Beginner's guide to the Balkans

A week ago, few Americans could find Kosovo on a map. What's behind the crisis Clinton's committed to solve.


Laura Rozen
April 1, 1999 1:00AM (UTC)

SKOPJE, Macedonia -- As NATO moves into its second week of airstrikes against Serbian security forces, and the world witnesses suffering and horror in Kosovo of biblical proportions, many Americans are only just learning about the province of 2 million people, and the region it inhabits in southeastern Europe -- the Balkans.

Here's some background that puts the Kosovo conflict and Yugoslavia in historical context.

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Kosovo and the breakup of Yugoslavia

Kosovo is a province of Serbia, the larger of two republics that make up the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The smaller republic in Yugoslavia is Montenegro.

The Maryland-size province of Kosovo has 2 million people, the vast majority of them -- 1.8 million -- ethnic Albanian, and primarily Muslim. Kosovo is also home to some 200,000 Orthodox Christian Serbs, as well as some of Serbian Orthodox Christendom's finest medieval monasteries and religious artifacts. Serbs refer to Kosovo as their Jerusalem. Like Arabs and Jews in Israel, both Serbs and Albanians have roots in Kosovo going back centuries.

The ethnic Albanians speak a different language, have a different religion, culture and ethnic background than their Serb neighbors, who are ethnically Slavic.

While today Yugoslavia has only two republics, from 1945 until 1991 it was made up of six: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia, and two Serbian provinces, Kosovo in the south and Vojvodina in the north. (In Serbo-Croatian, Yugoslavia translates into Union of the Southern Slavs.)

Yugoslavia has been at the center of the two world wars in Europe this century. On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist, Gavrilo Princip, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, in what is now the independent republic of Bosnia -- to demand that Austro-Hungarians relinquish the region to Serb control. The assassination triggered World War I, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Germany and the other great powers fought to define the new power structures of Europe. Yugoslavia saw some of World War II's bloodiest and most savage fighting in all the European theater, with the Croats allied with the Nazis, Kosovo and Albania occupied by Mussolini's fascists and Serb partisans fighting with the allies against the fascists. A partisan fighter -- Josip Broz, known as Tito -- emerged as the new leader of Yugoslavia at the end of World War II.

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Yugoslavia Under Tito

From the end of World War II until 1980, Yugoslavia was ruled by Tito. Under Tito, Yugoslavia had a uniquely independent role in Cold War Europe -- it was aligned neither with the West nor with the Soviet bloc. More than other Eastern European countries, Yugoslavia was remarkably ethnically diverse -- with Catholic Croatians and Slovenes, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Macedonians, Slavic Muslim Bosnians, ethnic Albanians, Hungarians, Turks and a large minority of Roma (Gypsies). The common language for this heterogeneous population was Serbo-Croatian. Intermarriage between ethnic groups was common, particularly in Yugoslavia's bigger cities -- Belgrade, Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zagreb. Tito created this Yugoslav melting pot with strict repression of nationalist groups -- a successful strategy, but one that helped stoke the flames of nationalist resentment that would flare after his death.

In 1974, Tito rewrote Yugoslavia's constitution giving Kosovo's ethnic Albanian population increased autonomy. From the end of World War II until the late 1980s, an ethnic Albanian communist elite dominated Kosovo's public and intellectual life, with the blessings of Tito. Public life was conducted in Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish (there are 50,000 ethnic Turks in Kosovo). Kosovo's Serbs began to feel increasingly outnumbered and excluded from Kosovo society, the best jobs and other opportunities. This bred resentment among Kosovo Serbs against the Albanian elite, and their domination of the Kosovo police force and top positions elsewhere. Soon, because rural ethnic Albanians tended to have larger families than the more urban Serbs, because some Albanians fled into Kosovo from the harsh communist rule of Enver Hoxha's Albania and because Serbs began to feel their children would have more opportunities in Belgrade and other parts of Serbia, the demographics of Kosovo shifted toward the current ratio of 90 percent ethnic Albanian, 10 percent Serbian.

The death of Yugoslavia, and the rise of nationalism

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Peace in Yugoslavia came to a violent end a decade after Tito's death in 1980. The Cold War was ending, and all across Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Bloc -- countries were declaring their independence from the Soviet sphere of influence. On New Year's Day 1991, the Soviet Union itself dissolved into a dozen independent republics. Yugoslavia's unique role -- as a bridge between the East and West -- was becoming less important in this new post-Cold War world. With communism discredited, its economy in decline and with large foreign debt, Yugoslavia's new generation of politicians were groping for a new ideology to take them into the post-Cold War.

A few ambitious and ruthless politicians found it, in rampant nationalism -- a nationalism that tore at the fabric of Yugoslavia's multiethnic makeup.

One man in particular, Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian Communist Party official, adopted a virulent strain of Serbian nationalism as his ticket to political power.

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"No one will ever beat you again"

It was June 28, 1989, in Kosovo that Milosevic fully tapped into the political potential of Serbian nationalism. He was in Kosovo to give a speech commemorating the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polye -- the Field of Blackbirds. The legend goes that on June 28, 1389, the Serbs lost a heroic battle to the Ottoman Turks on the Field of Blackbirds. What followed was what Serbs consider five centuries of subjugation by the Muslim Turks. Serbs celebrate that defeat -- and their heroic but failed struggle against the Ottoman Empire -- as other nations celebrate their historic victories, their independence days. (It's an important socio-psychological trait to keep in mind, as Serbs put up an insanely bloody and doomed resistance to the superior firepower of NATO.) On that historic date (Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Ferdinand the same day in 1914), Milosevic addressed a crowd of Kosovo's embittered Serbian minority, many of them frightened of what the breakup of Yugoslavia would mean to them, living in a province with a majority Albanian population. Catching the mood of the crowd, almost like a musician or a performer, Milosevic screamed to the crowd: "No one will ever beat you again." The crowd went wild, hysterical. Police had to hold it back. There in Kosovo, Milosevic discovered that he could exploit Serbs' fear of what the breakup of Yugoslavia would mean for them into a potent -- and dangerous -- form of political power.

Milosevic revokes Kosovo's autonomy
He rose quickly to become Serbian president. In 1989, Milosevic engineered the revision of the Yugoslav constitution, revoking the autonomy Kosovo had enjoyed since 1974. Overnight, ethnic Albanians became second-class citizens in a province in which they made up a 90 percent majority. The Serbs took over all of Kosovo's state jobs: the courts, the police, the university, the schools, the businesses. In effect, the entire province was "Serbianized."

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Kosovo's Albanians protested the loss of their autonomy with a mass boycott of the Yugoslav state. The Serb authorities helped their marginalization by firing them from their jobs, kicking them out of the Kosovo university and adopting a set of laws under which ethnic Albanians became de facto outlaws for wanting to have a university education in their own language.

Exiled from state institutions, universities and jobs, the Kosovo Albanians created their own, parallel, private Albanian-language university, health care and tax systems. In 1989 they elected the Sorbonne-educated Shakespeare scholar Ibrahim Rugova to lead them in resistance to Serbian rule. Rugova's movement, the Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), advocated nonviolent resistance to their oppression.

For a decade, Kosovo Albanians peacefully protested their repression under Milosevic. While the international community praised their peaceful resistance, the fact that Kosovo was relatively quiet compared with neighboring former Yugoslav republics kept Kosovo off the international radar screen.

Yugoslavia dissolves: war in Croatia and Bosnia
In 1991, with the end of the Cold War, and nationalist tensions simmering, the Yugoslav republics of Slovenia and Croatia declared independence; they were soon followed by Bosnia and Macedonia. Both Croatia and Bosnia had large Serbian minorities. Backed by the might of the Yugoslav National Army, Milosevic led Serbia to fight for a "Greater Serbia," to include Serb-populated territory in Croatia and Bosnia. Those wars, from 1991 to 1995, killed almost 300,000 people, many of them Bosnian Muslims and Croats killed in massacres, concentration camps and by "ethnic cleansing" -- the deliberate use of terror and violence to drive ethnic populations out of territory another group wanted to keep.

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A series of horrible killings in 1995 finally triggered NATO to intervene in Bosnia with airstrikes, to try to bring the war to an end. Finally, after three years of war that killed 200,000 people and displaced almost 2 million, U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke brokered the Dayton peace accords, under which 60,000 NATO-led troops would implement a peace agreement for Bosnia, that awarded Serbs 49 percent of Bosnia, provided it stay part of a nominally multiethnic Bosnia Herzegovina.

Kosovo Albanians, who had been conducting a nonviolent campaign of resistance to Serbian oppression, watched the results of the Dayton peace accords, and saw that the use of force by Bosnian Serbs was rewarded with territory. Still, it took three years before armed opposition really took hold in Kosovo.

Peaceful resistance gives way to war
Finally, it was the outbreak of fighting in March 1998 that compelled the international community to pay attention to Kosovo. It was then, in a small village called Donji Prekaz, in the central Kosovo farming region of Drenica, that Serb forces brutally killed 53 members of the Adem Jeshari family -- men, women and children -- in their farmhouses. The Serbs suspected Jeshari of leading a group of armed rebels called the Kosovo Liberation Army.

Until the massacre in Donji Prekaz, few Kosovo Albanians even knew about the Kosovo Liberation Army. But the killings mobilized the entire population to take up arms -- or to at least support those who did -- in a new, militant phase of resistance to Serbian repression. A year of conflict has ensued and killed more than 2,500 people and displaced some 500,000 Kosovo Albanians.

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Last October, U.S. envoy Richard Holbooke negotiated a cease-fire for Kosovo. It collapsed in February. U.S. and European mediators summoned ethnic Albanian and Serbian negotiators to Rambouillet, France, that month for peace talks. Three weeks later, the ethnic Albanian delegation signed the agreement while the Serbs balked. Shortly thereafter, Milosevic moved 40,000 Yugoslav army troops and his best tanks into Kosovo and began a major offensive aimed at wiping out the KLA. NATO countries -- after months of threatening -- launched airstrikes against Serbian military targets March 24. On Monday, Serbian forces assassinated one of the ethnic Albanians who signed the Rambouillet agreement. Fehmi Agani was murdered in Pristina, after attending the funeral of a slain human rights lawyer, Bajram Kelmendi, along with four other Kosovo Albanian moderates.


Laura Rozen

Laura Rozen writes about U.S. foreign policy and the Balkans crisis for Salon News.

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