovo.

Yet she also warns that in many other respects the political atmosphere in the Balkans is very much reminiscent of the 1990s.

Much therefore depends on the rhetoric and course taken by the new Serbian president.

It remains to be seen what practical steps Vucic will take to resolve an issue that links Serbia's present goal of regional stability, the need to come to terms with its recent violent past, and its national identity, for so long rooted in a mythic narrative of a medieval battle whose anniversary looms large once again.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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