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How Politicians, the Media, and Scholars Lied about Milosevic's 1989 Kosovo Speech
A review of the evidence
Historical and Investigative Research, rev. 8 Sep.
First published in Emperor's Clothes (
9 February 2002 )
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
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.
I have scanned the microfilm of the BBC translation
so my readers can compare the US government and the BBC versions for
themselves. To see the pdfs of the BBC microfilm
visit these pages:
For an easy-to-read text version of the BBC
To 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:
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:
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.
Summary of the evidence
1. The Independent (British newspaper)
2. The Irish Times (Irish newspaper)
3. The heavyweights: The Economist, TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and National Public Radio
4. T.W. Carr (Assistant Publisher for Defense & Foreign Affairs Publications, London)
5. International Crisis Group (an NGO)
6. The Times (of London, a newspaper)
7. Newsday (a newspaper)
8. Norman Cigar (an academic)
9. The BBC (British news service, government owned)
10. Final Remarks
1. The Independent
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
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:
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech begins here]
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.
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech ends here]
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.
And here is what National Public Radio (NPR) said about this speech, through the lips of Chuck Sudetic:
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).
[Quote from T.W. Carr's article begins here]
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.
[Quote from T.W. Carr's article ends here]
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 to contain irredentist terrorists may find itself in the position of having to deploy its army to protect its citizens -- Milosevic was just stating the obvious. It is really necessary to omit reference to any other part of the speech, and to ignore the facts of Yugoslavia at this time, for the quote -- completely out of context -- to appear as a threat. Even then it does not look very threatening (you have to be told that it is supposedly a threat, for otherwise how could you reliably infer it?).
But it pays to see this quote in its minimal context: the paragraph in which it appears:
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech begins here]
Six centuries later, now, we are being again engaged in battles and are facing battles. They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet. However, regardless of what kind of battles they are, they cannot be won without resolve, bravery, and sacrifice, without the noble qualities that were present here in the field of Kosovo in the days past. Our chief battle now concerns implementing the economic, political, cultural, and general social prosperity, finding a quicker and more successful approach to a civilization in which people will live in the 21st century. For this battle, we certainly need heroism, of course of a somewhat different kind, but that courage without which nothing serious and great can be achieved remains unchanged and remains urgently necessary.
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech ends here]
This minimal context is already quite informative. The "chief battle" has nothing to do with armed conflict. And it requires “heroism, of course of a somewhat different kind.” If one further puts this paragraph into the larger context of the speech it is obvious that Milosevic is hardly making threats. For example, elsewhere in the speech Milosevic says:
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech begins here]
For as long as multinational communities have existed, their weak point has always been the relations between different nations. The threat is that the question of one nation being endangered by the others can be posed one day -- and this can then start a wave of suspicions, accusations, and intolerance, a wave that invariably grows and is difficult to stop. This threat has been hanging like a sword over our heads all the time. Internal and external enemies of multi-national communities are aware of this and therefore they organize their activity against multinational societies mostly by fomenting national conflicts. At this moment, we in Yugoslavia are behaving as if we have never had such an experience and as if in our recent and distant past we have never experienced the worst tragedy of national conflicts that a society can experience and still survive.
[Quote from Milosevic's 1989 Speech ends here]
Milosevic was warning that nationalism was being
used by “internal and external enemies of multi-national communities” to
destroy Yugoslavia. He was worrying out loud that people would listen to
fear-mongers and that waves of suspicion between national communities would
get started and then become “difficult to stop.” He was chiding his fellow
Yugoslavs for failing to remember World War II and other catastrophes during
which the Balkans “experienced the worst tragedy of national conflicts that a
society can experience and still survive.” Does this sound like a man
whipping up the population to go to war against other ethnic groups?
6. The Times
Here is what the London Times had to say:
"Vidovdan, the feast of St Vitus, is one of the most sacred in the Orthodox church, but it is also the day on which Mr Milosevic began his political career. Twelve years before, in a dusty and sweltering field at Kosovo Polje, he had whipped up Serb nationalism among a ferocious and frustrated crowd. "No one will ever beat you!" he had shouted, commemorating the defeat of the Serbs by the Turks at Kosovo Polje in 1389. Yesterday Mr Milosevic was a beaten man on suicide watch in Scheveningen prison in The Netherlands. Prison officials, who will interview the former Yugoslav President to check that he is not worried about being threatened by other inmates, are also believed to be paying particular attention to the threat he made earlier this year, to shoot himself rather than submit to international justice."
This one comically gets it wrong. Milosevic probably never said, "No one will ever beat you!" He more likely said something like "No one will be allowed to beat you like that!" In any event, he did not say it at the commemoration of the battle at Kosovo Polje (the speech we have been discussing here). Those words *were* uttered at Kosovo Polje but two years earlier, in 1987. At that time, Milosevic met with Serbs and Montenegrins, mostly peasants, who had serious grievances: they said they were being mistreated by prejudiced Albanian authorities in Kosovo and violently harassed by radical Albanian terrorists. They wanted to speak directly with Milosevic but he was only meeting with a relatively small group in the hall.
Here is an account of this:
"When members of the throng outside the hall again tried to break through police lines and into the building, they were brutally clubbed and beaten back by the police (composed mainly of Albanian officers, but including some Serbs). Informed of what was taking place outside, Milosevic exited the building and approached the still highly volatile crowd. According to eyewitness reports at the time, the Serbian leader was visibly upset, physically shaken, and trembling. When a dialogue ensued between the demonstrators and Milosevic, they implored him to protect them from the police violence. Acting on a journalist’s suggestion, Milosevic re-entered the hall, and proceeded to a second floor window. From that vantage point he nervously addressed the frenzied demonstrators, and uttered his soon-to-be legendary remarks: "No one will be allowed to beat you! No one will be allowed to beat you!" Milosevic also invited the demonstrators to send a delegation into the hall to discuss their grievances."
Milosevic said, "No one will be allowed to beat you!"
Is this nationalistic incitement?
Or is he reassuring a nervous crowd that their civil rights will be respected? After all, he is an official with responsibilities to citizens who were being beaten by police before his very eyes.
But in the London Times article the context of the peasant Serbs getting beaten is no longer evident. The utterance has been transformed into, "No one will ever beat you" which has an eternal, mythical overtone, and which therefore fits well with the new and excellent location that the Times has found for this utterance: the speech to commemorate the battle of Kosovo Polje.
Two different events have been fused into one, and Serbian mythology has been joined to an injured cry, providing a total impression of a syndrome of victimization that lashes out as a reborn and vicious nationalism. "No one will be allowed to beat you" is supposed to mean, “We will beat them.”
I want to emphasize that Cohen’s book “Serpent in the bosom,” which I quoted above, is an attack on Milosevic. If Cohen’s description has a bias it is to suggest that Milosevic is a virulent nationalist. For example, although Cohen has Albanian policemen beating peasant Serbs brutally, this is not described as ethnic animosity (the remark that some of these policemen are Serbs seems to have been inserted in order to dispel any such impression). But Milosevic’s attempt to reassure a crowd whose basic human rights are being trampled right in front of his eyes that is nationalism, as Cohen goes on to explain in what remains of the chapter.
Everybody else has done the same. The 1987 events are supposed to mark a turning point on Milosevic’s road to becoming a supposed virulent nationalist (Cohen calls it “the epiphanal moment”).
However, notice that despite these attempts, it is
difficult not to see Milosevic’s behavior as perfectly natural, indeed
laudable. Why not reassure a crowd of your constituents, who are being
bludgeoned by policemen, that this will not be allowed to happen? What else
should he have morally done? By what stretch of the imagination is this
utterance transformed into a nationalistic call to arms? Well, it helps to
omit the context in which the utterance was made, and it also helps to insert
it into a speech commemorating the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo Polje, as the Times has done.
And here is what Newsday said:
[Quote from Newsday begins here]
Picture this: Milosevic (pronounced mee-LOH-sheh-vitch) was sent to Kosovo Polje, the small village near the sacred site of the Serbs defeat by the Turks in 1389. His orders were to speak to disgruntled Serbian and Montenegrin activists who claimed they were being badly mistreated by the majority ethnic Albanians who lived there.
Serbs: A Frightened Minority
Milosevic was speaking in the town's cultural center, a huge crowd of angry
Serbs gathered outside the building, chanting in support of the party
activists inside. They were attacked by local police, most of them Albanians,
who began beating the Serbs with their clubs.
[Quote from Newsday ends here]
Notice what has happened here. First, for Newsday, apparently, it is enough that Noel Malcolm said something. The same can probably also be said for The Times of London, which paper, as we saw above, parroted a similar line to the one we see here: utterances to the effect that "nobody will beat you" are supposed to allude to the defeat of the Serbs at Kosovo Polje in 1389.
This is a fusion of the events of 1987 and 1989 and, since this connection does not seem to appear prior to 1999 (which is the year Noel Malcolm’s book appeared), it is at least a reasonable guess that:
a) Malcolm is the originator of this confusion and
b) ever since, newspapers like The Times of London and Newsday have been fusing remarks that Milosevic made in two different years and in two very different contexts (neither of them even remotely damning).
This is worth a pause and a reflection.
Academics typically get their facts about what happened in a particular time and place from journalists. But here we have newspapers getting their facts from an academic. It would be fine for the newspaper to report the interpretation or theory of an academic, but isn’t the world turned upside down when a newspaper gets the basic facts of what happened from some bookish professor who wasn’t there?
The second observation is that what Milosevic actually said, "no one will be allowed to beat you!" has been changed to "no one should dare to beat you!" With this change the utterance dovetails nicely with Malcolm’s reference to Milosevic’s supposed lyricism concerning the “sacred rights of the Serbs.” So not only is this fusing of the events of 1987 and 1989 apparently an innovation of Malcolm’s, it is one he seems to work hard at, modifying other facts as well, to give the fusion plausibility.
In any case, it should be obvious that it is quite a
stretch of interpretation to say that one is invoking a moment in history by
making assurances to peasant Serbs that no one should beat them, when those
peasant Serbs are at that very moment being “attacked by local police,
most of them Albanians.” How about the hypothesis that rather than making “an eloquent extempore speech in defense of the sacred
rights of the Serbs,” Milosevic was saying that the Albanian policemen right
below him should not be beating the peasant Serbs?
8. Norman Cigar
Here is what another ‘academic’ said:
". . .in an emotionally charged speech at Gazimestan on June 28, 1989, on the sixth hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo, Milosevic had signaled his government’s intention to extend the nationalist agenda beyond Serbia’s borders. When coupled with active measures being undertaken in neighboring republics, his emphasis that the "Serbs have always liberated themselves and, when they had a chance, also helped others to liberate themselves" seemed to commit Serbia to a forcible redrawing of Yugoslavia’s long-established internal borders in pursuit of "liberating" the Serbs outside of Serbia. . ."
The quote from Milosevic's speech is accurate, but it is difficult to do justice to the distortions in this paragraph with the appropriate superlatives. Cigar is, in second-order Orwellian fashion, claiming that Milosevic’s speech is Orwellian. When Milosevic contrasts Serbs to “others,” this means (according to Cigar) other Serbs! That is a very interesting code. And when Milosevic talks about liberation, he really means that Serbs should oppress non-Serbs!
But just a tiny little bit of history suggests a different hypothesis.
In World War I, the Serbs were the only Balkan people to side with the allies. This means they simultaneously fought for their independence against two empires (Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian), while the Croats, Muslims, Albanians, etc. fought on the side of the empires. The Serbs won, but instead of creating a ‘Greater Serbia’, as many a victor might have, they spearheaded the creation of a joint kingdom, and they even shared the name (the Kingdom of Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia, which later got an even more inclusive name when it was renamed Yugoslavia -- land of the Southern Slavs).
Thus, they had liberated these other peoples from the clutches of the empires, and did not create an empire themselves.
Contrast this with the treatment that Germany got from the victorious allies.
Then, in World War II, the Croats, Slovenes, Yugoslav Muslims, and the Albanians, for the most part betrayed Yugoslavia and allied themselves with the invading Nazis. The Hungarians, Bulgarians, and Romanians also either allied themselves outright or reached an understanding with the Nazis. The Serbs were surrounded but fought the invaders anyway, even though they were practically alone. Tito’s Partisans, who had dogmatic ideology of ethnic tolerance, and who won the war in Yugoslavia, were mostly Serbs. Once again, the result was not a ‘Greater Serbia,’ but a magnanimous recreation of Yugoslavia (and this, despite the fact that Serbs had suffered a Holocaust during the war very much like that of the Jews).
Could it be that when Milosevic said the Serbs had
always fought for their liberation, and that of others when possible, he was
merely saying what he meant?
9. The BBC
The examples of how this speech has been maligned could be multiplied. But we gain a valuable perspective by taking a look at how the speech was reported the very moment it happened:
"The events in Kosovo to commemorate the 600th anniversary of the battle on 28th June were relayed live by Belgrade radio. At the Gracanica monastery over 100,000 people attended a liturgical service conducted by Patriarch German, head of the Serbian Orthodox Church, and at Gazimestan around 1,500,000 people gathered at a central ceremony in the presence of SFRY President Janez Drnovsek and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The radio noted that more people were expected to arrive at Gazimestan. Addressing the crowd, Milosevic said that whenever they were able to the Serbs had helped others to liberate themselves, and they had never used the advantage of their being a large nation against others or for themselves, Tanjug reported. He added that Yugoslavia was a multi-national community which could survive providing there was full equality for all the nations living in it."
It does not appear that the BBC reporter had the impression Milosevic's speech produced a nationalist incitement. On the contrary, the reporter has explicitly highlighted the tolerance of the speech.
The British newspaper The Independent, which had reporters covering the speech, had a similar impression:
[Quote from The Independent begins here]
poppy-flecked Kosovo Polje, the Field of
Blackbirds, looking out over a sea of a million people, Slobodan Milosevic
yesterday assumed the mantle of a statesman and Yugoslavia's natural leader.
'There is no more appropriate place than this field of Kosovo to say that accord and harmony in Serbia are vital to the prosperity of the Serbs and of all other citizens living in Serbia, regardless of their nationality or religion,' he said. Mutual tolerance and co- operation were also sine qua non for Yugoslavia: 'Harmony and relations on the basis of equality among Yugoslavia's people are a precondition for its existence, for overcoming the crisis.' The cries of 'Slobo, Slobo' which greeted his arrival on the vast monument to the heroes of 1389 soon gave way to a numb silence. 'I think people were a little disappointed, it became very quiet after the beginning,' an educated-looking woman from Belgrade said. But most others, in a straw poll, insisted the occasion did not merit the raucous chanting characteristic of the heady protest rallies of last year. 'People were satisfied, after all it wasn't a protest rally,' said another pilgrim. Everyone seemed a little stunned."
[Quote from The Independent ends here]
The quotes from Milosevic are accurate.
This account, a day after the event, suggests that the speech was not “emotionally charged,” as Cigar claims, and neither was it a speech designed to whip up “a million Serbs into a nationalist frenzy” -- as Time Magazine untruthfully alleges.
It is clear that there was no “ferocious and frustrated crowd,” as the Times of London would have it. It was not a “fervent speech …[that]… galvanized the nationalist passions” as The New York Times states, and neither was it a “stirringly virulent nationalist speech,” as The Economist claims.
Finally, for good measure, it was not a “fiery speech…to a million angry Serbs [and] a rallying cry for nationalism,” as the Washington Post reported.
From the story above we even learn that one observer thought people had been disappointed, although this impression is belied by the opinion of the locals who said this was not a protest rally.
Indeed, it didn’t sound like one, if one reads the speech. The framing of the events is that Milosevic was conciliatory.
How should we describe the fact that The Independent, which paper had reporters on the ground, and which had accurately reported this speech when it was given, later said that this was Milosevic setting his agenda “as he openly threatens force to hold the six-republic federation together” (see above)?
Or perhaps we should show sympathy for the harried journalists at The Independent, who apparently cannot find the time to read their own paper!
And what about the other, 1987, speech? This is how it was reported by the New York Times, immediately after it happened:
[Quote from the New York Times begins begins here]
clashed briefly today with a crowd of about 10,000 in the ethnically tense
province of Kosovo, Yugoslav news organizations said.
[Quote from the New York Times begins ends here]
It is clear from how that speech was reported
at the time that Milosevic had simply meant to reassure the assembled Serb
peasants that the police certainly did not have the right to beat them like
that. It was not a nationalistic call to arms nor was it supposed to have
overtones to the battle of Kosovo Polje. Why should
it? What was happening in front of his eyes was not metaphorical. Policemen
were beating peasants.
10. Final Remarks
This is how a myth is constructed: we hear the same story everywhere. The repetition of the story convinces us that the story has been confirmed. But, of course, repetition is hardly confirmation. If it were, every urban legend would be true.
It is important to pause and reflect on what this means. If the media can lie so blatantly about what Milosevic said in 1989, and if they do it consistently and across the board, something is wrong.
The question is: how wrong?
The US government obviously has an interest in demonizing the people it bombed. Although its own translation of the speech is a rebuke to how the speech has been portrayed, we should not expect the US government to criticize the misinformation. This is unjustifiable, and corrupt, but not unexpected.
Explaining the behavior of the BBC, on the other hand, is not so easy. The BBC is not the US government. Its role is supposedly to give us the truth, as best it can. Moreover, the BBC is supposed to be in competition with other media outlets. Since the BBC translated the speech, they were in a position to lay bare that what was being written about the speech was misinformation. They have not done it, and this is a very serious sin of journalistic omission.
If only this was their biggest sin!
On April 1, 2001, the BBC wrote the following:
[Quote from BBC begins here]
In 1989, on
the 600-year anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje,
he [Milosevic] gathered a million Serbs at the site of the battle to tell them
to prepare for a new struggle.
He then began to arm and support Serb separatists in Croatia and Bosnia. Other nationalists were coming to power throughout the republics of the old federation.
Yugoslavia's long nightmare of civil war was beginning.
[Quote from BBC ends here]
The BBC here makes it seem as though Milosevic was indeed talking about preparing the Serbs for aggression against other people.
But the BBC translated the live relay of the speech!
They know Milosevic did no such thing in 1989 at Kosovo Polje. The BBC piece continues:
[Back To The BBC]
Mr Milosevic was never really a nationalist, never a true believer. He skillfully exploited the myth of Kosovo Polje - where the Serbs refused to surrender even though that brought defeat and subjugation -- but he was always a pragmatist.
[Quote from BBC ends here]
Again: the BBC translated the speech! They know that he spoke in skeptical and professorial tones about the famous battle at Kosovo Polje, rather than manipulating it for ultra-nationalist ends.
This is not an isolated instance. Here is the BBC again, in a different piece:
[Quote from BBC begins here]
Serbs to remember Historic battle
Religious ceremonies are being held today in Kosovo to commemorate the anniversary of a fourteenth century battle in which the Ottoman Turks crushed the Serbian army.
A BBC correspondent in Kosovo says most Serbs will mark the anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje hesitantly, if at all.
He says some believe the security situation is still too fragile for any large gathering; others feel too threatened to risk travelling on the roads.
Ten years ago, more than one-million Serbs turned out to celebrate the battle's six-hundreth anniversary, when President Slobodan Milosevic vowed Serbia would never again lose control of Kosovo.
[Quote from BBC ends here]
But. . .but. . .the BBC knows that what it is reporting here is not true. They translated the speech! Milosevic did not vow any such thing in 1989 at the Kosovo Polje commemoration. He may have vowed it elsewhere (and the vow in and of itself is perfectly consistent with his desire to keep Yugoslavia whole, and does not indict him of anything). But he certainly made no such vow in the 1989 speech.
Why is the BBC reporting things that it knows are false?
Since this level of dishonesty is possible, I am forced to wonder what else is possible. What can we believe about what has been written about Milosevic in particular, and Yugoslavia more generally? After all, the demonization of Milosevic, and the Serbs more generally, perfectly fits with the propaganda aims of the NATO powers that went to war against Yugoslavia, including the US and Britain. Here we have seen that the media establishment in these two countries has produced stories about Milosevic’s speech that are consistent with such a deliberate propaganda campaign.
Footnotes and Further
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 The BBC microfilm can be obtained from some university libraries. If you are an academic, you can get it at your library or through an inter-library loan, in the same way that I did. If in doubt, ask the people at the reference desk, for this is not the easiest item to find.
It is, however, much easier to find the BBC translation on Lexis-Nexis. Restrict your search to 1989 and do a "full text" search for "milosevic and speech and gazimestan" (do not include the quotation marks). If you have a version of Lexis that forces you to search by category, then select "World News" and also "European News Sources." This will bring up the BBC translation, which has the following reference:
 "Milosevic on Trial: Fall of a Pariah"; Newspaper Publishing PLC, Independent on Sunday (London); July 1, 2001, Sunday, SECTION: FOREIGN NEWS; Pg. 21
 "Serbs make ragged retreat from their historic cradle"; The Irish Times; June 16, 1999, CITY EDITION; SECTION: WORLD NEWS; CRISIS IN THE BALKANS; Pg. 13
 The Economist, June 05, 1999, U.S. Edition, 1041 words, What next for Slobodan Milosevic?
 Time International, July 9, 2001 v158 i1 p18+
 The New York Times, July 28, 1996, Sunday, Late Edition - Final, Section 1; Page 10; Column 1; Foreign Desk, 1384 words, Serbs in Pragmatic Pullout from Albanian Region, By JANE PERLEZ, PRISTINA, Serbia, July 22
 The Washington Post, June 29, 1998, Monday, Final Edition, A SECTION; Pg. A10, 354 words, Bitter Serbs Blame Leader for Risking Beloved Kosovo, R. Jeffrey Smith, Washington Post Foreign Service, KOSOVO POLJE, Yugoslavia, June 28
[12a] National Public Radio (NPR), ALL THINGS CONSIDERED (9:00 PM ET) , March 31, 1999, Wednesday, 1304 words, CHUCK SUDETIC, AUTHOR AND FORMER NEW YORK TIMES REPORTER, TALKS ABOUT THE YUGOSLAV WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL INDICTMENT OF SERB PARAMILITARY LEADER ZELJKO RAZNATOVIC, ALSO KNOWN AS ARKAN, LINDA WERTHEIMER; NOAH ADAMS
[12b] "One of the matters the NPR Board discussed before hiring [current NPR President Kevin] Klose: how NPR's news staff would react to a boss who had worked in government radio and for the Radios, which were CIA-financed until the early 1970s. 'There was a question as to how the NPR newsroom would receive Kevin Klose,' says board member Chase Untermeyer, who headed Voice of America [also a CIA operation - FGW] during the Bush years. But those questions were 'put aside' because of Klose's leadership abilities and other assets, he said. Untermeyer argues that operations like the Radios are congressionally mandated to be even-handed and so operate 'under far more desirable standards of journalism' than privately owned news outlets."
SOURCE: "Kevin Klose:
journalist, fan, NPR president"
MY COMMENT: It is certainly charming that a CIA man, the one who headed Voice of America (Untermeyer), would vouch for the even-handedness of Klose, another CIA man. And notice that Untermeyer was already on the NPR board and had a hand in hiring Klose: the CIA hiring the CIA. The transformation of NPR hardly began with Klose.
 from "A Careful Coincidence Of National
Policies?" by T.W. Carr (Ass. Publisher, Defense & Foreign Affairs
[13a] "What really happened in Bosnia?"; Investigative and
Historical Research; rev. 19 August 2005; by Francisco Gil-White
 From "Milosevic on suicide watch in Dutch prison"; Times Newspapers Limited; The Times (London); June 30, 2001, Saturday
 Cohen, L. J. 2001. Serpent in the bosom: The rise and fall of Slobodan Milosevic. Boulder, Colorado: Westview.
[16a] from "Student Briefing Page On The News"; Newsday, Inc.; Newsday (New York, NY); April 16, 1999, Friday, ALL EDITIONS; SECTION: NEWS; Page A48
 Cigar, Norman 1995. Genocide in Bosnia. College Station, Texas: Texas A&M University Press. (p.34)
 Copyright 1989 The British Broadcasting Corporation; BBC Summary of World Broadcasts; June 29, 1989, Thursday; SECTION: Part 2 Eastern Europe; 2. EASTERN EUROPE; EE/0495/ i; LENGTH: 249 words;
HEADLINE: The anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Polje
 The Independent, June 29 1989, Thursday, Foreign News ; Pg. 10, 654 words, Milosevic carries off the battle honours, From EDWARD STEEN and MARCUS TANNER in Kosovo Polje
 The New York Times, April 25, 1987, Saturday, Late City Final Edition, Section 1; Page 5, Column 1; Foreign Desk, 356 words, YUGOSLAVIA POLICE AND 10,000 CLASH DURING A PROTEST OVER ETHNIC BIAS, AP, BELGRADE, Yugoslavia, April 24
 "The downfall of Milosevic ", Sunday, 1
April, 2001, 07:17 GMT 08:17 UK;
 From the newsroom of the BBC World Service * Monday,
June 28, 1999 Published at 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK * World: Europe