History of Serb-Albanian relations
Under the Byzantine Empire Kosovo and parts of Albania were populated by agriculturalist Slavs in the plains and valleys while pastoralist Vlachs, Illyrians, Albanian, Dardanians and Thracians held the highlands.
There is no evidence that the ancient Illyrians were Albanians. Since the Illyrians, before they were absorbed by the Romans, did not have a written language, Venetians, Dalmatians, Croats, Montenegrins, and Albanians, all can claim ancient but unprovable Illyrian roots.
After a period within the Bulgarian Empire, and another period of Byzantine rule, in 1180 Kosovo became part of the Serb state. In 1219 the Kosovar town of Pec became the seat of the Serb Orthodox church, against which the Pope organized crusades.
The Battle of Kosovo Polje (which in Serb means Field of Blackbirds) was fought in 1389 and saw the Christian armies, led by the Serb Prince Lazar, the Bosnian King Tvrtko and their Hungarian, Bulgarian, and Albanian allies challenging the invading armies of Emir Murad and his vassals.
That battle was a draw--both Prince Lazar and Emir Murad were killed-- but in later battles the Christians were defeated and most of the Balkans were conquered. Originally, Ottoman rule was definitely more rational and tolerant than that of any contemporary European state.
Any conquered prince or village chief, if he converted to Islam, would be accepted as an equal of the Ottomans and would see his own wealth and power increase, at the expense of those who remained Christians.
Nevertheless, Christians and Jews were tolerated, although converts were favored. With time, the converts became owners of ever greater spreads of land, worked by their Christian serfs, who in Bosnia and Kosovo happened to be mostly Serbs.
Sometimes converts or immigrants are embarrassed by their origins, and to prove their dedication to their new faith or country,they are more likely to turn vicious against their infidel uncivil cousins. Often amongst the cruelest persecutors you find people whose granparents were from the persecuted group.
As the formerly Christian Albanians became the rulers of the land, it became very uncomfortable to be a Christian in Albania and in Kosovo. One half of the population of Albania escaped to Italy, while most of the other half converted. Many of the Serbs of Kosovo escaped north, in successive waves,to escape the rule of Albanian converts or the avenging Ottoman armies, which arrived after every failed Serb insurrection.
Serbs peasants were replaced by Albanians from the Kosovo highlands or from northern Albania. About the year 1800 things began to get worse still: in more tolerant days, all that Serbs had to do was to accept serfdom under an Albanian bey or pasha or under a Bosnian beg. Now a particularly demanding Albanian pasha might simply kill Serbs unwilling to convert or destroy their village.
Some Serbs who chose conversion to Islam remained crypto-Christians and for many years maintained Christian traditions within the home. Persecution of crypto-Christians was initiated, and after a few generations, through intermarriage, all converted Serbs were absorbed into the Albanian population. What often remained was awareness of blood ties and of an ancient shared history,as well as common traditions and bilingualism.
There is no record of organized violence between Serbs or Montenegrins and Albanians until 1785, when an Albanian army, under the nominal sovereignty of the Sultan in Istambul, invaded Montenegro. After 11 years of fighting the Albanians had to withdraw and Montenegroremained an autonomous principality within the Ottoman Empire.
In 1875 an agrarian insurrection against the Moslem landlord and tax collector started in Bosnia and turned into a national Serb revolution, which found support and volunteers amongst European liberals, particularly the followers of Mazzini and Garibaldi.
At the end of Tolstoy's Ana Kerenina, we see Prince Vronsky on his way to the Balkans as one such volunteer. The Bosnian Serbs proclaimed their union to Serbia,--they were the majority then in Bosnia -- but Austria had other plans for the area. In a secret agreement, concluded in Budapest, Vienna and St.
Petersburg divided the Balkans into spheres of influence. The Zar declared war against the Sultan. With the aid of forces from Bulgaria,Montenegro, and Serbia, the Ottoman armies were defeated and a peace treaty was signed, which gave parts of Kosovo to Serbia and Montenegro,while Bulgaria got Macedonia and independence.
But Berlin--and Vienna,Rome, London, and Paris-- didn't like that one bit, and told the little Slavs, "Give it back immediately!" Which they did, while Bulgaria had to accept autonomy instead of independence.
That was the Congress of Berlin, 1878, whose big winner was Austria-Hungary, which grabbed Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Sanjak. The Ottoman Empire tried reforms and gave equal rights to Serbs.
This offended the Albanians, who saw themselves taxed just like Christians, equated to the "rayah", Turkish word that means herd. That is the traditional term of reference for Christians, seen as a herd whose purpose in life is to be fleeced. Ottoman rule was now very weak and became definitely unable to protect its Serb subjects.
During the previous war the Slavic armies had terrorized the Albanians, while Albanian irregulars had terrorized the Serbs in Kosovo. Afterwards,robbery, beatings, rape, and murder of Serbs by Albanians came to be commonplace in Kosovo. Raiding Serb towns became a conventional way of making a living.
Raids were made against towns in Serbia proper as well as against Serb towns in Kosovo. In 1901 Albanian bands raided Novi Pazar and Pristina, the raids regularly turning into pogroms. In between pogroms Serbs in Kosovo had to keep a low profile. For example, it wasn't wise for Serbs to paint their houses or in some other way make them look fancier than their Albanian neighbors'.
In one Kosovo town it was customary for the town crier to end every announcement with the cry "Woe unto him who is a Chistian." Vienna's agents stirred up unrest in the expectation that chaos would enable Austria-Hungary to occupy the area as it had done in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Kosovar Albanian notables visited Belgrade as honored guests and were offered gifts and arms to encourage them to protect Kosovo Serbs. In 1903 the Macedonians rose up and the bashibazouks, mostly Albanian irregular forces, were sent to crush the uprising.
In 1908 the Young Turk government in Istambul attempted the centralization of the empire and mandated Turkish language instruction, military service, and higher taxes. Kosovo Albanians revolted and the Turkish reaction was severe. 50,000 Albanians and 100,000 Serbs fled Kosovo.
Serbia and Montenegro began to support Albanian guerrilla leaders like Isa Boletini and Idriz Seferi, who in exchange protected Kosovo's Serbs. Seferi had some of his followers shot for robbing Serbs and Boletini had Serbs amongst his most trusted men.
However,when Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro, and Serbia went to war against the Ottoman Empire, the Albanians sided with Istambul. " Better the devil you know..." Albanians thus became victims of generalized killing and pillage at the hands of the victorious Balkan armies. Serb forces reached the sea but Vienna and Rome announced that this would not be tolerated.
It was Austria' s policy that Serbia should never be allowed to have a port on the Adriatic. Italy's objective was control of both sides of the Adriatic. The Italians landed and fought off Greeks and Serbs. Austria and Italy were then allied in the Triple Alliance, whose third member was Germany. They supported a convention of feudal lords from all over Albania, which proclaimed Albania's independence in Vlora in 1912. The Treaty of London of 1913 recognized an independent Albania, but the settlement of her final borders was postponed.
Serbia lost access to the sea but kept most of Kosovo. World War I saw general mayhem between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo, the Austro-Hungarian invasion of Serbia, one year of Serb resistance, the German and Bulgarian invasion, the loss of Serbia and the epic retreat to the sea of the Serb army through Kosovo and Albania.
Serbia lost 1/2 of its men of fighting age (18-55) in battle,famine, typhus, massacre,Austrian gallows and concentration camps. A good German line of the time was "Serbien muss Sterben," meaning,"Serbia must die." The Italians occupied Albania --they had been promised half of Albania in the 1915 Treaty of London--and an Italian general proclaimed once again Albanian independence, "under the friendship and protection of Italy" in June 1917.
In 1918 the Serb army came back to Kosovo. The Italians financed Albanian guerrillas against Serbia. The Serbs reacted with massacres. Amnesty was offered in 1921, but the guerrillas surrendered in the fall only to return to the hills in spring, just as had been the practice of outlaws in the Ottoman Empire. The new ruler of Albania, who later became King Zog, decided to kill the rebel leaders and the Yugoslav amnesty of 1924 put an end to the rebellion.
King Zog followed a middle line, now leaning towards Italy, now towards Yugoslavia, but when he went as far as marrying a Hungarian countess instead of an Italian princess, Mussolini decided he had enough of King Zog, organized a Constituent Assembly of Albanian feudal and clan lords and asked them to offer the crown to the King of Italy.
Mussolini's explicit order to the new governor was that Albanian irredentist feelings towards Greece and Yugoslavia be encouraged.World War II saw Kosovo divided between Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. Italy formed Albanian units, which were used in the "pacification" of Greece.
Balli Kombetar, the National Union, which has often been said to be the nationalist resistance to the Axis, was allied to the SS Skandenbeg division, an Albanian unit with German officers, which concerned itself with the final solution of both the Jewish and the Christian problem in Albania.
In the place of killed or expelled Serbs and Jews came 70,000 settlers from Albania. The Italian army tried to protect the Serbs, but the greatest help it could really provide was transportation out of Kosovo. Balli Kombetar could be argued to be part of the Albanian resistance if by "resistance" you mean beating up or killing Italians, after Italy switched to the allied side in 1943.
Partisan units in Kosovo attracted thousands of Serbs and Montenegrins but a rather small number of Albanians. Although the defeats of the Axis showed that the end was in sight, the killings of Serbs continued, even though Albanian elders questioned the wisdom of such a policy.
I944 saw the retreat of the Germans, the Yugoslav partisans' takeover, the suicidal insurrection of Kosovo's Balli Kombetar, and the settling of accounts: during and after very heavy fighting, thousands of Albanians were killed.
The end of the war saw a new, young, strong, confident government, still animated by a spirit of idealism, certain of the coming of a bright new (red) dawn, a new society, even a new civilization. Milovan Djlas quotes Tito as saying, in 1945, " Enough of all these death sentences and all this killing!
The death sentence no longer has any effect! No one fears death any more." So they stopped most of the killing and did not expel the Albanians, as the Greek government did, without any important person in the world noticing it.
Albanian language schools were opened, and higher education was opened to Albanians. Albanian flags, however, were not permitted, and flag raising was cause for arrest. In 1969 the Albanian, Serbo-Croat, and Turkish languages achieved equal status in Kosovo, while the independent University of Pristina was established. In 1974 Kosovo became one of the eight federal units of Yugoslavia.
The national nine-member collective leadership consisted of President Tito and one member for each federal unit. This meant that as long as Tito lived --he was president for life--there would be an Albanian vice-president for a year, a Croat next year, then a Slovenian, etc. After Tito died there would be a collective presidency of eight members, one of whom was to be an Albanian.
Kosovo now had representation on the federal courts and on the constitutional court --the equivalent of the U.S. Supreme Court. It had a veto on all Serb legislation affecting it, while Serbia could not veto a law passed in Kosovo, which now had its own government, parliament, police, judiciary, and supreme court.
In the field of public service 80% of all jobs were reserved for Albanians and knowledge of Albanian became mandatory and sufficient. Albanian literature and culture flourished, but a university degree in albanology or Islamic studies did not offer opportunities as an engineering degree would. Most of Yugoslavia's development fund went to Kosovo but the high birthrate, three times the Yugoslav average, insured poverty.
As youth unemployment increased, the Albanian government of Kosovo tried solving the problem by providing opportunities and funds for higher education, in Albanian, countering a tradition of bilingualism or trilingualism--Albanian, Serb, And Turkish. That decision of the Albanian leadership was quite catastrophic, since it ghettoized Albanians. It is not easy today in Kosovo to find young Albanians who speak Serb, or any foreign language at that.
All successful, affluent minorities are bilingual. What was created was a class of dissatisfied intellectuals without prospects of translating their humanities degrees into jobs, while the development of university facilities did not keep pace with the increase in the number of students.
Students were unhappy with the food and with conditions in general at the university. The government and the university were totally in the hands of Albanians, but a culprit had to be found.
In some places you naturally blame the Jews, in some places you blame the Muslims, in Kosovo you blame the Christians. So on March 26, 1981 the first pogrom since World War II took place in Pristina. Instead of Jews, the targets were Serbs and Montenegrins, who were attacked, their homes and shops looted and set on fire.
The army intervened to quell the riots and perhaps one hundred Albanians were killed. This, however,was not a riot like the Watts, Newark, or Detroit riots of the 1960's. In Pristina policemen were killed.
Certainly it would have been wiser to use less force to end the riots, certainly there was no need for the type of repression that followed. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that the Yugoslavs had succeeded in breaking with the brutal history of massacre and revenge that had afflicted Kosovo.
The Albanians in Kosovo had obtained more rights than any minority in any contested area in the world, and had more economic, religious, political, and educational freedoms and opportunities than Albanians in Albania. But this was not sufficient to break that old custom of beating up Christians when you can get away with it.
The autonomous Albanian government allowed Albanians to get away with it. Serbs and Montenegrins found themselves to be targets of job and language discrimination. As the Albanians obtained control of the police, life became difficult for all minorities.
It starts with cursing when you meet your Serb neighbor in the street, then come threats, robbery,cutting of trees, theft and destruction of crops, killing of animals, stonings, and beatings. If that is not enough to convince Serbs to sell their house and leave, there is always the knife.
Altering the balance of power between nationalities through intimidation or terror is ethnic cleansing. In 1989, to put a stop to such ethnic cleansing Milosevic withdrew the autonomy and reincorporated Kosovo into Serbia. I would not deny that this was done undiplomatically, and that there was no real effort to give incentives to Albanian leaders willing to cooperate with Serbia.
Nevertheless, the action of Milosevic, though heavy-handed, was essentially defensive in nature. The recent armed struggle has caused the ethnic cleansing process to accelerate. Many villages have been totally cleansed of Serbs. Serbs, Montenegrins, as well as Rom or even Albanians unwilling to work with the KLA, are robbed or beaten.
Some may be beaten to death.Sometimes their tortured bodies are found, sometimes they just disappear. Human remains were found in the village of Klechka, where a limestone kiln was used as crematorium for 22 people whom the KLA did not like.
It's too bad that since the governments of NATO countries decided to take sides in this conflict, the western media have found it inappropriate to involve unpleasantries like Klecka into the general discussion of Kosovo.