Kosova, the Quiet Siege
In the late 1980s this struggle reached a climax as Slobodan Milosevic, now President of Yugoslavia, played the Kosova card in his rise to power in Serbia. He turned the eyes of the Serbs to the south, to their medieval heartland, and fueled the fires of nationalism with a call for a return to Serbian hegemony over Kosova. His ideological campaign climaxed in March of 1989 when a new constitution was adopted in Kosova, ending fifteen years of nominal autonomy within the Republic of Serbia. The move ushered in a period of political upheaval, civil rights abuses and ethnic violence in the province. Since then Kosova has been seething with silent rage. The Serb minority controls the lives of the Albanian majority through courts, police, and intimidation. They are pursuing what they see as their manifest destiny: control over what they consider Serbid's rightful territory. Refusing to abide by Serbian rule, but reluctant to ignite a suicidal war, Albanians have constructed a "parallel" society. They lay in wait, introxicated by the hope of independence which laces every thought. Each side has contrived a reality to accommodate their collective passion; both realities resemble dreams.
The Ethnographic Setting
The struggle between Serbs and Albanians is over a fertile, mineral-rich, diamond-shaped area of land smaller than the state of Nevada. Bordered in the north and east by the Republic of Serbia, in the west by Albania and in the south by the Republic of Macedonia, the province is chiseled with dramatic alpine ranges and deep gorges which circumscribe its agricultural heartland.
Of a total population of six million Albanians on the planet, one-half live in the country of Albania, one-third in Kosova, and the remainder in Macedonia, Montenegro and in the Diaspora. Albanians make up over 90% of Kosova's population, with a smaller number of Serbs, Montenegrins, ethnic Moslems, Turks and Roma. According to the official 1981 census, Albanians represented 77.4% of the population, a four-fold increase since the end of World War II. The steady exodus of Serbs and Montenegrins which began in 1966 and accelerated in the 1980s due to economic and political pressures resulted in the dramatic weakening of the Slavic presence in Kosova. A high birth rate among Albanians has also accelerated their demographic dominance. Albanians have the highest birth and infant mortality rates in Europe and are the youngest ethnic group: the average age of Albanians is twenty-four. The average annual population growth rate is 2.02%, which means a doubling of the population-every thirty years. The average Albanian house-hold size is 6.5 members (compared to 3 members in Vojvodina [northern Serbia]).
Albanian is an Indo European language that is said to be the sole surviving relic of ancient Illyrian. It is not part of any other family of languages in the Indo-European tree, but is replete with borrowings from Latin and Turkish. There are two major Albanian dialect groups: Gheg, spoken in northern Albania, Kosova, Montenegro and western Macedonia; and Tosk, spoken in southern Albania, southern Macedonia and northwestern Greece.
The majority of Albanians in Kosova are Sunni Moslem, with a smaller number of Shi'ite sects and Catholics. Unlike Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians whose ethnic identity is inextricably tied to their religion, religion is not foremost in the identity of most Albanians. Albanians everywhere are quick to point out that they are first Albanians. Though many Moslem Albanians still fast during Ramadan and Catholics still attend church every Sunday, it is said that their true religion is Albanianism.
Albanians were infamous throughout the former Yugoslavia for their exotic blend of moral conservatism and cultural fanaticism. At the heart of the Albanian world is a tradition which combines moral codes: the ancient law of conduct condified in The Canon of Lek Dukagjin, and the dictates of Catholicism and Islam. Tradition is expressed in the observance of age and gender stratification, submission to the will of the collective, and severe restrictions on women's movement outside the home. In the past, clan loyalties defined the social world, and blood revenge functioned as law.
The key to the maintenance of tradition, especially among some 70% of rural Albanians, has been the persistence of large, extended families including parents, sons and their wives and children, and unmarried daughters. A typical rural family has fifteen members, but families of thirty or more people contributing to a joint economy and sharing meals and labor are not uncommon. Until recently the patriarch of each family ruled with unquestioned authority. In the past most marriages were arranged by parents ore relatives; in some regions couples are still betrothed as teenagers.
For the past few decades, life in Kosova has been replete with striking ironies. Some of these are threads in the fabric of rural life where conspiculous luxury is strewn against a canvas of raw poverty. Dressed in expensive fabrics and adorned in hundreds of dollars worth of gold jewelry, many village women prepare food in unheated outbuildings on wood stoves and carry water from wells for the washing to be done by hand. While their houses may lack indoor plumbing or hot water, they may have a VCR, a satellite dish, a new car, and may have spent $2,000 on a recent wedding. A village man, returning on his annual visit home in his new Mercedes, passes ancient adobe hovels and negotiates impossible dirt roads on the way to his palatial new home.
In towns, the modern coexists in absurd contradistinction with the traditional. At one extreme is the rural stereotype: a patriarchal, religious, conservative world still rooted in the ideology of the corporate family. At the other extreme is the modern, nuclear, educated family: girls find their own husbands, finish college, get jobs and don the trappings of the west; boys start nuclear families and circumvent the dictates of the patriarch.
What links these two groups is their identification with a heroic past-part history, part legend-which tells an otherwise marginalized people that they are unique, that they are victims, that they are destined to suffer and survive in this, their poor corner of the Balkans.
Albanians believe themselves to be descendants of the ancient Illyrian tribes who dominated much of present-day Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and northern Greece until the 5th century. With its strategic geographical position (as a link to the sea and bridge to Europe), its fertile lands and mineral resources, Albanian land was sought after and conquered by a succession of invading civilizations: Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Celts, Slavs, Venetians and, for half a millennium, the Ottoman Turks.
The Slavs arrived in the 7th century. By the Middle Ages the Serbian Empire dominates this area of the Balkans. Prior to 1389 the medieval Serbian monarchy ruled Serbia from the heartland of Kosova. During this period the highland Albanians were beginning their descent into the lowlands of Kosova in response to population pressure in the mountains. This descent accelerated when the Ottomans invaded and the Serbian lords and their subjects moved northward. During the 15th century the Albanians staged a massive resistance against the Ottomans led by their greatest national hero, Gjergj Kastriot (better known as "Skenderbeg"). After his death, resistance weakened and the Ottoman occupation became further entrenched.
The current political dispute over Kosova centers on the fact that both Albanians and Serbs claim historical rights to the province. Kosova was the center of the Serbian medieval kingdom and many of Serbia's most important monuments are located there. The Serbian defeat at the hand of the Turks in 1389 is at the heart of Serbian epic literature. As such Kosova plays a crucial emotional role in the identity of contemporary Serbs. In addition, while it is clear that Albanians have "always" inhabited parts of western Kosova, the length of time they have been in other parts of the province is unclear, making historical claims to territory a source of perpetual enmity between Albanians and Serbs.
Through the centuries, fierce clan and regional loyalties and the absence of incentives for unification present in European nations prevented the emergence of an Albanian nationalist consciousness which would unite the Albanians against their oppressors. Finally, in 1878, Albanians rose against foreign domination, demanding autonomy within the Ottoman empire, a right to the taxes collected, schooling in the Albanian language and religious freedom. But because Albanians sought autonomy under Istanbul rather than independence, the European powers saw them as an Ottoman tool. It was not until the revolt of the Young Turks in 1908 and the harsh, repressive measures of their new policies of "Ottomanism" that Albanians finally began a unified revolt against the Turks.
In 1912 the Ottomans were defeated and Albania was proclaimed a republic. With the withdrawal of the Turks in 1913 the European powers signed the "Treaty of Berlin" which created an independent state of Albania. This new state of Albania excluded the ethnic Albanians in Kosova who then became part of the Kingdom of Serbia and the Kingdom of Montenegro, and in 1918 part of the "Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes." By this time there was a new united Balkan front against the Ottomans and against an autonomous Albania which would claim precious lands. In 1915 the secret "Treaty of London" granted Italy, Greece and Serbia parts of greater Albania. Serbia and Montenegro divided Kosova and today's western Macedonia between them.
The new Albanian borders were set in 1926, leaving a half-million Albanians in Yugoslavia. Kosova was now under-populated from decades of war and emigration, and the Yugoslav government encouraged Serbs to colonize the lowlands. Albanians experienced intense persecution at the hands of the Serbs; Albanians committed atrocities in retaliation. In 1941 the Albanian areas of Kosova and Macedonia were annexed by Mussolini. Under Tito's orders, Albanian communists mounted resistance against Italy. In 1945 most of Kosova was formally annexed by Serbia, and the remainder was divided between Macedonia and Montenegro.
As the war drew to a close, Yugoslav Partisans mounted a campaign against Kosova Albanians under the pretext of eliminating remnants of the "enemy." The Kosova Albanians revolted and martial law was declared. After several years of improved treatment, another era of persecution ensued under Rankovic, head of the Yugoslav secret police.
In the 1960s a new federalism emerged in Yugoslavia which promised equal rights to minorities. The post-Rankovic era inspired Albanians to agitate for greater autonomy. In 1968 widespread demonstrations in Kosova called for an independent university and republican status. This last demand was rejected, but as compensation, Tito offered greater autonomy and economic aid to Kosova. The 1974 constitutional amendments made Kosova a "Socialist Autonomous Province" with its own university, the right to fly the Albania flag, and the equality of Albanian, Serbo-Croatian and Turkish languages. Albanians were put in positions of authority in the administration and police force. But despite huge investments from northern republics, Kosova remained the poorest region in Yugoslavia, with incomes about 40% of the national average. The economic disparity between Slovenia in the north and Kosova in the south was comparable to that between Italy and Zaire.
The 1960s and 1970s were decades of tremendous social change in Kosova, wrought against a backdrop of poverty, widespread illiteracy, a population explosion, and a deepening national economic crisis. At the economic and social gap between Yugoslavia's more prosperous north and poorer south widened, ethnic tensions increased and in 1981 culminated in massive Albanian demonstrations in Kosova. The Serbian government opted for repression rather than reform. It attempted to tranquilize Kosova with military control, a purge of academics and administrators, and psychological warfare against Tirana. Other members of the Yugoslav Federation relinquished the problem to Serbia, deepening the wedge between them.
1989-1995: The Quiet Siege
In the spring of 1989 new constitutional amendments were adopted in Serbia aimed at reducing Kosova's autonomy by giving Serbia jurisdiction over Kosova's courts and police. This act was seen by Albanians as an illegal regression to pre-1974 statutes. To Serbs, it represented a much overdue effort to stem the tide of "Albanian chauvinism and irredentism" which was no longer to be tolerated.
Albanians, shocked by the move, expressed their rage through demonstrations and strikes and mounted a campaign for independence from Serbia. The campaign began with the formation of the Democratic League Lidhje Demokratike on December 28, 1989, headed by Dr. Ibrahim Rugova, leader of Kosova's writer's association and an outspoken anti-communist. This was soon followed by the creation of several other parties which formed a coalition, the Council of Political Parties, also led by Rugova. Their common goal was realization of Kosova's independence from Serbia.
(Although most Kosova Albanians dream of a greater Albanian state in the future, an idea which strikes fear in the hearts of Serbs, this was not part of their original agenda and is not part of the present objective.)
On September 7, 1990, Albanian leaders dissolved the parliament and drafted a new constitution which declared Kosova a republic. Later that month, the Serbian government nullified this proclamation. Albanian leaders continued to agitate for independence despite Serbia's denial of Kosova's declarations of autonomy. In 1991, a popular referendum was held in which 87% of the populace participated and 99.87% voted to declare Kosova an independent republic. In October of 1991, an Albanian "parallel" government was formed. By the time the Serbian police began rounding up the leaders of the new government, most had already fled the country, establishing themselves as representatives in exile of the Kosova government. May 24, 1992 marked the first free elections in the Albanian parallel government and Rugova was unanimously voted in as the new "President of Kosova." Serbia did not recognize the elections and prevented the deputies from holding the first meeting of the albanian Assembly. While Rugova functions as President and routinely visits world leaders with his entourage of cabinet members and ministers, the "Republic of Kosova" is not officially recognized by any foreign government except Albania.
Lacking guns or any assurance of outside support for their independence campaign, Albanians have for the past five years mounted "passive resistance" against Serbia. They have staged a boycott of the Serbian state and constructed a parallel government and social system complete with taxes, ministries, trade unions, independent media, health and school systems.
The constitutional changes of 1989 have been followed by a series of "legal" and criminal civil abuses against Albanians. In June of 1990, Serbia adopted the "Law on Labor in Special Circumstances" in Kosova which resulted in the systematic elimination of an estimated 120,000 Albanians from jobs in the public sector. Of two million Albanians in Kosova, approximately 60,000 are still employed.
The first wave of dismissals occurred in July when Serb police occupied the radio and television stations in Prishtina, cutting off all Albanian language broadcasts in order to censure what the Serbian government considered an enterprise in the service of Albanian nationalists. The 1,350 journalists who refused to sign loyalty oaths to the Serbian state were fired. The only daily newspaper, Rilindja, was soon shut down.
On September 3rd, 1990, Albanians staged a general three-day strike and some 28,000 workers who participated were fired. The owners of private businesses which closed during the strike faced imprisonment or a fine of 1,000 DM. Many workers left their jobs in support of co-workers, but Rugova called upon them to remain at work.
The manner in which subsequent dismissals took place and the rationale behind them has taken many forms; the circumstances are not black and white. While some Albanians lost their jobs when they refused to sign loyalty oaths, others were fired because they failed to demonstrate their "loyalty" by conforming to new rules on the job. Physicians were told to write prescriptions in Cyrillic (a Slavic alphabet which doesn't accommodate the spelling of many Albanian names) and in some cases even to speak to Albanian patients in Serbian. Most refused and were fired, some after suffering harsh treatment during physical expulsion from their hospital or clinic. Serbs consider this a fair request to make: Albanians live in Serbia and should speak Serbian.
Some Albanians were fired for negligible infractions of work rules which would have been ignored before 1990. A university professor might be cited for being out of the office at a certain time and return the next day to find he or she had been fired and could not enter the building. A history professor with a minimal knowledge of English was asked to proctor the oral examinations of English students - she declined and received a dismissal notice on the basis of non-compliance.
Many Albanians were fired on the grounds of "technological surplus" - an excess of personnel. While Albanians see this as a cover for Serbian aims, it must be understood that years of over-hiring and corrupt management practices had indeed resulted in excesses at many work places and many Serbs were also fired for this reason,both in Kosova and in Serbia proper. Albanians have not been the only ones to lose jobs. Sanctions against Serbia have devastated its economy causing thousands of Serbs to be laid off.
In general, Albanians see the firing as part of a larger strategy of ethnic cleansing. Serbs on the other hand see the move as "ideological and political differentiation" intended to purgue the system of dangerous elements. Many Serbs believe that Albanians walks off the job in protest to their state or were incompetent and were justly dismissed.
According to either rationale, the effect on Albanians has been catastrophic. It has catapulted many families into poverty and wrought havoc on civil life. Professional people - engineers, actors, university professors - are trying to make ends meet by selling cigarettes and vegetables in the marketplace. Many families have been evicted from apartments which were obtained on the basis of employment. In a system where only working people and their families receive social benefits, many have lost their right to health care. Serbs believe that Albanians are disenfranchised from public institutions and social benefits because they have chosen to boycott the Serbian state, that they have brought on their own social calamity.
The Health Crisis in Kosova
The dismissal of most Albanian doctors and nurses since 1990 has had a devastating effect on health care. Diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, scabies and lice are epidemic. There have been outbreaks of abdominal typhoid and hepatitis B. In 1993 alone, 221 children died from these causes; approximately 350 people died from dysentery or malnutrition. Between 1983 and 1990, a universal vaccination program had eradicated polio in Kosova. The elimination of Albanian vaccination teams and the reluctance of Albanians to send their children to Serbs for inoculations has resulted in twenty-four cases of polio in the early 1990s.
Childbirth now strikes fear in the hearts of Albanian women. In 1990 the 42 Albanian obstetricians in Serbia left or were fired from their jobs, leaving Albanian mothers with three choices: go to a Serbian doctor at the state hospital, pay 50-100 DM for a private Albanian doctor, or give birth at home. Many women fear they will be mistreated at the hands of Serbian doctors. There is some basis to this, given that some doctors, who were brought in to fill the void left by the purgue of Albanian physicians, are young and inexperienced. Most doctors leave nationalist sentiments outside the operating room and treat patients equally as long as the patients, Serbian or Albanian, grease their palms with an adequate bakshish [tip]. Out of fear and poverty, many Albanian women end up giving birth at home, resulting in a sharp rise in infant mortality and death rates among women in childbirth.
The massive firings in 1990 have spawned an alternative health care system in Kosova based on volunteer associations supported by international organizations. In 1990 Albanians formed a relief organization known as "Mother Theresa" to aid families whose breadwinner was out of work. There are now some forty branches delivering food and clothing to over 50,000 families. Hundreds of volunteer doctors and nurses care for the sick in Mother Theresa health clinics in towns and villages throughout the province. With the dearth of medicine and hygiene materials at state-run institutions (due to sanctions and empty state ciffers), the Albanian clinics are often better equipped, and some Serbs have started to take advantage of their services.
The firings have resulted in the privatization of medical care as unemployed Albanian doctors open clinics in their homes. Patients who can afford the services benefit from better care than they received at state hospitals and Albanian doctors make up to three times the salary of their state employed counterparts. But the clinics are not equipped for surgery or serious complications and are too expensive for many.
The educational system in Kosova which affects 350,000 children has been hard hit by current events. The crisis began in 1990 when Belgrade introduced a new curriculum designed to assert the hegemony of Serbian culture. The move was part of Beograd's effort to still the tide of what Serbs see as irredentism and anti-state propaganda. Albanian school directors and teachers rejected the plan and were fired for insubordination. There were many instances of brutality against teachers, parents and students who protested. Albanians responded by starting classes in private homes, a move which evolved into a full-fledged parallel education systems supported by contributions from the Diaspora. Teachers in the parallel schools are paid 100 DM a month-scarcely enough for survival; Serbian teachers make 160 DM.
It is not true that all schools have been "closed" to Albanians. Primary children still attend classes in state schools but are physically separated from Serbs, either by occupying a different floor or section of the building, or through shifts (e.g. Serbs attend in the morning, Albanians in the afternoon). Because of the overwhelming proportion of Albanian children, in many schools these shifts last only two or three hours, and extend well into the evening. Small children set out for school in the dark of the night, others rise before dawn to make their classes. In some cases Albanians are faced with inferior physical conditions - the heat may be turned off before they arrive or they may lack access to water or bathrooms. In many village schools the conditions are equally abysmal for Serbian and Albanian children. The only difference is that while Serbian teachers' salaries, materials and wood for weinter stoves are paid for by the state, Albanians are supported by their parallel economy.
Most high school and college classes are held in private homes donated by local Albanians. Conditions are primitive: heat is often inadequate, student sit on the floor or on roughly-hewn benches and read textbooks ragged with use. At the outset of this daring social initiative, students and teachers were highly motivated and proud of their successful experiment. Five years down are road with no end in sight, the parallel system is now plagued with the moral fatigue of teachers and students - the initial euphoria has grown thin. Coping with cold, cramped conditions has lost its heroic luster, and educational performance is mediocre.
The students see no future for themselves, no reason to study. Some, like their parents, still dream of independence and exist in a state of limbo, awaiting the turn of political events. Many dream of escaping to find work abroad or to avoid conscription into the Serbian army. Lacking any promise of employment, many are turned away at the border and return home to contribute to the despair gripping their people.
This collective despair has had a profound effect on moral behavior in Kosova. Before 1990 Albanian tradition was upheld as the quintessential ethnic marker, a source of pride and uniqueness. The power of the rreth, the social circle, strictly circumscribed behavior and produced an iron-clad moral structure. With the Serbian takeover, Albanians turned their attention toward political survival, and the preoccupation with upholding the past took a back seat to the struggle for independence. At the same time, the spiritual malaise among young people has played havoc with moral values. With men out of work or out of the country,with disruption and uncertainty at every level of society, the patriarchal structure has been undermined. Many young people have abandoned customary law and assumed the behavior of their western contemporaries: drugs have emerged on the Kosova scene, young people hang out at cafes, a growing number of girls sell sex for deutsche marks.
Kosova is rife with aching ironies. Despair and profit-making are the twin forces at work in the province. On the one hand, the situation has had tragic consequences for Albanians whose families have been torn apart. Sons and daughters of city people and villagers alike have been cast adrift in the distant landscapes of Germany and Toronto, London and the Bronx. Unemployment cuts at the quick of household economics and deals a bitter blow to the self-esteem of former breadwinners. Those at the end of their savings join the ranks of some 50,000 families being aided by international organizations. In stark contrast, many families have adequately maintained themselves, even profited, in their new private businesses. Food stores and boutiques filled with goods brought from Turkey or Bulgaria are numerous. Private repair shops, taxi and bus services, travel agents and cafes abound.
The situation has created other forms of irony on the social scene. Hospitals have few Albanian physicians, but private Albanian dentists and doctors are everywhere. High school students lack paper and books, but many Albanians have personal computers and do a brisk trade in desktop publishing, producing ads, political tracs and textbooks. Since 1990 when albanians were dismissed from the television studios, the only programs for Albanians are Albanian versions of Serbian news broadcasts. But satellite dishes are everywhere, filling, filling Kosova airwaves with Tirana, Istanbul and CNN. The Albanian daily newspaper was closed down, but a bi-weekly political paper and ten independent journals now function in its stead. Albanians don't attend the cinema, which has become the exclusive domain of Serbian youth, but video rental stores are common and VCRs are standard equipment even in modest homes.
Necessity has proved to be the mother of invention. Albanians have shed their communist baggage - the social and economic inertia of the past - and jumped on a roller coaster ride to capitalism. Entrepreneurship is epidemic. Hundreds of small boys sell cigarettes on corners or peddle magazines in cafes - some to survive, others for spending money. All are learning the laws of the economic jungle.
A Foothold in Civil Society
Another step on the road out of socialism has been the new civic responsibility which the political crisis has inspired. The enthusiasm for political liberation, social projects and self-sacrifice born in 1990 was epitomized in a single word: euphoria. The creation of a parallel government, economy and social system gave Albanians a taste of civil society. People formerly preoccupied with family interests have become engaged in the survival and future of their society as teachers, health care providers, political activists, humanitarian workers - local village leaders seeing to the needs of poor families, truck drivers delivering aid to distant villages. These people have a mission, raison d' être, a sense of self-worth based not on family honor and right conduct as before, but on their individual contribution to a common cause. There is an intensity, a clarity of purpose, a drive rarely seen in the old, socialist Kosova.
After five years of passive resistance against active abuse, however, people are losing hope and commitment. The euphoria has waned; self-help fatigue dampens the spirit of volunteerism. The stage for the future is set; Albanians have felt the heady ride of market competition and they have caught a glimpse of civil society. The past is dead. Unlike their East block neighbors thrown prematurely onto the doorstep of democracy, Albanians have had these years of political limbo to test market forces and civic responsibility. Albanians are poised for the future, a future in grave doubt.
The Prospects of War
Kosova is about 10 hours southeast of Sarajevo; physically it is far from the battlefield. But the conflict between the Albanians and Serbs has perched the region on the brink of war, a war which would be unlike that in Bosnia. Albanian guns have been confiscated. There is no private militia. Economic hardship coupled with a general state of repression and fear have driven thousands of young men to Europe, leaving behind women, children and the elderly. Nothing short of a massacre is feared.
Generally speaking, the Serbs do not want a war because they do not need one - they already have total control over Kosova. There are currently some 20,000 police and 50,000 soldiers training together in Kosova. Some police now have tanks and anti-aircraft weapons. They have a monopoly over law enforcement and the judicial system and control all state institutions. On the other hand, the Belgrade regime is not happy with the status quo in Kosova. the military force required to maintain the situation is a tremendous burden on Serbia's devastated economy. Even if Milosevic would like to give up the strangle-hold on Kosova, he would face political repercussions in Serbia.
Albanians don't want a war, but many are still willing to die before they succumb to a future within a Serbian state.
A war in Kosova would have wider implications of which the international community is acutely aware. Albania would rise to defend the Kosova Albanians. The Albanian population in Macedonia would join the fight, bringing in Macedonia which would pull in Greece. Turkey would likely enter the arena, with its economic interest in preserving trade routes through Yugoslavia, its desire to defend its Moslem brethren, and its traditional enmity with Greece - thus pitting two NATO allies against each other. A widening of the conflict might very well position Russia, Serbia's traditional ally, against Europe and the U.S. who would back the Albanians. The 20th century would close as it had begun, with a Balkan crisis dividing the "Great Powers" and compounding the misery of the Balkan people.
Constructions of Truth: Serb/Albanian Realities
The opposing ideologies of Serbs and Albanians arise from how each group envisions the boundaries of their larger community. Serbs look at greater Serbia, from the borders of Hungary in the north to Macedonia in the south, and see Kosova as a small enclave within this greater region, as the historical heartland of their small empire. They see the Albanians as barbarian intruders, latecomers, as a backward minority in the Serbian homeland, undeserving of any special privileges. Because Albanians (like Hungarians) have their own sovereign country elsewhere, they cannot be considered, according to Yugoslav policy, a nationality - they are a "national minority," and have no right to assert independence within Serbia.
Albanians see themselves as part of an Albanian sphere of influence; the borders of Kosova define their world. They identify with an Illyrian past which places them in the region at the dawn of history. Making up over 90% of the population, they see Kosova as an Albanian world. They consider themselves to be a nation with the right to self-determination, the right to break from Belgrade's hold. The key question is why their demand for independence is any more justified than those of any minority seeking independence from a hegemonic majority. Because, Albanians argue, the Yugoslavia Federation is dead. It would have been reasonable to expect them to continue membership in a federation. but not in a Serbia masking itself as Yugoslavia.
The Serbs and Albanians are diametrically opposed on all societal issues. Demographics are key.
Serbs believe that the Slavic presence in Kosova has dwindled for two reasons. One, because of Albanian terrorism and abuse which has forced them to head north. Two, because of the Albanians' pro-natalist policy, Islamic fervor and cultural backwardness which have resulted in the highest birth rate in Europe. Albanians see the exodus of Serbs and Montenegrins from Kosova as a response to the greater appeal of life in Serbia proper. As for large families, most Albanians actually only want two or three children. While they desire sons, cultural and logistical impediments to birth control often cause them to exceed this number. Yet, they deny that their high birth rate reflects a political agenda.
Each group blames Kosova's poverty on the other. Albanians believe that Belgrade systematically expropriated their mineral wealth and stole from Kosova's coffers at every turn. Serbs maintain that the investments which poured into Kosova in the 1970s and 1980s (almost half of the share of national resources) was misappropriated, mismanaged and systematically pocketed by Albanians. They believe that the Albanians owe their chronic economic malaise to their own over-population, ineptitude, laziness and corruption, and owe their current woes to international sanctions which have crippled Serbia as a whole.
To Serbs, the political take-over of 1989 represented a just response to what they see as Albanian nationalism and separatism. The constitutional changes did not destroy Kosova's autonomy, but were intended to protect Yugoslavia from irredentist forces. The "special measures" which brought about massive firings were introduced a prevent a further worsening of the situation. To Albanians, the events were part of Belgrade's plan, already well developed in the 1930s, to usurp control over the region.
Most Serbs have internalized a notion that Albanians are "dangerous subversives" seeking to take possession of Kosova and create a Greater Albania. Most are in denial about the brutality being wielded against the Albanian population. Most recognize that Albanians have suffered some discrimination during the political overhaul, but believe that the Albanians brought on their own hardship, that they are jobless and without adequate schooling and medical care because of their boycott of the Serbian state.
The Kosova Serbs, while reluctant to give up what they have been taught is the "cradle of their ethnicity," are weary of the situation. In many ways the Albanians are faring better than the Serbs under the sanctions and general economic crisis, especially in access to goods and assistance. This is because the Albanians were already engaged in private businesses before the collapse of socialism and because their political movement has inspired a highly developed network of assistance and unprecedented spirit of mutual aid. It is also clear that the international community supports the Albanians. The Serbs believe the world has been duped by anti-Serb propaganda, but nonetheless feel the heat of international recrimination. While some Serbs are still ready to fight to keep Kosova, others are tired of the Malaise, and would be happy to return to 1974 statutes.
This cannot be said for Albanians, most of whom still hold out for independence from a government which, they believe, has and will always oppress them. Despite the autonomy which the 1974 constitution guaranteed and the rapid development which followed, most Albanians say they would never return to life under a Serbian government. This said, many are increasingly aware that the international community does not support their bid for independence, and that the hope of reaching this goal without going to war is remote. Thus the dilemma: "Was it really so bad being part of Serbia?" versus "We must seize the moment for a final solution: independence."
While Albanians realize that the situation has been manufactured by Serbian leaders, and that many Serbs are innocent bystanders to the repression, they still see the Serbs' compliance with the action of their government as a crime in itself. Even the most rational, cool-headed Kosovar has difficulty relating to Serbian neighbors, co-workers or schoolmates who were friends and confidants before 1989. Albanians say that they just respond to the Serbs attitude toward them. Serbs say the same.
They are both responding to the situation as it is interpreted for them by their leaders. Both are pawns in governmental games which fan the sparks of ethnic chauvinism. Both are victims of exaggerated reports of brutality and violent nationalism on the part of the "enemy." Both sides use the same insidious labels - "nationalists," "chauvinists," "terrorists" - in characterizing the other. Mythologized memories of torture at the hands of the other eat away at the present.
Prospects for Dialogue
Many Serbs and Albanians ache for a peaceful resolution to the conflict, even if that means compromising precious dreams. They want proper schools for their children. They want a future. They are suffering from hate fatigue.
But while popular sentiment in some quarters supports reconciliation, the two sides have not been able to agree on the terms of a political dialogue. Serbs say they will discuss any of the problems in Kosova except the question of Albanian independence from Serbia. On this there can be no debate: for Serbs, Kosova is, and will always be, part of Serbia. To the Albanians this is an unacceptable premise for dialogue. They insist that a possible independent status be addressed and that there be representatives from the international community present. Serbs maintain that Kosova is an internal problem, and as such does not want warrant outside intervention.
The Albanians seek international recognition of Kosova as a sovereign, neutral republic, with open borders for all, which would respect the rights of Serbs. At present Albania is the only country which recognizes Kosova as a republic. The Albanians' most pressing concern is to internationalize the conflict. Many fear that without foreign diplomatic intervention, war is inevitable.
Everyday life goes on in Kosova. Women care for their homes and families, attend to guests, plot engagements, and plan weddings. Men smoke cigarettes, drink coffee, and strategize how to get wood for the winter stove as the prospects of war hover around them. An Albanian sends a letter to a friend in America.
The sun is setting and a light breeze begins to blow. The edge of our wheat field is painted with the red shades of evening. The sky is quiet, filled with clouds; it is a rare and beautiful sunset tonight. We are all healthy. But the political and economic situation is now unbearable. It is especially difficult in the village, where the hardships have pushed us against the edge. My father and two brothers have been fired from their jobs. My husband works but receives no salary. The taxes are so high - we are forced to give 70% of the profit from the land to the cooperative. It is a terrifying situation. But what are we to do? It is a terrifying situation. But what are we to do? It is the same for all Albanians. In the midst of this crisis we can only hope that a brighter future awaits us. We live for the day when Kosova will be able to build a new life for itself in Europe, when our tomorrow will no longer only be in the dreams of children. Toward these ideals we raise our voices to the whole world and await an answer.
Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.