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The past and the future of Kosova

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.


Anonymous said…
Kosovo's independence is a disaster and it opens up a Pandora's Box. Why?

1) It could easily destabilise the region. Macedonia could end up facing massive tension over its Albanian-majority territories (which are, conveniently, adjacent to Kosovo and Albania). Albania itself could become destabilised if the debate becomes "Greater Albania" and interrupts its growth.

2) It is a double standard when it comes to Russia, as much as I hate to say it. What if everyone starts recognising divided minority areas? It starts with South Ossetia and Ajaria, then it goes to Northern Cyprus and Transnistria. Then what? Ida-Virumaa? Crimea?

3) You argue the lack of a legitimate historical reason, but it is majorly psychological. What if the US loses the Alamo back to Mexico -- a place that has, btw, a Mexican majority? If history meant so little, why are we fighting 90% of our wars, why did Europe fight 90% of its wars throughout history?

4) Aside from frozen eastern conflicts, what example does this set for other autonomous regions in the EU? Catalunya? Scotland? Flanders? What if this initiates the wholesale breakdown of EU states? You are the anti-independence guy for Scotland. This sets a very bad example.

5) This dooms the UN and other European organisations. If Russia does its bidding, they will never get into the UN. And with so much opposition, I doubt they will get into the OSCE, Council of Europe, nor any other official group. I hate to agree with the Russians, but it really is just changing the nameplates from "delegation" to "embassy".

6) What example are we giving Serbia when we want them in the west? We are all but telling them "we'll do whatever we want to you yet again" so they run back to their only protector, Russia. This is why we always have trouble with Armenia -- they've done the same. We'll be losing Edward Lucas's "New Cold War" at this rate.

Independence for Kosovo is a short-sighted move that is not prudent nor feasible. Let's see what happens in the next 5 years: war, economic collapse, anarchy, further territorial changes, the "EU's Vietnam", etc. What a disaster...
Edis said…
I believe that the Serbian nationalist groupuscule was 'inspired' to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 because he was grossly insulting Serbian honour: namely by inspecting Imperial Austrian troops in Bosnia on Vidovdan.
Anonymous said…
I don't think that Macedonia will be affected considering that is primarily Albaninan. Kosovo deserves its independece after all that they have been through. You minght change your opinion if you go look at some photos of the crap that those people went through. The serbians living in Kosovo is a very very small population. They may be located in the same area but they are totally different people with different cultures, language, and background. Russia can choose to be a big baby about it, but it Kosovo's independece does not really affect them. I do take this personally because I was only 9 when I witnessed my family being massacared by the Serbians, and their little ethnic cleansing.
Adrian said…
under the Turkish yolk?
Nich Starling said…
It's amazing how someone has enough time to write an essay in response to you but no time to write their name.

I tend to ignore anonymous posters and the first commenter here sounds like an official of the Serbian embassy.

Making stupid comments likening this to Scotland is daft. It is well known that if Scotland wants independence it will get it.
Anonymous said…
Cicero, a good well researched and argued position. I am in agreement, in fact if I had the time I would pen my own piece on the subject including a lack of concern over the full ramifications of other secessionist movements.

In fact my only concern with regard to your argument is that is was not discussed over a drink at the NLC.

Still, never mind, I am sure that opportunity will arise again!
Cicero said…
Thanks for comments- my spell check is not working well- neither the technology nor the brain!

Given that the leaders of Macedonia are in Tirana today and have been working a common position with Albania- including recognising the new state, I think that Macedonia does not regard the new state as worse than the previous position. Macedonia is NOT primarily Albanian- it is roughly 30% Albanian speaking, 60% Macedonian (very close to Bulgarian) speaking.

I believe that the Kosovars have the right to self determination. Other states do too, and in the case of the Scots- we choose to stay part of the UK; I do not accept a moral equivelance between Kosova and the frozen conflicts. There is a huge difference between the illegal puppet states in Transnistria and the North Caucasus and the position in Kosova.

99% of the Serbs I talk to recognise that Kosova is lost and "only the politicians even care". Serbia has bigger issues than Kosova at stake, and they know it- which is why only the US and not the EU states received the strongest diplomatic protest after they recognised. Around 100 states have already given recognition.

Yes Franz Ferdinand was assasinated on Vidovdan- also the constitution of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia was proclaimed on Vidovdan, Cominform expelled YU on Vidovdan and Montenegro joined the UN on Vidovdan- there are endless echos in history.
Anonymous said…
What's the difference between Kosovo and the frozen conflicts? How are they puppet states?
Cicero said…
The nominal independence of Abhazia and South Ossetia, Transnistria does not come from the will of their inhabitants, but from the presence of Russian troops. Without the military support of Russia, these states would not exist independently.

By contrast Kosova is supported by the overwhelming majority of the local population.
Anonymous said…
Really? You mean the Abhazians can't wait to be re-integrated into Georgia? Somehow I doubt that the miniscule Russian military presence in Abhazia and Pridnestrovie is all that's holding them back.
Cicero said…
Actually I understand that several figures in the Abhaz leadership have privately indicated that they would support the bi-state solution within Georgia, but were persuaded firmly by the Russians not to speak out. As for the Smirnov regime- what the 1400 Russian troops don't do, the far more numerous Transnistrian secret police will.
Anonymous said…
Alternate view discussed here:
Anonymous said…
Your history is a bit one-sided.

Certainly there were both Serbs and Albanians in the area in the Middle Ages, but the large number of surviving (at least until recently) mediaeval Serb monasteries (far more than in Serbia proper) suggests that the Serbian presence was susbtantial.

We also know that there was large-scale migration of Serbs out of Kosovo (e.g. under Archbishop Arsenije in 1690) into Austro-Hungarian territory (the Vojna Krajina). Even after this there were a lot of Serbs left, so it's quite plausible that Serbs were originally in the majority.
Anonymous said…
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