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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
Far-right demonstrators, including members of the ultranationalist Oath Keepers organization, stage a rally in front of the national assembly in Belgrade under a banner declaring "Kosovo is the picture of Serbia." (file photo)

It has become a disturbing pattern in Serbia of late: those looking to improve relations with neighboring Kosovo can expect to encounter mayhem-minded ultranationalist youths hell-bent on foiling their efforts.

However seemingly innocuous the event -- a film screening, a festival, a visit by a dignitary -- young Serbian nationalists see an opening for disruption, prompting calls for newly elected President Aleksandar Vucic to live up to his pledge to initiate a dialogue about Kosovo within Serbia.

Most recently, threats from a right-wing youth group that calls itself the Zavetnici (Oath Keepers, a nod to the 14th-century Tsar Lazar of Serbia, who died in the battle of Kosovo against Ottoman forces), led to a change of venue for the screening of the documentary "Kosovo Cheers" in Novi Sad, the third-largest city in Serbia.

The movie is not about the late-1990s Kosovo War, or Kosovo's pursuit of independence. Rather it presents a slice of everyday life in Kosovo, focusing on the hopes and concerns of its main communities -- ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians.

'Ideological Straitjackets'

The film's director, Aleksandar Reljic, told RFE/RL that the aim was to promote dialogue, not to stifle it.

"The irony is that the film deals with ordinary people free of ideological straitjackets that would prevent them from communicating with others, and as such was supposed to serve as an example of people coexisting despite political, ethnic or other differences," he said.

Members of Zavetnici protest against a screening of the documentary Kosovo Cheers in Novi Sad.
Members of Zavetnici protest against a screening of the documentary Kosovo Cheers in Novi Sad.

Despite the precaution of moving the event to more secure premises, however, the Zavetnici managed to interrupt the June 12 screening. They effectively accused the producers of the documentary of treason, claiming that the film had reversed roles by casting the Serbian military as an occupying force in Kosovo, and the Kosovo Army as its liberators.

The development came less than two weeks after similar incidents led the Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR), which describes itself as working to build connections between young people across the Balkans, to send an open letter to President Vucic asking him to protect public space from all forms of violence and hate speech.

'Heart Of Serbia'

The letter came after a number of events organized by the YIHR and other NGOs in Belgrade -- including the Miredita, Dobar Dan festival ("Good Day" in Albanian and Serbian, respectively) -- were aggressively disrupted by the Zavetnici.

Using derogatory words for Kosovo Albanians, members of this group carried photos of Kosovar politicians as well as the Albanian-American Bytyqi brothers -- killed in 1999 while in the custody of Serbian security forces while fighting in Kosovo -- calling them terrorists. The Zavetnici interrupted a performance by Kosovar artists, singing nationalist songs celebrating Kosovo as the "heart of Serbia."

Former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga (file photo)
Former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga (file photo)

A planned visit by former Kosovar President Atifete Jahjaga to the festival, which ran between May 31 and June 3, was abruptly canceled following actions and threats by the Zavetnici. She addressed the audience via video link from Pristina, expressing regret for not being able to come to the Serbian capital.

Jahjaga was due to promote a new book that addresses one of the most under-reported war crimes -- rape. She wrote the foreword to the book, I Want To Be Heard, based on firsthand testimonies of victims. During her time in office Jahjaga used her authority to highlight the plight of these silent victims of war, and this book was meant as a continuation of that effort. However, the Serbian authorities apparently could not provide the necessary security arrangements for her visit.

'A Shouting Mob'

In its letter to the president, the YIHR reminded Vucic of the promise made in his inauguration speech to initiate a dialogue about Kosovo within Serbia.

It continued as follows:

We simply wish to inform you that a very substantial, vigorous, and intensive dialogue on this topic has been ongoing for years under the auspices of the wider regional civil society. However, in the last few days that dialogue has been jeopardized by physical threats and a 'lynching atmosphere' created by the ultra-right-wing and football-fan groups.

Events that serve as a platform for that dialogue have been violently disrupted, threats to members of NGOs are more brazenly open, and the escalation of violence is imminent unless the state is prepared to take decisive action. Belgrade University and the Belgrade Youth Club [Dom Omladine] are no longer the guardians of freedom of thought and open debate, because they have been occupied by a shouting mob that is only able to express its views with blows.

Miredita, Dobar Dan, which was taking place for the fourth year running, brings artists, journalists, and public figures from Kosovo to Belgrade to meet with members of Serbian civil society and cultural organizations.​

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)
Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic (file photo)

The festival was created in the spirit of normalizing relations between Serbia and Kosovo, a function it had fulfilled with relative freedom until now.

This year, however, around 30 members of the Zavetnici began interrupting festival events and, despite the presence of security forces, managed to get inside the festival space at Belgrade's Youth Club. Moreover, with each day of the festival their actions became more overtly violent.

Rallying Cry

The 2017 festival was officially inaugurated by Alban Ukaj, a Kosovo Albanian actor who has frequently appeared in Belgrade theaters.

"The organizers have put together a great program. Young people are getting together to talk, exchange views, think [together]...it's all very nice and heartening. But there is also something here that is not so easy, and perhaps not so appropriate to speak about at the festival opening," Ukaj said.

"That something is shame. Today it is no longer shameful to hate, today no one is ashamed of having been involved in killing and then covering up [the crimes], today we are not ashamed to stay silent," he added, saying he was sorry that the festival was taking place amid the fear of violence and controversy.

As the Serbian portal Pescanik points out, the Miredita festival -- supported by Vucic in its first year -- does not promote Kosovo politicians, but gives a platform to "artists who have stood up to their own [Kosovo] politicians with more courage and determination than all the 'Oath Keepers' and football fans of this world."

Under siege from increasingly emboldened ultranationalist groups like the Zavetnici -- whose members met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov during his December visit to Belgrade and were hosted by the Kremlin-controlled United Russia party during their visit to Moscow in 2016 -- the YIHR is asking Vucic to use his authority as president "to protect the advocates of human rights whose security is currently under threat.

"We believe that a rallying cry as well as a basis for continued dialogue can be [the slogan] 'Hate is shameful,'" it wrote in its letter.

President Vucic is yet to respond to this entreaty.

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

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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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