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Kosovo: Historical Distortions and Current Status
By Caleb Posner | Blog
March 7, 2009
The following article was written for the Spring 2009 edition of OneWorld, a semesterly publication at Washington University dealing with issues of social justice and human rights around the globe.
On February 17, 2008, the Albanian-dominated autonomous province of Kosovo seceded from Serbia in violation of international law at the encouragement of the United States and many of its Western European allies. More than 50 nations, nearly two dozen of whom are EU members, have extended full recognition to Pristina. The bloodied and much coveted region (often called Serbia’s Jerusalem) is 88% Albanian, 7% Serbian, and 5% other (mostly Bosniaks, Turks, and Roma). Serbia, for its part, maintains that Kosovo is an integral component of its territory, in view of both history and international law. The Albanians, through a mixture of historical distortion and post-cleansing ethnic demography have suggested that Kosovo is not Serbian, and thus must be recognized as an independent nation (or, as some Albanian nationalist politicians suggest, a part of Greater Albania). Disputed legal status aside, one thing that is clear is that since NATO bombed Belgrade into submission and turned control of Kosovo over to the United Nations, what little authority Serbia had over the long autonomous province was lost. In the years since the transfer of power the status of the Serbs and other non-Albanian minorities living in Kosovo has declined dramatically, even when compared to the already abysmal treatment they were afforded under the Tito regime. Now regarded as independent by many Western nations, Pristina has a free hand to manage its own affairs, or as the case may be neglect them and thereby facilitate the further victimization of ethnic minorities. The situation is thus one which ought to be subject to far greater scrutiny by those concerned with human rights, for it could most charitably be described as tense and ideally suited for an upswing extreme violence. How is it that we have reached this point? And more importantly, how is it that justice and equality may be restored before more churches are bombed and innocent people are made victims?
The exact origins of the Serbs are subject to substantial dispute, though the earliest recognized reference to them was made by geographer Vibius Sequestrus in the 6th century CE. And in his book De Administrando Imperio, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus acknowledged the Serbs as having inhabited the Balkans (including among other areas, Raška: a part of modern day Kosovo) since the mid-seventh century CE, when Emperor Heraclius (reign: 610-640 CE) invited Serbs to settle in the area on the condition that they defend it from foreign aggressors. The only individuals recorded and recognized as having previously inhabited the region were the Illyrians, who were all but destroyed through barbarian attack, with survivors mixing indiscriminately among other ethnic groups in the region.
Some though, chiefly Albanian nationalists seeking to build a historical justification for their expansionist aims, have suggested that they are the direct descendants of the Illyrians. There is however, little support for their claim. Starting with the Croatians in the 16th century with scholars like Vinko Pribojevi?, there has been a conscious effort in the Balkans to link various ethnic groups positively with the Illyrians for political purposes. When Bogoslav Šulek definitively proved through linguistic analysis in 1844 that there was no direct link between the Illyrians and any Southern Slavic peoples, Albanian nationalists began to embrace Illyrian identity and construct highly questionable links in historical and linguistic terms to justify their claims. On its face, the Albanian claim falls flat, both because of archaeological gaps, and even more apparently through language. Of particular note is the extreme scarcity of Greek or Greek-rooted words in the Albanian language, which should have been abundant based on geography and trade had the Albanians been settled in the area constantly since the time of the Illyrians. Moreover, as Hemp pointed out, Albanian words such as Tomor (Latin Tomarus) are inconsistent with the phonological evolution of the language, suggesting that they were first modified through an intermediate language. The consequence of that would be to imply that the Albanians are not from Albania (much less Greater Albania), and do not have the historic roots many expansionists wish to present as fact.
In the early years of Serb settlement in the Balkans, their territory was, barring the occasional violent revolt, under the control of the Byzantine Empire. In 1183 however, a successful campaign by Grand Prince (of Raška) Stefan Nemanja marked the creation of a truly independent, Byzantine-free Serb state, comprised largely of territory that is presently known as Kosovo. His son continued the consolidation of territory, and by 1217 (two years before the establishment of a Serbian Orthodox Church) Pope Honorius had blessed the coronation of Stefan II (Stefan Prvoven?ani) as King of Serbia. Following the papal endorsement, kingdoms across Europe recognized independent Serbia for the first time. Serious challenge to Serbian power in Kosovo was not long off, with the Battle of Kosovo taking place on June 28, 1389. It was one of the crucial early events that would lay the framework for a dramatic ethnic and religious shift in the now disputed region
The Battle of Kosovo saw the defeat of Serb forces at the hands of an Islamic army raised by Sultan Murad I of the Ottoman Empire, who had been waging many smaller attacks against Serbian lands in the preceding years with much success. Serbian territory in Kosovo was almost wholly seized, and remaining Serbian states fell in just over a century. Less than two decades before the last Serbian outposts fell to sword of Islam, then-Christian-Albania was also annexed by the Ottoman Empire. This is of particular consequence because, starting in the 17th century, Albanians began on large scale to convert to the religion of their conquerors - an option refused by the vast majority of the Serbs. Accordingly, under the sharia legal code of the Ottoman Empire, the Albanians found themselves with a newly elevated status, for they were now part of the ummah (the Islamic community), and were no longer kuffirs (infidels) subject to dhimmi (second class, a status accorded to certain non-Islamic peoples in dar-al-Islam (nations governed by Islam)) status. Having refused conversion, the Serbs staged a war for independence at the encouragement of an alliance of Christian powers. Like previous efforts, this campaign for liberation failed. With the prospect of Ottoman reprisal against the Serbs who had chosen war over conversion, many fled West to free Christian nations. The Serbians having left en mass, the Vilayet (province) of Kosovo (which includes the portion of Macedonia dominated by Albanians and considered a part of Greater Albania) was resettled by newly Islamic Albanians, permanently altering both the ethnic composition and the prevailing religious ideology of the area.
Albanian nationalism became a major force in the late 19th century, after the Russo-Turkish War, wherein the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano granted recognition to an independent Serbia, included in which was some territory occupied by Islamic Albania. In the subsequent decades as the Ottoman Empire began to collapse,war broke out in the Balkans to redraw the map, and tension between Serbs and Albanians reached new highs, with Kosovo being the focal point. After World War I, Kosovo was recognized as part of The Kingdom of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs (aka the First Yugoslavia), at which time the once ethnically-Serb territory of Kosovo was 75% Albanian, the overwhelming majority of whom were Muslim. They sought union with the independent state of Albania, trying diplomatic and later violent means to recreate the envisioned Greater Albania. After a failed appeal to the League of Nations in 1921, the Kachak movement arose to try and remove Serbians through guerrilla warfare. Success in their efforts would be achieved however only during World War II, when Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy awarded Kosovo to their Albanian ally following the takeover of Yugoslavia.
After the Allied victory in World War II, the Second Yugoslavia was formed, of which Kosovo was a part. Specifically, it was made an autonomous province within the Serbian republic. With the 1974 constitutional reforms, Kosovo became a de facto republic under the manipulation of Tito, the purpose being to ensure a weakened Serbia, which he viewed as necessary for the preservation of the federation, and more importantly his own political power. This was welcomed by Albanians both inside and out of Kosovo, because they saw it as a step towards the rebuilding of Greater Albania. Especially thanks to Serb emigration to other parts of Yugoslavia and an Albanian baby boom, it was evident that the demographics were shifting massively to the advantage of the already dominant Albanian population. With the death of Tito presenting what many considered an opportunity to divide the Federation, violence ensued and during the 1980’s more than 20,000 Serbs were forced to flee Kosovo for fear of their lives. This particularly brutal period was characterized by figures such as Fadil Hoxha calling for the rape of Serbian women, and instances of terrorism such as the burning of the Serbian Orthodox Patriarchate in Pec, the center of the Serbian Orthodox Church. Under the rotating presidency system that included Kosovo, as well as the increasingly anti-Serbian republics of Croatia and Bosnia, the Serbian government failed to take a strong stand against these abuses, paralyzed by fear and the instability of the federation.
Slobodan Milosevic, sent to pacify the Serbs who were justifiably angry at the lack of action on the part of the Federal government to protect their life and liberty, broke with orders and actually allowed for a redress of grievances. This seemingly simple act brought about the start of a pro-Milosevic movement that eventually facilitated his rise to the forefront of Yugoslavian politics in any atypically democratic fashion. Unfortunately for him, this rise came at the very time Yugoslavia was disintegrating from a spike in ethnic nationalism and violence in the post-Tito era. During the 1990’s, the Wars of Yugoslav Secession began, wherein republics left Yugoslavia often through aggressive warfare. During this time of national disintegration, anti-Serb, anti-Jewish, and anti-Roma violence by the Albanian majority in Kosovo reached even greater heights, organized primarily through the Bin Laden associated, drug smuggling, organ trafficking terrorist organization known as the Kosovo Liberation Army. Despite labeling the KLA as a terrorist organization, the Clinton administration worked in partnership with them in 1999, when the NATO forces bombed Serbia and forced them to retreat from Kosovo, granting authority to newly established UNMIK (United Nations Mission in Kosovo) and the “freedom fighting” terrorists that had survived the war for independence.
With Serbians displaced from Kosovo in 1999, the cause for violence ought to have ended. Albanians comprised nearly 90% of Kosovo’s population and Serbs less than 10%, and ultimate authority was with an international body rather than Serbia or the Federal Yugoslav government. But the end of war brought no peace for the Serbs that remained in Kosovo who, to this day, are victims of undeserved brutality. Examples of this include the 2001 Podujevo bus bombing that killed 12 passengers headed to the graves of loved ones to pay their respects, and the 2003 gun attack in Goraždevac that killed or injured eight Serbs, all between the ages of 10 and 20. In 2004 alone, more than 200 Serbian homes and dozens of Orthodox Churchs were burned to the ground.
Today Kosovo has just three Jewish families, individuals who survived the nearly successful 1999 effort to kill or deport all Jews in the region. Needless to say, those remaining few to not enjoy much security, and make for easy targets in future violent attacks. Roma, who before KLA tyranny numbered 150,000, have shrunk to a meager 22,000. Those still living in Kosovo have virtually no freedom of movement and are under constant threat of violence. Many have taken refuge in the remaining Serb enclaves of Kosovo, and the rest have been herded into displaced persons camps similar to those seen after World War II. Meanwhile, the power vacuum that was created in Kosovo after the war has since been filled by the Wahabists who are pouring billions into the economically weak territory. Thus, even with the Al-Qaeda linked KLA ceasing to be the de facto source of Kosovor power, Islamism has a significant role in Kosovo’s affairs, and promises to increasingly radicalize this highly explosive piece of land if left untouched.
In view of the Islamist character of Kosovo, where the post-KLA political system is still dominated by the former leadership of the terrorist organization, the future of 100,000 Serbs who have opted to remain in spite of the violence against them, is exceptionally bleak. North Kosovo, where the largest number of Serbs remain, is physically connected to Serbia and thus carries on as though it were beholden to Belgrade instead of Pristina. They are considered the fortunate ones, able to find better paying jobs in the economically less volatile Serbia proper, and more importantly able to flee to safety should violence erupt yet again. More remote Serbian enclaves like Gra?anica are surrounded exclusively by Albanian communities , and are continually hemorrhaging territory to the surrounding cities that are expanding to facilitate Albanian population growth. Such Serbs are particularly vulnerable to the abuses of an Albanian government with unchecked authority, as evidenced by a February 17 report in the Irish Times of a Serb man falsely convicted and jailed for a crime so that the government could seize his land.
For the non-radical, non-Islamist Albanian the situation leaves much to be desired as well. Kosovo’s economy, when compared to Serbia’s, is downright awful. Per capita GDP is less than €1000, and unemployment exceeds 40%. Especially with UNMIK downsizing and the removal of foreign forces that spent billions annually in Kosovo, the situation promises to deteriorate even further. Education too is lacking, having post-secondary school attendance rates that are the lowest in Europe. With nearly three-quarters of the world’s nations not recognizing Kosovo, it creates problems for those interested in venturing outside the country, as their documents may be rejected. And, as the jihadist element of the population grows, the more secular Albanian Muslims may find themselves subject to the same variety of violence often witnessed in Egypt and other unstable Muslim countries, or that which they have previously inflicted on the Serbs.
There can be no doubt that the current system, wherein the legal status of Kosovo remains disputed and it attempts to operate independently sans-recognition by the great majority of nations, is unsustainable in the long term. Should this system remain the quality of life, the financial security of the state, the the prospects of long term regional peace would all approach disturbing levels. Any solution then must take into account how to improve the rights of all affected peoples, help ease the ethnic tension that so often results in war, enhance the general quality of life, and be just. Accordingly then, the only viable option is for the international community to withdraw recognition from Kosovo and reunite it with Serbia, this time removing the autonomy that was consistently expanded until the only remaining step was outright independence.
Serbia is often portrayed as equivalent to Nazi Germany in the Western media (despite the fact that they fought with the Allies, while the Albanians openly cooperated with the Axis), based on the exceptionally biased and misleading coverage in the mainstream media that accompanied the two unjustifiable and unlawful wars Clinton launched against it. However, history shows quite the opposite. Many of the alleged Serb war criminals awaiting trial in the Hague (or who died before a verdict was rendered, as was the case with Milosevic) were among the staunchest defenders of Yugoslav unity, and remained committed to the concept until it was abundantly clear that the dissolution of the federation was immanent and war was unavoidable. Indeed, reviewing the historical record, not one of the Wars of Yugoslav Secession was the product of Serbian instigation. Serbs, more than any other peoples, sought to keep the multi-ethnic dream alive. But, at the same time, they showed a great degree of moderation when left to deal with secession efforts on their own (for it must be recalled that those earliest cases were handled by the Yugoslav government, of which Serbia was a small part), as evidenced by the non-violent separation of Montenegro in 2006. Accordingly then, we can expect a Serbian government to better uphold the rights of minority populations and to apply a truly equal legal code (a concept first conceived of and implemented by Serb ruler Dušan in 1354).
Presently, the government in Serbia is left of center, and it is becoming increasingly Western in spite of the anger most Serbs feel over the loss of Kosovo. More than 60% of Serbians support joining the EU, and the government has already signed the Stabilisation and Association Agreement. It may join the EU as early as 2012. Kosovo, given its unclear status and the ability of any EU member to block ascension (including the many who don’t recognize it), would be ineligible on its own to ever join, and accordingly to enjoy the economic, educational, and travel benefits that come with membership. Even prior to EU membership, Kosovo would stand to gain dramatically, for Serbia boasts a much higher per capita GDP of nearly €8600, and is considered a much more attractive target for foreign investment. Additionally, by holding documents for a globally recognized state, the travel, commercial, and education restrictions that might otherwise apply would be waived. This is something that advantages all Kosovors, regardless of ethnicity or religion.
The transfer of authority over to Serbia would allow for the removal of the dangerous Islamist element that threatens the internal peace of Kosovo, while still allowing peaceful Muslims to practice their faith unmolested. Also, it would ensure that those remaining Orthodox Churches in Kosovo that haven’t been burned down by Albanian nationalists would be protected. By removing the pronounced religious tension and creating a better quality of life for all of those living in Kosovo, the impending threat of violence would be greatly reduced, and the prospect of war would fade. There would be genuine incentive for cooperation, ensured by the removal of the politician devices previously abused by Albanian nationalists that caused the war in the late 1990’s.
Finally, the solution I am proposing is consistent with international law in a way the present situation is not. UNSCR 1244, which authorized a UN presence in Kosovo, also re-affirmed the territorial integrity of Serbia, Kosovo included. It further stated that any future decisions regarding Serbia and Kosovo with respect to post-war land and governance would be addressed through negotiation and would rely on a UN framework. When the US pushed for Kosovo’s independence, it did not seek UN authorization because two of the Security Council permanent members (Russia and China) vowed to veto it. They reasoned that a unilateral declaration of independence would be destabilizing, and that independence could only be sanctioned if it were the product of bilateral agreement. As the existing legal framework was craftily avoided so as not to tar Kosovo with an image of illegitimacy, officially the status of Kosovo remains that it is a part of Serbia, with any details beyond that not firmly decided in the law. So, in keeping with the terms under which Serbia was forced out of Kosovo, the only just outcome is that it be recognized as a party of Serbia, which UNSCR 1244 stipulates it must be. That it should be absorbed fully rather than made autonomous is not a question covered in international law, but is one whose answer is made apparent in view of the problems that have historically arose from its autonomy.