Ancient Narratives and Modern Conflicts

On 27th June 1389, the eve of the most significant battle to the Serbian nationalist psyche, a Serbian prince was faced with a choice: to establish either a heavenly or an earthly kingdom. Knez Lazar’s decision lost him the battle to the Ottoman Sultan Murat the next day, but confirmed a heavenly realm for the Serbian people. This story, a conflation of history and mythology, was the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. 600 years later, in Kosovo Polje on 28th June 1989, the Serb nationalist leader, Slobodan Milosevic, ignited the hearts and minds of millions of Serbs.

Public Domain.

Flash-forward to March 1999, and Milosevic might even see himself as a modern-day Prince Lazar. With Richard Holbrooke sitting in his office with a NATO ultimatum, Milosevic is faced with a choice: capitulate to NATO’s demands or attempt to preserve the Serbian nationalism he had incited. When Milosevic refused to meet NATO’s ultimatum, essentially inviting NATO’s bombing raids, he might have seen himself as choosing the spiritual victory over the earthly one.

The danger of these ancient narratives is that they become fused with present-day ones. In the case of Kosovo, ancient bloodshed influences modern policy. Kosovo is a de facto state that declared its independence in 2008 but has not achieved full recognition since several states, namely Serbia, Russia, and China have blocked it. For Serbia, it is an issue of national pride; Kosovo is seen as the birthplace of the Serb nation. Russia and China, who have secessionist provinces, refuse to recognize Kosovo out of fear of provoking their own subordinate populations.

Although Kosovo is perceived to be the cradle of the Serb nation, the population of Kosovo is currently over 90% Albanian. In 1989, Milosevic unearthed a centuries-old relic from the professed golden age of the medieval Serbian kingdom and used this blend of history and ancient narrative to justify modern-day ethnic hatred.  There is a mutual distrust between Kosovar Albanians and Kosovar Serbs that lingers to this day. When Milosevic first arrived in Kosovo in 1987, it was as an employee of the Communist Party, he was sent there to settle a minor dispute between the Albanian majority and Serb minority. Just two years later, Milosevic is addressing millions in the same province, claiming that there existed an ancient animosity between the populations. Suddenly Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo, who had been living relatively peacefully side-by-side for decades if not centuries, were at odds.

Kosovo was under a UN protectorate from 1999 until its declaration of independence in 2008. Although the ‘hot’ conflict is now over, the ethnic lines drawn by leaders such as Milosevic are still engrained in the collective memory of the people of Kosovo and all of the former Yugoslavia. Serbia has recently elected a former ultra-nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, as president. Nikolic was elected on a more moderate platform in May 2012; however, he was quickly questioned when he immediately started to criticize Kosovo, which is arguably Serbia’s main obstruction to entry into the EU, which they so desperately want and need.

The main point of contention is Mitrovica, a Serb enclave located in northern Kosovo, which rejects the ethnic Albanian government in Pristina. Nikolic predicts that if Mitrovica were to accept Albanian rule, this would spark a Serb exodus. He argues, “What if the Serbs move out. Who will accept the results of such genocide? That is one of the definitions of genocide: when you expel 40,000 people, regardless of whether they are women, men, [civilians or] soldiers, and when you change the ethnic composition of the territory. That is genocide.” Nikolic is using the term genocide for its shock effect, to fuel the flames of Serb nationalism to protect their ethnic brothers in Kosovo. It is necessary to realise that the plight of the Serbs that Nikolic is describing is a potentiality, not a reality. But as Serb poet Matija Beckovic put it, “we have to announce that Kosovo is Serbian and that this fact depends on neither Albanian natality nor Serbian mortality. There is so much Serbian blood and so many sacred relics in Kosovo that Kosovo will remain Serbian land, even if not a single Serb remains there.”

Ancient territorial and ethnic lines have been rehashed in Yugoslavia over and over. The battle of Kosovo in 1389 has helped fuel and refuel this political mechanism in Serb nationalist agendas to this day. Not only does it threaten the volatile peace in the region, but it hinders Serb advancement as well. This all from a piece of “history” of which the only two details that can be confirmed for certain are that both Knez Lazar and Sultan Murat perished in this battle. Yet the narrative framed by Milosevic still influences the Serbian psyche.

Another danger of ancient narratives is how the international community interprets these narratives. Robert Kaplan, an American journalist and author of Balkan Ghosts, argues in his book that the ethnic conflicts in the Balkans are based on ancient hatreds and are beyond the help or control of any outside force. President Bill Clinton was seen with Kaplan’s book tucked under his arm when the Yugoslav wars broke out, and many would argue that the book convinced the president to not intervene in Bosnia. Kaplan’s writings can be compared to Samuel Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations in its superficial explanations of the conflicts that do nothing more than justify the ‘hand-wringing, hand-washing’ that was displayed by the West throughout the 90s.

Elite manipulation of perceived (constructed) ethnic hatreds has been widely used to generate support for nationalist causes. These myths, stories, and histories have a far-reaching effect. They have been used to divide populations in places such as Kosovo, Bosnia, Nagorno-Karabakh, Israel, and the list goes on. There is an inherent danger that these ancient narratives or ancient hatreds will be used to consolidate power and support. Milosevic used it in 1989, and Nikolic invokes it in 2012. It is imperative that both Serbs and the international community as a whole, reject the notion of ancient hatreds, and focus on existing peacefully in the current day, rather than remembering conflicts of the past.