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

By Kendra A. Palmer
2009, Vol. 1 No. 12 | pg. 1/3 |

Historical Perspective

It is mid-1998. On news programs in the , 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. 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 power 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).

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