With Kosovo declaring independence, the eyes of the world—especially Europe—are locked on this volatile region. To understand its future, we must delve into its past.
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For many, the name “Balkans” conjures images of war and strife, particularly along ethnic lines. The Srebrenica Massacre of 1995 is a prime example. For others, the Balkan Peninsula is the home of the once great Serbian Empire. Still for others, it is where the country Yugoslavia once existed.
The region, comprised of the easternmost of Europe’s three great southern peninsulas, is located in a unique area of the world. The term Balkan is Turkish for “mountain,” which aptly describes much of the topography.
It is, however, also somewhat vulnerably situated at the edge of a continent, and has historically been subject to the comings and goings of various empires. The Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook describes it as one of the major land routes from Western Europe to Turkey and the Near East. These factors have played a significant role in shaping the region’s well-known demographic characteristic: ethnic diversity.
On Feb. 17, 2008, Kosovo, a province in southern Serbia, declared independence, joining the other remnants of the former Yugoslavia: Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Bosnia and Montenegro. Serbia, along with Romania, Russia and Spain, maintains that Kosovo is an integral part of the country. Meanwhile, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy and France have recognized Kosovo’s independence.
The situation raises several questions. First, why is Serbia, after ultimately accepting the independence of the other provinces, adamant that Kosovo remain under its control? Second, what is the Serbian nationalism that incites trouble between ethnicities in the region and played a significant role in a close and jittery Serbian presidential election? Finally, what are the implications of the ongoing difficulties, particularly in light of the apparent “Russia vs. the West” standoff?
From the beginning of history, two Indo-European peoples dominated the Balkans: the Illyrians to the west and the Thracians to the east, of what the Encyclopaedia Britannica calls “the great historical divide defined by the Morava and Vardar river valleys.” Following the Persian Empire and Celtic invasions, the first century arrived, and the Roman Empire gained full control of the entire peninsula.
While the Romans considered the Danube River their northern border, for a time their control extended north into Dacia, what is now western Romania. However, Barbarian incursions forced their withdrawal back across the Danube in A.D. 271.
With “Christianity” becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire in A.D. 391, and the 395 split of the empire, the dividing line ran through the Balkans—one side loyal to Byzantium (Constantinople) and the other side to Rome.
Fifth-century invasions by barbarians, including the Goths and the Huns, preceded the eventual settlement of the region by a people known as the Slavs, who separated into four main groups: Slovenes, Croats, Serbs and Bulgarians.
By the 1054 split of the Catholic Church, the Balkans were divided down the middle, with the Croats and Slovenes loyal to Rome, while the Serbs, Bulgarians and Romanians joined Greece and their allegiance to Eastern Orthodoxy. The Albanians, for their part, remained relatively isolated behind their chain of mountains, and were little affected by the Christian divide.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, however, Kosovo lay at the heart of the Serbian empire under the Nemanjic dynasty. As with most empires, a powerful family ruled a region (in this case, Raška), and eventually spread as their influence and power increased, to control a greater area.
Such was the case when Stefan Nemanja, who remained a vassal of the Byzantine emperor, began to expand his domain during his reign from 1169 to 1196. Pope Honorius III granted his son, Stefan Prvovencani, the title of king in 1217, while his brother Rasko later became the first archbishop of the independent Serbian Orthodox Church. It was this alliance between church and state that provided the eventual empire with much of its strength and stability.
Several sons and grandsons of Stefan ruled and slowly expanded the kingdom. Stefan Dušan (a great-great-grandson), considered the greatest of the Nemanjic kings, reigned from 1331 to 1355, the period that Serbs consider their Golden Age. In a series of wars against the Byzantines, he gained control of all of Albania, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and drove farther south to take the Greek areas of Epirus, Aetolia and Thessaly.
Stefan Dušan was crowned emperor in 1346. During his reign, he built many Orthodox churches and monasteries throughout the kingdom. However, by 1389, after the epic Battle of Kosovo, Serbia began to fall to the powerful Turkish Ottoman Empire, which ruled the region for the next 500 years.
During that time, the religious and ethnic balance began to change in favor of Muslims and Albanians in certain areas, particularly in Kosovo. As Muslims moved in, Christian Serbs moved north- and westward out of Kosovo, with some staying and converting to Islam. In the late 1600s, many Serbians sided with Austria during a brief war in the region. The invasion was repelled, and some Serbs joined the retreating Austrian army.
Later, as the Turkish Ottoman Empire receded, another ethnic transition occurred. With the creation of more traditional European/Christian “nation-states”—almost all with a minor German prince on the throne—Muslims left in large numbers.
The Balkans were subject to the results of other empires and powers as well, such as the Russo-Turkish War (1828-29) and the Crimean War (1853-56).
Serbia, which had gained independence from the Turkish Empire early in the 19th century, regained control of Kosovo in 1912 during the Balkan Wars. By 1918, Kosovo was part of the new Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, which later became known as Yugoslavia (1929). During the 1920s and 30s, a Serbian attempt to repopulate Kosovo with Serbs was met with significant resistance from local Albanians.
During World War II, Kosovo briefly united with Albania under Italian influence. At the end of the war, however, the new communist government in Yugoslavia crushed an Albanian uprising in Kosovo. The Yugoslav government, during the 1950s and 60s, granted Kosovo the status of autonomous region, and then autonomous province, all while attempting to suppress nationalist sentiments among the region’s ethnic Albanians.
As a result of Serbian migration to Serbian cities, and a higher Albanian birthrate, the Albanian share of the population in Kosovo rose from half in 1946 to 75% in 1981, and to 80% by 1991.
Despite Kosovo containing the most fertile soils of the Balkans—supporting several types of grains, fruit trees and vegetables, and even commercial crops such as tobacco—it is Serbia’s least developed province.
Just days after Kosovo declared its independence, masked rioters stormed the United States embassy in the Serbian capital of Belgrade, setting fire to offices and throwing furniture out a window.
“Serbia, Serbia!” the crowd chanted as a protestor tore down the red, white and blue U.S. flag and briefly replaced it with a Serbian one of the same colors.
More than 150,000 protesters gathered in various parts of the city after U.S. President George W. Bush issued a congratulatory statement to Kosovo.
The pronouncement infuriated native Serbs who consider Kosovo a historic homeland and adamantly believe it should remain part of Serbia.
As more than 1,000 protesters looked on, a number of individuals in the crowd rushed the U.S. compound, attacking it with rocks and torches. In anticipation of the riots, all employees other than security personnel and several U.S. Marines had already been evacuated.
As smoke billowed out of windows, police tried to contain the crowd, but withdrew due to the vast numbers of demonstrators. They drove armored jeeps in front of the embassy, firing tear gas canisters at the masses. Later, a charred body, believed to be the remains of a protester, was discovered inside.
In addition, several protesters attempted to overtake the British and Turkish embassy buildings, but were deterred by police. Several did manage to damage the nearby Croatian embassy. In addition, small bombs were set off on United Nations and NATO property, and several shops around the area were ransacked.
Doctors in Belgrade reported treating more than 30 injured, many of which were “extremely drunk” (International Herald Tribune).
The protest was followed by a rally at the parliament building and then a march to the city’s largest Orthodox cathedral to pray for Serbians in Kosovo.
The issue of Kosovo’s independence has divided leaders across the world. While the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, France, Italy and Germany recognize the new country, Russia, Spain, China, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Serbia have refused.
Several nations fear the independence movement will spread to smaller provinces within their own countries that also aspire to statehood.
“Declaration of independence by Kosovo will bring up numerous problems in European countries in what concerns fighting with separatism, and statements made by separatist quarters in Catalonia, the Basque country and Corsica offer an ample proof of it,” said Sergei Yastrzhembsky, an aide to President Vladimir Putin (Itar-Tass).
Many officials fear the riots will spread across Serbia. It has already been reported that several hundred Serbian army reservists threw rocks and burning tires at police trying to control the area along the Serbia-Kosovo border.
Itar-Tass reported that local police tried to block protestors from entering Kosovo with steel screening.
The recent fighting has underscored centuries of hatred in the region between Serbs, Kosovars, Croatians and Albanians. Currently, two million Albanians live alongside 120,000 Serbian Muslims in Kosovo.
The energy crisis of the late 1970s brought particular tension to the Yugoslav federation. Serbian politicians began to resent the powers that Kosovo used together with other provinces, but ultimately against Serbian interests. A new politician—Slobodan Miloševic—capitalized on these sentiments and became president of the Serbian republic in 1989, thereby dominating Yugoslavia’s government.
His administration quickly stripped Kosovo of its autonomy, resulting in widespread violent protests by the Albanians. Miloševic responded by sending in the Yugoslav military, dissolving the province’s assembly and closing all schools that spoke Albanian.
From 1992 to 1995, Miloševic backed Serbian militias who were fighting to unite Bosnia and Croatia with Serbia. However, after three years of full-scale war, the military campaign was a failure. In 1995, the Croatian army swept almost the entire Serbian population out of its historic enclaves in Croatia.
By 1996, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a small ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, emerged and began to attack Serbian police in Kosovo. With a significant increase in violence the following year, the Yugoslav government responded with a major military crackdown. This increased support for the KLA among Albanians. By the summer of 1998, the situation had become a significant international concern.
After a failed ceasefire and talks in France during 1999, NATO began a massive bombing campaign of select targets in Yugoslavia. The Serbs responded with widespread ethnic cleansing against Albanian Kosovars and by June had forced hundreds of thousands of refugees into neighboring Albania, Macedonia and Montenegro.
NATO bombing continued until a peace agreement took effect that summer. It called for the withdrawal of Serb forces from Kosovo, and the installment of NATO peacekeeping troops. As Albanians returned, Serbs—sometimes facing reprisals—fled the region.
Miloševic lost the election in 2000, and the new Yugoslav government promptly arrested him, turning him over to the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia at The Hague. There he was charged with committing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
On March 11, 2006, Miloševic died of a heart attack in his prison cell.
A United Nations initiative resulted in a formal plan in 2007 that laid the groundwork for self-rule in Kosovo, but stopped short of full independence. Rapid endorsement of the plan and continued insistence by the ethnic Albanians for full independence put the region, and the world, in a difficult position.
Serbia has maintained that Kosovo is an integral part of its country. In fact, a 2006 referendum in Serbia approved a new constitution including this declaration.
At Russia’s insistence (historically an ally of Serbia), the U.S. and European Union presented a redraft of the UN resolution later in 2007, dropping the promise of independence and replacing it with a pledge to review the situation if there was no breakthrough after four months of talks between Kosovo and Serbia.
The United Nations called for a vote “sooner rather than later” by the Security Council. Russia threatened to veto (BBC).
Parliamentary elections in Kosovo in November 2007 saw the ethnic Albanian and former guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci win. Mr. Thaci said he would declare independence unilaterally in December, but this did not materialize, despite statements from the U.S. and various European nations (20 of 27 according to the Christian Science Monitor) that they would formally recognize an independent Kosovo.
The January 2008 presidential elections in Serbia pitted moderate nationalist and pro-EU Boris Tadic against hard-line nationalist and pro-Russia Tomislav Nikolic. The single major issue for Serbian voters was keeping Kosovo. In a close race that involved a second round of voting in early February, the incumbent Mr. Tadic barely won.
The EU hopes that its gravitational force, along with other “carrots,” is enough to placate and eventually pull Serbia into the European fold. It also expects continued cooperation from Belgrade (Serbia’s capital) regarding General Ratko Mladich and Radovan Karadzic, wanted by The Hague for war crimes in Bosnia.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, experts say that the Serbian psyche runs deep: East vs. West, Orthodox roots, old grudges, and undercurrents of national exceptionalism.
Despite the election outcome, the situation remains untenable. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, who “believes religiously in a special destiny for Serbia,” accused the EU of “jeopardizing the territorial integrity…of Serbia” and blocked the newly-elected President Tadic from signing an EU pre-membership agreement.
Some have referred to Mr. Kostunica as a “little Miloševic,” while others have described him as smarter than the president, and even more dangerous than the hard-line Tomislav Nikolic.
In any case, Serbian politics remain at a standstill: Mr. Kostunica will not let the government meet since Tadic ministers would approve the EU deal—and Mr. Tadic will not let parliament meet, fearing the creation of a new coalition of radicals.
In a historic session on Sunday, Feb. 17, Kosovo’s parliament unanimously endorsed a declaration of independence from Serbia. Tens of thousands of people celebrated in the streets of Pristina, Kosovo’s capital, all day. According to the BBC, when the formal announcement was made, fireworks, firecrackers and celebratory gunshots erupted in the center of the city.
“We have waited for this day for a very long time,” Mr. Thaci told parliament before reading the actual declaration, paying tribute to those who had died on the road to independence. He said, Kosovo was “proud, independent and free,” adding that the “independence of Kosovo marks the end of the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia.”
Tensions were high in northern Kosovo—particularly in Kosovska Mitrovica, where a higher number of Serbs live. A hand grenade exploded, damaging a UN vehicle.
Reaction from Serbia was swift, with Prime Minister Kostunica calling it a “false state” (BBC), and denouncing the U.S. for supporting it. In Belgrade, several hundred people, described as “gangs of youths,” threw stones at the U.S. embassy, and fought with riot police.
Russia called for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, stating the 1999 resolution allowing the UN to administer Kosovo was still in force. Seven Western states disagreed. “We regret that the Security Council cannot agree on the way forward, but this impasse has been clear for many months,” Belgium’s UN ambassador Johan Verbeke said, speaking on behalf of Belgium, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Croatia, Germany and the United States (The Financial Times).
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon resisted an appeal by Russia and Serbia to declare the move illegal.
Announcing that it was “deeply concerned,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said, “The unilateral approach by Kosovo may cause a series of consequences and lead to severe negative influences on the peace and stability of the Balkan region” (Der Spiegel).
Britain and France recognized the new state. The U.S. followed suit, along with Italy and Germany, although Der Spiegel stated that German observers and commentators were split, some suggesting that it was “a further step on a dangerous path.”
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, “A negotiated solution was not possible. That is why we cannot now escape this event.”
At least six EU member-states—Cyprus, Greece, Slovakia, Spain, Bulgaria and Romania—have not recognized the new state.
The main concern now is to avoid any major outbreaks of violence. Sixteen thousand NATO-led peacekeepers remain in Kosovo. “All parties should recognize that KFOR [Kosovo Force] will continue to fulfill its responsibility for a safe and secure environment throughout the territory of Kosovo,” NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement on Sunday.
The EU also announced that it would send some 2,000 police, justice and civil administrators to Kosovo to help build institutions there.
Along with Kosovo’s declaration of independence, it would appear that Serbia’s membership in the EU is inevitable. At the same time, Serbia continues to show a strong allegiance to its old ally, Russia. As The Economist wrote, “The best motto for Balkan politics has always been ‘expect the unexpected.’”
One might ask why EU support for Kosovo’s independence has been so strong, apparently in the face of Serbia and Russia. Is it simply in support of “democracy and freedom”? Alternatively, could it be, in its desire to gain Serbia as a member, a strategy to ensure that the Albanian-dominated (and hence Muslim-dominated) province of Kosovo remain on the outside of the EU, vis-a-vis Turkey?
Also in play are U.S.-Russian relations and Russia’s energy supply to Europe. In response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s statements that the Ukraine could be targeted with nuclear missiles, and that the world should expect a new Russian arms race with the West, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “The unhelpful and, really, I will use a different word, reprehensible rhetoric that is coming out of Moscow is unacceptable” (The Financial Times).
Ms. Rice had been asked to respond to Russian initiatives with countries such as Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Serbia and Bulgaria that seem to have strengthened Moscow’s position as a major energy supplier to the rest of Europe.
Though Kosovo has gained its independence, it will, with its Muslim majority, likely face greater obstacles in the future.