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The Saga of Kosovo
The Saga of Kosovo



Migrations, Ethnic Vacuum, Shifts in Center of Serbdom


No history of Serbo-Albanian relations can be complete without special attention to the events that took place in the second half of the 17th and the first half of the 18th centuries. It was a period of migrations, of continuous mobility, voluntary or forced, manifested in either individual or group decisions to leave home and settle somewhere else. These processes tended to be intensified and to become more evident in times of social upheavals or wars, but they were part of life.

Around the beginning of the 17th century, German commanders of the Austrian border areas (today's Slavonia and Croatia) were luring Christian peasants from Serbia and Bosnia to settle in the vacant but fertile areas, and to "fight for the Cross." This whole region was considered a military district, under the administration of the Vienna government, and was exempt from any other authority. New settlers were promised a high degree of autonomy, religious freedom, and free election of their own local chiefs (knezes). Local feudal masters, including the Croatian families of Zrinski and Frankopan, were not happy with this arrangement. They wanted their lands protected and defended, but not at the price of losing their feudal benefits. The new settlers--mostly Serbs--resisted the landlords' demands, claiming that the Emperor had "invited" them and "promised" them special status. The commanders sided with the settlers. Whatever tactic the Austrian Emperor used--setting up commissions, mediators, special status arrangements--to resolve the issue, Serbian settlers, at least in the early period, usually ended up victorious.

The ugly reality developing in front of all concerned, however, consisted of local nobles, the Papacy, and the Imperial Austrian Court fighting for the bodies and souls of the new arrivals. Details of that long and sinister fight are not the subject of this study, but suffice it to say that the seeds sown by the main participants in that game would poison the Serbo-Croatian atmosphere for many decades to come.

The Ottoman rulers, for their part, did not abandon their expansionist plans, in spite of occasional setbacks in military campaigns. In the midst of persistent "try again tactics" it was becoming painfully obvious that the Turkish "bites" were getting bigger and bigger. And the whole concept of the "militarized zone" along the rivers that separated Europe from the Balkans, grew in importance. But the idea of attracting new soldiers by offering them land was not an Austrian monopoly. The Turks did the same thing, using the same idea. The only difference was the ethnicity of prospective settlers; they chose Albanians. Consequently, for every Christian that the Austrians got out of the Balkan area, the Turks brought in an Albanian Moslem.

In a sense, by inviting Christian Serbs to cross the river, Austria was de-Christianizing the Balkans. There is enough evidence to show that the Turks were not particularly interested in clearing the area of the Serbian element, because the Turkish authorities had tried in advance to counter the ensuing panic among the terrified Slavs, by promising fair treatment, pardons, amnesty, and retention of their old status. But the Slavs could not trust the Turks, especially not the Janissaries. Moreover, the Serbs had usually involved themselves with Christian armies' incursions so deeply that it would have been naive to take the Turkish promises seriously.

To the Turkish brothers-in-arms, the Albanians, those northbound Slav migrations were a real blessing. They would not wait twice for the invitation to fill the vacuum. Consequently, the Islamization of the Slav territories went steadily onward. The Albanian tribes of Malisoris and Dukadjins were descending from their mountains, encouraged by the Turks to push east and north along the valleys and main roads. Serbian ethnographers and social science experts and politicians have presented detailed studies of the "main migratory routes" (Jovan Cvijich, Stojan Novakovich, Jovan Tomich, Stanoje Stanojevich, Jovan Hadzi, Vasiljevich--to mention a few). Malisoris were mainly entering the Kosovo-Metohija area, but they also went to the areas of Novi Pazar and Sjenitsa. The Dukadjins went eastward and spilled over into the Vardar-Morava corridor, reaching as far as Leskovats.

It is rather positively established that the first Albanians to come to the Kosovo area were either still of the Christian religion--in most cases Roman Catholic--or recently converted, with their wives still of the Christian faith. The first "waves" were not hard core Moslem elements. Apparently these were individuals who either found it increasingly difficult to save their Christian faith in the Turkish environment, and wanted to move into areas of religiously "mixed" population, or they were recent converts who did not yet feel comfortable with Islam.

Roman Catholic bishops, seated in coastal cities but whose ecclesiastical jurisdiction extended inland, have left ample evidence of this migratory process, and reported on ethnic and religious changes occurring in the region. Archbishops, priests, and friars visited cities such as Prizren, Prishtina, Skoplje, Djakovitsa, invariably commenting on the increased Albanian presence. Marion Bizzi (1610), Giorgie Bianchi (1614), the two Masareks (of Albanian descent--Peter in 1623 end Matej in 1764 and 1767), Matej Benlich (1615), Josip Berisha (1782), and many others travelled up and down the region and left behind perspicuous notes and travelogues of great value, which make for fascinating reading. Bianchi found Prizren to be "the prettiest city of Serbia," while Benlich calls Prizren "capo di Servia." Most of them mention Serbian monasteries, especially "chiesa bellisima" of Dechani and Grachanitsa, as well as "sedia patriarcale" of Pech, "dove si trove un corpo santo del re Milutin de Servia" (Marion Bolica,1614). Archbishop Matej Masarek (1760) saw numerous graves and burial sites of slain Serbs ("sepolture de scismatici et altri da essi uccisi"). Moslem Albanians excelled in viciousness, reports the Archbishop, because they feel that being Moslem gives them the right to do anything they want ("perche sono Turchi e possono farsi ogni male che li piace"). He also noticed (in 1774) that cities were full of "Macedon)" and "Albanesi Turchi." Villages have only a few Christians, he reported, because most had fled to Germany, Wallachia, Sofia or elsewhere.

Similar in tone and factual content are a few reports that are known to have been sent to Russia, or submitted to Russian emissaries, by Orthodox clergy. For example, Patriarch Vasilije Brkich wrote to the commander of the visiting Russian Naval Expedition in Kotor, Admiral Alexis Orlov (1771): "Albanians arrived, became Turks and filled all towns and villages, took the land and enriched themselves enormously."

The Austro-Turkish and Russo-Turkish wars in the 17th and 18th centuries had traumatic consequences for the Serbian population in the Balkans, because in every case expeditions proved to be a false alarm. Every raising of new hopes was followed by subsequent disappointment, suffering and despair. It takes an enormous, unfathomable reservoir of national resilience to surmount shocks and depressions that followed every disappointment. In those, probably the most difficult times in Serbian national history, the best of the Serbian Church rose to the surface, and carried out its inspirational role to a remarkable degree.

A nation brutally beaten, a nation enslaved, a nation beheaded of leadership, and robbed of literacy, turned to its primitive monks and national bards. As if unimpressed by the enormity of the task, they suddenly found themselves being a depository and source of national hope. The monasteries as religious centers suddenly became national centers. This very Church, which once insisted on having two separate and powerful centers, spiritual and secular, in one nation, now had to take both jobs.

Ill-equipped, inexperienced, and scared to death, the patriarchs seated at the Pech Monastery of Saint Savior (Svetoga Spasa) indeed saved their nation. In the period 1557-1766, they stood their ground until chased away, but as they were forced to migrate they carried their mission with them. Dr. Djoko Slijepchevich, historian and prominent connoisseur of Serbian Orthodoxy, quotes a number of authoritative names of men vvho dealt with this subject: linguist Vuk Stefan Karadzich, historian Vladimmir Chorovich, ethnographer Jovan Cvijich, historian Stanoje Stanojevich--all of them analyzed this intricate transformation that had taken place in the thinking processes of Church leaders who assumed the responsibility of shouldering secular leadership.

Slijepchevich has so well characterized them (in quotes or paraphrases of the above-mentioned authors): They still wore their ecclesiastical robes; they always wore the signs of priestly dignity--censers, crosses, and shepherd's rods, but the Serbian people did not bow to them as sextons, but as rulers. In enslaved Serbia, the priest was not a clergyman, but judge, administrator, counsellor, guardian of the national idea, historian, teacher--everything that the priest did not do in the Serbian state. And when the Serbs kissed his hand, they did not do it out of reverence or faith, but out of respect which is shown to a national leader. The patriarch ceased being a shepherd and became leader of highwaymen, rebels. He continued to wear the cross, but the Serbs looked to the hand that held the national seal. He spoke of the Heavenly Tsar, but the Serbs asked about earthly tsars. The Orthodox religion, continues Slijepchevich, lost its churchly dogmatic character, and increasingly accepted an ethnic character and thus became the Serbian church. It was an integral part of the national spirit just as folklore is an integral part of that spirit, concludes Slijepchevich (Srpsko-arbanaski odnosi kroz vekove sa posebnim osvrtom na novije vreme [Serbo-Albanian Relations Through the Centuries, with Special Reference to More Recent Times]; Himmelsthur, West Germany, 2nd ea., 1983), pp. 139-140.

The Montenegrins did not have to go through this period of adjustment, because their metropolitan at Cetinje was the leader of the nation as Prince-Bishop. When their see became hereditary (1697) in the Petrovich family, the sense of unity of the nation enhanced the morale of the country as a whole, and among the Great Powers it raised the image of its relevance.

The one thing that helped the Serbs adjust to the new situation was the fact that the idea of an autocephalous Patriarchate was well established in the conscience of the Serbs before the state organization was eradicated. Before it collapsed, the Serbian state had two separate centers of influence. And while that might have seemed divisive at that time, it turned out to be a cohesive factor when one of these centers was removed. Serbs had only to narrow the focus. Ever since Byzantine times, the Patriarch was a highly respected and visible authority. Tsar Dushan made it that way, copying Byzantine custom. The Patriarch always wore his insignias of power, always signed documents in green ink, traveled with his entourage on horseback, and was given all formal respect due to a national leader. We know that Tsar Dushan, when John Cantacusenus visited him in Prishtina, met his eminent guest by dismounting and holding his horse. This is how Dushan would meet his Patriarch, too, the one that he practically appointed. Un- 3. doubtedly, such respect, given by the Tsar of such national, repute and esteem, helped national attention to center on the spiritual leader when there were no more Dushans around.

The Serbian name and presence became a household word, as the Islamic-Christian bout (Austro-Turkish wars) was raging in the 17th and 18th centuries. The very fact that the Serbs were in the frontier areas became a factor in the military and political planning of the contending armies. Although supposedly leaderless, the Serbs had to be viewed as either potential allies or enemies. In vying for the attention of the Patriarch, the Christian forces had the advantage by virtue of a common faith. But the Turks needed the Patriarch as a factor of stability among the Serbian Christian masses in the territory under Islamic rule. Subsequently, when the Patriarchate was removed from the scene (1766), the Turks turned more to the Greeks for that stability.

As the series of Austro-Turkish wars developed, the fluid situation became too tempting for the impatient Serbs to stand by. The Turks would push north and west into the Panonian plain, then retreat south, either because of defeats or a need to rush home to quellJanissary rebellions, with the Austrians in hot pursuit. Every time this happened, the temptation for the Serbs to join the Austrians and the Slavs fighting in their ranks became irresistable. Then when the tables would be turned, with the Austrians retreating, the Serbs would face a dilemma: wait for the revengeful Islamites or start marching north, leaving everything behind.

In 1663-64, Mehmed Chuprilich, an able Turkish military strategist of Albanian descent, pushed north to within 100 miles of Vienna, but was defeated at St. Gothardt.

Twenty years later, when the famous Turkish Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa, reached all the way to Vienna and kept it under sedge for months, the fate of the whole of Europe was at stake, and not only that of the Balkan Christians. To the Serbs, the siege had a special meaning, because it took place near the third centennial of the battle of Kosovo.

While all of this was happening, there was no unity among the "defenders of Christianity," the Western European Great Powers. Even when Kara Mustafa was tightening the noose and strangling the Austrian capital, France and Spain were not coming to the aid of the besieged. To the Slavs of the Balkans the picture was familiar. And to the invading Turks it must have seemed an inherent character trait of Christians. From the time that Orchan brought them to Europe, the Turks never saw Christians unite when faced by danger.

Then, of all people, a Slav King, John (Jan) Sobieski of Poland (resented by germanic central Europe), changed his foreign policy views, and came to the aid of besieged Prince Starhemberg. Sobieski delivered an irreparable blow to the strange coalition of Turks and Hungarians, a blow that enabled Eugene of Savoy to begin his big chase. He beat the Turks at Petrovaradin (1716), and a year later at Belgrade, where Grand Vizier Mustafa Pasha met his death. It is said that Mustafa Pasha was an alcoholic and an incompetent general, which makes one wonder what would have been the fate of Europe if, instead of Mustafa Pasha, the Sultan had an Evrenos-bey as did Murad at Kosovo. And one tends to be horrified when he tries to vizualize what would have happened to Western Civilization had not John Sobieski reversed his thinking.

Some time after the siege of Vienna, the Turks defeated the Austrians at Katchanik, and once more the Serbs were joining the latter in a northward retreat. The Austrian army, under General Piccolomini, had not endeared itself to the Serbs. While in Skoplje, the general burned Tsar Dushan's one-time capital, allegedly in a move to save himself and his soldiers from the plague. But his death and the decision to retreat left the Serbs no choice. Once again, 300 years after the battle of Kosovo, the Serbs were withdrawing from that familiar plain. This time, however, they did not leave their leader dead on the field. Patriarch Arsenius III decided to retreat at the head of his flock (1690). The scene was later immortalized in a huge painting by the Serbian painter, PajaJovanovich (1896). Arsenius left Pech and led some 35,000 Serbian families toward their new home. Many joined the exodus enroute, and after a brief assembly and parleys with the Austrians in Belgrade, they finally settled in what was later to be called Vojvodina. The Serbs were hoping and naively dreaming of founding an autonomous "free" Serbian state, but the Austrians had no intention of letting them do it.

It should be noted that the next Austrian advance in 1714 gave the population of upper Serbia (Shumadija) a respite from Turkish rule for more than two decades. The Habsburgs even added the name of "Serbia" to their crown title, and the Serbian militia assisted in maintaining peace and order in the region. After Austrian military misfortunes and the Peace of Belgrade (1739), however, the Serbs were once again on the move. The Serbs, who had gone south as far as Novi Pazar, once again had to leave the heartland of Old Serbia, this time under the leadership of Arsenius IV. Another 30,000 or so Serbian families moved out. Hence, two massive migrations in less than half a century left a lot of Serbian land as vacant territory.

Moreover, this time the return of the Turks seemed even more painful. One of the reasons was that in this period of fifty years the awareness of Turkish internal weaknesses had grown, with the consequent decline in the power of the central government and its ineffectiveness in controlling local power structures. Under the circumstances, numerous "sipahis" (Moslems who held military fiefs), and the land-possessing beys (who ran "chiftlicks") began acting as local tyrants. The plight of those who cultivated the land (Christians, in this case Serbs) was compounded by the fact that they had no one to represent them. The Patriarch had left, and soon the Patriarchate itself was officially abolished in 1766.

The Porte was not in a hurry to abolish the Patriarchate itself, but the Greek Patriarch in Constantinople felt that the Serbian Orthodox flock should not be left without some support in the face of intensified Islamization. At first he "volunteered" several bishops, and then he offered an attractive price for the right of representation. The Porte accepted, and the Greek Orthodoxy took over both the Pech and Ohrid dioceses. The Serbs were not comfortable with the new religious protectorate, for two reasons: they were not used to foreigners in religious matters, and they were sure that indirectly the Greeks would recoup the money they had paid to the Porte for the right to represent the Serbs. But, in the long run, it was a fortunate development, because the spiritual vacuum that was created by the abolition of the Serbian Patriarchate was filled by the lesser of two evils.

Hellenic-oriented priests were resented by both Serbian and Albanian Orthodox believers, but where else could they find people of knowledge and adequate culture to enlighten them in this darkness? Where else could Orthodox Russia find a tangible organization to be used in the large program of "protecting the Sultan's Christian subjects?" The last thing that the Greeks wanted was a Slav "protector;" but how does one turn him down? By turning to the Mohammedan Sultan?

As the Orthodox population of Serbian and Albanian regions came under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it meant--based on the Turkish concept of "millet"--that not only church matters, but education oi the Christians as well, would become the responsibility of the Greeks. Yet, who but the Greeks, among Balkan Christians of that time, were qualified for the job of such importance? Whatever literacy there was left among the Christians of the Balkans was in the hands (and heads) of the Greek Orthodoxy.

As for the relationship between Serbs and Albanians, the abolishing of the Serbian Patriarchate had devastating consequences. Conversion to Islam was increased and ever more pushed upon the Serbian population. Djoko Slijepchevich is right when he writes that with regard to enlarging the Moslem community in the Serbian regions, it was not important whether they were new Serbian or new Albanian Moslem converts. Both of them accepted the Turkish statehood idea. And with no Pech Patriarchate to propagate the Serbian statehood idea (obviously the Greek clergy would not do it), the Serbian national concept was in mortal danger. Slijepchevich calls this period "the second Kosovo," which in comparison with the first was twice as bad. For the Serbs, in addition to political subjugation, they were now faced with spiritual estrangement as well. The "phanariot" ideology of Greek priests and teachers could hardly be considered as tailored to fit the Slav concept of nationhood.

Fortunately, at this difficult and trying time for the Serbs, the second center of Serbianism, Montenegro, was able to pick up the fallen Serbian standard. Regardless of how tiny and insignificant as a lighthouse, Montenegro was the last remaining Serbian beacon, and it was important for several reasons. First, it meant that the light had not been extinguished. Second, it had a powerful Slav provider in Moscow. Third, it was not in Sremski Karlovtsi (on Austrian territory). Fourth, it was in the immediate vicinity of Albanian and Turkish Islamism. Last, but not least, Montenegrin leaders had not for a moment abandoned the ideal of Serbian resurrection. They had always considered themselves as the only legitimate heirs of Serbian statehood. After all, was it not Nemanja, the son of their own land (Zeta), who in the 12th century founded the Serbian state in Rascia and its famous dynasty? "The most Serbian of all Serbian lands" is what Montenegro called itself.

Montenegrins are fanatically patriotic. Their state was in fact a theocracy in its purest form. When the last member of the Crnojevich dynasty left the Black Mountain early in the 16th century and went to Venice to live, he transferred his whole country to the Bishop of Cetinje. This is when the inseparability of the altar and the throne became the law of the land. The Prince Bishop was elected from among the monks at Cetinje, and was consecrated by the Serbian Patriarch in Pech (later Sremski Karlovtsi). The Petrovich family ruled that way until the middle of the 19th century. As long as the church and government were in one body, Christianity was fiercely pitted against Islam. An administrator could bring himself to negotiate with the Moslems, but a priest could never be expected to take such a sacrilegious step. He was an eternal enemy of Islam, and anything else would constitute a betrayal of the Christian faith.

A loosely bound coalition of tribes and clans, similar to the Albanian pattern, Montenegrins had a much more developed sense of belonging to one nation than the Albanians had. In times of danger, this sense of mission and the hatred of Turks would outrank all personal and tribal feuds. A Russian observer (would he be called a military adviser today?) said of Montenegrins that it is "just impossible to keep them in reserve," and that they cannot calmly "bear the view of a Moslem." Montenegrins were specialists in guerrilla warfare--ambushes, scouting, and surprise attacks--and would leap at the enemy like "wolves on a white flock." All this at a time when their Serbian brothers were abandoning the homeland and moving north, or helplessly watching the cover of impregnable darkness falling upon their name and heritage.

The Serbian bastion was in a fight to the death against Moslems, and during the 18th century any Turk approaching the boundaries of Montenegro knew for certain that he would be fired upon without warning. This enmity could not but negatively affect relations with Albanians as well. 

Russian support, the fact that Russia explicitly recognized the independence of Montenegro a century and a half before the Great Western Powers did, represented an enormous boost to the morale of the "warriors of thc Black Mountain." The Montenegrin ballad expresses it well when it relates how Montenegrins reacted to the letter of Peter the Great, calling upon them to fight against the Crescent. At the words of the "Slav Tsar," Montenegrins "all brandish their sabres and run to their muskets. " When they had to face the enemy in battle, the Bishop would "bless them and sprinkle them with holy water." The Bishop himself would lead his warriors to victory (Bishop Danilo was wounded in the battle against the Turk in 1712). The ballad says: "Oh brother Serbs, and .tll of you who have free hearts in your breasts, rejoice, for thc ancient liberty will not perish so long as we hold thc Black Mountain." In 1715, Bishop Danilo went to Pcterslnirg and came back with encouraging promises, subsidies, and material aid in general. Montenegrins won another victory against the Turks in 1727, with the Bishop--Montenegrins say--disposing of twenty-two Turks "with his own sword." Slav cooperation between small Montenegro and its mighty protector enhanced the prestige of Orthodoxy in that area, as well as abroad, so much so that the local Venetian prelate of Antivari (Bar) sent home a number of reports expressing worry about the proselytising influence of the Montenegrin bishopric.

Throughout the century which for the Serbs represented a second Kosovo, Montenegrin bishops were defying thc Turkish usurper. In 1754 they battled against the Bosnian vizier who demanded tribute and "the twelve most beautiful girls on Black Mountain." The Montenegrin Bishop (Save) replied defiantly. According to the national ballad, his reply read: "The tribute we will send thee will be a stone from our soil, and instead of the twelve virgins, thou shalt receive twelve pig's tails with which thou mayest adorn your turban!" In 1768, Montenegrins managed to repulse, at great human loss, three separate Turkish task forces invading the country. The following year, Austrian E;mpress Maria Theresa gave assurance of support to the mountaineers.

In 1796, Turkish troops were routed in the narrow pass of Kruze. And during the Napoleonic wars, between 1805 and 1810, Montenegrins did whatever they could to support Russia's efforts in stalling the French advance. And in 1820, Bishop Peter I, managed to inflict another defeat upon the Turks, chasing them out of the valley of the Zeta.

When their neighbor, Mahmud Pasha Bushatlija of Skadar, started a rebellion against the central Ottoman governmen while at the same time displaying open pretensions to Serbian territories (late in the 18th century he had sent his private army to Kosovo and entered Prishtina), this Northern Albanian touched the most sensitive Montenegrin nerve. The metropolitan, Petar Petrovich-Njegosh I (1782-1830) knew he would have to face this enemy squarely. And a paramount enemy he was. Mahmud Pasha had wealth, power, ambition (even royal ambitions eventually), and through a combination of threat, bribe, and persuasion he was able to become practically the overlord of northern Albania. French officers were training his army, Austrian agents were financing his military build-up.

In spite of all his power, Mahmud Pasha was not able to establish his claim that he represented the Albanian people. His army was a motley crew of mercenaries, sincere Albanian nationalists, and blackmailed Montenegrin tribes. In spite of temporary victories and successful local military campaigns against Montenegrins, in the two final battles in July and September 1796, he ran into a solid wall of opposition by a united and inspired small nation, which had a clear perception of its mission.

Montenegrins fought for an idea: Albanians for a rebellious man. Montenegrins had a broad national concept: the Albanians a narrow provincial interest. Mahmud Pasha was captured in the second battle, his head cut off and taken to the metropolitan. It can still be seen in Cetinje. The one important consequence of this Montenegrin victory was the respect and attention that this small nation gained in Constantinople. It meant, also, the consolidation of internal authority of the metropolitan. And it enhanced thc symbolic image of Montenegro as a defender of the Christian faith in the Balkans. Metropolitan Peter I utilized Montenegro's position to communicate with Serbian intellectuals abroad, notably in Vojvodina (with Dositej Obradovich, David Nerandzich, Sava Tekelija), all of whom agreed that there was need to form one all-Slav state in the Balkans.

Being the Albanians' closest neighbors, Montenegrins believed that they understood them better than anyone else. The two societies were aware of similarities--both having traditional values and patriarchal views. They were of different races and in the case of most of them of different religious faiths. But these factors were not the basic apple of discord between them. The main difference was in their different perceptions of Constantinople. To the Albanians it was the capital of their state; to the Montenegrins it was the center of Serbian oppression. Most damaging in terms of relations between them, however, was the Albanian support to the Turkish forces that fought the Montenegrins. Albanians viewed Montenegro as a Turkish land and its people Turkish subjects. Nothing could have been farther from Montenegrin feelings, who considered their land as "the only territory of Old Serbia still free," and who could be subjects only of Montenegro or Serbia. That is why, even in moments when Albanian leaders would later on find sanctuary at Cetinje, the minds of the host and the visitors could never meet.

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