Kosovo is a sensitive topic, no matter who you’re talking to. It doesn’t matter whether you’re Serbian, Albanian or neither, if you’ve heard more than a passing mention of Kosovo, you probably have an opinion about it. You feel that it should clearly be part of Serbia, for obvious reasons. You feel that it should clearly be part of Albania, for obvious reasons. You feel that it should clearly be independent, for obvious reasons. You really don’t care which way it goes, you’re just tired of hearing about it, for obvious reasons. Well, I’m going to talk about it some more today, and what I have to say will likely offend all of you. It will likely offend all of you because I’m going to do my best to remain as neutral as possible when discussing the history and culture of this disputed region.
The first time I began hearing about Kosovo was in 1998. Fighting had broken out early in the year between the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) and the Yugoslav Army and police. At the time, Yugoslavia itself consisted only of Serbia (of which Kosovo was still a part) and Montenegro, the remaining republics having split off and gained independence earlier in the decade. For this reason, the news often referred only to Serbia, rather than Yugoslavia as a whole, and I will do the same here for the sake of clarity and consistency. For me, a college student at George Washington University majoring in International Affairs of Russia and Eastern Europe, with a specialization in the Balkans, it was a very interesting time. The reality of bloodshed and families (Serbian and Albanian) being torn apart was far away, and I paid attention then out of curiosity rather than out of horror. The horror was to grow, however, as the violence continued to escalate.
To my knowledge, the first Albanian person I ever met was in Eastern Market, in Washington, DC. This gentleman sat on the corner with a sign proclaiming an independent ‘Kosova’. I was unfamiliar with this name, and I asked him about it. ‘Kosova,’ he explained, ‘is the name that we ethnic Albanians use for Kosovo. You can tell if someone supports a free Kosova just by how they say the name.’ Amazing. Even the name drew a line in the sand. You could not discuss this area without showing which side you were on. In Prishtinë I asked my hosts about the difference between these two words, and they told me that it was true that Albanians refer to the place as ‘Kosova’. In reality, however, there was really nothing wrong with saying ‘Kosovo’. It did not imply an opinion one way or the other on independence. ‘Kosovo,’ they told me, ‘is the neutral term.’ I am neither Serbian nor Albanian, and although this does not mean that I don’t have an opinion, it does mean that I would rather write about this topic as neutrally as possible. For that reason I have chosen, in all of my posts about the region, to write ‘Kosovo’, rather than the more politically marked ‘Kosova’. The fact that I do refer to Kosovo as a country shows that I’m clearly not neutral on the subject of independence, however. I do believe in the right to national self-determination, and with a population of over 90% ethnic Albanian, I do not consider myself an extremist for coming down squarely on the side of Kosovan independence…but then I’m already getting ahead of myself.
Any discussion of Kosovo has to begin by looking back more than 600 years ago, and that fact alone demonstrates the importance of this area. If you can pass your feelings on for six centuries, you probably have your reasons. For Serbs, it hinges on a battle that they lost in 1389, but for the importance of this battle, we must go back even a bit further. Briefly, Kosovo as a region has been populated by Slavs and Albanians since roughly the 6th century AD. If Albanians are, as they claim, descended of the ancient Illyrians, then an argument can be made that they were there centuries earlier, but the fact remains that the whole area was under Greek and Roman occupation from the time of Alexander the Great. Migrations of Slavs during the 6th century weakened the then-Byzantine Empire’s influence in the region, and Albanians began coming from the mountains to populate Kosovo, along with Slavs from the north.
By the late 12th century, Slavs had come to dominate the region, and Kosovo was part of a Serbian kingdom. More importantly, Kosovo was the cultural and administrative center of this kingdom, and this fact would eventually give rise to the sentiment that Kosovo is the cradle of Serbian culture. At this time, Serbs and Albanians lived peacefully with one another. Both groups were Christian, and at the time there were no massive territorial disputes such as we have them today. Enter the Ottomans and the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, which the Serbs lost. With this foothold, the Ottoman Empire eventually conquered the rest of Serbia and spread further into Eastern Europe. Over the period of Ottoman rule, most Albanians and some Serbs converted to Islam, while the majority of Serbs (and other Slavs) remained Orthodox Christians. By the time the Ottomans were pushed out of Kosovo (and the rest of the area), the barrier between Serbs and Albanians was no longer merely linguistic but also religious.
There is much said about tacit conversion to Islam throughout the Balkans. Many Christians converted in name only and continued to practice their Christian traditions in secret, and this occurred in Albania and Kosovo as well. Precisely why more Albanians than Serbs converted to Islam is a more complicated question, with roots in the precise version of Christianity that Albanians practiced (a very similar conversion process took place in Bosnia). Although, like Serbs, Albanians fell under the purview of Byzantium, religiously they remained more closely tied to Rome. Whereas the Orthodox church continued to be very active in Kosovo during the Ottoman occupation, Western Christianity was cut off from Rome and was less easily fostered for the centuries during which the Ottomans controlled Southeastern Europe. For many, it simply made more sense to go through the motions of Islam, and after centuries of doing so the traditions stuck. Naturally, many likely converted out of a sincere desire to explore that faith, and I do not wish to imply that all of the current Muslims in Albania/Kosovo are simply accidental followers of Islam.
Already under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Albanians in Kosovo (who by the 17th century, due to mass migrations of Serbs further north, already made up the majority) sought greater autonomy, if not outright independence. This never happened, and shortly before World War II, in what became known as the Balkan Wars, Serbia reasserted its dominance in the region and wrested control of Kosovo from the Ottomans, as well as from the Albanians. As much as I dislike fast-forwarding over decades of modern history, this is what I will do. I will take us to 1974, when a new constitution in Yugoslavia gave Kosovo an autonomous status that made it equal with the other republics of Yugoslavia, although not a republic itself (Vojvodina, in northern Serbia, was given the same status). The breadth of this autonomy was later stripped by Serbian president Slobodan Milošević in 1989, partially in response to Albanian riots that took place throughout the 1980s. Note that I am paying lip service to these just as I did before when mentioning Serbs gaining control of Kosovo earlier in the century. This is already getting more technical than I had intended, and I do want to talk about my own experiences as well.
By 1998 the violence had gotten out of hand. On my birthday, the 24th of September, the United States gave Milošević an ultimatum: stop the violence in Kosovo or face NATO involvement. Now let’s talk about this guy. In the 1990s, Milošević was the new Hitler. He was the man you loved to hate, the face of the new evil. Now I’m no fan of Milošević, and I wouldn’t say that he got an unfair shake, but I must admit that from his perspective he was facing no-win situation. Clearly, Kosovo wanted independence, which as a Serbian nationalist he could not give. Not willing to relent, on the other hand, meant getting bombed by NATO. In the end, he did the only thing that he could do: he accused the US and its allies of siding with Albania, which we clearly had, and settled in for the attacks, which finally came on the 24th of March, 1999.
During the NATO bombing of Serbia, the Serbian army stepped up its attacks in Kosovo, desperately trying to purge the region of ethnic Albanians. Blaming the bombing for the refugee situation that quickly emerged, Milošević denied that ethnic cleansing of Kosovo was in progress, even as around one million ethnic Albanians fled the area for neighbouring Albania and Macedonia. Once they were gone, the Serbian army began burning the abandoned homes. Am I guilty of bias here? Perhaps, but this is fairly well-documented stuff. I’m not going after the Serbs, just trying to be accurate. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that many Serbs saw the KLA as a terrorist organization, and Serb residents of Kosovo faced their own reprisals at the hands of ethnic Albanians there. No one side was innocent, but ultimately people are people, and Serbs and Albanians are not to blame for the crimes committed by the few who share those ethnicities.
The road to independence was a long one, but in 2008 Kosovo finally declared it and was recognized by the United States, most of Europe, and now almost half of the member states of the United Nations. Visiting this new-born country, I was privileged to see first-hand how these people are living and how they treat outsiders who come to see things for themselves. As I have stated before, the overwhelming feeling is one of kindness, although there is certainly a degree of curiosity as well. Many asked me why I had come to Kosovo and what I had heard about it. I’m probably not the right person to ask, at least not if you want the average American’s viewpoint, since I studied the region and followed the independence movement with interest. Nevertheless, even I was able to say that people mistakenly view that part of the world with concern and keep their distance when traveling. They nodded and smiled whenever I said this and replied, ‘There is no war here! It’s just like everywhere else!’ No, it’s not like everywhere else. There are deep wounds that have been reopened too recently to have healed again, and there is lingering animosity between Serbs and Albanians, but most of all, it’s not like everywhere else because it is special. The people there could be tired and discouraged, but the ones I saw were quick to laugh and eager to help, happy to share some of their history and some of their culture with me.
That is the way I remember Kosovo now. It is the faces of the people I met that I see when I hear that name, although the tragedy is not far from my mind. It is this duality that makes Kosovo special. It is precisely the fact that things are not ‘fine’, and haven’t been for centuries, that gives this place so much flavor. And it is the fact that Kosovo is growing as a country, even if it is not yet fully recognized, that makes it so fascinating. All of this history, all of these challenges, and in the end it comes down to people pushing forward and trying to fashion a life for themselves in the place where they live. Serbs, Albanians and all of the rest who call Kosovo home are going to have to work together to solve some of the lingering problems that face them. I am not sure how much to expect from this, but I do know that something good is happening there. I only hope that it continues to grow.