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Frozen Vidovdan

Gazimestan, photo: Konstantin Novakovic

An influential part of the Serbian intellectual elite calls for freezing the Kosovo issue. The authorities say they are thoroughly against it, but they’re essentially doing exactly that. Why is it so important to freeze Kosovo, to live an eternal Vidovdan? And what are we, actually, freezing?

I have at least three answers to that last question:

1. We are freezing defeat

You’ve probably also had foreigners ask you whether we Serbs are crazy to celebrate the defeat in 1389. What is wrong with us? That question requires a truly serious response, founded in the theory of the culture of remembrance. If history cherishes victories and heroes, remembrance cherishes defeat and victims. Defeat causes empathy with the weak, the defeated is morally superior, the victim is forgiven for everything, they cannot be blamed. The victim’s position grants them pardon for all future deeds, it is a free indulgence for the future. In political terms, defeat is far more lucrative that victory, it is pure benefit, as we would say today. It can serve as a basis for revanchism, it is a factor of mobilization, it homogenizes the nation, it enforces collective fear and anxiety as important driving forces for some future war. That is why many intellectuals nowadays warn about the dangers of the trend of self-victimization. And so, as Amos Oz says that we are witnessing a “world championship of victimhood”, one of the pioneers in exploring sites of memory, the French historian Pierre Nora, warns of the “tyranny of victimhood”.

But this raises another question – why the Kosovo defeat? There are other lost battles to emotionally bond to; for example, the battle of Slivnica, when Bulgaria badly defeated the Serbian army in 1885. The defeat inspired generations and encouraged clashes. Today, however, that battle is almost completely forgotten. What could be the reason for this? A successful revenge, perhaps? Did that occur in 1913, when the popular song was “For Slivnica Bregalnica” and it seemed that the Second Balkan War had settled the matter with Bulgaria?

That, somehow, is not enough. There seems to be something more to it – revenge is not enough to forget. That “something” might be the fact that Bulgarians are not the top enemy in Serbian collective memory anymore. In her book In the tradition of nationalism Olivera Milosavljevic showed that, after the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, the negative stereotypes about Bulgarians had shifted to Croats, who took over the prestigious position of favourite enemy. That being so, I presume that Slivnica was forgotten because Bulgarians had lost their privileged place as our favourite antagonist.

Does this exercise in remembrance and forgetting help us better comprehend the longevity of the trauma from 1389? It does if we concur that the question who is the enemy plays a key role in choosing what to remember. If we agree that the enemy is central for producing of remembrance, then one might ask what it is about the Turks as enemies that maintains the “Kosovo flame” for centuries, the unchanged passion for keeping the Kosovo battle as the no. 1 battle. If revenge is the reason, well, Turks have lost much more than Bulgarians. From Serbian uprisings, to achieving state autonomy, independence, the Balkan wars… But they are still enemies. So, it isn’t about revenge. It’s about the Turks.

2. We are freezing the Turks

Turks are an essential ingredient of the Serbian historical consciousness. The fall of Serbia under Ottoman rule (although few really know when this actually happened) became a benchmark, the border between the old and the new era. It also became an irrational solution to all our problems. Turks are the solution for everything. The streets are dirty because of those 500 years; that unfortunate legacy is the reason we have no democratic tradition; the toilets are jammed due to this misfortune… It is our collective “unhappy childhood”, a trauma that still frees us from any responsibility. It is a state that is eternal, fixed. If there were no “Turks”, we would be left with ourselves. We would have to question and ponder who we are, grow up, mature, change. As it is, “Turks” are an excuse, an alibi, and explanation for all our failures and debacles.

Turks are the ideal “other”. They are the reversed mirror image in relation to which we seem more successful, smart, European, democratic, progressive, developed, superior. And there we have it. Superior. Images of a regressive Turkey, despite the very opposite historical reality, are fundamental for identity, a digest way to seem better than someone else. We even sometimes include Albanians (from Kosovo) into this orientalist construction, since they too – in the imaginary division into good and bad nations – guarantee the much-needed feeling of being “a more evolved sort”. Or at least one whose tails have fallen off (let me remind you of a claim made by a significant Serbian politician and doctor Vladan Djordjevic: “…it seems that only among the Arnauts in the 19. century there still lived a tailed man”). That’s why we cannot get over the Kosovo battle, forget about the Turks, dethrone them from the position of our favourite enemy, and make peace with the Albanians. Who would we outdo, then? This leads to the equation consisting of our favourite enemies: Turks plus Albanians equals Kosovo.

3. We are freezing Kosovo

In the end, the key question is – why does everybody attempt to freeze Kosovo? Why is it so important for everything to remain the same? More to the point, to not admit that everything has changed? The book by Ivan Colovic Death in the battle of Kosovo shows that the story of this battle has been used for manipulation for 629 years, that all regimes and ideologies found in this story the ideal tool, that all historical narratives have been established in this one battle, that conflicting political goals have their foundation in it. Colovic demonstrates that it has been so since the first news of the events on Vidovdan 1389 – the information sent by the Bosnian king Tvrtko to the Florentines about his victory on that field. Every subsequent story about the battle was just as good for political marketing. That is especially true for the 19th century, when stories about the battle of Kosovo became the basis for the idea of renewing the empire and creating the great Serbian state. But that was also the basis for an entirely opposite, Yugoslav idea. As Colovic discovered, Ivan Mestrovic, the Yugoslav state sculptor, while explaining his sketch for the Vidovdan temple on Gazimestan, said: “All Yugoslav martyrs since Kosovo to this day, and all the Yugoslav people, are soldiers of Duke Lazar. He is an eternal ruler in the soul of the Yugoslavs.”

All sides had their Kosovo reminiscence, even during the WWII. Nedic referred to the absent king and government in London as “Brankovics” (traitors), while the partisans, after the death of their hero Ratko Mitrovic used to sing:

„Oh, (mountain) Jelica, do you mourn
Comrade Ratko who has fallen
Comrade Ratko Mitrovic
Heroic as Obilic“

Besides, let’s not forget that socialist Yugoslavia erected the only monument on Gazimestan, from whose very steps Milosevic began his war against Yugoslavia. It is, therefore, an ideal story, flexible to the extent that it can serve as a pillar for every government and ideology. It is ideal for all the reasons stated in this text – defeat, victims, Turks, Albanians… that is why it must remain frozen. And that is why the Kosovo problem is unsolvable.

For what would happen if we faced the defeat from 1389? We would be forced to leave the warm womb of self-victimization and make a move. How do we put an end to the story of 500 years of Turkish yoke? That requires that we face ourselves and all the missed opportunities. To “unfreeze” Kosovo would mean to face the year 1999, but also the previous years – 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1995, 1998…

To make that move and face ourselves would mean changing our perception of time. All of our regimes have supported the epic notion of time, according to which we, ancestors and descendants, live together. Time in which nothing changes, except the eternal recurrence of the same. History is deemed as destiny, a superior force, on which people have no influence. Such a sealed concept of time is the foundation for every closed society and the firmest basis for authoritarian orders. Every government likes to establish itself upon the idea that they have a preordained, “higher” mission, and that it will stay like that forever. Frozen together with the Kosovo heroes, one with them. And free from every responsibility.

That is what “frozen Kosovo” means. We are not frozen in 2008, or 1999. We want to freeze June 28, 1389, and to wait for the future there. A future in which those long-awaited circumstances will finally arise, when we will be repaid for everything. For the defeat, the victims, the yoke. As if nothing had happened in the meantime, as if everything could return to the “golden age”, the imaginary Nemanjic dynasty, Dusan’s empire, when we will swim in three seas again. According to this notion, the future should start from where the past was interrupted, 629 years ago.

That is why there is no solution to the Kosovo problem. If it could be unfrozen and resolved, everything would change. By living in a frozen past, in the eternal Vidovdan, we freeze the present. All so we don’t have to see it.

Translated by Lucy Stevens

Peščanik.net, 09.07.2018.

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Dubravka Stojanović, istoričarka, magistrirala 1992 („Srpska socijaldemokratska partija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918“), doktorirala 2001 („Evropski demokratski uzori kod srpske političke i intelektualne elite 1903-1914“) na Filozofskom fakultetu u Beogradu. Od 1988. do 1996. radi u Institutu za noviju istoriju Srbije, pa prelazi na Odeljenje za istoriju Filozofskog fakulteta u Beogradu, gde 2008. postaje vanredna, a 2016. redovna profesorka na katedri za Opštu savremenu istoriju. U saradnji sa Centrom za antiratne akcije 1993. radi na projektu analize udžbenika. Sa Milanom Ristovićem piše i uređuje školske dodatne nastavne materijale „Detinjstvo u prošlosti“, nastale u saradnji istoričara svih zemalja Balkana, koji su objavljeni na 11 jezika regiona. Kao potpredsednica Komiteta za edukaciju Centra za demokratiju i pomirenje u Jugoistočnoj Evropi iz Soluna, urednica je srpskog izdanja 6 istorijskih čitanki za srednje škole. Dobitnica je odlikovanja Nacionalnog reda za zasluge u rangu viteza Republike Francuske. Knjige: Iskušavanje načela. Srpska socijaldemokratija i ratni program Srbije 1912-1918 (1994), Srbija i demokratija 1903-1914. Istorijska studija o “zlatnom dobu srpske demokratije” (2003, 2019) – Nagrada grada Beograda za društvene i humanističke nauke za 2003; Srbija 1804-2004 (sa M. Jovanovićem i Lj. Dimićem, 2005), Kaldrma i asfalt. Urbanizacija i evropeizacija Beograda 1890-1914 (2008), Ulje na vodi. Ogledi iz istorije sadašnjosti Srbije (2010), Noga u vratima. Prilozi za političku biografiju Biblioteke XX vek (2011), Iza zavese. Ogledi iz društvene istorije Srbije 1890-1914 (2013), Rađanje globalnog sveta 1880-2015. Vanevropski svet u savremenom dobu (2015) i Populism the Serbian Way (2017).

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