The Idiot’s Guide to Everything: Kosovo (part one)

Posted on December 31, 2011



Covering an area of 10,908km squared and with a GDP per capita of $3,103, Kosovo was one of the smallest and poorest regions of the former Yugoslavia. It has the youngest population in Europe, with 2.4 children per woman. Since declaring independence in 2008, it has been recognised by 40% of the UN, 81% of the EU, and 86% of NATO. In total, it has been recognised by 77 countries, including such powerhouses as the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Australia and Japan. Despite this, a lot of powerhouses don’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state, such as Russia, China, Iran, India, Israel and Spain. Interestingly, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina are the only two former Yugoslav republics who have not recognised its independence. These are the two former Yugoslav republics with the largest Serb populations, and also the two former Yugoslav republic least arsed about joining the European Union.

As I’m sure you have gathered, Kosovo is essentially a tale of two peoples, the Serbs and the Albanians. Each lays claim to being there first, in an argument that sounds childish to outsiders (we’ve all laid claim to choosing what is on television by virtue of having being in front of it the longest), but is life or death for the die hard nationalists. Albanians like to claim that they are direct descendants of the Illyrians, who are the earliest known inhabitants of what is now Kosovo, and that their land was invaded by Slavs. The Slavs only get a first mention from the 520s AD onwards. On the other hand, the word Kosovo itself has Slavic roots, ‘Kos’ being the Serb word for blackbird. In fact, the Albanian name for Kosovo, ‘Kosova’, has no meaning in Albanian. Literally. It is meaningless. So surely this contradicts the Albanian claim? Yes, but Kosovo Albanians have often made attempts to rename the area Dardania, which was its name in Roman times, most recently in the 1990s under the leadership of Ibrahim Rugova. After the Great Schism of 1054, the Roman empire was divided along religious lines, and Kosovo became part of the orthodox world, and subsequently birthing the Serbian orthodox church.

By 1190, Kosovo had become the administrative and cultural centre of Medieval Serbia, led by the Nemanjic dynasty that would last for 200 years. To this day, many Serbs still refer to Kosovo as ‘old Serbia’. This came to an end in 1389, at the Battle of Kosovo Polje, otherwise known as the defining aspect of the Serb national story, and the end for the first independent Serbian state.


1389 AND ALL THAT…: Understandably, considering it was over 600 years ago, there are few reliable contemporary records of the Battle of Kosovo Polje, which translates as the Field of Blackbirds. What is known, is that it was a battle between the Ottoman forces led by Sultan Murad, and an Allied Army led by the Serbian Prince Lazar, which culminated on June 28th 1389. It is given great religious and nationalistic significance by the Serbs, and is commemorated today as St. Vitus Day. Despite being treated by Serbian national ideology as a heroic grand defeat, in purely military terms it was more of a draw. Both Sultan Murad and Prince Lazar were killed in battle, with all sorts of wild stories regarding the manner of their deaths. According to myth, Sultan Murad was killed by the Serbian hero Milos Obilic, who supposedly stabbed Murad whilst pretending to surrender. Lazar was betrayed by his right hand man, Vuk Brankovitch, and beheaded. These are two very convenient stories for the building of a national identity. The killing of Murad by Obilic, as well as future Serb resistance to Nazi Germany, provides a skeleton to the Serb claim of never bowing down to oppression. The betrayal of Prince Lazar gives weight to the Serbs feeling of never being beaten by a foreign army, of only ever being defeated from within.

In true contradictory Balkan style, the Ottoman army featured a healthy number of Serbs in their ranks, and the Allied army featured a healthy number of Albanians in theirs. After the battle, the two respective new leaders made something of a peace, and instead of immediately being swallowed up by the Ottoman Empire, Serbia was established as an inferior autonomous state within the empire. This lasted until 1459, when Serbia was finally under the full rule of the Ottomans. So whilst the great heroic defeat at the Battle of Kosovo Polje was in fact more of a draw, what it was without doubt was a comprehensive cultural defeat for the Serbs.

In terms of the military defeat of the Serb nation, many historians lay more stress on the Battle of Maritaza fifteen years earlier as opposed to 1389, with Turkish historians calling it ‘Serb Sindin’, which translates as ‘Serbian defeat’. 1389 however marked the definite cultural defeat of the Serb nation, as it spent the next five centuries under Turkish occupation. Once a culture that led Europe and the Western World during the medieval period (Did you know the Serbs were the first nation to use forks? Fact.), Serb culture was to enter a period of degradation and stagnation under the Ottomans.

The Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389 was crucial to the building of the Serb narrative, and establishing Kosovo as a central part of this. In this, the role of Serbian epic poems over the centuries cannot be underestimated. Stories of the battle and mostly Lazar himself pop up in all manner of poems and songs propelling him to mythical hero status to the Serbs, and true or not they kept the Kosovo story in the national eye throughout the years. The most famous of these is ‘The Downfall of the Serbian Empire’, in which the Ottomans are almost at Kosovo and Lazar is presented with a choice, either lose the war but win an empire in heaven, or win the war and keep their empire on earth. Lazar made his decision;


‘”King God,what shall I do, how shall I do it?

Is it the empire of heaven?

Is it the empire of the earth?

And if I shall choose the empire,

and choose the empire of the earth,

the empire of earth is brief,

heaven is everlasting”

And the emperor chose the empire of heaven

Above the empire of the earth’.


And thus the idea is born, and would be replayed numerous times over the coming centuries. Serbs would rather die honourably than live as subjects. This aspect of the Serb national identity was born and developed in Kosovo.



THE OTTOMANS AND ‘THE GREAT MIGRATION’: In 1557, the patriarchate in Pec was restored thanks to Mehmed Sokollu, who was the grand vizier to the fantastically titled Sulieman the Magnificent, meaning that the church as a spiritual guardian of the Serbian nation was reborn and rejuvenated, as Orthodox churches in Kosovo were restored. Over a hundred years later however, was the next great signpost in the history of the Serbian people and the beginning of the demographic shift in Kosovo from Serbs to Albanians.

The surging Ottoman army was finally halted at the Siege of Vienna in 1683, and the Hapsburg forces slowly began to reverse the Turkish tide. Belgrade was taken in 1688, and the Austria-Hungarian forces began to move towards Kosovo and Skopje. The change in fortunes that seemed to be taking over the area led to many Serbs and catholic Albanians being called upon to rise up and revolt against the Ottomans, which many did, expecting Hapsburg victory and the final defeat of the Ottomans. In 1690 however, the Hapsburgs were defeated in a battle at Kacanik gorge, and the Ottoman rule was restored. For the Serb people who had recently began to rise up against the Ottomans, this was very bad news.

Vengeance was swift and terrible, and the retreating Hapsburg emperor invited the Serbian patriarch, Arsenije III, to lead his people to safety. Tens of thousands of Serbs left with him to settle in parts of modern Croatia and Vojvodina, in what is known today as ‘The Great Migration’. This had an incredible effect on the demographics of Kosovo, as the migration left it severely depopulated. The Ottomans were to encourage resettlement there with Albanian Muslims, thus beginning the demographic shift in favour of the Albanians. A second migration was to take place 30 years later. However, in typical Balkan fashion, esteemed historian Noel Malcolm argues that much of the great migration story is false. Malcolm argues that Arsenije was given no such choice, and in fact he was to catch up with the hoards of Serbs voluntarily moving out of the area. Typical.

For the next few centuries, the story of Kosovo was one of revolt and war, with moments of peace here and there. The Pec patriarchate was abolished once again in 1766 and moved to Sresmki Karlovci in Vojvodina. Conversion to Islam quickly gathered speed in the 18th century, among both Albanians and Serbs, and by the end the beginning of the 19th century Islam was the dominant religion of Kosovo. The Serbo-Turkish wars of 1876-1878 also caused massive Serb dislocations, and it is thought that around 50,000 Albanians came to settle in Kosovo from Albania proper.


THE END OF THE OTTOMANS AND THE FIRST WORLD WAR: The 19th century saw a rise in ethnic nationalism throughout the region. It is another beautifully poetic Yugoslav fact that as well as the Serb national identity, the ethnic Albanian nationalist movement was also centred in Kosovo, with the formation in 1878 of the League of Prizren. Up until this point, the Albanian people were a widely spread collective of peoples in the Western Balkans, never once unified in a state or an area, without a binding religion (‘the only religion of Albanians is Albanianism’), and connected only by spoken language and cultures. Prizren had a reputation for being a particularly dangerous town to be in if you were a Christian, where Islamic zealots ran amok. The aim of the League of Prizren was to unify all of the Albanians in the Ottoman empire, and to maintain Ottoman and Islamic rule. Despite the League disbanding in 1881, the idea was born. Nationalist Albanian ideas clashed with nationalist Serbian ideas from the beginning, and the 20th century would see this discontent begin to bloom.

In a 1912 coup, the Young Turks took to control of the Ottoman Empire. Contrary to the previous regime, the Young Turks opposed any autonomy for the various nationalities in the empire, and preferred them to pledge allegiance to an idea of ‘Ottomanism’ (Nationalities being denied autonomy for the greater good? Sound familiar?). The Albanians began to rebel, and inflicted heavy defeats on the Ottoman forces in that same year, which were followed up by uprisings by a Pan-Balkan force that helped in driving the Ottomans out of the majority of their European land. After centuries of Turkish rule, Kosovo was no longer Ottoman led, and Ismail Kemal proclaimed the very first independent Albanian state on November 28th 1912. It was something of a ramshackle state however, with no clear borders, currency, industry, hospitals or schools. Kosovo was triumphantly recovered by the Serbs, in a move that Albanian nationalists saw and still see as a great injustice, however due to the chaotic nature of the Albanian state at the time, there was little choice other than to award Kosovo to Serbia. Serb and Albanian relations did not grow any smoother however, mostly because of international influence and meddling.

During the First World War of 1914-1918, Albania was thrown back into chaos, civil war and domination by foreign powers. Italy took control of the new state, and in an attempt to improve their popularity they championed the idea of a Greater Albania, which would also include Kosovo and other parts of Serbia. Kosovo was occupied by Bulgarian and Hapsburg forces until they were forced out by Serbian forces in 1918. Kosovo was then assimilated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes in 1919, which was renamed Yugoslavia in 1929 as we know.