Serbia and the Former Yugoslavia: What's to Be Done?

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/1

Historical Perspective

It is mid-1998. On news programs in the United States, the issue of intervention in Kosovo is addressed as a prevalent concern. It is at least mentioned in every presentation: any progress that's been made or any possible change is offered to the audience with up-to-date information. But now, in 2005, the media presents nothing on the topic. Does that mean, then, that the issues in the region are resolved? Hardly. The former Yugoslavia remains an area of significant instability. Morton H. Halperin, the Director of Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. Department of State, said of the Balkans:

[It] is the crossroads where the Western and Orthodox branches of and the Islamic world meet. World War I began there, and major battles of were fought in the region. Over the past decade the worst fighting in Europe since the Nazis' surrender has raged throughout the former Yugoslavia. (Buckley 224)

Possession of land and has been brutally contested for hundreds of years; factions specific to the area have nothing less than abhorrence for one another. Intervention from the outside has failed to create lasting peace. It is imperative to examine history to find an answer for this continuing crisis. What is to be done? What is the importance of Kosovo and what is it trying to say? Perhaps this: the re-allotment of land and power should be made in favor of the Serbian people. This can be proven through a review of certain aspects of their history, specifically in the past territorial and authoritarian claims of Serbs, the gross mistreatment of Serbs by foreign groups in their past, and the marginalization of Serbs in preceding agreements and policies through external "intervention."

Serbia's possession of influence and residence was established hundreds of years ago, as far back as the Byzantine Empire. Of course, Byzantium, in addition to maintaining and building upon many Greco-Roman successes, extended its ideology to barbarian tribes which settled in central and eastern Europe during the era of migrations, which began circa early 900s (Anzulovic 17). At its zenith, Byzantium exhibited a strong correlation between church and state: it was a multinational empire with a supranational church. It sent missionaries to the archaic, war-like Slavs in these regions to convert them to Christianity and to provide them with a more cultured society. In both proximity and mind-set, Byzantium circuitously brought about the cultivation of Serbia and provided an archetypal ideal for its institutions and culture. When a Serbian state indeed emerged on the northern fringe of the empire (around 1000 A.D.), a province in which its people began to associate themselves with a collective provincial identity, the realm still observed the Byzantine model in its functions.

Serbia descended from the Slavs of southeastern Europe, and was formally acknowledged as a nation in 1170 A.D. by Stefan Nemanja, founder of the Nemanjic dynasty ( 1). Some attest that "prior to their arrival in the region during the sixth and seventh centuries, [the area] was virtually uninhabited" (Buckley 97). The religious establishment of the country came a while later (1219) and was called the Serbian Orthodox Church. This church became more than merely a representation of their faith, but also developed into "a cultural and quasi-political institution, which embodied and expressed the ethos of the Serbian people to such a degree that nationality and fused into a distinctive 'Serbian faith'" (Anzulovic 25).

For many years, Serbia enjoyed temporal and religious independence. It began to realize itself, to experience a time of privileged circumstances. Upon surveying the numerous contributions Serbs made during this period, their prominence can be appreciated. Dragnich and Todorovich, authors of The Saga of Kosovo, write, "Serbia of the Nemanjic dynasty was without doubt a land of economic and cultural progress that surpassed the European average (10)." Among Serbia's advancements at this time, there were well-known monasteries, beautiful crafts, and elegant embroideries. Additionally, Tsar Dushan's Code of Laws was recognized to be among the leading law systems of the world (Dragnich 10). These feats were accomplished because of the society Serbia possessed at this time.

Further, medieval Serbia was a participating portion of the international community, corresponding with surrounding states in matters of political, military, and cultural consequence. Serbian royal courts communicated with Venetian doges, Hungarian kings, Bulgarian Tsars, and Byzantine emperors. A large body of written works was produced at this time; monastics, courtiers, and a plethora of Slavic-speaking subjects of Venice, Byzantium, Hungary, and Bulgaria hovered around Serbian literary centers (Dragnich 10).

During the rule of Stefan Dusan, Serbia began to expand within the European world, increasing territory from Macedonia and the Byzantines. As seen in the painting above, Serbia was thriving in this era. Kosovo was highly esteemed and cherished by the Serbs from the beginning, upon the formation of the country. According to Tim Judah, noted author of A Brief History of Serbia, "Kosovo lay at the heart of the Serbian medieval kingdoms. To this day the monasteries and churches that were built by Serbian kings attest to this fact. They also suggest… that the majority of medieval Kosovo was… Serb" (Buckley 89). Kosovo became and remained sacred to the Serbs throughout its history.

In view of the early years of its nationhood, it is evident that Serbia distinguished itself as a culturally and territorially important portion of the European community. Hence, the currently contested land has belonged to the Serbs for hundreds and hundreds of years, even to the point of recorded history of the region.

However, this flourishing nation would be subjected to much suffering in the centuries ahead. It is important to note here that, "following the demise of Serbia and its subjugations, the Serbs retained… a powerful . The past was kept alive while still retaining the promise of a future" (Buckley 90). Serbs remained proud in themselves and their identity, even when they were overpowered. Soon, Serbs began to experience appalling mistreatment from foreign powers and factions, specifically at the hands of the Turks, Albanians, Croatians, Austrians, Germans, and Americans.

In June of 1389, the Serbs were disastrously defeated by the Turks in the legendary Battle of Kosovo under Prince Lazar. Serbs themselves see this pivotal moment in their history as a fall—from a prosperous, sovereign medieval Balkan state to a structure-less community within the Ottoman Empire, a condition that lasted until the 19th century. By 1459, the Turks had exacted domination over every Serbian province. Branimir Anzulovic, author of Heavenly Serbia, notes the losses the nation suffered in 1389: "not only did Serbia lose the status of a regional power, it completely disappeared as a political entity." He continues to say that, "Turkish conquests of new territories were often accompanied by severe depopulation, because of the killing and exodus of large numbers of natives" (Anzulovic 42). Turks circumcised many Serbian Orthodox women. The men who refused to convert were simply killed. Konstantin Mihailovich of Ostrovitsa, like many Serbian men, was forced to serve in the Turkish military and assist them in their conquests. He wrote of some of his experiences in his work, Memoirs of a Janissary (1461). One instance he relates involves the fall of the Serbian mining town of Novo Brdo, in which the sultan ordered all the gates closed and guarded except for one. All the inhabitants were to pass through the gates, leaving their possessions. The sultan then separated males from females, and ordered the leaders to be beheaded. The women were distributed among his warriors for their pleasure, and the men were sent to Anatolia to become unwilling members of the Turkish army (Dragnich 32). The Serbs were also taxed heavily (Anzulovic 34).

For more than three centuries, the Serbs lived as slaves of the Ottoman Empire. To escape this oppression, many of them migrated out of their native land into other parts of the Balkan peninsula, such as present-day Vojvodina and Croatia ( 2). In their stead came many Albanians, most of whom had converted to . The Albanians were not nearly as persecuted as the Serbs: they readily adopted the religion of their conquerors. Their assimilation was not so painful since they identified with Turks more than they did with Serbs.

Under the Habsburg monarchy, central Serbia became the Kingdom of Serbia (1718-1739). Under Austria, Serbia hoped to assert itself and attain freedom after an extensive and cruel Turkish occupation. This was never realized. Between 1788 and 1791 the Austrians coerced units of Serbian Freikorps to fight inside Turkish territory. The Austro-Turkish and Russo-Turkish wars of the 17th and 18th centuries held the Serbs within their clutches: they found themselves in the middle of the struggle. Serbian insurrections were instigated sporadically to both encourage its people and take back the land, but none of them were truly successful (Appleseed 2).

It is important to note that all this while, the Serbs and Albanians were living grudgingly alongside each other. By the 19th century, "something more critical than ethnic or religious differences was becoming evident… this was the disparity in political outlooks. The Serbs had a very clear idea about Serbian statehood, while the Albanians, with occasionally weak blimps of Albanianism, were for the most part Turkish-oriented. While the Serbs dreamed of their Serbian state, the Albanians tended to identify with the Ottoman empire of which they were a part" (Dragnich 37). Moreover, "in times of peace [Albanians] turned on their Christian neighbors. They began viewing themselves as the propagators of the Islamic faith. They left a bloody trail in their forceful Islamization drives among the Serbs" (38).

The first war of 1912 let Serbians reconquer some of the land they once possessed and to again dream of a greater Serbia, the one they had been longing for since 1389 and the Battle of Kosovo. The Turks were pushed back across the channel. But, the Serbs' joy was short-lived. Opposition to Austria's exertion of power upon their nation came to a head in Sarajevo in 1914. It brought on an unmitigated Austrian attack on Serbia. In 1915, despite fighting bravely, Serbia was overrun by Germans, Bulgarians, and Austro-Hungarians. Still, after some recuperation, Serbia fought alongside , England, , and U.S. on the Thessalonike front. Again, it suffered severe casualties (a loss of 58% of its male population). This sacrifice "was the contribution Serbia gave to the Allied victory and the remodeling of Europe and of the World after World War I" ( 4).

The end of the war saw the creation of the first Yugoslavia, but it was not strong in unity. Many of the factions that comprised this entity were Serbs, Slovenes, Croats, and Albanians, who resented being associated with each other. In 1941, when Hitler's and Mussolini's troops began their invasion of Yugoslavia, they were met with little resistance (Buckley 92). The country was divided. At this time, "hundreds of thousands of Serbs perished at the hands of the Croatians in Croatia and Bosnia, and more were either killed in Kosovo or expelled from it" (92).

Also, Albanians openly collaborated with occupying German and Italian forces in subduing the predominantly Slav resistance forces, causing the death and emigration of a large number of Serbs (Buckley 98). General Velimir Terzić estimated that the lives of some one million Serbs were lost in the years 1941-1945 in Jasenovac alone: they were killed by Croats, Germans, Albanians, Muslims, and Hungarians.

The Second World War produced a reconstituted Yugoslavia under communist rule. Naturally, the Communist promise of a federal solution in which every nation would have equal rights was appealing to Serbia. It was a considerable factor in the success of the Partisan movement under Tito's leadership. In reality though, the Communist ideal was a façade for a rigidly centralized system. Although the area experienced peace under Tito, his death caused the Serbs to again feel persecuted and they started to vacate the province. At this time, the national emancipation and affirmation of Kosovo's Albanian population was encouraged, developing into a powerful Albanian national movement. This further alienated the region's Serb population.

When Serbia again tried to gain control of the former Yugoslavia (1989), Slovenia, with whom Serbia had no earlier dispute, betrayed them. Now, rather than helping the Serbs as they had done in the past, the Slovene president advocated for the fighting them. In addition to this, a group of Croats launched an attack to recapture the Krajina region in 1995, "cleansing" the area of some 200,000 Serbs, most of whom belonged to families that had lived in the territory for centuries (Buckley 59).

Next, when the U.S. finally decided to intervene because of mass chaos and killing on both sides, they bombed the Serbs. All of the United States' and European Union's threats were directed toward the Serbs, who were portrayed by outside sources as the agitator. Dobrica Cosic, a prominent Serbian political thinker, in an address to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 1999, acknowledged this anti-Serb sentiment. He asserted:

"In the changes within Europe, the Serb nation has suffered the greatest losses and today is in the worst position. Politically, wars waged for the liberation and unification of the Serb people have been lost. The state we mistakenly considered our fatherland (former Yugoslavia) has been destroyed. With the exodus from Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, and Metohija, Serbs have lost territories where they had dwelled for centuries. With injustices and sanctions, lies and hate manufactured in the media, the world has humiliated us, assigning to us the role of a scapegoat for its goals. Serbia is in limbo, regressing economically, politically, and culturally, isolated from the world under burdensome sanctions, which America and the have recently made even harsher" (Buckley 193).

Clearly, when examining its history, one can see that the Serbian nation has been neglected and purposefully harmed; it is "a nation brutally beaten, a nation enslaved, a nation beheaded of leadership" (Dragnich 46). Since the late 1300s, for more than 600 years, the Serbs have been oppressed in one way or another by a separate faction of the region—through occupation, through slaughter, through humiliation, through force, through accusation, through hatred, through ignorance.

What of past settlements, policies, and programs implemented by external governments? How did these slight the Serbian people? The Vance-Owen Plan, put forth in 1993 by the UN, had three goals: the reorganization of Bosnia into ten provinces, according to Vance-Owen maps, the conception of a new constitution, permitting the provinces' self-sufficiency within a decentralized state, and the establishment of a cease-fire. Each of the main groups would predominate in three provinces: Sarajevo would become a mixed, demilitarized "open city" and the Serbs would be forced to hand over more than 20% of Bosnia. There would be no "ethnically pure" provinces. Owen also proposed five "throughways," which would allow "full freedom of movement" and be guaranteed by UN forces. Serb and Croat troops would have to withdraw from specific provinces. The ban on military flights over Bosnia would remain in effect (Power 1). This plan was far from perfect. The Serbs had known Kosovo as a sacred city, a central part of their history, for hundreds of years. They wanted to fight for it because they felt it was wrongly taken from them in the first place. Was this the price of peace, to relinquish something that was fundamental to their culture, to what they represented as a people? Upon the preliminary desire to continue life in a common Yugoslav state, "the Serbian state and ethnic territory during the Yugoslav crisis always became smaller" (Buckley 132).

Aside from this predicament, the intervention that came from outside powers at was biased. According to Steven Burg and Paul Shoup, authors of The War in Bosnia-Herzegovina, "Western actors could—and did—change their view of the war in order to suit the policies they chose to adopt. Thus, ultimately, it was interest—and the policies that flowed from interest—that defined the war in Bosnia for Western policymakers (190)." Darko Tanaskovic echoes this sentiment in one of his essays: "As soon as the breakup of Yugoslavia began—and in contrast to the other Yugoslav peoples—Serbs… were the only ones who did not have at their disposal articulated, nationalist, state-forming projects and developed separatist plans of action that were orchestrated by the so-called 'international community'" (Buckley 132).

It is true—for a war to take place, more than one side has to fight. It is difficult to determine who started wars and the atrocities committed by whom against whom. The fighting has continued for such a long period of time and each faction represented has a case against the other, a hatred for the other. All parties involved believe that they are due something, that they are rightful owners to land, to power. But in truth, Serbia was peaceful after being settled in the fashion of Byzantium. They did not fight until they were provoked—occupied, captured, imposed upon. In the subsequent years, they continued attempts to restore themselves to the nation they had known before occupation, to be a 'greater Serbia' as they knew it before, in its glory and entirety. Is this not justified?

Dobrica Cosic asks in his speech to the Academy, "What kind of people are we Serbs, that so many of us laid down our lives for liberty during the war, only to see that that victory deprived us of freedom" (Dragnich 119)? Nick Vucinich, a journalist for the North American Society for Serbian Studies, states,

During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia and the wars in the region in the 1990s, including the recent NATO "humanitarian intervention" over Kosovo, Serbs have had to flee from Croatia, from the Muslim- and Croat-controlled parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and from Kosovo… [it] is impoverished. Many Serbs who hold dear the values of liberalism, free speech, , and respect for individual rights, and who have looked toward the U.S. as a beacon of these values… have been disillusioned by the use of military means to supposedly defend these values on the territory of the former Yugoslavia (Buckley 153).

It is seen that Serbians, as a people, were present in the southeastern Balkans for hundreds of years. The freedom and prosperity the nation experienced was short-lived as they were subjected to centuries of suppression from foreign powers. Policies developed to quell the situation were unproductive. What should be done now? Simply put, more attention should be paid to the history, to the past. It is obvious that Serbians have laid claim to power and to the land in question for hundreds of years. As stated before, they have been present since recorded history. After reviewing their plight—the rich culture developed in time of peace, the occupation of the Turks for over three centuries, the broken promises and betrayal of Austria, the unthinkable deaths at the hands of Albania, the massacres conducted by Croatia and Germany, and the misinterpretation and unjust punishment from America—isn't it time they receive what is due them? They have waited for hundreds of years to regain Kosovo and to be the nation of Serbia once again. Can this not be made right, or begin on that course, with the action of returning to them what was theirs in the first place?

Finding a Solution

Serbia deserves more than what she has been given. With knowledge of her history, it is irrefutable that the nation has been severely mistreated by several foreign peoples: Turkey, Albania, Croatia, Austria, Germany, the United States. Upon the foundation of her statehood, Serbia produced brilliant thinkers, a peaceful people, a significant cultural contribution to the world, a beautiful country. But make no mistake: she has suffered through ruthless oppression; she has been used as a pawn, a hostage in times of war, even if the dispute was not her own. Tim Judah, author of Kosovo: War and Revenge and The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, states "the physical, political, legal, and cultural genocide of the Serbian population… is a worse historical defeat than any experienced" (Judah 94). Serbia has been raped and desecrated. Her people have been murdered by the millions in past wars—they have seen untold chaos and been the victims of unremitting hatred by other Balkan factions like the Croatians and Albanians. Notwithstanding, Serbia has been assigned the role of the "troublemaker," the source of all Balkan problems, by distant and essentially ignorant countries, such as the United States. Subsequently, Serbia has isolated herself from many parts of the world, understandably from the United States and others that ignored her plight. Even now, though, rectifications can be made. The United States, as a leading world influence, has an intrinsic duty to promote peace in the international community. Rectifying the situation with Serbia falls within the context of this duty. At this point, what should the United States do? The following prescribed actions in order to make peace with Serbia may not be easy, but they are quite necessary to maintain peace and goodwill. First, the U.S. should openly acknowledge its past misguided actions against the Serbian nation. Further, the United States should energetically collaborate with the and NATO to adjust the current boundaries and properties of Serbia—it should work to bestow upon Serbia her original land, the land it contained but was wrongly taken from her in 1389. Finally, the U.S. should actively foster and monitor Serbia's recovery within the Balkan region and pursue a mutually beneficial relationship with her.

The United States, being a world power, should admit its wrongdoings against the nation of Serbia. The first offense: it is clear that the U.S. failed to notice Serbia's great offering in World War II: she fought valiantly alongside the United States, France, England, and Russia, sacrificing many of her men (58% of her male population) for the Allies' convictions and principles. However, the U.S. seems largely incognizant of this fact. Another misdeed: the NATO alliance, led by the United States, began bombing Serbian civilian areas in March 1999—among the targets were hospitals, churches, homes, roads, farms, factories, and office buildings (Steele 1). Terrorization tactics were employed upon Serbian civilians, and if that was not enough, the Western mainstream media was used to portray Serbia as the absolute malefactor in the Kosovo incident. David Ramsay Steele, author of "Why Clinton Bombed Yugoslavia," said of the media: "Balkans experts were all but entirely absent from TV and even newspaper coverage... complete ignorance of Balkan affairs was almost a qualification for being heard" (Steele 3). So, it is certain that much of what the media related was not only based on ignorance, but received by its audience inaccurately. The United States has a responsibility to repair Serbia's erroneously portrayed reputation. The Serbs would infer from this gesture that the world acknowledges their existence in addition to the misrepresentation of their character as a people.

Next, because it is in a position to cultivate change, the United States should work in partnership with such entities as the United Nations and NATO to award Serbia its original territory. This stipulation does not suggest that all Albanians or other factions should be removed from the province, but merely that it be recognized as the nation of Serbia. It does indicate that the land she once possessed, the property that was wrongfully taken from her centuries ago, should finally be given back. It is clear that as early as 800 A.D., the people who came to identify themselves as Serbs, those who became the nation of Serbia, were present in the land that is still disputed—between Albanians, Serbs, Croats, etc. Since 1389, the year that brought defeat and over 300 years of occupation under the Turks, the Serb people have had to make great concessions in land, in freedom, in life. According to Darko Tanaskovic, a professor at the University of Belgrade and the Ambassador of Serbia to the Holy See, "The Serbian state and ethnic territory during the [Serb] crisis always became smaller" (Tanaskovic 132). The U.S. and the United Nations, in distributing land that was never theirs to give, disclosed their unfamiliarity of the situation and insulted the Serbs. If, however, this wrong is made right, and Serbia's land is given back in whole, she could once more learn to trust the powerful countries and coalitions that have wronged her in the past.

After supplying Serbia with its original entirety, it is only right that the United States encourage its success within the world arena. After all, the U.S. was the mechanism by which Serbia was sent in the wrong direction. In November 1990, a bill (101-513) was passed in the U.S. Congress concerning the "appropriation of funds for operations abroad," which was largely directed against the Serbian people. Without warning, the United States cut off all forms of credit and loans to Yugoslavia (Serbia). No longer able to conduct foreign trade, Yugoslavia "was condemned to commercial bankruptcy" (Mahairas 1). The European Union stood behind this U.S. decision, further ensuring the economic isolation of the struggling country. This caused Serbia to lose its international credibility and left her with neither allies nor support of international community. As Dobrica Cosic declared in his speech to the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts, "Serbia is in limbo, regressing economically, politically, and culturally, isolated from the world under burdensome sanctions, which America and the European Union have recently made even harsher" (Cosic 193). If the United States was the primary instrument through which Serbian character was dishonored, should it not also be the means for this country to regain her footing at the international level? The U.S. should trade extensively with Serbia, help her rebuild her original structure, and cooperate with her in projects. If the United States would initiate this, other countries around the world would follow its example. Hence, Serbia would participate more in and contribute positively to the world arena.

The United States is a leading world power. Inherent in this position: a responsibility to assist smaller, possibly weaker nations in upholding peace and justice if necessary. It is only right that the U.S. restore to Serbia what she is powerless to reclaim herself. In addition, other problems that face Serbia at this time are a result of U.S. "intervention"—it is only right that it repeal these actions as much as possible. Even through all the opposition she has experienced, Serbia has defended her ideals, her sense of freedom. Nonetheless, she has been rejected by much of the world. Yet her people remain proud of who they are: they believe in Serbia and its cause. They also believe they are alone in this sentiment. If Serbia is given back what was hers in the beginning: her dignity, her land, and her status with the rest of the world, the Serbs would be gladly proven wrong. If these objectives can be accomplished, a symbiotic relationship will be established: Serbia will benefit from participating in the international community; the world will benefit from Serbia's participation. The nation of Serbia will be what it was once intended, and the U.S. will perpetuate its promoted doctrine of freedom and honor.

Anzulovic, Branimir. Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide. New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Appleseed, Johnny. "Destruction of a common heritage: the archaeology of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina." Antiquity. 68:258 (March 1994) 120-127.

Cosic, Dobrica. "Now That We Have Lost this Little World War: A Message to Miholevic." Edited by William J. Buckley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.

Dragnich, Alex N. and Slavko Todorovich. The Saga of Kosovo. New York: Columbia University Press,1984.

Judah, Tim. "A Brief History of Serbia." Edited by William J. Buckley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.

Kosovo: Contending Voices on Balkan Interventions. Edited by William J. Buckley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.

Mahairas, Evangelos. "The Breakup of Yugoslavia." IA Center. 12 Nov. 2005.

"Making Federalism Work—A Radical Proposal for Practical Reform." Journal of Democracy and Institute for War and Peace. 8 January 2004. European Stability Initiative. 1-11.

Owen, David. Balkan Odyssey. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995.

Power, Samantha. Breakdown in the Balkans: A Chronicle of Events. Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1993.

Steele, David Ramsay. "Why Clinton Bombed Yugoslavia." InfoManage Forums. Aug. 1999. Liberty Foundation. 18 Nov. 2005.

Tanaskovic, Darko. "The Case for Serbia." Edited by William J. Buckley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2000.

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