The political conflict in Kosovo is no more an expression of ancient ethnic and religious hatreds than the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Noel Malcolm traces the history of the Albanian and Serbian presence in Kosovo and makes the case for Albanian self-governmentby Noel Malcolm / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The Yugoslav crisis began in Kosovo, and it will end in Kosovo.” One can hear this saying repeated almost anywhere in the former Yugoslavia; it is one of the few things on which all parties to the conflicts of the 1990s seem to agree.
It was in Kosovo, in 1987, that a little known communist apparatchik called Slobodan Milosevic discovered what a powerful weapon Serbian nationalism could be. It was through his exploitation of the Kosovo issue that Milosevic was able to take over the party machine in Serbia, extend his power to other parts of the federal Yugoslav system and, in the process, set off a Croatian and Slovenian counter-reaction that led, by 1991, to the break-up of the Yugoslav state. And it is in Kosovo today, with its 90 per cent majority of ethnic Albanians living under the quasi-apartheid system of Serbian rule (imposed by Milosevic when he stripped the province of its autonomous status), that the greatest unresolved problem of modern Balkan politics is to be found.
No one knows how the story will end in Kosovo. Possible final destinations include autonomy, partition and independence, and the means of arriving at them range from peaceful negotiation or international imposition to civil disobedience, violent intifada and full-scale war. It is arguably the area with the worst human rights abuses in Europe, and certainly the place where, if war does break out, the killing and destruction will be more intense than anything hitherto witnessed in the region.
In the west, the popular view of the recent wars in Croatia and Bosnia was always that these were “ethnic conflicts,” created by the bubbling up of obscure but virulent ethnic hatreds among the local populations. This approach was essentially false: it ignored the primary role of politicians (above all, the Serbian nationalist-communist Milosevic) in creating conflict at the political level, and indeed it ignored the fact that the wars themselves were launched not by ordinary civilians but by armed forces directed from above. As a characterisation of the history of those regions, talk about “ancient ethnic hatreds” was in any case grossly misleading: there had never been ethnic wars in the “ancient” history of Bosnia or Croatia, and the only conflicts with a partly ethnic character were modern ones, produced under special geopolitical conditions (above all, the second world war). Some elements of prejudice, linked in some cases to religious issues and in others to memories of the second world war, did of course exist. But between low-level prejudices on the one hand and military conflict, concentration camps and mass murder on the other, there lies a very long road: it was the political leaders who propelled the people down that road, and not vice versa.
Does the same apply to the conflict between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo? At first sight, this looks much more like a genuine “ethnic” conflict. The basic division seems to be an ethnic one in the full sense: unlike the different types of Bosnian, who are all Slavs and all speak the same language, the Serbs and the Albanians are linguistically distinct. Together with the differentiation in language goes a range of other cultural differences, many of them linked to religion: the division between Serb and Albanian roughly coincides with the division between eastern Orthodox and Muslim. (The exceptions are the small minority of Catholic Albanians, and the Muslim Slavs, who more or less identify with the Bosnian Muslims.) With both language and religion setting people apart, all the conditions seem to be present for a primary conflict of peoples.
And yet, once we begin to examine both the present political situation and the nature of Kosovo’s past, the idea of ethnic or religious hatred welling up from the depths of popular psychology starts to seem less convincing. The Albanians of Kosovo today are in many ways a politically mobilised people and religion has played almost no role at all in that mobilisation. There is no Islamic political movement among the Albanians. Some tensions apparently exist (largely hidden from view) between Albanian Catholics and Albanian Muslims, yet whatever tensions there may be are not strong enough to inhibit either neighbourly good relations or political cooperation. Where religion is a factor in the present political conflict it is on the Orthodox side, which constantly employs religious rhetoric to justify the defence of “sacred” Serbian interests; but this is a classic example of religion being manipulated for ideological purposes. If we look further back into Kosovo’s past, we can find many examples of mixed religious life involving the Orthodox as well as the Catholics with the Muslims: the syncretistic practices of folk religion, for example, or the tradition of Muslim Albanian “guardians” of Orthodox religious sites. There were also, on the other hand, many cases of oppression and discrimination against both of the Christian churches by Muslim Albanian lords and their followers. Religious prejudice was part of the pattern here, but the pattern itself was largely a socio-political one, involving the exercise and abuse of local political power for the sake of financial gain.
As for the supposedly long history of ethnic conflict, this too is a claim that needs to be heavily qualified. There have been many battles and wars in Kosovo, but until the last 100 years or so none of them had the character of an “ethnic” conflict between Albanians and Serbs. Members of these two populations fought together as allies at the battle of Kosovo in 1389-indeed, they probably fought as allies on both sides, some of them under Prince Lazar and others under the Ottoman Sultan. Three hundred years later, when an Austrian army invaded Kosovo, both Serbs and Albanians rose up in sympathy to throw off Ottoman rule: modern historians have had great difficulty trying to distinguish between Serbs and Albanians when analysing the contemporary reports of these events. A later rebellion in support of another Austrian invasion in 1737 also involved a mixed Albanian-Slav group from the mountain areas of northern Albania and Montenegro: the Slav and Albanian mountain clans there had long traditions of cooperation and intermarriage and, in some cases, legends of common ancestry. And over many centuries in Kosovo the ethnic divisions between Serbs and Albanians were never clear cut. There was ethnic-linguistic assimilation in both directions; and enough of a shared way of life was established for the Serbian colonists who arrived in Kosovo in the 1920s to feel that the long-established local Serbs were almost as foreign to them as the “alien” Albanians.
None of this is meant to imply that Kosovo was always a wonderland of mutual tolerance. Conditions for much of its history were far from utopian. Considerable blame must lie with the rapacious local Albanian lords of the 18th and early 19th centuries, to whom the property of Christian peasants represented particularly easy pickings. But this sort of exploitation was not driven primarily by motives derived from religion or ethnicity. Muslim Albanian peasants also suffered grievously. What really turned the division between Orthodox Serbs and Muslim Albanians into a more general and systematic conflict was the politicisation of the issue in the 19th century, which arose during the growth and expansion of the Slav Christian states in the Balkans.
It was 19th century Serbian ideology that created a cult of the mediaeval battle of Kosovo as a nationally defining historical and spiritual event. It was the political role played by protector powers such as Russia, with their consuls in Prishtina or Mitrovica, that helped to create a new atmosphere of suspicion and hostility on the part of the local Albanians; Ottoman policy in the Crimean war, and the later transplanting of fiercely anti-Russian (and generally anti-Orthodox) Circassians into Kosovo also played an important part in souring Albanian-Serb relations. But it was only after the mass expulsion of Albanians and other Muslims from the areas conquered by Serbia and Montenegro in 1877–78 that the Albanians in Kosovo came to see Serbia-and the Serbs of Kosovo who were claimed as an “unredeemed” part of the Serbian population-as a threat to their existence. And, above all, it was the policies imposed from above by the Serbian and Montenegrin governments after their conquest of Kosovo in 1912 that created systematic hostility and hatred on a scale that the region had never seen before.
From the Albanian point of view, the experience of that imposition of Serbian-Montenegrin rule (and its reimposition as Yugoslav rule in 1918) was similar to that of many other peoples conquered and colonised by European Christian powers-the Algerians under the French or the central Asians (or Chechens) under the Russians. Many aspects of this period of Kosovo’s history match just such a “colonialist” model. There was even an explicit programme of introducing Serb “colonists” to Kosovo in the inter-war period.
From the Serbian point of view, however, what happened in 1912 was to be understood according to a different model: it was the ultimate example of a war of liberation to release a captive population (the Serbs of Kosovo) from an alien imperial power (the Turks). And of course there was a real difference between the case of Kosovo and the case of a territory such as Algeria: in the latter example, there was no continuous history of a French population in Algeria going all the way back to a mediaeval French kingdom there. The trouble with Kosovo, however, was that both of these conflicting conceptual models-the colonialist one, which made sense to the Albanians, and the liberationist one, which made sense to the Serbs-were simultaneously true. The truth as experienced by the Albanians could be described as the more important of the two truths, on the simple grounds that Albanians made up the absolute majority of the population of Kosovo at the time of its conquest. But to reduce the Serb version to a secondary status is not to deny it altogether.
At the time, the Serbian government made great efforts to bolster its case and turn it into the dominant interpretation. A memorandum sent to the great powers by Belgrade in early 1913 set out three justifications for Serbian rule in Kosovo: the “moral right of a more civilised people”; the historic right to an area which contained the patriarchate buildings of the Serbian Orthodox church and had once been part of the mediaeval Serbian empire; and a kind of ethnographic right based on the fact that at some time in the past Kosovo had had a majority Serb population-a right, according to the memorandum, unaffected by the “recent invasion” of Albanians.
Of these three lines of argument, the first was rapidly devalued by the actual behaviour of the Serbian (and, subsequently, Yugoslav) regime in Kosovo. The second was in two parts: one relating to the Serbian Orthodox church, the other more generally to the mediaeval empire. Claims are still made today that Kosovo is the “Jerusalem” of the Serbs; but this has always been something of an exaggeration. In no form of Christianity, including eastern Orthodoxy, does a “holy place” play any sort of theological role equivalent to the role of Jerusalem in Judaism. The seat of the Serbian Orthodox church was not founded in Kosovo; it merely moved there after its original foundation (in central Serbia) was burnt down. Nor does the patriarchate have any continuous history as an institution: it was recreated by the modern Yugoslav state in 1920 (having been defunct for 154 years), and since that date the Patriarch has tended to reside mainly in Belgrade. As for the Serbian empire, this was a mediaeval state which had its origins not in Kosovo but in Rascia, an area beyond Kosovo’s northwestern border, and most of the important early mediaeval Serbian monasteries and churches were built outside Kosovo itself. But in any case, the main objection here must be that it makes no sense to base claims of modern political ownership on the geography of long-gone kingdoms or empires. This objection is a simple point, but one which people in the Balkans sometimes find convenient to ignore. Edith Durham, who witnessed the effects of the Serb-Montenegrin conquest of Kosovo in 1912, later recalled a characteristic exchange: “I once pointed out to a Serb schoolmaster that we had held Calais at the same time but that did not give us the right to it. He replied: ‘Why not? You have a fleet.'”
Of the three arguments in the Serbian memorandum cited above, the third, about ethnography, is the one that has most bedevilled historical writing about Kosovo. Looking at some historical works from the region itself, you might almost think that ethnic demography was the only real subject matter of Kosovo’s history. Some modern Albanian writers argue, quite implausibly, that there was always an Albanian majority in Kosovo, even in the mediaeval Serbian kingdom; many Serbs believe, equally falsely, that there were no Albanians at all in Kosovo before the end of the 17th century. One historical-demographic myth which enjoyed great power in the late 19th century was the idea that most of the Albanians in Kosovo were “really” Slavs; while it is true that ethnic identities have always been somewhat fluid, this claim is not justified by the historical evidence. Another myth has grown up around the “great migration” of the Serbs in 1690 which, it is alleged, created a demographic vacuum, subsequently filled by a flood of alien Albanians from outside Kosovo. A closer study of the evidence suggests that although there were heavy war losses in 1690, affecting all categories of people, most aspects of the “great migration” story are fanciful. And the evidence also suggests that, while there was a flow of Albanians from northern Albania into Kosovo, a significant component of the Albanians’ demographic growth was the expansion of an indigenous Albanian population within Kosovo itself.
Serbian nationalists routinely portray the Albanians of Kosovo as “aliens.” Kosovo’s Muslim Albanian population does bear the imprint of its centuries of Ottoman acculturation. But the Ottoman heritage, including the heritage of Islam, is something that belongs to the culture of all the people of the Balkans; to reject it as “alien,” after so many centuries, is as historically absurd as it would be for Irish writers to reject the English language as alien, or South American peasants to reject Christianity.
it is not my purpose to present a case for or against any particular solution to the Kosovo crisis. Some form of self-government for the Albanians there seems, to almost all outside observers, both necessary and right; but there are different forms that might be attempted. The acceptance or rejection of possible solutions for Kosovo will involve different considerations from the ones which have applied to Bosnia. Bosnia was a historic unity, a geopolitical entity which had enjoyed an almost continuous history (as a unit within Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Yugoslav states) since the middle ages. Kosovo is not such a historic unity: there was a vilayet of Prizren from 1868 and a vilayet of Kosovo from 1877 onwards, but those vilayets had a very different shape on the map from modern Kosovo, and before that period Kosovo was divided among several Ottoman administrative units. (These facts have sometimes been misrepresented by Albanian spokesmen who have been known to claim that Kosovo “has been an autonomous entity since ancient times.”)
On the other hand, Serbia does not have a continuous history either. For several hundred years, Kosovo was not part of Serbia, because there was no Serbia to be part of: during most of the long Ottoman period, Serbia did not exist as an entity at all. Kosovo was annexed de facto by Serbia within living memory, in 1912; de jure it was not annexed by the Serbian kingdom at all. In modern historical terms, the relation between Kosovo and the rest of Serbia is less close or organic than the relation between any part of Bosnia and the rest of Bosnia. Objections on grounds of historical identity to the partitioning of Bosnia, in other words, need not entail any equivalent objections to the dividing of Kosovo from Serbia.
In terms of ethnic geography, again, the case of Bosnia is very different from that of Kosovo. The three constituent peoples of Bosnia lived mixed together, creating a jumbled ethnic-religious patchwork; in many areas there was no absolute majority group at all. The argument against any division of Bosnia was therefore both practical and moral-practical because there were no clear lines for it on the map, and moral because the only way of creating such lines was to engage in “ethnic cleansing.” Kosovo, on the other hand, offers what by any Balkan standards can be described as a compact mass of ethnically homogeneous people. Of course ethnic homogeneity in itself is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for statehood; but it has in fact been treated as at least a natural starting point for the creation of many modern states, both large and small. Those Serbian politicians who have defended the right of Bosnian or Croatian Serbs to carve out new, artificially homogenised ethnic areas for themselves are especially ill-placed to argue against the claims of the Albanians, who constitute roughly 90 per cent of Kosovo’s population.
At the legal level, too, there is no contradiction between wanting to maintain the integrity of Bosnia and doubting whether Kosovo should remain an integral part of Serbia. The most authoritative legal judgment on the break-up of Yugoslavia was the one issued by the Badinter commission (an international group of constitutional lawyers), which advised western governments in 1992. According to this commission, what happened when Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Macedonia became independent was not the secession of those territories from a continuing Yugoslav state; rather, it was the complete break-up of the old federal state into its constituent units. Each of these, therefore, now had the right to be an independent country.
Unfortunately the commission never specified what counted as a “constituent unit” of the old Yugoslavia. It is clear that the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina was such a unit (and that sub-sections of that republic were not); but in the case of Serbia and Kosovo the legal position is not clear at all. Kosovo had a dual status in the old Yugoslav constitution: it was theoretically part of Serbia, but at the same time it had its own direct representation on federal bodies and functioned, in practice, like a fully-fledged “constituent unit” of the Yugoslav federation. That is why the Kosovo Albanians now believe that they have just as much right as the other republics to independence. The international community, however, has chosen to interpret “constituent units” as referring only to the six republics of the former Yugoslavia; this is not a legal decision, merely a political one, into which the western powers slipped in 1992 because it seemed the most convenient approach to take.
The limits of that convenience have now been reached. Six years ago, it may have seemed that the Kosovo Albanians were a sleeping dog, best left to lie undisturbed. But the dog was not in fact sleeping; it was engaging in a silent protest, a Gandhiesque policy of passive resistance to Serbian rule. The patience which that policy required of the ethnic Albanians has been eroded, year by year. Since the summer of 1996 a growing number of shootings and bombings has signalled the existence of a small but active Albanian guerrilla movement; and the so-called “police operation” (involving attack helicopters and artillery) against that movement in early March 1998 has done more to energise and radicalise the Albanian population than anything the guerrillas could have done themselves.
The response of western governments, so far, has been to call upon the Albanians to negotiate for the resumption of their “autonomous” status-in other words, a return to the 1974 Yugoslav constitution. There is just one flaw in this approach, one small point which the western diplomats seem to have overlooked: the Yugoslavia of 1974 no longer exists. Full republican status is the minimum that the Kosovo Albanians would accept, even as the starting point for negotiations, and the majority of them desire complete independence. It was the Greek sage Heraclitus who remarked that you cannot step twice into the same river. The western politicians who try to ignore this advice may find, by the time they are fully immersed, that it has become a river of blood.