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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Children's Chapel:  10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

A Look At Kosovo

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 19, 1999

The Serbs may be the only people whose national day-- June 28-- commemorates a military defeat.

On June 28, in the year 1389--and the fact that an event which occurred more than 600 years ago still figures so prominently in a contemporary geo-political issue gives you some idea of just how deeply-seated and complicated this subject is-- on June 28, 1389, the Serbs under Prince Lazar were defeated by the Ottoman Turks at Kosovo Polje-- "the field of the Blackbirds"-- just west of what is the Albanian capital, Pristina, today.

To this very day, Serbian school children can still recite from memory the epic poem of the sad tale of Prince Lazar:

Poletio soko titsa siva,
Od svetinye, od Yerusalima,
I on nosti titsu lastavistu...

There flies a gray bird, a falcon,
From Jerusalem the holy,
And in his beak he bears a swallow.

This is no falcon, no gray bird,
But it is Saint Elijah.
He carries no swallow,
But a book from the Mother of God.
He comes to the tzar at Kosovo,
He lays the book on the tzar's knees
[and asks]
'Tzar Lazar, of honorable stock,
Of what kind will you have your kingdom?
Do you want a heavenly kingdom?
Do you want an earthly kingdom?
Saddle your horses, tighten your horses' girths,
Gird on your swords,
Then put an end to the Turkish attacks!
And drive out every Turkish soldier.
But if you want a heavenly kingdom
Build you a church on Kosovo;
Build it not with a floor of marble
But lay down silk and scarlet on the ground,
Give the Eucharist and battle orders to your soldiers,
For all your soldiers shall be destroyed,
And you, prince, shall be destroyed with them...

The Tzar chose a heavenly kingdom,
And not an earthly kingdom,
He built a church on Kosovo...
Then he gave his soldiers the Eucharist and their battle orders.
In the same hour as the Prince gave his orders to his soldiers
The Turks attacked Kosovo...

 

[And Lazar was defeated, his empire crushed. So, near the end of this great epic, there are these words:

 

Whoever is a Serb and of Serbian birth,
And who does not come to Kosovo Polje
to do battle against the Turks,
[Let him be cursed]
Let him have neither a male nor a female offspring,
Let him have no crop...

Kosovo is the heart of Old Serbia. It is the Serb Jerusalem, the Serb Holy Land-- watered, as they like to say, with the blood of generation upon generation of Serbs.

And Kosovo is also a province of the former (and present) Yugoslavia, which is (or was until recently) 90% Albanian-- people with a legitimate right to cultural autonomy and political self-determination.

The crisis in Kosovo did not begin with NATO trying to bomb Serbia back to the peace table. The general mindset goes deep in Serb history; the particular ethnic divide in Kosovo that has led to the current crisis extends back at least to the establishment of Socialist Yugoslavia by Tito following the Second World War.

Marshall Tito was first and foremost, a Yugoslav-- fiercely resistant both top foreign domination and to the strains of nationalism in any of the Yugoslav republics (including his own native republic, Croatia, where he squelched all nationalist revivals ruthlessly). But as a Croat, Tito was especially resistant to any stirrings of Serb nationalism and dreams of a "greater Serbia" within the new socialist Yugoslavia he sought to build. (And we may all be forgiven, in the light of what has transpired in Yugoslavia since Tito's death in 1980, to conclude that maybe he wasn't so bad-- relatively speaking at least-- after all.)

When Tito forged the new Yugoslav Federation following World War Two, one of his guiding principles was to limit the influence of Serbia, the largest and most populous Yugoslav Republic. One way he sought to do this was by creating within the Republic of Serbia two autonomous provinces-- the multi-ethnic province of Vojvodina in the north (of which no one, it seems, has heard), and the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo in the south, bordering on the independent nation of Albania.

These provinces-- Vojvodina and Kosovo-- were given a great deal of autonomy in handling many of their own internal affairs-- as much, really, as any of the constituent republics of Yugoslavia had. Indeed, in the eyes of most observers, Vojvodina and Kosovo were autonomous republic, in all but name (because Tito realized that even he didn't dare sever the historic "holy land" of Kosovo from the body of Serbia proper).

But in 1974, a constitutional commission presented the final constitution of the Tito era-- a long rambling document of more than 84 pages and more than 200 articles (the longest constitution of any country in the world). This document was a struggling, awkward attempt to formulate the kind of Yugoslavia that would survive after Tito's death, and in it, self-government for the autonomous provinces was increased still further. Kosovo was given its own legislature, university, supreme court, police force, and militia-- all Albanian dominated. The province was given its own seat on the collective presidency established to rule Yugoslavia after Tito's death, and a staunch Albanian national, Fadil Hoxha, was designated to the post.

Rather than serving to assimilate Kosovo in a united Yugoslavia, greater self-government for the province served only to fan the flames of Albanian nationalism. Emboldened by their increased autonomy, many Kosovo Albanians began openly to criticize the authorities in Belgrade. Many began to push vehemently for Kosovo's designation as a full republic in its own right-- completely independent of Serbia. Many even began to demand that Kosovo be allowed to annex itself to neighboring Albania, then under the iron rule of the Stalinist dictator Enver Hoxha.

There is ample evidence that the situation for the Serb minority in Kosovo was far from ideal. Some Albanians exploited their position as the overwhelming majority in the province to harass their Serb neighbors, to try to seek revenge for their own historical grievances. The government and the civil service in the province soon came to be completely dominated by Albanians, with little place for ethnic Serbs in the better positions. Many Serbs decided to leave Kosovo altogether, and moved to Belgrade (or to parts of Bosnia and Croatia, where there presence would serve, later, to inflame ethnic tensions in those areas). Of course, this only magnified the reality that, by the 1980s, Kosovo was overwhelmingly (around 90%) composed of ethnic Albanians.

As the Yugoslav Federation crumbled following Tito's death in 1980, Serbs and Albanians within Kosovo faced each other across a deep divide of fear. The Albanians feared that the increasingly nationalistic Serb leaders in Belgrade might move against them again and might even order full-scale genocide. The Serbs in Kosovo lived in constant fear that the Albanian majority might rise in armed rebellion, and take revenge against them for years of persecution.

And underneath these tensions, we must remember that in Yugoslavia-- especially in Serbia-- there is the deep memory of the living hell the country experienced during the Second World War. In Serbia, one out of three males between the ages of 15 and 55 was either killed or wounded during the war. In Croatia, the nationalist leader Ante Pavlevic, head of the pro-Fascist Ustashe, had boasted "One-third we will kill, one-third will be driven out of Croatia, one-third will be converted to Catholicism," when asked how he would deal with Croatia's Serb population.

Thousands of Croatian Jews were murdered, or sent to concentration camps in Poland. Serb villages were burned to the ground. In Croatia's larger cities, many Serbs were simply slaughtered as they walked on the streets. The total number of Serbs killed in Croatia during the war is generally placed at somewhere between 500,000 and 700,000, including several hundred thousand alone at the Jasenovac concentration camp near the Bosnian border. Soon, even some high ranking Nazi officials were complaining to Pavelic that the bloodshed in Croatia and Bosnia had gone too far.

And of the Serbs who were not killed-- who were "merely" driven from their homes in Croatia and Bosnia "back" into Serbia-- where were many of them finally settled?

In the underpopulated areas of southern Serbia, of course. In Kosovo, of course.

Thus, even though it might be tempting to demonize the Serbs in the present situation (and I am not in any way seeking to mitigate or explain away all of the evil that has been done in the name of "greater Serbia"-- first in Croatia, then in Bosnia, now in Kosovo), we do not have to scratch too deep beneath the surface-- no further back than a single generation really-- to glimpse some of the reasons for Serb paranoia, and the justifiable historical grievance which many Serbs hold.

History is seldom easy, and is sometimes downright cruel. And it is difficult to imagine a less helpful figure being thrown into this ethnic nightmare than the Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic was born in 1941 in Montenegro (one is reminded that Hitler was born in Austria and Stalin in Georgia). His father was a Serbian Orthodox priest (who later committed suicide, as did Milosevic's mother). Early on, however, young Slobodan turned his back on the church and became a dedicated member of the Communist party's youth organization. Under its auspices, he attended college and then law school. Upon receiving his law degree in 1964, he went to work for several government organizations in Belgrade, including the utility company Tehnogas, and eventually became director of the largest bank in the capital, Beobanka.

Gradually, Milosevic rose within the ranks of the Serbian branch of the League of Communists. In 1984, with the support of Ivan Stambolic, head of the Serbian party, he was elected chair of the Belgrade party committee, where he served as Stambolic's most trusted lieutenant. In April 1987, Stambolic asked Milosevic to travel to Kosovo, to ascertain the true situation in the troubled province.

On April 24, Milosevic held a large meeting in Pristina. Only Serbs were invited, and all were given the opportunity to express their feelings about the situation in Kosovo. For several hours, Milosevic sat and listened as, one after another, Serb men and women spoke of the indignity, harassment, and even physical violence they had experienced at the hands of their Albanian neighbors. Some spoke of being beaten. Others said that their homes had been broken into and their property stolen. Still others told even more horrendous tales of rape and physical abuse. Milosevic vowed that something would be done to correct the situation.

Outside the meeting hall, a large crowd of Serb nationalists had gathered. There were numerous fights between Serbs and Albanians, and some Serbs started pelting the Kosovo police (all Albanians, remember) with stones. The atmosphere was tense, and Milosevic seized the moment. He stepped into the middle of the Serb nationalist mob, and, as they cheered him on, declared that the time of fear and terror was over. It was time for Serbia to reassert control and guarantee the safety of Serb citizens. "No one will ever beat you again," Milosevic proclaimed.

On his return to Belgrade, Milosevic used the sad situation in Kosovo as the excuse for having Stambolic removed from power. The time had come, Milosevic proclaimed, to put an end to Albanian "terrorism".

On November 17, 1988, Milosevic launched a purge of the Kosovo branch of the ruling League of Communists, replacing its Albanian leaders with Serb nationalists. That same day, 3,000 coal miners in town on Trepca went on strike, and called upon other Kosovo Albanians to join them. By early 1989, unrest had spread to the capital Pristina, where students marched in the streets and declared a general strike. Other Albanian youths threw rocks at police cars and broke the windows in government offices. Some stepped up the harassment of their Serbian neighbors.

Milosevic saw that an opportunity to make good on his promise to the Kosovo Serbs was at hand. He declared the situation in the province out of control, and had the Serbian parliament declare a state of emergency, and suspend Kosovo's status as an autonomous province.

Milosevic managed to restore an uneasy calm to Kosovo. But only by crushing ruthlessly all Albanian hopes for self-determination, and only by letting the evil genie of nationalism out of the bottle into which it had been stuffed by Marshall Tito so many years before. The resurgence of nationalism in Serbia which the Kosovo crisis had engendered encouraged the reawakening of nationalist feelings in Croatia, Slovenia, and elsewhere in the Yugoslav Federation.

Serb nationalists throughout Yugoslavia-- in Croatia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina-- were encouraged by the vehemence Milosevic had shown against the Albanians in Kosovo. Many now spoke openly of the possibility of a creating a "greater Serbia" that would unite all Serbs living within the borders of Yugoslavia. This new Serb republic would include all lands in which Serbs were a majority of the population. Some of these lands lay inside Croatia; others were within Bosnia.

Perhaps authorities elsewhere in Yugoslavia were willing to look the other way as Serbia sought to reassert its control over the impoverished Albanians of Kosovo. But they certainly would not do so should Serbs attempt to annex lands within the boundaries of their own republics.

And when the Yugoslav federation ceased to function, this is precisely what happened. First in Croatia-- then, even more horrendously, in Bosnia-- assertions of national autonomy by the majority population led to counter assertions by the Serb minority, and then, to full-scale war. In Bosnia alone, more than a quarter million people were killed in almost four years of bloodletting.

All the while, as "ethnic cleansing" in Bosnia continued before the eyes of a horrified world, the Western powers stood back, and seemed paralyzed as they struggled to find answers. Finally, largely through U.S. intervention, the West managed to bring the sides together at Dayton to sign an uneasy peace treaty-- a treaty which is, somehow, still holding.

Now, in Kosovo, the West seemed determined to act before it was too late-- but in acting, in attacking Serbia, NATO may actually have inflamed the situation on the ground, and speeded up the evil process of ethnic cleansing and genocide against the Albanians of Kosovo.

In late December 1992, with just weeks remaining in his term of office, US President George Bush wrote a stern letter to Milosevic, saying that the United States would not tolerate any widening of the Yugoslav civil war into Kosovo. "In the event of conflict in Kosovo caused by Serb action," President Bush wrote, "the United States is prepared to employ military force against the Serbs in Kosovo and Serbia proper." The U.S. leader had drawn a "line in the sand" in Kosovo. Serb aggression there would not be allowed.

Recent actions by President Clinton seem the follow through on his predecessor's prescient ultimatum.

But sadly, the Serbs are drawing lines in the sand of their own. The dream of a greater Serbia which many Serbs imagined resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia has been all but lost. Serb gains in Croatia have been turned back. The Serb claim to Sarajevo has been lost, and the Republika Srbska now exists as a phantom of itself within the still-unified, multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Serbs, so often beleaguered-- with a national mindset, it would seem, based largely on resistance to outsider powers-- have vowed never to loose their hold on Kosovo.

And seldom are the choices in world politics easy-- but seldom are there so many bad choices as there are in the tragedy in Kosovo.

And one may be forgiven in wondering if, in some mad way, the petty tyrant Milosevic pictures himself as a sort of Prince Lazar for the new millennium. Perhaps he sees in this awful, compounded tragedy, a situation where he cannot lose: For in holding on to Kosovo, Milosevic becomes the savior of the Serbian holy land. And if he loses, and Kosovo goes its own way in me, he takes his place with Prince Lazar, a leader remembered because of the battle he lost.

But it is no heavenly kingdom Milosevic seeks. And in taking the Serb people down with him, he promises them only the nightmare of a living hell.

This is, obviously, a sermon weighted toward explaining how we got here, rather than where we go from here. I am more than willing to continue this discussion with any of you who might be interested in the church parlor, following today's worship service.

I have this morning tried to lay out some of the background of the current tragedy in Kosovo. That is, an area, where I have a little bit of expertise, however limited. However, when it comes to matters of public policy-- particularly, what the actions of our government and our armed forces should be in the face of this horrendous situation-- I have little more to offer than any of you. But I think it is important for us to come together when we can to share our ideas.

There are no easy answers to the situation in Kosovo. This is, indeed, a sermon without a final "amen". But there are things we can do to help. So now I would ask you all to give generously in support of humanitarian efforts to assist in this tragic situation.

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