In the Balkans it is often said that “everything started in Kosovo and everything will end there”, meaning that the cancer of nationalism that destroyed Yugoslavia began exactly there and that the Yugoslav conflicts had begun in Kosovo and would end there. Three decades after the beginning of those conflicts it is still hard to say that the processes they had unleashed have finished. Still, it is certainly possible to state that the rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic, the leading actor of that tragic scene in the ‘90s, have been strictly linked to the fate of Kosovo itself. It is possible to add that even after his downfall, which took place twenty years ago, and his death (in March 2006), the weight of his words and actions on such an intricate question has been considerable, exerting an influence, decisive as well as negative, from which all other actors still find difficult to free themselves.
It was in Kosovo that a diligent, but not yet pre-eminent, official of the Serbian Communist Party began his resistible rise to power, by playing on the discontent of Kosovo Serbs and rousing nationalist sentiments among Serbs all around the Yugoslav Federation. On 24 April 1987, outside a building in Kosovo Polje (on the outskirts of Pristina) where Slobodan Milosevic was meeting with local party officials (predominantly Albanian), many Serb demonstrators clashed with the police (also predominantly Albanian). Milosevic came outside: “No one should dare to bite you” he bellowed. “This sentence enthroned him as a tsar” said one of the organizers of the protest. Actually, over the next two years, Milosevic was to emerge as the undisputed leader of Serbia.
It was in Kosovo that Yugoslavia began its resistible descent into war and dissolution when on 28 June 1989 Milosevic (who had assumed the presidency of Serbia a few weeks earlier) addressed a threateningly confident speech to more than one million Serbs assembled again in Kosovo Polje, on the very battlefield in Gazimestan (the “Field of Blackbirds”), a verdant and rolling plain where 600 years earlier the Serbian Prince Lazar moved against the advancing Ottoman Sultan Murad and was narrowly defeated in a battle epically sung as a heroic stand to defend Christendom from Islam. Milosevic invoked this event to assert Serbia’s moral and historical claims to Kosovo, as “cradle” of the Serbian nation, over those of its overwhelmingly Albanian population, whose political and civil rights his regime had just brutally suppressed, repealing the autonomy of the province and foreshadowing the ambition of ethnic revenge and domination that would soon lead to the wars in Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-95) and Bosnia (1992-95).
It was for Kosovo that NATO went to war for the first time, one decade later, with an aerial bombing campaign that in June 1999 ended Serbia’s deadly repression of the Kosovo Albanians pursued by Milosevic’s regime and that was hailed as the first humanitarian military intervention based on a doctrine whereby the protection of human rights can trump sovereignty. In any case, it had been undertaken without the approval of the UN Security Council, due to the opposition of Russia (and China): its end was accompanied by a UNSC Resolution 1244 that recognized Kosovo as part of Yugoslavia but put it under temporary administration by the UN, in view of new talks between the parties to define its final status. Serbia’s defeat did not immediately provoke the end of Milosevic’s regime, which protracted itself for months in a dark atmosphere resembling the final days in Macbeth’s castle.
The fall of Milosevic is often referred to in Serbia simply as “5 October”, from the date it happened (in 2000) and many talk of “before” or “after” 5 October: expectations were huge as Serbia had reached a critical stage of its history, becoming a serious economic basket case and quite an “international pariah”. The fact is that the new Serbian leadership was extremely fragmented and composed of many leaders that had not much in common, save their opposition to Milosevic. From the beginning they had constantly to deal, in one way or another, with the legacies of the Milosevic years, which included how to face the pressures from the international community to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), how to reform the economic, social and security system, what to do with Montenegro and what to do with Kosovo. On all of these questions the new president, Vojislav Kostunica, and the new prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, disagreed, with quite opposing views: a veritable “cold war” between them marked the whole period of their “cohabitation”, till the assassination of the latter on 12 March 2003.
Kostunica was a conservative, not immune from a nationalistic approach, first of all vis-à-vis the Kosovo question; Djindjic tried to put forward progressive policies with a more pragmatic approach, also on the Kosovo issue, but his reformative attempts were frustrated by the boycott of part of the state machinery, first of all the security system, still composed mainly of the remnants of Milosevic’s regime. Zarko Korac, deputy PM in the Djindjic government, noted harshly that while Milosevic died politically, he continued to “suck our blood like a vampire”. Kostunica was able to impose his dogmatic positions, often resembling the arguments used by Milosevic, to the Serbian delegation in the long-awaited negotiations that started at the end of 2005 and lasted for two years, mediated at first by Martti Ahtisaari – former Finnish president who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 2008 – and later by a US-EU-Russian troika.
The talks failed because Serbia, strongly backed by Russia (much more aggressive than before, especially after Vladimir Putin’s “Munich speech” in February 2007), insisted on sovereign rights and offered Kosovo only a “high degree of authority” (never specifying over what in concrete terms), whereas the Kosovo Albanians, backed primarily by Washington, would accept “nothing less than independence”. It was the clash of two nationalistic visions, both based on a quest for absolute sovereignty over subjects and not for dialogue for a peaceful coexistence of communities. During the talks in Vienna, while Boris Tadic (who succeeded Dijndijc as leader of the DS party, elected president in 2004 and re-elected in 2008) was praised for his more constructive approach (that anyway did not allow him to overcome the “mantra” of sovereignty), Kostunica adopted such an obstructive stance that Ahtisaari was brought to say that he “found him very difficult to work with-even more so than Milosevic”. I attended many sessions of the talks, for the EU side, and I had the impression that the vampire mentioned by Korac was hanging about the room, whispering the old language of ethnic confrontation.
A few days after Kosovo’s declaration of independence (17 February 2008), the government called a rally in Belgrade to which 200,000 people came. In language that openly recalled Milosevic, Kostunica told the crowd: “Kosovo is Serbia. There is no force, no threat and no punishment big and hidden enough for any Serb, at any time to say anything different but Kosovo is Serbia”. On the political scene, the cohabitation between Tadic’s and Kostunica’s parties dissolved: their philosophical differences on the future of the country and how to react to Kosovo’s independence became unbearable. Tadic argued that the best way to continue the Battle of Kosovo was to pursue the path of European integration, which he said was also in Serbia’s best interests. Kostunica, by contrast, looked to Russia and to reinforce the alliance with Moscow even more, adding also that Serbia should abandon its ambition to join the EU that had “not been able to make a clear choice between Serbia or Kosovo”.
The elections of May 2008 were won by Tadic’s pro-EU coalition and Kostunica was definitely consigned to the margins of politics. In the following decade, in any case, the Serbian leadership (and, as a reflex attitude, the Kosovar) were unable to define a more realistic and less dogmatic policy towards the Kosovo question, also frustrating the “EU-facilitated dialogue between Belgrade and Pristina” launched in 2011 with the mediation of EU High Representative Catherine Ashton that had had promising results at its debut but resulted in a long series of agreements (one of them declared “historical”, in Brussels in April 2013), so far never implemented on the ground.
At the end of 2008, a new party (SNS) was founded after a split from the ultranationalist Radical Party and one of its leaders, Aleksandar Vucic, began another resistible rise to power that in one decade has seen him and his party practically monopolize Serbian politics and sideline all opposition. Vucic served as Milosevic’s minister of Information from 1998 to 2000 and is therefore very familiar with the nationalistic manipulation of the Kosovo myth that Milosevic, through both propaganda and disinformation, used to achieve his main political objective, which was simply to get absolute power and keep it. At the same time, the political scene in Pristina after independence has been dominated quite entirely by leaders forged in the national liberation war: Milosevic’s language and its legacy have strongly influenced them, of course “conversely”, with the prevailing of a natural and easy approach based on parallel and confrontational nationalism.
The question of sovereignty will probably remain the fundamental bone of contention for the foreseeable future and will inevitably complicate the efforts of Serbia and Kosovo to make their European perspective concrete. Moreover, with such a deep division over the Kosovo issue within the international community, even amongst EU member states, it will remain one of the most dangerous obstacles for the stability and the progress of all of the Western Balkans countries.
It is possible to conclude that, at least psychologically, such a critical situation is due to Milosevic’s legacy. For him, the “speech of Kosovo Polje” was the opportunity to launch a campaign of hate and confrontation (instead of coexistence and dialogue) that no one was able to stop. The same methods were later used by all other politicians in the region who used nationalism to create the world of “us” and “them,” and to unite their communities in fear and hate. “Us” as permanent victims, and “them” as permanent villains. The hate speech became a language that many still speak today in the Balkans and it remains Milosevic’s biggest legacy. Slobodan Milosevic is dead and gone now but it seems the vampire is still hanging about Kosovo and the Balkans, biting and infecting everyone with the deadly virus of nationalism. We like to think that other iconic Balkan animals, such as the Albanian and Serbian eagles, will soon manage not to kill it but at least to render it harmless.