On June 28, 1389 the Serbs lost to the Ottomans at Kosovo Field in the Battle of Kosovo. This began a 500-plus year dominance by the Ottoman Turks in Central Europe, and particularly in that powder keg known as the Balkans. It also meant that Islam—the faith of the Ottoman Empire—now had a door into Christian Europe.
The Serbs, a proud people, never forgave themselves for that loss and that foot in the door. They would harbor a 600-year guilt, as evidenced by a June 28, 1989 speech by Slobodan Milosevic at that infamous battlefield site at Kosovo; it was there that Slobo shook his fist before a huge crowd of one million Serbs, vowing vengeance and a united Greater Serbia, with his people rising from the ashes of history, ascendant and triumphant. “No one will ever beat you again,” promised the new butcher of the Balkans.
It was at that battle in 1389 that the Serb hero Prince Lazar was defeated. That spot, and all of Kosovo, became a kind of political-religious shrine to Serbs. “Our faith was born there, our language, our national myth, our pride,” explained Vuk Draskovic, one of the Serbian goons who served in Milosevic’s foreign ministry in the 1990s. “We must protect Kosovo, even if we all die.”
This late 20th century Serbian dream was hardly new. It captured the hearts of Milosevic’s forebears early in the century. That ambition then, as usual pursued with belligerence by the Serbs, set off a chain of events that culminated in the guns of August 1914—i.e. World War I. The sequence began on June 28, 1914, when a Bosnian-Serb student named Gavrilo Princip, part of a secret Serbian society known as the Black Hand, placed bullets in the Austrian archduke and his wife, killing them both, and reigniting the fuse of the powder keg. By August 1914, the rival factions of the Balkans found themselves in their third war in three years—this time dragging in the rest of the world.
The Balkans were subdued by that first world war—at that point, the greatest slaughter in the history of humanity—and by the creation of something called Yugoslavia, the deformed by-product of boundary-makers from the West who thought the world shapeable. Woodrow Wilson and the boys at Versailles figured the world was indeed so elastic.
It would be there in Yugoslavia, primarily under a thug named Marshal Tito, that the repressive hand of communism kept a lid on the region for parts of five decades. However, with the end of Tito and the end of the Cold War, the kettle again boiled over, and the major powers were back at war in the Balkans in the spring of 1999. Once again, the United States was involved, as was Britain, as was Russia, as were troops from France, Germany, and a host of other leading nations. Yet again, of course, the Russians were on the wrong side of history, slavishly joining their Serbian brothers. The world held its breath as it hoped to avert another continental war, the result of warring Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, Catholic Slovenes, Bosnian Orthodox Serbs, Muslim Kosovars, Albanians, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, and on and on—with Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece, Bulgaria, Austria, Hungary, and Turkey all on the doorstep. The whole bloody thing was a lousy mess, with Milosevic’s Serbia initiating war with at least four of his neighbors in as many years.
Because of that ancient cauldron of hate, NATO in 1999 found itself in the largest military operation of its 50-year existence. Put differently, the Cold War organization never found itself in a full-scale war until after the Cold War—suitably, in the Balkans. One of the only good things to come from the conflict was the removal of Europe’s latest ethnic cleanser—Milosevic. American troops, deployed by President Bill Clinton, remained in the region to keep the peace (a fact conveniently forgotten by Democrats who today demand we immediately leave Iraq).
Why am I revisiting this long history? What’s my point?
This complicated background is necessary in underscoring a major event that occurred in the Balkans in the last week: Kosovo has declared independence from Serbia. This is a significant development, done in a world without Slobodan Milosevic, who not long ago joined the ranks of Serbian corpses. Kosovo has made that move in an era when the trend and demands of the day are for nations to become independent and democratic. If this is to be the spirit of no less than the Middle East—a region that makes the Balkans look tranquil by comparison—then surely it can be the spirit of Kosovo in 2008.
Back in 1999, NATO committed itself to accomplishing a “peaceful, multi-ethnic, and democratic Kosovo.” Many of us scoffed. Such a process would be about as simple as unscrambling eggs. I’m surprised by the progress that has been made.
That said, this is hardly cut and dry. The proper mindset for the Balkans is pessimism. The region is the graveyard of hopes and dreams. Diplomats who dedicate their careers to the Balkans have a death wish. The world knows this all too well, and cautiously considers its reaction.
Naturally, we should hope for best, all the while not being surprised by the worst. For now, however, this is a big deal in the Balkans.