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The Serbs and Serbia, Vojvodina, and Montenegro

Federal Research Division of the Library of Congress, "The Serbs and Serbia, Vojvodina, and Montenegro", Yugoslavia: A Country Study (ed. Glenn E. Curtis), Washington 1990; draft version at LOC; ON NJEGOS.ORG FOR FAIR USE ONLY, if there are any objections that the article placed here does not conform to the "fair use", contact and the article will be removed immediately

The Serbs and Serbia, Vojvodina, and Montenegro

Like the Croats, the Serbs are believed to be a purely Slavic people who originated in the Ukraine. Some scholars now argue that the original Serbs and Croats were Central Asian Sarmatian nomads who entered Europe with the Huns in the fourth century A.D. The theory proposes that the Sarmatian Serbs settled in a land designated as White Serbia, in what is now Saxony and Western Poland. The Sarmatian Serbs, it is argued, intermarried with the indigenous Slavs of the region, adopted their language, and transferred their name to the Slavs. Byzantine sources report that some Serbs migrated southward in the seventh century A.D. and eventually settled in the lands that now make up southern Serbia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Hercegovina. Rival chiefs, or zupani, vied to control the Serbs for five centuries after the migration. Zupan Vlastimir formed a Serbian principality under the Byzantines around 850, and the Serbs soon converted to Eastern-rite Christianity. The Serbs had two political centers in the eleventh century: Zeta, in the mountains of present-day Montenegro, and Raska, located in modern southwestern Serbia.

The zupan of Raska, Stefan I Nemanja (1159-96), threw off Byzantine domination and laid the foundation for medieval Serbia by conquering Zeta and part of southern Dalmatia. His son and successor, Stefan II Nemanja (1196-1228) transformed Serbia into a stable state, friendly with Rome but with religious loyalty to Constantinople. In 1218 Pope Honorius III recognized Serbian political independence and crowned Stefan II. The writings of Stefan II and his brother (later canonized as St. Sava) were the first works of Serbian literature.

Later kings in the Nemanja line overcame internal rivalries and pressure from Bulgaria and Constantinople. They also rejected papal invitations to link the Serbian Orthodox Church with Rome, and they ruled their country through a golden age. Serbia expanded its economy, and Dalmatian merchants marketed Serbian goods throughout Europe and the Levant. The Nemanje dynasty left to Serbia masterpieces of religious art combining Western, Byzantine, and local styles.

Serbia dominated the Balkans under Stefan Dusan (1331-55), who conquered lands extending from Belgrade to present-day southern Greece. He proclaimed himself emperor, elevated the archbishop of Pec to the level of patriarch, and wrote a new legal code combining Byzantine law with Serbian customs. Dusan had ambitions toward a weakened Byzantine Empire, but the Byzantine emperor suspected his intentions and summoned the Turks to restrain him. Dusan repelled assaults in 1345 and 1349, but was defeated in 1352. He then offered to lead an alliance against the Turks and recognize the pope, but those gambits also were rejected.

Rival nobles divided Serbia after the death of Dusan in 1355, and many switched loyalty to the sultan after the last Nemanja died in 1371. The most powerful Serbian prince, Lazar Hrebeljanovic, raised a multinational force to engage the Turks in the Battle of Kosovo Polje on St. Vitus Day in 1389. The Turks barely defeated Lazar, and both he and the sultan were killed. The defeat did not bring immediate Turkish occupation of Serbia, but during the centuries of Turkish domination that followed, the Serbs endowed the battle with myths of honor and heroism that helped them preserve their dignity and sense of nationhood. Serbs still recite epic poems and sing songs about the nobles who fell at Kosovo Polje; the anniversary of the battle is the Serbian national holiday, Vidovdan (St. Vitus's Day), June 28.

Civil war in the Turkish Empire saved Serbia in the early fifteenth century, but the Turks soon reunited their forces to conquer the last Serbian stronghold at Smederjevo in 1459 and subjugate the whole country. Serbs fled to Hungary, Montenegro, Croatia, Dalmatia, and Bosnia, and some formed outlaw bands. In response to the activities of the latter, the Turks disinterred and burned the remains of St. Sava. By the sixteenth century, southern Hungary had a sizable Serbian population that remained after the Turks conquered the region in 1526. Montenegro, which emerged as an independent principality after the death of Dusan, waged continual guerrilla war on the Turks, and never was conquered. But the Turkish threat did force Prince Ivan of Montenegro to move his capital high into the mountains. There, he founded a monastery and set up a printing press. In 1516 Montenegro became a theocratic state.

Social and economic life in Serbia changed radically under the absolute rule of the Turkish sultan. The Turks split Serbia among several provinces, conscripted Serbian boys into their elite forces, exterminated Serbian nobles, and deprived the Serbs of contact with the West as the Renaissance was beginning. The Turks used the Orthodox Church to intermediate between the state and the peasantry, but they expropriated most church lands. Poorly trained Serbian priests strove to maintain the decaying national identity. In 1459 the sultan subordinated the Serbian Church to the Greek patriarch, but the Serbs hated Greek dominance of their church, and in 1557 Grand Vizier Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic, a Serb who had been inducted into the Turkish army as a boy, persuaded the sultan to restore autonomy to the Serbian Church. Turkish maltreatment and exploitation grew in Serbia after the sixteenth century, and more Serbs fled to become mountain outlaws, or hajduci. Epic songs of the hajduci kept alive the Serbs' memory of the glorious independence of the past.

From 1684 to 1689, Christian forces attempted to push the Turks from the Balkans, inciting the Serbs to rebel against their Turkish overlords. The offensive and the rebellion ultimately failed, exposing the Serbs south of the Sava River to the revenge of the Turks. Fearing Turkish reprisals, the Serbian patriarch Arsenije III Carnojevic emigrated in 1690 to Austrian-ruled southern Hungary with as many as 36,000 families. The Austrian emperor promised these people religious freedom and the right to elect their own vojvoda, or military governor, and incorporated much of the region where they settled, later known as Vojvodina, into the military border. The refugees founded new monasteries that became cultural centers. In Montenegro, Danilo I Petrovic of Njegos (1696-1737) became bishop-prince and instituted the succession of the Petrovic-Njegos family. His efforts to unify Montenegro triggered a massacre of Muslims in 1702 and subsequent reprisals.

Austrian forces took Serbian regions south of the Sava from Turkey in 1718, but Jesuits following the army proselytized so heavily that the Serbs came to hate the Austrians as well as the Turks. In the eighteenth century, the Turkish economy and social fabric began deteriorating, and the Serbs who remained under the Ottoman Empire suffered attacks from bands of soldiers. Corrupt Greek priests who had replaced Serbian clergy at the sultan's direction also took advantage of the Serbs. The Serbs in southern Hungary fared much better. They farmed prosperously in the fertile Danubian plain. A Serbian middle class arose, and the monasteries trained scholars and writers who inspired national pride, even among illiterate Serbs.

The eighteenth century brought Russian involvement in European events, particularly in competition with Austria for the spoils of the Turkish collapse. The Orthodox Serbs looked to the tsar for support, and Russia forged ties with Montenegro and the Serbian Church in southern Hungary. In 1774 Russia won the diplomatic right to protect Christian subjects of the Turks; later it used this right as a pretext to intervene in Turkish affairs. When Russia and Austria fought another war with Turkey in 1787 and 1788, Serbs fought guerrilla battles against the Turks. Austria abandoned the campaign, and the Serbs, in 1791. To secure their frontier, the Turks granted their Serbian subjects a measure of autonomy and formed a Serbian militia. Montenegro expanded in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Bishop-Prince Petar I Njegos (1782-1830) convinced the sultan to declare that the Montenegrins had never been Turkish subjects, and Montenegro remained independent through the nineteenth century.

In 1804 renegade Turkish soldiers in Belgrade murdered Serbian leaders, triggering a popular uprising under Karadjordje ("Black George") Petrovic, founder of the Karadjordjevic dynasty. Russia supported the Serbs, and in 1806 the sultan granted them limited autonomy (see fig. 3). But internal discord weakened the government of Karadjordje, and the French invasion of Russia in 1812 prevented the tsar from protecting the Serbs. In 1813 the Turks attacked rebel areas. Karadjordje fled to Hungary, then Turkish, Bosnian, and Albanian troops plundered Serbian villages. The atrocities sparked a second Serbian uprising in 1815 that won autonomy under Turkish control for some regions. The corrupt rebel leader Milos Obrenovic (1817-39) had Karadjordje murdered and his head sent to the sultan to signal Serbian loyalty.

In 1830 Turkey recognized Serbia as a principality under Turkish control, with Milos Obrenovic as hereditary prince. The sultan also granted the Serbian Church autonomy and reaffirmed the Russian right to protect Serbia. Poor administration, corruption, and a bloody rivalry between the Karadjordjevic and Obrenovic clans marred Serbian political life from its beginning. After the sultan began allowing foreign governments to send diplomats to Serbia in the 1830s, foreign intervention further complicated the situation. Despite these obstacles and his autocratic manner, however, Milos Obrenovic stimulated trade, opened schools, and guided development of peasant lands. He abdicated in 1838 when Turkey imposed a constitution to limit his powers.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Serbian culture made significant strides. Dositej Obradovic, Vuk Karadzic, and other scholars accelerated a national renaissance. Through his translations and autobiography, Obradovic spread the Enlightenment to the Serbs. Collections of Serbian folk songs and poems edited by Karadzic awoke pride in national history and traditions. Karadzic also overcame clerical opposition to reform the Cyrillic alphabet and the Serbian literary language, and he translated the New Testament. His work widened the concept of Serbian nationhood to include language as well as religious and regional identifications.

The European revolution of 1848 brought more ferment in relations between the Serbs and their neighbors. As part of their revolutionary program, the Hungarians threatened to Magyarize the Serbs in Vojvodina. Some Serbs there declared their independence from Hungary and proclaimed an autonomous Vojvodina; others rallied behind the Austrian-Croatian invasion of Hungary. The Serbs nearly declared war, but Russians and Turkish diplomacy restrained them. The Serbs in Hungary gained nothing from helping Austria to crush the revolution. Vienna ruled Vojvodina harshly after 1850 and silenced Serbian irredentists there. When Austria joined Hungary to form the Dual Monarchy in 1867, Vienna returned Vojvodina and its Serbs to Hungary. Meanwhile, Peter II Njegos of Montenegro (1830-51), who was also a first-rate poet, reformed his administration, battled the Turks, and struggled to obtain a seaport from the Austrians. His successor Danilo II (1851-60) abolished the Montenegrin theocracy.

Prince Mihajlo Obrenovic (1860-68), son of Milos, was an effective ruler who further loosened the Turkish grip on Serbia. Western-educated and autocratic, Mihajlo liberalized the constitution and in 1867 secured the withdrawal of Turkish garrisons from Serbian cities. Industrial development began at this time, although 80 percent of Serbia's 1.25 million people remained illiterate peasants. Mihajlo sought to create a South Slav confederation, and he organized a regular army to prepare for liberation of Turkish-held Serbian territory. Scandal undermined Mihajlo's popularity, however, and he was eventually assassinated.

Political parties emerged in Serbia after 1868, and aspects of Western culture began to appear. A widespread uprising in the Ottoman Empire prompted an unsuccessful attack by Serbia and Montenegro in 1876, and a year later those countries allied with Russia, Romania, and Bulgarian rebels to defeat the Turks. The subsequent treaties of San Stefano and Berlin (1878) made Serbia an independent state and added to its territory, while Montenegro gained a seacoast. Alarmed at Russian gains, the growing stature of Serbia, and irredentism among Vojvodina's Serbs, Austria-Hungary pressed for and won the right to occupy Bosnia, Hercegovina, and the Novi Pazar in 1878. Serbia's Prince Milan Obrenovic (1868-89), a cousin of Mihajlo, became disillusioned with Russia and fearful of the newly created Bulgaria. He therefore signed a commercial agreement in 1880 that made Serbia a virtual client state of Austria-Hungary. Milan became the first king of modern Serbia in 1882, but his pro-Austro-Hungarian policies undermined his popularity, and he abdicated in 1889.

A regency ruled Serbia until 1893, when Milan's teenage son, Aleksandar (1889-1903), pronounced himself of age and nullified the constitution. Aleksandar was widely unpopular in Serbia because of scandals, arbitrary rule, and his position favoring Austria-Hungary. In 1903 military officers, including Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic, brutally murdered Aleksandar and his wife. Europe condemned the killings, which were celebrated in Belgrade. Petar Karadjordjevic (1903-14), who knew of the conspiracy, returned from exile to take the throne, restored and liberalized the constitution, put Serbian finances in order, and improved trade and education. Petar turned Serbia away from Austria-Hungary and toward Russia, and in 1905 Serbia negotiated a tariff agreement with Bulgaria hoping to break the Austro-Hungarian monopoly of its exports. In response to a diplomatic disagreement, Vienna placed a punitive tariff on livestock, Serbia's most important export. Serbia, however, refused to bend, found new trade routes and began seeking an outlet to the sea. In 1908 Austria-Hungary formally annexed Bosnia and Hercegovina, frustrating Serbian designs on those regions and precipitating an international crisis. The Serbs mobilized, but under German pressure Russia persuaded Belgrade to cease its protests. Thereafter, Belgrade maintained strict official propriety in its relations with Vienna; but government and military factions prepared for a war to liberate the Serbs still living under the Turkish yoke in Kosovo, Macedonia, and other regions.