Jump to Navigation

Kosovo's Conflict

Print this article   Email this article

The troubled history of the region, and the deep-rooted antagonisms between the different ethnic groups laying claim to it.

Kosovo is the disputed borderland between Serbia and Albania. About 90 per cent of its two million inhabitants are Kosovo Albanians (Kosovars). Albanians are supposedly descended from the ancient Dardanians (Illyrians) who allegedly inhabited the western Balkans long before Slavs arrived in the sixth to eighth centuries AD.

The Serbs, however, refer to Kosovo as the 'cradle of the Serb nation'. It was after the medieval Serbian Orthodox Church had established a new see at Pec in Kosovo in 1297 that the medieval kingdom of Serbia - founded a century earlier - reached its apogee. Serbian nationalists hold that Kosovo's numerous Orthodox monasteries, and the blood and the relics of those who died defending them, have 'eternally sanctified' Serbian claims to Kosovo. They dispute Albanian claims to direct descent from the ancient Dardanians, arguing that the modern Albanian nation emerged in Albania and Kosovo between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries from a fresh admixture of various 'ethnic strains', including Illyrians, Thracians, Dacians and Vlachs. They deny that an expressly Albanian people were in a majority in Kosovo prior to the Ottoman conquest of the fourteenth century.

While it is conceivable that the inhabitants displaced from Kosovo by Slavs between the eighth and the thirteenth centuries were in some respects recognisably Albanian, this widely dispersed population must have mingled and interbred with other ethnic groups. These people would not have been identical to those who 'returned' to Kosovo between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Likewise, the Slavs who settled there must have gradually interbred with indigenous peoples. Simple notions of ethnic descent are spurious.

The crucial Ottoman victories over Christian forces in the Balkans occurred in 1364, 1371, 1386 and 1396. Yet it was the Battle of Kosovo Plain on June 15/28th, 1389, which passed into Serbian national mythology as the decisive clash at which the Ottomans destroyed the remains of the Serbian empire. The anniversary of the battle has been the most important date in the Serbian 'national calendar', though in reality it was a draw, as both sides suffered heavy casualties and had to withdraw at the end of the day.

Under Ottoman rule (which lasted until 1912) Kosovo's Christian population contracted and its Muslim population expanded. Serbs are taught that their forebears were displaced northwards by Albanian and Turkish colonisation and by Ottoman-inspired Islamicisation and oppression, but such explanations are deficient. The Ottomans valued the Orthodox Church as an instrument of social control and generally refrained from active colonisation and Islamicisation. Albanians only embraced Islam gradually, and the growth of the Muslim population was not entirely attributable to a displacement of Christian Slavs by Muslim Albanians and Turks. In 1690, the Serbs supported an unwise Habsburg invasion and, fearing reprisals from the Ottomans, many left the region seeking safety in Austria. However, the scale and significance of this so-called 'Great Migration' has been greatly exaggerated by nationalist paintings of Serbs being led out of Kosovo by Patriarch Arsenije, who may not even have been present.

A small Serbian principality escaped from Ottoman control in 1817 and was recognised as an independent state in 1878. Albanians became alarmed when this renascent Serbia temporarily occupied parts of Kosovo. In June 1878 local Albanian potentates met in Kosovo to launch a 'League of Prizren' to resist further encroachments on Albanian-inhabited territories. A further ten rebellions between 1879 and 1912 caused economic stagnation in the region and an exodus of around 60,000 Serbs from Kosovo over the same period. However, during the Balkan War of October-November 1912, Serbia and Montenegro occupied major portions of Kosovo - to the accompaniment of further 'Balkan atrocities'. The settlement at the end of the war allowed for an independent Albania, but Kosovo was ceded to Serbia.

In early 1915, Serbia astonished the world by driving back Austria-Hungary, which had invaded it in 1914. But by the end of the year, the Central Powers obliged Serbia's forces to retreat through Kosovo to the Adriatic coast, with huge loss of life. Nevertheless, in late 1918, Kosovo was reconquered by Serbs and Montenegrins who killed or drove out thousands of Kosovars between then and 1925. Following Austria-Hungary's demise, the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes set up a Triple Kingdom which became Yugoslavia in 1931. The new multi-ethnic state accomplished little to assimilate, reconcile or expel its Albanian-speaking minority in the interwar years. In Kosovo, Albanians continued to outnumber Serbs and Montenegrins two-to-one, despite the emigration of up to 200,000 Kosovars, and an influx of around 60,000 Serb and Montenegrin colonists.

Following the dismemberment of Yugoslavia by the Axis Powers in April 1941, most of Kosovo was incorporated into an Italian-controlled Greater Albania. There was substantial collaboration between Kosovars and the fascist states, and many thousands of Kosovo Serbs and Montenegrins were driven out or killed. Germany swiftly filled the vacuum created by Italy's capitulation to the Allies on September 8th, 1943. After Kosovo was finally 'liberated' by Yugoslav Communist 'partisans' in late 1944, many thousands of Kosovars were killed and/or dispossessed.

In July 1945, a Communist-dominated assembly obediently voted for the 'voluntary' union of Kosovo with the Republic of Serbia within a Yugoslav Federation. Yugoslavia's Albanians were treated as a 'national minority' with no right to a republic of their own. However, the new Yugoslav regime endeavoured to 'win over' the Kosovars by establishing hundreds of new Albanian schools and cultural institutions. At the same time, Albanians were subjected to extensive surveillance and harassment by the state security police, and between 1945-66 over 200,000 emigrated to Turkey. The Yugoslav Constitution of 1963 referred to Kosovo as an 'Autonomous Province', but its constitutional status was still to be determined by Serbia's parliament.

Simmering Kosovar grievances erupted in Pristina and other towns across the region on November 27th, 1968. Leaders of the unrest were imprisoned, but concessions followed. A University of Pristina teaching in Albanian as well as Serbo-Croat was inaugurated in late 1969. Most official positions were re-staffed with Kosovars. Under the Yugoslav Constitution of 1974, which radically devolved political power to Yugoslavia's constituent republics, the Socialist Autonomous Provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina became constituent components of the Federation with direct representation and voting rights on Federal institutions.

However, while Kosovo Serbs increasingly resented no longer being under Serbian jurisdiction, Kosovars felt themselves to be increasingly economically disadvantaged. As a percentage of the Yugoslav average, Kosovo's per capita Gross Social Product (GSP) fell from 43 per cent in 1953, to 32 per cent in 1971, and 27 per cent in 1988, whereas the corresponding figures for Slovenia (Yugoslavia's richest republic) rose from 175 per cent in 1953, to 187 per cent in 1971, and 203 per cent in 1988. Thus the economic disparity between the richest and the poorest areas of Yugoslavia appeared to widen from 4:1 in 1953 to 6:1 in 1971 and nearly 8:1 by 1988. But such figures were misleading. For example, in 1977, Kosovo's per capita GSP was reported to be only 30 per cent of the Yugoslav average, yet Kosovo's average per capita personal income in 1976 was 86 per cent of the Yugoslav average. Various 'social indicators' suggest that in important respects Kosovo was actually catching up with the richer republics. By 1978, electricity and running water was available to all but the remotest villages, 57 per cent of Kosovo's population was urban, average life expectancy had risen to sixty-eight years, 95 per cent of all children were receiving elementary schooling, and there was one doctor per 2,009 inhabitants (compared with one per 8,527 in 1952). Tragically, these valuable advances caused a population explosion which, together with an over-emphasis on capital-intensive industries, raised Kosovo's unemployment rate from 18.6 per cent in 1971 to 27.5 per cent in 1981 (and a horrific 57 per cent in 1989).

In March-May 1981 there were major student protests in Pristina, followed by urban riots and demands for Kosovo to be given republic status and rights of secession. At least ten people were killed, many more were injured and thousands were imprisoned and/or expelled from Kosovo's League of Communists. These events helped to set in motion a fearful Serbian backlash, especially as the Serb/Montenegrin proportion of Kosovo's population had slumped from 27.4 per cent in 1961 to 15 per cent in 1981 (it had fallen to 10 per cent by 1991).

On April 24th, 1987 the Serbian Communist leader Slobodan Milosevic visited Kosovo ostensibly to calm the Kosovo Serbs' anger against their perceived mistreatment. In the event he delivered an inflammatory speech culminating in the words: 'No one should dare to beat you!' Repeatedly broadcast on Serbian television, this speech catapulted Milosevic to the forefront of the Serbian nationalist revival. He became president of Serbia in December 1987 and helped his allies to power in Vojvodina, Montenegro and Kosovo in late 1988. In early 1989 the Serbian parliament passed constitutional amendments reasserting Serbian control over Kosovo. These were approved by Kosovo's intimidated assembly, while the province was under a 'state of emergency'. Serb celebrations of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo Plain in June 1989 fuelled the spread of Serbian nationalism.

In mid-1990, Serbs took control of Kosovo's radio and television stations and major industrial enterprises, and closed or purged the main Kosovar newspapers, theatres, libraries, museums and film units. School curricula were 'Serbianised' and Kosovar teachers were sacked. The University of Pristina was 'Serbianised' from September 1991. However, Kosovars soon organised an Albanian-language 'parallel' university and school system staffed by dismissed Kosovar teachers, as well as a 'parallel health service' run by sacked Kosovar doctors and nurses, although everything was run on a shoestring and the incidence of poverty and disease increased. Ironically, Kosovo's Serbs have also become much poorer.

After April 1990 most Kosovars embraced non-violent resistance under the leadership of the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), launched in December 1989 by Dr Ibrahim Rugova. The LDK held unofficial referenda and parallel elections to bolster its authority. However, non-violent Kosovo soon became marginalised in international negotiations on former Yugoslavia. Many Kosovars became bitterly disillusioned with Rugova's passivity after the Dayton Accords of November 1995, in which international sanctions against Serbia and Montenegro were lifted without a resolution of the Kosovo problem. On the contrary, external pressure for a solution to the Kosovo crisis was curtailed in order to secure Belgrade's support for the peace agreement in Bosnia. Only some minor sanctions were to be kept in place until such time as Serbia improved its human rights record in Kosovo.

The first significant breaches of Kosovar non-violence occurred in 1995 and 1996, and the region finally erupted into armed conflict in 1998, partly as a consequence of the spring 1997 armed uprisings in Albania. The latter put into circulation over 700,000 weapons, many of which found their way to Kosovo. This spring the self-styled Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) unleashed a major guerrilla offensive and had gained control of a third of Kosovo by July. Western governments initially appeared to warm to the KLA as a new and, for the West, costless means of increasing pressure on Milosevic to negotiate with the Kosovars. However, the scale of the KLA's advances in mid-1998, together with Russian misgivings, a semblance of Serb restraint and (above all) Western fears that too great a success for the KLA could destabilise adjacent Macedonia and hence the Balkans as a whole, persuaded NATO governments to back away from military intervention. They called only for a restoration of Kosovo's autonomy and respect for civil rights.

Yet, while Kosovo's independence or union with Albania could indeed destabilise Macedonia and the Balkans, there is no guarantee that the Serbians would lastingly respect any granting of mere autonomy and civil rights to it. Unless these conditions are buttressed by also giving the region republic status on an equal footing with Serbia and Montenegro, Serbia could simply revoke any tactical concession at some future date.

Robert Bideleux is Senior Lecturer in Politics and Director of the Centre of Russian and East European Studies at the University of Wales, Swansea. He is the co-author of A History of Eastern Europe (Routledge, 1998).



About Us | Contact Us | Advertising | Subscriptions | Newsletter | RSS Feeds | Ebooks | Podcast | Submitting an Article
Copyright 2012 History Today Ltd. All rights reserved.