The Demons of Kosovo

The Demons of Kosovo

Mini Teaser: The competing claims of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have been hopelessly tangled in the webs of history and myth.

by Author(s): Warren Zimmerman

A gray falcon spread its wings and flew away from Jerusalem to the
field of Kosovo. It carried a book from the Mother of God to Tsar
Lazar, who was preparing his army to defend Serbia against attack by
the Turks. The falcon dropped the book on the Tsar's knees, and it
began to speak by itself:

'Honorable Tsar Lazar, what Kingdom will you embrace now? Is it to be
the Kingdom of Heaven or the Kingdom of this world? If you choose the
earthly one, saddle your horses, tighten their reins, gird on your
swords. Let all your knights rush together among the Turks. All the
Turkish invaders will perish by your hands. But if you choose the
Kingdom of Heaven, then build a church on the field of Kosovo, not
with marble but with pure silk and brocades, and let your knights
take holy communion in it. For they shall all die, and you, Prince,
will die with them.'

When the Tsar read these words, he beseeched God for advice: 'O
Almighty Lord, what kingdom shall I choose? Shall I choose a heavenly
kingdom, or shall I choose an earthly kingdom? If I choose an earthly
kingdom, it will last only for a short time, but a heavenly kingdom
will last through all eternity.' So the Tsar chose a heavenly
kingdom. He built the church in Kosovo of silk and brocades, and
summoned the Serbian Patriarch and his twelve bishops to come. Then
he gave his soldiers the Eucharist and their battle orders. In the
same hour the Turks attacked Kosovo.

Tsar Lazar rushed among the Turks with his seventy-seven thousand
men, and chased them across the vast field of Kosovo. They were so
fiery and brave that it seemed as if they would carry the day. And so
they would have, but for Vuk Brankovic, the Tsar's son-in-law, who
betrayed him and joined the Turkish side. So the Tsar perished, and
with him all his soldiers, the seventy-seven thousand Serbs. All was
holy, all was honorable, and the goodness of God was fulfilled.

Thus the Serbian national epic of Kosovo, handed down by oral
tradition for six centuries and known to every Serb from childhood.
It embodies almost all the elements that Serbs see in their history
and in their present circumstances--heroism, mission, holiness,
faith, glory, devotion, opulence, disunity, betrayal, demonization,
martyrdom, victimization, predestination. Kosovo is the founding myth
for all Serbs, the historic heart of Serbia's glorious medieval
kingdom, the religious seat of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and the
geographic site of Serbia's oldest and most beautiful monasteries and
churches. When Serbs think and talk of Kosovo, in their mind's eye
they are seeing their past--their transgressions as well as their
triumphs--through the purifying light of their own origins as a

The real battle of Kosovo took place on June 28, 1389. Most
historians agree that it was not the epic struggle of the myth. Nor
was it even the decisive battle against the Turks, which had been
fought and lost eighteen years before in Bulgaria. The opposing
forces were small and feudal. Tsar Lazar evidently had problems
raising a national army; his curse against malingerers--"Let [their]
fields go barren of the good golden wheat / Let [their] vineyards
remain without vines or grapes"--has been carved into the marble
monument that stands today on the field of Kosovo. Muslim Albanians,
Christian Bosnians, and Catholic Croats probably fought on the
Serbian side, and (as the epic implies) some Serbs fought with the
Turks. The post-Kosovo Serbian contention that the Serb knights were
defending Europe against the infidel is thus questionable. In any
case they failed, since after Kosovo the Turks swept through the
Balkan peninsula and eventually through Hungary to threaten the
ramparts of Vienna.

Kosovo remained under Turkish suzerainty until Serbia got it back,
with the diplomatic support of France and Russia, following the First
Balkan War in 1912. After World War I, it became a part of newly
created Yugoslavia, remaining effectively under Serbian rule. During
World War II Kosovo was occupied by Mussolini's Italy. While some
Albanians fought the Axis as membersof Josip Broz Tito's partisans,
many others collaborated with the Italians with the aim of forming a
greater Albania.

After the victory of Tito's communist army in 1945, Kosovo became an
autonomous region under Serbian control. Tito's last constitution in
1974 and his death in 1980 brought considerable political and
cultural autonomy to Kosovo and its Albanian majority. For example,
the province was awarded one of the eight seats on the collective
Yugoslav presidency, the same allocation as for Serbia and the other
republics of Yugoslavia. These concessions spurred Kosovo's Albanians
to lobby for even greater autonomy. During riots in 1981 in the
capital, Pristina, Albanian student demonstrators demanded republic
status for Kosovo, a condition that would make it completely
independent of Serbia and imply its right to secede from Yugoslavia.

During most of Kosovo's history, its Serbian and Albanian populations
lived in hostile coexistence. They fought each other in both world
wars, the Serbs on the Allied side, most of the Albanians on the
German. Neither ethnic group showed much tolerance whenever it got
the upper hand. The increase in Albanian power in the 1980s, the
subliminal and sometimes explicit demand for republic status, and the
widening demographic difference (Albanians make up about 90 percent
of the two million population today) stoked growing revanchism among
nationalist Serbs.

Serbian grievances were not all trivial, though they were cynically
exploited and distorted by Serb nationalists. Kosovo, they argued, is
the Serbian Jerusalem--a Holy Land in which Serbia's nation,
religion, state, and culture were born. They even made an explicit
link between Serbia and Israel and between the Albanians and the
Palestinians. Kosovo, Serb nationalists claimed in the 1980s, was
ruled by Muslim "separatists" who had fought against the West twice
in this century, who remained loyal to a foreign power--Albania--and
who wanted to take Kosovo and its Serbian identity right out of

Nationalists alleged further that Albanians were stripping Serbs of
their rights, raping their women, and torturing their men. (These
ridiculous charges distort the fact, conceded to me by Kosovo
Albanian leaders, that some Albanians did abuse their powers before
1989.) But by nationalist scripture, Tito was the primary betrayer of
Serbia, even though it was his military successes that ensured that
Kosovo would go to Serbia, rather than Albania, in 1945. Among his
sins, the nationalists charged, was his denial of the constitutional
voice of Yugoslavia's largest nation by making it possible for Kosovo
and Vojvodina, the other autonomous province, to outvote Serbia
two-to-one in the collective presidency of Yugoslavia.

The Albanians have their own grievances, some of which pre-date the
horrendous deprivation of basic rights that they now suffer. Kosovo
is not their Jerusalem, but they can argue a prior claim to it. A
people who go back to classical times (they fought against Philip of
Macedon and his son Alexander the Great), Albanians occupied the
Balkan peninsula long before the Slavs arrived in the seventh
century. Like the Serbs, they were a subject people under the Turks.
Led by their national hero, Skanderbeg, they fought bravely against
the Ottoman invaders before succumbing in 1479. They won their
independence from Turkey in 1912 under the banner of another Albanian
patriot, Ismail Kemal. Throughout the twentieth century the Albanians
have been a majority in Kosovo, first a small one, now a large one.
Their initial claim to autonomy and their current insistence on
independence are based on the democratic, majoritarian principle, as
well as on their residence in Kosovo for more than a millennium.

The competing claims of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo have been
hopelessly tangled in the webs of history and myth. In its essence,
however, the main issue is as simple as it is intractable. The
Serbian claim to hegemony is based primarily on the
historical/cultural principle--the Jerusalem argument. The Albanian
claim to independence is based largely on the demographic
principle--the majority argument. Since these claims are mutually
incompatible, there is little reason to think that Kosovo will be
easy to solve, especially after the events of the past nine years.

Milosevic as Avenger

Serbian complaints, magnified by nationalists and laden with the
emotional appeals such as only Kosovo could evoke, virtually
guaranteed that a Serbian demagogue would arise to exploit them.
Slobodan Milosevic, who had spent his entire career as a Serbian
communist espousing the Titoist position on Kosovo, seized his
chance, reversed himself overnight, ousted and replaced the Serbian
party leader (his mentor and best friend), and trained the
blunderbuss of Serbian politics and press on the Albanians, their
powers, and their rights.

In March 1989 Milosevic got the Serbian parliament to abolish
Kosovo's political autonomy. He then removed its mainly Albanian
leadership and replaced it with Serbs or "honest" (read quisling)
Albanians. Schools became breeding grounds of Serbian propaganda. The
library of Pristina University, with the finest Albanian language
collection in Europe, was closed. From a vibrant, if impoverished,
population of Yugoslavia, the Kosovo Albanians became a colonial
appendage of nationalist Serbia. Since Milosevic's move against
them in 1989, their situation has progressively worsened. Kosovo
today represents the worst human rights problem in Europe.

Essay Types: Essay