In June of this year, Gazeta Selam, an online platform with a clear pro-Turkish stance, posted a collage of photos on Facebook, propagating the idea of the ‘Ottoman army’ as the saviour of “Greater Albania”. This misleading narrative gained momentum during the days of tensions between Kosovo and Serbia, which required the intervention of KFOR troops. The post in question, with its nostalgic references to the Ottoman army, is not only inaccurate but also creates a false perception. It serves as geopolitical propaganda, further aggravating the conflict situation.
This post of the online portal called Selam Newspaper on Facebook draws parallels between the recent landing of Turkish NATO troops in Kosovo in June 2023 and the historic Battle of Kosovo in 1389. According to the post, both instances involved the ‘Ottoman army’ defending Kosovo against the Slavs. As of this fact-check, the post has received over 400 likes.
Post of Selam Newspaper
Accompanied by the flags of Turkey, Albania, and Kosovo, the Gazeta Selam post proclaims, “We are one ummah”. Ummah an Arabic word meaning ‘community’.
This post seems to be an attempt to present Turkey as the protector of Albanians, especially in Kosovo, through a reinterpretation of history.
Similar interpretations of the Battle of Kosovo can be found on other pro-Turkey or pro-Erdogan Facebook pages.
Reality in 2023
The aforementioned post coincided with tense days in early June when Serbian residents in North Mitrovica protested against the appointment of Albanian mayors. These mayors had been elected in local elections that were widely boycotted by Serbs in those municipalities. The protests led to clashes with KFOR, resulting in injuries to several peacekeeping troops. In this already volatile situation, a post featuring nostalgic references to the Ottoman army only fuels nationalism.
First and foremost, it is crucial to clarify that the “Ottoman army” ceased to exist over a century ago. On 1 November 1922, the National Assembly of Turkey abolished the Ottoman Sultanate. The remaining remnants of the Ottoman Empire were reestablished as the Republic of Turkey on 29 October 1923, with Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as its first president.
Furthermore, the deployment of 500 Turkish soldiers in Kosovo on June 5, 2023, referred to as the “Ottoman army” in the post, came in response to NATO’s request for their participation in the KFOR peacekeeping mission in Kosovo.
“NATO considers Turkey an important and highly valued ally, which has made significant contributions to NATO. These contributions include troops for our peacekeeping mission in Kosovo, which is even more critical now during times of heightened tensions,” said NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg.
Currently, KFOR comprises 3,762 troops, with 350 of them being Turkish, while Italy has the largest contingent with 715 troops.
Some data for 1389
Regarding the historical context of 1389, the post claims that the Ottoman army defended Kosovo against the Slavs during the Battle of Kosovo. Readers who are familiar with the history of the Balkans may recall that this battle, known as the Battle of Kosova took place in Kosovo in 1389
Historians generally agree that the battle was fought between the invading Ottoman army and a coalition of troops from various Balkan regions, led by Serbian Prince Lazar Hrebeljanović.
In the 14th century, the Balkans were divided into principalities with varying relationships, ranging from alliances to enmity. Prince Lazar had attempted to create alliances by marrying his daughters to King Tvrtko of Bosnia and an Albanian prince from the Balsha family. (Malcolm, 59).
Few certain details about this battle are known. According to historian Noel Malcolm, it was fierce, and both sides suffered significant losses. Both leaders, Lazar and Sultan Murat, were killed in this battle.
The participation of Albanian troops in this battle is evidenced by a 16th-century family history of the Muzaka family. It states that Teodor Muzaka led “a large group of Albanians” to join Lazar’s army, along with “other noble Albanians”. Teodor Muzaka was also killed in the Battle of Kosovo. (Malcolm, 62)
Early Ottoman reports, written in the 15th century, also list among Lazar’s army Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, and Hungarians.
However, as observed by Malcolm, the Ottoman army likely consisted of non-Turkish troops as well. Two Serbian vassals, Marko Krajlevic and Konstantin Dejanovic, were obligated as part of their alliance with the Ottoman Empire to supply troops for military campaigns. An early Italian chronicle noted that among the Ottoman army were soldiers described as “Greek and Christian,” while a Serbian chronicle stated that Sultan Murat’s army included Greeks, Bulgarians, and Albanians.
The Myth of Kosovo
Beyond its impact on history, the Battle of Kosovo lies at the heart of the so-called “myth of Kosovo”. According to academic Julie Mertus, Serbian nationalists continue to claim Kosovo as their Jerusalem, the essence of Serbian identity (Mertus, 11).
Over the centuries, the figure of Lazar was elevated to a martyr, and a religious cult similar to that of a saint was formed around him. However, the modern version of the myth emerged in the 19th century with the publication of Serbian folk poems collected by Serbian philologist Vuk Karadžić. In this version, which laid the foundation for Serbian ethnic and national identity, Kosovo is the “cradle” of the Serbian nation, and the 1389 battle symbolizes the end of Serbia’s glorious medieval period and the beginning of Ottoman rule.
According to Sabrina P. Ramet, the Battle of Kosovo symbolizes for Serbian nationalism the “spirit of resistance, enmity towards Muslims, and ultimately, the so-called ‘eternal struggle between Serbs and Albanians’” (Ramet, 290). Ramet also explains that with the rise of Slobodan Milošević, the cult of Prince Lazar and the Battle of Kosovo was revived almost instantly, with books, songs, and even a line of perfumes called “Miss 1389” (Ramet, 291).
The formation of this collective memory of the Battle of Kosovo was beneficial for the Milosevic regime, as the emotions of victimhood, injustice, insult, and anger aroused by this myth were useful in mobilizing for war. As Ramet notes, “if the Serbs could see themselves as victims, then they would feel justified in what they considered revenge” (Ramet, 291).
On the 600th anniversary of this battle, on June 28, 1989, one million Serbs from across Yugoslavia gathered in a pilgrimage to Kosovo, where a monument to Prince Lazar was erected at the site where he is claimed to have died, bearing his legendary curse against “those who do not unite in the Battle of Kosovo.”
As noted by Mertus, in 1989, the commemoration of the “great loss” of 1389 revived memories of Serbian suffering and the need to protect the Serbian homeland, the heart of which, within this narrative, lies in Kosovo. The narrative also made it easy to draw parallels between the Ottoman enemies and Muslim Albanians.
During his presidency of the Socialist Republic of Serbia, Slobodan Milošević made a grand entrance at a ceremony, arriving by helicopter and taking the stage adorned with symbols of Serbian nationalism. Addressing the crowd, he stated:
“In our history, Serbs have never invaded or exploited others. […] The heroism displayed in Kosovo reminds us that we were once proud and dignified, among the few who entered an unwavering fight. Six centuries later, we still find ourselves in battles and conflicts. These may not be armed conflicts, but such possibilities cannot be ruled out yet.”
In 2007, Patriarch Pavle, the head of the Serbian Orthodox Church at that time, issued a warning about gathering “dark clouds” over Kosovo. He emphasized that Serbs were not just defending their own interests in Kosovo but also protecting “the sanctity of enlightened humanity”.
In 2022, Serbian media reported that President Aleksandar Vučić had sought the blessing of Patriarch Porfirije to defend Kosovo, drawing parallels to the actions of Prince Lazar in the historic Battle of Kosovo in 1389.
In May 2023, Serbian tennis player Novak Djoković brought back the myth of Kosovo during a tennis championship, writing on camera: “Kosovo is the heart of Serbia. Stop violence.” As per Serbian media, he later added, “Kosovo is our cradle, our fortress, the centre of the most important things for our country.”
The Constitution of Serbia, approved in 2006, still refers to Kosovo as “an integral part of the territory of Serbia.
While the interpretation of the Battle of Kosovo as an example of Turkish protection for Albanians and the Myth of Kosovo differ in their portrayal of the ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ both narratives agree on downplaying or erasing the role and even existence of Albanians. Both versions merely depict Albanians as Muslims, automatically associating them with the Ottomans.
This identification of Albanian Muslims as Turks or Ottomans not only overlooks their significant contribution to Balkan history but has also been exploited by various actors for their political interests, sometimes with severe consequences.