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Kosovo Survives!

When I arrived in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in December, one of the first things I noticed was the fresh fruit—including large quantities of imported clementine oranges—on display in the windows of several grocery stores. I had just left Belgrade, where the food shops were empty or had only a few cans on the shelves, and the restaurants were deserted except for a handful of foreigners and politicians entertaining their cronies. In Pristina, the restaurants were fairly crowded with local ethnic Albanians, who make up 90 percent of the population. Because of the gas shortage Belgrade’s streets are nearly empty, except for police cars and luxury cars said to belong to gangsters with political connections who have got rich through smuggling. Traffic was light in Pristina too, but there was more of it than in Belgrade. Yet the international sanctions that President Slobodan Milosevic’s government blames for Serbia’s severe shortages also apply to Kosovo, whose autonomy was revoked by Milosevic in 1990, and which is now ruled directly, and with a heavy hand, from Belgrade.

What makes the contrast between Kosovo and Serbia so remarkable is that, at least superficially, it is a reverse of the situation that had prevailed before the breakup of Yugoslavia. According to World Bank figures for 1990—the last year for which reliable data are available—per capita income in Kosovo amounted to only $662, making it by far the poorest region in Europe, even more depressed than neighboring Albania. On the other hand, per capita income in Serbia was $2,238, three-and-a-half times as great. (In Slovenia, the wealthiest republic of Yugoslavia, per capita income was $5,918, close to ten times that in Kosovo.) It is not that Kosovo has become better off since 1990; in fact, the standard of living has declined, although apparently not as much as in Belgrade. More important, though the people suffer severe political repression because of their resistance to Serbian domination, they seem to be coping with their difficult circumstances better than most of the Serbs.

Of Kosovo’s population of about two million people, only 200,000 are Serbs. The Milosevic government wants to increase their number by resettling in Kosovo some of the half million or so Serbs who were displaced from Croatia when it declared its independence in 1991, but this effort has been largely unsuccessful. Serbia controls Kosovo, thanks to 60,000 police and soldiers, most of them, I was told, brought in for tours of duty from Serbia and Montenegro, rather than recruited from among local Serbs. But the thought of living among so many Albanians who resent being dominated by Serbia has deterred all but a few Serbs from moving there. Kosovo’s symbolic significance to Serbs is often compared to that of Jerusalem to Jews; but so far there is no sign of anything like a Zionist movement to return there.

In Rebecca West’s classic account of her travels in Yugoslavia before World War II, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Kosovo is referred to as “Old Serbia.” It was the birthplace of the medieval kingdom of Serbia and of the Serbian Orthodox Church; and the battle of Kosovo Field—literally the “Field of the Black Birds”—fought a few miles away from present-day Pristina, is the defining event in Serb history: the Serbs lost, and for the next five centuries were subjected to Ottoman rule. The most important Serbian cultural and religious shrines are also in Kosovo, including the magnificent Serbo-Byzantine church called Gracanica, which was completed in 1321. Along with some thirty other religious buildings, Gracanica recalls the golden age of Serb history, the era of the Nemanjic dynasty, which, before its defeat by the Ottomans, presided over the most powerful empire in the Balkans.

The Albanians also claim ancient ties to the territory, and some say they descend from the Illyrians who lived there in pre-Roman times. But in the version of history favored by Milosevic and his followers, the preponderance of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo today continues the ancient persecution of the Serbs by Muslims. Alex Dragnich, a Serbian-American who is a retired political science professor from Vanderbilt University, expresses a familiar Serbian view:

In World War II, as Kosovo became part of greater Albania, made possible by Fascist Italy, persecution of Serbs once more became the order of the day. At the end of the war Croat Communist dictator Tito, who in effect had promised Kosovo Albanians the right to be annexed to Albania, reneged on his promise, but made of it an autonomous province in the territorially reduced republic of Serbia.

Serbs who had fled during the war to escape Albanian and Bulgarian persecution were officially prevented from returning.

For the next several decades, the Kosovo Albanian leaders (part and parcel of the Yugoslav Communist Party), engaged in ethnic cleansing of Serbs and their institutions on a grand scale (desecration of Serbian orthodox churches and cemeteries, arson and theft of Serbian properties, rape and other physical violence), forcing thousands of Serbs to flee.1

There is much to quarrel with in this summary of recent history, starting with the relatively trivial matter of Tito’s ethnic origins. Though his father was a Croat, Tito’s mother was Slovene (those of mixed parentage are sometimes referred to as Yugoslavs), and labeling him a Croat serves to emphasize his supposed hostility toward the interests of Serbs.

Far more pernicious is Dragnich’s distorted assertion that the Kosovo Albanians engaged in “ethnic cleansing…on a grand scale against the Serbs.” It is true that during the 1980s Albanian nationalists were responsible for a number of violent assaults on Serbs, and for the destruction of some Serb property; but to label this “ethnic cleansing” is a gross exaggeration. Those words have come to stand for the forced expulsion of civilians from their homes at gunpoint and their mass internment in detention camps under unspeakable conditions. The term also recalls the rapes, the torture, the massacres, and the indiscriminate bombardment of civilian communities by Serbs, and to a lesser extent by Croats and in some cases by Muslims, in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

Unquestionably, some Serbs left Kosovo because of the Albanians’ attacks, but there is no comparison with the scale of what is happening in Bosnia. Much more important for many other Serbs was the desire to move from an extremely poor rural province to cities such as Belgrade. Recently thousands of young Albanians, in order to avoid being drafted into the Serbian Army, have left Kosovo for Western Europe, where their status is uncertain and they risk being expelled.

Dragnich’s essay also distorts the decades after World War II by treating it as a single period, during which Albanians drove Serbs out of Kosovo. In fact, for the first two decades after the war, until the downfall in 1966 of Tito’s vice-president, Alexander Rankovic, a Serb who was also head of Yugoslavia’s secret police, Albanians in Kosovo were subjected to state terror. Many were arrested and brutally treated for not accepting the authority of the Communist regime and for trying to maintain their Albanian ethnic identity. Nevertheless, they increased their proportion of the local population as more and more Serbs departed, while their own birth rate remained among the highest in Europe. After 1966, Tito’s government changed its direction and adopted a policy of proportional representation for Yugoslavs of all ethnic groups in government positions, and repression of the Albanians eased considerably. During this period, too, several amendments to the Yugoslav constitution enhanced Kosovo’s autonomy.

In 1974, Yugoslavia adopted its third postwar federal constitution and designated both Kosovo and Vojvodina, the territory bordering Hungary, as provinces with virtually the same autonomous powers as the country’s six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Unlike the republics, however, the constitution did not grant Kosovo and Vojvodina the right to secede from the Yugoslav federation, and it specified that they were still part of Serbia, thus providing Milosevic, more than a decade and a half later, with a legal justification for revoking their autonomy.

If one could pick a single date to mark the point when Yugoslavia began to fall apart, it might be June 28, 1987—St. Vitus’s Day and the 598th anniversary of Tsar Lazar’s defeat at the battle of Kosovo. Speaking to Serbs who had assembled on the Field of Blackbirds, Slobodan Milosevic denounced Albanian crimes against Serbs and declared: “Never again will anyone beat you.” The enthusiastic response to this speech encouraged Milosevic to take other opportunities to speak directly to the Serbian masses—most notably, to a crowd of about a million that gathered in Kosovo in 1989 on its 600th anniversary—and to whip up nationalist passions. In effect he tried to equate contemporary Albanians—most of them Muslims, though of distinctly secular inclinations2—with the Muslim Turks who had ruled over the Serbs for centuries. A few weeks after the open-air speech in 1987 that launched his campaign, Milosevic, riding the nationalist wave, forced Ivan Stambolic, his former mentor in the Serbian League of Communists, out of the Party leadership. This was another milestone on his way to absolute power and the establishment of Greater Serbia. His campaign won the support of many Serbs, but it also persuaded many Slovenes, Croats, Bosnians, Macedonians, and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo that their future lay in national independence.

Milosevic’s demand that Kosovo’s autonomy be revoked led to strikes and demonstrations in Kosovo, which were followed by political trials, special security measures, more riots, mass arrests, and the deaths of several dissidents. In March 1989 the Serbian government imposed martial law on Kosovo. In June 1990, Serbia’s legislature revoked Kosovo’s autonomy; and the Kosovo Assembly responded in July by declaring Kosovo an independent republic within the Yugoslav federation. In September Serbia adopted a new constitution placing all government activities in Vojvodina under the direct control of Belgrade and abolishing all the locally controlled institutions in Kosovo, including the provincial assembly, the courts, and the police. Belgrade granted itself three of the eight seats in the collective presidency which had governed Yugoslavia since the death of Tito in 1980, another act that caused the other republics in the federation to seek independence.

For Kosovo’s Albanians the dissolution of the assembly and the loss of political autonomy were by no means the most severe consequences of Milosevic’s campaign against them. By the end of 1991, virtually every Albanian doctor, teacher, university professor, judge, and court employee had either been dismissed from state employment or had resigned in sympathy with those who lost their jobs—some 73,000 persons were put out of work. In consequence, Albanian students no longer attend Pristina University; the high schools are closed; elementary school teachers are no longer paid by the state; and Albanians refuse to make use of local hospitals. Moreover, tens of thousands of Albanians have been dismissed from their posts in public and private commercial enterprises.

  1. 1

    Alex N. Dragnich, “Kosovo to see ethnic cleansing again?” Nashville Banner, March 10, 1993.

  2. 2

    While most. Balkan Christians resisted the encroachment of Islam, many Albanians were converted to the foreign faith during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their conversion to Islam is attributed to the Albanians’ relative religious indifference and their desire for the social and economic advantages which could be gained by being Moslem in the Ottoman empire. Some of these advantages were the right to bear arms, to pay lower taxes, the possibilities of upward social and economic mobility and the tolerance of certain customary practices which the Catholic church proscribed such as polygyny, the levirate, blood brotherhood and trial marriages.” From an unpublished doctoral dissertation by Janet Reineck, The Past as Refuge: Gender, Migration and Ideology Among the Kosova Albanians, University of California, Los Angeles, 1986, p. 25.

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