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Serbian Nationalist Named Premier-Designate On Country's Sacred Day

Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej (second from left) arrives to celebrate St. Vitus Day in Gazimestan, where Serbs mark the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje.
Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Irinej (second from left) arrives to celebrate St. Vitus Day in Gazimestan, where Serbs mark the 1389 Battle of Kosovo Polje.
BELGRADE -- It is likely no accident that Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic chose June 28 to nominate nationalist Ivica Dacic as his prime minister.

The controversial choice of a longtime ally of the late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic came on one of the most important days on the calendar for Serbian nationalists. Not only is June 28 celebrated as St. Vitus Day by Orthodox Christians, it is also the date of one of the most momentous events in the country's history: the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, when Serbian forces battled and were defeated by an invading army of Ottoman Turks.

That event has formed the core of Serbian national identity ever since. The Kosovo narrative has morphed into a morality play of patriotism, betrayal, self-sacrifice, and the need for national unity in the face of ruthless outside enemies.

And it was on the same date in 1989 when Milosevic delivered a fiery and provocative speech marking the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje to a crowd of about 1 million people, an event widely seen as a key spark that ignited the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Milosevic made the speech in the shadow of a memorial to the battle that bears a legendary curse, supposedly uttered by Prince Lazar, who led the Serbian forces at the Battle of Kosovo Polje and died there.

Whoever is a Serb and of Serb birth
And of Serb blood and heritage,
And comes not to the Battle of Kosovo,
May he never have the progeny his heart desires,
Neither son nor daughter!
May nothing grow that his hand sows
Neither red wine nor white wheat!
And let him be cursed from all ages to all ages.

Ironically, it was on June 28, 2001, that Milosevic was extradited from Belgrade to face trial in The Hague on charges of crimes against humanity and war crimes stemming from the bloody Balkans wars of the 1990s. He died in custody in 2006.

Prime Minister-designate Ivica Dacic
Prime Minister-designate Ivica Dacic
At nearly the same time that Dacic's appointment was being announced in Belgrade, dozens of Kosovar police were injured in clashes with Serbian nationalists seeking to visit the site of the Battle of Kosovo Polje. About 20 Serbs were also reported injured in the incident, in which about 70 Serbs carrying banners reading "Kosovo is Serbia" tried to reach the site.

Dacic, who heads the Serbian Socialist Party that Milosevic founded and who served as Milosevic's spokesman in the 1990s, has said he is committed to Serbia's path toward European integration.

Speaking in Belgrade after Nikolic asked him to form a government, Dacic tried to downplay history and emphasize the future.

"I'm not interested in heavenly Serbia. I am interested in how Serbia lives today and how it will live tomorrow," Dacic said. "I will respect our past, but I am more interested in the future. This government -- and myself as prime minister -- will not allow a return to the 1990s. Had I wanted to do that, we would have done that over the last year. Anyway, all that I said and did was granted legitimacy in the [May parliamentary] elections."

Others are not so sure, saying it is likely the new government will go down in history as the "Vidovdan" (St. Vitus Day) government, with all the symbolism that attaches to that name.

PHOTO GALLERY: Serbs mark anniversary of historic battle

Franz Lothar Altmann, a senior researcher at Munich's Osteuropa-Institut, says the Kosovo legacy will dog the new Dacic government.

"The party leadership shows us quite clearly that -- particularly regarding the Kosovo issue -- we cannot expect anything new, but rather more of a confirmation of the nationalist course," Altmann said. "And I believe that the Kosovo issue is the crucial question, particularly as it pertains to the European Union. So we should expect the new government -- if it in fact remains [in power] -- to experience more problems than progress [on these difficult issues]."

Aridan Arifaj, an analyst with the Kosovar Institute for Policy Research and Development in Pristina, says it is just "speculation" that there is some meaning in the Dacic appointment coming on St. Vitus Day, but that if there is symbolism, it is important to get the symbolism right.
Ivica Dacic addresses supporters at a memorial ceremony for Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2007.
Ivica Dacic addresses supporters at a memorial ceremony for Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade in 2007.
"Even more important -- if there is any symbolism at all -- is to remember that this symbolism recalls a defeat. And this was what, basically, destroyed the reign of Slobodan Milosevic," Arifaj says. "But his defeat was not only a personal defeat, but it was a defeat for the whole region and those who wanted to promote prosperity and democracy in the region. Hopefully, this symbolism will not be repeated and this new government in Serbia will not be a symbol of the same failure that we've seen in the past."

St. Vitus Day does seem to be fateful for Serbia. On June 28, 1914, Bosnian Serb and South Slav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Habsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, plunging the world into World War I.

The same date in 1919 saw the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, which redrew the map of the Balkans, with consequences still being felt today.

And on June 28, 1948, the Soviet-led Cominform officially adopted its "Resolution on the situation in the Communist Party of Yugoslavia," kicking Yugoslavia out of the communist bloc.

RFE/RL Kosovo Unit Editor in Chief Arbana Vidishiqi contributed to this report from Pristina; RFE/RL Balkan Service correspondent Nedim Dervisbegovic contributed from Prague

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