Balkan Special Report
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Kosovo: The Jerusalem of Serbia

Marshal Tito, Yugoslavia's former president (File photo)
(Updated: July 1999)
Nestled in the mountains of southern Yugoslavia is the impoverished Kosovo province, whose historical significance lies at the heart of a conflict that has haunted the region for decades.

On the surface, the fighting is a bloody tug-of-war between ethnic Albanians and Serbians over Kosovo, a province of Serbia (Yugoslavia's dominant republic) where ethnic Albanians comprise a majority of the population. Fighting for an independent Kosovo state is the rebel group of ethnic Albanians. Fighting against the rebels are Serbian forces of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who will not cede control.

The Battle of Kosovo
But to understand the war, one must look back to the 14th century when Kosovo was the center of the Serbian empire and site of its most sacred churches and monasteries. In 1389, the Serbs lost the land to the Ottoman Turks in a decisive battle fought in Kosovo Polje, the Field of Blackbirds. The Battle of Kosovo is an event entrenched in the Serbian consciousness, uniting all Serbs who treasure Kosovo as their Jerusalem, their holy land.

Over the next 500 years, neighboring Albanians continued to leave their homeland to settle in the region. By the time the Serbs reclaimed Kosovo in the Balkans Wars of 1912 to 1913, ethnic Albanians made up a significant portion of the population. They became a majority by the 1950s as their birth rate boomed and Serbs continued to migrate north. Today, 1.8 million ethnic Albanians outnumber Serbs nine to one in Kosovo – a fact that combined with events of recent history compel ethnic Albanians to proclaim the land theirs.

Stirring Serbian Nationalism
Calls for independence increased. Responding to the growing social unrest, Yugoslavia's Communist President Marshal Tito granted Kosovo autonomy by 1974. A revised constitution granted a large degree of self-governance to the six republics forming the Yugoslavian federation – Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Slovenia – and to Vojvodina and Kosovo, the two provinces within Serbia.

Although Kosovo and Vojvodina were granted self-rule since Tito and the Communists founded the Yugoslavian federation in 1945, the constitutional revision gave ethnic Albanians in Kosovo control over local affairs and the Albanian language equal footing with Serbo-Croatian.

Tito's death in 1980 offered opportunity to Slobodan Milosevic, a rising politician who became leader of the Serbian communist party in 1986. Capitalizing on the Serbian resentment toward ethnic Albanians and Tito, Milosevic used the Kosovo issue to stir nationalism. In rallies, he exhorted Serbs to fight for the province that he declared they would win back.

When Milosevic became president in 1989, he stripped Kosovo's autonomy, and later forced Albanians from their state jobs, shut down their media and suppressed the Albanian language. Milosevic also dismantled the legislative assembly after ethnic Albanian legislators declared independence.

One Land, Two Kosovos
Amid the broader Bosnian war that engulfed the former Yugoslavian federation between 1992 and 1995, two Kosovos emerged – one in which Muslim ethnic Albanians and Orthodox Christian Serbs lived uneasily side by side. While the Serbian government is the official one, the Albanian ethnic majority operates a parallel government which stages its own elections. The government collects money to fund social services from Albanians in Kosovo, Albania and abroad. Ethnic Albanians also run their own schools and universities and get their news from Albanian-language sources; Serbians rely on Serbian TV and Belgrade newspapers.

Leading the unrecognized political entity is Ibrahim Rugova, a writer and political intellectual voted "president" during the 1992 shadow government elections. Rugova's nonviolent stance against Serbian rule fueled the formation of an armed guerrilla group who decided to take matters into their own hands.

Rise of the KLA
In 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army (established around 1991) claimed responsibility for a series of violent attacks and triggered warfare with Serbian troops that forced thousands to flee into neighboring Albania. By February 1998, a new military offensive Milosevic launched against the separatists spurred reports that police were committing atrocities such as "ethnic cleansing."

An ethnic Albanian man looks through an insignia of the Albanian flag during a protest. (Reuters)

Pressure intensified for a quick resolution to the conflict many feared would spill over Kosovo's borders. In the months following Milosevic's renewed attacks, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and Italy – the "Contact Group" responsible for negotiating peace in the Balkans – leveled sanctions against Yugoslavia. The six-nation group was formed in 1994 to help resolve the Bosnian conflict and was instrumental in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord.

The Kosovo turmoil has revealed staunch political differences among members of the international community. The United States and Western allies condemn repression against ethnic Albanians, but do not support the KLA's aspirations of autonomy; the Albanians – many of whom have taken their refugee brethren into their own homes – support a NATO attack and an autonomous Kosovo. Russia, which shares religious and cultural ties to the Serbs, opposes NATO intervention and sees the conflict as Yugoslavia's affair. Meanwhile, the West, including the Clinton administration, came under fire for inaction and failing to carry out threats of military action against Milosevic.

Attack on Serbia
After peace negotiations, sanctions, and the threat of NATO military intervention failed to halt the conflict, NATO renewed its threat of airstrikes in October after reports that the massacre of ethnic Albanian civilians was committed by Serbian troops.

On Oct. 13, Milosevic and U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke agreed to a cease-fire that required partially withdrawing government forces, and allowing 2,000 inspectors under the aegis of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to monitor the cease-fire and activities of both sides. The truce temporarily ended the eight-month offensive that killed more than 1,000 people and left over 125,000 homeless.
A family of ethnic Albanians passes a Kosovo rebel soldier as they flee their village in January. (AP)

Sporadic fighting and the Jan. 16 discovery of 45 slaughtered ethnic Albanians in the Kosovo village of Racak threatened to unravel the truce. In the face of international condemnation, Milosevic refused a request for an investigation into the killings by the U.N. war crimes tribunal. His hard-line stance against pleas to end the fighting revived the threat of NATO airstrikes. Fearing that the civil war in Kosovo could provoke a wider Balkans war that could destabilize neighboring Albania and Macedonia, which in turn may pull in Turkey and Greece, Western allies pushed Serbian officials and ethnic Albanian representatives to meet for peace talks in Rambouillet, France. Two rounds of negotiations in February ended with the ethnic Albanians signing the peace accord and Milosevic rejecting it because he opposed a provision allowing for peacekeeping troops in Yugoslavia.

As a result of Milosevic's new offensive launched in March 1999 against Kosovo Albanians, and his defiant rejection of peacekeeping troops as outlined in the peace accord, NATO approved punitive airstrikes against Yugoslavia. Faced with its gravest challenge since World War II, the Alliance mounted its first attack March 24 against a sovereign nation in its 50-year history, with the goal of preventing a wider Balkans war and ensuring a stable Europe.

NATO bombs pummeled Serbia and Kosovo for 78 days, while on the ground, Yugoslav troops began forcibly expelling ethnic Albanians from the region into neighboring countries. Approximately 860,000 fled their homeland to refugee camps in neighboring Albania and Macedonia.

Yugoslavian representatives met with NATO military commanders in Macedonia to hash out a peace plan that would halt NATO strikes and allow the safe return of the refugees. On June 9, Yugoslavia signed an agreement that allowed for the withdrawal of their forces from Kosovo and the implementation of a 50,000-member international peacekeeping force into the Serbian province. The contingent, known as KFOR, is expected to stabilize the region and make possible a massive relief effort planned by the European Union, the United States and other countries.
Aileen Yoo, Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive producer

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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