How Politicians, the Media, and Scholars Lied about Slobodan Milosevic’s 1989 Kosovo Speech
A couple of months ago I chanced upon the Emperor’s Clothes Website.
I noticed their startling claim that we have been systematically lied to about Yugoslavia, including Slobodan Milosevic. As they told it, he was not guilty of racist incitement and genocide; rather he advocated multiethnic peace. Since their views sharply contradicted my own, I started systematically checking their references by obtaining the relevant original documents. I have yet to find a single claim in error.
This was particularly surprising regarding the famous speech that Slobodan Milosevic delivered at Kosovo Field in 1989 at the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo. According to what I had read, this was an ultranationalist diatribe in which Milosevic manipulated memories of a famous defeat to stir mob hatred of Muslims, especially Albanians.
Emperor’s Clothes posted what they claimed was the official U.S. government translation of that speech, which they attributed to the National Technical Information Service, a dependency of the Commerce Department.
The posted speech was certainly not hateful.
But was this the real speech? The text contradicted everything I had been led to expect from Slobodan Milosevic and everything I had read about this speech.
Through my university library, I obtained a copy of the microfilm of the BBC’s translation (which is a translation of the live relay of the speech). I compared this text to the one posted at Emperor’s Clothes.
Except for a few words that the BBC translator was not able to hear, they match almost exactly.
The speech is not devoid of a certain poetry and, given what I had been led to believe about Milosevic, I was amazed to find that it was explicitly tolerant. In other words, the entire point, structure, message, and moral of the speech — in all its details — was to promote understanding and tolerance between peoples, and to affirm the unity of all those who live in Serbia, regardless of their national origin or religious affiliation.
But if a speech such as this had been falsely reported as a viciously hateful speech, then what about the rest of my information about Yugoslavia? After all, it came from the same sources which had misrepresented this speech…
I began to read voraciously, to see how academics, politicians and the media had reported what happened in Yugoslavia. I have found an enormous amount of misinformation, and it is hard to dispel the impression that much of this is deliberate. This is quite important for my field because students of ethnic conflict, like myself, need to know what it is that we are supposed to explain. Our case data often comes from historians and journalists who describe ethnic conflicts for us. Until recently, I was assuming that those who wrote about Yugoslavia could at least be trusted to try to report things accurately.
I have changed my mind. What I now know suggests that the problem is not merely that reporters and academics are misinformed. I have observed that a source may report the facts accurately and then, in another place, usually later, the same source will report them completely inaccurately. How can one explain this as a result of ignorance? It suggests a conscious effort to misinform.
That obviously raises the question: why?
Many articles on Historical and Investigative Research explore that question. Here I am primarily concerned with showing that Slobodan Milosevic was, in fact, systematically and willfully misrepresented. As an example of what has been done, I have assembled excerpts from various sources regarding Milosevic’s famous 1989 speech at Gazimestan (the location is often referred to as Kosovo Polje or Kosovo Field). I compare these excerpts to Milosevic’s words so that you can see what was done.
An easy-to-read text version of the BBC translation.
Compare this to the US government translation.
Finally, you may look at further instructions I provide in the footnote for those who may wish to track down this text on their own.
As you read the compilation (certainly not complete) of misquotations, misrepresentations, misattributions, and mischaracterizations of Milosevic’s speech in the media and by academics, it is important to keep something in mind.
If Milosevic really was a hate-monger, the evidence would not be hard to find. As Jared Israel wrote in his introduction to the speech:
“It is impossible for a society to engage in genocide unless the population is won to hate the target group. This has to be done in a systematic way. That is, political leaders must support hate in deeds but also in words.”
Incitement to hatred, after all, is a public behavior. One cannot become an ultra-nationalist populist politician without making ultra-nationalist speeches — the masses cannot be incited in secret. Thus, if Milosevic really was the man portrayed in the media, nobody would have to slander an explicitly tolerant speech in order to make the case. They could just use a genuinely hateful public statement, written document, radio interview, letter — anything. It would make zero sense for the media to fabricate all sorts of things about a tolerant speech if anything hateful by Milosevic really existed.
In the first part of my analysis below I report the misrepresentations of the speech. Following that, I quote reports in the media made on or immediately after June 28, 1989, the day Milosevic spoke. These accounts, published immediately after his speech, were accurate, and this demonstrates that the truth was easily available if someone had wanted to report it later on. Not only that, I go further to demonstrate that the same media services which reported the speech accurately in 1989, then went on to lie about the speech eight years later, when NATO needed to demonize Slobodan Milosevic, in preparation for the bombing of Yugoslavia and takeover of Kosovo.
Most of my examples deal with media coverage of the Milosevic speech but government officials are also on record lying about it. For example, on June 28, 1999, Robin Cook, then the Foreign Minister of the UK, said the following about the speech:
Milosevic used this important anniversary not to give a message of hope and reform. Instead, he threatened force to deal with Yugoslavia’s internal political difficulties. Doing so thereby launched his personal agenda of power and ethnic hatred under the cloak of nationalism. All the peoples of the region have suffered grievously ever since.” [1b]
As the excerpts from Milosevic’s speech which I have quoted below demonstrate, Robin Cook was lying. This powerfully suggests that the Western media and the highest officials worked together in a campaign to sell the public a falsified version of this speech, in order to justify war.
1. The Independent
An important British newspaper, The Independent, included this in what it presented as a chronology of events:
“June 1989, on the stump at Kosovo Polje
Serbia’s leader sets out his agenda at a rally of more than a million Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo 600th anniversary celebrations, as he openly threatens force to hold the six-republic federation together.”
But no such threat appears in the text of the speech. This allusion to an “open threat” sounds like the Independent is using Dr. Vladimir Zerjavic as source. They don’t sound like they could have seen the text of the speech.
2. The Irish Times
Consider this by The Irish Times:
“It was at Kosovo Polje in 1389 that Serbs fought their most historic battle, losing to a Turkish army and later enduring 500 years of Ottoman rule. From here they fled again nearly three centuries later, led by their Orthodox patriarch, after a failed rebellion. And here, 10 years ago this month, the Yugoslav President, Mr Slobodan Milosevic, made his name telling a crowd of 500,000 Serbs, ‘Serbia will never abandon Kosovo.’”
The Irish Times does not borrow the quote from Dr. Vladimir Zerjavic, but they do borrow the boldness. They have put quotation marks around a phrase that appears nowhere in the text.
3. The heavyweights: the Economist, TIME, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and National Public Radio
Let us now look at what the biggest media heavyweights said. We shall begin with The Economist, perhaps the most prestigious and influential news magazine in the world:
“But it is primitive nationalism, egged on by the self-deluding myth of Serbs as perennial victims, that has become both Mr Milosevic’s rescuer (when communism collapsed with the Soviet Union) and his nemesis. It was a stirringly virulent nationalist speech he made in Kosovo, in 1989, harking back to the Serb Prince Lazar’s suicidally brave battle against the Turks a mere six centuries ago, that saved his leadership when the Serbian old guard looked in danger of ejection. Now he may have become a victim of his own propaganda.”
The passages from Milosevic’s speech quoted above already make it clear that this was not a “stirringly virulent nationalist speech.” The Economist would have you believe that Milosevic was literally foaming at the mouth, and wanted to use the memories of Prince Lazar and the defeat at Kosovo Polje as a catalyst for arousing ultra-nationalistic feelings. This is how Milosevic actually introduced his remarks about that historical event:
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. Oppressed by pain and filled with hope, the people used to remember and to forget, as, after all, all people in the world do, and it was ashamed of treachery and glorified heroism. Therefore it is difficult to say today whether the Battle of Kosovo was a defeat or a victory for the Serbian people, whether thanks to it we fell into slavery or we survived in this slavery. The answers to those questions will be constantly sought by science and the people. What has been certain through all the centuries until our time today is that disharmony struck Kosovo 600 years ago. If we lost the battle, then this was not only the result of social superiority and the armed advantage of the Ottoman Empire but also of the tragic disunity in the leadership of the Serbian state at that time. In that distant 1389, the Ottoman Empire was not only stronger than that of the Serbs but it was also more fortunate than the Serbian kingdom.
Is this a virulent nationalist speaking? Milosevic sounds positively professorial. He sounds like an academic, showing a grandfatherly understanding for the human frailties that lead people to conveniently forget things in order to make legends out of history in a romantic and nationalistic manner.
And he is talking about the famous battle at Kosovo Polje, in the very place where that battle was fought!
The truth of what happened, he says, is for scientists to establish. Is this a nationalist using a myth of the people to rouse their passions? Does he sound ‘injured’ and ‘insecure’?
TIME Magazine, perhaps the most widely-read news magazine in the world, had a similar slant:
“It was St. Vitus’ Day, a date steeped in Serbian history, myth and eerie coincidence: on June 28, 1389, Ottoman invaders defeated the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo; 525 years later, a young Serbian nationalist assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand, lighting the fuse for World War I. And it was on St. Vitus’ Day, 1989, that Milosevic whipped a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy in the speech that capped his ascent to power.”
And the same goes for The New York Times:
“In 1989 the Serbian strongman, Slobodan Milosevic, swooped down in a helicopter onto the field where 600 years earlier the Turks had defeated the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo. In a fervent speech before a million Serbs, he galvanized the nationalist passions that two years later fueled the Balkan conflict.”
And the Washington Post:
A military band and a dozen chanting monks from the Serbian Orthodox Church struggled unsuccessfully this morning to lift the dour mood hanging over a small crowd of Serbs marking the 609th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo here at the most revered site in Serbia’s nationalist mythology. […]
Nine years ago today, Milosevic’s fiery speech here to a million angry Serbs was a rallying cry for nationalism and boosted his popularity enough to make him the country’s uncontested leader.
And here is what National Public Radio (NPR) said about this speech, through the lips of Chuck Sudetic:
Mr. SUDETIC: . . .the people were whipped up into a kind of hysteria. You have to understand that the Serbs in Kosovo suffered a kind of repression, a mild kind of repression, but repression nonetheless – from 1974 until the mid to late 1980s at the hands of Albanian mafia – an Albanian Communist mafia that was in control of Kosovo. They saw their friends and neighbors depart to find better lives in Belgrade. And the people who were left behind felt themselves to be endangered by Albanians. Milosevic comes along, whips it up into a hysteria of fear. . .He made his speech at the Kosovo battlefield, the site of the famous battle from 1389 in 1989, on June 28th.[12a]
First of all, I apologize to loyal fans of NPR if this shatters their illusions about a favorite institution, but the above is no aberration for NPR. In fact, NPR’s president is a CIA man.[12b]
Beyond this, there is the larger question of this piece: does Milosevic sound like his purpose is “whipping a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy” with his remembrance of the events of 1389? Is this a “fervent speech” meant to “galvanize the nationalist passions“? Is it a “rallying cry for nationalism“? Could “people [be] whipped up into a kind of hysteria” with Milosevic’s words?
I can’t see how.
4. T.W. Carr
The following excerpt is from T.W. Carr, who used to be Assistant Publisher for Defense & Foreign Affairs Publications, London. It is relatively long but worth reading because of the juxtaposition of Slobodan Milosevic (the Serbian leader) with Franjo Tudjman (the Croatian leader) and Alija Izetbegovic (leader of one of the Bosnian Muslim factions).
Three leaders emerged within the collapsing Federal Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia. Each used the emotive appeal of patriotism (nationalism), history and religious heritage in their bid for political control of one of the three nation “nation states”, Orthodox Christian Serbia, Roman Catholic Christian Croatia and Islamic Bosnia-Herzegovina.
On June 28, 1989, Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic marked the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo against the “Ottoman Islamist Empire” at Gazimestan by addressing more than one million Serbs, recounting the heroism of the Serbian nation and their Christian Orthodox faith in resisting the spread of Islam into Europe. He reassured his audience, that the Autonomous Province of Kosovo would remain an integral part of Serbia and Yugoslavia, despite the then current and often violent, problems of separatism demanded by the Muslim Albanian majority living in Kosovo.
In the Serbian presidential election of November 12, 1989, Mr. Milosevic won 65.3 percent of the vote, his nearest rival, Mr. Vuk Draskovic, polled only 16.4 of the votes cast.
At the same time, Alija Izetbegovic, who had been released early from jail in 1988 (serving only six years of a 14 year sentence for pro-Islamic anti-state activities), visited Islamic fundamentalist states in the Middle East, returning to Bosnia-Herzegovina to found the SDA (Muslim Party of Democratic Action). His 1970 manifesto, “Islamic Declaration”, advocating the spread of radical pan-Islamism-politicised Islam-throughout the world, by force if necessary, was reissued in Sarajevo at this time. His Islamic Declaration is imbued with intolerance towards Western religion, culture and economic systems. This is also the theme projected in his book, Islam between East and West, first published in the US in 1984, and in Serbo-Croat in 1988, shortly after he was released from prison in the former Yugoslavia. In his writings he states that Islam cannot co-exist with other religions in the same nation other than a short-term expediency measure. In the longer term, as and when Muslims become strong enough in any country, then they must seize power and form a truly Islamic state.
In the multi-party elections held in Bosnia-Herzegovina on November 18, 1990, the population voted almost exclusively along communal lines. The Muslim Democratic Action Party secured 86 seats, the Serbian Democratic Party 72, and the Croatian Democratic Union (ie: union with Croatia) Party 44 seats. As the leader of the largest political party, Mr. Izetbegovic, became the first President of Bosnia- Herzegovina, albeit for just one year, for under the new constitution of B-H, the presidency was to revolve each year between the three parties, each of which represented one ethnic community.
Under constitutional law, in January 1992, Mr. Izetbegovic should have handed over the Presidency to Mr. Radovan Karadzic, the Serbian Democratic leader. He failed to honor the constitution and being true to his writings, he seized power, acting undemocratically and illegally. Therefore, at no time since January 1992 should Mr. Izetbegovic have been acknowledged by the international community as the legal President of B-H.
Towards the end of World War II, while still a young man, Franjo Tudjman took the pragmatic option and joined the communist Partisans. He had probably realized that Germany could not win the war and that Tito and his Partisans would gain control of Yugoslavia, with the full support of both Soviets and the British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill.
Some time after the end of World War II, Tudjman joined the communist Yugoslav Army as a regular officer and rose to the rank of Major-General during the early part of President Tito´s period in office.
During the late 1960´s and in 1979, ultra right fascism began to re-surface in Croatia, showing the same World War II fascist face of nationalism and the requirement that a nation state must be racially pure. This was the first attempt anywhere in Europe to resurrect German National Socialism following the fall of the Third Reich in 1944. Hitler created Croatia when his forces over-ran Yugoslavia in 1941, installing as Fuher, Ante Pavelic, leader of the fascist Croatian Ustashi movement. Pavelic had spent the previous 10 years in exile in Italy as head of a Croatian terrorist group, shielded by the Vatican and the Italian Fascist party.
Mr. Tudjman was deeply involved in the attempted revival of fascism, allowing his national socialism ethos to come to the fore with the publication of his treatise, The Wastelands. In it he attempted to re-write major sections of the history of World War II, downplaying the Holocaust, and with it the more than one million Jews, Serbs and Gypsies murdered by the Croatian ultra-nationalist Ustashi, which included priests of the Holy Roman Church, at the Croatian Ustashi concentration camp of Jasenovac and other locations within Yugoslavia.
For his nationalistic, anti-state activities at this time, Mr. Tudjman went to jail for three years. After being released from jail, Mr. Tudjman went politically low-key for a few years, but re-emerged on the scene when President Tito died in 1980, gradually building a power-base among the Croatian right wing and creating the HDZ Party.
In the multy-party elections held in Croatia in May 1990, Mr. Tudjman´s HDZ Party won control of the Sabor (Croatian Parliament) and Mr. Tudjman became President of Croatia when it was still part of the Yugoslav Federation.
Contrary to Carr’s claim, Milosevic did not speak about the status of Kosovo in the 1989 speech.
It is known from other sources, of course, that he certainly did not want Kosovo to be split from Yugoslavia, for good reasons having to do with the security of Serbs, Roma, Slavic Muslims, Jews, Albanians and everyone else in Kosovo, and his conviction that Kosovo was legitimately part of the country he was after all helping lead. How many leaders want their countries broken up? But that does not mean that in his 1989 speech he said, “that the Autonomous Province of Kosovo would remain an integral part of Serbia and Yugoslavia, despite the then current and often violent, problems of separatism demanded by the Muslim Albanian majority living in Kosovo.” So this is false.
Moreover, Milosevic never referred to the Ottoman Empire as “Islamist.” On the contrary, Milosevic’s remarks in his speech concerning the Ottoman Empire showed no real animosity. He even acknowledged certain strengths: “In that distant 1389, the Ottoman Empire was not only stronger than that of the Serbs but it was also more fortunate than the Serbian kingdom.” (Milosevic’s 1989 Speech at Kosovo Field)
More importantly, however, notice that Carr pairs the three leaders, Milosevic, Izetbegovic, and Tudjman, and prefaces his remarks by saying all three rose to prominence by manipulating nationalism. But does Milosevic belong in this company? Whereas a good and effortless case can be made for Izetbegovic and Tudjman being ultra-nationalists (see above), all we get as evidence for Milosevic’s “ultra-nationalism” is a false allusion to a declaration he never made in the Kosovo Polje speech about the fact that he did not want Serbia to be partitioned, which in itself would not even be evidence of intolerant ultra-nationalism anyway. Moreover, the speech Carr refers us to is the antithesis of an ultra-nationalistic speech.
Milosevic at his alleged worst, then, sounds not unlike Ghandi or Martin Luther King.
Finally, I must observe that Carr is arguing that the US and Germany are carving zones of interest in Europe and that this is the central reason for the troubles in Yugoslavia. In other words, he is not sympathetic to the official propaganda about the causes of the wars in Yugoslavia. Yet even he seems blithely to assume that Milosevic is a virulent nationalist, though he provides no evidence. On the other hand, Izetbegovic and Tudjman, both US allies, certainly do sound like bad guys.
The propaganda against Milosevic has been so successful that even a critic like Carr believes it, though he can only give us one short paragraph to support his belief, and that paragraph refers to a consummately tolerant speech.
Is this the worst one can say about Milosevic?
5. International Crisis Group
Here is what the International Crisis Group said about Milosevic’s Speech:
“On this date in 1948, Tito’s Yugoslavia was expelled at Stalin’s behest from the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform). It was also on this day in 1989 that Slobodan Milosevic addressed up to one million Serbs at Gazimestan in Kosovo to commemorate the sixhundredth anniversary of the Kosovo Battle. That speech contained the first open threat of violent conflict by a Socialist Yugoslav leader: ‘Six centuries later, again, we are in battles and quarrels. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded.’”
This quotation does appear in the speech.
Any observer of Yugoslavia at this time knew that it was possible that armed battles could break out. Why should the observation of such an obvious fact be interpreted as a threat?
One could just as well interpret it as a worry.
Any state trying