In October 2016 I visited the Serbian capital, Belgrade, picturesquely located at the confluence of the River Drava and the Danube. The city developed in line with the 18th-century Austro-Habsburg and Russian imperial model of bulldozing Ottoman buildings and mosques, which were either adapted or built over in ‘European style of progress and enlightenment.’ The four monuments of distinctly Ottoman architecture that survive to this day are all within the walking distance of each other in Belgrade’s, Stari Grad, or Old Town. Two are religious, namely the capital’s sole mosque, together with the turbe (tomb) of dervish Mustafa Bagdađanin. The two other monuments are konaks, or Ottoman-style residences. One built in the 1730s escaped being razed because it used to house Serbia’s first Serbian-language secular secondary school founded in 1808. The other konak, was actually constructed a century later, in 1830, already in autonomous Serbia. This was the official residence for Princess Ljubica, consort of the first Prince of modern Serbia, Miloš Obrenović.
Belgrade looks like any other Russian, Romanian or Bulgarian city, memories of the Ottoman past consigned to dusty tomes. The broad alleys are ill adapted to the Balkans’ snowy winters and hot summers. Unlike Ottoman narrow winding alleys and overhanging roofs, the modern architecture does not offer the coziness of self-contained neighborhoods (mahallas) or protection from elements. The point is to be imposing, hesitatingly imperial, decisively Orthodox and undecided whether to follow the direction leading to St Petersburg or Paris.
This ambivalence about the Ottoman-morphed-into-Yugoslav past shows more visibly in weather forecasts that almost invariably feature maps of Serbia. The present-day holy geo-body of the country was extracted from federal Yugoslavia in a devastating cycle of successor wars. As it often happens, the last war of 1998-1999 looms most divisively over Serbia’s present. The expulsion of Albanians from Kosovo led to the NATO intervention and the establishment of an international protectorate over the province. Most importantly, the expellees, who constituted the vast majority (over 80 per cent) of the population could return home. In turn, the majority of Kosovo’s Serbs left, so that their share in the population plummeted from a tenth to 1.5 per cent.
After the nine years of the international administration, Kosovo declared independence in 2008. The Serbian government was prepared for this foregone conclusion and two years earlier had adopted a new Constitution (2006). The document’s Preamble devotes most space to Kosovo:
[T]he Province of Kosovo and Metohija is an integral part of the territory of Serbia, […] it has the status of a substantial autonomy within the sovereign state of Serbia and […] from such status of the Province of Kosovo and Metohija follow constitutional obligations of all state bodies to uphold and protect the state interests of Serbia in Kosovo and Metohija in all internal and foreign political relations […].
Fittingly, Article 114 includes the text of the official oath which each elected Serbian president must pronounce upon taking this office. And again, Kosovo takes up half of this oath’s text, namely, I do solemnly swear that I will devote all my efforts to preserve the sovereignty and integrity of the territory of the Republic of Serbia, including Kosovo and Metohija as its constituent part […]. And that is not all. Article 182 on Serbia’s autonomous provinces says the following, In the Republic of Serbia, there are the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina and the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija. The substantial autonomy of the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija shall be regulated by the special law which shall be adopted in accordance with the proceedings envisaged for amending the Constitution. Vojvodina is mentioned once, while Kosovo twice.
Thus far, no special law has been adopted for Kosovo. But all official maps of Serbia include Kosovo as part of the state’s territory. Serbia vows never to recognize the independence of Kosovo and rejects the polity’s official name in favor of the Serbian dual designation of Kosovo and Metohija, popularly abbreviated to ‘Kosmet’ in Serbian. The international border between Kosovo and Serbia is referred to as a mere ‘administrative line’ (administrativna linija). In Serbia, whatever political and ideological differences may be, all television stations and newspapers feature weather maps of Serbia that do include Kosovo. The popular daily tabloid Večernje novosti, which caters to the most radical nationalist sentiments, improved on the official map. The periodical’s weather corner brandishes a map of Serbia that besides Kosovo also encompasses federal Bosnia’s Republika Srpska. Somehow it does not unduly disturb the editors at the Večernje novosti that their map proposes the administrative line within Bosnia to be part of the international boundaries of ‘true Serbia.’ Is it, perhaps, a case of double standards?
But is there any substance beyond Serbia’s pronounced non-recognition of Kosovo? As mentioned above, no special law on Kosovo’s autonomy has been adopted, despite the clear stipulation in the 2006 Constitution. Belgrade has not presented a single plan how Kosovo could be plausibly re-integrated with Serbia. There are no consultations with Kosovo’s inhabitants on criteria which had to be met for them to agree to such reabsorption of Kosovo by Serbia. Integration is not on the cards, myth of the eternal Serbianness of Kosovo must suffice. But it does not lead anywhere. This myth is not shared by Kosovo’s Albanians. The approach leads to a cul de sac. As though nowadays Germany would claim back the territories east of the Oder-Neisse line lost in 1945 to the Soviet Union (now, Russia) and Poland. The territories’ present-day Russian and Polish inhabitants would not appreciate the idea, and its implementation would require an all out European war.
Does Serbia really need another war, this time over nothing more but a myth and mythologized memories of the medieval Serbian past of Kosovo?