Background To The Speech
In the years leading up to the speech, Kosovo had become a central issue in Serbian politics. The province had been given extensive rights of autonomy in the 1974 Yugoslav Constitution and had been run by the province's majority-Albanian population. The reassertion of Albanian nationalism, discrimination against Serbs by the province's predominately Albanian police force and local government, and a worsening economy led to a large number (around 100,000 between 1961-1987) of Serbs and Montenegrins leaving the area by the late-1980s. Slobodan Milošević had used the issue to secure the leadership of the League of Communists of Serbia in 1987, and in early 1989 he pushed through a new constitution that drastically reduced the autonomy of Kosovo and the northern autonomous province of Vojvodina. This was followed by the mass replacement of opposing communist leaders in the provinces, called the "anti-bureaucratic revolution". Many Albanians were killed in March 1989 when demonstrations against the new constitution were violently suppressed by Serbian security forces. By June 1989, the atmosphere in Kosovo was calm but tense.
The speech was the climax of the commemoration of the six hundredth anniversary of the battle. It followed months of commemorative events which had been promoted by an intense media focus on the subject of Serbia's relationship with Kosovo. A variety of Serbian dramatists, painters, musicians and filmmakers had highlighted key motifs of the Kosovo legend, particularly the theme of the betrayal of Serbia. Public "Rallies for Truth" were organised by Kosovo Serbs between mid-1988 and early 1989, at which symbols of Kosovo were prominently displayed. The common theme was that Serbs outside Kosovo (and indeed outside Serbia itself) should know the truth about the predicament of the Kosovo Serbs, emotionally presented as an issue of the utmost national priority. Serb-inhabited towns competed with each other to stage ever-more patriotic rallies in an effort to gain favour from the new "patriotic leadership", thus helping to further increase nationalist sentiments.
The event was also invested with major religious significance. In the months preceding the Gazimestan rally, the remains of Prince Lazar of Serbia, who had fallen in the Battle of Kosovo, were carried in a heavily publicised procession around the Serb-inhabited territories of Yugoslavia. Throngs of mourners queued for hours to see the relics and attend commemorative public rallies, vowing in speeches never to allow Serbia to be defeated again. At the end of the tour, the relics were reinterred in the Serbian Orthodox monastery at Gračanica in Kosovo, near Gazimestan.
The 28 June 1989 event was attended by a crowd estimated at between half a million and two million people (most estimates put the figure at around a million). They were overwhelmingly Serbs, many of whom had been brought to Gazimestan on hundreds of special coaches and trains organized by Milošević's League of Communists of Serbia. The attendees came not only from Serbia but all of the Serb-inhabited parts of Yugoslavia and even from overseas; around seven thousand diaspora Serbs from Australia, Canada and the United States also attended at the invitation of the Serbian Orthodox Church.
In addition to Milošević himself, the speech was attended by a variety of dignitaries from the Serbian and Yugoslav establishment. They included the entire leadership of the Serbian Orthodox Church, led by Patriarch German; the Prime Minister of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Ante Marković; members of the Presidency of the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia; the leadership of the Yugoslav People's Army; and members of the rotating Presidency of Yugoslavia. Significantly, the event was boycotted by the Croatian member of the Presidency, Stipe Šuvar, as well as the United States ambassador and all ambassadors from the European Community and NATO countries with the exception of Turkey (which had a direct interest in the event as the successor state to the Ottoman Empire).
After being escorted through cheering crowds waving his picture alongside that of Lazar, he delivered his speech on a huge stage with a backdrop containing powerful symbols of the Kosovo myth: images of peonies, a flower traditionally deemed to symbolise the blood of Lazar, and an Orthodox cross with a Cyrillic letter "C" at each of its four corners (standing for the slogan Само Слога Србина Спашава (Samo Sloga Srbina Spasava, "Only Unity Saves the Serbs").
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