Friday, April 6, 2007
THE HEART OF SERBIA/POINT OF NO RETURN
At the heart of a disintegrating Yugoslavia is the ancient land of Serbia, a nation with a strong sense of self and a long memory. A particularly poignant and long-standing element of Serbian nationalism is the “Kosovo myth,” a 600-year old specter hovering over a site called Kosovo Polje (the field of blackbirds), from which the modern region of Kosovo in southern Serbia takes its name. It was here that Serb forces were vanquished in a major battle with the Islamic Ottoman Turks in the year 1389, an epic loss marked every year, on June 28, as the vidovnan, or St. Vitus’ Day - the most significant date in the Serbian calendar. For centuries they nurtured the dark memory under Turkish rule, only to emerge by struggle and Ottoman decay and re-enter “the European mainstream” in the early 1800s. The re-emergence of the Serbian kingdom into a much-changed Europe opened them to new oppressors. Serbia and its surrounding areas were wrangled over by the Austrian empire (and increasingly Germany) – who had the advantage of proximity – and the Russian empire, which had the advantage of common Slavic identity with the Serbs and a serious drive to gain influence over the shipping lanes to warm water ports to the Mediterranean Sea.
By the early 1900s the Austro-Hungarian Empire had taken effective control of the region that would become Yugoslavia, to the dismay of Russian-supported Serb nationalists. In the spring of 1914, a small group of them associated with the “Black Hand” society was tipped off that Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand would visit the Capital, then Sarajevo, to oversee regional military operations. His date of arrival was listed as June 28. One of the young men involved later fumed “how dared Franz Ferdinand, not only the representative of the oppressor but in his own person an arrogant tyrant, enter Sarajevo on that day? Such an entry was a studied insult.” To clarify that it was the date that clinched the deal, the conspirator noted “only four letters and two numbers were sufficient to make us unanimous, without discussion, as to what we should do about it.”  The Archduke’s killing on the 525th commemoration of the vidovnan of course set into motion the chain of events that led to World War I, which finally eliminated the power of both the Ottomans and the reviled Austrians, but also killed half of Serbia’s male population.
Of course this also laid the groundwork for the Second World War in which the area was jointly occupied by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. After the war was done and the Axis was knocked down, Soviet-organized Communist rule took hold over the area, merging six republics together into the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Marshal Tito ran the country tightly during nearly the entire Cold War, but after a falling out with Stalin in 1948, he pulled his nation from the Warsaw Pact and until his death in 1980 charted a more moderate Socialist course outside the Iron Curtain, earning points with the West. Tito’s Yugoslavia posed an unusual case for America and Europe - neither a puppet nor an outright enemy, and an important member of the global Non-Aligned Movement, playing both sides against each other for maximum gain.
Serb nationalism was of course suppressed at this time in the interest of Yugoslav unity (“a weak Serbia makes a strong Yugoslavia” was the gist), but beneath the culturally muting blanket of Socialist harmony, it was a nation deeply gouged by the ridges and valleys of the Balkan Mountains and by its intense history long before being glued together in 1945. The six republics were peopled with a tense ethnic mix of Serbs, Croats, Bosniacs, Albanians, and others; many were Muslims, a remnant of centuries of Ottoman rule. Like a mini-USSR, it was ideologically Socialist and composed of numerous smaller republics united around a dominant central state (with Serbia as its Russia). Like the USSR, the glue could only hold so long.
After Tito died, the Kosovo myth was re-introduced by Serb nationalists in the 1980s in Kosovo itself, peopled with a mix of Muslim ethnic Albanians and Christian ethnic Serbs. The efforts of Kosovar Serbs to increase their population – and thus power - were outstripped by the astounding Albanian birthrate; it was the region’s Albanians, 78% of the population and overwhelmingly Muslim, who made Kosovo far and away the most densely populated part of Yugoslavia. Louis Sell, a US State Department veteran involved in the diplomatic efforts in the 1990s explained how in March 1989, the Serbian Parliament adopted a constitutional amendment stripping Kosovo of autonomy; the intention was clarified with a rally held by the newly elected president in a Kosovar town three months later. On the 600th commemoration of the Vidovnan, Slobodan Milosevic dropped onto the stage from a helicopter to dramatically welcome a million mostly Serbian attendees to “Kosovo – the heart of Serbia.”  He had invited American and European diplomats to the speech but they declined, and this day has been widely seen as the point of no return that led to the Kosovo conflicts, the next major test of the New World Order.
Next: Divide and Conquer/State Sponsors of Terror
 The Murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo, 28 June 1914. Borijove Jevtic. Eyewitness to history. Ed. John Carey. New York. Avon Books. Page 442.
 Slobodan Milosevic and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. London. 2002. Duke Universiry Press. Page 88.