The Gazimestan speech was a speech given on 28 June 1989 by Slobodan Milošević, then president of Serbia. It was the centrepiece of a day-long event to mark the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo (1389), the defeat of the medieval Serbian state at the hands of the Ottoman Empire and the subsequent annexation of most of Serbia's territory.
The speech was delivered to a huge crowd gathered at the place where the battle had been fought, by the Gazimestan monument on the Kosovo field. It came against a backdrop of intense ethnic tension between ethnic Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo and increasing political tensions between Serbia and the other constituent republics of the then Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia caused by the "anti-bureaucratic revolution".
The speech has since become famous for Milošević's reference to the possibility of "armed battles", in the future of Serbia's national development. Many commentators have described this as presaging the collapse of Yugoslavia and the bloodshed of the Yugoslav Wars. Milošević later said he had been misrepresented.
Background to the speech
In the years leading up to the speech, Kosovo had become a central issue in Serbian politics. The province had been given extensive rights of autonomy in the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution and had been run by the province's majority-Albanian population. The reassertion of Albanian nationalism, discrimination against Serbs by the province's predominantly Albanian police force and local government, and a worsening economy led to a large number (around 100,000 between 1961-87) of Serbs and Montenegrins leaving the area by the late-1980s. Although there is no official (non-Serbian) data regarding this issue.
Milošević had used the issue to secure the leadership of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1987, and in early 1989 he pushed through a new constitution that drastically reduced the autonomy of Kosovo and the northern autonomous province of Vojvodina. This was followed by the mass replacement of opposing communist leaders in the provinces, called the "anti-bureaucratic revolution". Many Albanians were killed in March 1989 when demonstrations against the new constitution were violently suppressed by Serbian security forces. By June 1989, Kosovo was calm but its atmosphere was tense.
The speech was the climax of the commemoration of the six hundredth anniversary of the battle. It followed months of commemorative events which had been promoted by an intense media focus on the subject of Serbia's relationship with Kosovo. A variety of Serbian dramatists, painters, musicians and filmmakers had highlighted key motifs of the Kosovo legend, particularly the theme of the betrayal of Serbia. Public "Rallies for Truth" were organised by Kosovo Serbs between mid-1988 and early 1989, at which symbols of Kosovo were prominently displayed. The common theme was that Serbs outside Kosovo (and indeed outside Serbia itself) should know the truth about the predicament of the Kosovo Serbs, emotionally presented as an issue of the utmost national importance. Serb-inhabited towns competed with each other to stage ever-more patriotic rallies in an effort to gain favor from the new "patriotic leadership", thus helping to further increase nationalist sentiments.
The event was also invested with major religious significance. In the months preceding the Gazimestan rally, the remains of Prince Lazar of Serbia, who had fallen in the Battle of Kosovo, were carried in a heavily publicized procession around the Serb-inhabited territories of Yugoslavia. Throngs of mourners queued for hours to see the relics and attend commemorative public rallies, vowing in speeches never to allow Serbia to be defeated again. At the end of the tour, the relics were reinterred in the Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gračanica in Kosovo, near Gazimestan.
The 28 June 1989 event was attended by a crowd estimated at between half a million and two million people (most estimates put the figure at around a million). They were overwhelmingly Serbs, many of whom had been brought to Gazimestan on hundreds of special coaches and trains organized by Milošević's League of Communists of Serbia. The attendees came not only from Serbia but all of the Serb-inhabited parts of Yugoslavia and even from overseas; around seven thousand diaspora Serbs from Australia, Canada and the United States also attended at the invitation of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
The speech was attended by a variety of dignitaries from the Serbian and Yugoslav establishment. They included the entire leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch German; the Prime Minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Ante Marković; members of the Presidency of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia; the leadership of the Yugoslav People's Army; and members of the rotating Presidency of Yugoslavia. The event was boycotted by the Croatian member of the Presidency, Stipe Šuvar, as well as the United States ambassador and all ambassadors from the European Community and NATO countries with the exception of Turkey (which had a direct interest in the event as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire).
After being escorted through cheering crowds waving his picture alongside that of Lazar, Milošević delivered his speech on a huge stage with a backdrop containing powerful symbols of the Kosovo myth: images of peonies, a flower traditionally deemed to symbolize the blood of Lazar, and an Orthodox cross with a Cyrillic letter "C" at each of its four corners (standing for the slogan Само Слога Србина Спашaва (Samo Sloga Srbina Spašava, i.e. "Only Unity Saves the Serbs").
Content of the speech
The message Milošević delivered in the speech was essentially one that he had already been promoting for some time. On 19 November 1988, he had told a "Brotherhood and Unity" rally in Belgrade: "None should be surprised that Serbia raised its head because of Kosovo this summer. Kosovo is the pure centre of its history, culture and memory. Every nation has one love that warms its heart. For Serbia it is Kosovo."'
A similar theme characterised his speech at Gazimestan. Anthropologist Edit Petrović comments that Milošević sought to combine "history, memory and continuity", promoting "the illusion that the Serbs who fought against the Turks in Kosovo in 1389 are somehow the same as the Serbs fighting for Serbian national survival today."
According to James Gow, the objective was to further Milošević's political campaign, which was "predicated on the notion of redressing this mood of victimisation and restoring the sense of Serbian pride and, most important of all, power."
At the beginning of the speech, Milošević mentioned the battle and concluded that it is "through the play of history of life" that "Serbia regained its state, national, and spiritual integrity" (referring to the constitutional changes which reduced autonomy of Serbia's provinces and strengthened the central rule) at the battle's anniversary. He continued by saying that "Today, it is difficult to say what is the historical truth about the Battle of Kosovo and what is legend. Today this is no longer important".
Milošević placed his speech in the context of the post-World War II history of Yugoslavia, in which Serbia's influence had been restricted through constitutional arrangements diluting its power. This had been a long-running controversy in Serbian politics, particularly after Kosovo and the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina were granted influence over Serbia under Yugoslavia's 1974 constitution. Vjeran Pavlaković posited that Milošević sought to make "clear parallels between the Battle of Kosovo Polje and the Yugoslav constitution of 1974, both considered to be defeats in the Serbian national consciousness." He maintained that disunity among Serbian political leaders meant that they were "prone to compromise to the detriment of its own people", compromise which "could not be accepted historically and ethically by any nation in the world ... here we are now at the field of Kosovo to say that this is no longer the case".
Milošević presented Serbian victimisation as the result of poor political leadership and spoke of how "the Serbian leadership [had] remained divided, prone to compromise to the detriment of its own people". He asserted:
- "The fact that in this region they are a major nation is not a Serbian sin or shame; this is an advantage which they have not used against others, but I must say that here, in this big, legendary field of Kosovo, the Serbs have not used the advantage of being great for their own benefit either."
Milošević signalled that this passiveness would change:
- "Thanks to their leaders and politicians and their vassal mentality they felt guilty before themselves and others. This situation lasted for decades, it lasted for years and here we are now at the field of Kosovo to say that this is no longer the case... Serbia of today is united and equal to other republics and prepared to do everything to improve its financial and social position and that of all its citizens. If there is unity, cooperation, and seriousness, it will succeed in doing so."
"Serbs have never in the whole of their history conquered and exploited others. Their national and historical being has been liberational throughout the whole of history and through two world wars, as it is today. They liberated themselves and when they could they also helped others to liberate themselves."
Afterward, he spoke about unity and Serbian multi-ethnicity: he emphasised that "unity in Serbia will bring prosperity to the Serbian people in Serbia", and also to "each one of its citizens, irrespective of his national or religious affiliation".
Unity and equality to other republics will enable Serbia to "improve its financial and social position and that of all its citizens". Milošević said that in Serbia, apart from Serbs, "members of other peoples and nationalities also live in it ... This is not a disadvantage for Serbia. I am truly convinced that it is its [sic] advantage." He went on to speak about divisions among Yugoslav nations and their religions, which "Socialism in particular, being a progressive and just democratic society, should not allow". He devoted a large part of the speech to these divisions, stating that "Yugoslavia is a multinational community and it can survive only under the conditions of full equality for all nations that live in it." However, "The crisis that hit Yugoslavia has brought about national divisions", despite the fact that Yugoslavia "experienced the worst tragedy of national conflicts that a society can experience and still survive."
The middle section of the speech took a markedly different line from the nationalist expressions which bookended it; Louis Sell describes it as sounding "as if it was written by his wife" (Mirjana Marković, who was known for her hard-line communist views). Milošević praised the virtues of ethnic tolerance and socialism, describing how "the world is more and more marked by national tolerance, national cooperation and even national equality" and calling for equal and harmonious relations among the peoples of Yugoslavia. It was reportedly met with silence, bordering on restiveness, by the crowd.
After issuing a call for "unity, solidarity, and cooperation among people", Milošević delivered the speech's most controversial passage, stating:
- "Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past. Our chief battle now concerns implementing the economic, political, cultural, and general social prosperity, finding a quicker and more successful approach to a civilization in which people will live in the 21st century."
In the final paragraph of the speech, Milošević addressed the relation between Serbia and Europe. He portrayed medieval Serbia as not just the defender of its own territory, but of all Europe in the fight against the Ottoman Turks. He declared that "Six centuries ago, Serbia heroically defended itself in the field of Kosovo, but it also defended Europe. Serbia was at that time the bastion that defended the European culture, religion, and European society in general."
Writer Arne Johan Vetlesen has commented that this was an appeal "to the values of Europe, meaning to Christianity, to modernity, to Civilization with a capital C, exploit[ing] Orientalist sentiments and help[ing] to amplify the Balkanism widespread in Western governments." In this connection, he again stressed that "In this spirit we now endeavor to build a society, rich and democratic, and thus to contribute to the prosperity of this beautiful country, this unjustly suffering country, but also to contribute to the efforts of all the progressive people of our age that they make for a better and happier world."
He concluded the speech with:
- "Let the memory of Kosovo heroism live forever!
- Long live Serbia!
- Long live Yugoslavia!
- Long live peace and brotherhood among peoples!"
Responses to the speech
The speech was enthusiastically received by the crowds at Gazimestan, who were reported to have shouted "Kosovo is Serb". Some sang "Tsar Lazar, you were not lucky enough to have Slobo by your side" and dubbed Milošević Mali Lazar ("Little Lazar"), while others chanted "Europe, don't you remember that we defended you!" (referring to a key element of the Kosovo myth, that Serbia sacrificed itself in defending Christian Europe against the encroaching Muslim Turks).
This was to be an important theme in Serbian nationalist rhetoric during the Yugoslav wars; Thomas A. Emmert, writing in 1993, commented that since the day of the speech, "Serbs have not failed to remind themselves and the world that they are fighting for the very defense of Europe against Islamic fundamentalism. It matters little to them that Europeans and Americans do not perceive any need for defense."
Matija Bećković, a well-known poet and academic, praised the event as "the culmination of the Serb national revolt, in Kosovo as the equator of the Serb planet.... On this six hundredth anniversary of the Kosovo battle, we must emphasise that Kosovo is Serbia; and that this is a fundamental reality, irrespective of Albanian birth rates and Serb mortality rates. There is so much Serb blood and Serb sanctity there that Kosovo will remain Serbian even if there is not a single Serb left there.... It is almost surprising that all Serbian land is not called by the name of Kosovo."
Politika, a Belgrade newspaper, reprinted Milošević's speech in full in a special edition dedicated entirely to the Kosovo issue. It asserted in an editorial that "We are once more living in the times of Kosovo, as it is in Kosovo and around Kosovo that the destiny of Yugoslavia and the destiny of socialism are being determined. They want to take away from us the Serbian and the Yugoslav Kosovo, yes, they want to, but they will not be allowed to." Janez Drnovšek, the Slovene member of the Yugoslav collective presidency, sat next to Milošević during the ceremony and later described the Serbian president's mood as "euphoric".
Although many Serbs gave the speech a warm welcome, it was regarded warily in the other Yugoslav nations as well as by anti-Milošević Serbs. The nationalist sentiments expressed by Milošević were a major break with the late Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito's anti-nationalist approach and, as Robert Thomas comments, "it effectively acted as a symbolic repudiation of the Titoist legacy." Milošević's claimed Serbs "liberated themselves and when they could they also helped others to liberate themselves" were seen by some as a commitment to a forcible redrawing of Yugoslav's internal borders, to create a Greater Serbia. Concerns about an underlying agenda were heightened by the presence at the event of the Serbian Orthodox bishop from Dalmatia in Croatia, who gave a keynote speech in which he compared Dalmatia to Kosovo and concluded that both had made the same vow to Milošević.
British journalist Marcus Tanner, who attended the Gazimestan event, reported that "representatives [of Slovenia and Croatia] ... looked nervous and uncomfortable" and commented that the outpouring of Serbian nationalist sentiment had "perhaps permanently destroyed any possibility of a settlement in Kosovo." The nervousness was reflected in a Slovenian television news report on the speech, which noted:
- "And whatever significance the Kosovo battle may have in the national and intimate consciousness of the Serbs, the festivities at Gazimestan again confirmed that it will be more and more difficult to face Serbian conduct and wishes, for it seems that the Serbs won a significant victory in Kosovo today and they made it known that it was not the last one. The feeling of belonging, of unity, power and almost blind obedience of the million-fold crowd and all the others from this republic of Serbian or Montenegrin origin who may not have attended the gathering, are the elements in shaping a sharp and unyielding policy."
The international media gave the speech mixed reviews. Many commentators noted the unprecedented nature of the event and the radical departure that it represented from the anti-nationalist ideology espoused under Tito. Although the speech's advocacy of mutual respect and democracy was described as "unexpectedly conciliatory" (as the UK newspaper The Independent put it), the contrast between Milošević's rhetoric and the reality of his widely criticized policies towards the Kosovo Albanians was also noted.
Many commentators have interpreted the speech in hindsight as a coded declaration by Milošević that he was willing to use force to advance Serbia's interests; Tim Judah speculates that Milošević perhaps referred to "armed battles" in a "bid to intimidate the other Yugoslav leaders, who because of protocol were forced to attend". Milan Milošević (no relation to Slobodan Milošević) commented; "[H]e did not have in mind the later wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. He was thinking of Kosovo itself." However, Slobodan Milošević himself rejected this view at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2002 and 2005. He told the tribunal:
- "[N]one of the people that I talked to spoke of any warmongering attitude, nothing of the kind. On the contrary, this was a speech of peace, encouraging people to live together in harmony, all of the nationalities, the Turks, Gorani, Ashkali living in Kosovo, as well as throughout the entire Yugoslavia."
Addressing his use of the phrase "armed battles", he said:
- "That is an ordinary type of sentence that everybody uses today because peace has still not become a stable, secure category in the present day world, in the modern day world. And if that were not so, why do states have armies?"
A misconception about the speech (for example, stated in The Times) is that Milošević uttered his "No one will beat you!" line in the speech. He actually said that on 24 April 1987, at a completely different occasion.
List of notable attendees
- International Criminal Tribunal, transcript 020214IT, un.org, 14 February 2002.
- MacDonald, David Bruce. Balkan Holocausts?: Serbian and Croatian victim-centered propaganda and the war in Yugoslavia, pg. 65. Manchester University Press, 2002; ISBN 0-7190-6467-8
- Ruza Petrovic; Marina Blagojević. "Preface". The Migration of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosovo and Metohija. Archived from the original on 2009-04-07.
- Rise of Tension in Kosovo Due to Migration
- "Expert report by Audrey Helfant Budding given to the ICTY for the prosecution against Slobodan Milosevic, part 4 - Slobodan Milošević Trial Public Archive" (PDF). Human Rights Project.
- Kola, Paulin. In Search of Greater Albania, pp. 181-182. C. Hurst & Co, 2003; ISBN 1-85065-664-9
- Crnobrnja, Mihailo. The Yugoslav Drama, p. 102. McGill-Queen's Press, 1996; ISBN 0-7735-1429-5
- Milan Milošević, "The Media Wars: 1987 - 1997", pp. 110-11 in Burn This House: The Making and Unmaking of Yugoslavia, ed. Jasminka Udovički, James Ridgeway, Duke University Press, 2000; ISBN 0-8223-2590-X
- Volkan, Vamik D., William F. Greer & Gabriele Ast. The Third Reich in the Unconscious: Transgenerational Transmission and Its Consequences, pg. 47. Psychology Press, 2002; ISBN 1-58391-334-3
- Zirojević, Olga. "Kosovo in the Collective Memory", p. 207-208, in The Road to War in Serbia: trauma and catharsis, ed. Nebojša Popov. Central European University Press, 2000; ISBN 963-9116-56-4
- Footnote on p. 101 in The War in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, 1991-1995, ed. Branka Magaš, Ivo Žanić
- Michael Sells, "Kosovo Mythology and the Bosnian Genocide", p. 181 in In God's Name: Genocide and Religion in the Twentieth Century, ed. Omer Bartov, Phyllis Mack. Berghahn Books, 2001; ISBN 1-57181-214-8
- R. Scott Appleby, The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence and Reconciliation, p. 70. Rowman & Littlefield, 2000.
- Naša Borba, 14 June 1996.
- Edit Petrović, "Ethnonationalism and the Dissolution of Yugoslavia", p. 170 in Neighbors at War: anthropological perspectives on Yugoslav ethnicity, culture, and history, ed. Joel Martin Halpern, David A. Kideckel. Penn State Press, 2000.
- Gow, James. The Serbian Project and Its Adversaries: A Strategy of War Crimes, pg. 10. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers (2003); ISBN 1-85065-499-9
- Quote from the English translation by the National Technical Information Service of the US Department of Commerce. Reprinted in The Kosovo Conflict and International Law: An Analytical Documentation 1974-1999, ed. Heike Krieger, pp. 10-11. Cambridge University Press, 2001; ISBN 0-521-80071-4. online version in Milošević's official website
- Ramet, Sabrina Petra & Vjeran Pavlaković, Serbia Since 1989: politics and society under Milošević and after, p. 13. University of Washington Press (2005); ISBN 0-295-98538-0
- Sell, Louis. Slobodan Milošević and the Destruction of Yugoslavia, p. 88. Duke University Press, 2003; ISBN 0-8223-3223-X
- Vetlesen, Arne Johan. Evil and Human Agency: Understanding Collective Evildoing, p. 153. Cambridge University Press, 2005; ISBN 0-521-85694-9
- Emmert, Thomas A. "Why Serbia Will Fight for 'Holy' Kosovo; And the Peril for Western Armies Approaching the Balkan Tripwire". Washington Post, 13 June 1993.
- Quoted by Vidosav Stevanović, Milošević: The People's Tyrant", footnote 18, pg. 219. I.B. Tauris, 2004.
- Thomas, Robert. Serbia Under Milošević: Politics in the 1990s (pg. 50), C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1999; ISBN 1-85065-341-0
- Cigar, Norman. "The Serbo-Croatian War, 1991", p. 57 in Genocide After Emotion: The Postemotional Balkan War, ed. Stjepan G. Mestrović. Routledge (1996); ISBN 0-415-12293-7
- "Milosevic carries off the battle honours", The Independent, 29 June 1989
- Slovenian TV news, 1700 GMT, 28 June 1989 (in translation from BBC Monitoring)
- Goldstein, Ivo. Croatia: A History, p. 203. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers, 1999. ISBN 1-85065-525-1
- Judah, Tim. "The Serbs: the sweet and rotten smell of history", Daedalus, 22 June 1997. No. 3, Vol. 126; pg. 23
- Milošević testimony to the ICTY, un.org, 26 January 2005.
- Milošević testimony to the ICTY, un.org, 14 February 2002
- Milosevic on suicide watch in Dutch prison; Times Newspapers Limited; The Times (London); 30 June 2001, Saturday
- War in the Balkans, 1991-2002. p. 93.
- Speech transcript (in Serbian)
- El líder de la 'Gran Serbia' - photo of Milošević delivering the Gazimestan speech (in Spanish)