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Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility

About the author
Julie A Mertus teaches international relations at the American University in Washington, where she co-directs the ethics, peace and global affairs programme. Among her books are Kosovo: How Myths and truths started a War (University of California Press, 1999), Bait and Switch: Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy (Routledge, 2004), and The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a New Era (Routledge, 2005).

When I began studying Kosovo in 1993, few people had ever heard the name of the small province in southern Yugoslavia. I had been sent there on an investigatory trip for a major international human-rights group, and I couldn't get the dusty, decayed place out of my head. An eager, newly graduated human-rights attorney, I wanted to discover the facts that would expose, once and for all, the real truth about this strange place where the bubbling ethnic hatred between the Serb minority and the Albanian majority made an eventual explosion seem inevitable.

"Like rabbits, they sit on the hill and shoot at us like rabbits", began my first op-ed on Kosovo, published in 1993 in the International Herald Tribune. After about a dozen op-eds and journal articles explaining the plight of Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, I realised that I had it all wrong. To explain the ethnic animosities in Kosovo required exposure not of truth as fact, but, rather, truth as myth. Serbs and Albanians based their behaviour on what they believed to be true, not on what anyone could guarantee was factually true.

Julie A Mertus is an associate professor of international relations at the American University in Washington, where she co-directs the ethics, peace and global affairs programme. Her six books include Kosovo: How Myths and truths started a War (University of California Press, 1999), The United Nations and Human Rights: A Guide for a New Era (Routledge, 2005) and Bait and switch: Human rights and U.S. Foreign Policy

The most important kind of myth informing Serb and Albanian identities structuring social relations concerned victimhood. After all – and in a pattern familiar in conflict situations across the world – it was the victims who could claim the moral high ground, and thus absolve themselves from any responsibility for being perpetrators. So, in the hot days of the mid-1990s, I set aside all my human-rights reportage and began asking questions about Kosovo myths.

I knew I was on to something when, almost immediately after I changed my approach, my life was threatened. Myth-raking was dangerous business.

The reason soon became evident. The myths of Kosovo were far more than random collections of individual stories: they were internally consistent worldviews capable of accommodating diverse experiences, drawing on real events, while spinning them into a pattern that reinforced the perspective of one side of a social fracture. The ability of powerful figures to mobilise those myths only became fully apparent later; what was clear was that in Kosovo, the myths were central to the politics.

The path to power

Both communities in Kosovo nourished their myths, but two factors made the Serbian "myth of Kosovo" the more potent: the fact that behind it lay an apparatus of statehood and political power, and the way that Kosovo operated as the historic locus of Serb nationhood. During the heyday of Slobodan Milosevic's political career, Kosovo became the single most important myth informing the Serbian collective imagination during Milosevic's heyday; it remains the single most important myth determining the future direction of the Serbian state and nation.

The historical centrepiece of the myth is an incident before the battle at Kosovo Polje (the "field of blackbirds", near modern Pristina) in June 1389 between the Ottoman army and the resisting Serb forces led by Prince Lazar. Lazar, the tale goes, was offered a choice between a heavenly kingdom or an earthly one. The brave Serb warrior chose the heavenly kingdom. With righteousness on their side, the prince and his troops bravely went to battle and were slaughtered by the Turks. From that day, Kosovo has been Serb "holy ground" under divine providence, territory to which Serbs are forever linked and from which they should never be sundered.

Milosevic did not create the myth of Kosovo, nor was he the first in the late 20th century to use it to justify Serb political demands. That bright idea came from within Serbia's academic elite, namely a group of intellectuals within the prestigious Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences (Sanu). In a lengthy "memorandum" leaked to the press in 1986, they lamented alleged Serbian victimisation in Kosovo under the federal Yugoslav state that had granted considerable autonomy to the region, and called for constitutional revisions to allow for greater centralised control from Belgrade.

The memorandum contained allegations of violence, forced expulsion and desecration targeted against the Serb minority in Kosovo. It provoked a huge political storm; many saw in it the appearance in public life of a dangerous new discourse of nationalist self-assertion among Yugoslavia's pivotal nationality.

Slobodan Milosevic, then an unremarkable communist functionary, was one of the few among the communist elite who did not publicly condemn the memorandum (on Milosevic's "ambiguous" stance, see Jasna Dragovic-Soso, "Saviours of the Nation": Serbia's Intellectual Opposition and the Revival of Nationalism [C Hurst, 2002]). In its wake, he started to develop a new platform for renewed Serb control over Kosovo. At a rally in 1986 in Kragujevac, an industrial city on the border with Serbia and the main initial destination for Serbs leaving Kosovo, Milosevic warned that changing the status of Kosovo would be difficult to achieve, because "other areas and individuals will be against the change".

The Kragujevac speech was only a warm-up. In January 1987, Milosevic staged a rally near Belgrade in which he called for a reduction in the autonomy of Kosovo, using the fighting words: "Serbia will be united or there will be no Serbia". In April, Milosevic was sent to Kosovo by his boss, Ivan Stambolic (later one of the many victims of his rule, abducted and murdered while jogging) to hear firsthand the complaints of Kosovar Serbs. A large public protest of angry Serbs greeted him in Kosovo Polje, and amid the confused uproar and cries that the local Serbs were being beaten, Milosevic can be caught on film uttering words that would earn him heroic status and catapult his career: "no one has the right to beat you!" (sometimes rendered as "no one shall ever beat you again!").

Also in openDemocracy after the death of Slobodan Milosevic on 11 March 2006:

Misha Glenny, "Milosevic's last victory"

Tom Gallagher, "Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq"

Dusan Velickovic, "Milosevic and I"

Anthony Dworkin, "The Hague tribunal after Milosevic"

Marko Attila Hoare, "Slobodan Milosevic: the spirit of the age"

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The last myth

Through his commanding response to the "Kosovo question" and other strategic political actions, Milosevic propelled himself to power in Serbia and, subsequently, Yugoslavia. In the late 1980s, he solidified his control by pushing through constitutional changes and instituting emergency rule, which gave Serbia ironclad control over Kosovo. An extraordinary moment in this period was the commemoration at Kosovo Polje of the 600th anniversary of the 1389 battle, marked by a speech where Milosevic ominously announced to an enormous gathering of Serbs: “Six centuries later, we are again engaged in battles. They are not armed battles, though such things cannot be excluded”.

By 1990, Milosevic was in position to extend the methods he had used in Kosovo to other parts of the Yugoslav federation. In expanding his drive for power and domination to Croatia and Bosnia, Milosevic had to add only two more ingredients – tighter control over the media and a few staged "incidents" in which Serbs were harmed. Then, the number of Serbs willing to fight would increase exponentially.

Milosevic was indeed a great manipulator. To blame Milosevic alone for the bloodshed in the Balkans, however, would be a grave mistake. He had many willing executioners. The death of Milosevic does not signal the end of the myth of Kosovo, nor of the wider complex of chauvinistic nationalisms of which it forms a part.

In my book, Kosovo: How Myths and Truths Started a War – published in March 1999, just as the modern conflict over Kosovo was approaching its latest climax – I argued that Serbian nationalism has always had some degree of autonomy that preceded and shaped the political struggles of Milosevic's time. Milosevic was able to tap into the already existing chauvinistic nationalism as a theory of political legitimacy to justify the political reality he would create. To recognise this is to reject two notions: both that politics is the cause of everything and that nationalism has nothing to do with it, and that conflict in the Balkans is simply the result of age-old, primordial hatreds which no one can salve until – well, until these people stop killing each other.

One factor that makes the continuation of Serb-Albanian violence in Kosovo likely, as long as the two communities coexist in the area in substantial numbers, is the continuation of chauvinistic nationalism on both sides. Milosevic is gone and he can no longer fan the flames of hatred through his references to Serb victimisation. Nor can the people of the Balkans continue to blame him for all their troubles.

Milosevic leaves the scene with the future constitutional status of Kosovo uncertain and open to high-level negotiation involving Serbs, Albanians and the international community. But in any case, the future of Kosovo was never his to determine. Certainly, Milosevic's myth-mongering has been instrumental in ensuring Kosovo's "loss" to Serbia. But, ultimately, the map for Kosovo's future has always been a matter for the people who would have to find a way to live together, or break apart.

The frenzied nationalism that Milosevic exploited and channelled was also not his to abandon. It too was a matter for the Serb people, many of whom – albeit with many honourable exceptions, including human-rights workers, journalists, students and civilians in all walks of life – embraced this destructive ideology long before it was resurrected by the Serbian academy in 1986 and given political shape and leadership by Milosevic. The low-key reaction to Milosevic's death may have demonstrated how few Serbs today publicly endorse such a worldview, but this may also owe something to the fact that the former leader had made the myth an instrument of catastrophic Serb defeat. At a deeper level, the ideology and the myth it embodies is still espoused by enough people to make a peaceful solution to the status of Kosovo very difficult.

Milosevic's myth-mongering must, as a matter of course, be a component of Serbs' self-examination after his demise. The Serb myth has poisoned the Serb reality. Nations can't live without myths, but they need to be rooted in realities and inspire the kind of constructive, creative national projects that promote long-term peace and justice. When the Serbs truly realise this, Slobodan Milosevic will finally have died.


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