Saturday, February 25, 2006

Myth: The 28 June 1989 celebration in Gazimestan of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo was nationalist.

FACT: The 28 June 1989 celebration in Gazimestan of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo has been granted great importance in the distorted, anti-Serb official history of the break-up of Yugoslavia. According to this official history, the celebration was a Milosevic-organised nationalist event, which threatened and inspired fear within the hearts of the other peoples of Yugoslavia. Nothing could be further from the truth: the event was simply the celebration of an historic anniversary, and it carried the message of multinational peace and harmony, and brotherhood and unity amongst peoples.

28 June is St Vitus day for Serbs, when they remember the Battle of Kosovo against the Ottoman Empire, which took place on 28 June 1389. According to Serbian national mythology, this defeat led to the destruction of their medieval state and their subjugation under Turkish rule. The Serbian Prince Lazar was said to have had a dream the day before the battle in which a falcon offered him the choice of achieving either a heavenly or an earthy kingdom, and he chose the former, and fought and lost the battle. Prince Lazar was reputed to have said that “It is better to die a heroic death, than live with shame. It is better to die of sword in battle, than bow to our enemies.”

This tale, embedded in the Serbian collective memory, has inspired ideals of national self-sacrifice amongst the Serbs for centuries. This mythology is not ‘nationalist’. St Vitus day is not about saying that Kosovo belongs to Serbs and not Albanians, it is simply a national anniversary, which carries the message of unity and self-sacrifice. As the most famous Yugoslav dissident, Milovan Djilas, said “If there had been no battle at Kosovo, the Serbs would have invented it for its suffering and heroism”.

Much of this mythology is historically inaccurate, as most nations’ founding myths are. Historians – many of them Serb – have discovered that the Battle was in fact more of a tie than a defeat, and that the medieval Serb state actually survived for another seventy years before finally falling to the Turks. This is often pointed out in the West as if it exposes the Serbs or Milosevic in some way, ignoring the fact that no-one in 1989 attempted to claim this national mythology as historical fact. Slobodan Milosevic himself, in his speech at Gazimestan on the day, said that “Today, it is difficult to say what is the historical truth about the Battle of Kosovo and what is legend… [I]t is difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat or a victory for the Serbian people, whether thanks to it we fell into slavery or we survived in this slavery. The answers to those questions will be constantly sought by science and the people.”

As 28 June 1989 was the 600th anniversary of this famous Battle – and such a milestone anniversary does not crop up every day – large celebrations were organised for the event. The bones of Prince Lazar were also taken on a tour of Yugoslavia, which began on 28 June 1988 and ended in September the following year. Note that in June 1988 Kosovo was ruled by people such as
Azem Vllasi and Kaqusha Jasari, celebrated in the West as Albanian resisters of Milosevic and his supposed evil nationalism, and they raised no objection to the beginning of preparations for these celebrations.

This is because there was nothing abnormal or nationalist about celebrating this event. Socialist Yugoslavia may have been tough on nationalism, but the Communists did not simply erase the history of the nations and nationalities of Yugoslavia, and such milestone anniversaries were always celebrated. In 1976-7, for example, there were a number of celebrations in Bosnia and Serbia of the centenary of the Serb uprising in Bosnia, organised in co-operation with the Serbian Orthodox Church, while in November 1987 the centenary of the death of Vuk Karadzic, founder of the Serbian language, was celebrated in Serbia.

Rather than deny such national anniversaries, the League of Communists of Yugoslavia organised them as celebrations not of national exclusivity but of brotherhood and unity, multiethnic and multinational co-existence and harmony, that existed (in theory, at least) in Yugoslavia at the time. At the aforementioned November 1987 celebration, therefore, alongside Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and Serbian Party President Slobodan Milosevic in the front row sat Lazar Mojsov, the ethnic Macedonian President of the Presidency of Yugoslavia, and Sinan Hasani, the ethnic Albanian representative of Kosovo on that body, amongst others.

The celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the Kosovo Battle were organised on similar lines. They were officially organised not by a Serb body, but by the multinational Presidency of Yugoslavia, and the events’ organising committee went to great lengths to stress the fact that in the Battle of Kosovo not just Serbs but Albanians, Hungarians, Croats and Bulgarians had fought on the European side. The main celebration at Gazimestan on 28 June was attended by the presidents of each and every one of the republics and autonomous provinces of Yugoslavia, not just Serbia (Janez Stanovnik, the President of Slovenia, recieved the loudest applause, presumanly because the audience thought his attendance was a stand against previous Slovene support for Albanian nationalists), alongside key federal government leaders such as Prime Minister Ante Markovic (a Croat), Foreign Minister Budimir Loncar (a Croat), Defence Minister Veljo Kadijevic (a Yugoslav), his Deputy Stane Brovet (a Slovene), and Interior Minister Petar Gracinin (a Serb). The then President of the Presidency of Yugoslavia, Janez Drvonesk (a Slovene), and all its other members, also attended. So did a number of members of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia, including its then President Milan Pancevski (a Macedonian). The composition of the representatives attending was as multinational as Yugoslavia itself.

As this was a Serbian national anniversary, Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, was obviously the main speaker. But he did not use
his speech to the million odd people – primarily Serbs – that had gathered that day in Gazimestan to whip up nationalism. On the contrary, he gave one of his typical pro-Yugoslav speeches in favour of brotherhood and unity amongst peoples, and explicitly warned of the dangers of nationalism. He emphasized, for example, that “Serbia has never had only Serbs living in it. Today, more than in the past, members of other peoples and nationalities also live in it. This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced that it is its advantage. National composition of almost all countries in the world today, particularly developed ones, has also been changing in this direction. Citizens of different nationalities, religions, and races have been living together more and more frequently and more and more successfully.” His speech, available to read here, ended with a line that succinctly summarises the whole message of the celebrations – “Long live peace and brotherhood among peoples!”.

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