Issue 230 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published May 1999 Copyright Socialist Review

Stop Nato's War


Balkan flashpoints

Kosovo: a history of clashing empires

'In the modern period the Balkans became a battleground of rival imperialisms that sought to dominate the region'

The popular image of the Balkans is of a patchwork of ethnic groups who have always been at each other's throats. But there were long periods when Serbs and Albanians enjoyed comparatively good neighbourly relations. Prior to the 19th century, Serbs and Albanians had lived together in Kosovo reasonably amicably for over 1,000 years. In the modern period the Balkans became a battleground of rival imperialisms that sought to dominate the region by encouraging opposing chauvinist sentiments.

Kosovo has great symbolic significance in Serbian national mythology as it was part of Serbia's medieval kingdom and contains many important Orthodox shrines. However, it was lost to the Turkish Muslim Ottoman Empire followIng Serbia's defeat at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389 and only regained by an independent Serbia in 1912. In the 17th and early 18th centuries many Kosovan Serbs migrated north as a result of the wars between the Austrian Hapsburg Empire and the Ottomans. Before the era of modern nationalism, religion was the dividing line between Serbs and Albanians. Under the Ottomans, the majority of Albanians converted to Islam, giving them a privileged status and increased power in relation to their Christian neighbours. However, prior to the rise of 19th century nationalism, Serbs and Albanians shared many customs and traditions as well as a common history of struggle against the Ottomans.

In the course of the 19th century the three great empires of eastern, central and southern Europe, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey showed signs of increasing decay. Nationalism became the dominant ideology of the oppressed peoples they ruled. Serbian nationalism sought the removal of Ottoman power from Kosovo. In the 1870s it tried to enlist the support of Albanians against the Ottomans but this came to nothing. Indeed, Albanian Mujahidin were encouraging a policy akin to ethnic cleansing, as a result of which increasing numbers of Slavs emigrated to Serbia. For their part, Albanians migrated from an infertile northern Albania to take advantage of the fertile Kosovo.

In 1877-78 Serbia and Montenegro seized the opportunity presented by the Russo-Ottoman war to invade Kosovo, sparking the first serious conflict with Albanians. Thousands of Albanians were expelled, while as many Serbs fled from mercenaries who exacted vengeance. The harsh peace conditions imposed by Russia on the Turks were designed to limit Austro-Hungarian influence and to strengthen Russia's position in the Balkans. Serbia finally gained complete independence from the Turks. Austria's fear was that Serbia, under Russian patronage, would incorporate Bosnia-Hercegovina, thus creating a Greater Serbia. To offset this danger, in 1908 Austria annexed Bosnia and sought to set up an independent Albanian state.

The First Balkan War of 1912 was sparked off in January by an Albanian revolt, with Serbian assistance, against Ottoman rule. By September all of Kosovo and central and southern Albania were in rebel hands. But the Ottoman rulers persuaded the Albanians to abandon their uprising by promising reforms. In March 1912 Serbia, Montenegro, Bulgaria and Greece formed an alliance--the Balkan League--partly to eject the Ottomans from Europe and divide its European empire among themselves but also to keep Austria in check. But once the Albanians had inflicted defeats on the Ottoman armies, thus securing their autonomy, they became reconciled with the Turks. The Serbian army invaded Kosovo, occupying it for the first time since 1389 and many Albanians fled.

At the London Conference of 1913 the Great Powers carved up large areas of Albanian inhabited land. Though it recognised an independent Albania, it left more than half the Albanian population outside its borders. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, the former Balkan League allies turned on each other. The Second Balkan War broke out when Serbia, Greece and Bulgaria fought over Macedonia. The Balkan Wars of 1912-13 were a rehearsal for the Great War of 1914-18. In June 1914 a Bosnian Serb nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, in Sarajevo, as a result of which Austria declared war on Serbia. There was vicious fighting between Serbs and Albanians in which atrocities were committed by both sides. The Austro-Hungarian army forced the Serbs to retreat through Kosovo and Albania. Some 100,000 Serb soldiers and civilians died in the gruelling march. The Austro-Hungarian occupation authorities permitted some 300 Albanian language schools to open in an effort to weaken Serbian influence.

The peace treaties of 1919-20 set up the unified Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, thus defining it as a Slav state and neglecting the large ethnic minorities. The Kosovan Albanians launched a resistance movement against the Serbian authorities in an effort to persuade the international community to agree to Kosovo being annexed to Albania.

In the Second World War Yugoslavia was carved up between Germany's allies. The pro-German Ustashe fascist regime was installed in Croatia and in the course of the war murdered several hundred thousand Serbs. Kosovo was partitioned, between Germany, Bulgaria and Italian occupied Albania. The Italians courted the Kosovans and appeared to support their national aspirations by bringing the Albanian language into use in local administration and education for the first time. The Italians also armed the Albanians and returned land free of settlers. When the Germans took over Albania following Italy's surrender in 1943, they too won the support of many ethnic Albanians by appearing to back their struggle for Kosovan self determination and unity with Albania. Many Albanians collaborated with the Axis occupation forces, helping to subdue the largely Slav resistance. There were massacres of Slavs, though it seems that the Albanians only attacked recent settlers, not the established population who were regarded as neighbours. The few Albanians who fought with the Communist partisans did so in the belief that after the war Kosovo would be allowed to unite with Albania. But Kosovo was reintegrated into Serbia which became a republic within Tito's Yugoslav Communist federation.

Between 1961 and 1981 the Albanian population doubled while the Slav population declined from a quarter to one sixth. In 1974, in response to a growing Albanian mood of self assertiveness, Tito granted Kosovo autonomy. A powerful national movement developed. In 1987 Milosevic, then head of the Serbian Communist Party, made his notorious speech in which he fanned the flames of Serbian nationalism by promising to curb ethnic Albanian aspirations. In 1989 he revoked Kosovo's autonomy. As Tito's Yugoslavia disintegrated in 1990-92 in a welter of competing nationalisms, Milosevic tightened Serbia's stranglehold over Kosovo, once again banning the Albanian language from official use and sacking all Albanians employed in public institutions. The Albanians responded by setting up illegal parallel institutions covering all aspects of life including health and education. Tito's peace had crumbled into the bitter wars of the 1990s.
Sabby Sagall


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