Sunday, December 16, 2007

"The Bridge Betrayed" by Michael Sells [6]


The Curse of Kosovo

It would not be a bad idea to print up thousands of laminated cards with the first two sentences of this section and send them to as many politicians, journalists, intellectuals, policy wonks, and activists as possible:

"Western policy makers maintain that the conflict in the Balkans is "age old." Yet contiguous ethnic and religious groups throughout the world have old antagonisms."

Maybe if President Clinton had been handed a similar quote in 1993 instead of a copy of Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan, he might not have spent the next few years desperately dodging the burden of American leadership.

[As an aside--it wouldn't hurt if more than a few policy-makers were to receive a copy of this statement with "Palestine" in place of "Kosovo" as well.]

Sells goes on to note that conflict between Croats and Serbs has actually mostly been confined to the 20th Century. He acknowledges that the conflict between Serbs and Slavic Muslims does date from the Ottoman period, but goes on to qualify this:

"However, the development of the Kosovo story in which Slavic Muslims and Serbs are ancient and fated enemies is more recent; it was constructed by nationalist Serbs in the nineteenth century and projected back to the battle of Kosovo in 1389, and then back further, even to the very creation of the universe. It is this rather recent national mythology which was revived in the late 1980s in Yugoslavia."

This is crucial, and Sells goes on to develop his argument; first by noting that--contrary to what many believe--the battle of Kosovo was not "the central theme of Serbian epic." For centuries, Serb folk mythology had focused on Marko Kraljevic, a Serb who served as a vassal of the Ottomans. Kraljevic was a more nuanced figure, who sometimes fought against and sometimes for his Ottoman masters. This certainly reflects the ambiguous position of the Christian subjects of the empire; as Sells puts it he

"...served as a figure of mediation between the Serbian Orthodox and Ottoman worlds."

It was in the nineteenth century when the new "ancient" mythology was developed. Sells summarizes the career of Serb folklorist Vuk Karadzic, who collected and standardized Serb folk literature which became the canon of Serb nationalism. Two aspects of Karadzic and his career need to be kept in mind.

First, he saw "Serbian" as a linguistic designation--all speakers of "Serbian" (which to him included all the dialects regarded as Serbo-Croat in modern times) were to be considered Serbs, regardless of religious identification. He was a pioneer in collecting the folk literature of these various unwritten dialects and therefore was taking a leading role in defining the national language.

Keeping in mind that a language is "a dialect with an army," this leads to the second relevant point--that Karadzic was doing his work while the independent state of Serbia was coming into being, establishing its independence from the Ottomans, and looking to expand its influence and geographical extent through the region. Karadzic was defining a new national culture in the contexts of the rise of a new, aggressive state searching for a unifying national mythology.

Karadzic began the process by which the battle of Kosovo became central to Serb national myth when he published the "curse of Kosovo," in which all Serbs are called to fight at Kosovo or suffer the curse of having no progeny, no descendants. He also added a new emphasis and focus on Milos Obilic, who assassinated Sultan Murat.

Stil, the poems Karadzic collected did not focus on Kosovo as much as he clearly wanted to, keeping in mind that nineteenth century Serbia was very much interested in expanding into Kosovo and Macedonia. The full mythologizing of Prince Lazar and the battle of Kosovo would occur in the second half of the century, in Serbian art and literature. A common motif from that period was of Lazar at a Last Supper, surrounded by his knights including his betrayer Vuk Brankovic. Obilic's death at the hands of the sultans bodyguards after he has killed Murat even though Lazar mistakenly accused him of betrayal was to represent the ideal for all Serbs to follow. Unfortunately, this mythic folk version of a historical event became a template by which contemporary events would be interpreted.


Jay@Soob said...

Regarding Kaplan, Clinton would have been better served if we could manipulate time and toss him a copy of Warrior Politics.

Anonymous said...

Quote: "First, he saw "Serbian" as a linguistic designation--all speakers of "Serbian" (which to him included all the dialects regarded as Serbo-Croat in modern times) were to be considered Serbs, regardless of religious identification."

Actually, what Sells states is a fact. Here is a scanned copy of the Serbia's constitutional law from the 19th century:

I will translate few sentences from Serbian into English the best I can, quote:

"According to the Serbia's Constitutional Law of 19th century [or 1835 to be more exact], every new comer and ever stranger who spent 10 years in Serbia, becomes Serb [note the difference between Serbian and Serb]. Every Christian who has real estate ownership and has spent 10 years in Serbia is to be considered a Serb."

However, it is also important to note that Vasa Pelagic advised teachers throughout Serbia and Christian Orthodox teachers in Bosnia to ask pupils simple question: "Who are you?" - The correct answer is always: "I am a Serb!"