1 Million Serbs Cheer Their Nationalist Leader in Kosovo
PRISTINA, Yugoslavia (AP) _ About 1 million Serbs gathered Wednesday in Kosovo, an ancient Serbian heartland now dominated by ethnic Albanians, to mark the 600th anniversary of a great battle and cheer their nationalist leader.
Chants of ″Slobo 3/8 Slobo 3/8″ arose when Slobodan Milosevic, president of the Serbian republic, ascended a platform high above the flag-waving sea of admirers.
Serbs came from all parts of Yugoslavia and from abroad to bask in the nationalism Milosevic has revived through his campaign to regain control over Kosovo, an autonomous province within Serbia.
″Kosovo is Serbia 3/8″ they chanted.
Kosovo was the heart of medieval Serbia, where the Serbs were defeated by the Ottoman Turks in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. The defeat entered legend as the beginning of a five-century struggle by the Serbs to keep their Orthodox Christian faith alive under Moslem rule.
Milosevic told the crowed Wednesday it was ″very difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a Serbian defeat or victory, whether we lost our freedom and became slaves ... or we managed to survive in spite of slavery.″
″Six centuries ago, Serbia defended itself bravely in the field of Kosovo, but Serbia was also defending Europe,″ he said. ″It was a bulwark defending the European culture, civilization and religion.″
Today, Serbs are a small minority in Kosovo and claim they are harassed by the predominantly Moslem ethnic Albanians who make up 85 percent of the 1.9 million people. The impoverished southern province adjoins Albania.
Ethnic tension turned violent in March, with fights between police and Albanians protesting moves by Serbia to take control of the provincial police, judiciary and schools.
At least 25 people were killed and hundreds of ethnic Albanians have been jailed.
On Wednesday, ethnic Albanians stayed out of sight during the largest outpouring of Serbian nationalism in more than four decades of Communist rule. The day began with religious ceremonies at one of Serbia’s holiest shrines, the 14th century Byzantine-style monastery of Gracanica near Pristina, the provincial capital.
Huge crowds of people, many in Serbian national costume, streamed under a scorching sun to nearby Gazimestan, a hilly part of the battlefield crowned by a stone monument honoring those who died fighting the Turks in 1389.
Thousands of buses and private cars decorated with Serbian flags, portraits of Milosevic and religious symbols jammed roads for miles.
An enthusiastic cheer greeted about 100 American Serbs, who waved both the Stars and Stripes and the Serbian banner. A Serbian choir in full national dress from Toronto sang traditional songs and danced.
Some emigres who fled communist Yugoslavia decades ago said only such an occasion could bring them back.
″My father always told me we Serbs are the live fire from Kosovo,″ said Steve Klipa, 56, of Pittsburgh. He kissed the ground and crossed himself.
The Serbian Orthodox Church was prominent in the day’s ceremonies, several hours of which were broadcast on Serbian TV. The church once was repressed by the ruling Communist Party but is reviving in the nationalist fervor inspired by Milosevic.
Patriarch German, 90-year-old head of the church, was seated in the front row of honored guests at Gazimestan. Dozens of bearded priests in flowing black robes mingled with Communist Party dignitaries.
″This is fantastic; I never imagined anything like this would happen,″ said Ljiljana Markovic, a middle-aged woman who stood atop the hill gazing at the crowd below.
Organizers estimated the crowd at 1.5 million. Western reporters put it at slightly under 1 million.
Police helicopters clattered overhead, watching over the crowd and ferrying in Milosevic and other other Communist party officials from Serbia and other regions.
Serbia’s exiled royal family also has been welcomed in the flush of nationalism.
Princess Elisabeth - daughter of Prince Paul Karadjordjevic, prince-regent from 1934 until the outbreak of war in 1941 - attended ceremonies in Belgrade on Sunday and was said to be in the crowd Wednesday.