The Kosovo Tangle

Serbs and Albanians Have Mutually Incompatible Claims

Gary Dempsey is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.

Bordering Albania and Macedonia, Kosovo is the southernmost province of present-day Serbia, which, together with Montenegro, makes up what remains of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Kosovo was originally populated by the Illyrians, an ancient people who inhabited the western part of the Balkans from about 2000 B.C. The earliest known Illyrian king was Hyllus, who died in 1225 B.C., and the last was Gentius, who was defeated by the Romans in 165 B.C.[1] Although it is a point of anthropological debate, many modern Albanians contend that they are the direct descendants of the ancient Illyrians and thus the original inhabitants of Kosovo.

The first Slavs appeared around Kosovo in the late fourth century A.D. as marauders who raided Roman settlements. By the end of the eighth century, the Slavs had colonized most of the area of modern Yugoslavia, including Kosovo. Serbs are not identified until the tenth-century writings of Byzantine emperor Constantine VII. There they are described as Slavs residing in the area of present-day Kosovo, Montenegro, and Bosnia, who converted to Eastern Christianity in the ninth century. In the twelfth century, Serbs successfully fought against the Byzantine Empire to establish an independent Serbian kingdom. Kosovo was crucial to that kingdom and to the Serbian Orthodox Church for the next two centuries. In fact, virtually all of the oldest monuments in Kosovo are Serbian and most names of places have a Serbian-language root. But in 1389 the Serb dynasty fell to the Ottoman Empire at the battle of Kosovo Polje. Although they fought alongside Serbs during the battle, the vast majority of ethnic Albanians in the area converted to Islam in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and participated in the Ottoman administration of Kosovo.

As the Ottoman Empire declined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Kosovo became the focus of competing Serbian and Albanian independence movements. In 1878, the League of Prizren, which sought to create an independent Albanian state, was founded in Kosovo. But when the Ottoman Empire finally buckled under the weight of the First Balkan War in 1912, Kosovo was granted to Serbia pursuant to the Conference of Ambassadors held in London. By that time, however, Serbs comprised only about 20 to 25 percent of Kosovo’s population.[2]

Kosovo After World War I

At the end of World War I, Croatia and Slovenia joined with Serbia to form the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, with Kosovo remaining a constituent part of Serbia. During the 1920s, Serbian authorities attempted to repopulate Kosovo with Serbs. By 1928, the Serb population in Kosovo was increased to about 38 percent, mainly because of state-organized immigration from inner Serbia.[3] In 1929, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes was renamed Yugoslavia.

During World War II, following Yugoslavia’s defeat by the Axis Powers in April 1941, the population trend lines in Kosovo were reversed. Fascist Italy ceded the province to neighboring Albania, which had been under Axis occupation since 1939, and Kosovo was ruled as part of Italian-occupied Albania for the remainder of the war. Between 1941 and 1945, more than 70,000 Serbs fled Kosovo while 75,000 Albanians migrated there.[4]

After World War II, Kosovo was returned to Serbia. But, wanting to forge a Balkan communist federation with Albania and Bulgaria, the new Yugoslav government under Josip Broz Tito hoped that the prospect of reacquiring Kosovo would draw Albania into the pact. Tito, therefore, wanted Kosovo to remain predominantly Albanian. On March 6, 1945, he issued a decree forbidding Serbs displaced by the war from returning to their homes in Kosovo.[5] The following year, Kosovo was made an “autonomous region” within Serbia. Tito’s plan to create a Balkan communist federation, however, collapsed in 1948 when Yugoslavia broke with the Soviet-led Cominform.

Nevertheless, the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo continued to grow and to push for greater autonomy. In 1963, Kosovo was made an “autonomous province,” and under Yugoslavia’s 1974 constitution it was granted separate federal representation and was only formally linked with Serbia. During that period of enhanced autonomy, ethnic Albanians exercised almost complete control over Kosovo’s provincial administration, but many Serbs complained of pervasive discrimination in employment and housing, and of the authorities’ unwillingness to protect them from anti-Serb violence.

Kosovo After Tito

By 1981, official census data pegged Kosovo’s ethnic Albanian population at 77.5 percent.[6] The same year, in the wake of Tito’s death, riots broke out in Kosovo as ethnic Albanians demanded full republic status within the Yugoslav federation. In the course of the violence, Serbs and Montenegrins in Kosovo were beaten, their homes and businesses burned, and their shops looted.[7] Also, a mysterious fire was set at one of Serbia’s most cherished religious shrines, the Pec Patriarchate in Kosovo, a complex of medieval churches and the historical seat of the patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church.[8] The civil unrest was eventually quashed by the communist authorities, but thousands of Serbs fled Kosovo following the violence.

Throughout the rest of the 1980s the Serbian Orthodox Church in Kosovo and Serbian civic groups documented numerous cases of harassment, intimidation, vandalism, destruction of Serbian monuments and churches, and attacks on Serbian priests, nuns, and civilians by ethnic Albanians. As historian Noel Malcolm reports,

In the mid-1980s the Serbian Academy of Sciences commissioned a survey of 500 households of Serbs who had migrated to inner Serbia from Kosovo. Many of the people interviewed thought that there was a political dimension to the deterioration of conditions for the Slavs in Kosovo. . . . When giving the reasons for their migration, 41 percent mentioned “indirect pressure” from the Albanians, and 21 percent referred to direct pressure: that last category was composed of verbal abuse (8.5 percent), material damage (7.5 percent) and personal injury (5 percent).[9]

While the number of cases of abuse against Serbs varies by source, historian Miranda Vickers has concluded that “many Serbs and Montenegrins who decided to leave Kosovo [in the 1980s] had experienced intimidation, pressure, violence, and other severe abuses of their human rights because of their ethnicity.”[10] Similarly, historian Richard West notes that while ethnic Albanians from Kosovo were “always ready to tell sympathetic journalists an account of their suffering under the Serbian regime . . . foreign observers failed to notice that, although the Serbs were supposed to be the oppressors, they themselves were departing from Kosovo, complaining about the destruction of property, the desecration of graves, and many assaults and rapes.”[11]

Enter Slobodan Milosevic

In April 1987, over 60,000 Serbs from Kosovo signed a petition calling on the government in Belgrade to stop the ethnic violence and intimidation aimed at them.[12] In an opportunistic attempt to raise his political profile, then Serbian Communist Party president Slobodan Milosevic traveled to Kosovo and played the nationalist card, proclaiming to Serbs everywhere, “No one should dare beat you again.”[13] By October 1987, federal riot police and army troops were deployed in Kosovo following demonstrations by thousands of Serbs protesting an alleged comment by a Kosovar Albanian leader that “the incidents of [ethnic] Albanians raping Serbian women could be reduced if more Serbian women worked as prostitutes.”[14] In 1989, Belgrade downgraded Kosovo’s autonomy to its pre-1974 level, and Milosevic was elected president of Serbia with 65 percent of the vote. As Aleksa Djilas later noted in Foreign Affairs, Milosevic “succeeded because he understood the power of fear and knew how to use it for his own purposes.”[15]

Following the reduction of Kosovo’s autonomy, Belgrade imposed “emergency measures” in Kosovo, summarily dismissing thousands of ethnic Albanians from state-sector jobs. No part of Kosovo’s society was left untouched. Even the provincial theater in Pristina was placed under “emergency management” and the theater manager removed by police officers and replaced by a Serb. The greatest changes, however, occurred in education. The teaching of Albanian history, literature, and language was reduced to a minimum. Also, ethnic Albanian students were forbidden from enrolling in secondary school unless they could pass Serbian literature and language examinations, which few could do.[16]

In 1991, ethnic Albanians responded to their diminished autonomy by forming a shadow government, complete with a president, a parliament, a tax system, and schools. Shadow president Ibrahim Rugova thereafter worked for Kosovo’s independence through peaceful means, but a more militant group soon emerged.

The Kosovo Liberation Army

By the mid-1990s, the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo had grown to between 85 and 90 percent, and the human rights conditions in the province continued to deteriorate.[17] As Human Rights Watch, a New York-based rights organization, reported,

Since the revocation of Kosovo’s autonomy, the human rights abuses against ethnic Albanians by the Serbian and Yugoslav governments have been constant. The names of the victims change, but the frequency and the manner of beatings, harassment, and political trials remain the same. It is a status quo of repression. . . . The brutality of the police continues against the population. Random harassment and beatings are a daily reality for ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, especially those in villages and smaller towns.[18]

In 1996, a shadowy separatist organization called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) surfaced for the first time, claiming responsibility for a series of bombings in Kosovo. By its own admission, the KLA killed more than 50 government officials and ethnic Albanian “collaborators” over the next two years. The KLA’s intention: to trigger the secession of Kosovo from the Yugoslav state. Pursuing a textbook strategy, the KLA carried out attacks on police and civilians aimed at provoking a government crackdown that would radicalize the ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo. In February 1998, the KLA intensified its attacks against Yugoslav authorities and Serb civilians. Armed KLA guerrillas attacked Serb houses in the villages of Klina, Decani, and Djakovica, and a Serb refugee camp in Babaloc. KLA guerrillas also ambushed and killed two Serb policemen patrolling on the road between Glogovac and Srbica.

A government crackdown on the KLA immediately followed, and the world soon learned that nearly 80 Kosovar Albanians, including many women and children, were killed by Serbian internal security forces in Kosovo’s central Drenica region. The Yugoslav Interior Ministry claimed that the action was directed against Adem Jashari, whose family clan allegedly constituted the core of the KLA organization. On a closely supervised trip to the village of Prekaz, foreign reporters were told that government security forces had killed Jashari and destroyed the power base of the KLA organization. “We have struck at their heart and we have dealt terrorists a lethal blow,” a police spokesman said.[19] The spokesman was wrong. Government-versus-guerrilla clashes continued in Kosovo, leaving more than 2,000 dead over the ensuing 14 months.

Tying the Balkan Knot

For Serbs, Kosovo is widely considered the cradle of their culture, history, and religion. In fact, over 75 percent of all Serbian cultural and national monuments are located in Kosovo, including the historic fourteenth-century monastery of Samodrezi, where the Serbian king blessed his army just before their defeat at the hands of the Ottoman Turks in 1389 and the famous Kosovo Polje battlefield—the Serbian equivalent of the Alamo. Accordingly, Yugoslav Army General Dusan Samardzic recently told a group of new officers,

This is a turning point for Yugoslavia, when we need to show the world our military ability and might. Kosovo’s integrity has been threatened by [ethnic] Albanian secessionists, with assistance from abroad. Our ancestry and posterity would never forgive us if we surrendered the cradle of Serb culture to someone else.[20]

On the other side of the dispute, ethnic Albanians outnumbered Serbs in Kosovo nearly 9 to 1 before NATO’s air strikes began on March 24, 1999, and representatives of the KLA have sworn that they will not stop fighting the Serbian government until they achieved the “total liberation” of the province.[21]

The conflict in Kosovo is thus not simply a matter of Kosovar Albanians suffering under a brutal and repressive regime—which they were and are—but a complex clash of mutually exclusive political claims that are aggravated by conflicting historical grievances. As former U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman correctly observes,

The competing claims of Serbs and Albanians have been hopelessly tangled in the webs of history and myth. In its essence, however, the main issue is as simple as it is intractable. The Serbian claim . . . is based primarily on the historical-cultural principle—the Jerusalem argument. The Albanian claim to independence is based largely on the demographic principle—the majority argument. Since these claims are mutually incompatible, there is little reason to believe that Kosovo will be easy to solve.[22]


  1. See John Wilkes, The Illyrians (Oxford: Blackwell, 1992).
  2. Noel Malcolm, “The Violent History of Kosovo Doesn’t Justify ‘Ethnic Cleansing,’” Washington Times, April 14, 1998, p. A16.
  3. Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History (New York: New York University Press, 1998), p. 282.
  4. Alex Dragnich and Slavko Todorovich, The Saga of Kosovo: Focus on Serbian-Albanian Relations (Boulder, Colo.: East European Monographs, 1984), p. 138; and Dusan Batakovic, The Kosovo Chronicles (Belgrade: Plato Publishers, 1992), p. 14.
  5. Branko Mikasinovich, Yugoslavia: Crisis and Disintegration (Milwaukee: Plyroma Publishing, 1994), p. 63.
  6. Miranda Vickers, Between Serb and Albanian: A History of Kosovo (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998), p. 318.
  7. Vickers, p. 197.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, p. 331.
  10. Vickers, p. 220.
  11. Richard West, Tito and the Rise and Fall of Yugoslavia (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1994), p. 223.
  12. Ibid., p. 343.
  13. Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia (London: Penguin Books, 1995), p. 37.
  14. Vickers, p. 226.
  15. Aleksa Djilas, “Profile of Slobodan Milosevic,” Foreign Affairs, Summer 1993, p. 84.
  16. Vickers, pp. 246–48.
  17. Ibid., p. 320; and International Crisis Group, Kosovo Spring: The International Crisis Group Guide to Kosovo (Brussels: International Crisis Group, 1998), pp. 13–14.
  18. International Crisis Group, p. 13.
  19. “Only One Option: A War for National Liberation, UÇK,” RFE/RL Newsline, March 9, 1998.
  20. Quoted in Vickers, p. 300.
  21. Quoted in International Crisis Group, p. 72.
  22. Warren Zimmerman, “The Demons of Kosovo,” The National Interest, Summer 1998, p 10.

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