Threads of Balkans conflict were twisted long ago

Columns of ethnic Albanians, carrying only a few personal possessions and horrific tales of persecution, flee from Kosovo to the refugee camps in the bordering countries of Albania and Macedonia.

Sadly, it's become a familiar, although unfathomable, sight. Most people find it not only heartrendingly sad, but incomprehensible that hundreds of thousands of Europeans can be "ethnically cleansed" in the same century as the Holocaust.

Some pundits claim it's the same old thing - ethnic and religious strife that's been going on for centuries. Other experts argue that it's the leaders of the countries involved that incite violence by playing on old wounds.

In a timely, scholarly work, Branimir Anzulovic brings the two theories together in "Heavenly Serbia." He shows how history, religion, myth, and folklore intertwined to lay the groundwork; and how Slobodan Milosevic, a former Communist Party technocrat turned highly skilled manipulator, invoked the past to incite Serbs to create a larger and ethnically pure "Greater Serbia."

Anzulovic starts with the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, when the Serbs were overcome by the Ottoman Turks. Serbia lost its position as regional power and became subservient to the Turks, who ruled the region to the 19th century.

During this period, Anzulovic argues, the Serbs cultivated their myths of a great past and a grand future. He opens his book by exploring folksongs that basically turned Prince Lazar, who led the Serbs at the famous battle, into a martyr. In one of the most famous and lasting songs, Prince Lazar is asked, "Do you prefer the heavenly kingdom, or do you prefer the earthly kingdom?"

The work goes on to say that if he prefers the earthly kingdom, he should arm himself and fight the Turks. But if he prefers the heavenly kingdom, he should "build a church at Kosovo."

"The legend of Prince Lazar's choice of the heavenly kingdom was to transform an alleged military defeat into a moral victory. The legend was gradually expanded to portray people who at every decisive turn in their history opt for the heavenly kingdom by taking the moral high ground," Anzulovic writes.

It is this "moral high ground," he argues, that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic exploits by pointing out that the Serbs are the ones who have for centuries been persecuted.

Anzulovic dedicates a good portion of his book to exploring the roles of religion and folklore, especially literary works that glorified violence, including genocide, and how they set the stage for what is happening today.

He points out how in Serbia, as well as other countries in the region, subordination of the Orthodox Church to the state was institutionalized. This is important, he argues, because religious leaders - from Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church and brother of the first Serbian king - have been used to expedite state goals.

Anzulovic carries the reader through the big events of the 20th century in the Balkans, through the breakup of Yugoslavia and the bitter war in Bosnia, which was ended by US-sponsored talks in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995. It ends before the current expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, and the NATO bombing of Serbia.

This is a scholarly work - one that's probably suitable for a college history course - but tough for the average reader.

The author is obviously a Balkans scholar. He apparently is a Croatian immigrant too, but he does not mention this anywhere in the book. It seems necessary that the author of this sort of work identify his own background, affiliations, and biases.

All in all, though, the book goes a long way in helping the reader understand the "hows" and "whys" of what is happening in the Balkans today.

*Faye Bowers is a former Middle East and Balkans editor for the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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