The jpoc five minute guide to Kosovo
This must be one of the toughest subjects imaginable and here I am trying to explain, in five minutes, how Kosovo arrived at the brink of war in 1999. Well, here goes:
Kosovo is perhaps the most geographically isolated part of the Balkans. Set well away from the sea and liberally furnished with mountains it is one of the least hospitable parts of Europe. With the exception of a small area in the north it has few natural resources. That northern exception has some of the richest metal ore deposits in Europe.
The earliest known inhabitants of Kosovo were the Illyrians who occupied most of the South and East Balkans two thousand years ago. While little direct evidence exists, it appears that the modern Albanians are their descendants.
Rather more than one thousand years ago, assorted Slav tribes migrated south and occupied various areas of land in the Balkans. Among these peoples were the forefathers of the Serbs and they occupied an area of land around the Danube in what is largely modern Serbia.
Sometimes their territory extended south through Kosovo and into modern Macedonia. Indeed, for may years, Skopje was their capital. The lack of any real determining geographical feature meant that there were no really clear national borders in the Balkans. This fact is very important as you will see soon.
The early Serbian church had its heartland in the area to the North of Kosovo but of course, the geography of the area was pretty fluid. Originally, the Serbian church was a sort of branch of the Greek church but at a time when the Serbs were on the wrong side of a conflict with the Hungarians, they were given autonomous status by the Greeks. At this time, the Serbian people had migrated to the south and their church leaders were based inside Kosovo. Thus, at the time that the Serbs gained their first Patriarch, he was based in Kosovo.
Although the Serbian church was based there, Serbian royalty did not treat Kosovo as anything special. Important events such as coronations and weddings generally took place in centres such as Skopje.
All this time, the Albanian population was getting along with life in Kosovo too. Even at this time in their history, they made a distinction between those who live in Albania and those who lived in Kosovo and I shall refer to the latter as Kosovars.
In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the whole area was overrun by the forces of the Ottoman empire and for over half of the last millennium the Balkan area was under the influence of either the Ottoman empire or the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Kosovo itself was firmly in the Ottoman grip.
In the Balkans, the Ottoman rulers had subjects who spoke many languages and followed Islam and both Roman and Orthodox Christian faiths. The different groups were treated differently in terms of who paid what taxes and who was required to contribute soldiers to the imperial forces. This led to a certain amount of mixing of faiths and it was not unusual for a village to be officially Islamic (for tax purposes) while covertly practising Christianity or vice versa (to avoid sending their sons to fight for the empire.)
Throughout this period, Kosovo was inhabited mostly by Kosovars and Serbs but with many others including, notably, German miners who worked the ore deposits in the north of Kosovo.
Under the Ottoman rule, it appears that all of the various communities got along pretty well. Each group was allowed to set and enforce its own laws. The Empire was mainly concerned with a steady supply of tax income and fighting men and keeping the peace.
In the nineteenth century, a process began in the Balkans that was to precipitate the bloodiest period in European, or even world history. The Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires collapsed and the peoples of the Balkans began the process of forming themselves into something resembling the modern nation state.
As it seemed clear to the people of the Balkans that the two great occupying empires were in decline, there was a rush to stake out claims to nationhood. As far as Kosovo was concerned, it was mainly the Serbs who did this. The Kosovars themselves seem not to have taken much interest in these matters.
The Serb case to include Kosovo in their proposed Serbian nation was based on two claims. First that Kosovo was the very cradle of Serbian civilisation and second that the Kosovars were recent arrivals and had not lived in the area before. The first claim has as its merit the fact that the patriarch of the Serbian Church was based in Kosovo but there is little else to back up this claim. Before the Ottoman conquest, the Serb royalty was at liberty to choose where to base itself and they never made Kosovo the permanent home of the court. Also, the origins of the Serb Orthodox church were north of Kosovo and, while there are many important sites inside Kosovo, all of the oldest Monasteries and churches were outside the province. The claim that the Kosovars were newcomers to the area was quite preposterous there is ample evidence in Serb and Ottoman documents that there was a continuous Kosovar presence in the area since before the Serbs arrived in the first millennium AD.
In the last century, after each of the two world wars, the victorious parties played a happy game of redrawing assorted European borders. On both occasions, they did a bad job in the Balkans. It was just too difficult for them to do something sensible so all of the tricky bits were just rolled up into a ball, labelled Yugoslavia and left to fester. In the years after WWII, Yugoslavia was ruled by an Iron leader Marshall Tito. He held things together and for a time Kosovo was at peace. Under the Yugoslavian Federation, it was inside the Serbian Republic but Kosovo had a great deal of autonomy. Indeed, over the post war years, it gained increasing amounts of autonomy and, had Tito lived another twenty years, the structure of the Yugoslavian Federation may have been very different.
Yugoslavia was held together by two forces. The strength of Tito and the fear of the cold war between the Warsaw pact and NATO gave the Yugoslav Federation enough cohesion to avoid break-up. As the end of the twentieth century approached, those two factors disappeared and Yugoslavia exploded. In Kosovo, conflict was inevitable. Official Serb history maintained the fiction that Kosovo was rightfully for the Serb people alone and Milosevic started a programme based at eliminating Kosovars from all mainstream affairs in Kosovo. By the time that the war with NATO arrived, Kosovars had been denied access to employment, medical care and education. Much of their land had been confiscated and given to Serbian settlers displaced by the results of Milosevic's disastrous wars in Croatia and Bosnia.
If you want to know more, the most comprehensive source of information is the book "Kosovo a Short History" by Noel Malcolm. You might like to check out my review of this book.