Kosovan abyss

Foto: Sunčica Andrejević

By Petar Ristanovic

The death of Djordje Balasevic saddened many in the area that is now euphemistically referred to as „region“. While Djole’s songs were shared on social networks and memories of carefree high school and student days were evoked, during which everyone identified with Balasevic’s verses at least once, a well-known group also known under the euphemistic name – regional pastors – appeared as per the already well-established practice.

It all started with a Twitter comment made by Petrit Selimi, a former Kosovo foreign minister and a member of Thaci’s PDK. Selimi criticized the collective grief in the „region“, claiming that one of Balasevic’s most famous songs, „Don’t break my Locust tree“ was part of „vicious anti-Albanian nationalist propaganda launched by Belgrade“ with the aim of „annulling Kosovo’s autonomy“.

Twitter users from Serbia responded in accordance with the folklore of social networks: some with ridicule, some with profanity, some with threats, which was an expected and desired reaction. This was followed, of course, by support for Selimi, coming from the expected places – from Reuf Bajrovic, Ljubomir Filipovic, Jasmin Mujanovic, Marko Attila Hoare…

There is a lot to be said about that support, for example, about the hypocrisy of those who criticize the anti-Albanian campaign from the end of 1980s, although they have been pursuing at the same time the anti-Serbian campaign for years. For some, it is a kind of family tradition, since Attila Hoare’s mother, Croatian journalist Branka Magas, published a book on Yugoslavia’s break-up in London in 1992.

The claims expressed in this book became one of the foundations of the campaign during the 1990s, which her successor is zealously continuing. One could, indeed, say a great deal of things, but I will not do that because the goal of this group of professional sowers of hatred is to be talked about. Instead, I will try to answer how it came about that a singer-songwriter known for his romantic, love songs, wrote metaphorical verses inspired by events in the troubled province of Kosovo in 1986.

The Kosovo crisis officially began with mass demonstrations and an attempted Albanian uprising in March and early April 1981. The cries „Republic of Kosovo“ and only slightly less loud demands for the unification of Kosovo with Albania drew the attention of the Yugoslav leadership and the public to the poorest area in the country.

Until then, going back for years, the media wrote about Kosovo only when they broadcast statements of provincial politicians about almost idyllic interethnic relations, as described by leading provincial politician Mahmut Bakalli during J. B. Tito’s visit to Kosovo in the fall of 1979.

The demonstrations shattered many illusions. From April 1981, at first shyly and then increasingly louder, numerous problems in the province were talked about, including the long-term mass emigration of Serbs.

The fact that emigration has been going on for a long time has long been whispered about among Yugoslav top politicians. Slovenian official, Jože Smole, known for his pro-Albanian views, said in an interview, after the demonstrations, with Zagreb-based Vjesnik that emigration had long been discussed in Belgrade, „and not just in Belgrade“, but that it had not been discussed publicly due to the policy of non-interference.

Since the adoption of the SFRY Constitution in 1974, Kosovo has officially been a province within Serbia, but in practice it has been completely independent, a „republic in everything but its name“, as historians often write today. The provincial leadership in Pristina had complete control over Kosovo.

Due to this attitude of political forces, numerous problems in Kosovo were covered up during the 1970s. The mass emigration of Serbs is one of them. When the data was finally published, the Federal Prime Minister (1982-1986) Milka Planinc stated that the members of the Federal Executive Council (Government of Yugoslavia) were „shocked“ by the findings.

The Kosovo leadership has been tasked with analyzing the emigration of Serbs from the province over the past ten years. The document acknowledged that emigration was a „taboo subject“.

The numerous quotes show that the mass emigration of Serbs from the southern province was a fact, although it is often disputed and relativized today.

The facts further show that in the period from the mid-1960s to 1989, during the Albanian policy of domination, about 40% of Serbs, i.e. approximately 150,000 people, emigrated from Kosovo. Interestingly, the number of emigrants did not cause a controversy. A dispute broke out over the reason behind the emigration.

The provincial leadership, which was politically dominated by Albanians, claimed that economic reasons were the main reason for the emigration of Serbs, which meant that it was an inevitable and expected process. On the other hand, Belgrade said that the main cause of emigration was the atmosphere of fear and discrimination. They proved this with the statements of the emigrants and the simple fact that the number of emigrated Serbs was significantly higher than the number of emigrated Albanians, even though there were five times more Albanians there and that they were equally affected by poverty.

The controversy had a political background. After the demonstrations, the provincial leadership in Pristina took on a political defense stance. The Serb leadership used that and asked for a review of the constitutional relations between the Republic of Serbia and its provinces. Politicians from the League of Communists of Serbia claimed that muddled constitutional relations were the main reason behind the crisis in Kosovo, thus implicitly demanding a change in the constitution.

On the other hand, the main goal of the provincial leadership in Pristina was to preserve autonomy, i.e. practical independence in relation to Serbia. A political conflict was launched in which the emigration of Serbs was imposed as a central theme.

After the demonstrations in Kosovo in 1981 through 1985, it was officially declared that „stabilization“ was taking place in Kosovo. Provincial politicians said that the situation was improving with each passing day. However, the number of emigrated Serbs denied their claims.

The Serb leadership used this as proof that the situation in the province is not changing, and that is why they demanded changes in the provincial leadership and a change in the constitution. In Pristina, persistent mention of emigration and persistent media coverage of pressure on Serbs was interpreted as political pressure and a malicious act.

Instead of using concrete measures to attempt to reduce emigration and solve the problems of Serbs, provincial officials spoke about excessive and malicious „criticism“, reduced emigration numbers, relativized its circumstances and stressed that it was a natural process.

While the leaderships were pursuing „high politics“, the situation in the field was becoming increasingly difficult. News of interethnic incidents, the increasing number of attacks on Serbs and emigration have created an atmosphere of low rage. Several songs by popular Yugoslav bands testify to the growing anger and the gradual change in the collective perception of events in Kosovo.

In 1983, Sarajevo-based „Bijelo dugme“ released the album „Lullaby for Radmila M.“, which contained a song in Albanian titled „Kosovska“. The song with a love theme was written by Albanians, the champions of the theater in Skopje. The most eloquent message was found in the following verses:

“Do you know that everyone is going to be there,
For us it will be a celebration,
Will go together – one two three.”

„Kosovska“ was published in 1983, at a time when the media praised „stabilization“ in Kosovo, as a kind of support to calm the crisis. The verses were a symbolic message about the need for unity. The song in Albanian by the most popular Yugoslav group aimed to symbolically show the affiliation of Albanians with the Yugoslav community.

At the same time, the verse – „If your mother will not let you. Then find your own path as you know“ could be interpreted as an invitation to Albanians to get rid of the norms of traditional society, which kept them at a distance from other peoples of Yugoslavia.

The following year, in 1984, another Sarajevo-based group, „Zabranjeno pusenje“, published a song inspired by the Kosovo crisis. The album „Das ist Walter“ included the song „Cheyenne are leaving“. The verses about a tribe leaving their land, due to the pressure from another tribe, were a clear allusion to the emigration of Serbs.

„Cheyennes are leaving without blood, without sweat
Without the widows weeping, a wasteland remains
Too small for two
Shoshones are huddled
The low ring of the hooves of their
raging horses.”

The message of the song was deeply anti-nationalist. It called for overcoming „tribal divisions“. The verses speak clearly about this:

„I have a friend who lives near Napredak,
I don’t know which tribe he is from because he doesn’t wear war colors.“

At the time these songs were written, the frustration among Serbs over the Kosovo situation was immense. A confidential report made for the purposes of the Serbian republican leadership in 1982, after the murder of Danilo Milincic, reads that the workers of large companies LMK, IMT and IMR in Belgrade, the Red Flag Institute in Kragujevac, EI in Nis, and companies in Gornji Milanovac and Vrnjacka Banja, suspended production and called for conventions, demanding that party officials come and talk to them about the situation in Kosovo.

Serbs experienced the Kosovo crisis with a plethora of emotions. Until the middle of the decade, the quarrelsome mood did not prevail, but the atmosphere began to change in 1985. There were many reasons for that. The general crisis in Yugoslavia was increasing, people were rapidly becoming impoverished as the values ​​and ideals of a society built for four decades collapsed before their eyes. Frustrations over national issues surfaced.

During that time, news arrived from Kosovo about attacks on Serbs. The crisis has been going on for too long, with no indication that the situation is improving.

In February 1986, about a hundred Serbs from Kosovo came to Belgrade to the SFRY Assembly, to speak publicly about their problems and, as they said, seek „freedom.“ Then, in April, about 550 Serbs from Kosovo spoke at the Sava Center, in front of the top Yugoslav officials, about their plight and promised to emigrate collectively if nothing changes. In June, several hundred Serbs from the Klina area hung a „Village for Sale“ sign and attempted collective migration, but they were stopped by police.

The drama of the Serbs from Kosovo was such that at the joint session of the state and party leadership of Yugoslavia, it was concluded that „emigration under pressure“ from Kosovo was „one of the most difficult political problems of the independent autonomous province of Kosovo, FR Serbia and SFRY.“

The way all these events affected the atmosphere in the Serbian public is eloquently portrayed in three songs inspired by the Kosovo crisis, published in 1986. Nis-based rock band „Kerber“ released the album „Seobe“ (Migrations), which contained the song of the same name. The text is a reflection of the grief over the emigration of Serbs from Kosovo, although, as the song lyrics say, the Earth’s bosom is „as wide as God with enough milk for everyone“:

“Birds fly to the South,
and return
People extinguish their hearths
leaving forever

Earth’s bosom
is wide as God’s
with enough milk for everyone.

The greatest woe
Is to leave home
out of a ditch, into a pond
to avoid the ill fate

No traces left
the graves don’t sing the songs”

„Seobe“ was a lament, without confrontational messages, but also without much hope that something could change. The new element was brought by the song „Rimljani“ (The Romans), by the Belgrade-based band „Bajaga i instruktori“, released on the album „Jahaci magle“ (Fog riders). The chorus of the song was perceived by many as a clear reference to the situation in Kosovo:

 “Keepers of distant borders are answering through messengers
The southern warrior tribes arrived beneath the walls
And there are more barbarians than ever, and fewer Romans than ever.”

The difference between the „Bijelo dugme“ and „Zabranjeno pusenje“ songs is obvious. The image of Albanians as a southern warrior tribe, the „barbarians“, testifies to the growing anger and the increasingly widespread perception of Albanians as enemies. This ever-present rage is most visible in Djordje Balasevic’s song, „Don’t break my Locust tree“, published on the album „Bezdan“ (Abyss) in 1986. The verses were hardly metaphors:

“And it’s gone on too long
I had a forest of Locust trees
Down there by the path
So I waited, what’s right is right
Slowly my neighbor
You can’t just come in and wreck another’s
I said so nicely.”

In the song, the author underlines „let the laws govern“ – which was one of the most common demands of Serbs from Kosovo during their mass arrivals in Belgrade:

“Let the laws govern
There are paragraphs of it
So grab them with integrity, for the religious and the atheist.”

However, the last verse has another important message – on what will happen if we “let the laws govern”:

“Don’t break my Locust tree
I kissed her under them
Do I have to say it again
Get away from them, otherwise, I will have to break you.”

Petrit Selimi said that Balasevic’s song was part of „vicious anti-Albanian nationalist propaganda launched by Belgrade“. But the song is actually a reflection of the atmosphere of the time it was created. The poet’s verse, in which he says that it has „gone on too long“, perfectly describes why the song was created, under the impression of clumsy speeches of ordinary people about their difficult destinies.

Setting aside the heartbreaking testimonies, the numbers alone speak for themselves. During 1982, 6,646 Serbs officially emigrated from Kosovo, during the following year – 1983, 4,341 of them, 3,654 in 1984, 3,410 in 1985, and another 4,176 in 1986. In just 5 years, approximately 10% of the province’s Serb population had emigrated. The following year, 1987, the Yugoslav Assembly concluded that the emigration of Serbs from Kosovo was „the most difficult moral, political and socio-economic problem of Yugoslav society.“

During the 1980s, the provincial institutions were the only ones with the ability to directly influence the situation in Kosovo. Instead of decisive moves, anti-migration measures were taken slowly, reluctantly, and with plenty of resistance.

When they were finally adopted, they were not implemented in practice. Pristina leadership was only interested in defending its de facto independence. Their actions declared that there was no place for Serbs in this kind of Kosovo.

Such a policy provoked frustration and anger among Serbs. The poets expressed them through songs. Others, much more numerous and less subtle, expressed them in the streets and squares in 1988, when a leader appeared ready to further incite and abuse their frustrations for his own purposes.

This text is not a defense of Djordje Balasevic, nor does he need one. However, finally, I have to mention his role in the events that followed. A year after the song „Don’t break my Locust tree“, he released the album „U tvojim mislima“ (In your thoughts), which included the song „1987“. In a few verses, without hiding behind metaphors, he broached the situation in Kosovo.

„Children are killed in their sleep,
I’m afraid a Chetnik vampire will rise,
what a vampire knows about emigration, he sees everything purely ethnically.
What a wretched, poor and miserable eighty-seven!“

The first verse represents a clear association to the murder of four soldiers in the barracks in Paracin by an Albanian soldier, Aziz Kelmendi. The rest of the song, however, speaks of the fear of the „Chetnik vampire“, which was a code for Serbian nationalism in the communist vocabulary, which „sees everything purely ethnically“. In the same manner, the poet continued:

„I was watching TV yesterday,
a misunderstood genius, comrade Fadil is in great trouble:
no one understands a powerful vision, no reaction from public institutions.
What a wretched, poor and miserable eighty-seven!“

„Comrade Fadil“ is none other than Fadil Hoxha, the most influential Albanian politician for almost forty years. The sarcastic words about the „powerful vision“ were nothing but ridicule of empty phrases of „misunderstood geniuses“, lifelong officials responsible for that „poor and miserable eighty-seven“.

Balasevic’s song, as well as the other mentioned songs, were not „provoking“ or part of a „vicious anti-Albanian campaign“. They were all created before Slobodan Milosevic became a leading Serb politician and before he even mentioned Kosovo in a public speech. Songs are a mirror of time, a petrified testimony to the state of collective consciousness at the time of their creation. They are written as a reflection of rebellion and sympathy with the rivers of those who „extinguish the hearth“ and „leave forever“. They were written against hatred, and the fact that they are criticized today by those who are interested in hatred is no coincidence.

Petar Ristanovic is a historian and a research associate on the project „Material and Spiritual Culture of Kosovo and Metohija“ of the Institute of Serbian Culture in Pristina/Leposavic. He is the author of the award-winning book „Kosovo issue 1974-1989“ and several scientific papers on the Kosovo issue, published in national and international scientific journals.




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