The Myth and Milosevic

The Myth and Milosevic

Whoever does not fight at Kosovo…
May nothing bear fruit that his hand sows.
     –Serb epic


Whoever does not fight at Kosovo…
May nothing bear fruit that his hand sows.
     –Serb epic

Contrary to US expectations, a Kosovo peace agreement isn’t going to be signed after a few weeks of bombing, and maybe not ever. To understand why Slobodan Milosevic decided to fight NATO instead of conceding, one must understand the contemporary role in politics played by the 1389 Battle of Kosovo. Milosevic is re-enacting the Serbian central myth of the leader who lost the medieval battle against superior Turkish forces and became a martyred nationalist hero. He is trying to keep his power by casting himself as the reincarnated defender and shifting the public’s anger over the possible loss of Kosovo from himself to the evil West.

There are many forces in his once small political base prompting Milosevic’s defiance. Their continued support for the president is critical to him now, but they are too peripheral to gain power were he to be ousted. One group pressuring him is the ultranationalist Radical Party, which won only sixteen seats in the federal Parliament. Vojislav Seselj, its leader, might have pulled his party out of the ruling coalition and weakened the government if Milosevic had agreed to NATO troops. He could have painted his president as a traitor to Serbian interests. Seselj’s popularity grew while he urged a war with NATO and delegates at the Rambouillet peace talks considered caving in to the West. To undercut his rival, Milosevic had to adopt Seselj’s positions.

Another factor is the nationalist military officers Milosevic appointed after firing the military brass who tried to restrain his actions in Kosovo this past fall. These new officers seemed to be implicitly threatening a coup when, according to the European press, they told him that allowing NATO troops into Kosovo would be the beginning of the end of his power. Gen. Nebojsa Pavkovic said the current military leadership believes that sacred Kosovo must be defended at all costs. Gen. Dragoljub Ojdanic, the supreme commander, speaking in the language of the myth, told his soldiers to “prepare for martyrdom.”

Belgrade political analysts say the Yugoslav president fears the public, which holds the Kosovo myth at the heart of its identity. He worries about being killed by an angry mob, like Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausescu. To guard against that fate, he silences every critic who could stir up riots or electoral opposition. He purged not only the military but the universities. Death threats against students continue. There is an escalated closing of independent media and jailing of journalists. Serbian journalists expect him to follow Seselj’s urging and crack down on the judiciary and the anti-Milosevic government in the Yugoslav republic of Montenegro.

His self-protective propaganda campaign plays on the Serbs’ sense of themselves as a persecuted people, which goes back to the fourteenth-century Turkish occupation and runs so deep that some Christians wear a Jewish star to identify with another historical victim. In recent broadcasts, World War II movies were run as a reminder of what the Germans did to Serbs, and claims were made that Madeleine Albright hates all Serbs and that the Kosovo Liberation Army had planted plastic dolls to fake a report about Serbs killing children. State TV endlessly repeats the Serbs’ mythic claim to Kosovo, despite the fact that until 1989 it had been legally theirs for only about sixty of the past 600 years.

There is no check on Milosevic’s propaganda or policies from the democratic opposition. It has become weak, discredited by its petty power struggles and the co-optation of its most charismatic figure, Vuk Draskovic, into Milosevic’s government. It is cowed by repression that has created such fear that many are focused only on individual survival. One dissident said, “I am not afraid of the war but of what comes after it. There will be no chance for democracy in Serbia.”

Many in the opposition and general public who detest Milosevic aren’t opposed to fighting NATO in Kosovo. The main public opposition to that battle comes from mothers demonstrating against their sons’ military mobilization. Some reservists, like some 200 in Leskovac, are staging protest rallies outside military barracks, and many draft resisters are going into hiding. They see through Milosevic’s strategy and believe that he has already sold out Kosovo but is forcing soldiers to die so he can survive his eventual surrender of the province.

Except with the conscripts and their families, Milosevic’s decision to re-enact a version of the medieval battle has strengthened him. Earlier this year his approval ratings were only about 20 percent, because he has devastated the economy and lost three wars, but by early March a poll showed 37 percent of the Serbs willing to defend Kosovo with force, with more uniting behind him. Even members of the opposition are entranced by the myth of the Serbian knights in the Field of Blackbirds, by the tales of glory, courage and sacrifice that are part of their folk songs and history books. Like actor Milanko Zablacanski, who was among the tens of thousands protesting against Milosevic in 1997, many feel honor-bound to support a leader they loathe against foreign soldiers occupying Kosovo as the Turks did.

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