KOSOVO is the key to understanding the Serbian mind, many Belgrade writers and intellectuals say.
All Serb youths learn the meaning of Kosovo to their nation from early childhood. The heart of the story, memorized in poems and songs, is the great battle fought in Kosovo in 1389 between Serb Prince Lazar and the Turks.
Yet unlike most defining myths, Lazar lost the battle of Kosovo; no Serbs survived. But Lazar lost it gloriously, willing to sacrifice everything in Christianity's battle against the Muslim "infidels."
Thus, Serbia's historic view of itself is as a martyr nation, says Balkan historian Thomas Emmert. Serbs, he says, are a people chosen to do battle with the forces of darkness. But tragically, Christian Europe never understands their heroic sacrifice and special role.
Gavrilo Princip, who assassinated the Austrian Archduke of Hapsburg in Sarajevo and set off World War I, used Kosovo as his rationale. In 1939 a Belgrade commission argued the "mystique" of Kosovo offers a "magical lever for all our unprecedented undertakings." Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic came to power playing on deep feelings over Kosovo.
Kosovo's orthodox religious dimension is seen in its most famous epic, "The Dream of Czar Lazar," learned by every Serb child. Prince Lazar is visited by an angel who asks him to build a church - and choose between gold and stone to build it. Lazar chooses stone because the church will then last longer. Lazar has chosen rightly, the angel says - for the eternal kingdom of heaven, rather than the kingdom of earth whose rewards are brief and temporal.
When facing the Turks prior to battle, Lazar is ready when the angel offers a bitter cup: "If you choose the earthly kingdom/ All the Turkish host will perish./ If you choose the heavenly kingdom,/ All your army will perish." Lazar chooses heaven, loses, and then all is "holy and ... acceptable to God."
PRINCE Lazar's heroic choice exalts a militant ideal of honor and sacrifice. It also provides a "divine" explanation for why Serbs lived under Ottoman rule for 500 years: "Responding to contemporary needs, medieval writers transformed the defeat into a kind of moral victory for the Serbs, and an inspiration for the future," Emmert writes.
In a railcabin of 10 Serb soldiers singing to accordion music recently, eight planned to vote for Yugoslav Prime Minister Milan Panic - and peace - over Mr. Milosevic in the Serbian presidential election.
"But Kosovo is a problem," one of the soldiers said. "I will fight and die for Kosovo."
"What is so sad," one Belgrade intellectual says, "is that Milosevic is using the symbol of Kosovo to exploit. He's taking the myth and hanging the people with it."