The Kosovo Myth in Modern Serbia: Its functions, problems, and critiques

Ivan Čolović reflects on his contribution to Perspectives SEE from five years ago, with context on additional developments in two footnotes.

The myth of the Battle of Kosovo Field on June 28th 1389, in which the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Murat I and Serbian Prince Lazar clashed, has, since the early 19th century to this day, served the purpose of legitimizing various political and military projects: From the breakup of communist Yugoslavia and the policies of Slobodan Milosevic, through the “Kosovo is Serbia” motto, as part of the Serbian “European agenda”, to the dialogue –both internal and with Brussels– led by Aleksandar Vučić. The “Kosovo Covenant” in modern Serbian history is used to accommodate various political ideas and actions.


The colloquial use of the word myth is widespread today, to denote a story without basis in reality, one which is not true. Contrary to this, I understand myth in an anthropological sense, as a story with the status of paramount truth in a particular society, a truth which is not debated, one which an individual is not obliged to believe in, but must not disturb, must not publicly question. This is why myths are sometimes referred to as “divine stories”. The political function of myth is based on this divinity and unquestionable nature, because it can serve those in power, or those seeking power, as a tool to legitimize their policies. They do this by placing themselves and their political and military projects and actions under the protection of the sanctity of myth, constructing a tailor-made version of mythical narration, so that they themselves may become mythical heroes, or at least their devotees and followers, thus “inscribing” themselves into the myth.


The same is true of the Kosovo myth, the myth of the Battle of Kosovo Field on June 28th 1389, in which the armies of the Ottoman Sultan Murat I and Serbian Prince Lazar clashed. It is important to note that not all of the diverse evocations of this battle in folklore, historiography, literature, and church literature are myth. Mythical are only those offered up as paramount, “sacred”, in order to place some political idea or action, as well as its actors, under the auspices of “sacred Kosovo” or the “Kosovo covenant” - as the mythical narrative about the Battle of Kosovo is most widely referred to today. This function –that of political myth– was already present in the memory of this battle in the cult writings about Prince Lazar written a few years after the battle. However, the mature Kosovo myth, with all of the episodes we know today, was only formed in the first half of the 19th century, and has served to legitimize various political and military projects ever since.


During that time, the solemn, sacred story of the Battle of Kosovo has not only served to legitimize the policies of Serbian politicians and the Serbian authorities. It wasn’t always solely a Serbian myth. It also served to legitimize political and military projects undertaken in the name of other peoples, so that there are Croatian, Bosniak, Montenegrin, Albanian, and Yugoslav versions of the Kosovo myth, in addition to the Serbian one. However, after the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was dissolved in 1941 –a country where Vidovdan (St. Vitus Day, the day of the Battle of Kosovo, June 28th) was a national holiday, a holiday shared by all Yugoslav peoples, when the famous Battle of Kosovo Field was emphasized as being a shared political and cultural heritage– the Kosovo myth has been exploited most often, if not exclusively, as a Serbian national myth. It was revived in that capacity by the Quisling government led by Milan Nedić during the German occupation of Serbia (1941-1944). Nazi sympathizers close to Nedić proposed that the authentic Serbian myth of Kosovo should be revived, as it was alienated from the “Serbian soul” in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, highlighting its similarity to the German racial myth that had been revived in Nazi Germany. After the Second World War, communist Yugoslavia did not restore the Kosovo myth as part of a common Yugoslav heritage, because that role was reserved for the solemn narrative about the People’s Liberation War, the Partisans, and their leader Tito. Instead, the Kosovo myth was assigned the role of keeping the memory of the important contribution of the Serbian people’s heroic ancestors in the fight for freedom, a freedom which would be fully realized, with similar contributions from other Yugoslav peoples, only with the victory of Communism. This was also the role of the Monument to the Heroes of Kosovo, erected in 1953 by Serbian communists in Gazimestan.


In the time of crisis, wars, and the dissolution of communist Yugoslavia (1985-1995), the Kosovo myth served to legitimize the main policy goals of the Serbian regime, headed by Slobodan Milošević. The main portion of the 600th anniversary celebration of the Battle of Kosovo (July 28th 1989) –a grand rally organized in front of the Gazimestan Monument– was used by Milošević to portray himself as the new Serbian leader, a worthy successor to those who led the Serbs into battle against the Turks 600 years before, and to promise that he would lead the Serbian people into new battles. During the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbian soldiers were also called to follow the example of famous Kosovo heroes. This sort of motivation for battle was used most by Bosnian Serb leaders, portraying Bosniaks as descendants of the Turks, and the war against them as a continuation of the Battle of Kosovo and an opportunity for the Serbs to take revenge on the Turks for their defeat in Kosovo in 1389. This is exactly how General Mladić hailed the capture of Srebrenica and the slaughter of its Bosniak residents, which was ruled to have been genocide by the International Court of Justice in 2007: Revenge against the Turks[1].


In more recent times, in the context of reviving Albanian nationalism in Kosovo, the war of 1998-1999, and the creation of an independent state of Kosovo, Albanian versions of the Kosovo myth have also developed, emphasizing the participation of Albanian warriors in the Battle of Kosovo Field. It goes without saying that they did battle on the side of the Christians, which is to prove that Albanians are also an old European and Christian people, who have always stood at the vanguard of Europe. In corroboration, a national poem is offered about the Albanian hero Miloš Kobilić[2] and his feat – the killing of Sultan Murat I, written in the first decades of the 20th century[3]. Writer Ismail Kadare greatly contributed to the popularization of the Albanian version of the Kosovo myth. Since 2011, two plays about the Battle of Kosovo have been part of the repertoires of two Pairisian theaters, one of which was written based on the poems of the “Kosovo Cycle” from the collection by Vuk Karadžić, and the other is a theater adaptation of Kadare’s book, Three Elegies for Kosovo[4]


“Kosovo is Serbia” – A New Kosovo Covenant


After the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo in the 1990s, the Serbian politicians who took over governing the country found themselves tasked with adapting the Kosovo myth - which was still an important political resource for them – to fit the new situation. It was to be separated and saved from being compromised as a result of what some would say was its abuse by Milošević and other Serbian leaders during the wars, and adapted to the new goals of Serbian policy, among which was the “European agenda” of moving toward the EU. This is why, when the Battle of Kosovo was evoked in public events, it was emphasized that the bravery of the Kosovo heroes could still serve as inspiration to 21st century Serbs, but that it can also manifest itself as political and diplomatic struggle to keep Kosovo as part of Serbia, instead of waging a new war – as Milošević did, to the detriment of the Serbian people.


After 2008, when Kosovo Albanians declared Kosovo’s independence, the Vidovdan celebrations at Gazimestan became a frustration, because Serbian politicians and religious leaders could only go there with KFOR’s permission, as well as the police force of independent Kosovo. This is why the most important Vidovdan celebrations were moved to Kruševac and Višegrad in Republika Srpska. On the other hand, Kosovo’s declaration of independence served to revive warmongering versions of the Kosovo myth, even leading to attempts to rehabilitate Milošević and his Kosovo policy, elevating him to be a new Kosovo martyr. The culmination and failure of this new mobilization for battle with the Kosovo Albanians in the name of the “Kosovo covenant” was the grand rally in Belgrade organized on February 21st 2008 by the Serbian government, headed by Vojislav Koštunica, to protest Kosovo’s declaration of independence. Following a series of incendiary speeches, and chants of “Kosovo is Serbia”, some protestors caused mayhem in the city, including an attack on the U.S. embassy. A few months after this rally, on May 11th 2008, Koštunica’s party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), lost the parliamentary elections.


Holy Serbia and Profane Kosovo


Aleksandar Vučić, leader of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS), which has occupied the most important positions of power since 2012, is considered to be the politician whose word on all matters of Serbian policy is final, notwithstanding the constitutional powers he actually possessed as Deputy Prime Minister (2012-2014), Prime Minister (2014-2017), or now as President. This is why his influence on Serbia’s Kosovo policy has been decisive, as well as the use of the Kosovo myth to further that policy, which is ambivalent, to say the least – simultaneously renouncing and fully affirming the myth.


Vučić himself publicly professes doubts about what he calls the “mythical approach” to the Kosovo problem. At his inauguration as President of Serbia, Vučić announced a new approach to this problem, finding a solution through dialogue, without prejudice, and without myths: “That is why I want to open up an internal dialogue on the matter of Kosovo and Metohija, with all our differences, without prejudice, upholding our country’s Constitution. We have to be open, to renounce the mythical approach, but without simply giving away that which we have every right to. Our internal dialogue is perhaps even more important than the one we should be having with the Albanians.”[5] However, this renunciation of the Kosovo myth by Vučić applies only to one essentially benign aspect of it – the versions referring to a so-called “celestial Serbia”. “Our job”, explained Vučić in a statement a few days after announcing the internal dialogue, “is to worry about earthly life, and let someone else worry about the afterlife.”[6]


The version of the Kosovo myth in Serbia dominant today originated in the first half of the 19th century, when concern for the afterlife was abandoned and the story of Prince Lazar choosing the Kingdom of Heaven over the Kingdom of Earth –which was included in Serbian church writings as early as the 14th century, as well as in folk songs recorded by Vuk Karadžić– was revised. At the time when Serbs and other South Slavs were fighting for liberation from Turkish, and then Austro-Hungarian rule, evoking the famous Battle of Kosovo served to raise the morale of these warriors for the Kingdom of Earth, and so Lazar was asked to give up on the Kingdom of Heaven or step back and allow Miloš Obilić[7], who had slayed Murat, to take the lead role. Having renounced the Kosovo myth as a concern with the afterlife, Vučić has actually reasserted his belief in the Kosovo myth as heroic death for earthly life, the main version of this myth from the 19th century until today.


It is important to note that the people using the Kosovo myth to strengthen their political positions today never mention it under that name, rather using the terms “Kosovo covenant” or “Vidovdan covenant”, suggesting that they are talking about something supposedly more true and valuable than what the colloquial use of the term “myth”, defined as a story without basis, would imply. That is why there is actually no difference between calls by Vučić for Kosovo to be discussed without using the “mythical approach” and the frequent statements and warnings to Serbs by his closest advisors that the “Kosovo covenant” must be kept. The head of the Government’s Office for Kosovo and Metohija, Marko Đurić, is also aware that he is not contradicting Vučić by saying that “Vidovdan is the Serbian covenant, the covenant of all Serbs, wherever they may live and work”[8]. The decision by the authors of the Strategy for the Cultural Development of Serbia from 2017 to 2027 to give the “Kosovo covenant” a prominent role in the document is also based on the premise that the mythical approach to Kosovo is not the same as the covenant. The covenant is mentioned as the “heroic dimension of Serbian culture”, with a very important function – to ensure the “self-preservation of society in the face of existential challenges and challenges to identity”. Other aspects of Serbian culture are also set out – the “Enlightenment-European” and “democratic” dimensions– but there is no doubt that these are only secondary, because they do not provide what is most important, the existence and identity of the nation, a task entrusted to the “heroic” dimension of Serbian culture, that is to say the “Kosovo covenant”, or the Kosovo myth under another name.

Critical Analysis of the Kosovo Myth

There are a few things to keep in mind regarding the critical analysis of the Kosovo myth in modern Serbia. Firstly, it is important to note that this analysis cannot be reduced to differentiating between the few historically accurate pieces of information about the Battle of Kosovo and the historically unsubstantiated stories about that event, which serve as the basis for the Kosovo myth, including its modern versions. As noted by historian Sima Ćirković, all the materials about Kosovo, the entirety of the “Kosovo tradition”, as he would say, deserves the attention of historians and other researchers. Therefore, to interpret the Kosovo myth critically, it is not enough to determine whether there is historical truth to it, but we must also determine the purpose served by stories about the Battle of Kosovo, who told them and with what purpose, what their political and ideological messages were, and how they changed over time. The same can be said for researching and interpreting the role of the Kosovo myth in Serbian society and politics today.


It is also important to determine where we encounter this myth today, and how to identify it, as it appears in various types of text – from newspaper articles to scientific studies, and from political speeches to religious sermons[9]. Rarely is it a well-developed narrative, as in Zdravko Šotra’s film The Battle of Kosovo (Boj na Kosovu, 1989). Statements are most often put under the protection of the Kosovo myth by using quotes from certain passages of canonical texts about the Battle of Kosovo (from Vuk Karadžić’s “Kosovo Cycle” or Njegoš’s Mountain Wreath), or even more simply, by claiming that the statement or action is in line with the “Kosovo covenant”. For example, one political organization in Serbia, founded in 2012, chose the name “Zavetnici”[10] for itself, explaining that it was done “in accordance with the Kosovo Covenant, the spiritual and historical path of the Serbian people through the centuries, followed by our greatest rulers and minds[11].”


Furthermore, any critique of the Kosovo myth –if undertaken to protect values such as enlightenment, democracy or human rights– will be ineffective if it limits itself to questioning the contents of the messages conveyed under the auspices of this myth, because these messages are not necessarily unacceptable from the point of view of the critic. It is important to identify and differentiate them, but it is even more important to point out that all of them, no matter the differences in content, have one common characteristic which separates them from the values of enlightenment and democracy. Namely, all messages relying on the myth, messages which inscribe themselves into it, including those “conveyed” by the Kosovo myth today, are to be accepted without thought or discussion. The myth empowers them to impose themselves on certain political collectives, while making them unacceptable to collectives fostering humanist and democratic values.



Translated by Nemanja Georgijević


[1] An overview of the creation and evolution of the Kosovo myth, and the main literature on the topic is available in Miodrag Popović’s study Vidovdan i časni krst (St. Vitus day and the Holy Cross), Ogled o književnoj arheologiji (4th Edition, Bibiloteka XX vek), as well as in my book Smrt na Kosovu Polju. Istorija kosovskog mita (Death on Kosovo Field, a History of the Kosovo Myth) (2nd Edition, Biblioteka XX vek).

[2] Miloš Obilić is said to have been the Serbian knight who assassinated the Ottoman Sultan Murad I in the Battle of Kosovo during the Ottoman invasion of Serbia -- Ed. note

[3] An analysis of the written versions of this poem and the explanation of its role in modern Kosovo’s identity politics can be found in Anna di Lellio’s book The Battle of Kosovo 1389. An Albanian Epic, I.B. Tauris&Co.Ltd., London, 2009.  

[4] La Bataille de Kosovo 1389, translated from the Serbian and directed by: Nathalie Hamel, Theatre du Nord Ouest, Paris. – “La viellle guerre. La Bataille du Kosovo”, directed by Simon Pitaqaj, based on “Trois chants funebres de KosovoI. Kadare, Théatre de l’Oprimé, Paris.


[5] Serbian President’s address to Parliament, TANJUG, May 31st 2017

[6] Vučić: It’s time to talk about the Constitution and Kosovo”, TANJUG, June 2nd 2017

[7] Minister Nikola Selakovic offered a new interpretation of the dilemma which, according to a folk poem from Vuk’s miscellany, the duke found himself in on the eve of the Battle of Kosovo: which was better, the kingdom of Earth or the kingdom of Heaven. According to him, in contrast to the poem, in which Lazar chooses the kingdom of Heaven, the duke chose the kingdom of Earth instead, and earned the kingdom of Heaven precisely by heroically fighting for the kingdom of Earth. The novelty of this interpretation by Selaković does not lie in the fact that he altered Lazar’s choice, others had done that before, as early as the 19th century (see my text “Revizije kosovskog opredeljenja”, Peščanik June 28, 2019). Instead, the novelty lies in the fact that he said the kingdom Lazar was fighting for was Dušan’s Empire. He expounded on this in inspired and emotional, almost poetic words. The image and works of Emperor Dušan, said Selaković, “will endure as long as the last Serbian heart beats, to inspire us to preserve our name and pride, to preserve our honor and our fatherland Serbia, as well as the story passed down from generation to generation that Lazar fell defending the Empire of Dušan, and earned the kingdom of Heaven.” (“Dan sećanja na vladavinu Dušana Silnog” Politika, April 17, 2024).

[9] In recent years, the story of soldiers from Serbia who died in the spring of 1999 ina s skirmish with the KLA near the Yugoslav-Kosovo border watchtower of Košare became prominent in the popular culture dealing with patriotic themes. They are presented as the new Kosovo heroes. A few novels celebrating their sacrifice have been published, in addition to a dozen or so poems, music videos, stories, and comics. A documentary film “Košare” was announced in 2024. The memory of the battle of Košara gained salience when it garnered the support of the upper echelons of government, when, in 2017, president Vučić personally unveiled a monument to one of the soldiers who died, and proclaimed the fighting around the Košare watchtower the “second battle of Kosovo” (more on this in my article “Vila sa Košara” in Ivan Čolović, Virus u tekstu, Biblioteke XX vek 2020, 75-869).


In 2020, a monument to the “Heroes of Košare”, a work by sculptor Miodrag Rogan, was erected in a park across the street from the “Dragiša Mišović” Hospital in Belgrade. Since then, on either the day the battle of Košare began (April 9) or ended (June 14), high-ranking state officials have laid wreaths at the monument. The first to do so was president Vučić on June 14, 2021.


In addition, over the last two years, graffiti started appearing on the walls of Belgrade and other Serbian cities with the caption “Kad se vojska na Kosovo vrati” (t/n: When the army returns to Kosovo), most often accompanied by the image of Miloš Obilić. The message hints at the idea that some new Obilićes will go to war in Kosovo again, just like in 1389. The text is a quote from a poem by bishop Amfilohije (Risto Radović), created as a free interpretation of the poem “Ječam žela kosovka devojka” (t/n, roughly As the maiden of Kosovo harvested barley). The author’s intervention amounted to transforming it from a love poem into a patriotic one. Whereas in the original, the maiden of Kosovo is awaiting wedding guests, and is preparing barley for their horses, in Amfilohije’s version, she is awaiting the Serbian cavalry. (More on this in my text “Kad se vojska na Kosovo vrati” in Ivan Čolović Na putu u srpski svet, 2023, 177-184).

[10] Translator’s note: this can roughly be translated as “Defenders of the Covenant”