The declaration of independence that the Parliament of Kosova approved on February 16th has been greeted by the international community with a certain weary resignation. The seventh country to have been carved out of the wreckage of Yugoslavia now takes its first toddler steps in the face of a certain amount of international dismay.
We are told that Serbia has lost the core of its history- yet, how true is this?
The province is named after the word for a blackbird in Serbian- Kos- in fact it is named after one particular battlefield: Kosovo Polje-the field of the Blackbirds. The battle took place on June 28th 1389. The battle took place at a key time for South East Europe, with the Ottoman Sultan Murad seeking to surround the declining Byzantine State and advancing into Europe. The army that faced the Ottomans was led by a Serbian princling, Lazar Hrebljanovic, and the various rulers of the petty states that emerged from the Serbian Empire of Stefan Dusan who had died in 1355. The Serbian army, like that of the Ottomans was a mixture of various of the peoples of the region, including speakers of Albanian- indeed it is conjectured that perhaps a third of the Serbian army was actually Albanian. In the end the battle closed with Ottoman Sultan and Serbian Prince dead. Although recorded as an Ottoman victory, it was still only in 1459 that the last Serbian kingdom finally fell to the Turks.
Meanwhile, the Kingdom of England lost control of Calais only in 1553, yet there is no serious attempt to "reclaim" Normandy or even Anjou, where even today one can find the graves of English Kings such as Richard the Lionheart and Henry II.
So why does any of this matter?
Firstly, during their years under the Turkish yoke, the Serbs began to create a series of myths surrounding the battle, with the day of the battle itself, known in Serbian as Vidovdan, becoming a holy festival to the Orthodox church. Indeed in several uprisings at the beginning of the 19th century, the spirit of the battle was invoked. Achieving firstly autonomy with the Ottoman Empire in 1815, Serbia finally gained full independence in 1878. Yet over all this time, in as far as evidence exists, the Turkish Vilayet of Kosovo was mostly Albanian speaking. Indeed in the same year as Serbia gained international recognition, Albanians gathered in the Kosovo city of Prizren and made their own case for autonomy.
In 1912, Albania became legally independent, and a year later Serbia had consolidated its victory in the Balkan wars-and with it control over Kosovo. In other words Serbian rule over Kosovo does not go back to "time immemorial" but actually only to 1913. Even then, there was the little matter of the First World war, so effective Serbian control in the province only dates to the 1920s.
All of this helps to explain why there are so few Serbs in to nominal cradle of the country- if they were ever the majority, which is dubious, those days were long past even centuries ago. Yet Serbs have claimed the province based on the national myths and the monasteries that were built to honour those myths during Turkish rule. Thus things stood through the creation of firstly the Kingdom and then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Indeed Tito might have included all of Albania within his state, had not the split in Comintern taken place in 1948.
On Vidovdan 1986, a little known apparatchik in the Serbian League of Communists was visiting Kosovo. At the site of the battle, a nationalist Serbian demonstration took place. The Communist Police, mostly local Albanian speakers, took a dim view of this anti-Communist protest. Yet the Apparatchik from Belgrade took the side of the demonstrators. This fatal decision to ride the Serbian nationalist tiger ultimately led to the destruction of the very idea of Yugoslavia- the apparatchik was, of course Slobodan Milosevic.
In the end Milosevic, created by Kosovo as a political force, was destroyed by it too. His decision to inflict the violence on Kosovo that he had already unleashed on Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and drive all the nearly 2 million Albanians out of the province was a catastrophy. The attempt at ethnic cleansing came on top of prolonged oppression of the Albanians, and in the end the international community resisted and ended Serbian rule.
The fact is that by attempting to destroy Kosovo, Milosevic forfited Serbia's legitimacy- perhaps always a little tenuous- as the ruler of the province. In the end it has become totally unrealistic to expect the people of Kosova to accept any kind of rule from Belgrade.
The myths of Serbian history may be strong, but the realty of brutality and oppression is stronger.
The new Republic of Kosova has made solemn declarations of protection to all citizens, irrespective of language, religion and culture. The international community must hold the newly independent government in Prishtina to its solemn promises. The governments in Prishtina and Tirana reject the idea of greater Albania- they argue that what is needed is a European solution to South East Europe, where borders become much less powerful. If Serbia is ready to engage with the new state, then there is much to gain.
Serbia will gain nothing by truculence and resentment - but positive engagement with the new state will finally end the cycle of myth and sacrifice that has characterised the history of the country since 1815.
In that spirit, I welcome the creation of this new European state. Europe has little to fear and much to hope for in a democratic, tolerant and open Republic of Kosova. We should insist that they keep the promises that they have made to their minorities, especially to the Serbian minority, but we should also give the new state our blessing and our recognition.