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29 Nov 16

Serbia Reaches for the Heavens over Kosovo

Dejan Anastasijevic

Recent media claims that Belgrade might resume control over Kosovo’s airspace highlight how some Serbs still dream of compensating for defeat on land by winning victory in the heavens.

Pristina skyline. Photo: Jim Greenhill/Flickr

I have always had a problem with a myth surrounding the epic battle at the Field of Blackbirds, also known as the Battle of Kosovo, which happened in 1389 and ended with a crushing defeat for the medieval Serbian Empire and a crucial victory for the Ottoman Turks.

Everyone in Serbia knows this story: according to the legend, Serbian Emperor Lazar was visited by an angel in the eve of the battle with the Turks, and presented with a choice: either to choose the earthly empire and win the battle, but spend eternity in hell in the afterlife, or lose and earn his place in heaven.

Needless to say, Lazar chose the latter, and Turks ruled not just Kosovo, but also Serbia as well as much of Europe, for the next 500 years.

This myth, probably coined in the beginning of the 19th Century, when Serbia was struggling to gain independence from the Ottomans, has been a part of Serbian school curriculum for generations, even under Communist rule. It has become a pivotal part of our national identity.

But as a child, I could never figure out was why this dilemma was forced upon Lazar, and why God refused to help him win against infidel Turks.

Also, I thought the emperor made a selfish decision when he opted for a quick death in the battle, and then exposed his people to five centuries of misery. But I didn’t dare express these doubts at the time: then, as now, questioning national myths was not encouraged.

Anyway, Serbia lost Kosovo in the Field of Blackbirds in 1389, and then again after the NATO air campaign in 1999, but now it hopes to win some of it back. I’m not talking about the three predominantly Serbian municipalities in the north which still defy Pristina’s laws, nor the rest of the land, which is now mostly Serb-free, but about something less palpable.

Last week, Vecernje Novosti, one of Belgrade’s leading government-controlled newspapers, came out with the story titled “NATO to Give Us Back Kosovo Sky” splashed across its front page.

According to the paper – and several other Serbian media outlets – NATO is considering a Serbian request to resume civilian air traffic control over the lower stratum (up to 8,000 metres) of Kosovo’s airspace.

NATO is responsible for controlling Kosovo’s airspace since 1999, but has allowed Pristina to direct low-flying aircrafts. The higher stratum, traversed by passenger jets, is controlled by Hungarcontrol, the national Hungarian agency, on the basis of a five-year contract.

Now, the paper said, as a result of a successful visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic last week, Serbian flight control agency may take over not just the lower, but also the higher levels of the atmosphere as of 2019, when the contract with the Hungarians expires. Thus, Serbia would once again rule the skies over Kosovo, and even collect a hefty fee from the airlines.

None of this has been confirmed by NATO, and Vucic himself was much more cautious on the issue, saying only that the low-level flight control was one of the topics he discussed with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, and that a delegation from national flight control agency will soon travel to Brussels for further talks.

Nevertheless, the news caused an uproar in Pristina, where most politicians believe that Kosovo has already conceded too much to Serbia during the EU-sponsored normalisation talks, especially by agreeing to grant semi-autonomous status to the northern municipalities.

Now, they warn, Kosovo’s sovereignty could be further eroded by Serbia’s takeover of its skies.

Serbia already controls the airspace over its tiny neighbour Montenegro, through the joint flight control agency SMATSA, which is in reality run exclusively by Belgrade. The deal is beneficial for both parties, since Montenegro still collects its share of the fees, without the need to maintain its own agency (which would be expensive).

If it wasn’t for the sovereignty issue, Kosovo would be smart to do the same. But under current political circumstances, such an arrangement would, of course, be hard to achieve.

It’s also hard to imagine NATO rewarding Serbia in this way, so the Vecernje Novosti article – like so many reports about Kosovo by Serbian media – seems to be based more on wishful thinking than fact.

What connects these two stories – Lazar’s dilemma and air traffic control – is the urge to compensate the loss of territory by conquering the sky above (the Serbian language does not distinguish between “heaven” and “sky”).

More than six centuries ago, Lazar reached for heaven, and now his descendents are doing the same, albeit in a more down-to-earth manner. Unlike Lazar, they’re dealing with NATO bureaucrats, not angels, but the idea remains the same.

Both stories also reflect Serbians’ inability to address the true causes of their defeats. In reality, Lazar had no choice, and no chance of winning, even if his army wasn’t vastly outnumbered by the Ottomans. Kosovo was lost because his empire was crumbling, due to internal struggles, long before the Turks came.

Similarly, it wasn’t NATO, nor it was the Kosovo Liberation Army who took Kosovo away from Serbia. It was lost years earlier, when Slobodan Milosevic installed an oppressive, apartheid-like system in the province, pitting Serbs and ethnic Albanians against each other and poisoning their relations for future generations.

Sometimes, for everyone’s sake, it’s better to keep one’s eyes closer to the ground.

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